When entering the ultramarathon experience I could tell it serves so many of my needs. Spending many hours in nature, improving my physical status (well… not always :-)), and a place when the mind cleans up and mental challenges are as exciting as the physical ones. After several races I was fortunate to have the courage and take the challenge of the Gobi March 2019, that was a whole new experience for me, fulfilling in so many ways. I went to Namibia for so many reasons, all were answered in a perfect symphony of nature, people, comradeship and kindness. I would like to dedicate this post for all those being on my mind out there during good and bad times on the course: My family and its incredible support along the journey, my parents (icl. dad RIP), friends, and every child I thought I may inspire by this journey – including that Perthes-child I was almost 50 years ago. Great thanks for my fellow competitors volunteers and RTP team, so many great souls, kind people, inspiring ones.
*This post is for my non-Hebrew speaking friend. It is a rough translation of my story in Shvoong website. So here we go:
A hundred and twenty kilometers into the race, the radiation is so strong that it is hard to see the pink flags marking the way against the backdrop of canyon rocks. A dense series of markings indicates a left turn and this is clearly the beginning of five kilometers of long, steep climbing in soft sand to the end point of the day. The temperature gauge attached to the compass scratches the 50-degree bar. Another bottle of isotonic, head down and keep pushing. An hour later, the joyful volunteers at the finish line will mark the end of day three of the race.
The road to Namibia
Three days earlier on the start line, a whole two years went through my head. Right after my first race in the 4Deserts series held in Mongolia’s Gobi desert, it was clear to me that this would be the next race. Everything worked like clockwork and then all of our lives were turned upside down. The first few months of 2020, and my personal preoccupation with synchronizing the handling of the crisis, the personal and family struggles, friends whose world and future were turned on them in an instant, and me… I clung to a run to maintain a small corner of sanity, allowing myself to run for an hour at midnight just to be called back. Stealing hours at noon in the hills near my house. The main thing was to get some air. How do you maintain a training routine? After the April 2020 race was postponed to October, it was postponed again to March 2021, and finally to October 2021. It is true that each of them had a full training program, but after the first cancellation, “projects” were introduced about a month before each event to give a purpose for the program even if the race was canceled. And so I got to “Rotate Ramon Crater”, “The Sanhedrin Trail”, and even go out to the sea-to-sea trail with Avishai.
As the October 2021 race approached, everything seemed to really be taking place. Every step of progress towards it seemed like a miracle to me, and even on a plane to Addis Ababa in route to Namibia I waited to stand on the starting line to believe that everything was happening. Landing at Windhoek, shuttle on time and everything’s banging like clockwork. On the way to Swakopmund, I realized that the number of runners had shrunk to just over 30. The logistical depth of the “Four Deserts” series races is built for 100-150 participants in each race, so it was clear that it would be a slightly different race, with a different level of familiarity between the runners. Also, each of those who came carries experience and/or good reason to be here. When I found out I was sharing a tent with a Zimbabwean, and Ahmed al-Katiree from Dubai, I was even so happy. We’ll get back to the race…
This was my second race in the Four Desert Series. A 7-day race of about 250 kilometers divided into stages in a 4-stage format of about 40 km, one long of 70-80 km followed by a day of rest, and completion of the distance on the last day. The uniqueness of the races is that they are also self supported, so everyone carries everything it takes for the whole week on their back, including the food (except for water). The backpacks usually weigh between 8 and 12 kg without the water. This time I stocked up on a new kind of backpack that did prove itself, and my equipment weighed about 10 kg. Also in the food, I made some changes including small bags of almonds and nuts that proved to be the culinary peak of the day.
The day before the start, it turned out that they will be changing the course. Carlos, the course director, explained that there are 60-70 km/hr winds in the area of the first stage and the markings will not hold the migratory sands. Wind strength also puts runners at risk. I was disappointed that we might not be in the dunes, but I welcomed Carlos’ flexibility and experience, along with the ability to mark alternative routes in such a short time. As long as the race is to go ahead.
The race begins
On the first morning of the race we found ourselves 31 excited runners standing on the starting line. Recent tests that everything’s in place, the running-time snacks, the electrolytes, and also the mind aimed correctly. The team, volunteers and local staff are also excited about the very existence of the race. Just before the leap, Namibians of all colors stand and sing the local anthem together. Something that couldn’t happen 35 years ago. We don’t cry, but behind the sunglasses there are tears. The race is been run. To my left are the 28 flags that represent all the competitors and the volunteers also carry an Israeli flag next to the UAE flag.
On the first day, I’m very focused on pace control. Move forward like I’m on the last day, insist on not being dragged too fast. Up the Swakop River, the little mud in the first few kilometers changes very quickly with soft or partially compressed sand. I found myself near Russian Richard from Siberian talking about family and children. Later he picked up a beat, the two girls from Honduras and Guatemala overtook me, but I’m in pace: little by little. After 10 miles, I folded the sticks, and worked on the accuracy of the directions of the backpack to prevent shoulder pain and back rubbing. The other half of the day was mostly climbing from the dry river path, into temperatures up to 43 degrees. Hot, dry, sand, just the combination that makes me think about what I’m doing here. From the maps I remembered that the night camp is within the river route, and indeed 4 km before the end of the day I started to slide back down, until the abandoned ostrich farm, some of which were the ostriches that inhabited the gorge. The sunset over the night camp is great, dinner, preparations for the second day and an attempt to sleep most of the night.
Day two began with a long stretch of climbing into the moon valley. Some of it required ropes to pass dry waterfalls. At the end of the climb, just before the first control point, a look back reveals a crazy view, mirrors from another planet. Try to imagine the Israeli south Craters and Eilat Mountains area on steroids. Black mountains, huge granite rocks, quartz surfaces of different colors and hues ranging from deep purple to mustard yellow. The rest of the day was also taken from films on Mars with Welwitschia plants that are hundreds of years old. Before the second control point Jack was 500 meters ahead waved me goodbye. A mile later, I realized he had made a mistake on the way and reported Samantha – the point manager. A vehicle called in to look for him found him back on the track after realizing the mistake. The volunteers spray water from all directions. The hat feels like an air conditioner and the pants are dripping. For the furious temperatures, I’m not complaining. Between the second and third control points, I’m losing Jack again, who probably doesn’t feel at his peak. The fourth part of the day glides through a narrow canyon that is taken straight from a nature film to a meeting between the Swakop Gorge and the Kahan River Gorge (do not get too excited – both are dry). The encounter has enough moisture for fine vegetation and a baboon tribe that takes a distance from the human baboon camp. The local team celebrates with a big bonfire, I try to get a rest, take care of a small blister that starts to raise its head, and mostly remains overwhelmed by the times of the first quartet progressing faster than 10 km/hr! Led by Rob Ripley, a 60-year-old doctor from Oregon who will also win the race, with running abilities from another world.
Tuesday’s morning briefing talks about 45 kilometers, most of which are moderate incline, and a sharper rise outside the gorge. The end of the day should mark the middle of the distance. They say it might be even warmer, partly because there’s no wind, but it’s nowhere near what’s really going to come. At the end of the first leg Jack comes after me and tells me he’s done and finishes the race. Given that I had already finished the first two bottles, it is clear to me that the heat is severe. Even the sun doesn’t cooperate and hits hard from the early hours. This day becomes an trench battle, and the vehicles are deployed between the control stations to provide water every 5 km. A wise decision not to look at the pace allows me to manage the effort carefully. At the third control station, the book of poems that Lilach prepared was pulled out. It’s time for it to contribute to the effort. A broken translation for volunteers, and Tiago the photographer wishes to commemorate the moment. I’ve already wrote about the last ascent. At camp, I tried to pick myself up, make sure I put in the daily calorie allowance, my body exhausted and I’m fighting to get another spoon and another spoon in. Tomorrow, they say, it is expected to be an easier day, mostly flat, just 42 km. Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Korean, the youngest of the runners, crosses the finish line in the dark in tears of joy, just as the cutoff time .
Down the other half
Day four marks the friendliest day of the race. A layer of clouds protects us all day, and a pleasant wind blows across the plains. Even the surface is less sandy. The need to avoid contact with the “milk bush” from which the bushman prepare the poison maintains a healthy alertness. I’m so happy about the weather and the pace spontaneously increases with longer running segments. Towards the end of the day I catch-up with Atul that accompanies Valdami, a blind Brazilian runner who has an impressive track record. We crossed the finish line of the day together with our hands crossed as road partners should. In the evening I started calculating times… There’s a chance to end under 50 hours cumulative! A little dream I suppressed so I wouldn’t make mistakes. Tomorrow the longest stretch, the long march, stretches over 68 km.
Morning of the fifth day. Vigilance and excitement. A combination of the longest section and also the most significant last in the race. Aside from the front runners, many of us will end our day in the dark, navigating between the flags and the sticklighters. The heart wants to push to ensure enough space on the last day to finish under 50 hours, but the head dictates more cautious conduct. The first section is very fast, and the climb through purple and pink quartz surfaces to the high point of the day and the end of the second section also goes well. Here comes a descent through sand-slides and boulder climbing, which takes me almost half an hour per km. From here a new landscape opens again, temperatures are rising again but you can take comfort in the west wind. At the fifth point, after about 48 km I am offered coffee, you can’t say no to this, and this becomes a 20-minute stop, but every minute is golden. I turn on the red light on the back of the backpack and force myself to dig forward until the end. The sunset is wonderful and the cold starts to bother. Another buff on the neck, gloves are pulled out and the headlight is turned on. Between the sixth CP and the finish line, there were 10 kms. The head was in focus but the legs had will of their own and occasionally I zigzag. I pulled out the poles again to stabilize and I laughed out loud at the situation. Four kilometers from the end the dune area began. It was hard to see in the dark but the texture of the sand on the side hit by the wind gives them away. The finish line lights symbolize the beginning of a day of rest between the high dunes towards the short final stage. My times so far strengthen my desire to ensure an end to under 50 hours. Tomorrow morning we’ll wake up to a magical morning among giant dunes.
The whole day of rest was about arranging the equipment and getting rid of food that is not essential. My surplus food goes to other runners . Rest in the shade and long conversations with the competitors who became friends. Carlos can be seen with his crew members working on the final markings of the track in the dunes.
On the last day, the start is late. Coffee and two snacks, there’s no point in eating much because at the end there’s cold beer and pizzas… Running in the dunes, I tried to work smart through the compressed side of the dune with skating steps. The business works really nice and I was able to run large parts of the section. The wind already carries a smell from the Atlantic coast that is clearly visible. The sand on the beach is deep purple. To anyone who asked why I wasn’t smiling in the closing picture: less than a mile from the end, the throat choked with excitement. On the finish line: celebration, hugs, smiles, introduction to the family of Mabasa, pizzas, 3 beers, I’m set. Catching my breath so I wouldn’t fall apart on the phone, I called Lilach.
You can’t really describe in words the intensity of the experience, all the little moments, and the inspiring people I met. I write now as everything is fresh, but from my experience I know that the experience will resonate with me for a long time to come. The people, the competitors, the volunteers, the race team. Each with their own special story. Long months from the stage of the idea, the organization, the physical and mental preparations that drain into the peak event. Endless moments of falling into the abyss and ascension. Looks marvel at the intensity of the desert, and long minutes of silence that penetrates and cleanses the soul. The family photo on the phone that accompanied me every night, and the songbook that was anchored every time. This is where I feel at peace.
So many people have accompanied me this way, and everyone deserve a huge thank you. Nonprofits that have been before my eyes more than once in the track: Yadid Lachinuch (friend of education) and Perthes Israel, each in its own way paves the way for capableness. Pano Koter who knows how to guide me without digging, as I like. And my amazing amazing family with my private orchestra conductor, my beloved teacher Lilach.
And in the “what now?” thing, obviously I’m already thinking about the next challenge… There’s a chance he’s already in the log… It’s going to be fun.
Now a little rest, and in the meantime, you can use the time and contribute:
Donations to education friend Yadid Lachinuch https://www.yadidla.org.il/ to 563317 account, at the 640 branch of Bank Hapoalim.
Perthes Israel https://www.perthesisrael.com. For further donations and details, please contact Tali Ben-Dror and Merav Bar-El Meirav Bar-el 050-2340003 /052-8582000