17 October 2009

Kalaharie Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) – The Background

I am sitting in the airport lounge in Sao Paulo, Brasil as I write this, and I'm really not sure what time it is any more. The joys of international travel and circuitous routings take me to Johannesburg from Vancouver via Toronto (8 hr layover), Sao Paolo (7 hour layover), to JNB; returning I go via Frankfurt (6 hour layover), Seattle (4 hour layover), and home at last.

But it is worth it – I am heading to the Kalaharie Desert in South Africa to run a stage race that I have been looking at for several years. I first came across KAEM when looking at a European race calendar that lists stage runs and ultra races; the French calendar has a more global perspective than the usual race lists we have in North America. We are pretty enthusiastic for 100-milers in our continent, but our fellow athletes in other parts of the world have a very different perspective on ultra running. 100 miles is typically pretty long for them, but on the other hand, they don't bat an eye at running for several days in a row carrying their own gear over rough terrain. While Western States is a bit of a rite of passage for we New World types, Marathon des Sables (MdS) is de rigueur for our counterparts in Europe. Neither approach is better, they are just different, and we can certainly learn from each other.

MdS is one of those destination races that for better or worse has a lot of hype around it. I get the impression that there is a bit of a circus aspect to it, and frankly, wayyyyy to many people participating in it for my tastes. I am a grass-roots, small-scale kind of guy, so while the challenge of MdS appealed, the hoopla and massive participation were detractors (and the price – ouch!). There must be alternatives out there. So KAEM jumped out at me when I was perusing the race calendar: it is modelled after MdS, has been said by past participants who have done both that it may be harder, is put on by a couple who seem to do it for the love of the sport, is cheaper, has a fraction of the participants, and doesn't have helicopters flying over the runners taking video for a DVD. And no guys running in rhino costumes!! It looked pretty good to me.

After completing a number of 100-milers, I was seeking to push my boundaries and find a new challenge, and stage racing seemed to fit the bill. KAEM looked pretty good and I was anticipating it being my first stage run attempt, but then news of the Moose Ultra reached me. The Moose is a 6-day, 300km race on the Bruce Trail in Ontario, so it was close to home. It also had a slightly different take on the typical stage race, where the organisers provided breakfast and dinner, so you only had to carry gear and race food; most stage races like MdS and KAEM make you carry all your food for the entire duration, and only supply water and a tent. The Moose was a must-do for me then, being close to home with no language issues, and also making an easier introduction to stage running for me by supplying food. KAEM would have to wait.

As it turned out, the RD's of the Moose, Richard and Barrileigh Price, were friends with Nadia and Estienne, the RD's of KAEM. To promote each other's events, they offered their respective runners a draw prize of a free entry into the other race. In contrast to my typical lottery efforts, lucky me – I won the entry for KAEM!! I was ecstatic with the prize, and couldn't be more enthusiastic to participate in the race that I had been eyeing for years. I am most grateful to Nadia and Estienne for providing the entry – thank you so much.

The incredible Part Two of the race entry story is that my parents no longer fly, but had a pile of frequent flier points they could no longer use. They offered me the opportunity to book my flight to South Africa using their points, so I am very fortunate to be doing this 36-hour each-way journey in Business Class. Thank you, Mom and Dad for enabling me to get to the race and back in such comfort!

The rest was up to me. I was determined not to squander the wonderful gifts I had been given, and to make the most of such a long time away from my wonderful wife, who was unable to join me because of her work. I had to go and run my best, and enjoy every minute of this race.

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