“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