Jeff Pelletier's Namib Race 2021 Race Report
Trail runner and adventure filmmaker, Jeff Pelletier, based in Vancouver, Canada joined us in Namibia for their first RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts Ultramarathon. Jeff finished 4th overall, missing out on a podium finish by just 5 minutes, in a cumulative course time of 24 hours, 12 minutes, and 22 seconds! Read about his incredible experience on the course of the Namib Race 2021.
Arrival at Camp
We arrived at camp two days before the Namib Race was set to begin, giving us a full day for the group to self-isolate as we awaited the results of our latest PCR tests. I began to get acquainted with the other 30 runners, in between the pre-race briefing and mandatory gear checks. We’d learn that the course would have to be modified due to the high winds which can lead to dangerous sand storms. It meant we’d be missing out on the large sand dunes near the coast, starting further inland instead. This is just the nature of events like this, whether in the mountains or the desert.
I woke up at 6am the morning of the first stage, giving me time to repack my 18 pounds of gear and supplies, and to have breakfast before the day’s course briefing and race start at 8am. This is a ritual I’d repeat for the next 5 stages of the race.
The first stage was mostly flat and fast. I ran fairly conservatively in order to get a feel for the terrain, for the heat, and for my pack, finishing in 4th place. This would unfortunately set me back close to 45 minutes right from the start, but there was lots of racing left over the coming days.
After finishing the first stage of the Namib Race, we’d found ourselves at a new camp on the site of an old ostrich farm.
We started the second stage by scrambling our way up single track along a series of ridges and back down to the riverbed on the other side. From there we continued through soft sand, past Welwitschias which are the oldest plant in the desert (some up to 1,000 years old), through a series of valleys and canyons, before finally reaching our third camp. That evening, we celebrated with a huge bonfire as the local staff demonstrated a traditional song and dance.
On Stage 3 of the Namib Race, we were now much further from the coast where temperatures would reportedly reach as high as 45 degrees Celsius by midday. Fortunately, I managed to get done before things got quite that hot.
Slower runners in races like this are not only on their feet for longer, but also get exposed to the heat for much longer, and end up getting less time to recover. The best motivation to run fast really can be a desire to simply beat the heat.
Radmir from Russia had finished 1st the day before but appeared to now be paying the price. The heat had got to him and I found him walking in the final stretch before camp, allowing me to put 15 minutes on him to finish in 3rd place for the stage. Could the podium be within reach?
Stage 4 of the Namib Race would be mostly on runnable, harder packed terrain. I settled in behind the lead pack until we passed the first checkpoint. I was feeling good, so I made a few passes to get some footage and figured I’d hang on to the lead for a while and push the pace.
The three leaders eventually caught me again, but @radmir_bikmet from Russia was having a hard time hanging on. He gestured that he was having stomach problems and I later learned he hadn’t really been able to keep food down since the day before.
I managed to shake him, finishing again in 3rd place and shortening Radmir’s lead a little further. But I would still have another 29 minutes to make up the following day on the long stage in order to finish on the podium.
Stage 5 – The Long March
Stage 5 of the Namib Race was be the longest stage, also known as “the Long March”. This was the stage I’d been patiently waiting for and which I knew would be my strongest.
I made my move early, leading the front of the pack through the first several checkpoints. We climbed the largest mountain we’d seen on the course and the technical descent on the other side made me feel right at home, with loose sand and scree, and large boulders requiring short scrambles.
We were racing hard - but Rob, Ben and I were really running as a pack for the majority of the race, pushing each other at a steady but sustainable pace. Rob managed to get a head start leaving the 40 km checkpoint and dropped the hammer. Ben and I would battle it out as we both tried to catch up. I managed to get ahead of him leaving the final checkpoint and to slowly but surely widen the gap. I finished in 2nd place, just a few minutes behind Rob and a few ahead of Ben.
But what about Radmir from Russia? Had I managed to gain back the 29 minutes I needed to move into 3rd overall for the week?
We hadn’t seen Radmir since very early on and could only assume he was quite a bit behind. I patiently watched the clock as the minutes passed. Radmir soon crossed the finish line, only 24 minutes behind, leaving me 5 minutes short. He had run for 7 hours entirely alone and hadn’t eaten a full meal in almost two days. As far as I was concerned, he had earned that podium!
Rest Day & Final Stage
We had a day off to recover after the long stage on day 5, before starting our sixth and final stage of the Namib Race. This would allow some of the slower runners who’d finished the long stage early the next morning a chance to recover before the final stage.
We started in waves, with the slower runners going first and the lead pack last. The final stage had been shortened from 15km to just under 6km, leaving me no chance of closing the 5-minute lead that Radmir had on me for the podium, and most of the other placements were pretty firmly set. This would be a victory lap, a celebratory run, and a chance for me to get some footage of some of the other runners on course.
We also finally had a chance to run through some of the iconic Namibian sand dunes. We emerged on the beach and ran along the ocean to the finish line where pizza and beer awaited.
My week of racing in the Namib Desert came to an end on Saturday. What an adventure it was!
With a group of 30 other runners, I raced through sand dunes, canyons, and moon-like landscapes, while battling extreme heat and high winds. At night, we sat around the fire and shared stories, learned about other countries and cultures, and forged new friendships.
While the field of runners was relatively small this year, there was certainly some stiff competition. I ran conservatively over the first two stages, finishing in 4th place in both. I pushed a little harder in the next two stages as I began to find my stride and acclimate to the 40+ degree heat, finishing those in 3rd. The long stage on the 5th day would prove to be my strength as I expected it would where I finished in 2nd place. Ultimately, I missed the podium by a mere 5 minutes after some 24 hours of cumulative running, but I’m perfectly happy to have finished in 4th place overall.