You have a 20 liter capacity backpack on your back and 230km of arid terrain, animals and challenges in front of you leading you to the finish line. Aside from water everything you need to survive for the next 5 days will fit into your back pack with the target weight being around 7kg. You will not see any other humans aside from those in the race and there will be no phone signal and therefore no connection to the outside world.
The way that you will complete those 230km to the end is by “running”!
Please just stop for a moment, look into a big empty space or even close your eyes and try to imagine that. It is one of the most incredible and unique thoughts isn’t it, primal almost you could say, to me it’s close to paradise.
Lots of people have somehow come to “expect” things in life. I do in certain areas but when I switch ultra mode on the level of my expectations is rock bottom which I have found helps a lot in managing certain situations. No other than the 9 hour bus ride from Nairobi to Lewa Conservancy which would be our start point of the race. The conversations on these bus rides are always ultra geeky with regards to races you have done and equipment you use. I always try and ask more questions than I answer and most importantly figure out the positive people as these are the people I need to keep close to me for the week.
This trip was quite special in the way that I had good friend and virgin ultra runner Steve Parker with me. It was actually our other friend Phil Gould who talked us both into the race but sadly could not make the trip. I was excited for the experience Steve was going to have and to share it with him.
On arrival at Lewa it was all about kit checks, mandatory kit lists and putting the final touches on all of your worldly possessions for the coming five days. This was not my first rodeo so I was pretty relaxed and enjoyed watching others getting silently stressed. The first night in a tent with 5 other blokes who you have just met is always fun, who’s going to fart first, who snores etc. I am quite up front and always ask who snores and am not afraid to be the first to break wind. We are all humans and over the coming days are going to need each other at various stages so have to get comfortable as soon as possible and these things are going to happen so let’s crack on.
“It’s 6am, you have 2 hours until the start of the race” bellows out from the lungs of the race director as in my mind I think “well if we have two hours why the hell are you waking everyone up.” As the race went on I would fast realise that this was standard. Amusingly it got some people quite stressed, I however would occasionally find some sarcastic comment to throw back at various volumes.
10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and it’s go time. I’ve had a selfie with Stevie and we are in the game. Of course 90% of the 75 strong filed of runners fly out of the gate like they are Usain Bolt. I started from the back and just eased into the ride.
Setting goals and having targets is my life. I love it and every part of it. When it comes to ultra though the process is incredibly complicated. You are running (in this case) 230km over 5 days on new terrain, against people you don’t know, with all your kit, at over 2,000m elevation and so the list goes on. Setting a goal for a sub 4 hour marathon on a flat track is easy as there are fewer variables to manage. So how do you do it for ultra? My rules are simple. In a five day race, for the first 3 days if you are not having fun then you are doing something wrong. I find it’s an easy measure and works well. Day 4 you go as hard as you can and day 5 you hang on for dear life.
However because I am “slightly competitive” I already know I want to finish in the top ten of this race so within the first few KM I make my way up to where I think this number is in the race to survey the land! On my way there I notice a few awkward runners (230km like that is gonna hurt), a couple of people breathing way too heavy (defib day 3 for sure), a few sleeping bags banging round on the backs of backpacks (rookies) and a couple of other bits and pieces that make me smile. On the whole I’m pumped to see so many people taking to the sport of Ultra and pushing their limits so please do excuse me for using some of their learner errors for my mental edge. Where I can I always try and pass on my learnings and stop people from falling into traps I can see them headed towards.
I have a rule that I don’t spend time in checkpoints, I never sit down, never eat, never piss, never adjust my pack. Checkpoints are for water and to try and absorb some positive energy from those manning them. Some checkpoint volunteers are amazing, they just seem to know what to say and when and for the additional gold star they have some sick tunes pumping out. The last thing you want going into a checkpoint is some downbeat energy vampire who’s first comment is either “you look tired” or “how are you?” I mean come on how do you think I am? You get my point.
I arrive at checkpoint 2 along with another guy from Yorkshire to find a guy that passed us a few KMs back sat bent double on a chair. I refill my bottles Formula 1 style and leave now in second place apparently. “Well this is cool” I thought to myself……”am I having fun?” “Yes” then keep going. Walking out of the checkpoint I feed (see my food list at the end) and take a leak on the go. The food on the move is easy however the urinating whilst moving has taken some practice and yeah from time to time I get it on my legs and shoes but that’s all good I spray a bit of water to wash it off. “Why not stop?” You may ask. Well I figure the answer to that is probably three fold, 1. If you can do it on then go then why stop? 2. It’s kind of an interesting challenge and 3. I always wander what my competitors think when they see me doing it? I have never asked and they have never told but in all seriousness I feel like it gives me some sort of mental edge and for me that’s worth doing.
Day 1 course was straight forward and only 38km, a few Zebras before the end which was a nice touch and I held on to second place which was a super start but nothing to get carried away with. I reiterate….this is ultra and ultra lasts more than a day in most cases, it’s not always the best runner that wins, it’s often the athlete that manages the “uncontrollable” the best. It’s always fun seeing people at the end of day 1 of a longer race. Some are pumped up and others have a look of fear in their eyes in the knowing that today was the shortest stage of their race and they have 4 more days to go. Even at this early stage u can start to see people’s mental capacity or lack of it. I always try and be upbeat in camp, make jokes, ask people a million questions about every part of their life except the pain I can see them in. I am not sure if it’s always well received but it helps me and 7 times out of 10 I manage to pick them up or at least get some response that makes me laugh and therefore feel better. We have to laugh more.
Apparently it was hot on day 1! I didn’t feel it too bad, but for the safety of all day 2 was to start at 7 which meant a 5am camp call. My morning routine stays the same no matter what, I will stay in my sleeping bag until 60 mins before go time. Then it’s up, water, pack, feed & coffee obviously, wash and clean my teeth, kit on, some form of movement / stretch as needed, tell as many shit jokes as possible normally by taking the piss out of how badly people are packing their bags, final bag check, probably go pro video, start line, party time.
“Go Pro” for a reason or two, mainly because it’s super robust, waterproof and super small but also because my phone is deep in my bag somewhere. I will always test for a signal each day at camp so I can tell Holly I love her but am never disappointed when I don’t get one, we understand each other well like that, we know we love each other, we know we miss each other, she’s cool and I’m racing. I couldn’t ask for more. On this trip no camp site had service. Paradise….and the world was just fine.
40km today. Similar terrain which I would best describe as “undulating” some climbs were savage which made some descents awesome fun, around 800m of climbing again which suits me well. Not super technical so a beauty to run. The course is lined by Rangers which are supported and trained by the “For Rangers” organisation who help to organise this race and keep us safe. For the most part you don’t notice them as they stay cool under trees on the look out for anything from lions, rhinos to elephants that may want to feast on a few skinny runners and their backpacks. They also point out various animals which may be in the area and you may want to take a picture of. To be honest I’m here to run but if they get the animals close I will slow down for a shot, I saw pretty much everything at some stage or another aside from any cats. It was only on the third night when we were kept awake by a lion in camp but more about that later.
Straight out of the blocks (now respectfully named) AMEX (as in AMERICAN express) sped past me as though it was a 200m dash, I never saw him for the rest of the day which left me in a solid third for the stage and increasing my lead on the guys behind me which was cool although I had no idea by how much.
Welcome to “The Long Stage” and day 3. Every multistage has one and most people fear them for various reasons. I personally am cool with them as I know it’s going to hurt some people and that helps the rankings. This was not super long at 48km but with and insane 8km stretch along a hot arid airfield from the 30km check point leading into a 4km 3% slog through various terrains to the final check point at 42 km after which we would climb for 2km non stop before a fast 4Km decent to camp this stage was surely going to serve it to some people and it did. Elephants before checkpoint one, hot boring flats to check point two made me wake up a bit but yes it was that airfield that was the man maker of this stage. In ultra you simply can’t run the whole time. Be it the terrain, the weather or more commonly as a result of these two your body, from time to time you have to have a run walk strategy. I have used anything from 400m run 400m walk, yes that short! On the airfield as I was heating up I was down to 800m run 200m walk, that’s until I felt the guy in fourth closing the gap. Funny isn’t it when you’re competitive, even though I had around an hour gap on him I was not going to let him catch me let alone overtake me and therefore my quite comfortable 800/200 became non stop murder mode, I knew the pace didn’t have to be ridiculous and I knew he would crack way before I did, he confirmed the latter when he ran into camp that night 30 minutes behind me.
The final 2km climb was part of the process, it’s why I train, it’s why when I was on a training camp in Chamonix at the start of summer after a days running I went back out and ran the vertical kilometer again. This 2km was not an issue.
Camp 3 was luxurious for the most part, a tap and a tap that had water running from it. Full wash, kit clean. Happy days. What was not making me so happy was that eating was a challenge. At the end of each stage I have around 2,300 calories to get in before I go to sleep, if I don’t start fast, firstly my recovery doesn’t start and secondly it’s hard to get it all eaten before sunset and bedtime at 6:30. I only managed 1,100! Not an issue 350 is a bar that I will have with my breakfast tomorrow.
Lights out….which normally means sleep right, well our resident lion had different plans roaring, crying or doing whatever lions do for most of the night, this is the wild after all and my ear plugs were still in tact but I’m not sure of how much use.
Of course “everyone” is smashed on the start line of day 4, people are already starting to talk about end of race treats, what they are looking forward to and the likes. I’m honestly thinking “this is it” and although yesterday was admittedly very tough I’m excited for today, it’s only 43km, apparently I did that 30 times back to back once upon a time. “Let’s have it” as I bounce around the camp! Although I am full of energy and genuinely feel great, first and second place set off at a pace I can not sustain for the duration of the day and I get dropped. This was possibly the point where I realised that climbing the leader board was a big ask, coupled with the news from the race director early that morning that I was an hour from second place things were not looking good.
If I told you I wasn’t gutted I would be outright lying, winning is special, coming third not so special but there are times when people are better than you. Add to that the fact that I’m running through some of the most epic landscape on earth where not just any human can go, I can’t be reached on my phone, I have an amazing wife and a wonderful family and I really have nothing to be stressed about do I. Perspective!
Another 43km today and I shall enjoy it. Checkpoint 3 is at 32km and then it gets feral. Like all good trail routes there has to be sections that are hard and boring and having run most of today along a boundary fence the sight of another 6km of one is simply feral. As I said in my Go Pro clip at this stage “feral needs feral” and then 4th place seemed a bit closer again….ummmm deja vu! Yup, as the fence gave way to a windy river path for the final 5km the pace went up and I never saw him again, I love this sport!
Naturally the feeling in camp on the final day on an ultra is upbeat, people are excited about the end. It’s wild isn’t it how the mind works? On the eve of a normal marathon athletes are nervous and sleepless but here you have a mob that have covered near to 200km already and just have a simple 45km tomorrow and they couldn’t be more thrilled. You ask me why I love this sport? Take that as another one of the answers.
“The main field will leave at 6:30am tomorrow, the top 10 will leave at 7am!” Are the orders from the race director! “Jackpot” I shout as people look at me confused as to what’s going on. I have been in races before where this has been done and in simple terms the guys just outside of the top ten race as hard as they can not to be caught forcing the top ten to race harder to catch them. In reality with the timings as they were, not a great deal will change but we are a complex race aren’t we.
“You have done the hard work, tomorrow is flat.” Doh! I think to myself. Literally my worst case scenario. Of course my legs are smoked and the flats just don’t favor me. Reality kicks in. Tomorrow is going to be a hard day at the office, no harder than fighting for my life on the roadside 18 months back but still a solid day out.
The race started on Wednesday, I flew to Kenya on Monday, the day before I did I woke up with a runny nose, amazing timing. I don’t like doctors or commercial medicine, my go to is 12 lemons, a stick of ginger, a thumb of turmeric and a few drops of oregano oil all blended up and drink over 24 hours. Combined with a good night sleep that normally rights my ship. As I flew out from Dubai my ship was far from righting so I resorted to some over the counter decongestants and a nasal spray which over the course of the coming 4 days would only go to confirm the validity of my lack of confidence in commercial medicine. Waking up on the final day of the race and possibly due to the stress I had put my body under this far I diagnosed myself with full blown sinusitis. It had caused me sleeping and breathing issues the whole week but when I was running I was able to blow my nose into the wild, freely acting as some relief. What had now arrived was the numbing tooth pain.
“It’s 4:30am, first wave leave in two hours.” “Are you for real?” Shouted one of my tent mates. I was giggling thankful that this was the last time we would hear this almost farcical alarm call of the race director. The 30 minutes from 6:30am to 7:00am as we waited to start at the camp were nice, it felt like a cool time to go about my morning routine with less noise and reflect on the race so far.
The course was amazing, it had taken us up, more up and with that of course some great down. Panoramic views of this vast land we were having the privilege of running through, something that could only be done in a race like this and that we may only do once in our lives. Those that know me know I don’t believe in luck but if I did this would be it. Great course, great animals, amazing challenges. Nothing else required.
It’s hard to give a fair report on the 46km course to the end of the race. It was very straight, in parts very rocky and often consisted of endless stretches of 1-2% incline. Not the most fascinating of days we had done but not everything in life is always super sexy is it. It was however quite special as it finished on the equator so made for a great pic with the equator sign. There is always a positive. For me that was probably the only positive of stage 5, as I had initially thought it was a long hard days work, I lost a bit of time to my competitors in 4th and 5th but nothing that was going to shake up the overall race classification.
The finish line in these races is always emotional to some extent, it marks the end of the journey, the highs, the lows, the people that you have thought about in the dark times and those you have thought about in the good, and as you take one final step, your final battle is over, your war is won, another ultra is yours, it’s everything you wanted, scarified for and trained for and you immediately start thinking about the next.
You have almost made it to the end of my report and from the bottom of my heart I want to thank you for reading it. I want to thank you for me, but more than that I want to thank you for you. A lot of people will not have made it here so can I ask you to do something for you? Please just take 1 (more if you like) lessons, pieces of advice, bits of inspiration that you are able to find in this report and use it in your life to perhaps help you test your human potential and live the very best life you can.
The realisation of human potential for both you and I is one of my three whys, another is to learn which as I am sure you will agree this race taught me a lot. My final is my family, I love them very much and without them none of this would be possible.
Thanks for reading, now go and do something amazing with your life, that’s what you were created for.
The geeky stuff:
70 competitors | 5 days | 215km | 3,363m elevation | 25 hours 48 minutes running time | 3rd place
Equipment I use:
Clothes: InnerFight endurance shorts and custom cut top.
Shoes: On Cloud Venture
Watch: Suunto Baro 9
Backpack: Salomon Peak 20
Smith St Paleo Ultra bar
1 Smith St Paleo coconut rough
1 nut butter
Secret training: 1 juice bar, 1 ISO Bar, 1 caffeine bar.
Many ORS electrolyte tabs
Secret training protein gel
1 Smith St Paleo coconut rough
Dehydrated expedition main meal 1,000cals
Dehydrated expedition desert 700cals
Total daily cals 3,500
Race organizers: Beyond the ultimate
By; Marcus Smith, InnerFight Founder