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“We lived, suffered and loved”

Interview from Laufen.de about the Sahara Desert Race 2017 and the Little Desert Runner’s Club.

You must love desert running – that’s what Rafael Fuchsgruber says. Exactly ten years ago, he discovered this love. Since then he has been drawn back again and again to the driest areas of the earth. Namibia has a special meaning for him – four years ago he won the 250-kilometre ultra race “Sahara Desert”.  A year ago he founded the “Little Desert Runners” Club to celebrate his “ten-year-anniversary” as a desert runner. 15 runners, rookies as well as experienced ones,  followed him into the desert. After returning from Namibia we talked to Rafael Fuchsgruber about the adventure of desert racing.

Back from the Namib. The Little Desert Runners Club spent almost ten days in the desert. How are you doing?

Lovely. We’ve been out for over a week. Away from everything. Out of normal life, out of all forms of modern communication. No network – a single permanent radio hole. We lived, suffered, loved, walked and talked a lot. Just like before – from person to person. Without the chronic check of the smartphone. That’s all it takes.

Your role this time was different from the many desert races before. More a guide than a competitor. You’ve put your own race aside to be able to accompany your team optimally. Didn’t you realize already before the race that focusing on your own race wasn’t enough to get in the front?

That’s the great thing: If everything would have been already clear to me before, I wouldn’t have had this much fun. The Little Desert Runners Club was my baby for over a year. I didn’t just want to celebrate my 10th desert running anniversary with a run, finish it and then hold up a medal. However, I didn’t know before how I would handle my personal run. Before the race, the club was very time-consuming. The communication was lengthy – but I could always squeeze it in between work, family and running. I mostly found time in the evenings for it. On site, however, it was more difficult. When topics arise in the desert, I can hardly say: “I’ll take care of it tonight”. The topics are usually very urgent – excitement, worries, injuries or questions about equipment problems and processes on site. It became completely clear to me during the first twenty kilometres of the race. On the one hand, I tried to run forward. On the other hand, my thoughts always went back to my rookies. Almost all of them participated for the first time in a 250-kilometre desert race. One year we prepared for this race together and now that it happened, I wasn’t able to be selfish and focus only on my own race. Deep inside me, I was hoping until the start to still be able and only focus on my own race. Because I just love it! But after 20 km, I decided to quit the competitive side of the race. That wasn’t a big deal and doesn’t need any further explanation.

Rafael with Christoph Harreither, another very experienced desert runner from Austria, who finished all 4 Desert races – © 4 Deserts

Besides, there was also a film project to work on…

One of the participants, Steffen Neupert, and I filmed two TV formats in addition to our running for RTL. Steffen was obviously more involved than me. It quickly became clear to us that we set ourselves a huge task. It was also Steffen’s first big ultra race as a runner. He was practically at work, finishing his first desert run on the side.

How did you come up with the idea of starting this club a year ago?

During my two races in Sri Lanka and Iran last year, I noticed from some of the runners I supervised, how enthusiastically and enthusiastically they are experiencing these races. I am also still taking part with my heart and soul and a week of running in the desert is still my highlight of the year. But it would be presumptuous to say that my excitement at the starting line is still the same as in the early days. The virginity’s gone. But having many desert rookies around me for my anniversary was a great idea.

A little stretch in the morning enjoying the first sunrays – © 4 Deserts

Do you still think it has been a good idea after the project with 15 runners in the desert?

Absolutely! When I communicated via Facebook the first day that I wanted to take care of my people instead of my race, my wife wrote me a very sweet e-mail in the desert. Among other things, it said: “I knew that before. You are a hound of great solidarity”. The comparison is true because sometimes I have a big muzzle *laughs*. To see it in the right light: The 15 people would have got along without me and would have brought the race home brilliantly. But I had created the club explicitly for desert run beginners. And for a year I felt a great responsibility to get the best out of this project for everyone involved.

So the “Little Desert Runners Club” is going into the next round?

Before the race, I had already agreed with myself that I wanted to let everything sink in for a while. There’s a lot of emotion going into it. It was my anniversary and somehow a step in one direction. I have been trusted very much. That really honours me. We have also received support from sponsors for our wild little club. That’s obviously not a matter of fact at a premiere. On the finish line, we were all in each other’s arms, laughing and crying together. The atmosphere simply called out for a continuation. A picture that is one reason for me to continue: Martina Hesseling at the finish, sitting on a dune, crying alone and completely happy for twenty minutes. Parallel and synchronously crying with Martina, Andrea Löw in my arms. More is not possible! Yes, the club will continue and all new and current “clubbers” are invited. The new challenge: To participate in the Gobi March in Mongolia at the end of July 2018. Again over 250 km within six stages. That’s 14 months from now – a good time to prepare for such a great adventure.

Members of the Little Desert Runners Club showing their excitement about this big adventure – © 4 Deserts

With Rafael Fuchsgruber as a top desert-runner or as a coach and mentor?

There’s not really any of those three. But in Mongolia, the club members will again be in the focus. Although, I will attempt another victory in the age group like in Namibia as always. Otherwise, the role as mentor & coach is fine with me – everyone can call me however one wants. I’ve been called tour guide as well. This fits and reminds me of my former times as manager of various bands. I always came into the hall on the tours and found the sentence: “I am the manager” so stupid and then introduced myself as a tour guide.

Kirsten Althoff proudly showing her winner’s medal – © 4 Deserts

Athletically, your project was a bulls-eye. You still finished in 5th place, four women from the team among the top ten and with Kirsten Althoff a club runner even won. 14 of 15 starters at the finish. You’ve prepared the team well!

The group was very good and there are many reasons for that. With some of them, I was quite close, also in the preparation. Others, less. But in the end, everyone had to find their personal way in the Namib. But let’s look at it the other way round: Dörte Schreinert, who dropped out, volunteered on the long leg and helped us and all the other runners at the checkpoints for the rest of the race. In the best mood, she made her health knowledge available to us. And she gets a lot out of that too. I have to salute for that. Dropping out of the race but still keeping the team in a good mood is a special achievement. Of course, there is also the sporty performance. Though, especially Dörte’s story is a wonderful sign for the team spirit in this club. But I’m also very happy about Kirsten Althoff as the women’s winner, Martina Hesseling as the fourth and AK50 winner, Andrea Löw as sixth and Antje Wensel as 9th. This time only the old desert Fuchsgruber made it into the top ten, but five men between 10th and 20th place.

Kirsten Althoff showing Rafael how to march – © 4 Deserts

The special challenge was the royal stage…

…the long stage over 81 kilometres was pure horror – so beautiful! The first 40 kilometres we ran with 45°C warm headwind, which blew at us with constant 50 km/h. By constant I mean constant – one could almost lean against it. On this stage, 15 out of 95 runners had to drop out. Even some really desert-experienced runners struggled here. Only after checkpoint 3, we made a 90-degree turn and one could walk or run continuously again. Kirsten and I even made it to third place at the last checkpoint. We did a pretty good job that day.

Kirsten Althoff, the winner of the women’s category, enjoying the company of Rafael Fuchsgruber – © 4 Deserts

Did you always accompany a member from the club?

Already from the first stage on, I accompanied our first running clubber. These were Steffen Neupert, Sascha Zipp and then three days in a row Kirsten Althoff, who became stronger and stronger from stage to stage. When I had time and the crew had a car available, I occasionally went out into the desert again after the finish and accompanied runners from the backfield of participants to the finish.

Such a week is certainly extreme in many ways. Did you process everything already?

Nope! Not at all. But it gets better. I had health problems towards the end and at home, shingles made me rest. The overall burden was high. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to miss a minute.

What inspired you personally the most?

My people! Let’s neglect for a moment my high expectations for the club. Let’s also avoid to say they’re my people. I’m just the oldest. Let’s also neglect what the clubbers themselves were most enthusiastic about. The most decisive was that the club had a wonderfully long and good “germination time”. The LDRC had one year to grow and on-site in just a few days it went with giant steps an extraordinary final. I don’t mean the athletic part – I’m talking about the smart part, the spirit. If possible, each one of us stood at the finish line in the evening when our last ones came in. The club received admiration and recognition for its spirit from the Namibian crew, media representatives and especially runners from the other 39 countries. And that’s what happens now. The third place winner of the race Jovica Spajic from Serbia wrote to me the day before yesterday that he wants to become a member of our club. We are a free-roaming group of madmen from Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Germany. This spirit carries outwards but also drives each and every one of us. Especially, when things get tough. And it’s guaranteed to get tough in a race like this. If you’re lucky, someone will be there to talk you into the race again and I mean this sentence very lovingly. Even if you may just go on because you don’t want to resist anymore. Our success proves us right in any case. A crisis is a temporary phenomenon. Support is good for that. This is the main task of the club.

A long and flat stretch on gravel. No other sounds besides your breath and footsteps – © 4 Deserts

What can be done better?

I can get better. Much better. With so many people, there are also disagreements. This affects me because my need for harmony is very strong. Disharmony in the desert is impossible – because for me it is the epitome and the place of peace. I can still improve the handling of the topic. But what upsets me much more is unfairness. The fact is that one of our runners knowingly shortened and overtook runners. I only learned that this even happened several times after the race because third parties asked me about it. I’m not personally angry or disappointed. It’s just very embarrassing for the club, which is seen in such a positive light. I have to criticize myself – I should have addressed this as a “team boss”. But I would never have thought that I would have to take care of something like this in the context of a desert race.

And what’s Rafael Fuchsgruber up to? Are there plans for an ambitious race without being a tour guide?

For sure. There will be something else this year. Chile, Mozambique and Chad are possible options. On the last short stage in Namibia, I had the pleasure of running all alone. I missed that a little bit. The three days with Kirsten on the route were sensational. I’ve never run 160 kilometres in the desert with a running partner by my side. What she delivered sportily in her first race is madness. Just as much I am impressed by so much curiosity to ask questions and really listen to the answers. I felt particularly honoured when the interviewer from a Japanese television in Namibia finally said to me: “And once again very warm greetings and congratulations to your daughter on winning the race”.

Antje Wensel marching to 9th place – © 4 Deserts

If you’re interested in a desert race today: What do you have to be able to do and how long do you have to plan to finish such a race?

Quite simply: You have to want it! Best example: Antje Wensel from Dresden. She contacted me two years ago and we met. Antje suffers from lipedema, an inherited fat distribution disorder. Subcutaneous fatty tissue increasingly accumulates in the thighs, buttocks and hips. The typical appearance is a rather slender upper body with a voluminous lower body. She does not have the classic runner figure and can be found in the backfield of the usual races with a marathon time of 5:16 hours. When we met, I liked the clarity with which she saw this race, herself with her illness and the tasks at hand. She wanted it so bad. But she also wanted to tackle the necessary issues. That’s it! She worked it off piece by piece in exactly this clarity and has sensationally walked and marched into the top 10 of the women. And trust me, Antje can march! I tried to keep up with her in the Namib – no chance at all. She’s one of the sensations in this club. I knew she’d make it. But she surprised me with this result and the manner how she achieved it. I didn’t expect this beforehand. But it also shows us what can be achieved if we have a plan and take the necessary steps. And even if you have better conditions than Antje, you still have to take care of the steps. A few years of running experience is good to enjoy the race. The cut-off times at these events are determined in such a way that a runner or marcher can make it at 4 km/h and stay in the race. This, however, for six days from morning to evening. Basically, the direction at the start is important. The pace comes second. The winners only need 23 hours for the 250 km, whereas the slower participants have considerably more of the race with up to 70 hours.

The members of the Little Desert Runners Club at the finish of the Sahara Race – © 4 Deserts

The Little Desert Runners Club starts on 29 July 2018 in Mongolia at the Gobi March. Fourteen months preparation time is ideal!

Original interview by Norbert Hensen in German

Running the Sahara Desert

The journey to run the Marathon des Sables started two years before even standing at the starting line in the blistering heat of the Moroccan desert with 1200 other enthusiastic runners. Last doubts are pushed aside and I bravely clicked the “submit” button on the application form of the Marathon des Sables. My sportswear closet contains many marathon finisher shirts, but 250 sandy kilometres through the heat of the Sahara is a different story. The challenges for such an endeavour are plentiful: gathering together the optimal equipment, testing race nutrition or keeping the balance between job, family and training, just to name a few.

These guys are much better adapted to the conditions than us humans. However, the Fennec running pants did a great job in keeping my legs cool, too.

Planning stage: The race distance is 250 km within 7 days. Roughly 20% of the race will be through energy-sapping sand dunes with fine sand, the other on gravel, dried salt lakes and mountain ridges. Temperatures are expected to be above 30°C during the daytime and drop to 5°C at night.
The organiser offers rationed water, a tent for shelter and medical support if necessary. The runners, on the other hand, carry their entire gear, including the sleeping bag, cooking utensils and nutrition for a week.

Blowing Sahara sand, which a friend imported, onto different gaiters to check their functionality. Testing your equipment is essential!

Training: My preparation in the lead up to the event consisted of five workouts a week with many back-to-back runs and up to 100 km a week. Almost every run was also used to test different equipment and clothing options. Early on, the choice fell on the X-Bionic Fennec pants. This much I can reveal: they served me very well during the race. Backpacks and sleeping bags were also tested during short overnight stays on different campgrounds. The tapering phase, the month before flying to Morocco, was used for heat training with 10 sessions of 40 minutes at 40°C. In order to achieve these conditions, I set up a treadmill and installed a heater inside the bathroom. This torturous training prepared me well and is now a standard part of my preparations for races in heat.

My training centre at home, converting the family’s bathroom into a heat chamber with radiant heaters.
Perfect temperatures at home to acclimatize to the heat in the Sahara.

 

“Whenever my mind is challenging my sanity for enrolling in this race, I close my eyes and see the breathtaking views from a tall sand dune. I am sure it will be worth the sacrifice. “

Travelling: After a long day of travelling by plane and bus we finally arrived at the first bivouac, a tent city in the Moroccan desert. Every sense is presented with a new sensation: the air is clear and dry, the hot sun is relentlessly challenging our skin and steps are demanding in the soft sand.
Here, I first meet my tent mates, a group of dedicated runners with a common goal in mind.
The challenges over the next days will let us grow together as a family. After the medical check, the backpack is re-packed once more. It is barely closing, with the zipper under tension. Just like a slightly too little shirt over a belly. The last night before the start is short due to a sandstorm and the wind almost blew our tent away.

Race day: At sunrise, the bivouac turns into an ant farm with all the competitors getting busy cooking breakfast and getting ready for the first “ACDC- Highway to hell”, which will mark the start of every morning in the following days.

Before the start, proudly presenting Switzerland. There is a certain tension amongst the athletes.

Day 1 – 34 km (570 hm): After 3 km we reach a huge patch of picturesque sand dunes. Breathtaking views but also breathtakingly hard to run on. Reading the sand is an art form, which, when done correctly, allows you to run on wind compressed sand. The shoulder strap of my backpack is already cutting into my shoulders. After a while, the wind picks up and stops any running activity. Wrapped in a balaclava to protect the airways, we lower our heads and lower the pace to a brisk walk. The hot sand stings on the skin. We all remain covered in sand for the next 3 hours until we reach the finish line where we collect the rationed water and move to our tent to asses the damages on our feet and equipment. I twisted my right ankle stepping on a rock today, but I am fortunate that I only needed a bandage.

Using wood that was collected in the vicinity of the camp we start a small fire. However, the wind made it difficult to maintain the fire burning.

In the middle of a dried out salt lake.

Day 2 – 41 km (320 hm): The road book points out, that day two should be a fairly easy day with 41 km without significant amounts of sand dunes. However, my perfect race comes to a forceful stop at 22 km, where I find myself dealing with stomach cramps. Two salt tablets without sufficient liquid have been a bad idea. I walk to the next checkpoint and rehydrate in the shade of a tent. After resting for a while, I decided to speed walk the rest of the distance in the glistening sun. I also had to make use of my secret weapon, a small iPod with an audiobook on it. Reaching the finish line after 7 hours we are told, that this day showed one of the highest dropout rates in the history of the race. Incredible heat, wind and only 7% humidity took its toll on all of us.

Day 3 – 37 km (370 hm): It is truly amazing how fast your muscles recover if you treat them well: yesterday, shortly after passing the finish line I took a protein meal and elevated the legs for 2 hours. Today, my legs feel fine again, despite the marathon yesterday. The plan for stage 3 is to start slow and conserve energy for the large stretch over some impressive dunes and the first Jebel (desert mountain). Carrying three litres of water makes the backpack heavy and the extra bottle fixed on my front pack rocks back and forth kicking my stomach and making me nauseous.
After 100 km in the desert, I finally learned to read the sand and efficiently place my steps. Rule of thumb: sand with fine ripples as well as sand with any vegetation is harder. Running the dunes downhill is a lot of fun, but if you run too fast your back leg will get stuck in the sand and cause a fall. I had a great race today and was able to keep up the pace until the finish line. Finishing strong – a true confidence booster for the next day.

It’s running smoothly today.

Word of mouth is spread quickly and so I became the “official” blister doctor for all neighbouring tents: I open the blister with a needle and replace the fluid with a red eosin solution. After 30 seconds of a burning feeling, some tears and unpronounceable swear words, I squeeze out the red fluid and compress the wound tightly with a bandage. Runners in the next tent are not feeling well today and we hear vomiting sounds. Unfortunately, many will drop out of the race this evening. While the water was cooking for my Spaghetti Bolognaise, I decide to use some precious water to rinse my X-Bionic gear. It was easy to remove the salt collected over the past days and my pants and shirt were just as new.

Climbing up one of the Jebels.

Day 4 – 84 km (1000 hm): At 8.30am ACDC is played and we set off to the longest stage of the race. Shortly after the start, we climb up the steep Jebel Otfal holding onto ropes. After taking in the breathtaking view at the summit we run downhill on the opposite side. The rocks on this mountain remind me of huge blocks of dark glass with shattered parts sharp as knives. My garters get ripped open twice, which forces me to take out my sewing needle and close the holes. I can’t risk that sand will enter my shoes and cause blisters. The next stretch through the Sahara is brutal. Around noon we stand in the centre of an immense salt flat fully exposed to the sun. The view of the mountain chain in the distance seems out of focus in the glimmering air. My shadow is barely covering my feet that take me forward step by step. After many more hours, the temperatures drop with the setting sun. The final 35km have to be run in the dark, which adds a new challenge. Reading the sand in the beam of the headlights is impossible and we need so much energy sinking in with every tiny step. We have to make additional rest breaks which offer the possibility to enjoy the night sky. I have never seen so many stars before and it seems that there are no black areas at all. The last 10 km are torturous because the finish line is clearly visible and seems so close, but does not come any closer. After a while, tired and happy, we reached our tent. After 1h the thighs stop burning and I fall into a shallow sleep.

Looking back at the big amount of runners who still have to climb the sand dune.

Day 5 – Rest Day: Sleeping in is just not possible after sunrise. The heat in the black tents is unbearable. Sitting in the shade in underwear, we try to catch some of the desert winds to cool our bodies. After 2000 calories I can feel my body recover and I can move around the bivouac. A headache is bothering me and I take care to replenish sufficient fluid and salt throughout the day. Everybody makes use of the spare time to send short emails from the media tent. Many of the runners are still out there in the blistering sun making their way to the finish line. At 5 pm we spot the two camels which accompany the last runners. Everybody makes their way to the finish line to welcome the final athlete with a great round of applause.

The nutrition during such long races is one of the key elements.

Day 6 – 42 km (270 hm): I have already eaten 4 kg of food from my backpack so carrying it became so much easier. Today, I want to challenge my body and start the day with the goal to run a respectable time over the marathon distance. After the gun goes off, I put in the effort and try to stay with the lead runners. While some clouds are protecting us from the sun, the temperatures are still too high for me to maintain my effort. I decide to start a shuffle allowing my body to cool down after every 15 minutes. From the roadbook, I recall that the navigation calls for two left turns and therefore stay as far left as I can. This saves me an energy-sapping detour through small dunes. The finish line comes in sight. I push harder and go over my aerobic threshold, but I have nothing to lose – the ultimate goal of the 2-year journey is in sight. After passing the finish I drop to my knees and sit in the sand for a long while.

During this adventure, I was taught many valuable lessons. The most striking lessons were the following:

  1. You can teach your body to recover fast – back-to-back runs are a great workout for that
  2. Test all your equipment beforehand, you will be happy you did
  3. Prepare for the heat in any possible way (clothing, heat training, sun protection…)
  4. During endurance events like the MdS, it’s a small ridge between “all is running smoothly” and “catastrophic loss of energy” lay really close together. Accept this and make plans on how to cope and adapt to realistic goals. With the right mindset, you will get back on your feet and to the finish line.

Your Daniel