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The Namib Race

The Namib is the oldest desert on earth, stretching more than 2000km along the south-west coast of Africa. Shipwrecks and bones litter the shoreline. Even today, ships run aground, blinded by thick fog or caught by offshore rocks. It’s home to temperatures up to 50°C and mountains of sand and rock. The Namib is old, beautiful and extremely harsh. When I first encountered the region I thought it was the perfect place for a self-supported ultra. Over the following days, I would scout for a 250km, multi-stage race.

I am a trail runner and strategy consultant living in the Austrian Alps. My comfort zone for races lies above 100km, in mountain goat terrain, at high altitude. Extremes fascinate me. In 2007, I helped organise a race in the Atacama desert of South America and fell in love with desert landscapes. Since then I have spent most of my annual leave designing desert race courses. I’ve never visited the same place twice, except for the Namib Desert.

Departing from the colonial town of Swakopmund, a four-hour drive north brought us to the heart of an area that they call the ‘Skeleton coast.’ The main gates to the park greet visitors with two huge skulls – what a warm welcome.

To design a race course, I start making a plan from home, using maps and geographical information, then spend two weeks on-site to scout the area. For the Namib Desert race, I based myself, with a park ranger, at a campsite hours from civilisation that is only open to the public two months a year – Torra Bay. My first encounter with larger animals was one morning when a jackal visited the neighbouring tent looking for breakfast...

The next day, I chatted with two of the wardens at the park gate. They looked at me, startled. “You want to run here? Are you crazy? Have you thought about the lions?” I told them I’d heard there are only very few of them and that you barely see them. They said: “They were here last week; we had to close our door to keep them out!”

From that day, Dr Philip Stander became an essential part of the race organisation. He is a scientist who has devoted his life to studying a unique population of desert-adapted lions that claim the Namib Desert as their territory. He has spent more than 25 years studying them, and contributes his expertise to the local communities to solve human-lion conflicts. Philip monitors the lions by fitting some with satellite collars, since they can cover distances of up to 70km in a single night.

During the two weeks, we explored the Skeleton Coast National Park by airplane, car, and on foot.

Early morning when I woke before the start of the race, something didn’t feel right. A young lioness had moved close to Camp 2 with her cubs. Knowing it was not an option to disturb a lion, we now needed to change course.

Philip and I sat together, discussed an alternative course and re-routed the runners. In the following days we moved the course spontaneously multiple times to avoid disturbance of the wildlife.

To provide such a unique running experience in a challenging environment, a skilled and adaptive race organisation does a tremendous job behind the scenes. Mobile checkpoint teams set up aid stations, a camp team moves an entire campsite each day, top-notch doctors provide medical support and a fantastic crew of local drivers and support crew manage all of the logistics. Everybody is briefed to leave nothing behind apart from their footprints – and even these we aim to minimise.

This high level of agility can minimise our environmental impact. In the case of the Namib race, and others around the world, we have shown that working this way allows us to conduct foot races, even in an area of active wildlife, without fences or guns. For many years, we managed to avoid any conflict, in spite of a few clever hyenas that decided to pick up our glow sticks at night and almost misguide some of our runners.

Namib Desert lions were last observed hunting seals on the beach 30 years ago. Since then, most of the lions have been killed and and the population assumed to be extinct. But, as a result of Philip’s work, the population recovered and, in 2019, lions rediscovered the seals and started hunting in the ocean again.

This change of behaviour and change of the environment had direct implications on our race. We decided to move the race to a different region in Namibia in order to avoid any potential conflict. It was an easy decision to make.

We all have a responsibility to learn about the environment in which we run, and to minimise our impact. I have seen people taking videos of angry birds attacking them in the winter in the Alps and then laughing about this behaviour. When you understand that these bird attacks are the direct result of limited food resources, and that the energy expended by them could kill the tired and hungry animals, it gives you a deeper engagement with the habitat around you. And perhaps this leads us to take action to protect species such as these from the deepening effects of climate and environment change. I believe collectively we must commit to learn about the environment around us and adapt our behaviour to mitigate damage, protect and conserve. Our actions can help save our planet.

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