The 20° South run is an expedition of monumental proportions. Darren Clarke and Jon O’Hanlon are attempting to cross the width of Africa along its 20th parallel, from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast to Mozambique’s east coast. This 3,000km journey, through often uncharted territory, will follow the paths of rivers, elephant migrations and meandering lines – all for a good cause.
The run is set to take three and a half months, with the pair running 45km per day. It will traverse five countries (Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique) starting on the Skeleton coast at Torra Bay and ending near the Limpopo river mouth on the East coast.
The 20° South run was dreamed up by O’Hanlon little over seven years ago when he shifted his attention to endurance and multisports after mainly participating in competitive team games.
The purpose of the run is to attract people’s attention to two major issues facing the Earth, and Southern Africa in particular. Firstly, the sustainability of the planet, and in particular water sustainability; Southern Africa is one of the world’s top water-scarce regions.
Secondly, the nearing extinction of the sub-Saharan African elephant. This is due primarily to poaching for the ivory trade, and water is key to their survival as well.
How do you find yourself here?
Jon is not your stereotypical ultra runner, he has not been brought up on long distance running ever since he could put one foot in front of the other, in fact, his days in endurance sports only came later in life.
In his own words, Jon does not describe himself as a runner at all, with his background in sports like rugby, hockey and cricket.
“I tried to play as much sport as possible when I was younger, and as many different sports as possible – rugby, soccer, and cricket at school with some tennis and golf,” says Jon.
“During all this sporting activity I started doing some running, and ran my first marathon, the Peninsula, in 1985. I continued to do the odd marathon and half marathon for fun, particularly the Knysna half.
“After retiring from the competitive team sports I then started doing triathlons, and it was during my association with a fantastic group of triathletes that I trained with, that the idea of doing the 20° South Run arrived on the scene.”
Jon had dreamed up this incredible expedition, but it was another matter all together proving to himself that it was something he could complete.
Proving you can run the run
Jon may not have been an endurance runner with all the experience and coaching in the world, but what he did have was a knowledge of training picked up from his days in team sports. He used this know-how to set goals and targets for himself to prove he could cross 3,000 km in almost four months.
“I started to think about whether I was capable of achieving this dream, and I set out to find out what I was capable of,” Jon says.
“It just so happens that I am also a hockey and cricket coach, have done some golf coaching, and am also a qualified personal trainer. So I prepared myself a running programme, quite a simple one really, with the sole intention of training my mind for such an endurance event.
“I was used to going to gym, exercising and running often twice a day. I set myself the task of simply running 12km every day, along exactly the same route, no matter the time of day or the weather conditions or how I was feeling. This I soon extended to 15km every day.
“It was hard, it was boring, and I suffered all sorts of niggles and injuries, but I never once gave in or failed to do a run; I rather made things harder by running through sand to test my mental strength.”
“It was after doing this for around two months that the opportunity arose to run the 220km Cape Odyssey five day multi-stage race across the mountains from Hermanus, Grabouw, and Franschhoek. I entered and completed the run comfortably, even though I damaged the cruciate ligaments in my knee on the first day’s long beach run.
“Again, I did this run to test myself, but now I was looking more at my physical abilities. I knew that through my previous two months of training, as well as the very difficult period that I had been through in my life, that nothing would ever again be able to touch my mental strength.
“Shortly after the Cape Odyssey I entered for the Namib Desert Challenge which I considered to be the ultimate test of my physical capability. This run was also a five day multi-stage race of about 225km, mostly self supported, in 38 degree heat.
“On the first day I got my water, salt and food intake completely wrong and was slightly delirious and cramping for the last 17km. I made it to the end and was put under observation for the rest of the day with the medical team considering putting me on a drip and pulling me out of the race. I continued, got stronger each day, and without even trying to I came 12th out of the 43 runners who started.
“I now had proof that I was mentally and physically strong enough for my expedition across Africa.”[pullquote align=”right” color=”” class=””]“I now had proof that I was mentally and physically strong enough for my expedition across Africa.”[/pullquote]
How do you prepare for the unexpected?
There is plenty of information out there on how to prepare for a race, even an ultra distance race, but how do you prepare for 3,00km and four months?
It would be foolish to try and build up to maximum intensity before the run, rather it would be about using the first few weeks as part of their training according to Jon.
“Darren and I knew that we had to be under-trained for the start.” Jon explains.
“We would be running for about three and a half months and one couldn’t prepare as for a normal race where you build up, reach maximum intensity, peak, and then taper before the event. We were going to need to use the first six weeks of the expedition as part of our training so that we didn’t peak too soon and our bodies would be too wasted and tired to finish.
“This meant that every step of the way I was always feeling unfit and useless. Added to this problem was that we had been advised that we would be losing between 15 and 20kg of weight. I only weigh 75kgs and have only about 11% body fat. This meant that I was supposed to be trying to pick up weight before the event – which in fact I never managed to achieve. So training runs generally felt like I was an unfit, fat slob – a far cry from my usual activity.
“We decided upon a training programme which focused more on running shorter distances twice a day, rather than one run of a longer distance. The key here being recovery.
“So right at the start we would run between 5km and 7km twice a day, then increase these distances to the maximum of doing 10km twice a day, with the occasional longer run over the weekend. This was going well until we hit our next problem…
“We were supposed to be driving out of Cape Town on our way to the start point in Namibia on 1 June, but then the paperwork for the vehicle and trailer, which we had to borrow from a friend, wasn’t complete, causing a two week delay.
“I was all packed and ready to go, but with nowhere to go! I had arranged for a young couple to house-sit my cottage whilst I was away and they had to move in on 1 June which meant that I had to move out. I spent the next two weeks couch-hopping from my daughter’s flat to Darren’s floor and everywhere inbetween[pullquote align=”right” color=”” class=””]I spent the next two weeks couch-hopping from my daughters flat to Darren’s floor and everywhere inbetween[/pullquote] all the time living out of a suitcase and using the kit that I’d prepared for the expedition – far from ideal!
“This also meant that extremely little training happened during these two weeks. We then left on Tuesday 16 June and spent a few days driving up to Torra Bay, our start point, so again no training during this time.
“The end result being that we started running on an exceptionally low base of training over the previous two to three weeks.”
“The first few days of running were horrible,” Jon said flatly.
“We had set out with the idea that because of all the delays and lack of training we would probably start with a gentle 5km run the first day, then up this to maybe 10km, and then see if we can run twice the next day etc.
“We started running on a fairly difficult dirt road, lots of small rolling hills with lots of soft sand in the road – it was fairly hard going. But, to our surprise we clocked up the following distances in our first week of real and hard running: 17km; 20km; 21km; 24km; 23km; 32km followed by a rest day.
“This was also the first time ever that Darren and I had run together. We set off and I immediately knew that the pace was too fast for me. Darren’s training runs before we left Cape Town saw him do 5km time trials in under 18 minutes!
“My comfortable cruising pace is around the 6min/km mark. But I decided to stay with Darren at his pace the first few days because I knew that it would take three or four days for my body to adjust to the conditions, to running again, and to running distance.
“I found it quite hard, and a bit worrying, but I was considerably comforted and boosted by the fact that firstly I was recovering very quickly after each run, and secondly that Darren didn’t expect us to be running together all the time – which is in fact what has developed as the norm now during our second week of running.
“Far more of a problem is my feet, and Darren’s hip. Darren did all the driving in the vehicle which has an extremely hard and stiff clutch. Over the first two weeks of our running he has had a constant battle to loosen his hip, hip flexor, and most of his left hand side. For me, on day two of running I damaged/bruised the bottom outside ridge of my right foot, somehow. By the time I get into the last 10kms of each day’s run it is extremely painful. I then spend the rest of the day with my feet up as much as possible, and rolling it on my hockey ball which I fortunately brought with me.
“It’s tough to say whether I prepared sufficiently – there are three answers: yes, I definitely prepared well for this expedition over the past seven years; no, there was not a very well structured and executed training programme in the weeks and months leading up to the start but, there was little else and not much more that I could do, so I’m comfortable with it as it was. Thirdly, the logistical planning left much to be desired!
“The first week of running was daunting and scared me a bit from time to time. The hurting that I was going through often made me wonder whether it would get better and whether I would make it over another three months or so. Fortunately, the last run that we did I felt exceptionally good, after 18km, and was very disappointed that we didn’t do more, a really good sign. My foot is still extremely sore and will require constant and close management.
“Mentally I am feeling fantastic – I’m right on top of everything, myself most of all, and I know that this is the one aspect that will not falter, my mental strength.
“It is this strength that will carry my body through if it starts to falter or break down too much. The bottom line is that after two weeks things are looking really good and were it not for my foot problem I would say that everything is going fantastically well and is 100%.”
Look out for a follow-up story from this amazing adventure as Go Multi follows Jon and Darren towards the half-way point, and then again at the finish.
For more information: 20degreessouthrun.co.za
Follow they guys’ progress on their Facebook page