Namibian runner, Pieter du Plessis, went from 97kg on the scales to running the tough 65km Fish River Canyon trail race. He remembers the heat, the sand …

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Windhoek light Fish River Ultra 2018 65km

Firsts ... there is a first for everything in the world. A first breath of air, a first cry, a first day of school and a first lie, we tend to happen across all these firsts, not really taking time to note them mostly. The FRU 65 dream started  when I got on the scale at 97.7kg. I am a 30yr old husband, father and general practitioner in Tsumeb Namibia. Life was busy and fast with no time for exercise and excuses for not being active was at an ultimate high.

The first decisive argument with myself came that morning and I promised myself that I would never weigh 100kg and there in that moment in a moment of desperation the dreams got big. What if I could return to adventure racing as in school, what if I ran the Otter, what if I get back in shape, would I not be able to live a longer life than my father did, passing away at the age of 53 from his second heart attack? Would I be able to side step the type 2 diabetes diagnosis he struggled with and the same diagnosis that claimed my grandmother’s leg?

As a youngster I ran at school and did adventure racing. I can do it again I thought, so pulled on some Salomons and hit the dirt, first 3km, then 5km and on the second Saturday I did 18,9km ... a mistake as I got sick and sore and I realised I needed a coach and that is when I started talking with CoachNeville.

My first goal was weight loss and fitness, but that soon diminished into the background as I needed a challenge. FRU 65km was my first challenge, my first ultra- marathon.

The fish river canyon is in the south of Namibia close to a “town” on the map called Hobas. Hobas is more a campsite than a town and the southern exit of the hiking trail is located the Ais-Ais hot water springs. It is the second largest canyon in the world and according to Wikipedia is approx. 160km long, at places 27km wide and 550m deep.

We arrived at the race village where for the first time I understood what vast and majestic really means. I was dumb struck and intimidated by the mere sight of the canyon’s expanse. Registration was the normal check in, get your numbers, an awesome goodie bag, and the chrono-strap for timing of the event. We were assigned our tents, stocked with stretcher and mattress. Sleeping on the rim of the canyon was epic, and this was only allowed through multiple strings pulled and several arrangements done by organisers with the government and Namibian wildlife resorts. Point to note: There is no cell phone reception from departure at Hobas until arrival at Ais-Ais.

Briefing took place under a starlit sky overseeing the dark, emptiness of this majestic ravine running alongside a sharp cliff into the abyss below. Maps were handed out and short cuts explained, local legends and previous errors were revealed and ended with a lovely meal in fine Namibian hospitality.

After much discussion the previous night with athletes doing the race a second or third time, my own race strategy had to change. The initial plan was to start slow, descend slow and start my race at the bottom of the canyon. But I was told that if I start too slow and get stuck behind the slower runners I might only reach the bottom after 2 hours, covering a mere 4-5km. So, first things first, get down the descent in a faster-than race pace time asap ... 40min later I made my debut on the boulder rocks of sulphur springs with quads so hammered I was already feeling it. My first error in the FRU was to totally under estimate how tough the short, but steep descent would be on my legs.

I slowed down, got into rhythm and found inner peace, enjoying the cool delightful fresh morning and taking pictures. I was cruising smoothly and crossing the river with what felt like an elegant dance from Lord of Dance, skipping and hopping over boulders and cruising on game paths. My full gaiters from AR-gear worked wonders to keep the sand out of my shoes.

After 90min I was dealt with another first, the unrelenting Namibian sun, which I've come to know and train in for the past 7 months, but not like this. No wind on the day and reflections of rays that heated me up like a potato in a micro-wave, I know this is not Badwater in the USA, and maybe it was not even that hot, but I was glad to run in the shade again at every opportunity.

Cruising became easy and seeing desert horses was like a gift from above, baboons barking, leopard tracts covering old kudu tracks kept the mind busy and the rhythm kept on flowing. By 30km mark all of that flew out the window and the unrelenting sun was crowned king. Hot air, raising core body temperature and warm thick sand was the order of the rest of my day. The canyon walls reflect or absorb the heat in such a way that even though the predicted maximum was 24 degrees, the temp rose to 32 degrees and I felt toasted.

River crossings are over boulders and that made for some hopping on tired legs, just to be greeted by more thick sand after the crossings. The short cuts were marked well with bright coloured umbrellas and support crews offering cold water, Sterrie stumpies and beer. Rookie error NO1 was drinking a beer at 35km and feeling bloated and uncomfortable the remainder of the race.

 

At around 40km you reach Quaggas drift, the only real aid station, where you are coaxed into having a seat, boiled potatoes, freshly braaied wors sterrie stumpies or beer while the friendly volunteers filled our bladders and soft flasks, even adding endurolytes and slow mag.

Onwards I went following a local runner who had no GPS guidance and despite a sprained ankle at 30km, he still out walked me step for step. He was such an encouragement and even when feeling I should rather just lie down and cry, seeing him wobbling on a busted ankle kept me going.  The last 20km I was walking and I do think I could improve a lot here

After walking for what felt like forever we reached the finish at Ais-Ais where the most sadistic move of all comes to play. It seemed the organisers trucked tons of the loosest sand in the world in for the final 500m for us to cross just before the finish line. The first ever ultra marathon finish in my life, 9h24min and that felt great.

A huge welcome awaited crossing the red carpet to cheering and you are congratulated for enduring and completing a task set out by yourself. The achievement will stay with me and when asked the following day whether I would be back, I realised I most certainly will as we have some unfinished business. The Fish made me walk, it made me suffer, it gave me joy and a sense of accomplishment BUT it is in that walking that I will have to return and redeem my pride next year.

I do believe I had it tougher than the 15 athletes finishing ahead of me, otherwise they would not have been so quick ... jokes aside, well done to the winner and podium finishers. Rory Scheffer won the 65km in 5h13min. It was a real eye opener to me seeing what a person is capable of.

Just a note and I stand corrected if I am wrong, but the race is advertised as a 65km ultra or a 100km ultra, both self-navigated and the distance is the given distance in the middle of the river for the course. My total distance with short cuts taken was 56.4km so look out for the short cuts. I was using the Garmin fenix 5 in navigation mode and it worked very well. I started with a full battery and it still had 44% battery life left.

A race like this is not possible if you do not have a good support team. My heartfelt thanks to my wife Nadine, our children and mother-in-law who would accompany me on training runs, driving the car and bringing me water on long runs, surviving at home without me, and allowing me the space to train and participate in an event of a lifetime. I truly and honestly believe if it was not for them this would have not been possible. CoachNeville, so many times I’ve asked questions and so many times have you just guided me with passion and patience, I thank you for preparing me well and having me peak at the perfect time, well rested and well trained. Nelius Burger my brother in law, but old friend as well, thank you for accompanying me to the venue, packing the car and helping where possible,  and driving back when I was too stiff to drive.

Windhoek light, organisers and everyone involved, it was great. All the participants did a great job of keeping one motivated and inspired, well done to all.

Many thanks Pieter

 

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