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Sahara Race Blogs

View All Posts From : Riitta Hanninen

Settling Into Training

12th February 2017 02:59 AM[(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]

So…. A few weeks have passed since I signed up to “race” 250-km in Namibia. No more requests to join the volunteer team but a few have requested to do my mandatory equipment check. CP Captain Tony Brammer has promised it’s going to be thorough – I better not show up with patches wrong way around or with a small whistle!

I’m happy to report that training has started to take some sort of shape. When you change sports or start it all over again, it always takes a while to get into the routine and start liking it. But I think it’s gradually sinking in. My legs have got use to it: a 15k run no longer hurts my hips or muscles the next day and the couple of times I’ve gone paddling, I haven’t been able to keep up with others, so as annoying it is, it must be a good thing! 

I think I had a highlight of my training this week. It was early morning and I ran from the south side of Hong Kong island, over the hills and then along a flat Bowen Road that overlooks the city centre. I was overtaken by a woman. Crap how annoying! I blamed the big backpack that I was testing and didn’t like. Another woman goes past. Now this is really annoying. So I speeded up a bit and passed them, but towards the end the other woman passes me again. We got to the end of Bowen together where she turns around to go back and shows her PREGNANT belly! And it wasn’t a small bump. It was a proper at least 5-6 months pregnant bump that looked like it should slow you down. I should probably look at my pace again!  But good on her!

Friends Are the Best & Worst

I’m lucky to have a few 4 Deserts veterans living in my neighborhood. As much as I value their tips, I (secretly) think they get satisfaction of telling me what to do  J  But so far we are still friends.

Here’s a few:

Lene Larsen – Atacama Crossing 2015, Gobi March 2015 and The Last Deserts 2016:
“Don’t forget to run in the sand – it makes your ankles strong”.

Andrew Strachan – Gobi March 2008, RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, Iceland 2013
“Fix yourself a standing desk. You’ll find your legs and back tired first but you’ll be much better prepared for being on your feet.”  
“Don’t train too much. You’ll be fine with a couple of times a week!” [This is my personal favorite!]

Ali Chaudhry – RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, Australia 2010, Nepal 2011, Iceland 2013, Madagascar 2014, Atacama Crossing 2015, Gobi March 2016, The Last Desert 2016
“Put lubricant everywhere. I mean EVERYwhere!” [Ali developed a rather personalised walking style for ignoring his own advice in Iceland 2013.]

Jo Eades – RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, Australia 2010, Gobi March 2014
“When I did Namibia, the best training, besides a few runs on the beach, was tackling the twins [these are 400 meter peaks in Hong Kong]. They’ll get you strong for dunes and step training helps when you’re sliding backwards in the sand.

Ross Eathorn, Personal Trainer – Sahara Race 2009, Atacama Crossing 2012

“Everyone’s different - what works for one may not work for another person but it’s good to have some kind of a structure in training.”

It’s great to be able to absorb their experience and views, and just talk about training in general. It makes it more interesting and there’s always something you haven’t thought about.


Despite Ross’ advice, I decided not to opt for a personal trainer so I can keep living in my dream world (ha!), but I’ve begged and begged and managed to find friends to do some of my training sessions with, and identified a couple of training groups to make this all it as fun as possible.

Measures and figures:

I don’t use a GPS watch that much but I think it’s good to record some mile stones along the way.  Let’s say in the beginning, half way and towards the end.

Speed: I started by noting down the time of my first longer training session which was a combo of running and hiking. It was 3 hrs and I covered 18km with 600 meters of elevation gain and loss. It’s obviously not a flat run so I figured the hills compare to the soft sand and dunes in Namibia. So let’s say around 6km / hr will be my starting pace, which hopefully then equals then a medium / tired pace in Namibia. Although that could be a little optimistic with a heavy backpack.

Heart Rate: When I studied physiotherapy years back we did a lot of fitness testing. Since study times, I’ve used a heart rate monitor very little. I believe more in knowing your base HR levels (rest HR, max HR and the basic training levels, usually around 70/80/90%) and training based on how you feel. But of course it’s good to check those here and there. Just as speed, a heart rate is an indication of fitness level and it can be motivating to keep an eye on both.

During my first long run (and not having used a HR monitor for a long time) I noticed that during a 3-hour run, my heart rate was more or less 150. Whether it was uphill or downhill or flats, it stayed around that mark. Occasionally it reached 160 but didn’t go above it.

A good example comes from the 100km Trailwalker races that I completed in 2007-2009. Kobi Jansen who was our team’s captain used to insist on walking ALL uphills. Looking back, that was just the right thing and allowed all four of us finish the 100km-race, even that year when the temperatures were around 30C mark. Pacing is going to be the key in order to finish something as long as 250-km. 

But then again on shorter week day runs I think it’s good to really work on getting the heart rate up (and down). Nothing beats interval training, as awful as it can be.

Training Plan:    

After a couple of weeks “warm up” I drafter a training plan. In brief it’s about short but more intense training sessions on the week days to build strength and speed and then building up the distance on the weekends.

The Namib Desert is full of sand. It’s the oldest desert in the world so that’s obviously not going to change. That sand is going to slow everyone down and make it much tougher – and drive me mad.

Trails in Hong Kong are quite the opposite. Although it has some of the beautiful trails in the world (see yourself):

... the government here likes to pave trails. All most of the common trails are paved – where there is no pavement is where they ran out of concrete!

Why am I talking about pavement? Well it makes running much quicker. So as preparation (both mental and physical) I’ve decided to find awkward places to run from time to time. I’m lucky to have a few beaches around but for those who don’t have, it could be a swamp, snowy trail, soft forest track.

For those who live in hot countries, I think training in heat is also good. It makes your training runs slower but it builds up stamina. Whether the race is in hot or cold environment (for most part the course in Namibia is not particularly hot).

Below is what I came up with:





Strength training

1hr bootcamp / gym


Short Run / Intervals

6-13km / 1-2 hrs


Strength training

1hr bootcamp / gym


Short Run / (Intervals)

6-13km 1-2 hrs





Long Run

14km < / 3-4 hrs


Long Run

14km < / 3-4 hrs


+ Stretching in the evenings (although this is often replaced by snoring!).

A “couple” of notes:

  • The first couple of weeks I did just a few easy runs to get used to it again and had plenty of rest days.
  • If I had a year or even six month to prepare and train, this plan would be quite different and evolve more month after month. This plan is based on “see you at the start line in 3 months!”.
  • REST day/s are super important. My plan includes just one rest day but I trust that reality and my laziness will ensure that there will at times be more rest and missed trainings. Eeh, that’s just life. 
  • I included 2 strength training sessions – need to get the butt and core strong for the billions of steps, soft sand and heavy backpack. Adding distance and carrying a heavy backpack gets you injured, without a good foundation (strength training). Again if I had more time, I would start with more strength training but let’s hope this works.
  • Clarification on distance: Distance means nothing in Hong Kong. We have hundreds of peaks anywhere from 300-1000 meters so staring at distance is pretty pointless. If you’re running pace is 10 km / hr it can easily drop anywhere from 7-1 km/ hr when you start ascending and descending the hills.
  • short runs should include some sprinting. INTERVAL training is by far the best way to develop and build fitness. Running at the same pace and doing the same thing doesn’t do any good. The Tuesday run is usually short and planned to be higher intensity. Thursday run is all the way to the office so 13km so realistically there’s probably less springing involved.
  • The long runs on the weekend are around 3-4 hours. The long sessions also include walking. I don’t walk very much at all so that’s something I need to ‘practice’ to get a bit faster. My guess is that that’s what I end up doing quite a bit in Namibia, so the stronger walker I am, the quicker I’ll reach the camp. With that I was planning to introduce hiking poles pretty soon.
  • Warm ups and STRETCHING – so easy to ignore – Any training should start with a warm up and ends to stretching. In the first few weeks, the plan is to focus more on stretching. (I say that but let’s see if it happens).
  • REMINDER: This is my plan. It’s based on the aim of trying to get to camp for late lunch / early dinner just in time to wake up the leaders from their post lunch nap (sorry Ralph and Mo!), and to have some gossip time with tent mates. Training 2-3 times a week is also OK. It all depends on how much time you have from work, family and everyday life. Also train like you plan to race and race like you have trained. Depending on your goals a 2-3 hour run might mean 2-3 hike.

The “plan” is to change the plan. When I’ve followed this for 4-6 weeks, I’ll see how it all feels and make some modifications. The changes include:  

  • Backcpack: Doing some of the runs with a bigger backpack and adding weight gradually (5->12kgs). Actually backpack I’m going to introduce occasionally earlier.
  • Hiking poles: Take them with me on the weekends. I reckon they’ll be my best friends in the soft sand or when my legs start giving up. Poles allow to use upper body more so hopefully my legs won’t end up giving up.
  • Back-to-back training: Have a couple of good back-to-back weekends, or even 3-day slot. Do around 25km – 30km – 25km. This really helps to get your head and body ready and see how you recover. It’s not something you want to be doing all the time as the more you push, the greater the risk of injury is, but it’s a good wake-up call / confidence builder, as that’s exactly what the race is about. Back-to-back, 6 times!
  • 50km< Test: Include at least 1 x 50km or more training or a race (the latest I can do this is 4 weeks before the race to allow some time for recovery)
  • “Tapering”: Just as rest days, I believe in tapering. It means taking the last few 5-8 days off to allow your body recover, get ready, and build up energy and fluid reserves.  

I presume all the above is going to suck at some point. If it happens, I will then take a day off and go to movies after work - or have fatty hamburgers and a few beers. Relaxing either way!

I think that’s it for now. I feel like at this point I still enjoy writing more than training. But as they say: “Do what I say, not what I do”.

Comments: Total (1) comments

Sam F

Posted On: 12 Feb 2017 07:26 AM

A great read Riitta - really interesting and useful. Nice to see you out at a local Hong Kong race today - in front of me of course!

19th January 2017 12:19 PM[(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]

So here we are: I have FINALLY decided to jump to the other side of the fence by signing up for the Sahara Race (Namibia): 250 kilometers, 7 days, self-supported by my own feet. For anyone who has signed up too, don’t worry, I’m not going to be conducting customer research or spy and expose you for penalties – I’m going to be SUFFERING, LIVING and LOVING it over the 250 kilometers and 7 days like the rest of you.


Since I shared the news, some of our past competitors have asked to join the volunteer team. Just for the sheer pleasure of driving past me by 4x4 is my guess! (Haha I hope this doesn't turn into a Dacar Rally.)


I obviously have a few obstacles to tackle, like how to get ready for the race in just over three months, but what I do really look forward to is having the time to enjoy the race from a participant’s perspective and selfishly focus on me (thank you my dear colleagues for letting me slack this time!)


There are lots of amazing things to experience (pictures can never bring justice but below is a few to give you a better idea): The Namib Desert (the oldest desert in the world by the way) and all those incredible things along the course: huge waves and strong currents of the Skeleton coast. Numerous seal colonies, and the cute small black seal heads that keep popping up and down in the waves. They are seriously funny to watch! Historical ship wrecks on the foggy coast, including Henrietta on Stage 2, which is partially covered by the sand. Huge golden and red sand dunes (we have added a few more to the 2017 course). All that deserted red landscape with canyons and valleys where the course leaves the Skeleton Coast. A random diamond mind from earlier this century and its rusty structures in the middle of the desert. The ever so happy local team who love chanting their traditional African songs as they set up the tents (or when they sneak out to play football), and a local Himba tribe who wears nothing but leathers and their handmade jewellery, but are some of the most beautiful people on the African continent. And just as important, I’m looking forward to not rushing around but let my beloved colleagues do it J. Instead I’ll focus on having endless chats with other competitors, enjoying the sun rises and sun sets around the camp fires – and of course a good tent gossip!  Looks like there’s a great bunch (and still many signing up) - Between us we share over 30 nationality flags! www.4deserts.com/sahararace/competitors 

What I think will be challenging for me personally besides the obvious (distance, challenging terrain and testing weather) will be blisters. Just for the record, I lost SEVEN (!) toe nails in my first 100km Trailwalker. But that was long time ago there’s lot you can do to prevent them. The second thing maybe limitations on what you can fit into the backpack. Don’t get me wrong. I love getting back to basics and I find a week without showers or changing clothes incredible relaxing. But I’m used to having a heavy warm sleeping bag and lots of food (just for the record, it’s never been any different to competitors. I enjoy the same orange packs as you). Anyways keeping the weight of my backpack could be challenging!     


Getting Started:

So I signed up pretty late (a couple of weeks ago). Just less than 4 months to the race. I do admit that being an organiser for living, I may not be most organised in my personal life – ad hock things do happen. All the time.


Typically the first things to determine when you decide to sign up for a multi-stage race are:

1)     Motivation – why do you want to do this?

2)     Your current fitness level and;

3)     Your goal/s and based on that;

4)     Your commitment (ie training plan)

So why do I want to complete the Sahara Race? Besides the points I mentioned earlier, I have always loved sports. I was more active before I made my hobby my living, but being active has always been part of my life. When I was just over 2 years old, my parents noticed that everything wasn’t quite right. My feet were starting to crow in a funny direction, swell and I seemed to be in increasing pain. Six months later after lots of tests, I was diagnosed with a severe juvenile arthritis. The doctors said that I may never be able to run, and even walking could be difficult. A couple of years followed with regular visits to hospitals, intense treatments, medication, shots and I started slowly getting better. Thanks to the great level of healthcare we have in Finland and an incredible amount of patience and love from my parents to go through all this I am what I am today. For all of my teen age and adult life I have been able to do sports and enjoy it. Arthritis is an autoimmune disease that will always stick with me and it does from time to time remind me of its existence but all in all I consider myself VERY lucky. And that’s why I try to keep in mind that being healthy and being able to enjoy sports is not something you can take for granted. But while you can, make the most of it.    


Current Fitness Level

"Do you compete and organize these races at the same time?" is a question I’m often asked. It's a common assumption that race directors are fit. This is probably a false assumption – at least in my case it is. There’s enough to do just managing the various aspects of the 7-day race. If we are lucky we could sneak out to mark the course, pick up markers etc for a while. The days in the office can be quite long too. When the races get close we can easily spend more time at our desk than traders at theirs. 


But I try to exercise as much as I can. Usually in the mornings as it starts the day in a really nice way. I think about running related things a lot, so much of my free time I like to spend on water. Currently I paddle a boat faster than I run. That’s kind of a problem… so I’m going to try to change that (quickly) to get FROM THIS:


[By the way, Salameh Al Acra holds the trophy for several top level stage races including the Sahara Race 2014 with an overall time of 22:44 and the MDS so even to finish in double that time I would be very happy!]




#1 My first goal, like every 4 Deserts competitors’ goal should be, is to finish. There are so many factors that affect a 7-day ultramarathon in the middle of nowhere, that no-one can show up and state that they are 100% going to finish. Exhaustion, stomach bugs, dehydration, injuries are some of the challenges.

The number two most common reasons for withdrawing in our races are:

1)     Blisters

2)     Stomach issues (caused by dehydration, exhaustion, bugs etc)


So I thought I would take a modest approach and as corny as it sounds “listen to my body”. If it wants to walk I walk and if it feels energetic I might run, or in the context of the desert, shuffle.


2# My second goal is to train as well as possible in the time I have so I can “enjoy” the race. Train well doesn’t mean train a lot. Or not train enough. But lazy as I am I’ll try to train smart.  


3# My third (secret) goal is to do as well as possible. I don’t know yet what that means so more about that probably towards the end of my training.   


First Training Run:

Seven years with the race series, it’s not going to be hard to make a training plan, but as most things in life, sticking to it will be challenging. I did my first run a week ago on Sunday. You know that feeling when your GPS watch vibrates and you’re glad to know you’re making progress? I thought I had covered the first kilometer but no… that was just the GPS just registering! Someone reminded me to try to find my inner Chi and the enjoyment in running. I think I found my Qi at some point but probably because I happily forgot myself into a slow pathetic shuffle - at times just standing around. But it’s all about the time on your feet right?  Right.


I did manage to cover 18k, and did even enjoy it, but not a surprisingly, the Rigor Mortis during the next couple of days was equal to the experience – I felt dead and stiff. Also the amount of chocolate that went down alongside with full meals was pretty incredible. I’ll start eating healthier soon.  


I’ve done a few more runs and cross training sessions but by the next update I’ll share a more precise training plan. That's all for now, speak soon!

Comments: Total (0) comments



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