Champagne or Apple Juice?

Discover everything you need to know about the Desert Ultra from Gary Chapman's 2023 race blog.

Est. reading time

8 minutes

Seasoned ultra runner Gary Chapman shares with us his account of the Desert Ultra 2023. With numerous ultra races under his belt, including multiple Spine Race finishes and an exceptional 5th place at the Ice Ultra, he has plenty of advice to offer on what to experience in the Namib Desert.

The blog title ‘Champagne or Apple Juice?’ is a nod to the constant line of enquiry about your urine from our medics when racing in 50 degree heat. Surviving and thriving in the desert requires a well tuned race strategy and approach.

We’ve picked an extract from Gary’s blog to give you a flavour of what to expect. Grab a cuppa and immerse yourself in what was an extraordinary event and Gary’s top tips for future runners.

Link to his full blog below.

Reflections on the Desert Ultra

I am writing this exactly a week after I got home.

What a bloody trip that was. It was a truly special life experience that probably couldn’t be repeated if I tried.

It was this perfect mix of a seriously tough challenge with no guarantees of a successful completion until you crossed the finish line whilst doubling up as the most amazing adventure holiday.

The group of people from fellow competitors to medics to BTU support/media to local Namibian crew were just all fantastic – no arseholes, no idiots and just everybody with shared values and dreams.

Katherine’s genius move (a fellow runner) of setting up a WhatsApp group before the event has continued afterwards and as we spread out across many countries, we have all kept in touch which shows what a great team we were.

Special mention to the people who didn’t finish the race – every single one of them must have been devastated but not once did they let that show to those still in the race and they then worked to help us.

I love non-stop challenges like the Spine and I would never change my involvement with those challenges. However, the stage race does introduce different things as there is time for recovery each evening (even if very limited) and perhaps more importantly, there is the opportunity to engage with like minded people from around the world as everybody supports each other.

Whether you are first or last, you still all stay in the same camp and everybody gets on and takes great interest in each others experience – there is a lot to be said for the sharing of this experience with others. I just felt that if I met any of these people anywhere in the world in future years then we would immediately have each others back due to this unique shared experience.

How Does it Compare to Other Races?

Well, it’s bloody tough. And the heat was something else especially as it was day after day rather than just one randomly hot day. Having done the Ice Ultra this year, I would rate it based on these conditions as being much tougher than the Ice Ultra.

Overall, the relentless nature of the heat I suspect would get most people. 19 out of 28 starters finished the full course and indeed a further 3 just missed the final day cut off so they practically did it all. This shocked everybody as it showed what a strong group it was as in those conditions none of us imagined so many would finish.

By way of comparison with the full winter Spine Race, the recovery each evening means that it is probably easier as long as you can cope with the heat. There is a lot of deprivation in the desert and on the Spine Race you do get well looked after in checkpoints. But overall, the distance and terrain/time of year mean if you can do full winter Spine then you can do the Desert Ultra without a big issue unless you struggle with heat. You can dress for cold races like the Ice Ultra or Spine, but if you struggle in heat even in the UK then you need to think carefully about entering as it is all encompassing.

However, the finish stats show that it is perfectly possible if you have a strategy. That’s all part of the fun – working it out.

The one thing in all of these races is that being super physically fit is nowhere near the most important thing which may surprise some people. It’s all about the ‘admin’ and those who take part in these things will know what I mean.

It’s ensuring you have packed the right things, placed them in the right place in your bag for access, the way you look after yourself and manage injuries, the way you sort things in camp utilising your time well, the way you concentrate on briefings and constantly calculate through the race whether it be on the navigation, your eating, your water consumption, your core temperature (Desert), coldness of extremities (Ice) and whether you should rest up or push through the next section whilst fatigued (Spine).

The group of people on the Desert Ultra are not supreme athletes in a physical sense yet all of them would thrash most younger/faster/fitter people due to the quality of their admin and decision making. If you don’t get your admin right, quite simply you will not finish Spine/Desert/Ice races.

However, strangely enough I find it one of the most enjoyable aspects of these races – reading blogs, searching out videos, watching others and learning as being good at admin is probably the most important race skill of them all.

Kit Tips for Future Runners

Here’s a selection of thoughts regarding kit for anybody preparing for the race in the future:

Hydration – Take minimum 3 litre of water carrying capacity. If you get 50 degree plus temperatures you will need it but crucially about a litre of this should go to pouring water over your head. Think carefully how you do this so you can catch the run off in your hat and get a double dowsing. If you do it carefully you can get 3 or 4 dunking of water from a litre and this is crucial for managing core temperature between checkpoints. Always do it if the wind gets up as this enhances evaporation effect.

Feet – I never had any sand enter my shoes. There are a few specialist cobblers who sew Velcro on to your shoes (costs about £65) then this works perfectly with the Raidlight Desert Gaiters or alternatives. have all the gear and cobbling services.

Sun Protection – Use a hat that covers your head and neck – again the Raidlight desert hat worked perfectly for me and was much better than cheaper than alternatives that supposedly did the same thing. Wear a neck gaiter and soak it in water at every checkpoint. I also wore compression socks and so the only part of my body that was exposed to sun was a small area from my knees to the base of my shorts. This makes it easier as less suntan cream is needed.

Self Admin – Always manage your core temperature. It feels like if you get this wrong, it could go rapidly out of control and be race ending. Be prepared to
hold back in hotter parts of day and even though your legs could run, just manage effort closely.

Read Full Blog

To read Gary’s full account and extensive tips for future runners, follow the link above.

About the Author

Jenny Hall

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