Written By James JAMIESON-BLACK
James is one of the recent finishers of ULTRA X Tanzania. Having completed 2x 100 milers, he thought he would take on the multi day event. Anything to get out of the office.
ultra x tanzania 2023 runner report
An inaugural race is always a special event and Ultra X Tanzania 2023 proved just that.
100 runners from different corners of the world arrived in Moshi to test themselves in this brilliant part of the world.
A huge thank you to James for penning his experience at the event below.
The day was pregnant with anxiety and anticipation. 5 days of running. 5 days of challenging terrain, heat, altitude and, perhaps most challenging, time. The first day was 35 km, a light appetiser to wet the lips for more to come through the week. The route would be modest in comparison to the later stages, the terrain and altitude boasting nothing significant. As the gun went, the clear blue sky led 100 strong into the Tanzanian arid landscape.
Mentally, the first race naturally lends itself to ‘can you do what you have been training for.’ Whatever that may be. You’re trying to give yourself feedback, encouragement, reassurance.
Most of the runners came home, most runners learnt a lot. The Tanzanian sun posed potently all day and took its toll. Cramps, pains, nausea, vomiting, all a real issue. The shadow of doubt was growing.
Night 1 the camp still had great moral as the freshness and camaraderie wasn’t to be dented by a mere 35 km…
If day 1 was an appetiser, the remaining days would all be main courses as each challenged in different ways. Day 2 stood strong, mounting a slow but steep incline which manifested some fantastic views of the planes below Kilimanjaro. The early start at first light was to try and ensure a stunning view of lake Charla crater, but with mercurial weather, the focus turned to tackling the start of the long incline towards Kilimanjaro. The climb took time to appear, simmering below the minds of each runner. Until alas, it was upon you. The landscape changed. The dry arid landscape, hosting many a sunflower field, turned to more dense foliage and greenery. Banana trees became the norm. The route took us through village after village, reminding us that this wasn’t just a race, but a unique opportunity to rub shoulders with the locals. ‘Jambo’, with its two-syllable ring, was just short enough to puff out whilst marching the hills. The stage climaxed with 10 km to go, where the tallest point was summited. The clouds hovered friendly enough to reveal this beautiful tropical landscape. Marvellously hilly, rich with colours and happy people. It was evident here that the land served to help the people, but the people served to help the land. This symbiotic, synergistic environment was incapsulating and provided welcome respite from the challenges the route had provided.
Coming into the check point was no easy feat, it had been a tough day in the dirt, and the last 10 km was a varied technical descent. Finishing provided immense relief, but also raised the anxiety levels. It was a challenging course, and it meant a lot was taken out – both physically and emotionally. It put the rest of the week into some perspective and the thought of running another 160km was daunting.
No time to doubt yourself, prep for the next stage must be done. One day at a time.
Stage Three – The Uphill Battle
2000m of ascent and descent. That was the main battle today. It involved taking on some of the ominous Kilimanjaro Volcano that had been overlooking our work.
The start was very early. Well before light, the runners aimed to gain as much advantage before the sun could cast any spells. Reaching the national park was a challenge, and your reward for doing so was an absorbing and mentally monopolising 10 km climb. Only brief spells of spying the odd monkey provided short hiatus. The climb itself also took us through more varied landscapes. The entry of the park lent itself to tall trees that provided a canopy of greenery and as a result a cool environment to run in. The tree’s trunks were often clothed Head to toe in green moss, evoking a real rustic rainforest vibe – the odd tweet of a bird seemed to echo within. Slowly, as you got higher, the trees got shorter, the canopy got less dense and the eery creeks of trees blowing in the wind more deafening, that and the heavy breathing from the uphill circuit. Eventually the route climaxed at the top of a small crater rim which unfolded a disappointing view of clouds, no bother, no time to dwell the descent and beyond was ahead.
Having to almost retrace your steps, the changing landscapes helped dictate how near the park edge you were. Eventually, the entrance was found and the afternoon heat from the glaring sun was apparent. A tough 20km lay ahead with meandering paths taking us through some fascinating forests, tributaries, villages and eventually, road.
The finish was overwhelming, having completed the toughest elevation profile of all the routes there was an immense sense of accomplishment, but as with all multi day racing, there was no time to count your chickens – day 4 would test even more of our spirits with the longest run, 68km. The exhaustion from the early morning held the camp in a sedentary mood. Time for the long one…
Stage Four – The Long Day
With the start time earlier than any other, 4 AM, runners were up at 2 to try and force some food down before the start. The race today would cover 68km, starting with a kind descent and then a very monotonous flat section. The runners set off in the usual herd, continuing their migration through the villages and fields of south Kilimanjaro, but the herd would soon lean out. After a friendly start running on road, the final section of descent included a tough technical path which was tricky to master at pace. At this point, the emerald, vibrant and varied tropical landscape would be left behind. The flat would now consume us. The first section meandered its way through many villages and fields which were reliant on few tributaries. It was clear that excess was not prevalent here. The people had what they needed to get by, but they were happy. The children of these villages broke the flat monotony by singing, joking, laughing, and even joining for sections. But soon even villages would be left behind and what lay ahead was endlessness. Vast stretches of road that you couldn’t see the end of. On one side labouring people working on a field to try resurrect the pasture, on the other, row upon row of sugar cane. Forward was the only option, but by this time the suns potent gaze would be getting stronger. The mirage of the horizon less stable. Mind games would have to be played to get through this, every runner established a routine that broke the monotony. The early starts and distance run had meant that the runners were physically and emotionally exhausted, this test today would prove a catalyst for tears – these tears tasted different though and were defiant in their nature. The final stages took us through a game reserve where the environment lent itself to a savannah scene. The odd alliance of trees provided welcome relief from the sun’s rays, albeit just for a moment.
Passing the finish line was an almost gladiatorial moment, having given everything to the last 4 days, the body and mind felt weary. It would need to be more than a minute before tomorrow’s run would be prepared for, for now it was a celebration of where we had come from and what we had already achieved.
The race briefing before sunset put our lucid minds back into combat mode. A 48 km trail with a 1000m ascent and descent enough to get the adrenaline going. Rest, refuel and this would be easy….
“When you think your F*^ked, your only 45% f*^ked.”
This was not easy. Today’s trail began in the game park and took us to the foot of our immense climb in the blue mountains. Battered and bruised, the runners began the charge at a more civilised time of 06:30.
Meandering through the game park we eventually found ourselves on road that would fast track our arrival at the beginning of the climb. The next 15km would be straight up and straight down 1000 meters. The incline was very steep, offering no reprieve. The path was narrow, closed in by the thick thorn bushes that jolted reminders of its presence, the track offering a variety of rocks and dust made grip an issue.
Eventually, the top was summited, but the nature of the path meant that downhill would be an equal match of torture. But as gravity helped, the malevolent path was conquered and the track became wider, the turf easier to transverse.
The remaining 20 km was no doddle but provided opportunity for most to reflect on what a journey the past 5 days had been. The flatness of the path allowed for a steady rhythm and the finish line was soon upon you.
Finishing was fantastic, it was amazing seeing so many runners come through the finishing arch. The atmosphere in the final camp was beautiful, each individual trading stories of what they overcame and the unique experiences they had along the way. The runners had been made content and there was no more perfect finish than a stunning buffet, unfortunately no dehydrated food though…
Ultra X Tanzania was a fantastic experience – it pushed the mind and body to its limits but also provided a cultural experience that was so valuable to so many. Rubbing shoulders with the locals, albeit briefly at times, was a keyhole into what life as a Tanzanian may be like. A very unique mix that will long stay with us. We are all very thankful for the amazing work the Ultra X team did in setting such an event up. But also, perhaps more importantly, all the supporting team, the doctors, the therapists, the local team Red Knot racing, all these individuals clearly went above a beyond to ensure that the best experience was had by all.
You can find out more about Ultra X Tanzania here.
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Sam is one of the work placement students here at Ultra X. He is an International Business student at Loughborough University and loves all things sport, recently trail running and rugby. He has always had a keen passion for the outdoors and loves being at our events!...
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