With my walking poles stretched up before me, I ploughed them into the steep shard of sand and wearily tried to haul myself up.
With sweat dripping from my brow, the wind whipping sand into me from every direction, and my legs in quite a bit of pain, I admittedly started to ask myself what the hell I was doing trying to tackle one of the world’s toughest adventure races with little training to my name.
You see, I had heard of Rat Race for quite some time, and how this adventure company runs some of the coolest trips going for those who enjoy travel with a twist.
Started by madcap adventurer Jim Mee in 2004, the company runs physically demanding challenges around the world, from Mongolia to Morocco. Jim tells Metro.co.uk that he’s drawn to ‘the fringes of the map’ and making ‘adventure-filled memories to last a lifetime’.
In a bid to find out what Rat Race trips are all about, I checked out the website and signed up for one of its annual extravaganzas, Race To The Wreck, nabbing one of the final spots left.
This event, listed in the ‘Bucket List’ section, involves a 4.5 day, 303km one-way journey across the Namib Desert in Southern Africa to the Skeleton Coast and the famed Eduard Bohlen shipwreck which has been a feature on the sandy flats since its grounding in 1909.
This is the same race that saw Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw pushed to breaking point during Sports Relief 2020 as he was hit by heat exhaustion.
Needless to say, I was filled with trepidation landing into Windhoek, Namibia, for my desert adventure, but once I’d arrived the slick logistics and friendliness of other competitors help put my mind at ease – a bit!
There is the option to do the whole race on foot or, like I did, mix it up by hopping on a fat bike for the first half. Some of the mandatory kit items include walking poles, a GPS – as all competitors must self-navigate – and sand gaiters that can attach to velcro strips on your shoes to prevent the sand from getting in and causing niggles.
In total there were 35 signed up for the race, with the youngest competitor being 27 and the oldest 64. Some had lots of experience doing marathons and ultras but some, like me, were generally fit and inquisitive. Most of the group were from the UK but a few had flown in from locations including New York, Jordan and Dubai.
From Windhoek, we took a three hour drive to a remote farm and holiday camp location Namigrens, which would serve as our basecamp for the next couple of nights while we went through gear checks and briefings. We were impressed to find the camp had bathrooms built into the rock faces, with flushing toilets and hot showers too.
After two days of carrying out various tasks and getting to know each other around the camp fire, we were ready for the off. We sent final messages to our nearest and dearest as we were informed there would be no phone signal or WiFi until the finish when we landed back to civilisation.
Exploring ‘the land of many faces’
The runners set off around sunrise on Tuesday morning while the biking group started pedalling at 8am sharp. The first day consisted of an 90km cycle on gravel roads and rough mountain tracks, through the sprawling Khomas Hochland region.
While some competitors whizzed off into the distance I was very happy trailing behind in last place and soaking up the otherworldly scenery.
It made for a very humbling experience pedalling through the vast gaping valleys with not another soul in sight. It’s easy to see why Namibia is a dream destination for many with its raw, remote wilderness and varied terrain which has earned it the nickname ‘the land of many faces’.
The first day cycling was tough going. The biggest challenges for me included the heat – topping 38C – and the bumpy, rock-strewn tracks that became increasingly painful on the bottom. The hands also took a beating from the non-stop vibrations that transmitted through the handlebars.
Eventually, after nine hours on the road I found camp and nothing felt better than a cold beverage, a shower and a plate of delicious hot food rustled up by the superb camp chefs.
The first day had been hard, but race director Jim warned us that the second day would be tougher, with softer sand and waves of dunes added to the mix.
To give everyone the best chance of completing the section and to make the most of the cooler morning air, we started out the next day at 4am.
All stages of the race include sweeper vehicles which are scattered among the competitors to offer assistance if need be. At 4am in the darkness the vehicles were particularly useful in guiding us along the ramshackle roads and we all stayed together as a pack until daybreak.
Jim was right. Day two proved tough. The dunes were crushing, with steep slopes proving near impossible to wheel up, but the runs down were pretty exhilarating. Some made tumbles over their handlebars given the steepness of various drops but the soft sand meant that there were no scrapes or scratches.
There was 110km to cover on the second day and every 20km, as with the previous day, there were checkpoints we could stop at to get ice cold drinks, snacks and a spot of much-needed shade. Experienced doctors were also on hand in case anyone was in need of medical attention.
At about 80km I was close to giving up with a sore backside, burning legs and a general feeling of utter exhaustion. But the support team did an excellent job of keeping me fighting, and I decided to give the final stretch running towards the dried up Kuiseb River my best go.
I managed to keep going for a good while longer and tackled a vertigo-inducing monster dune angled at more than 45 degrees down to reach the river bed.
While Jim had told us the last 20km would be easy snaking our way along the river, a recent deluge of rain meant that the riverbed was no longer hard clay and it was more like soft, powdery, cigarette ash that was painfully slow to cycle through. Wading through mud sprang to mind.
At 91km and with the clock hitting 7pm I reluctantly called it a day but I wasn’t the only one, and only ten people from the running and cycling teams made it to the end of this gruelling leg.
That night everyone seemed pretty wrecked and it was a quick shower before crawling into my tent for a much-needed rest.
Tackling the world’s biggest dunes
From day three onwards, all the group were on foot and I was certainly glad to see the back of my fat bike.
The first two days of the hiking / running section consisted of 40km stretches – just under a marathon per day – and the final segment was a 20km slip to the finish line.
After being on the bike I was overjoyed to be walking again and I surprised myself by coming joint second. While I had cycled for most of the time alone, I found the walking element to be much more social and talking to someone else made the time go quicker. I teamed up with Inge, a lovely woman from the Netherlands who was doing the event with her partner.
She was another person among our group who had done the world-famous Marathon des Sables race through the Sahara Desert, which covers 251km in six days.
Both of them said the cycle element of Race To The Wreck made it a much tougher race both on the physical and mental side of things.
While we came second, Charlotte, a 27-year-old maritime engineer from the UK, bounded into first place yet again, making the feat look enviably easy.
The camp on day three, although it was one of the windier locations, had to be one of the most stunning, with dune views surrounding us and the most incredible starlit sky rolling out come nightfall.
The fourth day of the race came around in a blur and it was all one we were both excited and nervous about, with some of the world’s biggest dunes to contend with and 9,000ft of ascent.
Apparently we would be tackling 19 waves of dunes, with runs of flat in-between each massive wall of sand.
I’m not really someone who loves walking or hiking with walking poles, but on this occasion I realised the benefit of them as these were integral to pulling myself up to the top of the dunes. With no poles you had to resort to hauling yourself up on all fours in a bear crawl-style pose.
As with being on the bikes, running down the dunes made for an exhilarating experience and I felt like a kid as I bounded down the golden powder with my odd-looking sand gaiters making me feel invincible. It was like being armed with wellies on a rainy day.
For the majority of the fourth leg I walked with two chaps, David and Ken. David had done multiple Rat Race events and countless marathons but for Ken, this was his first time doing anything so extreme after taking up running during the pandemic. The married father-of-two said it was probably one of the most adventurous things he’d done in his life and he already had another Rat Race event in his mind for 2024 after catching the adventure race bug.
When we reached the 35km point with just 5km to go, the wind was gusting 40km an hour and my legs were feeling pretty beaten up. I was super close to giving up but David and Ken promised to walk with me and I decided I would try to give it a go after taking a couple of paracetamol.
That’s the thing with races like this, so much of it is mental and when you push yourself and feel the support of others, it’s surprising how far you can go.
At 6:15pm, after just over 12 hours of walking, the three of us made it into camp with cheers from the rest of the group members to greet us along with some nice cold beers.
Most of us were in shock that the next day would be our final outing in this wild place. We sat around the fire feasting on BBQd meats and other delicacies before enjoying our tents for one last night.
The next morning we breakfasted at 5:30am and set off for the final 20km at 6am. While it was half the length we’d schlepped the previous days, the last 20km seemed to be never ending.
The beginning of the route took us over a small sea of baby dunes, before we reached the salt flats. The flat, barren landscape looked like we could have been venturing across Mars, with strange rock formations forming a carpet underfoot.
Despite the desolate location, a couple of jackals scampered across our path, stopping to give us inquisitive glances.
After more than four hours, I made it to the end. Crossing the finish line made for quite an emotional moment, as the race proved to be one of the most physically and mentally draining events I’d done in a good while.
The lack of preparation and the fact that I’d sprained my ankle the week before doing it certainly hadn’t helped matters.
Rat Race put on a magnificent spread of food and drink to celebrate our finish, with fresh oysters carted over, platters of billtong and copious amounts of bubbly which went straight to the head.
After spending time celebrating our achievement and exploring the haunting carcass of the Eduard Bohlen shipwreck, we got into a pack of safari vehicles and buckled up for a heartpounding three-hour ride back over towering dunes to the resort town of Walvis Bay.
Back at the hotel, a proper soak in the shower felt heavenly, as did the feel of a soft bed and clean clothes.
We all agreed that Race To The Wreck had made for a very memorable week, far exceeding our expectations. Once back home, race champion Charlotte described it as one of her ‘fave weeks ever’, while fellow competitor Sheena said ‘it still feels a little surreal what we have done!’
So, if you’ve got the urge to push yourself and explore your mind, body and some distant land, I can’t recommend Rat Race enough. You can be a novice or an experienced athlete, with this company there really is no judgement. It really is the taking part that counts…
Rat Race is offering a range of global, bucket list trips in 2022/2023 that cater to everyone’s capabilities, whether you’re a first-time adventurer or an experienced explorer. From trips to Namibia and Mongolia to Dominica and Panama, you can find out more about Rat Race’s exhilarating adventures at ratrace.com.
How to plot your own Namibian adventure
British Airways offers flights from London to Windhoek via Johannesburg. To use airport lounges while waiting for flight connections, Priority Pass membership gives you access to hundreds of locations across the world with lounge perks including showers, free beverages and food and business centres.
For reliable airport transfers across the UK and the US Blacklane is an easy-to-book chauffeur service. The company offers a range of different vehicles and rides can be scheduled in advance. Another perk is that drivers offer a meet and greet service if you’re travelling alone, and they will wait 15 minutes free of charge if your flight is delayed.
Accommodation during the Rat Race event included Namigrens which is a three hour drive from Windhoek. The working farm and holiday camp has camping spots and individual villas overlooking flatlands strewn with giant boulders and the area is abundant with wildlife.
At Walvis Bay, the team checked into the upscale Bay View hotel with great coastal views, spacious rooms with kitchens and a smart on-site restaurant offering local delicacies, from fresh fish to prime steaks.
Do you have a story to share?
Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.