This summer, ashmei ambassador Carsten Nielsen – aka The Running Viking – pursued his passion and took on an epic run in support of African wildlife rangers. Here he gives us the lowdown on this unique For Rangers Ultra Run Kenya Experience, which climaxed with a welcome over the finish line by none other than Eliud Kipchoge – the greatest marathon runner of modern times.
The For Rangers concept in short: Kenya Ultra run with the main target to raise money for the local wildlife rangers, who day and night risk their lives to protect the animals against poachers. This must be taken literally. Over the last 10 years more than a thousand rangers have been killed in the war against poachers. This race has been created in cooperation between Beyond the Ultimate, For Rangers and Save the Rhino.
Facts: 5 stages, 5 days, 220 km, unsupported (approx. 10 kg backpack), 3500-4000 ascending meters, 2000-2500 meters above sea level, 25-30 degrees; covering five different conservancies.
I went to Nairobi a couple of days before the race start to get adjusted to the altitude. Then I met up with the other runners, the crew and the medical team at a hotel the day before the race. After we headed north in some buses and many hours later we arrived at Lewa Conservancy where the race would start the following day. We could see immediately that this would be unique. The camp was fenced, military tents all over the place, armed rangers walking around and just on the other side of the fence were zebras. It was actually surreal.
After unpacking the buses we went through the routines: gear check, medic signing, race briefing, etc – all in preparation for the next day. One single rule during the race briefing made it clear what we were up to: Leave the track by more than three meters and you are disqualified. The final thing for us to do was to drop off an extra bag that you would be given back five days later. Always a very critical moment. Did you make the right decisions? I think it is fair to say that my decisions for night-time were a disaster. More about that later.
The weather and temperature were ideal and to give you an idea, we walked around in shorts and T-shirts. At 19-00hrs it gets dark. VERY dark. I decided to go to bed early to be ready the next morning. The truth of it is that this would be the first of five horrible nights. After a nice sleep for some hours the temperatures plummeted and it became freezing. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect these kind of temperatures.
My sleeping bag and my extra clothes were NOT made for this. At the same time, one of my fellow runners in my tent tried to set new records in the snoring discipline, so things at this point were not so great.
This was IT. Everybody was so excited and after normal morning routines it was time to leave. We hardly got out of camp before a herd of zebras ran across our path. Just another reminder about what a unique race this was. Shortly after we came to a small water crossing and I managed to get over fast and almost with dry feet. After a few km on dirt roads I started to pass ranger patrols that were there to make sure that we did not end up in front of a rhino, in the mouth of a big cat or under an elephant’s foot.
At one point, when I had to pass an elephant fence, I got stuck in some African traffic. A local farmer tried to get a few hundred goats/sheep through, and I had to stop and wait for them to pass. A little later I ran through a little village and when I passed the local school, a couple of hundred kids in uniforms cheered at me like Kenya had just won the World Cup!
Here on stage 1 it was clear that my body needed to adjust to the altitude, the temperature and the 10 kg on my back. I met some of the other runners on and off, but most of the 40 km I just ran by myself. I reached the finish line as number 12, which was very satisfying considering my pre-race preparation. The advantage by getting early to camp is that you get more resting time and some hours in daylight to hang out with the other runners. I also knew that I would have to go to bed early to get some sleep before the temperature dropped.
Once again I slept with all my extra clothes on yet still had the same result. Freezing! From 2 am I just waited for the day to start. The day’s race was in Borana Conservancy, which was approx. 41 km. The temperatures were much nicer today and we had some climbs to look forward to. Again I saw a lot of animals and one time I passed a ranger patrol in a jeep, and I caught some of their radio communication: “ Bravo Mike, a big herd is coming in from the left….” Yes we were definitely not the only ones working.
Even though every single one of them looked so calm, I am certain that they worked very hard behind the scenes to make sure that all of us runners were safe. It was so reassuring to feel how welcomed we were and how much they appreciated our presence. I think it is fair to say too, that we also appreciated having them there – so by all means a win-win situation. I ran by myself for the first 35 km, but managed at the end to find company with three other runners. It was actually very nice to have some company. Finished 10th on stage 2. Early in the evening two nosy giraffes visited us just outside our camp. Such a great moment, but in contrast we endured record low temperatures during the night and I was really miserable.
This stage was the longest at approx. 46 km – beginning with a long steep climb. It was also the stage where the organisers started using a chopper. The way they introduced it to us was totally cool. A few minutes before race start the chopper warmed up its engine and then took off and circled a few times behind us. At 7 am it made a low fly by as a signal to start. Super cool and everyone was totally excited. We would see very soon why the chopper was so effective. A big herd of elephants were too close to our track so the chopper went low to “push” the elephants away. It looked amazing and very impressive to hear how they shouted at us.
One of the great moments happened shortly before CP2. I was moving up a hill when the chopper moved a herd of elephants across the road just behind me. Some of the runners behind me had to wait further down the road before they could safely continue. But that was just the nature of the event – and fully accepted by everyone involved.
Rangers on patrol
Most of the race was run on dirt roads and small jeep tracks but occasionally we had to cross high grass areas. Here, the rangers patrolled on foot and in pairs, and you could just sense that they were more alert. They worked in many different ways. Patrolling by car, parked or just patrolling by foot. Sometimes you could not even see them due to their camouflage until they smiled.
Arriving to CP4 was not nice. We ran in very high grass and you could not even see your feet. My imagination ran away with me. From CP4 to the finish line was around 8-10 km but I found this quite hard. At first, there was a brutal climb, followed by a long descending road down to the finish line. I finished ninth on this stage. The camp was set up next to a small village. Close by was a farm with some orphaned elephants and early in the evening two of them chose to pay us a visit at camp. More concerning during the night, we heard a lion roar and this unsettled some of the runners – keeping them awake.
Today’s stage was 43 km. Shortly after the start we entered a beautiful canyon made of brown clay. Something I was really looking forward to before we started the race. The canyon looked like a miniature “Grand Canyon”. A little later we came to a place, where a ranger was waiting for us together with an orphan rhino baby MaiMai. Such a great experience to meet them and get to touch the rhino. Think that many of us shed a tear at this experience.
Some kilometres later I was running on a road and three other runners were just ahead of me. Suddenly an airplane working for the race made a low fly by right over us. I remember feeling a need to duck my head when it flew overhead – a crazy experience. I did not see much wildlife on this stage, but it was very run-able and as usual during stage races, I got better and better each day.
In fact I think that I saved a lot of time every day by getting in and out of checkpoints very quickly. I did not stay there to rest but got my water and moved on. Personally, I find that it is dangerous and time consuming to spend time at CPs. My only real issue was a blister on both heels, but I managed to keep my feet in fairly good shape during this race . Quite painful but nothing compared to what I have been through before. I couldn’t help noticing that the medical staff were working pretty hard with some of the other runners.
The last stage was approx. 46 km and featured lots of straight paths that took a lot of mental strength, not helped by the fact that we had a hard headwind for almost 30 km. This was also the first time during the entire race where we were outside the conservancies. I think that we ran about 10 km on a public road and at one point a young guy came up to me and started to run with me. He ended up running about 5 km and he even asked if he could carry my backpack. I explained to him that this would be cheating.
Another good running day for me and after about 30 km I started to catch some of the runners in front of me. I ran together with Pete at that time – one of the guys from For Rangers – and we entered the last conservancy Ol Pejeta together. We were lucky enough to spot zebras, giraffes, rhinos and other animals. I passed the last CP and now my focus was now on the finish line. Here, I decided to push myself and passed a couple of runners in front of me. Yes I know – very childish but sometimes it is fun to compete.
Presenting Eliud Kipchoge
I finished number eight on this stage and coincidentally ended up in eighth position overall. Eliud Kipchoge was waiting on the finish line to hand out the finisher medals. In case you do not know who he is: he is the fastest marathon man on the planet, a big star and also a very nice guy. The finish line was situated on the equator and besides Eliot, race director Kris King, some of the crew and a few runners, my family was also there to welcome me over the line.
I can’t begin to tell you how much motivation this gave me over the last few kilometres. I stayed at the finish line for a while to salute the other runners coming in, before being taken to Sweetwater Hotel close by. This was the location for the final celebration and party and also provided us a bed for the night.
Beyond the pale
We were told the day before that Eliud would only able to stay at the finish line until 16-00hrs. But the story goes that they sent him out on the chopper to meet the final runners on the course. Such a great gesture. It was totally amazing to see the performances of Francesco from Italy and Jacqueline from New Zealand as they became fastest man and woman. Francesco was in his own league and I had the pleasure of running with Jacqueline on several occasions. Big congrats to both of them.
As for equipment, I had old and new stuff in my bag. As always I ran in ashmei apparel and my backpack was once again the UD fastpack 25. Maybe a luxury but I brought a new pair of ashmei merino wool socks for every day. That proved to be a really good decision. My shoes were new. I ran in Colombia Caldorado II and they are maybe the best trail shoes I have ever had.
The whole idea about this race is just beautiful. Supporting the rangers all over Africa is important if we want to be able to see rhinos and elephants in the future. But it was also such a great experience and a very alternative way to do a safari/”game drive”. In fact, no one had ever done anything like this before. I feel very humble and proud to be part of this. I do hope with all of my heart that the organisers decide to do this race again, so that other runners will get the same opportunity. Because of this race lots of money has been collected – and this will make a huge difference for lots of rangers.
The logistics were by far the most impressive that I have ever encountered in a stage race. A medical team of 10 doctors were on hand from Exile Medics. During the race they were helping out at all the checkpoints and later in the afternoon, when all runners had returned to camp, they helped fix feet or just walked around the camp making sure that everybody was doing fine. The camps were impressive with tents and equipment borrowed from the British military.
As soon as we arrived in the camps in the afternoon, everything was set up and ready for us to use. A separate tent with lots of boiling water was available at any time and we had unlimited access to drinking water. There were also lots of people at checkpoints.
You would be signed in and out and the crew knew exactly how to help you in the best possible way. There were toilets in all camps and they even had bathing facilities in most camps. Even wood for the bonfire was ready when we arrived in the afternoon. I doubt if I will ever run a stage race again with this level of logistical support, but it was fun to try.
To sum up, I have never done something this crazy and it has been more difficult for me than ever to get it down on paper. My writing skills are simply insufficient in this case. I am a big lover of nature and especially animals, so my expectations for this race were very big when I flew down to the African continent. I really do think that this event ended up exceeding my expectations.
Photo credits – thanks to Mikkel Beisner