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For the Love of Self-Supported Stage Races

rabbitELITEtrail athlete Adam Kimble has had a banner year in 2018 with 9 wins, 3 second place finishes, a top 10 at the competitive early season Way To Cool 50k and a 13th place finish in his first attempt at the Western States 100. For many this could satisfy a lifetime pursuit of results at the highest level in running, but not for Adam who absolutely loves to compete. Naturally, he's not done for the year and in just over a month he'll head half-way around the world to pursue his true passion, his second self-supported stage race in Nambia, Africa.

At the beginning of 2015, my wife and I quit our jobs and traveled internationally for a year. We visited seventeen different countries and ended up on six of the seven continents. In addition to getting to know the locals, experiencing new cultures, and eating incredible food, we also did our share of running all over the world. Most of the time, this was just heading out our door and seeing what we would “run into” in foreign countries. Other times, we would run some actual races in these countries.  In only my second year as an ultrarunner, I had decided to coordinate some of our travels with races that were in the area (race-cation anyone?). During our travels, my wife’s sister and her husband happened to be living in Dali, located in the Yunnan province of China.  isiting them was a must, so I researched ultramarathons in and around China. Eventually, I came across the 4Deserts race series, and ended up signing up for the Gobi March, a 250km (155-mile) self-supported stage race through the Gobi Desert in northern China.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a self-supported stage race, it’s exactly as it sounds: a race split into stages, where each runner carries all their provisions.  The 250km are spread out over the course of five different stages varying in length.  Essentially, it’s like running a new race every day! Most stages are close in distance to a marathon, and there is typically both a long (approximately 50-mile) and short (approximately 10-mile) stage to mix it up as well. Overall finishing times are calculated through the accumulation of each day’s time. Once you cross the finish line for the day, the clock stops and starts again the following morning at the beginning of the next stage. The race support provides water at checkpoints and hot water at camp to cook food, but outside of that, it’s literally “on you” to carry your supplies!

What is so great about a stage race? Everything. Running miles and miles in one of the most remote areas of the world. Being completely unattached to technology and disconnected from everything except the other runners. Eating one of the best meals of my life at the end a week where I felt like I was starving. Spending a week straight getting to know people from nearly every corner of the earth, building lifelong friendships through our shared struggle across a desert. The relationships were what meant the most to me, and the primary factor in my certainty that I wanted to run another stage race. Just as we see in all aspects of the running and ultrarunning communities, the people are truly rad!  The stage-race community is no different. In fact, these people are some of the most awesome, interesting people I’ve ever met in my entire life.

Fast forward to 2018. I had been craving to repeat the experience I had in the Gobi Desert, but every year, my racing schedule seems to fill up faster and faster. Earlier this year, my great friend and fellow ultrarunner, Kris King, told me I should run one of his races. Kris is the Race Director and Owner of Beyond the Ultimate, a UK-based race organization that puts on multi-stage races all over the world. He was also my partner-in-crime in June of 2017 when we became the first two people to run the length of Great Britain self-supported while also summiting the highest peak in each of the three countries (Scotland, Wales, England) along the way. So, even though I had a big racing year centered around Western States in June, the Desert Ultra race in Namibia fell at the end of November, after all the other races on my calendar. I just couldn’t say “no.”

During my first go at the Gobi March, I ended up winning my first international race amongst a field of almost 200 runners from 40 different countries! It was a life-changing moment, and one that altered my trajectory and led me to becoming a professional ultrarunner and coach. Many things went well for me during the race, but I made one particularly large mistake: my pack was WAY too heavy. In fact, I had one of the heaviest packs of any of the runners. An Italian runner and friend of mine who finished fourth overall at the race, came up to me at the awards ceremony and said, “imagine what you could have done if your pack was a normal weight!” Live and learn, right? Well, I have learned, and I will do everything in my power to cut the weight I carry on my back. Doing things like using a better pack to hold my gear, packing a lighter sleeping bag and sleeping pad, portioning my food in the lightest baggies, and even cutting the handle off my toothbrush will be a part of my regimen. Over the course of a week, your pack gets lighter from the food consumption, but everything also feels heavier because your legs are getting tired!  Every ounce counts. 

Another lesson that I learned is that body maintenance is overwhelmingly crucial during a stage race. You’re out there for nearly a week, so any issues that come up will plague you until you’re done with the race.  For me, one item that added weight but proved to be worth it, was a RangeRoller stick to roll out my muscles. I believe I was the only person in the entire race who carried one, but so many other runners asked me to use it! Running a marathon or more every day means that you’re going to have kinks, and for me, I know it’s important to be able to work them out with more than just my hands. 

The last of the biggest takeaways I had from round one was that you can’t short yourself on food. It’s good to cut the weight of your pack, but if doing that requires cutting down your allotted food, it’s not worth it. I had more than the required amount of food in the Gobi Desert, but even that left me hungrier than I had ever been at the end of that week. You think you snack a lot at home? Trust me, you have plenty more time to think about food when you’re isolated in the middle of a desert! Give your body what it needs and make sacrifices elsewhere.

Now I find myself in a position I’ve been waiting for since I crossed that final finish line in the Gobi Desert. I’ve been working on dealing with the heat via some sauna sessions, hot yoga, and running on the hotter days in Auburn (an hour from where I live in Tahoe), much like I did in my training for Western States. All the while, I know that the temperatures in my yoga classes will pale in comparison to Namibia. In six weeks, I’m headed to the Namib Desert to once again experience something that changed my life three years ago. The only difference is, this time I have a lot more perspective on how to properly prepare!


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