Racing the Planet Namib Desert Ultra Race Report

In late-October of 2021, I travelled to Namibia to run the 7-day Namib Desert race, part of the Racing the Planet 4 Desert Series.

I ran a similar race back in 2015, the Grand to Grand Ultra, where we ran through the desert for 7 days from the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the Grand Staircase in Utah – while carrying all our food and other supplies for the week on our backs. I learned a lot in that first race which I couldn’t wait to apply to this one.

With a group of 30 other runners from around the world, I’d run 250 km through sand dunes, canyons, and moon-like landscapes in the deserts of Namibia. We’d battle extreme heat and high winds. All the while, we’d be carrying up to 18 pounds of supplies.

At night, we’d sit around the fire, we’d share stories, we’d learn about other countries and cultures, and would forge new friendships.

This is the story of my adventure.

Arriving in Namibia

After some 30 hours of travelling from Vancouver via Frankfurt, I finally arrived in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. Namibia was in fact a German colony during the 1890’s up until the First World War, and Windhoek was a major German settlement.

I started by driving about 15km south of the city to what’s called the Heroe’s Acre. The site is dedicated to the Namibian people’s struggle for independence. There, you can see depicted the various struggles Namibians have faced throughout history, starting with the oppression under German rule, their struggle for liberation in the 1960’s from South African occupation, and their finally achieving independence in 1990. The site was completed fairly recently in 2002 for the annual heroes day; and I thought it would be a fitting place to start my journey in Namibia.

I then spent the day exploring Windhoek by foot to take in some other monuments to Namibia’s struggle for independence.

My Journey to the Coast

The following day, I began my journey west towards the ocean and to the town of Swakopmund near where the race would begin.

The roads in Namibia are quite good and renting your own vehicle really is the best way to see the country. There’s not much in the way of public transportation, but driving is considered to be really safe. In fact, they say the most dangerous part is just how fast some people drive because the roads are in such good shape, and you shouldn’t drive at night since animals will often sit on the asphalt for its warmth.

A typical backroad in Namibia. Well-graded but a little bumpy in a Sedan.

I arrived at my next destination after about a 4 hour drive, in a small mining town called Uis in the southern Damara region. There is a fairly big tin mine nearby that I’m told recently resumed operations after being closed for a few years.

Uis is typically used more as a rest stop for travellers than as a destination in itself, but I’d decided to base myself there for a couple of days in order to explore some nearby sites.

My fairly luxurious ‘safari’ tent at the Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis.

I brought a small tent with me so was originally considering doing some tenting at one is the community camp grounds, but decided instead to rent one of the available ‘luxury tents’ instead for an extra $10 (about $35 per night in total) at Brandberg Rest Camp.

Ancient rock art near Brandberg Mountain.

I got out early the following morning to explore some ancient rock art at a site called the White Lady at the foot of Branberg Mountain which is Namibia’s highest at 2,573 m, a short drive away.

I then spent the afternoon exploring some nearby sand dunes in order to shake out the legs and to test out my gear one last time.

Testing out my gear in a nearby sand dune above Uis.

The next day I once again hit the road to continue on to the coast.

My first stop was the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home to one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the world. At times, individuals can number over 200,000, and the stench is unbelievable!

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Then it was on to Swakopmund, a popular coastal resort town where the race was being staged. I’d have two days to spend there getting organized before joining the rest of the group in order to travel to camp.

Arriving at Camp

We hopped on a bus for camp a full two days before the Namib Desert Race was set to begin, giving us a full day for the group to self-isolate as we awaited the results of our latest PCR tests.

I began to get acquainted with the other 30 runners, in between the pre-race briefing and mandatory gear checks.

Pre-race briefing from Race Director Samantha Fanshawe.

We’d learn that the course would have to be modified due to the high winds which can lead to dangerous sand storms. It meant we’d be missing out on the large sand dunes near the coast, starting further inland instead.

This is just the nature of events like this, whether in the mountains or the desert.

Stage 1

I woke up at 6am the morning of the first stage, giving me time to repack my 18 pounds of gear and supplies, and to have breakfast before the day’s course briefing and race start at 8am. This is a ritual I’d repeat for the next 5 stages of the race.

The first stage was mostly flat and fast. I ran fairly conservatively in order to get a feel for the terrain, for the heat, and for my pack, finishing in 4th place. This would unfortunately set me back close to 45 minutes from the podium right from the start, but there was lots of racing left over the coming days.

After finishing the first stage of the Namib Desert Race, we’d found ourselves at a new camp on the site of an old ostrich farm.

Stage 2

We started the second stage by scrambling our way up single track along a series of ridges and back down to the riverbed on the other side.

From there we continued through soft sand, past Welwitschias which are the oldest plant in the desert (some up to 1,000 years old), through a series of valleys and canyons, before finally reaching our third camp.

That evening, we celebrated with a huge bonfire as the local staff demonstrated a traditional song and dance.

Stage 3

On Stage 3 of the Namib Desert Race, we were now much further from the coast where temperatures would reportedly reach as high as 45 degrees Celsius by mid-day. Fortunately, I’d manage to get done before things got quite that hot.

Slower runners in races like this are not only on their feet for longer, but also get exposed to the heat for much longer, and end up getting less time to recover. The best motivation to run fast really can be a desire to simply beat the heat.

Radmir from Russia had finished 1st the day before but appeared to now be paying the price. The heat had got to him and I found him walking in the final stretch before camp, allowing me to put 15 minutes on him to finish in 3rd place for the stage.

Could the podium be within reach?

Stage 4

Stage 4 of the Namib Desert Race would be mostly on runnable, harder packed terrain. I settled in behind the lead pack until we passed the first checkpoint.

I was feeling good, so I made a few passes to get some footage and figured I’d hang on to the lead for a while and push the pace. 

The three leaders eventually caught me again, but Radmir was having a hard time hanging on. He gestured that he was having stomach problems and I later learned he hadn’t really been able to keep food down since the day before.

I managed to shake him, finishing again in 3rd place and shortening Radmir’s lead a little further. But I would still have another 29 minutes to make up the following day on the long stage in order to finish on the podium.

Stage 5 – The Long March

Stage 5 of the Namib Desert Race was be the longest stage, also known as “the Long March”. This was the stage I’d been patiently waiting for and which I knew would be my strongest.

I made my move early, leading the front of the pack through the first several checkpoints.

We climbed the largest mountain we’d seen on the course and the technical decent on the other side made me feel right at home, with loose sand and scree, and large boulders requiring short scrambles.

We were racing hard – but Rob, Ben and I were really running as a pack for the majority of the race, pushing each other at a steady but sustainable pace. Rob managed to get a head start leaving the 40 km checkpoint and dropped the hammer.

Ben and I would battle it out as we both tried to catch up. I managed to get ahead of him leaving the final checkpoint and slowly but surely began to widen the gap.

I finished in 2nd place, just a few minutes behind Rob and a few ahead of Ben. 

But what about Radmir? Had I managed to gain back the 29 minutes I needed to move into 3rd overall for the week?

We hadn’t seen Radmir since very early on and could only assume he was quite a bit behind. I patiently watched the clock as the minutes passed.

Radmir soon crossed the finish line, only 24 minutes behind, leaving me 5 minutes short. He had run for 7 hours entirely alone and hadn’t eaten a full meal in almost two days. As far as I was concerned, he had earned that podium!

Rest Day & Final Stage

We had a day off to recover after the long stage on day 5, before starting our sixth and final stage of the race. This would allow some of the slower runners who’d finished the long stage early the next morning a chance to recover before the final stage.

We started in waves, with the slower runners going first and the lead pack last. The final stage had been shortened from 15km to just under 6km, leaving me no chance of closing the 5 minute lead that Radmir had on me for the podium, and most of the other placements were pretty firmly set.

This would be a victory lap, a celebratory run, and a chance for me to get some footage of some of the other runners on course.

We also finally had a chance to run through some of the iconic Namibian sand dunes.

We emerged on the beach and ran along the ocean to the finish line where pizza and beer awaited.

Final Thoughts

My favourite part about stage racing is the time you get to spend getting to know new people from around the world and learning about their countries and cultures.

At the finish line of the 2021 Namib Desert Race.

I’m so Inspired by the people I met. Particularly for me, Rob from the USA who placed first in the race at 60 years old. The idea that I could, in theory at least, return to this race in 20 years when I turn 60 and still beat a bunch of guys in their 30’s is just so motivating.

Rob Ripley, the winner of the 2021 Namib Desert Race.

Thanks so much to Race Director Samantha Fanshawe and the other organizers for such a great event and to all of the wonderful volunteers, as well as to the local Namibian staff who made it such a fun week.

After the Race

Following the race, I had just over a week to spend recovering and continuing to explore the country.

I started by spending a day at Spitzkoppe, a group of granite peaks a few hours drive from Swakopmund. It’s considered the “Matterhorn of Namibia”, and it’s somewhere I’d definitely love to spend some time camping the next time I’m in the country.

Spitzkoppe, the “Matterhorn of Namibia”

I spent a night in nearby Walvis Bay where I went kayaking at Pelican Point with the seals and bottlenose dolphins. We also saw a humpback whale breach several times at a quite close range!

Kayaking at Pelican Point in Walvis Bay.

Then I was off to Etosha National Park to spend my remaining 5 days. I’d spent a week on safari in Tanzania, the last time I visited Africa. In East Africa, you spend a lot of your time looking for the animals. In Etosha, they essentially come to you. More specifically, they come to the water holes where lodges have been strategically placed.

It takes away a bit of the element of the adventure but was certainly convenient for a tired runner like myself.

A water hole in Estoha National Park

Over my three weeks in Namibia, I drove some 2,300 kms and covered another 250 kms by foot, and yet I feel like I just barely scratched its surface. Its such a beautiful country and the people are so friendly, I really can’t recommend visiting highly enough.

Planning for a Desert Stage Race

There’s a lot that goes into planning for a stage race. Setting your training aside, preparing your gear and nutrition is no small feat in itself.

Watch the video below for a complete breakdown of the gear and nutrition that I used for the 2021 Namib Desert Race.

Product List

My Training for the Namib Desert Race

One thing I could definitely improve on for the next time is my training. In fact, I didn’t exactly even train for this race. I more or less just tacked it on to the tail end of my season, hoping my fitness would carry over after having run my goal 100 miler in august, along with the 50k tube up race I ran in September.

Ultimately, these races are more like a series of fairly fast marathon efforts than they are ultramarathons. There’s a reason that the race this series was modeled after is called Les Marathons Des Sables.

Rob who won the race said that he really focused on pace in his own training. Statistically, he knew he’d have to run an average pace of about 6 minutes per KM, in the sand, while wearing a pack, and so that’s exactly what he did in his training.

Most of my training on the other hand was at a slower pace and with much more elevation change, and all on much firmer terrain. So an obvious way for me to improve would be to get much more specific and targeted in training for a race like this.

Maybe I’ll get a chance to apply some of what I’ve learned at another Racing the Planet event in 2022.

Stay tuned for the documentary from the race! I hope to have it ready to publish first thing in the Near Year.