By Kim van Kets
I adore pre race rituals….and for everyone they are different. I have completed the ceremonial cleansing of the evil smelling shoes and backpack (mainly because Basil, my Staffy lifted his leg on it in a moment of petulant* jealousy on my very last training run), I have tinted my eyebrows (it is not possible to feel powerful without eyebrows) and I have purchased kilograms of foot powder and many new pairs of socks (most of which will not fit into my pack but at least I know I can THINK about them in the dark moments). And then suddenly all the mayhem and the planning and the juggling and outsourcing and the meeting of last minute deadlines is over and I am on my way. I have a brief moment of utter panic at the airport as I realise I have left my Garmin watch/gps thingy at home. How? How? How do you leave your watch but remember eye drops and dried chillies? Fortunately I am distracted from my panic by having to explain to security that the many sachets of white powder in the hidden inner pocket of my pack are not in fact narcotics but Mycota Foot Powder (aka magic fairy dust). There is an overwhelming sense of fatalism, relief, euphoria. There is nothing else I can do about the gps, the food choices or the training. It is what it is. The relief is followed by the kind of excitement usually associated with the last day of term before the summer holidays. I wish desperately that I am capable of executing a few flick flacks, because really there is absolutely no other way to express my mental state as I settle into my seat on the first flight of the long journey to Augrabies.
On reflection this state of euphoria is surprising. If I force myself to think of the last time I did the KAEM. There was rather a lot of suffering if I am not mistaken. I remember for example that Phil would experience severe cramps every night and would thrash around in complete agony on the ground with ever muscle in his body writhing and twitching while the regular KAEM runners stepped nonchalantly over him. I remember throwing myself to the ground next to him (like a wrestling ref) and screaming “OMG PHIL are you ok? Speak to me! Whats happening?! Are you dying?? WTF why doesn’t someone help him??”The regular KAEM’ers would look unfazed: “Oh Phil always does that for an hour or two he’ll be ok just now.” I also remember feet that were so lacerated and blistered that they looked like raw steaks, and gnats diving into every available orifice and guzzling greedily at any exposed flesh until you feel half mad with the relentless annoyance of it all. I remember my own speciality of uncontrollable and deeply impressive projectile vomiting in 52’ heat. So lets be honest there is a fair amount of suffering that goes on here. Why such elation at the thought of getting to do it all over again?
There is a theory that if you perceive an experience as one that had a good outcome (you gave birth naturally and without drugs to a healthy child…you completed a KAEM) then with the passing of time the dominant memory of the pain reduces and the fleeting memory of the achievement increases until one only recalls the full moon, the exquisite beauty of the desert, the intense camaraderie, the feeling of elation as you cross the finish line. All the other bits are inexplicably forgotten. If this is a syndrome, then all the KAEM folk seem to have it.
* It would be a pity to miss this brilliant pun!
At least half of us have been here before, some every year for almost a decade. The parking lot at Augrabies Falls National Park (one of the fabulous sponsors) could have been mistaken for the scene of a large, diverse family reunion (just less complicated;-)). How wonderful it is to see friends from all over the globe who I last saw at KAEM 2009. Is it possible that 8 years have past since I last did this iconic race? But it feels like only yesterday. The constant need to return to a race is surely the greatest complement to any event organiser and it is richly deserved in the case of Nadia and Estienne and their astonishingly splendid crew.
For readers who don’t know (and who haven’t yet done it) the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon is modelled on the legendary Moroccan Marathon Des Sables (only its better by all accounts, just saying;-)) and is certainly not for the faint hearted. The race happens annually in the ruggedly contrasting landscape of the Northern Cape’s “Green Kalahari” and is a self-sufficiency run held over six legs (one day/night) in seven days. Distances are set for each day, ranging from (in 2017) 21km to 74km. Athletes are obliged to carry on their backs everything they plan to use or consume for the duration of the event: food, sleeping bag and mat, cooking pots, toiletries, clothes (SOCKS!) and compulsory safety/survival equipment for the duration of the event. Most participants carry 20-30 litre backpacks with starting dry weights ranging from 7-12kg (that’s without another 2 kg of water). Overnight shelter in rudimentary camps and water (which is strictly controlled and distributed during the race) is supplied.
The route is wonderfully diverse with landscapes ranging from overwhelmingly green vineyards along the Orange River to steep rocky outcrops, sweltering sandy gorges and river beds and those vast open stretches of nothing which are characteristic of the Kalahari Desert. Temperatures vary from mid 30’s up to as high as 50 (degrees Celsius) during the day to single figures in the evenings.
Tomorrow is race day, but today is filled with, registration and kit checks and race and medical briefings. (Intrepid race medic, Doc Grant: “I urge all of you to take a pathological interest in both the colour and frequency of your pee for the next 7 days!” Dauntless route organiser and lover of sandy river beds, Estienne: “In the event of a fire, cover your extremities with any spare clothing, wet it if possible and plunge through the fire and out the other side. It shouldn’t be more than a meter or 2. That way you won’t lose ears and noses and stuff like that.”) Today will be filled with the endless packing and repacking of backpacks. It will be crammed with laughter, nervous excitement and KAEM in-jokes and the relentless mockery of Richard (Glowstick) for, among other things;-), his unfortunate fashion choices. And we will adore all the pre-race mayhem, but more than anything we cant wait to be released into the glorious desert at 8am tomorrow morning to do what we have come here to do. And to do it well.
About Kim van Kets
Kim grew up in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, studied law at Stellenbosch University, was admitted as an attorney of the High Court of South Africa. She spent many years in legal practice and the corporate world. Kim is currently self-employed as a legal consultant/ corporate trainer, freelance writer, published author and inspirational business speaker.
After doing all the usual ultras like Comrades and 2 Oceans, she discovered trail running and became addicted to the solitude and beauty of the sport. Since then she has taken part in numerous multi-stage, ultra distance trail and Adventure races all over the world, including the Lycian Way in Turkey, the Transkei Ultra, the Munga, the Indlela Yobuntu Pilgrimage Run, various 100 Milers, etc. She attempted KAEM 2008, and completed KAEM in 2009, Kim is best known for her “Tri the Beloved Country” Expedition which involved a self powered 6 772 km circumnavigation of South Africa on foot, bike and kayak in 148 days.
Despite opportunities to have married a sensible person she is happily married to Adventurer, Peter van Kets (2x Atlantic Rower and one of the few South Africans to have trekked to the South Pole). She is also mother to Hannah and a Staffy puppy, Basil.