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High School Reunion

High school reunion

Words: Melanie Ho


For the competitors and volunteers who have completed the 4 Desert series, RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009 is like a return to summer camp.


It didn’t take long for Derek Kwik (Hong Kong) to find a familiar person to embrace when he arrived in Windhoek ahead of RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009. The 40-year old was one of the first 15 people to complete the 4 Desert series and is one of 17 competitors in the race to have done so. With two volunteers, Tony Brammer (United Kingdom) and Alasdair Morrison (Scotland) also having competed the 4 Deserts, it may have seemed like RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009 was a reunion of sorts.


“Some of these people I haven’t seen since going to Antarctica in 2006,” Kwik said. “There’s a special feeling among those who were the first to complete the 4 Deserts and now it’s kind of like a high school reunion here. The questions are all the same. What have you been up to? How are your kids? Have you gained any weight?”


Joe Holland (United States) saw the race in a similar light. “I call it Old Home Day,” Holland said. “This is a chance to see our friends who we co-miserated with. I really see these races as having three parts – first it’s friends, second it’s location and the third is the actual running. I think for many of us, the running is the least important of the three.”


Morrison recalled his experience in the different deserts. It started with the Gobi March (China) in 2003 and after that race, Morrison completed a second, a third and then a fourth to join the 4 Deserts Club. A sense of accomplishment certainly accompanied the overall feat, but each race was a challenge within itself.


“When I signed up for the Gobi, I had not done anything of this length before, but felt it was time to get back to pushing myself,” Morrison said. “These races are a great physical and mental challenge and wonderful social experience where you meet just very positive people from around the word. It’s an all-encompassing experience.”


Morrison was supposed to be racing in Namibia but a broken bone in his right foot about a month before the race halted his plans. Now a volunteer, Morrison originally wanted to race because it was a chance to see stunning, unusual locations.  


In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to see completing the 4 Deserts as a viable goal. That was certainly the case for David Kuhnau (United States) who was part of the only team to have completed the 4 Deserts. He started out in 2004 with the Atacama Crossing (Chile) and then vowed never to do it again. But he was back a year later and a win in the Gobi March (China) 2005 propelled his team to sign up for the Sahara Race (Egypt) 2005 and the Last Desert (Antarctica) 2006, which Kuhnau described as the icing on the cake for having completed the other three races.

Asked why he had changed his mind from his first race to his second, Kuhnau used this metaphor: “They call it pregnancy syndrome. During the birth, the women say never again, but a couple of weeks later, they say they want another baby.”


Though there is a difference between resting sore knees and welcoming a life into a world, Kuhnau’s overall point is not lost – doing one race is often not enough. Proof of that lies in one person, Jesse Yoo (South Korea), who is competing in his 11th RacingThePlanet event in Namibia. Yoo, whose favourite race is the Gobi March (he has completed it four times), said that he feels at home in the desert and that it’s a place where he can escape from a busy life in Seoul.


Like Kwik, who is back at RacingThePlanet after a nearly three-year hiatus, Matt Chapman (Australia) is back in Namibia as well. Originally, he completed the 4 Deserts because he was sponsored by his former company and therefore pressed to get the series done quickly. In coming back for his first RacingThePlanet event since the Last Desert (Antarctica) 2006, Chapman noted his fitness.


“It’s a real shock to the system to do these races,” Chapman said. “When I compare my fitness now to what it was back then, I think I was in much better shape a few years ago.”


The 19 4 Desert series veterans have a lot of experience between them. But as they stood at competitor check-in, it was easy to recognise themselves in the eyes of all the first-time competitors. For some, like Kwik, it was all about the weight of the pack.


“You see someone’s pack and you think, ‘that’s a heavy pack’,” Kwik said. “I remember doing that. Experience does help a lot.”


Holland remembered being nervous and wondering if he had enough food, while Jacob Hastrup (Denmark) said experience helped break any nerves.

“After completing the 4 Deserts, you come here and you aren’t nervous,” said Hastrup, who is competing in his seventh RacingThePlanet event. “You just come here and hope the race is tough. For me, the tougher the better and I think that’s why all of us come.”


The experienced hands were not without advice for those thinking of racing for the first time.


“Train with the gear,” Hastrup said. “I see these people who don’t try their gear ahead of time and it looks brand new but it is not going to always work out. I guess the other thing is to talk to someone who has done the race before.”


As for RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, which concludes Saturday after the 10 km Stage 6: The Diamond Trail, 4 Desert club member Kahshin Leow (Singapore) said, “Well this year is by far the most competitive field I’ve ever been in. The women’s division is incredible.”


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