A Race Blog by Chris Hewett | ‘Quite simply one of the best weeks of my life’
Before we dive into this detailed account of the 2023 edition of the For Rangers Ultra, a quick note on our author and why you should take the time to read this blog.
Chris Hewett describes himself as somebody who doesn’t take running seriously, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for somebody who does. He’s a lithe, methodical and consistent athlete with extensive experience of one-day events in the UK and also has an MDS finishers medal hung on his wall (though you wouldn’t know as he rarely mentions it). Beyond athletic pursuits, Chris is a paramedic in the UK with experience in wilderness medicine, who has spent a few years now travelling around as a Race Medic. He’s patched up weathered runners in various extreme environments for Beyond the Ultimate in the past and had countless opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
Earlier this September, Chris took to the start line of the For Rangers Ultra, our 220km, 5-day race across open Kenyan wildlife conservancies. What follows is his account of the event. It’s full of excellent insights from a runner’s perspective and dotted with great nuggets of information informed by his Race Medic’ing past. It’s also light-hearted, honest and entertaining.
We begin on the day before the race as our coaches full of runners approach Base Camp on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy having travelled through the morning from Nairobi.
P.S. Support the Rangers at: www.justgiving.com/campaign/forrangersultra2023
We Arrive as Strangers…
Last week, although it now seems like a lifetime ago, a bunch of seventy strangers arrived at Lewa after an eventful journey from Nairobi. We’d left in darkness and were relieved to arrive at the conservancy mid-afternoon, after a pit stop in Nanyuki, the closest big town to our 230km adventure.
If you want to read more about Nanyuki I recommend “No Picnic on Mount Kenya” by Felice Benuzzi, an Italian interred in a British PoW camp in Kenya during the Second World War, who escaped, summitted Mount Kenya and then traipsed back to the PoW camp again. That’s what mountains can inspire you to do. But back to our story.
The five coaches decanted, and we were greeted by lines of two-person tents and circles of chairs around campfire.
Shade was provided by acacia trees which were teaming with white-eared weavers (which build intricate hanging nests), hornbills and the amazingly-named Superb Starlings – imagine a starling that has raided a kingfisher’s wardrobe and stolen its Sunday best.
I was billeted with Nick from Australia who had biggest knife in camp. This was confirmed by Wioleta during the checks of our safety kit.
We had the opportunity to meet some of the Lewa rangers and their two search dogs – one a bloodhound and one a 3:4 bloodhound:doberman mix. (Any less bloodhound and they lose their incredible sense of smell.). They track potential poachers and criminal suspects – perhaps their skills would be put to use to find wayward FRU runners?
We settled into the two person tents and I slept fairly well with the background noise of crickets and beetles singing. Until midnight, that is.
There was a loud roar – surely a lion – and then the charge of heavy footsteps as hunter chased down prey. It sounded as if it was just yards away from the tent.
My bladder was telling me it was time to leave the tent for a comfort break but I decided to give it ten minutes before venturing out, to give the lion time to move away.
I slept fitfully but didn’t hear lion again although in the early hours there were the whoops of hyena in the distance.
Sensible runners were oblivious to the drama overnight – they had brought earplugs to block out the noise. But the roar of the lion was a real welcome to Kenya.
Tomorrow the race would start…
Monday 4th September – Day 1 – Lewa
After a breakfast of instant noodles supplemented by peanut butter sandwiches made by Nick and his knife, I put on my fully loaded race pack which, now with two litres of drinking water and a hefty GPS tracker, weighed about 10.7kg. I headed for the start line of For Rangers Ultra 230km to join the rest of Team Tortoise.
Team Tortoise consisted of about ten runners. None of us had met before arriving in Kenya but we felt like old friends having been chatting on WhatsApp and Zoom for some months previously.
Team Tortoise came from all over the world, including Bermuda, Canada, Scotland, Spain and Cheltenham. For some it was their first multistage ultra, others had some under their belt. Some planned to walk the whole thing from beginning to end, others had completed solid training that should mean they could have their eyes on the top ten. Team Tortoise wasn’t about speed, it was about consistency – and the shared understanding that nothing was going to happen that together we couldn’t handle.
Somewhere on our shirts, hats or running pack glistened a little pin badge of a tortoise, a lucky talisman for the trail that lay ahead of us.
Team Tortoise gathered on the start line and after a pep talk from race director Kris King, a countdown brought an end to the anticipation and a beginning to the race. We were off!
Predictably, overcome with excitement, I charged out from the start line – breathlessness and a galloping pulse soon reminded me of the altitude and that this was a long, long race not a sprint. Softly spoken Tomáš and some of the most athletic runners were already nowhere to be seen.
There was plenty to look at. The savannah grass and trees were parched from five years of below-average rainfall but there were still bright green cactuses and explosions of flowers. Antelope grazed unbothered by us. Birds glided above.
The route curved around the boundary of the Lewa conservancy and Sam from For Rangers stopped me to point out three rhino – mother and calf and, in the distance, a bull rhino. We could see that they could hear us as they were tracking us with their ears but it was unlikely they could actually see us as rhino have poor eyesight.
I asked how Sam could tell the distant rhino was a bull as it was so far away. Was it his size? His shape? His behaviour? Standing guard over the other rhino?
“Nah, I looked at it with my binoculars and it’s got a willy.”
The race route took us through Lewa village. The interest of the villagers had been piqued by the front runners and they watched and waved at the unusual sight of runners passing through their village as they got on with their lives, so different and yet so similar to ours – going to school, waiting for a bus, working and shopping for supplies.
We were an especial novelty and distraction for the children but without exception, we received friendly hellos from all the people we passed on foot or in the vehicles weaving about on the dirt track.
We followed this road from the village all the way to CP1 (the first checkpoint) at the 11km mark. It was a long uphill slog but we were frequently encouraged by smiles, waves and shouts from the passing vehicles, their occupants either perplexed or amused by the wazungu running in the morning heat.
As I approached CP1 a small herd of camels loped past.
CP1 was a grand affair. A Land Rover and gazebo provided by the British Army Training Unit Kenya offered shade, medics whooped encouragement and threatened unspeakable procedures for anyone who didn’t apply sun cream or drink water, and there was even a three-sided toilet tent. The fact the tent only had three sides was no discouragement as it offered a wonderful view down the valley as users popped a squat. I was just getting settled in position as the race safety helicopter flew up the valley, spoiling my view and giving the pilot an eyeful of something he didn’t deserve to see on final approach to the CP landing pad.
The route continued up a dry river valley that I navigated with Jess, with occasional zebra and antelope sightings.
After CP2 the route climbed towards CP3 along a ridge with impressive views. Any height gain just made the lungs work harder and my watch was telling me my heart rate was regularly reaching 150bpm, far too fast for my normal ultra pace. The route followed a ridgeline and then descended along a valley giving us a grand view of Pride Rock, an outcrop which inspired the iconic scene in Disney’s The Lion King where Simba is held up by Rafiki over the plains of Kenya.
I passed Kenny who was taking pictures of Pride Rock and stormed into CP3 just as Vickey was leaving. I used that as a motivation to keep my checkpoint stop quick – I’d try and catch her up before she got too much of a lead.
I chatted with the checkpoint crew about the wildlife we’d seen. There was a herd of zebra in the valley below Pride Rock but Michael, a local chap involved with For Rangers at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy told me I’d completely missed a pride of about a dozen lions. They were no doubt interested in the zebra too!
My checkpoint procedure was supposed to be like clockwork:
– Take rucksack off to allow back to cool
– Fill right bottle with water, add electrolyte tablet, swallow salt tablet.
– Put Hammer Nutrition UK powder into left bottle, fill with water.
– Put buff into cap, pour water onto both.
– Apply sun lotion.
– Kit up and hit the trail.
In reality, there was a whole lot of huffing and puffing, often I’d get tangled in my t-shirt if I decided to soak that too, and there was the obligatory fist bumping and chatting with the checkpoint crew and other runners that cost me minutes in race time but gave me motivation to keep going.
The checkpoint crew had water misters and offered to spray the runners. I tended to decline this. I find it gets everywhere and causes salt to run into my eyes or allows rogue water to get into friction areas and make me uncomfortable.
“Spraying is like bombing,” I said. “It should be targeted not indiscriminate.”
I caught Vicky a mile down the hill after a rucksack problem meant she stopped. This was incredibly lucky for me later. I offered her a pretty useless bit of advice, it wasn’t her first rodeo, and jogged on for the next eight kilometres, managing to run most of it as the route gradually serpentined down to camp.
I noticed the route markings, piles of chalk in the middle of the trail, were a little scarce and I hadn’t seen a ranger for a while. Normally their friendly faces looked out from the shade of a nearby tree or vantage point. The last person I had seen was from BATUK and they said I was “nearly there”, which in Kenyan terms could be a few hundred yards or five miles. But that was ten minutes ago, I’d covered another kilometre and I was beginning to feel vulnerable and alone in the middle of the bush… The safety protocol was to retrace our steps until we found markings or a ranger. So, obviously, I pressed on regardless. There were still some footprints in the dusty trail from previous runners. And was that whoops and cheers of a finish line I could hear?
I entered a forest and hit a river. There were no footprints on either side. I had definitely missed a turning. But where?
My shoulders were hurting and I couldn’t think. I slipped my pack off. Again I thought of the safety protocol to retrace our steps until we found markings or a ranger. But I must be so close! And my target time of six hours was looming perilously close, with just a minute or two to spare.
I was faffing about with my tracker when a cheerful “you’ve gone the wrong way!” from Vicky promoted me to turnaround and retrace my steps. I finished soon after her and just over my target time of six hours by a matter of seconds.
But finished I had. My left shoulder was screaming from the weight of the pack – I’d trained with heavier packs and had no problem but the way the actual race pack was loaded was sitting on my clavicle and really annoying it. That could be sorted out later and besides, my pack would get lighter each day as I ate some of the 3.7kg of food contained within.
We were billeted in 18-person tents in a peaceful camp site beside the river. However we were sternly warned to keep our tents zipped closed due to the risk of hyena. Kris told a vivid story of a person being dragged in their sleeping bag from their bivvy by a hungry hyena… Surely they wouldn’t be interested in us with the way we smelled?
The tent slowly filled roughly in the order we arrived: Tomaz and Petr the Czech mates from Czechia, Lou and Katie who were the leading ladies, Nick, Dawn and I from Team Tortoise, Andy, Scott and Jungle Ultra veteran Jo from the USA, Nora from the UK and an American family running as a group – Rachel, Barbara, Charles and Matt.
Softly-spoken Richard Gere-lookalike Tomaz placed first, adding to the impressive list of achievements that have to be crowbarred out of his modest personality, with TT Lou and Katie in joint first lady.
I set about my recovery regime – a protein powder, a wash, miso soup from a market in Nanyuki, dehydrated Firepot dal and rice and lashings of peppermint tea.
As night fell suddenly as a curtain at 1830, I fell asleep to sound of insects chirping. No one was dragged out of our tent by hyena. Or not that we noticed.
Tuesday 5th September – Day 2 – Borana
Day 1 had been a bit of a shock. The temperatures were no more than what should have been expected but the three days I’d spent in Nairobi to acclimate hadn’t helped – I’d spent most of it walking around in a hoodie and puffer jacket as it was quite chilly! Add to that 2,000 metres of altitude bringing thinner oxygen density and Day 1 had been tougher than I hoped. The one redeeming feature was that it was fairly short – just under 25 miles so not even a marathon let alone an ultra stage. The organisers had been kind to us so far.
The weather had different ideas. It was predicted to be the hottest day of the year.
Perhaps because of this it was an early start for us all. It is not safe to run at night due to all the wild animals (elephants, like me, are grumpy if disturbed) so we convened for a sunrise race brief at 0630. As we stood, ready and raring to go, Kris briefed us that there would be setting off in three waves.
The waves were spaced out over 90 minutes, with the tail walkers Helen and Sunny setting off first, followed by the bulk of the pack, with the fastest runners chasing from behind. This keeps the runners less spread out so the rangers can keep an eye on us and protect us from the wildlife – an example of this was soon to happen.
The course started with a long, unending climb towards Checkpoint One. As I rounded a corner I heard a single shot ring out, and there was a gaggle of runners standing, staring down a valley towards a herd of elephants that the rangers had to move away.
The concentration of runners meant that I had caught up with Veronique who I then followed for a few uphill miles until CP1. She was in and out of the checkpoint rapidly like a pro, leaving me to recharge my bottle with electrolytes with the help of medic Fraser, swallow a salt capsule, and apply more sunscreen.
Cinematic views graced this section, as we crested hill after hill, with elephants silhouetted against the sky as they made their way over a small rise parallel to us.
At some point, on a gradual climb towards the elephants, I overtook Veronique and serpentined up a green outcrop, the rangers who were stationed every 500 metres blending in with the greenery.
I ran for a while with Katie, who was one of the leading ladies yesterday, and we descended from a hill, across a reservoir dam and past an airstrip. It was tempting to hitch a lift on the bush plane that was waiting there for its rich safari customers.
An accomplished single stage runner, this was her first multistage ultra marathon and she was missing her recovery time. She seemed used to pushing until her body reached her limit and would normally have days to rest and heal after a one-day race. There wasn’t as much time to recuperate overnight in this race, and her feet in particular were complaining about this.
We ran through a small village, almost deserted except for some folk tending some crops beside the road. In the village was an outdoor gym provided by For Rangers for the welfare of local people and we boggled at the sight of someone doing a gym session in the morning sun. We waved at her and scooted past, just in case she invited us to join in.
As we left the village we encountered a herd of horses, a mix of greys and bays, grazing and dozing in the sun. They were weary in the heat and wary of me. One of the oldest horses let me approach, perhaps it was too much bother to move its thin body away. The gelding sniffed my outstretched hand and ducked its head indicating I could get closer. In return for a good head scratch I got a chance to stop for a few minutes and I could feel my pulse and blood pressure lowering. Was it the rest, or the effect of stroking the horse and interacting with such a peaceful, dignified being?
The moment passed, and I was passed by another runner looking strong and moving fast – the final wave had caught up with us and motored off into the heat.
CP2 was a welcome sight, again positioned with an amazing vista over the Borana conservancy. It was not yet midday but the sun was piercing. Veronique reappeared and was in and out of the checkpoint in her usual economic manner.
We descended the ridge line from CP2 into a valley with no breeze. I stalled in the heat. Katie, made of stronger stuff, ploughed on ahead.
A tiny spot appeared on the horizon. It was CP3. With miles to go I had made an administrative cock up – I had run low on water. I position the drinking straws in my bottles to give me an indication when I run low – if I start sucking air then I know I have 50ml of water/electrolyte on my right and 150ml of Hammer powder remaining on my left. This had to last me a good few miles and a big, steep climb before the chance to restock water at the checkpoint, which stubbornly refused to get any bigger than a pin prick, the windscreen of the British Army Training Unit Kenya Land Rover glimmering like a distant star.
In desperation I decided to slow right down to reduce the heat I was generating, conserve my stores and ration my remaining water carefully.
Tomáš from the last wave caught me up and I gently kept pace as I followed him at a brisk walk up inclines and then he extended his lead on the flats. Just before I lost sight of his reassuring presence the helicopter buzzed along the course so low I’m sure Tomaz got a haircut.
CP3 was positioned at the top of a demonic hill and I wasn’t sure I could get up it. As I surveyed the seemingly vertical challenge, the sounds of footsteps heralded Andreas who caught me up and then slowed to my pace as we climbed, in near silence, the steep hill. I was recognising the signs of heat exhustion and dehydration that I knew so well from MdS. I didn’t want to go there again. My throat was dry and my brain was frazzled.
It was shame not to be able to chat to Andreas. The mild-mannered German (“call me Andeeee”) is an unimposing, wirey chap, more tendon than man. He doesn’t look his 59 years but whenever he speaks his face contorts as he considers carefully what the other person has said before replying with an insightful comment. He is a management consultant (“a boring job, not very important”) but he must be valued for his wisdom. I first met him in Windhoek before heading into the Namibian desert for another Beyond the Ultimate Race Series adventure and whenever we have spoken I have learned something about life.
As we crested the hill I looked at him and told him, “thank you for getting me up that hill, I couldn’t have done it without you.” He laughed but he couldn’t see that behind my sunglasses I was shedding tears of gratitude.
CP2 was staffed by the familiar faces of medics Anna and Pete and I stopped for a few more minutes than usual. I stripped off my pack and Pete soaked my T-shirt and buff. Within moments I was shivering and my body’s temperature began to adjust.
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again so I preloaded with two salt tablets, filled my electrolytes and powder and headed off into the valley with just eight kilometres to cover before the finish line.
Gene, a powerhouse of a man taking on his first ultra with all the energy of a bull elephant on a rampage, stuck with me as we ran through the middle of a huge herd of sixty zebra then motored off, while I conserved energy. This was to cost me silver in the coveted ambulance class – coincidentally there were three paramedics in the race, Gene, Rueben and me. Rueben had twenty years advantage on Gene and I but was probably carrying ten times more sun cream than us to protect his strawberry blond complexion. The extra weight didn’t seem to slow him down.
The final five kilometres lasted forever and I was overheating again – I was beginning to gag if I tried to drink. With horror I recalled what happened when I took part in Marathon des Sables. The infamous “marathon of the sands” is perhaps the most iconic ultra marathon in the world and consists of six stages in seven days across the Western Sahara. You’ve probably never realised I completed it in 2021 as I don’t like to talk about it. Us MdS veterans are a modest bunch. I’ve blogged about it on Facebook but to summarise it was without doubt the singularly most unpleasant thing I’ve ever done. It was so hot that my digestive system shut down and I couldn’t drink, swallow salt tablets or eat. This is what is known in the desert ultra community as A Bad Thing. I completed one stage having only consumed a cup-a-soup and half a dozen Jelly Tots. It was one of the darkest, scariest things I’ve ever experienced and I did not not want to go there again, not even so I could spin you a yarn in order to get more sponsorship money out of you.
I slowed right down to keep my temperature as low as possible. Humans are inefficient and every muscle contraction produces heat that has to be dissipated. By slowing down and moving as smoothly as possible I could minimise this unnecessary heat. The dreadful feeling in my throat remained so swilled my mouth the best I could, hoping some moisture and salt would be absorbed – anything is better than nothing when you are baking under the relentless Kenyan sun.
It wasn’t just me who was parched. This part of Kenya has had below average rainfall for the last four years. For Rangers veterans remarked that the savanna looked more like desert. In fact it looked drier and less green than the Namib Desert when I visited last year.
Every so often I passed a ranger, and tried not to think how hot they must be in their jungle-coloured fatigues which were so effective at concealing them from poachers and ne’erdowells. Each one greeted me, no doubt a dishevelled and pathetic sight, with a cheerful “how are you?” to which I replied “Nime chocka!” which is Swahili for “I’m tired” as I don’t know the Swahili for “My throat is so dry I think I’m going to die unless I reach camp soon.”
The rangers offered encouragement but none of them offered an ice cold mango juice or slice of watermelon sprinkled with rock salt, which was possibly the only thing that could save me. It was also, coincidentally, the least likely things to encounter in the middle of the Kenyan bush.
I pushed on.
The camp circle hoved into view. The Borana bivouac is the most exposed camp on the race as it is positioned in the middle of a plain. There are no fences to protect the site so the location of finish line can vary by some miles if wildlife decides to settle in our spot. I was grateful to check my watch and see that the stage was not much more than 25 miles, again not quite a marathon, and I crossed the line to a handshake from Vasily from Save the Rhino.
With his pale complexion and light hair I was always worried he might combust if he left the shade. Also at the finish line was Gene, who took my race pack and carried it the short distance to my tent, a lovely gesture which he repeated for so many other tired racers.
I set about my recovery regimen with less gusto than the day before. I wanted to lay down for a bit but I was jollied along by TT Lou who once again had finished as first lady. Lou is a force of nature. Neurodiversant, her tattoos tell as many stories as her mouth but not quite as fast. Her waist-long red hair was tied up, saving her from becoming tangled up in the brambled trees that lined the course, their finger-length thorns threatening to trap hapless runners. I had chosen shoes with thick soles to form a layer between the hot ground and protect me from the thorns but still a couple managed to pierce the rubber and stab my foot.
I necked my Hammer recovery drink and explored the luxuries of camp. There were ingenious showers consisting of a bucket hauled up above tent cubicles by an intricate pulley system that made me glad I worked as a backstagehand when I was a teenager. I stripped off and opened the tap and enjoyed twenty seconds of sun-warmed water before the bucket ran out. I made a plaintive cry and one of the campsite crew quickly rustled up a fresh bucket. I refused any help to lift it above me, my naked and extremely white body did not need to be exposed to anyone. Besides, how difficult can it be to lift a 20-litre bucket of water above your head and then with your third and fourth hands tie a round turn and two half hitches to suspend it above you? My efforts were rewarded by a freezing shower, my body’s rigorous shaking showing that at least my temperature was normalising and I’d soon be able to eat and drink normally.
The toilets though were amazing. OK, not amazing, they were holes in the ground with a pile of soil to “flush” over your deposit, but the view from them was unrivalled – the distant hills were painted pink by the setting sun.
While my dehydrated chilli was sitting, I satisfied my hunger with a soup starter. There was much silliness as I sat with Lizzie and the medics waving around the sachet for ‘cock’ flavoured soup. “Does anyone know what this tastes like?” No one fell for the trap.
As I ate, Lizzie popped her blister, and Dawn’s cherry-red effort won “best blister of the day”.
Just before sunset the Lewa and Borana rangers joined us in the camp to say goodbye. They formed an impressive line, and the runners unconsciously mirrored it. We formed two parallel ranks – one smart and uniform in green fatigues, one disparate and infirm in our sweaty, multicoloured race clothes.
Tomorrow the Lewa and Borana rangers would hand us over to another team. It was farewell to them for another year. We thanked them for looking after us and for everything they do.
Lou suggested we got a team photo with all the rangers, runners and crew as a mass congregation. The official photographers Will and Bjørn looked alarmed and dashed around trying to find camera lenses wide enough to fit us all in. (Correction: Bjorn didn’t really look alarmed. The stoney-faced Dane always has exactly the same expression, only conveying emotion with his handsome, twinkling eyes. And Will always looks perpetually alarmed, like a goldfish remembering he’s left the gas on.)
Some of the rangers looked as tired as us – they’d been in the open all day wearing their heavy, dark uniforms. It transpired some of the rangers had been on anti-poaching patrols last night and they would be out again tonight, a 36-hour shift from hell.
When we had said goodbye to the troop Reanto, the rangers’ head of security, gave a fireside chat that held us spellbound.
He described the average day for a ranger. The duty starts at sunrise as teams head out to locate rhino on the vast landscape. The conservancies of Lewa and Borana are home to dozens of rhino since the organisation dismantled the boundary to allow the population to roam.
Once located, the rhino are monitored and the rangers report back on their location, activity and condition.
Simultaneously other teams will be patrolling and securing the park boundaries and the gates are staffed 24/7.
At night the elite rangers, the anti-poaching teams, look after the rhino, until at sunrise the whole cycle starts again, every day of the year.
The results are obvious. There has been nine years of zero poaching in Borana. Rhino numbers are climbing. And if you protect the rhino you also protect the whole ecosystem – from the recognisable Big Game like elephants through to smaller fauna and flora.
There’s also a huge value-added benefit. The rangers have police powers, even outside of the conservancy, and can provide security for local people, winning hearts and minds. They are often first port of call when the community is in distress – be it from criminality, medical emergency or human/animal conflict.
Reanto talked about the difference that the For Rangers Ultra 230km makes for the rangers. The direct impact of funds is obvious, he said. For Rangers supplies decent uniforms, unglamorous items like socks and Camelbak bladders, welfare facilities, training and education bursaries. But the race itself brings the rangers face to face with their supporters. It’s a recognition of their superhuman efforts on the frontline of the war to protect our natural environment. Being a ranger can be difficult, monotonous and lonely so the race is an opportunity for the rangers to meet a whole new bunch of different people in a massive break from their normal routine during which they will gain some logistical experience which may be useful in future operations.
Michael, a local trustee of For Rangers chimes in with some statistics.
There is 80 percent unemployment in some parts of the community and what employment there is is often piecemeal, insecure, and low wage. Each year For Rangers contributes £200,000 into the community via payroll alone.
But it’s the community engagement concept that has been the key to success in Kenya whereas some other rhino conservation schemes have been unsuccessful.
The rhino population is still endangered but is growing by 9 percent per year. All but one of the conservancies that For Rangers operate within have over 100 rhino.
But with that comes challenges. As we’ve learned, if you protect rhino you also protect the rest of the ecosystem. And as elephant numbers grow so does the risk of human-wildlife conflict.
Humans and elephants are the only two species that dig for water – and that can mean we end up in competition. In the recent droughts, lush crops are an obvious target for hungry wildlife. Locals can’t easily deter determined elephant so in the past have resorted to shooting them. An injured elephant can then become rogue, associating humans and their settlements with the pain and causing a huge risk to safety.
This is where charities, like Save The Rhino and the conservancies, can step in by building wildlife barriers around villages and their crops – electric fences that can even give even the thickest-skinned elephant a deterrent shock. Rangers will also respond to reports of human-wildlife conflict and help move animals away without injuring them.
But now the sun had set and darkness had arrived like a theatre curtain falling, a phenomenon I’ve noticed before when near the equator. The constellations blinked into view as if someone had flicked a switch but they were almost unrecognisable from the stars upon which I gaze at home as we were right on the equator. Suddenly I felt far away.
Apart from a small contingent guarding our camp, the rangers were starting their normal anti-poaching night patrols and we were heading to bed. It was only 1930 but I planned to be up and about by 0500 in preparation for a race brief at 0615 and a start as soon as the sunrise at 0630. We were warned of a rough day ahead and the predictions weren’t wrong. But we didn’t know that yet. I fell asleep to the sounds of the medics chatting and laughing around the campfire under a huge dark sky, with the Milky Way crossing like a halo.
Wednesday 6th September – Day 3 – Lolldaiga
Day 3 started early at Borana. The route to Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy through Lolldaiga has a reputation for two things: being stunningly beautiful and absolutely, brutally hot. While many of the checkpoints would be located on hilltops and ridge lines to benefit from the breeze (and amazing views from the toilet tents as Lizzie can confirm) the route would inevitably descend into basins that are protected from wind, trap heat, and reflect the unrelenting sun back at hapless runners. There was also a sting in the tail: the course profile showed a precipitous climb between the final checkpoint and the finish line. Runners discussed The Big Hill with apprehension.
But that was yet to come.
The main wave set off at 0630 just as the sun rose, the earliest the race organisers could risk releasing 67 runners into the conservancy amid sleepy buffalo, elephant and rhino.
The mass start headed towards a hill (Kris described it as a good warm-up) while the helicopter buzzed alongside. It was an opportunity too good to miss so I grandstanded by sprinting past Nav and Sun with my arms outstretched and making aeroplane noises.
The sprint, at 2,000 metres above sea level, got my heart pumping ready for the climb and I powered up it gradually overtaking leading ladies Lou and Veronique and tailing Aussie Nick (his Mick Dundee-style knife nowhere to be seen).
The rucksack was beginning to feel a reasonable weight now, down from 10.7kg to, I guess, about 8 or 9kg. I felt the need for speed! I had in mind a target of seven hours if everything went well, and a backup target of eight hours with which I would still be happy.
There followed a very runnable 10k and I stretched my legs, running far faster than I’d normally go on an ultra, let alone a multi-day with a pack on my back. I knew it was unsustainable and not what a sensible runner would do. Normally consistency would be key. But I was in Kenya, the home of long distance running, and while it was cool first thing in the morning I wanted to get some miles under feet at the speed I aspire to, if only my training plan hadn’t gone off the rails.
What a training plan it was! Eight months, comprehensively drafted in stages from consolidating base fitness, building upon it, focussing on specialist aspects of this particular race (the distance, the heat, the heavy pack) and then assembling it all together. It was colour coded and everything.
I’d let my fitness slip over the winter so January’s part of the plan started slowly (“pole-pole” in Swahili). However Mrs H and I were hit with some unexpected bills and I needed to work as much overtime as I could for a while. The plan started to slip from week one. Soon I had lost a whole month. Then, because I’d overworked myself, a simple cold turned into a respiratory infection and then an intractable post-viral wheeze. I was rough. Another month of the plan vaporised. But I’d entered and paid for one of my local ultras, the Green Man, 45 miles following woodland footpaths around my home town of Bristol. I should simply DNS (did not start). That would be the sensible thing to do…
Of course, I ran the Green Man Ultra. It was tough in my post-illness state. Plus I hadn’t trained. My joints were complaining, but at least I didn’t throw up in Mrs H’s car like I did the first time I did this race – electrolyte solution and cola bottle confectionery projected into the door pocket because she couldn’t quite stop in time.
The sore joints were a worry though. My running technique, though I’m working on it, leaves a little to be desired and especially downhill I hammer my joints. This had been compounded by my lack of strength training (or indeed any training at all) in the previous months. One of my aims is not to feel wrecked the day after an ultra whereas I see a lot of fellow runners wincing and limping in cafes the next day. I have an active job and so my objective is to be fit enough to run ultras (or do them carefully/slowly enough) that I can go to work the next day.
I decided to take off a few weeks from training until my joints recovered. However I’d entered and paid for my local fell race, The Big Cheese which is 15 miles up and down the Mendip Hills-based around Cheddar where Mrs H and I currently reside. These are “my trails” which I run every day and I love to race them with other people. I should simply DNS. That would be the sensible thing to do…
Of course I ran the Big Cheese despite not having trained for it and not really having recovered from the Green Man. My ankle joints were really furious now. At least I’d paid attention to their protests and slowed down, completing the race in exactly the same time I first ran it in 2018 and confounding my upward trajectory in the results each time I’ve run it since.
But the resulting joint pain meant I needed another few weeks off training to recover.
(Wait for it, you know what is coming don’t you?)
I’d entered the first race in this year’s Pegasus series of one-day events. It was the CANUM, the Canal Ultra Marathon, 40-odd miles up the historic Brecon and Monmouth canal. It’s in a beautiful part of Wales, full of industrial archaeology, well organised and comprehensively supported by enthusiastic volunteers. I should simply DNS. That would be the sensible thing to do…
Of course, I ran the CANUM. But three events in six weeks, none of which I’d trained for, had injured and reinjured me. Predictably it took a big toll on my joints. My tarsal joints were inflamed, my ankles hurt, my Achilles tight. (My Achilles’ tendon has always been my Achilles’ Heel.)
I took stock of the situation and put a big red cross through another two months of my beautiful but now virtually abandoned training plan.
The sum of this self-inflicted sob story is that between January and the For Rangers Ultra I completed just three months of my eight-month training plan. I’d had to rebuild my running from scratch, going out for a walk, then a run, slowly building up the distance. I called it “Couch to 230k”.
Where was I?
Oh yes, it was Stage 3 of the For Rangers Ultra and I was taking advantage of the cool morning weather to pound the trail as fast as my skinny little legs would carry me, hoping that the wheels wouldn’t fall off.
I ran with Andreas for a while. We were both in good spirits. On one downhill section he blasted out a German folksong. I chimed in with “Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine blatter” which was the only German song I could think of.
The cacophony startled some grazing zebra who bolted across the trail, barking and braying more tunefully than us. This was not our auditorium, this was theirs. We sang no more.
A few miles later, Lou and I were running together when another huge herd of zebra, at least three dozen, bolted along parallel to our right. The main herd crossed the path in front of us, leaving some stragglers separated. We anthropomorphised them, their brays blaming Colin for always being late.
We slowed for a climb and a beautiful grey bat-eared fox crossed in the other direction, unbothered by us or the zebra.
As we approached CP1, we rounded a corner and there was a gaggle of runners and a ranger’s car. They had stopped because of a herd of elephants. A 4×4 was moving them uphill and across the route. The pachyderms, a family group, were moving compliantly – but seemingly in slow motion – except for one that kept turning towards the car and flaring its huge ears. The car was soon joined by a helicopter which did the trick. I asked the ranger why they chose to move the herd uphill and across our track? Surely better to move it back down towards the watering hole and away from the route?
Ah, he explained, this was only half of the herd. They’d had their fill at the watering hole already, but staying there made them vulnerable. The other half was on the other side of the route. We’d split them up. And they had been heading uphill to cooler temperatures, better food sources and away from predators at the watering hole. It made sense to encourage them to join up again.
I kept up a fairly stiff pace where the gradient allowed until close to CP2, a half marathon completed at race pace. But the wheels would soon come off. I could feel my throat becoming dry and my stomach began to complain it didn’t like drinking. I was getting hot and it was only morning, hours until the sun reached its zenith. I slowed down to conserve energy and stay cool.
A climb finally announced the appearance of CP2 so I creeped up it, pausing only to pick up a zebra cranium and mandible lying a short distance from the track, bleached white by the sun. I carried it to the CP expecting a bit more enthusiasm for the old bones than I actually received. (In contrast Mrs H often waits by the door for me to return from a run, jumping up and down and clapping her hands: “Have you found any cool skulls today?”)
At CP2 I swallowed a salt capsule, filled my left bottle with powder and right with water, an electrolyte tablet and added a squirt of my secret weapon, mango squash to the bottle. The mango tasted a bit weak but better that than too strong.
I set off along a ridgeline with cinematic vistas on either side, down into a valley and for a while jogged along with Nav and Sun.
My body was still playing up – the powder (which I’d used for the previous two days and first 20k of this stage) was unpalatable and the mango tasted way too strong. I tried diluting it when a passing race 4×4 appeared but it didn’t seem to work .
I got into CP3 in a rotten state. I’d taken about 250-300 ml, not enough water under the blazing sun and virtually no calories replenished. Medic Charlotte looked down her nose at me and medic Alex called me a bad patient! How rude.
There’s no way I could continue in this state. I recognised this from Marathon des Sables (the iconic ultra marathon across the Western Sahara that I completed in 2021 and have hardly spoken of since) and was determined to lower my body temperature, kick start my appetite and get back to racing.
I took some time to cool down properly. I declined Vasily’s offer of a spray down (“spraying is like bombing – it should be targeted not indiscriminate“) and instead removed my hat, buff and shirt and soaked them in water. The shock of putting the wet shirt back on was breathtaking, and I was soon shivering. It would take a few minutes for my body to adjust.
Meanwhile I filled my water bottle with plain water and swallowed two salt capsules to make up for the lack of electrolytes in my drink.
I vowed to finish the lot by the next CP and headed off.
I remained at a walk virtually the whole of this section, only running pleasant flats and walking the rest, including any steep downhills.
Passing an airstrip, there were zebra in the valley, along with what could have been elephant… or were they trees? No, definitely elephants – a mother and calf? It was difficult to get a sense of scale as they were a hundred or two metres away. And another! And another! More of the things that I thought were trees were elephants, feeding. Closer to the watering hole I saw what I thought were rhino but turned out to be rangers on horseback.
Drinking was going well. Urged on by Jess (“You may think you’re going to be sick but you won’t” – a piece of advice that I didn’t really believe) I managed to get two litres inside me by CP4.
As we approached CP4, the final checkpoint before the home stretch to our next camp, we passed by a freshly kill zebra. There were lions in the area, but at least they had full stomachs.
CP4 was crewed by Fraser, Anna and JJ, one of the BATUK drivers.
Here I shared the CP with Rob, Vicky and Kenny. I repeated the routine from the last CP, passed through the boundary gates of the reserve and attempted what we were all worried about. The Big Hill.
A couple of superb starlings with their glittery purple plumage chattered at me as I climbed. Rob was always in my sights but I was never able to catch him. Rangers hidden in bushes were given away by their radios bleeping or by the cheery encouragement as we went past.
“Good lad! Good lad! How are you? You are doing great!”
Some of the sections were so steep that you could do touch the rock if you stood up and outstretched your arm. It was difficult to see how a 4×4 could climb this, let alone me in my road shoes.
I plodded on, driving onwards and upwards using my poles to help me. I took a few opportunities to stop and take photos of the Lolldaiga basin that we had passed through. Any excuse to get some air in my lungs.
And then, suddenly, the path flattened out and we had reached the top of the pass. The route took us along the saddle for a hundred metres and then descended back down the other side into woodland.
It was a lovely technical descent but I didn’t run much for fear of blowing a knee or ankle, even with my sticks.
I caught up with Rob at the bottom of the downhill section with 4km left to camp. He wasn’t a happy chappy.
Rob is a handsome bloke of indeterminate age, built like an Action Man with salt and pepper hair and a thousand yard stare. Around camp he regarded me with a squint as if he couldn’t quite work out if he should laugh with me or lamp me one square in the jaw. He reminded me of the Regimental Sergeant Major when I lived and worked on a military base for a few years.
Rob was having a dark time and clearly not enjoying himself. What words of encouragement and advice could I offer this steely character? The normal cliches like “you’ve got this”, “one foot in front of the other”, “you are stronger than you know”, “together we can get through this” seemed flippant and unlikely hit the mark. I checked he had plenty of water and left him to make his own way in as I walked/jogged/walked the final section.
Vicky overtook as we were about 2km out but I was saving myself for the last 1km and did a finish line sprint for what seemed like miles, finishing a few minutes ahead of her and just within my eight hour target.
The camp was a welcome sight. The crew had set up the bivouac at Ol Jogi, surrounded and sheltered by cliffs with beautiful rock formations including a perfectly round hanging rock that looked like it should roll down into our camp.
I was slow to do my recovery routine but managed to squeeze in a bucket shower, cup of pumpkin soup, and a recovery drink.
There were rumours that the neighbouring village had wifi so I slipped off with Doctor Pete and had a quick FaceTime with Mrs H, our first contact since I’d left Nairobi four days previously. She was glowing, a combination of her natural beauty, her pride in me, and the heatwave that England was experiencing turning her into a sweaty mess. So that made two of us. We spoke for a few minutes until burning the village’s wifi made us feel guilty and we said our goodbyes.
The evening’s menu of smoky tomato paella was interrupted by two elephants entering the camp together with staff from Ol Jogi. The elephant were well known and friendly – kept safe by people at Ol Jogi for many years and now probably too tame to release into the wild. Indeed, although the pair are free to roam and mix with wild herds, they return to their home, their semi-domesticated brains knowing a free meal when they see one.
As we were gazing in awe at the graceful and authoritative 43-yo bull and the cheeky younger female, a bongo slipped through the camp. Bongo are a type of antelope, graceful movers and beautifully marked. They are timid woodland dwellers so the fact one of these rare animals trotted though our camp was quite a privilege. Bongo are endangered and there might be only hundreds of these animals left in the wild.
After the excitement of our evening visitors, the runners went about their evening routines as lightning in the distance danced across the darkening sky. It was another beautiful night with twinkling constellations standing out against the darkest of skies. There really is something special about the night sky in remote places, something that draws me back time and time again.
Day 3 had been remarkably tough, far more than I expected and it brought back traumatic memories of struggling to survive in the desert. But, to use a phrase that would have been too cliched to say to Rob, together we got through it.
Thursday 7th September – Day 4 – Ol Jogi
“Just a marathon today,” said Kris, the race director.
We’d spent the night at Pyramid, part of the Ol Jogi conservancy, next to a wildlife rescue centre and in sight of an exclusive safari resort which costs £300,000 to book. We, however, had exclusive use of a small enclosure next to their staff village, complete with rescued lion, cheetah and a non-native bear. As I stumbled over the finish line yesterday the support lorry from British Army Training Unit Kenya had just arrived from the previous night’s camp in Borana Conservancy. Apparently, they had to take almost as torturous a route as we had. Someone seriously needs to sit down with the For Rangers Ultra race director and tell him to straighten out all the squiggly bits. The previous day’s stage reminded me of what Vanessa had said about the Montane Spine Race: “Far too long and unnecessarily hilly.”
The night had been punctuated by roars and groans from the lion – there was no doubt we were in Kenya.
My sleep had also been punctuated by regular trips for a pee. You might expect that at my age, especially as I drink a lot of tea and have a fast metabolism, but this was all due to a fervent need to rehydrate after yesterday’s frankly miserable performance in the sweltering hotbox hurt locker that was Lolldaiga valley.
“Rehydrate or die-drate” said one of the medics to me. While that precise phrase is hardly likely to feature in the BMJ, it seemed like sensible advice. And I had taken it. I paid the price overnight, as had my tent mates who had to withstand my regular unzippings of sleeping bag, tent door and trousers.
I was peeing like an elephant, which I can confirm from having now watched an elephant pee, is considerable. (Their farting is also remarkable but that was not an infliction from which I was suffering.)
The sixty-odd runners still in the race gathered around the campfire soon after sunrise and were given a briefing for the coming stage. The support plane roared overhead announcing its arrival. “Overhead” is probably the wrong term because buzzing us at about six foot was technically “belowhead” for some of the taller runners.
And we were off. It wasn’t so much a start line sprint as mad scramble to get away before the aeroplane returned for a second strafing run.
The route had a hundred metres or so to warm up and then descended into a section I’d been anticipating, an amazing dry river valley with ciliated walls towering above like a cathedral and multiple frilly fingers reaching down into the twisting wadi like a drunken octopus trying to undo a bra.
We wound our way through the valley, which included some fun technical sections and then we were spat out onto the savannah. It had been fun to let loose and run far faster than I normally would on an ultra, feet bouncing off the twists and turns of the wadi. But now it was time to get serious. This was going to be a long day. After yesterday’s disaster I needed to do two things: Keep on top of my hydration and keep moving.
I followed the conservancy’s perimeter fence for a few miles before coming face-to-face with a bull rhino.
I’ll let you read those last seven words again.
By the time I’d processed that I’d just come face-to-face with a bull rhino, a ranger appeared from behind a bush and signalled everything was OK.
I was bewitched.
Minutes passed, my watch ticking away, marking the fact my race plan of “keep moving” had been abandoned due to a five-foot tall, three-tonne mass of leather and horn, which was currently snuffling and snorting like a Jack Russell Terrier with its nose down a rat hole.
I learned that this rhino, nicknamed Alfie, was semi-tame. He’d been looked after by the Ol Jogi Conservancy after losing his sight. Rhinos don’t see well anyway, relying on smell and hearing to keep themselves safe from predators.
The rhino’s sense of smell was pretty active today. It wasn’t the malodorous runners that were disturbing him. Another rhino had entered his territory last night so Alfie was busy reversing into bushes that had been scent marked by the invader, kicking them down, and generally being grumpy.
For a moment his ears focussed on me and he turned in my direction.
I backed away, the rangers moved a little closer, and then the rhino turned his attention to a pile of alien poo, trampling it down and adding his own crowning deposit.
How can you beat that for a wildlife experience? Well, the For Rangers Ultra had another trick up its sleeve.
A short distance away, another ranger was watching over a baby rhino, an orphan that had been rescued. The little male was about two-feet tall, with a stump for a horn, and an air of mischief like any human toddler.
I asked the ranger if I could take a photo, and snapped away. Then I just stood there, a few yards away from a precious endangered rhino, watching him snuffle and ferret in the underbrush. About the size of a big labrador, the little rhino was destined to become a three-tonne dreadnaught like Alfie. But for now he was the cutest thing I’d ever seen and I wanted to take him home in my pocket.
After a minute or so the helicopter approached and the little rhino looked bothered so I thanked the ranger (“asante sana!”) and headed off, sharing the next mile in quiet contemplation with Andreas, who had found the encounter as emotional as I had.
I was running reasonably fast, and eased ahead of Andreas, closing the gap on Matt, Nick, Lou and Katie. I caught up with them at CP1 but they were in and out in a flash while I attended to some personal admin – my hydration levels were still excellent. In fact my bladder was working so well that Andreas and Veronique went though the checkpoint as well before I was empty.
Andreas was soon a small blob on the horizon so I focussed on catching Veronique, who is a tough athlete and runs with clockwork consistently. I had first met Vero in the Amazon during the Beyond the Ultimate Jungle Ultra. “Amazon” is a word that describes her well, her strong Gallic looks combined with a warrior-like physique. She powers up inclines using poles but on the flat she carries them in her hand like spears. I wonder if she dips the tips in neurotoxins from poisonous jungle frogs?
The cloud cover had been our friend today and kept the heat tolerable, but as I was inching closer to Veronique it began to break and the sun gave us a scorching.
“Il fait solei aujourd hui! Tres chaud!” My GCSE French was not going to waste. Vero looked at me graciously as I mangled her mother tongue and we trudged on.
We ran alongside a road, the first sign of the outside world for some days, a goat herder tending to his flock on the border. I caught up with Nick, Lou and Katie and climbed up the first proper hill of the day towards CP2.
“Welcome to Kenya – you can see most of it from here!” Will greeted us as we approached simply the most amazing CP of the race. Sat on a ridgeline, on one side was the hillscape of Ol Jodi and on the other a vast vista of expansive savannah. It was as if we could see for a hundred miles or more.
CP2 an efficient affair, assisted by the affable pair Petr and Tomáš who had taken the day off running to volunteer. This led to CP2 being dubbed “The Czech Point”.
The route followed the crest of the hillline, and I passed the first of three kill sites, the bones of a giraffe bleached white by the sun.
An approaching ranger 4×4 caused a wild dog to dart up the track towards me. It clocked me so swung to the side, only to spot an approaching helicopter. It spun on its heals a third time and headed off into the scrub, no doubt cursing like Mutley. African wild dogs, or painted dogs, are not the same species as our familiar canines and have wonderful ears that look a bit like Fozzy Bear from the Muppets. Sadly they are endangered due to fragmentation of their habitat and human:wildlife conflict.
We descended down, past another kill site, this time a wildebeest, and ticked off 10k. Each time I stopped to examine the bones at a kill site and take photos to send to Mrs H (she has an interest in anatomy and loves receiving solicited bone pics) Lou and Katie got further away. But I put a spurt on to CP3 and caught them.
I hoped to run with the two leading ladies for a while but CP2 had two amazing distractions: a bush aeroplane and a dog! I spent a bit too long there, and was caught by The Other Chris who ran in with Reuben.
Chris and I ran together for a while. He’s a good athlete, seems like quite a nice bloke (and easy on the eye with it) and for a kilometre we chatted about our respective life partners before I got tired of the fast pace and begged him to go on ahead alone.
The next eight kilometres or so seemed never-ending but were beautiful, following a winding river with buzzards circling overhead.
Bjørn the photographer later told me he’d been snapping away as I ran past only for him to focus on some movement in the shade just a few metres off the track. A leopard, completely camouflaged from my view, had been hiding in a shadow. It darted out, down to the riverbed, returning with a dik dik in its mouth.
Lou and Katie were short jeffing and I gradually caught them up. They weren’t enjoying this section so I secretly patted myself on the back for getting my hydration and nutrition perfect today.
The three of us went past a gaggle of rangers who shouted encouragement and told us it was only two kilometres to go to the finish line. Two k! Wonderful! I put on a slight burst of speed, which I then had to sustain for the actual remaining distance, which was about three and a half kilometres. While I trusted the rangers with my life, from now on I was going to take any of their distance estimates with a pinch of salt.
I stormed into camp, hoping there would be a photographer at the finish line to record my victorious return. Next to the finish line was the medical tent which contained half a dozen runners in various states of recovery (and by “recovery” I mean “collapse”) for it had been what a British tabloid would call “A Proper Scorcher”.
We were camped next to a village school and some of the children had sneaked out of their lesson to watch the wazungu.
They were in for a treat – like Ainsley Harriott I started rustling up a three-course meal – instant mashed potato and gravy, and chakalaka soup (which I’d been carrying around since buying in Namibia last year) and washing my race clothes in a bucket.
Before I could start the third course (Firepot Mac and Greens if you are interested) a dust storm blew in. This caused a right old kerfuffle in our tent as we tried to secure the doors at each end. The newness had worn off this particular tent, and the curmudgeonly canvas wouldn’t play ball. There was much running back-and-forth fetching incrementally taller people until one end was secured.
We were warned not to use this door as a thoroughfare so Scott, an American who looks like he is part of a 2000s European techno band who are just about to drop an absolute banger, was placed on guard duty. Anyone rustling our flaps would be encouraged to go around and use the backdoor…
… unless they were hyena wanting to drag us out of the tent. They could just bugger off, we were too tired for that nonsense.
Today had been a race on a number of levels.
I’d been racing my body, aiming to complete a long stage as quickly as possible before I got too hot and dehydrated. But I also got to stop and commune with some of the rarest and most endangered mammals in Kenya. My minutes with the two rhino will forever be a highlight.
But there was also a race against the heat. It has been another brutally hot day, perhaps not topping the oppressive temperatures of the Lolldaiga valley yesterday but many of my fellow runners suffered with the high temps over a long stage.
And finally there was a race against the building rain clouds. We wanted to get everyone in camp and undercover before a torrential storm. While cool rain might give temporary relief from the heat, it would be no fun sleeping in wet clothes or soaked sleeping bag when the temperature dipped overnight.
And rain it did. Zipped in and trapped in our sealed-up tent, my tent mates and I were safe and warm while the rain blattered down against the canvas. I think all the runners were in camp before the heavens opened.
Our spirits weren’t dampened but the campfire was. Just one more day to go…
Friday 8th September – Day 5 – Ol Pejeta
Multi-day ultramarathon events go a bit like this:
You design an eight-month training plan. The training may not actually follow this plan, as I’ve described previously, but at least you have a plan.
Slowly and laboriously, you tick off the days on your training plan, one-by-one. It seems like the race is ages away.
And then, all of a sudden, you are standing on the start line with 67 other people. Where did all the time go? And how on Earth am I going to run for five whole days carrying a rucksack weighing over ten kilograms? 230km seems like infinity!
And then, in a flash, you are standing on the start line of the final stage. Four days and the best part of 200km have passed by in an instant.
Yesterday evening there was a hot topic in camp at Ol Jogi, while we were trapped inside our tent by the torrential rain lashing down, or afterwards around the damp camp fire.
“Would you do this again?”
People groaned, their bodies battered and bruised, feet blistered, emotionally exhausted. “Never again!”
Others were keeping the idea at arms length, perhaps already planning to return in 2024 or 25. Like Sunny, the matriarchal alpha in our group, whose gently-probing Canadian accent, persuasive manner and twinkling eyes meant that although we didn’t see many lions hunting on the savannah, we had definitely met a cougar.
I, on the other hand, had a different answer to the question.
“Would I do this again? Definitely! Next week! Give me two rest days to buy some more food and repack my bag and I’m ready to go again!”
Was this tongue-in-cheek bravado? No, I don’t think so. I was certainly motivated. The For Rangers charity, to which we had all made a considerable donation in our entry fee and many of us had raised extra funds via sponsorship, was doing a great job in Kenya. We’d seen that first hand when we met the rangers who had been keeping us safe on the route and overnight at the camps. As yet, no one had been dragged away by hyenas, mauled by lions or charged by rhino – despite coming face-to-face with bull rhino Alfie on a previous stage. And despite the danger caused by wild animals and the hardship caused by running a marathon a day in blistering heat, Kenya is absolutely beautiful. The spiritual home of long distance running certainly provides a tremendous auditorium for a foot race.
So the motivation was there but what about the fitness? Could I conceivably run another five days? My feet were great, not a sign of blisters apart from a tiny rub on my big toe on day 2 when I forgot to tighten up my shoelaces properly. My joints, particularly my ankles which had bothered me so much during training had given the odd twinge so I had simply listened to my body and eased up. So often in ultra events runners push through musculoskeletal pain to reach their goals. My goal was to reach the finish line with my mind and body intact. If I could do that in my target time of 30 cumulative hours I would be delighted. But if I had to run slowly: jog, walk or crawl to get there avoiding injury, i would simply throw that 30-hour target out the window. It was arbitrary and meaningless. The journey, and the motivation for making it, were far more important than the time.
Today’s route, explained the race director around the campfire, would have a different feel to the others. We’d leave the Ol Jogi conservancy, run through some private ranches, and then follow a road straight towards Ol Pejeta, the next conservancy.
A road? Us? Trail runners? On a road?
Still, that gave me encouragement that my 30 hour target was still in sight, after dropping off the pace at the end of Stage 2 (when I overheated and Gene left me to fend for myself amid a huge herd of sixty zebra) and the suffer fest that was Stage 3.
But yesterday had gone perfectly and I didn’t need to leave anything in the tank today, I could just run. And if there was a long road section – well how hard could that be?
We set off soon after sunrise and I sprinted towards the front of the pack. We left the Ol Jogi park gates and I ran with Andreas for a while, until we entered a private ranch. The route meandered gentle along its boundary, a spikey elephant fence protecting the trees and bushes from hungry pachyderms.
One of the key tasks of the rangers is to respond to or prevent human/wildlife conflict. By protecting the endangered rhino, they also protect the whole ecosystem. This has meant elephant numbers have risen too. However this does mean that some areas are under pressure as elephants begin to compete with local agriculture. Some difficult questions will need to be answered in the future. In the meantime, a balance is kept.
Andreas pulled ahead, or perhaps I dropped back. Either way, he disappeared from view around a bend. A few minutes later he came sprinting back towards me. Had we taken a wrong turn?
“Baboons!”, he shouted, “Big baboons!”
A troop of baboons had jumped out of the bushes and crossed the trail immediately in front of Andreas. To be fair, the huge monkeys were probably just as surprised to meet a runner as Andreas was to meet them. With their long faces and strong canine teeth, baboons make an intimidating sight but are generally harmless, unless, for example, they are startled when crossing a path.
With me in moral support, there were now two sinuous Europeans to take on the troop of baboons. We crept around the corner, trying to make ourselves look as big as possible.
The baboons had left the path and were now sitting amongst the bushes and trees about ten metres away, some going about their business, others keeping a curious eye on us as we crept past.
We ran together at Andreas’ pace (“I am 59 years old, I cannot do this forever, ja?) until we left the ranch land and joined a road, punctuated by telegraph poles reaching far into the distance.
Ten kilometres into the distance.
Nothing in the landscape seemed to break the monotony, so it was a matter of putting our heads down and getting into a rhythm.
The road had been recently resurfaced. By resurfaced, I mean that tonnes of scalping had been dumped along the road, roughly levelled, and left for the passage of vehicles to smooth out. It was like running on volcanic lava, sharp and uneven and blisteringly hot.
The soles of my shoes had already taken a pounding (on the night of Stage 3 I’d used my penknife to cut large sections of the sole off because they were flapping around) and this surface wasn’t going to be kind to them either. But they just needed to last another twenty or thirty kilometres and then their job was done.
For miles the road went on in a dead straight line until a small shack came into view, it’s corrugated steel walls and roof glittering in the morning sun. It was about six feet square and had no signs to indicate its purpose but something told me it was a shop. I was unlikely to find an ice cold Fanta here in the middle of nowhere, but trips to many exotic but austere places has taught me that roadside shacks often hold treasure.
I popped my head inside and said hello to the lady shopkeeper. I quickly scanned the three shelves looking for a pack of crisps. I don’t think she has much call for them. I said thank you and goodbye and was off, leaving the lady looking bewildered and slightly shocked. The last time I’d seen an expression like that was when baboons paid a visit to Andreas.
Back to The Road. There seems to be a road section in every race by Kris. In the Desert Ultra a road segment warms up the participants and keeps them easily accessible to the support crews on the first day. In the Jungle Ultra a road segment gets the runners further into the Amazon basin. And in For Rangers Ultra this 10km of arrow-straight road messed with our minds and our ankles after 200km of delightful twisting mud, dust and sand trail.
Nevertheless it was a chance once again to see another part of Kenya and her people. Alongside the road were pastoral goat herders, some dressed in rags, some in immaculate red plaid denoting the Maasai people.
And as we progressed closer to Ol Pejeta, the occasional shacks and tents became more dense as we entered a village consisting entirely of wooden-framed correlated sheet shacks which looked they would hardly protect three little pigs from a huffing wolf let alone the vagaries of the Kenyan weather.
These people survive on barely anything, in stark contrast to the passing runners in our brightly coloured clothes and expensive shoes. And yet they lined the street, interrupting their daily business to cheer us on.
I’d just about caught up with Aussie Nick (the one with the Mick Dundee knife) as he’d been putting in another day of consistent graft.
As we entered Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the final leg of the entire race, we both flew through the checkpoint and I vowed to keep up with him on the final leg.
We were running at slightly different speeds so I’d pass him only for him to regain the lead ten minutes later and so on, like two articulated lorries on a British motorway, blocking the road with prolonged creeping overtakes.
He later told me that on one occasion when I passed him he offered some encouragement, announcing we’d just hit the 42.2km marathon mark. Apparently, I completely ignored my tent mate. I must have been “in the zone” or more likely knackered.
Despite saying that I’d happily run the whole event again next week, Stage 5 had done me in. My ankle hurt, my hips hurt, my back hurt, my lungs hurt and my brain hurt. I was done.
We ran passed a hole in the ground, a little bigger than a badger sett, and spotted the cranium and horns of an impala nestled in the hole. Odd. It later dawned on us that it was a hyena den, and the remains of a meal had been left at the entrance. Better an impala than a hapless runner.
A little further on we encountered Helen, a Brit-Spaniard-Springbok hybrid who had been a tail walker during the race. She seems to constantly chatter as she plodded along, with a positive demeanour and sing-song voice. She’d started this stage at the previous checkpoint, missing out the fatiguing road, which would have been an option many of us would have jumped at now.
“It’s taken me five hours to catch you,” I joked.
“Nah, I’ve only just started. I haven’t seen many animals though.”
I looked to our left where a herd of buffalo were milling about. I looked to our right where zebra were grazing and braying in the midday sun. I looked above us where buzzard and spoonbills were circling.
“Yeah, light on the wildlife today. Sad times.”
I said goodbye and left Helen to plod, extending my transient lead on Nick before he would inevitably overtake me again in a few minutes.
Around the next corner was Sam from For Rangers, staring into the bush alongside the track. Peering into the undergrowth I could make out the unmistakable shape of an elephant. And another! And another!
A family group were chilling not far from the track, not showing any intention of conflicting with our route and so Sam had let them be. His radio squawked into life and he shot off in his 4×4: “I’ve got some wildebeest that won’t move off the route, got to go!”
It was begging to get hot now, and although we were passing rangers as regularly as milestones as we weaved around the huge Ol Pejeta conservancy, the distance on my GPS watch didn’t seem to be counting down any closer to the finish.
I wanted to conserve myself for a finish line sprint so the next time Nick passed I let him pull away and dropped to a walk. I was done. I’d walk the last, what was it? Two km? Three? I couldn’t do the mental arithmetic.
“Nearly there, good lad, well done!” The shout came from a ranger, completely camouflaged under a tree so I didn’t see them. “Just two hundred metres!”
Yeah right. I remembered the wildly inaccurate predictions from the Rangers in previous stages.
I looked at my watch and tried to remember the distances between checkpoints and the finish that Kris told us at the briefing each morning. I’d fastidiously written them down on a scrap of paper each morning but it didn’t occur to me to check them. I was too hot and tired to get it out of my pocket.
It must be, what, another kilometre, kilometre and a half at least?
I turned a corner and there it was, the finish line, red flags fluttering and music playing.
I quickly gathered myself into a run, strode along the final track and turned into the finish line, whipping off my hat and doing an elaborate bow to the race director.
We hugged and I whispered in his ear, “What a great race. It’s been one of the best weeks of my life. It just can’t get any better.”
Kris looked at me.
“Beer or Fanta?”
For Rangers Ultra – The Aftermath
The Kenyan rain has damped down the savanna and the dust has settled on For Rangers Ultra. I’ve been reflecting on the race since completing it a week or so ago. After a few days recuperating and a return journey that was an endurance feat in itself, I dove straight into a set of nightshifts and have only just got around to unpacking my bags and unpacking my thoughts.
It’s sometimes best to start with some stats to quantify the experience. It’s sometimes easier to deal with numbers than emotions.
• Distance run: 135 miles, with the shortest day being 24-and-a-half and the longest being just under 30 miles. This meant the route ended up being slightly less than envisaged but still within the spirit of a 230km event. There are lots of reasons why distances vary on ultramarathons, and For Rangers Ultra has the unique excuse of diverting around dangerous wild animals!
• Elevation climbed: 11,519ft. There were some big hills that the route climbed, some would say unnecessarily. The checkpoints were often sadistically positioned at the top of hills that we had to climb on to descend again afterwards. The official reason was they were safe vantage points with good radio signal and view over the surrounding areas. Did we really believe that? Well, not when we were climbing the blighters.
• Weight of pack carried: 10.7kg on the first stage, down to about 6.5kg by the last stage.
• Duration: 31 hours 12 minutes over five days, with my shortest day being 4 hours 58 minutes and my longest being 6 hours 53 minutes. The longest and shortest days in terms of duration don’t correlate with the longest and shortest states in distance. I took it steady on the early stages, found my wings on Day 4 and flew along for the rest of the race. My target for the race was 30 hours if everything went perfectly. I’m pretty chuffed with the result.
• Overall position: 16th place in a field of 67 starters. So pleased with that, I felt that I was able to enjoy the race without pushing myself too far and therefore came out of it with no injuries or regrets.
• Dehydrated meals consumed: Eleven, plus six instant soups. Noodles are the breakfast of kings and my favourite evening meals were by Firepot who reduce weight and waste by supplying their expedition meals in compostable packaging.
• Electrolyte powder and salt tablets consumed: 18 sachets of Hammer Perpeteum powder and 18 Fizz tablets in my water bottles during the race plus four Vegan Recoverite recovery drinks after the stage (forgot to have one after the final stage and had a Fanta and a Tusker beer instead). In addition, I swallowed about 26 Endurolyte Extreme capsules throughout the race.
• Emergency cola bottle sweets consumed: None.
• Names remembered: I am awful at remembering people’s names so I set myself the challenge of learning all my fellow runners’ names. I think I got about 50 of the 67 runners fixed in my mind along with some of the support crew.
• Funds raised for the For Rangers charity: Over £1,110 donations from my wonderful friends and family to add to the entry fees and funds raised by other runners – the final figures aren’t in yet but the organisers estimate about £200,000 raised in total this year. If you’d like to contribute to this incredibly worthwhile cause, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ChrisHewett
• Airmiles: 14,000 miles of airline flights offset against the carbon produced – it’s not perfect but better than nothing.
• Running shoes ruined: One pair of my favourite Altra Paradigm road-running shoes. I wanted to wear these because of their thick soles to protect me from the heat of the ground and huge penetrating thorns but it is no surprise that road-biased shoes took a beating that trail shoes could have survived. Never fear, a wash and some superglue and they will be pressed back into service.
• Wild animals encountered within reaching distance: 1 baby rhino, 1 bull rhino, 1 juvenile elephant, 1 bull elephant, 1 tarantula, four mosquitoes.
• Number of blisters: Zero. And quite proud of that. And by proud I mean smug.
So that’s the numbers, but what was it like?
In one sentence, quite simply one of the best weeks of my life.
It’s difficult to imagine how to top this experience. We ran, walked and crawled through cinematically-beautiful landscapes in Kenya amongst wildlife I had only read about in books and seen on the telly. I stared up at enormous skies scattered with bright stars, unencumbered by city lights or pollution. I met the most amazing people – fellow runners with stories to tell, and the rangers themselves who are at the frontline in the war to protect our planet’s most endangered animals. They are so grateful for the support they receive from For Rangers, not only the practical support that our donations are used for, but knowing that there are people all over the world thinking of them and what they go through every day.
For me it was bringing a childhood dream to life. When I was six-years old I read a book about Kenya, its landscape, its wildlife and its people. You can probably imagine what that picture book looked like, tall Maasai people with their plaid clothing, spears and shields, the rift valley and savannah, Mount Kenya rising like Olympus over the – no, wait, hang on, that’s a song lyric by Toto.
Anyway, the six-year-old Chris dreamed of visiting Kenya. It took me nearly 40 years to make that dream come true.
It was quite a journey to get to this point though. My midlife crisis, though pretty destructive and nearly cost me my sanity and my marriage, gave me two very valuable things. I started running and getting involved in some amazing medical expeditions around the world, from Sierra Leone to Nepal. I’ve since been a medic on dozens of ultramarathons in some of the most challenging environments the world has to offer. A natural question is, what’s the toughest ultra in the world? Marathon des Sables? Done it, don’t like to talk about it. Beyond the Ultimate’s Jungle Ultra? Been a medic on it, seen it first hand, tough as nails. Badwater 135? Crewed it, don’t fancy it myself. But forget the debate about what’s the toughest ultra, the question I have been asking myself is, what’s the best ultra in the world?
And the answer is, hands down without doubt, For Rangers Ultra.
Don’t get me wrong, For Rangers is no cake walk. It is tough. We had to carry all our equipment and food in a rucksack for a start, including a special gift from the race team – a GPS tracker that weighs about three metric f**k-tonnes. On Stage 1 the altitude hit me. The race is at a height of 2,000 to 2,200 metres above sea level. Not high enough to make you ill but bloody well high enough to make you breathless and make everything else just that little bit harder. It’s hot as well, temperatures in the thirties centigrade and perhaps more, particularly punishing on Stage 3 when the route took us through sheltered basins that had so little air movement that the vast landscape seemed somehow claustrophobic – oh for a breeze to relieve the discomfort!
We had to have our wits about us too. No disappearing into our paincaves, putting earphones on and listening to whatever music can get you through the dark times. Oh no, that’s forbidden because it could cause you to miss the warning shout of a ranger, or the rustling in the bushes of a wild animal about to charge!
But everything is manageable with a bit of preparation, determination, common sense and a bit of humour. While I like to spend a bit of time by myself running solo, ultra running is a team event. No, that’s the wrong word. It’s a community event. People often remark that within the first few miles of an ultra they will have met a complete stranger and told them their lifestory, including things they wouldn’t share with their closest confidante.
Remarkable bonds are formed on the trail and lifelong friendships are forged. On the start line you see a disparate group of people, nervous glances and fidgets, but there is one unspoken principle: Nothing is going to happen today that together we can’t handle.
For Rangers was the peak example of this. Universal care and positive regard was shown to everyone. Few needs went unmet. I shared some food, scissors, my battery pack, a potion from my medicine bag. I received practical assistance, encouragement, a peanut butter sandwich in return. Nick even let me use his massive Mick Dundee knife.
Sure there was probably a bit of grumbling, or fatigue-driven tetchiness, and a bit of competitive rivalry. Lizzie and I even invented an absurd grudgematch with another runner and each evening we would convene to compare our relative performances in hushed whispers like two witches concocting a secret curse. But we were laughing at ourselves not the other runner. The overriding memory is of companionship, camaraderie and fellowship.
We were all on a journey together. For some people, this was “yet another ultra” in a long list of athletic endeavours. For others this was their first ultra, let alone their first self-sufficient multi-stage event. A few would DNF but continue the adventure the next day, squeezing out every mile they could get. One fellow runner needed to DNF for medical attention only to stubbornly return a few days later to help crew a checkpoint and assist the rest of us on our journey.
Each of us went on our adventure for different reasons but I guarantee not a single person who took part has returned home feeling like they are the same person who left.
Kwaheri Kenya na asante sana.
Farewell Kenya and thank you.
This blog was first published on Chris’ Facebook Page and was reproduced here with his permission. Any points of view expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily align with the views of Beyond the Ultimate, For Rangers and Save the Rhino.