As the New Year dawns, lawyer Michelle Hincks reflects on her successful desert-ultra challenge, racing more than 150 miles on foot across the mountainous rocks and sand dunes of Namibia. Photography: Mikkel Beisner
An extreme multi-stage race covering 250km (156 miles) in just five days across the Namib Desert in searing heat seems a truly impossible challenge.
But for Michelle Hincks, a former pupil of Ribblesdale High School and Clitheroe Royal Grammar, it was an experience she wouldn’t have missed for the world – and to her surprise she was the second female runner across the finish line!
What is more surprising is that Michelle only started running a few years ago.
“I started doing races and then I heard about these crazy races across the desert, but I thought it would be way above my capabilities. But the more I thought about it I kept wondering if I could do it,” recalls Michelle, who works as a property lawyer.
As part of the law firm’s pro bono work, Michelle had the opportunity to fly out to Namibia last year to work on a project reviewing legislation on poaching: “The government wanted to strengthen the legislation,” explains Michelle, who has always been particularly interested in wildlife and conservation.
“While I was in Namibia I heard about the issues with the rhino so when I signed up for the desert-ultra race this year, Save the Rhino was my chosen charity.”
Training for the race began at the beginning of the year with Michelle running up to 35 miles each weekend, she used Pendle Hill as one of her challenges as well as completing a 62 mile race in September. She also undertook training on a running machine in a heat chamber at the Manchester Institute for Health and Performance to help acclimatise her body to the extraordinary heat she would encounter in the Namib Desert.
At the peak of fitness Michelle flew out to Namibia at the end of the year with her husband Carl, an engineer, spending their first night in Windhoek before the race team organisers, Beyond the Ultimate, transferred them to the first desert base camp at the base of the Spitzkoppe.
“Base camps were just two-man canvas tents and a hole that had been dug in the sand as a toilet. There was also a larger tent for race briefings, eating and medical treatment.”
The first night came as somewhat of shock to Michelle and the rest of the runners: “It was blowing a gale and we woke up covered in sand!”
After breakfast the race began – a 50km route through the desert with each runner carrying everything they needed for the challenge, including food.
While it was cooler than expected on the first leg, thermometers showed temperatures well beyond the 30°c mark.
“Knowing that I had four more stages to go, I set off steadily and ran well within my capabilities. Unfortunately two runners were badly affected by the heat and although they finished stage one, after medical intervention, they were unable to continue.”
Michelle arrived at base camp at the end of day one as the second female runner across the line.
Stage two was a 51km race through sand, rocks and gravel towards the Brandberg Mountains.
“The mountains loomed on the horizon – it was a massive mental challenge and combined with the temperature, which had been recorded at 47°c by one of the runners, this made for a tough day.”
Looking forward to a shorter day on stage three, Michelle recalls: “Stage three was just a marathon or so at 42.2km. I was looking forward to it but unfortunately things didn’t go quite to plan.”
Having woken up feeling nauseous Michelle struggled to eat breakfast and as the race set off it was clear that the nausea was getting worse. She was sick even before reaching the first checkpoint at 10km. “The medics suggested that I carry on to checkpoint two but unfortunately it got worse and I started to panic that I would have to be pulled from the race.”
As a rule being sick in a race would not be a huge issue, but in the desert anything that affects your ability to keep hydrated can become life threatening.
At the second checkpoint Michelle was given anti-sickness tablets, before being sent on her way towards checkpoint three.
“Unbeknown to me, Carl was helping at the checkpoint and had been hearing on the radio that I wasn’t very well. He and the team braced themselves to receive a very broken, ill person, however by some miracle I started to feel better and was able to hydrate and eat – I ended up bounding into the checkpoint as one of the happiest people that day! Everyone, including myself, was astounded! I later learnt that temperatures had reached 55°c, but I pushed on and was able to make up some ground to reach base camp three, in a sandy river bed, as third lady.”
After what had been a gruelling day, Michelle went to bed early but was woken to be told there was a herd of elephants nearby.
“It started by one of the race crew spotting a mother and calf and as everyone gathered in silence with their head torches on, a herd of eight or 10 peaceful females came silently towards us. Then the bull arrived to protect his calf. He started to flap his ears and kick sand as a threat to us to get back.”
Quickly retreating, the desert-ultra group watched him disappear into the bushes. However some time later the mother and calf appeared in the runners’ camp – with the bull following.
“He picked his way carefully through the tents. Watching with our breath held, he and his herd turned and peacefully continued their journey up the riverbed. This was an incredible encounter and one which I will truly treasure. The size and strength of these animals directly contrasted with how silent they moved along the sand.”
Day four was a short day, but a challenging one – a 22km run mostly uphill starting at 11.30am, in the heat of the day.
“This was my least favourite. Pushing harder because of the short distance in searing heat, meant that I really had to dig deep. It was over relatively quickly though and I regained my second female finish position.”
Once at base camp the runners were encouraged to rest as much as possible and eat as much as possible. For Michelle it was also an opportunity to get the medics to treat her blisters, before watching the sun set and getting an early night before the final stage nicknamed The Grind due to it being 90km.
Michelle set off at 4am: “I was running alone with the full moon ahead of me and the sun rising behind me, it was just amazing. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly happy to be able to be part of such an incredible experience. You look at the desert and it’s unbelievable that tiny flowers and lizards thrive there. The mountains just take your breath away.”
Despite the aches, pains and tiredness Michele tackled the first five kilometres up sand dunes with ease: “A row of 4×4 vehicles all with their headlights on guided us up and once the climb was out of the way, I set off and ran the rest of the 90km on my own, only seeing one other runner as I passed checkpoint four. Keeping myself cheerful and positive, I treated the desert to some very bad singing!”
Michelle approached the challenging 90k stretch with practicality: “I think with such a long distance you have to break it down in your mind into manageable segments, so I kept thinking about reaching the next checkpoint.”
She reached each of the eight checkpoints, eventually arriving at base camp just before sunset, to be welcomed by a plate of hot food and a beer.
“After eating freeze dried meals all week and drinking only water, this was heaven! The last base camp was also a Save the Rhino Trust ranger outpost so it was a perfect end to the race. The camaraderie between the runners and race crew was brilliant – we sat around the camp fire and waited to cheer the final two runners across the line at around 2am. The race without doubt was one of the best, but toughest experiences of my life. Camping out in the desert and being largely self-sufficient carrying all my kit and food for the week was incredible. I’m not ashamed to say when I crossed the finish line I cried – the sense of achievement, pride and emotion that I’d battled through for five days, the highs and the lows, all came flooding out in tears and smiles – and there is already talk of a return visit next year!”
Michelle’s fundraising link is: uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MichellesDesertRun