“Fancy a once in a lifetime challenge?” This is how expedition organiser and director of Sandbaggers Ltd David Scott put it in an email to Scottish ulrarunning stars Donnie Campbell and Andrew Murray adding, “Run across the Namib Desert − some parts have not even been explored properly. Here are some photos. Sore feet and adventure await.”
Scott was right. Four months later, in February this year − after an epic nine-day adventure from Ludritz to Walvis Bay − Campbell and Murray became the first to run more than 500km across the world’s harshest desert, home to the world’s highest sand dunes. The area is not only uninhabited, but nobody had driven the first half of the route … ever.
Preparation and perseverance were two of the factors crucial to their success. For example, Campbell told Outdoor Fitness how much it took to prepare for the expedition: “I logged more than 30 hours training a week in the November, December and January of a bleak Scottish winter, often completing speed sessions with my body shaking and nauseous because I’d pushed myself almost to breaking point.”
Murray, who had clocked up 130 training miles/ week, was soon drawing on his reserves of perseverance after a literally “blistering” start to the expedition: “Getting a nasty blister on day one meant that from day two it felt like I was constantly running with a stone in my shoe, and I couldn’t run for three weeks when I got home.”
Planning was a third ingredient in the mix. David Scott − Chairman of the National Adventure Awards and Honorary Consul of Mongolia in Scotland − said: “Remoteness plus lack of rain and running water made the Namib 550 expedition a testing logistical endeavour. We were supported by Scottish business leader Bert Jukes of LittleBigShot and Lyprinol, to whom we’re indebted.”
Day one not only saw the arrival of Murray’s award-winning blister; the support vehicles got stuck in sand. Campbell recalls: “Andrew and I carried on towards the mountains, thinking they would catch us up. After over an hour of running without water or food there was no sign of the support vehicles and the temperature was rising.
This spelled trouble! We climbed onto high ground to try and spot the crew, and after twenty minutes the lead vehicle appeared. It could have turned out much worse, and it was a lesson learned. We then ran on into diamond mine territory where no one had been before.”
“Day two,” said Murray “was a long shift wading through heavy sand for 62km, ending high in a dune system with a view of the sea and abandoned mining quarters. I should have been elated, but I wasn’t. My ‘tank’ felt emptier than it should have done; my hip flexor was tight, and my big toe was one big blister. Another eight days seemed impossible.”
Yet Murray was philosophical: “A challenge must have an element of danger and a chance of failure. In 2013 I tried – and failed – to run from the Andes to the Amazon in a day, but the next year Donnie and I ran the UK’s ten highest peaks in a day. Some you win, and some you learn. All I could do was do the right things consistently, and expect things to improve.”
Murray’s expectations were tested on day three, when they entered the cauldron of the Devil’s Work Shop, with 400-metre sand dunes and temperatures soaring into the high 30s Centigrade. Campbell says: “It was brutal, climbing these massive dunes.
“If you got lost you could die, so we had to stay focused and keep our
support vehicles in sight at all times.”
Anyone contemplating such a challenge should have reliable support, as Murray told Outdoor Fitness: “The first three days proved we could be confident in our support crew. Their route-finding was superb and we were well stocked with food, sun cream and anything we could ever want.”
Scott adds: “To keep Donnie and Andrew safe, fed, watered and moving in the right direction I had a nine-man team – including local knowledge provided by Live The Journey guides − five vehicles, over a ton of water, a similar amount of fuel and cases of medical and safety equipment.
We also had a helicopter standing by in case of emergency but fortunately had no cause to call it in.”
As far as their daily running commitment was concerned, Murray said: “We probably needed to conserve more energy by covering good distance, but running slower; and we didn’t need to think too far ahead. Breaking the challenge down 10km by 10km, and day by day kept down anxiety about the scale of the challenge; and I recommend that anyone contemplating an ultra should break it down into bite-sized chunks.”
Day four found the adventurers surrounded by dunes, as Campbell explains: “Valleys were the theme of the day as we made our way back to the coast, with towering sand dunes either side. Occasionally crossing the dunes into another valley, we eventually reached the coast to find the most spectacular campsite and a colony of fur seals.”
By now, Murray’s thoughts on sand were sharpening: “Every thing in the Namib Desert is heavy sand. In the Gobi Challenge, the Sahara Race, and Marathon des Sables, at least half of the course is usually runnable hard sand, or rocky terrain; this wasn’t. However, after a few days our bodies were settling into it, and we knew that the second half of the challenge would feature some beach that was easier than dunes. I felt after day four we had a fifty/fifty chance of getting it done.”
The next few days found them running along the desert coast – with its own challenges, as Campbell remembers: “Beach running didn’t help our battered bodies. Running on a camber puts a lot of stress on certain parts of your body. On day five Andrew and I ran the first 35km ourselves as the support vehicles couldn’t get around the towering sand dunes rising straight out from the sea. I think this was the most difficult day for Andrew; his back was troubling him.”
Murray says: “Donnie had sand in his eyes, and my back seized up leading to an uncomfortable time at the end of day five, I was unable to move for half an hour. But we were getting there, and thanks to the expert route-finding of our Namibia hosts we thought we could emerge from the desert a day early, on day nine rather than ten.”
The finish at Walvis Bay was coming closer, and Campbell was restless: “After running along a beach for four days I was sick of sand and couldn’t wait to be out of the desert.”
Andrew too was anticipating journey’s end: “We ran over salt flats, dunes and the coast on day eight.” Flamingos, perhaps sensing the occasion, began to greet them, although, Murray recalls, “… on another occasion we were hemmed in by 300kgs of Oryx, a huge antelope with massive straight horns. They can kill lions. On day nine, we tanked the last leg into civilisation.
Apart from our tight-knit group, we had seen no humans in the desert, so being welcomed to Walvis Bay by Chief Kooitjee and members of the local Topnaar tribe was special.”
Meeting the Topnaar tribe representatives was just as important to Campbell and Murray as their epic run.
Murray says: “We now had the chance to share vital medical supplies donated by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow; shoes and athletic equipment donated by Merrell UK and cycling enthusiasts; and other gifts from Bert Jukes and his team. Chief Kooitjee; the local medical team; the Mayor of Walvis Bay; and the divisional Health Minister shared pearls of wisdom, and told us of the challenges they face.
This is the start of a relationship which, with the support of many in Namibia and back home, can achieve lasting change.”
So what was the hardest bit? Campbell is clear: “I’ve been asked this many times. The honest answer is the training I did in Scotland before we left. I always push myself to the limits in training and I remember John Ngugi – five times World Cross-Country Champion and 1988 Olympic 5000m Champion – telling me that the key to his success was to ‘Train Hard – Fight Easy’.”
Feel free to check out our Ask The Expert Section.