By Altie Clark

Running in sand is hard.  Running in sand with a 10 kg backpack is very hard.  Running in sand, in 45 degree Celsius heat with a 10 kg backpack is extremely hard.  Running in sand, in 45 degree Celsius heat, with a 10 kg backpack on day 4 of a 250 km event is unimaginable.

Race director Estienne Arndt is known for his love of sandy river beds, and mercilessly sending runners with tired legs and wary minds down them as part of the 250 km journey that is the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. If you’re planning to do this race, it’s best you wrap your mind and body around running in sand. You have to be strong and have a good technique otherwise the sand will literally slow you to a crawl and test your resolve to the extreme.

There are a few things you have to consider when you’re going to run through sand. In my opinion your calf strength and flexibility is extremely important. Your calves work extremely hard when propelling your weight with added 10 kg backpack through the sand so doing a bit of gym work will probably go a long way! Then of course flexibility is also extremely important. There is a handy test you can do at home to see if your Achilles tendon is short or not and this will help to avoid running into trouble in the desert if you do have a short Achilles. Measure 14 cm from the wall with a ruler and put your toe exactly 14 cm from the wall. While keeping your heel on the ground see if you can touch the wall with your knee. If you can do this your Achilles is not too short. If you can’t do this then I suggest you start stretching immediately.

The next thing to consider is technique. I don’t see myself as a total expert on running through sand but I’ve managed to do three trips through the Kalahari without complete failure when it came to river beds.  A trick I used in the 2016 KAEM was to try and find tracks of somebody running ahead of you and use that to run on. If you can find somebody to run directly behind it is even better but more often than not you spend a lot of time solo on the trail. It’s almost guaranteed every footfall will be different from the next so your ankles also take strain when trudging through the sand, so even though most of us don’t have sandy river beds to run on, training on very technical terrain will also give you the ankle strength needed to run through thick and relentless sand.

I asked both Linda Doke, ladies winner of KAEM 2014, and KAEM veteran Alwyn Maass who will be doing his 9th KAEM this year what their best advice is for running in sand. The reply from both was to take small steps and preserve energy. Do not waste too much energy in trying to go fast. ‘Taking shorter steps gives the feet a more directly downward placement on the sand, rather than the angled toe-heel placement of longer strides, so providing better surface area on which to ‘grip’ the sand.’ – Linda Doke

Then there is also the big gaiter debate. I’ve used gaiters in two of my three KAEMs and in all honestly in 2016 when I didn’t take them I didn’t really miss them. In my personal opinion your choice of shoe also plays a big role here as in 2015 I wore ankle gaiters but got so much sand in  through the upper of my New Balance Leadvilles that they almost made no difference.  In 2016 I went gaiter-less and ran with the new model Leadville which still let through a whole lot of sand but at least I didn’t have to faff with something around my ankles at every checkpoint. I personally don’t like gaiters that much as they make my feet hot which leads to them swelling up, and having swollen feet in the desert is never fun. I think the most important thing is to regularly empty your shoes and to change socks every now and again. Make sure you have no sand between your toes and you should be fine.  In three years I’ve only had a few small blisters on my little toes but then in 2015 when I was racing the 47 km 5th stage I was in too much of a hurry to empty my shoes which then resulted in a nice blood blister on the inside of my foot. It seems like a massive waste of time to sit down on a chair and take your shoes and socks off but the 4 minutes this will take you is a lot less than the hours you will lose when you have to run on infected blisters. In 2016 I didn’t wear gaiters but I religiously emptied my shoes and I didn’t have a single blister for the duration of the 250 km event.

No gaiters – KAEM 2016

No blisters – KAEM 2016

Blood blister – KAEM 2015

Which line to take? Often when you’re running in a river bed or very sandy jeep track there is harder ground just off the trail where other runners and vehicles haven’t churned up the already unreasonable terrain. Remember you’re not allowed to cut out pieces of the route so stay on the marked trail, however try to find a harder surface area which might be a few metres to the left or right.

Heat! If you find yourself in a riverbed in the middle of the day remember it can be up to 10 degrees hotter than out in the open. Don’t get so side tracked with searching for hard terrain or somebody else’s footsteps that you forget to drink. The gorges turn into ovens and have no mercy for runners trudging along. If you neglect to hydrate adequately you will be stuck in a very hot and uncomfortable place.

The terrain of the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon is different to most races you will do and the rocky and sandy vistas make it a completely unique experience. The sand is definitely one of the elements that can make or break your experience, and even though most of us can’t train in sandy conditions you can try to do the following to be ready for this very challenging terrain:

  1. Do the strength and stretch work to make sure your calves and tendons are ready.
  2. Get the right shoes that won’t let through too much sand and gaiters that you are comfortable with if you decide to wear them.
  3. Take enough socks so you can regularly change them when you empty your shoes of sand. It will be worth it.
  4. Be aware of your surroundings. Sometimes there is a hard patch of ground a few meters away where running is slightly easier.
  5. Remember the heat in river beds and gorges can be up to 10 degrees hotter so don’t panic if you get extremely hot and remember to hydrate.
  6. Remember to look around you! I’ve seen Gemsbok, Eland and Kudu to name a few in the sandy river beds of the Kalahari. Even when you’re tired and broken there are still amazing things all around you to take in.

Even though I’m not absolutely horrid at running through sand I have to admit that I get ghost pains in my right Achilles just thinking about it. A 5 km stretch through a hot sandy gorge, with a 10 kg backpack is probably one of the hardest things a trail runner can face, so being physically and mentally prepared is of absolute vital importance.