The glorious return to Fish River Ultra 2017

An uncooperative wind made the 2017 edition of the Fish River Ultra even more of a challenge than the 100km sandy course usually provides. On 10 June, 13 intrepid runners set off on the 100km race, and another 57 on the 65km course. Of these 70 athletes, seven didn't manage to finish in the harsh conditions in the canyon. Surprisingly, every one of the 100km runners finished.

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Fish River Challenge map canyonThe Windhoek Light Fish River Ultra takes place in Namibia’s Fish River Canyon: the second-largest canyon in the world. It measures an impressive 5,900 square kilometres, is 180km long, and up to 27km wide. At its deepest point, the canyon plunges a dizzying 550m to the floor of the Fish River.

Who thought it would be a good idea to run along the bottom of this monster?

Two adventurous souls, that’s who! South Africans Bruce Matthews and Ronnie Muhl ran the five-day, 90km hiking trail in 1990, finishing it in just under 12 hours. Since then, people have been competing for the FKT (fastest known time) and in 2012 African Extreme Productions developed it into a 100km race. For its first year, in 2011, it was only 65km. Now it offers a 100km in addition to the 65km.

Fish River Ultra addiction

The Fish River Ultra must be an addictive experience, because the runners keep coming back! Namibian Athanasius Muronga won the 65km Fish River Ultra Lite for the fourth consecutive time, AJ Calitz returned for his third 100km win, and Sandra Le Roux, who won the 65km in 2016, came back to win the 100km this year.

Newbie gets on the podium

Lured by the geological wonder, and the extreme challenge, new runners come to Fish River Canyon to tick off a bucket-list experience. One of the newbies is Roelof Feenstra, a friend of winner AJ Calitz, who placed second at his first-ever FRU this year.

Fish River Canyon Ultra podium
Left to right: Carmen-Rae Bridgens (Windhoek Light), Josef Kamungwe (third), AJ Calitz (first), Roelof Feenstra (second), and Tinus Hansen (African Extreme Productions).

Roelof, used to extreme races like SkyRun 100, Otter African Trail Run, and Rhodes Run, was not fully prepared for the unique challenges of Fish River Ultra. “I’ve done some tough races over the past few years, but nothing compares to the difficult terrain that the Fish River Canyon presents to you.

“The combination of endless fields of super soft sand, classic river rocks and big boulders in the beginning makes it one of the most challenging events I have ever done.”

It wasn’t just the sand, but the river made it tough!

“A funny thing happened around the 68km mark, where I had to swim across the river.

“Once I entered the water it felt like every muscle in my legs cramped up, and my crossing was more of an effort not to drown than a swim!

“When I had nearly reached the other side, I saw an oom (Afrikaans for ‘older man’) watching me with a concerned face. When I tried to stand up, I got such a bad cramp in a hamstring that I fell over backwards and ended up facing the other side of the river again.

“Eventually I managed to crawl out of the river. After the race I talked with the oom. He said he thought I would drown and waited there just in case.”

This goes to show that tough terrain was balanced out by Namibian hospitality. “The highlight was the amazing people hosting the event and participants I met inside the canyon,” says Roelof. “The Namibian people are so positive and friendly, which really helps once things get tough. The event is superbly organised and I’m still amazed that the organisers are able to pull it off in such a remote place.

“The Fish River Canyon is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and it really is a privilege to run in such a special place.”

Distance upgrade, podium repeat

Sandra le Roux ran, and won, the 65km Fish River Ultra in 2016, and came back to tackle the 100km. The occupational therapist won this one too, placing sixth overall in 14h17min.

More than a race, Sandra ran FRU as the second race of her Overcoming Mountains fundraising challenge. The first was the 100km Ultra-Trail Drakensberg, where she placed third.

“Fish River Ultra 100 km was such an amazing experience. I did the 65km last year, so was looking forward to doing the whole route this year and it didn’t disappoint!

“We saw the sunrise while running the 10km along the escarpment to the official hiking drop-off into the canyon.

“The drop into the canyon is very technical, which I enjoyed, but a few runners fell quite badly. One guy smashed his shin open, exposing his tibia bone, but kept on walking to finish, with his compression socks pulled up over the gash!

“The first part in the canyon was slow going with technical terrain (read: huge boulders) and very soft, thick sand. From about 30km (where the 100km meets up with the 65km route), the terrain improved with harder packed trails here and there. It turned out to be a hot day, but fortunately there was enough water to fill up and freshen up along the way.

Sandra le Roux and mom Fish River Ultra
Sandra happy to see her sweeping mom! photo Erika van Niekerk

“I was at the last checkpoint with 20km to go at about 4:30pm, and didn’t hang around too long as I wanted to make use of the last bit of daylight. My mom and a friend were sweeping from there: it was so nice to see them!

“Unfortunately I got a bit lost after the checkpoint by following the riverbed in the wrong direction. After about 2km I realised my mistake and backtracked with the last bit of daylight leaving me in pitch darkness. Luckily there were a few 65km guys who were really helpful in pointing me in the right direction.

“From there on I was glued to my GPS but I really battled in the dark. I couldn’t orientate myself, and struggled to find my way. It was such a relief to see the lights of the race village at Ai-Ais and knowing there would be a welcoming fire, cold beer, and my husband waiting for me was the perfect ending to a great day.

“I can’t wait to return next year and hopefully will have improved my navigation skills by then!”

The money Sandra raises in her Overcoming Mountains drive goes to Lewensruimte, a village for multi-disabled members of the Deaf community, in Worcester. Follow this link to donate.

Fully recovered and race ready

AJ Calitz won the Windhoek Light Fish River Ultra for the third time in 8h55min. His closest competitor, Roelof, followed more than two hours later. AJ not only holds the record for the race (8h04min in 2014) but in 2016 he took a break from the race to break Ryan Sandes’ Fish River FKT by 18 minutes. He now holds the record of 6h39min. Read about his FKT experience in TRAIL 21.

His 2017 win is special for a different reason: in April he suffered a stroke, recovered, and not even two months later he won this 100km desert race by a huge margin!

He wrote a detailed report of the race experience, from the drive there to the difficult finish.

“Running the Fish River Ultra is about as far away as you can be from civilisation. If you get into trouble, you have to get yourself out of it. There’s no cellphone reception – my kind of place.

Fish River Canyon Ultra campsite on canyon edge
The FRU campsite on the canyon’s edge.

“As with the previous three years, we started the nine hour journey to the Fish River Canyon at an eye-watering hour of the morning. Having been there before on a number of occasions I knew what to expect, but my partners in crime did not. An old school mate and training partner, Roelie Feenstra and his father, Oom Roelof, decided to make a short holiday of it. Another very established hiker and Fish River expert, Eric McLaren joined us for the race.

“The trip up was a quick one, with time consumed by tips and tricks from myself and Eric on how to do the Canyon… little did we know what we would be in for, as the weather, contrary to all predictions, would make going very difficult.

“We arrived at around 4pm at the beautiful campsite on the edge (and I mean right on the edge) of the canyon, where the now-familiar African Extreme Promotions team lead by Tinus Hansen were working away on the preparations. Before they set up the campsite there is nothing, and I mean really nothing. If there’s something you want, you have to bring it.

Fish River Canyon Ultra race briefing by AJ Calitz IMG_2173 t25 small
AJ’s perspective at the Fish River Ultra race briefing on the edge of the canyon.

“Dressed snugly in a K-Way down jacket and beanie, I got a stunning race briefing overlooking the canyon, and Namibian hospitality ended the day.

“We were woken up on the morning of the Windhoek Light Fish River Ultra by a howling wind, flattening even the canvas tents we were sleeping in. There were some teary-eyed runners toeing the start line!

“It was also unseasonably warm for the start and we could begin in very little gear. Dressed in a K-Way running short, sleeveless vest, and Buff, with a well-stocked hydration pack, I was ready and rearing to go.

“The race started with two locals setting a quick pace to the hikers descent where yours truly took the first of numerous tumbles. One of the side effects of my stroke is that I have to re-learn certain technical skills. Backside-over-head down the treacherous descent is not how I planned my FRU. I was relatively unscathed with only a little blood, but I broke my watch strap and had to run with it in my hand for the rest of the way.

Fish River Canyon Ultra descent by Johan Rademeyer
photo Johan Rademeyer

“I pushed quite hard down the descent (the parts I didn’t roll down) and made a gap on the local runners. You never really know how far the person behind you is.

“Some areas of the canyon I did recognise and having made mistakes on a number of occasions, I could correct as I went.

“The sun started beating down at 10am and it became hot, really hot, especially as there was a northerly wind (from behind), providing no respite. A great many hikers have also been down the canyon due to good pre-season rain, so the tracks were trodden marshmallow-soft and made going very difficult.

“Although there is ample water, I could not wait to get to the water points for some much needed energy food and drinks, not to mention the support. Unfortunately, the water point is only after 62km! The first stretch is a very long, technical and difficult one, as anyone who has done the Fish River Canyon will know…

“With my eyes glued on my Suunto Spartan GPS I made the shortest and fastest way possible to the causeway, marked with the 20km-to-go banner. With some much-needed energy drink and food, I was off again into the distance.

“By now the canyon was opening up a lot more and a strong headwind had come up. I realised today was going to be a toughie as weather conditions were really working against us.

“The only real swimming water-crossing is welcome respite from the searing heat and allows you to wash off seven hours-plus of sweat and salt: afterwards you feel like a million bucks!

“Counting down the kilometres I approached the final stretch that, according to memory, is notoriously sandy and difficult. It did not disappoint, slowing me to a snail’s pace.

On the final corner is the Windhoek Light finishing banner, 200 metres away, and it could not have come sooner!

“A little 10m climb hurt like crazy, and then I was on the finishing straight and had 50m to go. I was so stoked to be done, get off my feet and into the shade, as the sun was relentless!

“Big thanks to the wonderful organising team and congratulations to all the finishers – it was the toughest Fish River Canyon Ultra I have done so far, but it certainly will not be my last.”

Fish River Ultra 2017 results

100km results

Fish River Ultra 2017 Women's winners IMG_1444
Fish River Ultra 2017 women’s race winners
  1. AJ Calitz 08:55:09
  2. Roelof Feenstra 11:12:16
  3. Josef Kamungwe 12:29:49
  4. Philip Wessels 12:43:48
  5. Jacobus Diener 13:25:56
  6. Sandra le Roux 14:17:56 (W)
  7. Fanuel Kapapero 14:54:30
  8. Johann Rademeyer 15:54:08
  9. Wayne Du Plooy 16:27:13
  10. Tyler Bain 17:38:12
  11. Stefan Hanekom 18:12:14
  12. Rika Fourie 18:12:16 (W)
  13. Michael Baleta 19:46:13

65km top five men

  1. Athanasius Muronga 8:06:24
  2. Willem Moolman 8:10:37
  3. Frans Maree 8:14:21
  4. Herman van der Colf 8:32:04
  5. Kevin Yates 8:34:28

65km top five women

  1. Julia Jansen van Rensburg 08:45:09
  2. Madelief Roux 09:31:46
  3. Heidi Burmeister-Nel 10:16:23
  4. Elizabeth Joubert 10:34:07
  5. Jana Joubert 11:21:11

Keep up to date for the 2018 Fish River Ultra by Checking on the Windhoek Light website.

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