Elise Zender at Namib Race 2022
Stage 1 of the Desert Grand Slam 2022: The Namib Race
The Desert Grand Slam (DGS) is a self-supported 1.000km ultramarathon series in four stages across the Namib desert, the Great Caucasus, Atacama desert and Antarctica in 7 months (4 x 250km). It was first attempted by famed endurance athletes Dean Karnazes (US) and Paul Liebenberg (SA) and has been ranked behind the Tour de France as #2 Top World Endurance Event by Times Magazine. Since inception in 2008, 79 people have managed to finish the full race.
Taken on Day 2 while crossing the Namib Dunes between CP 2 and 3. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
With We Can Run, we are looking to raise funds to support 5 full university scholarships for young women in Sierra Leone. All costs of living included, one degree costs ~EUR 4.000. Every donation goes directly towards the university funds of a Sierra Leonean girl! You can read more about the project and donate here.
We arrived at the base camp late afternoon on 29-Apr-22 after 24 hours of travelling including flights and a bus ride from Windhoek to Swakopmund. We were stationed on the verge of salt fields and the Namibian dunes, surrounded by nothing but sand and the smell of the Atlantic ocean coming from the seaside town nearby.
Competitors arriving at the base camp on 29-Apr-22. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
I met my tentmates Julita and Sandra, both endurance athletes, as well as the 43 other competitors, most of whom had incredibly impressive ultra resumes. There was Anim, another grand slammer and endurance coach who competed in the Ironman World Championships in Kona and has countless ultras under her belt. Matt was another incredible runner, a West Point US Army veteran who is now building a political science think tank and is running DGS to advocate for a life post kidney donation (which he gave to a complete stranger) or fellow German Michele, a sports psychologist who told me I could mentally train myself against blisters (will try). The list could go on and on. Most were performance/endurance coaches, army veterans (Israel & US) or alpinists and so engaging in extreme events was part of their job description.
Working in private equity involved a lot of sitting which made the pursuit of elaborate training plans quite challenging. My only training really came down to swimming and running in the morning and some longer runs on the weekends. It did sink in to me that, once again, I was quite a blank canvas in a field of extremely experienced endurance athletes. I shoved in 4.000 cals of Pizza (that I brought from Swakopmund to camp), M&Ms and Bifis to compensate for my absolute nervosity that night.
The next day was kit-check and medical-check day. My backpack at 10.2kg with all items ranging from a signaling mirror to a compass and all food items, patches and medical forms passed the test, luckily. The heaviest pack weighed~16kg and the lightest only ~6kg, all excluding water, nevertheless. Besides the various course briefings, I sewed my gaiters on that day — an arduous task taking hours. But time passed quite quickly; once we were all checked, the sun started to set and we went to bed early to be well rested for the big Day 1 the next morning.
Course briefing with course director Carlos late afternoon on 30-Apr-22. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
Day 1: Across the Salt Pans / ~40km
With volunteers Anna from Hossegor, France and Elke from Namibia at camp after Day 1. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
It was quite foggy with mist coming in from the Atlantic Ocean as we made our way deeper into the desert. We started the day at ~10°C and ended it at ~45°C. Once Sam (head of the organization) had counted down the seconds until the start we started sprinting out into the desert as though we had been kept hostage the past couple of days of not running.
Check Point 1 (CP 1) went by fast, as running along the salt flats in cool weather was quite welcome. From then onwards we ran by a beach until we reached the start of the dunes. As it had rained a couple of weeks earlier, the fauna was intense — lush green bushes in the desert, who could believe it? We also ran through the dried out Kuiseb River bed with patches of sand and hard packed terrain left by the floods that covered the area 6 weeks earlier (luckily no water crossings).
Day 1. Somewhere in the Namibian salt flats between CP 1 and 2. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
I paced with a New York based energy trader and ironmanner, Po, who saved me two times when I got lost and ran the wrong course. Mentally, the first day was tough as I was all over the place with my thoughts. My pack was heavy and felt unwelcome, my legs felt weak because they had just been laying around the prior week from all the sitting and travelling and in my head I was still at work where I was missing out on a live deal I got staffed on a week earlier. While I tried to pre-work what I was going to miss out on, I was still contemplating to drop out of the race and stay home. As I had already promised however to raise money for the girls in Sierra Leone with these races there was no going back of course! Nevertheless, I simply could not really feel the solitude and peace of mind I usually feel when I go running.
On my way to CP2, I started to feel the first blisters coming up, and the sound of clicking meant I had already started to lose the first toenails, not even 40k into the race — although I did wake up at 5 AM to do some elaborate preventative blister taping on my feet! Between CP 2 and 3 temperatures started to shift quickly to ~45°C and no wind. We were running through the dunes that the course director described as the back of a large dragon due to the seemingly infinite amount of little hills.
Finally reaching CP 3, I was quite happy to be almost done for the day and be able further inspect my blisters. Only 12k more of dried out waterbeds and some dunes and bushes. Besides four lost toenails that day, most of whom were quite weak anyways as they had been ripped out during the Marathon des Sables six months earlier, I physically felt quite good. James from the medical team gave me some second skin to put on the wounds and taped it.
Kuiseb river bed. After CP 3.
That night, I ate my dehydrated Lentil Daal, which was quite good actually, and witnessed the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen up until that point! I was sitting with Yosef, a Mexican Israeli runner who came with his dad Benjamin to do the race. His father had done the Atacama Race twelve years ago, which is where he got the inspiration to found his own company, something Yosef also wanted to do. Quite a cool thing to share with your dad.
Sunset after Day 1.
Another medic Dave told us that a puff adder, a quite dangerous snake had made her way into camp. When bitten, we were at risk of losing a limb and the only thing the organization could do was drive us to a hospital. Everyone got a little paranoid.
On top of some really heavy snoring in our tent, the anxiety of getting bitten by the snake — keeping in mind open tents due to COVID-19 — left me awake most of that night.
Day 2: Dune Haven /~40km
I naturally woke up at 5 AM to tape my feet, collect my dried laundry, which due to the mist at night was still completely wet, and eat some porridge.
Today was going to be much hotter at ~53°C and would include the crossing of the infamous steep dunes of the Namib. The terrain was quite technical, running up and down mildly steep dunes with deep sand to sink in and steep stones until CP 1. But it was also quite beautiful, overlooking the dunes in the morning to then descend further into the desert until ultimately reaching them after CP 2. Climbing the ridge to overlook the indescribable vastness of the Namib desert was one of the most incredible images I have ever seen.
Between CP 2 and 3 — steep Namibian dunes! Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
For a person afraid of heights, the scary part was actually sliding these dunes down after reaching their peak — I was too afraid to simply run down and went sideways in mini steps. Of course, nothing really could happen but I still can be quite the chicken sometimes haha.. gladly, nobody saw this…
CP 3 in sight!
Finally at CP 3, the end of the stage and endless dunes would be in sight. That day, quite a few people dropped out due to the technicality of the course, the heat and the toughness of recovering after the intense sun exposure.
I still felt a bit off during most of Day 2. The adrenaline of the start was gone and I thought a lot about why I was actually doing this … allocating my entire time off to these crazy races where I was going to be suffering most of the time. Before I left, I had a huge fight with my dad, who thought I had become insane and a psychopath for wanting to run the DGS. It felt really tough psychologically to go into an extreme event, where, at the end of day anything can happen, and not have your entire family’s support. But then my mind crossed to my hero/my mom who always has my back no matter what and who wants me to chase my dreams! This gave me another kick and I was all good again.
Running into camp, Elke and Jonie, two volunteers I bonded with deeply during the race welcomed me back. I checked my feet, which had succumbed to only my two large toenails being left in the nailbeds at that point. My tentmate Julita had imported Eosine injections for blisters, and she was already busy at work. I would for sure have to get these from France too for the next race.
At least I did not have any blisters under my feet (yet). At night, I was not really feeling hungry or able to eat. My stomach flipped and I could not get any calories in. Starting in a misty ~12°C the morning before and coming from that to ~53°C was maybe a bit much for my immune system and the sleep deprivation the night before. Although I did throw up all night, I did not think much of it.
Later at home, it turned out that I had contracted quite a severe parasitic infection that I would carry unknowingly with me for the rest of the race. Stage 1 became a race against the parasite who was eating my red blood cells, causing anemia, a blood disorder in which blood is compromised in its ability to carry oxygen, which would take months after returning from Namibia to recover from.
At base camp with Ivan, a Danish/German runner and mountaineer. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
Day 3: No Words /~40km
Before CP 1 on Day 3. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
Waking up, I was not really sure if, where and how I should prepare my feet. My gaiters had ripped on Day 2 on some spiky stones and did not hold anymore, meaning sand could come in quite easily — a death sentence for blister-prone feet when you are running in a desert filled with sand. Only 2km into the race, my shoes started filling up with sand and I felt the first clicking — my big toenail. Goddamnit. It was quite painful, as a blister the size of a little balloon popped up under my nail, levering out of the nailbed thus pushing the deep end of the nail into my flesh every time I set foot on the ground.
This was painful. Not having slept and having thrown up all night, I was quite done. And it was only the third day of the race! How! When the heat kicked in, this day did have some more surprises in store for us — hot winds. If your electrolytes are upside down, you are sleep deprived, and are in a lot of pain from destroyed feet, these do hit hard.
Dunes on the morning of Day 3. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
After CP2, I started to feel this weird force taking over me, with this quick hallucination that followed. I was running down this road, that reminded me a lot of what I would imagine Badwater to be like — brutal heat, nothingness ahead of you, desert dust, feeling the melting of your soles and hot winds that make your mind go crazy. Somewhere on that road, I saw this mountain and took a sharp left. You could impossibly miss the course, but for some inexplicable reason I started sprinting in the wrong direction. I am not exactly sure how long I did this, but in my dream the mountain became a sandman who wanted me to pour all my water. Suddenly I woke up, holding my already opened water bottles in my hands, completely disoriented and looking at the mountain. I felt super confused, sick and started throwing up again all that was left of me. At the horizon, I saw some runners, and panicked briefly before gathering my cool and returning on course as fast as I could in order to not lose completely my orientation.
I was wrecked when I entered CP 3. I had no energy left, my head felt nauseous and I still could not keep any calories down, was halfway dehydrated and the pain from my ripped feet and the toenail pushing into my flesh felt a bit unbearable. Shortly after I laid down, I saw Po again, the New Yorker with whom I had been pacing back and forth previously in the race. He also felt very sick and dropped out that day. Patrick, another doctor welcomed me saying “you do look a little grey” — “Yes bro obviously” I thought. He was in race dress for some reason, and I was really confused where this guy had suddenly emerged from.
Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
As I knew that getting an IV meant disqualifying from the race, I really had to get myself together quickly to not get pulled out. I was asked if I wanted to stop, but quitting was not an option for me. I knew I had to continue. As my tentmate Thomas from Marathon des Sables always told me each morning, pain is just temporary! So right, I thought. So, I went on. I don’t have the exact number, but that day was the day with the highest drop rate. The temperatures and hot winds just made the race unbearable for many. To calm down a bit, I thought more about how to raise funds for We Can Run, how to get more corporate donations, maybe ask some other runners to run races for our project to raise additional funds etc.. Since the general focus back home is more on donations to the Ukraine it is a tough environment to make the case for female education in Sierra Leone! But, I truly am convinced that girls can dig so deep, that if they make it out of poverty via education, they will succeed!
I was actually inspired to support l’appel’s Women Empowerment Program by a South African runner, Nontu Mghabi (listen here to podcast with her here) who comes from a deep rural village and paved her way through education to a top management position in one of the largest corporates in SA while also being a Salomon Pro Squad runner. She kept telling me, “genius is distributed equally, opportunities are not” — and that holds so much truth. So, another warm welcome to contribute to a great cause! (:
Entering restricted territory.
I left CP3 somewhat in disbelief that I actually was able to deceive the docs of not having been completely out of my mind the two hours before and started trotting my way, further down the Badwater road. Angela, a bypassing volunteer in a roving vehicle saw me, pulled out a shade tent and poured a 5L bottle of water over my head, which felt really, really great. The stage was cut short due to the extremities of temperatures.
While we were supposed to descend into Moon Valley to make our way into camp, the boiling heat down in the Valley was getting to ~65°C. Only the fastest runners finished the full stage, until temperatures were too high to be continued. So, it was only a 6.5k from Angela until I was stopped and driven to Camp by Dirki, a Namibian volunteer. Once I saw the finale for the day, I was sad to not finish the entire stage as I could run the last 2.5km as well but I was also grateful for the A/C in the car.
Back in camp and overlooking Moon Valley runners were anxiously awaiting who had dropped that day and who made it through. I was really sad to see Po leave, but I had to hurry to the medical tent to get my feet done. After ‘consulting’ they decided to cut out my entire left big toenail so it would not hurt my flesh any longer. James injected some numbing medicine in my toe and then went on to cut it out. Weirdly enough, I felt my foot numbing down, but not my entire toe, so I felt the quite painful procedure start to finish. I had tried to get food down my stomach, but I think viewing these huge scissors and the subsequent big flesh wound was too much for my nerves at that moment. I was nauseous, could not sleep, started shivering although it was probably still 30°C at night and left the tent in hourly modus to try and throw up (hard on an empty stomach).
Day 4: The Moon Valley /~40km
Day 4. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
Day 4 was a strange day for me. A lot of people from my pace had dropped, and my hurting feet as well as my overall complete exhaustion from being unable to retain any calories threw me back in my times quite a lot. Starting already at 7AM to escape the grueling heat meant getting up at ~4:30 to tape my feet properly, and put up all the necessary bandages. I was so sleep deprived at that point, I was not even able to take my tent trash out. I was probably the messiest runner in the entire race (really sorry to the volunteers having to clean out my tent!!) and consistently the late at the start line.
Day 4 took us through Moon Valley and descended into beautiful canyons where leopards, ostriches, zebras, hyenas and many other animals live. In short — pure safari and wildlife. From a course standpoint definitely a highlight after the cruel infinite Badwater-style road of the day before. The course was quite technical and involved lots of climbing ridges and navigating loose rocks. I felt so nauseous, even after the first 5k I already felt like throwing up again or fainting that I only zombie marched through to CP1.
Looking back, I am quite sad as I was so consumed with my own pain that I could not even enjoy for a second this crazy beautiful landscape (it was probably actually the most beautiful course of the entire race).
Sunrise in Moon Valley at ~07:30AM, before CP 1.
CP 1 was on a steep hill, and from there we descended into some looser dunes with many stones. Dave from the medics gave me some nausea medicine, but I was really worried about what the heat coupled with meds and an empty stomach would do to me, so I opted to only take one half instead of the full. Maybe a mistake, I don’t know — but I preferred to remain cautious.
I continued zombie marching my way through and somewhere in the desert saw this gravestone which was weird because I felt like I would faint/dehydrate any minute. I don’t think I ever had to pull myself together so much in my life. I was crawling. I felt like throwing up but there was nothing left and kept getting sick from even just smelling this strange mix of sweat, not having showered since I left Munich, vomit taste in my mouth, salt and desert dust. I could not keep my head focused and zig-zagged my way through to the next check point.
A gravestone somewhere before CP2
Shortly before CP 2, a volunteer who was waiting in a roving car asked if I wanted to drop. Funnily, every time I feel at my worst and get asked to drop some kind of strange energy overcomes me and I am able to focus again on what’s important. Somehow, I arrived at the checkpoint where we had a mandatory 2 hour stop due to the brutal heat and the danger of people fainting on course.
We were not given GPS systems and SOS buttons, so if something happened, the chance of being directly taken care of were slim. I was quite happy about the mandatory stop as I knew I was sort of getting into an uncontrollable mental state where I was very lucky to not dehydrate on course.
Patrick gave me some tablet to chew on and then some nausea meds, which I decided to take. He also gave “medical” Coca Cola, which actually did a great job for me and had some kind of rejuvenating effect. It brought me back to life!! I was able to drink this in mini sips and then go for a Bifi. Of course, lots of jokes on the German for not being able to keep down food for days but opting for sausage when it starts getting possible again (lol). Patrick patiently retaped all my toes and then once the two hours were over, I left CP 2 to descend into Swakop River bed crossing to the Khan River and subsequently into a highly technical course through the canyons.
The dried out riverbeds encompassed lots of uneven terrain which would be hard packed and then suddenly soft leading to sinking in knee deep into muddy areas. Due to lots of fauna, trees and bushes, I got lost three times but somehow managed to find my way out.
Dying from the inside and got lost 3 times but the course was beautiful!!
I was thinking a lot about Alex Kojève, the man I idolize the most (nephew of Kandinsky, he fled Russia to France amidst communism, became a star-Hegel professor in 1930s Paris and then moved on to be lead broker for the treaties that would form the EU and ultimately died during a negotiation). In his interpretation of the Hegelian master-slave dialectics (about mankind’s cycle of consciousness), the dialectical reversal of history assigns history to the slave as he is transforming the world through the product of his labor. The slave is one with the cause whereas the master can never be satisfied by the (inferior) recognition of the slave and loses touch.
At some point, the slave will overcome the master, creating a universal, homogeneous state where all conceptions of previous rules and norms are erased. Labor is thus the quest of overcoming. My philosophy professor Boris Groys argued based on Kojève that the emergence of the bourgeoisie has led us to live in a society of working masters laboring for the amenities you get out of work (money), but not the work itself. To develop, we must labor because of the cause in itself, not for the consequences the cause would effect.
What this meant was running not to finish, but doing this race for the cause, for the running in and of itself and all that comes along with it, which also includes suffering. The race was thus the overcoming of myself/working master by my inner slave who could defeat the comfort I usually enjoy in life and labor on the purity and rawness of pain in order to reach consciousness.
It was important to embrace pain and to start navigating my mind to run for the pain, to welcome it, to explore it and use this as an experiential opportunity to get to know myself from a different perspective. Somehow, this gave me a lot of lightness and I never felt uneasy during the race. Many friends at home asked me why I would torture myself during holiday when I can so easily pull the plug anytime and be relieved of all pain — Looking back, I think it is because I somehow was able to take pain lightly, and not view it as an unwelcome enemy, but just as another part of me. I feel that Kojève helped me a lot.
At some point, I heard the bells which meant I was close to camp. So happy! I went to the medics to get my other big toenail, which had been levered out by a blood blister cut out. Both James and Patrick were working in joined forces on my feet and at this point the disgust and panic I felt the day before during this first mini surgery faded and I more routinely inspected how they were numbing my toe to get the procedure done. By the time I left the medics, I was so tired of the day that I barely made it to my tent where I fell very deeply asleep.
James doing my feet at the medical tent after Day 4.
Day 5 — The Long March / ~80km
Arriving at CP 3. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
I overslept Day 5 and woke up 30 minutes before the start of the long day, aka ~80km. At least my feet were taped the night before, but I still had not eaten and waking up, I felt really sick again so I lost some further calories before the start. Getting all my stuff in order, I arrived at the start line a minute after the stage officially started (awkward haha).
A routine was kicking in of knowing how to deal with the pounding pain of my feet and this super annoying nausea and vomiting. The first 2km were always a challenge of more crawling until my feet could settle into the pain with running on open wounds, but somehow I always managed to figure out a way of moving forward.
This day was going to be my favourite. We were running through a field covered in rose quartz, probably the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Imagine running across never-ending fields of semi-precious gemstones!! I collected a few, quite stupid maybe as they weighed my backpack down, but it was of course all about the experience.
Running through a field of rose quartz — I loooove gemstones so this made my heart beat faster!!
At CP 3 we had another 2 hour mandatory stop to sit out the brutal heat. That day involved a lot of uphill elevation, so I was quite exhausted when I arrived. I still was not able to eat properly, and stopping made the pain and my stomach worse.
After the mandatory stop, I descended with Roberto, an Italian pharma CFO and ironmanner, down the canyon until entering a field of white quartz where sunset and a Coca Cola awaited us at CP4.
Roberto and I descending the canyon to CP 4. The sun in the canyons sets much quicker than on plain fields. Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
Temperatures cooled down, and the Coca Cola gave me such a kick that I started fully running into the sunset, not caring/feeling my feet and stomach anymore. I felt as though I had overcome the suffering of the past few days and just found my stride. As the moon came up, I felt like flying into the night. Probably it was the sugar rush of the Coke, but for the first time in the race, my mind and body were fully aligned leading to a deep sense of calm and inner strength that suddenly burst like flames out of me. I put on Stay The Night by Claptone on repeat, and ran through the next two CPs.
The night was my favourite companion and I loved every minute of running alone under the stars in the desert. I realized that after a lot of suffering comes a lot of strength, something you cannot search for in other people but that you somehow have to find within yourself.
Coca Cola and sunset on the Long Stage, somewhere in the Namib Desert.
In normal life, I usually feel a bit torn between being extremely insecure with a plethora of complexes I have to compensate for, and some intuition of just knowing it will all be alright. Strangely enough, I actually enjoy having to compensate because at least this means I always feel the need to do more and never get lazy. But this was not the night for insecurities! An incredible rush of power overcame me and I felt like a real emancipated woman. For the last 1km I just jammed Breaking Free by High School Musical, went completely raving into the CP. I was thinking of the designer DvF who said of her early career that she did not know what she wanted to do in life, but the woman she wanted to be — and in that moment I really was the woman I wanted to be.
Unfortunately, shortly after leaving the final check point, my headlamp gave up its life, and ran on such little battery that I could barely see what was ahead. Being alone in the dark, I resorted to crawl the last 12k to camp when a cold mist from the sea settled in. It was only 2–3°C, and that after 55°C by day was tough. Also, you could hear the screams of hyenas from somewhere around. That scared me a bit. My stomach started turning again and I went back to vomiting my way to camp and crying a little silently about having lost my great runner’s high that had carried me through the night before.
At some point around 2AM I made my way into the final camp. I had made it. I fell into my tent, and checking out my blisters I had to laugh at this crazy infected feet since probably the first beauty surgery in life will be new nailbeds. However, I was also quite glad since for the next race in Georgia in 4 weeks, I don’t run such an extreme foot risk as I have no nails left to lose (lol).
I woke up at some point around 10AM only to discover that both my tentmates still had not arrived. I got really worried about Julita, who had issues with her hip forcing her to walk/hike — something so brutal during the long stage. Finally, nine minutes before the cut-off she arrived with Brazilian Arthuro, who accompanied her on that stage. The two became sort of inseparable during the race.
Julita arriving in camp after the long stage.
The Final Day in Camp
While the race was mostly finished then — only 10km were left to go — the organization let us rest the entire 6th day to allow the later arrivers to fully recover and hang out at camp. I was lying for most of it like a zombie in my tent, unable to make the 10m walk to the medics, so I opened up my new blisters under my feet myself. As they were quite deep, needles were not sufficing anymore so I used my Swiss Army Knive to cut them open and drain them. This was stupid because I got more wounds and that would take longer to recover. But I was simply too tired to get out and the monstrosity of size of blisters was too large to fully ignore. I still was not able to eat.
During late afternoon, I crawled out of my tent to check my messages (thank you so much to everyone who wrote me!!) to find one very special one! My best friend Ali asked me to be godmother to her baby girl who would be due in September — I was so over the moon, crying a bit from joy and thought I could not wait to see Ali and her little baby girl!! If you ever read this, I am so so proud to be your godmother and love you so much already!! Definitely a moment I will never forget.
I went to bed early, tired but happy, and excited to get to the finish line the next morning.
Finishing the First Stage of the Desert Grand Slam 2022!!
Stage 1 of the Desert Grand Slam 2022 is finished!! Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz.
The last morning was exciting since we were so close we could all smell the medal (hehe). All the pain had settled in quite heavily but I only had to force myself one more time into my running shoes. I had kept an emergency stash of Paracetamol for the case it would get really bad. And for this last 10k, I took one to be able to have a chill 10k and not be in pain at the finish line where cold beer (and Antibiotics for my feet) awaited us. That, of course, I could get down. Po, whom I had been pacing with and who dropped out the third day was waiting there and I was quite happy to hear that he would train more to race the Atacama race in Chile with me in September.
I finished 8th in the women’s race and won my age division. Thank you to everyone who has donated to We Can Run so far, we are now at almost one full scholarship! My plane landed on Monday in Munich at 8 AM, and at 9AM I was back at work.
On to the next stage racing the Great Caucasus in 4 weeks!
Awards banquet! Photo by RtP / Thiago Diz