This was going to be a story comparing the approach of a novice running their first ever ultra-trail run to that of a seasoned campaigner who’s run many.
It came about when I met Graeme Green. He told me that he was going to run his first - the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, nogal - and asked if I had any advice for him.
I didn’t really – I’m just not that kind of trail runner, and I haven’t run KAEM anyway.
“Listen to yourself” was all I offered. Then I thought, what’s a cool concept for this issue’s column! There’s the rookie ultra-trail runner with a fancy GPS watch, who tracks all training times and records race pace. The old crusader asks novices for the time and is in it for the journey.
The beginner delights in discussion forums, buys latest fads and coordinates colour. The elder evades endless examination of what everyone else is saying or doing and wears old kit that is soft and comfy.
The greenhorn is filled with wonder about little things that they notice because they are new. The old goat has forgotten how special this form of encounter really is.
I’d written it all in my head. And then I spoke to Graeme after his seven sunny days in the sweltering sand. I was wrong.
While there were some differences in how Graeme approached his first ultra and how I might run one now,, they were relatively small things. Going in he was conscious of the challenges of distance and heat, but hadn’t really thought about the terrain. For me, distance and weather are now almost incidental, while I’m more aware of the terrain.
He took too much food. I’ve learned that I crave a few small things. But apart from little, obvious things like that, our attitudes are remarkably similar.
And I know that there are gnarled ultra-trail veterans who are totally into their tech, kit, forums and record keeping. So perhaps your attitude to running far on dirt is more about your approach to life, your priorities and values, than your experience on trails. Perhaps it’s an expression of what’s in you.
I like what’s in Graeme.
He instinctively cross-pollinated his wider life and sport experience into his Augrabies adventure. His only prior multi-stage outing was hiking the Fish River Canyon a few months before, so he based his packing on that. An avid keep-fit boxer, he used boxing tape to bind his feet against blistering. (It worked a dream by the way). Being a fan of the low carb, high protein and fat diet, he took lots of salami, ham and droewors.
I’ve also come to know the power of using all of life’s experience to make my way through long runs. It really is about bringing all I’ve become from what’s happened across my life to bear on this specific, narrow, track at this point in time.
It sounds as if the organisers of the 2015 KAEM had their fair share of challenges. Extreme heat saw one runner medevaced and another 10 of the 70 runners dropping out in the first stage alone. The long day was stopped before the lead pack, which customarily starts last, had caught the slow-pokes. To try to make up overall race distance they put together a spontaneous night run, but that had to be halted at the first water stop as the quad bike, which was marking the route, had broken down. Foreigners were irritated. After a new quad was found the run was on again.
The group Graeme was in gave it horns over the last 5 km into the night's finish. There, a tearful official told them that the route had been changed and they would have to do “about” another 20 km. Apparently there was much cursing and complaining in Danish and German.
What is Graeme’s take on all of this? Challenges happen and the organisers did their best with what they had. Sure, there might be lessons to learn about better contingency plans, but Graeme just cleaned out his socks out and got on with it.
His only disappointment was the reduced distance of the overall event. But that pales next to the joy of paddling over the Orange River to run into the Namibian dusk, hearing people’s stories, and camping next to the rejuvenating river at night.
What has he learned about ultra-distance trail running? “Look after your feet and listen to your body.”
What is he proud of? “Being able to do this”
Well done, Graeme! You’re very welcome in this simple, strong, eccentric, eclectic free family. You fit right in.
I forgot to ask Graeme where he placed in the race. And you forgot to say! Perhaps it’s just not that important, whether it’s the first or fiftieth foray.