By Darren Roberts
"The stars are amazing" recounted Steve Clark, Across The Divide's Race Director. He wasn't talking about a night at the Oscars, but recalling experiences witnessed during the 126km Namibian Ultramarathon.
In 2 months we would run one of the toughest foot races on earth. The journey would take us through some of the harshest and most beautiful scenery known to man, and all within a 24-hour time limit.
To prepare for this, Team Mens Fitness signed up to a pre-race training weekend with race organisers Across The Divide (ATD) and some of the other entrants. It was a chance to get to know fellow competitors and quiz the organisers about strategies and safety.
In return, ATD threw in four cheeky running sessions, presumably to see if we were on the case when it came to training. Although I suspect it was more of an opportunity to see where to divert their well-organised medical attention.
ATD are suitably based in a village in Dorset in-the middle-of-nowhere. The surrounding area boasts enough hills and bulging coastline to test even the healthiest of lungs, making it the perfect base for an event and race organiser.
We arrived in the dark to a welcoming fire throwing heat into a cavernous reception room complete with safari paintings and large wooden rhinos. Sat around this on large sofas were a group of people who had also signed up for the experience. Amongst those sat Andrew Mcnenemy, who came second in last year's race. We immediately introduced ourselves and started asking him questions. Once we had all swapped stories and tips, we slept on the floor a la desert style with roll mat and sleeping bag. The stars were of course missing but it was fun all the same.
ATD woke us all the next day with a cuppa and a steaming bowl of porridge, perfect for the day ahead. Steve handed around an itinerary with timings, his ex-Army experience obvious in his organisation.
Our first activity was a 15-mile run through wet and cold countryside. This was our first opportunity to gauge the fitness of the field. Arriving back at base it was reassuring to see that our months of training to become Team Mens Fitness had paid off, we were comfortable with the pace and ready for the next activity.
Following a presentation about the race and a kit talk, we all piled into land rovers and were ferried to the coast for the big run of the day, a 3-hour cross-country run along the Jurassic Coast. The bulging coastline levelled the field off. If you were good at running up hills and not-so-good at sprinting down, someone would be the opposite, so this served as a counter-balance and held us together well. The weather and views were stunning as we pulled and panted our way up 5 peaks. It was cold and muddy and our muscles moaned at the accumulative exercise of the day. That said, it was a perfect reminder that the race would be 8 times longer and we all stared into the distance trying to visualise 126km.
"It's going to hurt, I won't lie to you" confirmed Andrew. "Mentally, you visit some very dark places. I call it The Struggle, and I think all ultra-athletes experience it". With that in mind, Nick and I ran up the next hill with added energy, searching for our weak points in order to focus our training.
A excellent medical briefing followed the run and Andrew and Steve spent some time answering questions about the race. It was clear that it would be tough and Nick and I looked at each other every time the word 'caution' or 'harsh' came up. This was an adventure for us and the well-respected advice was adding to our excitement - we wanted to start the race now.
We all gathered together for dinner and then kitted up for a 10k night run. The cold woke us up as we carved our way through the dark country roads, lit only by our head torches. 60% of the race would be run in the dark and we all needed to get used to the tunnel-effect of torch running and the cold of the desert at night.
After a well-earned pint at the local pub, we all settled down, waking next morning at 7am in time for our 4th run, another 10k. The sleep had re-energised us and we flew round the course, our bodies glad to run on the road for a change.
We covered just over 50 miles of running all weekend and following the usual formalities, we said goodbye to our new found adventure racing friends and hit the road, back to our day jobs. The first-hand glimpse at the Namibian Desert has encouraged us. The opportunity to make some life-long friends and experience the hardships the desert would throw at us makes us feel we’ve got one foot in the sand already, just need to knuckle down to 2 more months of training.