Four Days and Eight Million Years

Into the unknown | Photo by Dylan Haskin

“What are you here for?”
“I’m running a race.”
“Why weren’t you here last week, for Comrades?”

I contemplate telling the customs officer that my friend recently won the storied South African ultra-marathon, but the sheer improbability of this could land me in a poorly lit room with a strangers finger in my butt.

“Ah, it’s too much road for me.”

I have just landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, after three flights and 35 hours. We have apparently traveled through time to get here — as it’s eight hours ahead of Boulder, Colorado, where I began my journey — but I appear to be the only one astonished by this fact.

Africa, where running began — where it all began. Well, it’s anyone’s guess on the first single-celled organism, but likely where our species came into existence. The oldest human, homosapien sapien, remains were found North East of here in the Rift Valley, human bones that have been dated to be 195,000 years old.

There are few rewards for putting pen to paper these days, but one of them is definitely the odd offer to participate in a special race in a unique place. I’ve been invited to the continent-of-origin as a “two-for”, an athlete who will add to the competitiveness of the race and a journalist who will write of adventure in a far-off land. My confidence is equally low for both and I haven’t even met the competition yet.

Another flight and I arrive in Cape Town where I die in hotel bed. I have just barely closed my eyes when the scribe-handler — a wonderful, gregarious man named Roland Vorwerk — resuscitates me with a text message. Vorwerk is the Marketing Manager for Boundless Southern Africa, who market the country’s treasures. He’s in the lobby. It’s 3:30am the day before our four-day, 150km (93-mile) race through the/Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

At the van, in the dark hotel parking lot, I meet two journalist, two photographers, and the competition — Bernard Rukadza. I recognize Rukadza from the race’s press release that featured his picture and read, “one of the top trail runners on the South African scene and the current ProNutro AfricanX Trail Run Champion.” Adding, “Bernard’s toughest competition will most likely come from American ultra-trail runner Matt Hart.”

Rukadza is a South African citizen by way of Zimbabwe and as far as I can tell he’s the evolutionary zenith of the endurance running hypothesis. This is the idea that humans evolved certain traits, advantageous to long distance running, in order to adapt to our changing environment and emerge as the last standing species of the Homo genus. His long legs, which chimps and early hominids lack, allow for large running strides, and are part of the puzzle. Chris McDougall had it backwards, as Harvard Paleoanthropologist Daniel E. Lieberman puts it, “It’s not that we were born to run, it’s more like we ran to be born.”

South African Running Champion Bernard Rukadza | Photo by Kelvin Trautman

As we drive the seven hours from Cape Town to the starting line in Sendelingsdrift, I remind my van-mates how we know the age of fossilized bones. It’s called carbon dating. We’re carbon based organisms and every living thing has the same carbon-12 to carbon-14 ratio as the atmosphere. When we die however, we stop taking in the unstable carbon-14, and it starts to decay — about half of them every 5,730 years. So, when scientists want to know how old a fossilized bone is, they test the ratio between the carbon-12 and the carbon-14, which tells them it’s age. No one in the van is actually listening.

/Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is like nowhere I’ve ever been. Rattling along a dirt road into the park I see every shade of brown. Two billion year old rock has been pushed up to form barren mountains in an arid desert. In the local Nama language “AI — AIS”, means hot, very hot. Winter temperatures in the Richtersveld Park get only as low as freezing level, with summertime highs over 125 degrees fahrenheit. Fog is a more reliable and predictable source of moisture than actual rainfall. Thankfully, we are here in June, solidly in the South African winter. In 2003, Namibian and South African heads of state signed a treaty establishing the shared park. The main park building overlooks the Orange River and a stones throw away, on the other side, is Namibia.

Of all the species we’ve identified on Earth, 99 percent of them have gone extinct. Getting out of the van in Sendelingsdrift, it looks like mass extinction has recently taken place in the Ricthersveld. I check in and fight the urge to lay down in my tent. I want to explore. I head out towards the river. Approaching the cliff’s edge to the river I notice action in the trees. I’m quickly face-to-face with a vervet monkey. I don’t generally have anthropomorphic tendencies, but the changing facial expressions of this male vervet can only be interpreted in one way — we share common ancestry. We are in fact one of three remaining species of African apes. We share 90 percent of our DNA with these long lost cousins, all of which seem to be controlling this curious vervet’s face as he attempts to figure out what I’m doing. It’s thought that we first diverged from the chimp five to eight million years ago — branching off into our own subset of the ape family called hominins.

A changing climate gave a food procuring advantage to those early hominins who could stand, reach, and carry. Bipedalism also made our predecessors four-times more energy efficient than their quadruped ape cousins, making them more likely to survive and thus pass on their upright genes. Then, as Darwin hypothesized, our use of tools and our control over fire ignited our brain growth, over time leading to cognitive advances and language.

Although there are eleven languages spoken in South Africa, it’s Oscar Pistorius’ English that dominates the South African air and it’s Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial that dominates the airwaves and the local conversation. That, and professional contrarian and professor of physiology Tim Noakes’ high-fat, low carb diet, which one of the local journalists tells me, “everyone is on.”

At first blush the Richtersveld is a place where things go to die, sad, dehydrated deaths of misery. It’s beauty is hidden by survival of the fittest. In the 3,800 mile expanse of the park there’s astonishing biodiversity. There are 2,700 species of plants, 560 of which are endemic to the park. All of which seem to be hiding on the mountainsides, where the rainfall is higher. Chief among them is the stem succulent called pachypodium namaquanum, or the “halfmens.” They look like cartoon hybrid human palm tree, or a motionless version of the balloon air-man outside your local car wash.

We meet, mingle, and are treated to a local Nama tribe traditional dance. Then it’s off to bed, our first night in the tent city that the race organization will now set up for us each night along the race course. One of the things that drew me to this race was the terrain — rugged, mostly off-trail, nearly-100 mile loop through the folded, fractured, uplifted, and heavily eroded landscape. The anticipation makes for a fitful night of sleep.


Race morning we line up at 7:55 a.m. under an inflated starting arch that reads, “An Extraordinary Desert Journey.” Everyone is excited to get started. I shake hands with Rukadza and we commiserate over our lack of confidence in navigating the course with our G.P.S. units. None of the race course is marked, but we were all given route files to follow on our devices. I chose the wrist-top unit that I run with every day. Rukadza has a larger handheld G.P.S. that shows him contours, terrain, and much more of the route ahead. His problem is that until last night’s 30-minute tutorial, he’d never used one. I used to use these things called paper maps and so I figure if I get into trouble I can couple those with some basic geometry to figure out my location.

Race director Owen Middleton counts us down and we run into the desolate landscape. With my watch’s guiding arrow telling me we should be some unknowable distance to the North, I instantly regret my wrist-top decision. The pace is race-casual, but a group of about four of us pull away from the other 56 runners in this inaugural event. We all stare at the circuit board arm extensions, expecting guidance and reassurance. None of us marvel at the fact that this little piece of plastic and silicon is sending invisible signals to space, that, when returned, then tell us exactly where we are on this rotating off-kilter 196.9 million square-mile orb.

From the dirt road we drop off trail into a landscape of small green vegetation on rock piles. Light brown and white rocks held in place by small shrubs. We run toward the biggest mountains in sight, the ‘Vyf Susters’, or Five Sisters, strung in a North-South line of perfect Hersey Kisses that our route traverses around. They are gorgeous rock piles of a few thousand feet in elevation. The pace quickens over the low vegetation and uneven terrain to an eight minute mile, leaving Rukadza and I alone with our electronic prophets. Working together for the next few miles we take turns at the lead navigating. It’s here that I realize I might have an advantage when we go off trail.

Photo by Kelvin Trautman

The ground vegetation gives way to a dirt road as we approach the first aid station. “You can go faster if you want,” says Rukadza. I don’t want. We run past a halfmen who’s standing in judgement. I know what he’s thinking, you can’t hold his pace. At the aid I stop just to fill one bottle and browse the aid station table, it takes 40 seconds. When I turn and look up, Rukadza is gone. Not only did he not stop, when he reached the smooth dirt road, he accelerated. He’s a 2:26 marathoner. I am okay at bushwhacking. It’s here that I realize I have a distinct disadvantage on the roads.

The 4x4 road gets a bit rougher then pitches up. My slow speed allows the local water starved nats, called midges, to eagerly greet me. Edward Abbey once wrote lovingly about similar bugs in Alaska saying, “they probe for entrance into into an eye, nostril, ear, mouth, vagina, pizzle, rectum, or wound.” I’m a killing machine, but as quickly as one dies, two more take up the chase. Mass murder seems justified. I put my head down and hope to see Rukadza again before the finish line. The top of the 3,000 foot ascent at ‘Helskloof Pass’, (Hell’s Valley Pass), comes quick, but I’m disheartened that I can’t catch Rukadza, or even a glimpse.

I hammer the last five miles of gradual downhill to the finish line at ‘Die Koei’, all the while attempting to calm my ego. I finish eight minutes behind Rukadza on this 23-mile day. He says he thought about waiting for me. Prone to taking things personally after having my ego destroyed I initially think, what a terrible thing to say. But then I realize, like the little Catalonian, he would have preferred to run with someone, and he is in fact a much better runner than I am. I just need a minute to take that all in.

Dinner is far better than I would have guessed, and even my neurotic endurance athlete needs are easily met. I have seconds. Ear plugs and an eye mask are my coup de grâce and sleep comes easy tonight as the pitter patter of rain drones out the horrible snorers among our numbers.

Awaken by a panicked voice telling us we must get up and report to the main tent immediately, I initially think this is a joke or a mistake. I put my earplugs in and try to fall back asleep — but they persist. It’s 3:30 a.m. in the morning and the anomalous rain has not subsided since I dozed off. Stepping out of my tent into a river, we are rightfully being evacuated.

Almost a year’s worth of rain has fallen on us in one single night. The desert ground gulped as much as it could handle, the rest we are left to deal with. Almost everyone helps to varying degrees. My disbelief and sheer exhaustion seem to paralyze me. Far better people decide to actively help move everything, despite the impending day’s race. With camp moved to higher ground and the crisis averted the breakfast crew starts cooking, unfazed.


With an extra layer and numb hands we run away from the godforsaken campground and into the unknown of day two. The race start is now staggered by your previous day’s finish time and our pack of front-runners starts out a little faster than the day before. The road snakes the low ground as a creek bed would. Although I haven’t done my homework on the route, I feel good so I immediately assume the lead. The next eight miles is an embarrassment as I’m frequently outsmarted by those who read the map and know what a tangent is, leaving me repeatedly sprinting to catch up.

I eventually fall in right behind Rukadza. His speed and my suffering allow us to shed the rest of the field. About six miles into the 22-mile day he begins his gradual departure. Our route takes us off trail and off camber. I claw at shrubs and liberate rocks on my ascent, using every muscle to gain the saddle. We are in the middle of nowhere in a park that is rarely visited. I’m certain our race director, Owen Middleton, is the only human to have set foot on this piece of ground before me. My number is torn off my shorts in a free speed glory fall through some angry shrubs. As quick as I was covering the terrain I figure I’d have to catch Rukadza at some point. The descent to the trail and eventual finish line is long and extremely rocky. The animal trail we come out on disappears frequently. I run out of water and pushed hard the last handful of miles. Still, Rukadza arrived five minutes before me. This is an improvement over yesterday, I think.

Taking in the scene post-race I can tell we are now deep in the South African backcountry. Against my better judgement I follow other racers to the highest point near camp in my jammies to see the sunset. There is one visible road that disappears into the mountains, no buildings, no civilization, no noise, no lights, just miles and miles of peaceful untouched mountain desert.

Back home I have no relationship with the night sky. Far from the bright lights of modernity the white splash above is unavoidable, like a painter whipped his brush at a black canvas. I unzip my tent and lay on my cot to consider our galaxy. The Milky Way is so prominent in the middle of the Richtersveld that I wonder if it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. There are an estimated 200–300 billion stars in our galaxy. We can see a mere 0.000003 percent of them.

Photo by Dylan Haskin

The current best guess on how many galaxies there are in the observable universe is at least one hundred billion. Laying here on my cot I conclude that I am small, unimportant. A thought I come back to often. Why not chase a dream then? I resolve to run harder tomorrow and suffer a bit more. I decide I’ll start writing that book the second I get home. I’ll be exactly who I am, no pretense. What is there to lose? Failure really doesn’t matter.

An existential crisis in the making, I fall asleep before I decide to sell everything I own and live off the grid.

Our tent configuration is different each night and tonight I’ve got three snoring beasts within ear shot. Even with soft polyurethane foam jammed into my ears they wake me frequently. I contemplate jumping on the snorer behind me and suffocating him with his tent. Reflecting before I act I conclude it’s not his fault. Snoring is involuntary. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it’s just a deviated airway and some decreased muscle tone.

But I hate them, each and every one of them, each and every night for keeping me awake. No one will hold me accountable for midge murder, but the ramification for inter-species homicide are far greater.

It doesn’t seem worth it.


In the morning all is forgiven. I don’t even want to know who I would have slaughtered in their sleep a few hours ago. Today starts out with a bit of trepidation, as we anticipate navigating up the granite gullies to the Tatasberg mountains and a boulder section we’ve heard a human could get lost in for weeks. The staggered start means it’s just Rukadza and I starting 30-minutes later than the previous group. He’s so much faster than me on the smooth Ganukouriep riverbed that I have to follow his navigation lead. There is no time to slow down and read the map, breathing is the precedent.

Although impressive to you and I, Rukadza’s speed is the slowest of the 56 mammalian species in the park. Humans are terrible sprinters when compared to quadrupeds. Usain Bolt is as fast as Homosapien sapeins get, clocking top speeds of 27 miles per hour during a 100 meter sprint. Let loose in your backyard however, Bolt couldn’t even catch your cat, which can easily sprint 30 mph. Cheetahs hold the title of fastest land animal, reaching speeds of 62 mph, more than twice the speed of our species’ genetically superior anomalies.

If Rukadza can’t sprint fast enough to catch his dinner, how did our species not starve itself to extinction? The human advantage could have come from bipedalism leading to the ability to run. Rukadza’s body is custom built for long distance running. The need to run long distances to scavenge and hunt fundamentally changed how we evolved, and the bodies we occupy today.

Our shoulders are decoupled from our heads and necks which allow our bodies to rotate while running, leaving our head facing forward and relatively stable. Apes feet are suited for climbing trees. A human intermediate, the Australopithecus, stood up and walked, but lacked our achilles tendons and the sprung arches of our feet. These structures, and our calf muscles, are key components in our ability to store and return energy as a biological spring.

When we look around the animal kingdom and attempt to figure out why we are shaped as we are, the endurance running hypothesis is compelling. We are one of the only mammals who can easily run long distances in the heat. Simply being bipedal, walking and running upright, decreases how much our bodies are exposed to direct solar radiation, lowering our temperature compared to those on all-fours. We also have a great deal of surface area for cooling and are the only mammals with millions of sweat glands, which cool the body through evaporation. Our big butts, which apes lack, keep us upright and save us from face planting while running. And the surface area of our hips, knees and ankles allow for improved shock absorption, dissipating the ground reaction forces. Our unique noses even evolved for vigorous outdoor activity, allowing in air but not debris.

With all this in mind Lieberman has suggested we were able to strive and survive because we evolved for endurance running and persistence hunting.

“First, humans can run long distances at speeds that require quadrupeds to switch from a trot to a gallop. Second, running humans cool by sweating, but four-legged animals cool by panting, which they cannot do while galloping. Therefore, even though zebras and wildebeest can gallop much faster than any sprinting human, we can hunt and kill these swifter creatures by forcing them to gallop in the heat for a long period of time, eventually causing them to overheat and collapse.”

A cheetah, for example, can only manage about 1.5 miles before it overheats.

The Tatasberg boulders are as advertised, and improbable. Rocks the size of refrigerators, cars, and even houses are disorganized in front of me. Moving fast and frantic I frequently have to reverse a dead-end, climb back out, and choose another route. From the top of the Tatasberg mountains it’s a hot six mile, 3,000 foot descent to the Orange River. Taking just one water bottle was a bad idea as I’ve been out now for over two hours and it’s approaching 100 degrees. Where is my evolutionary advantage I wonder? This is another example of the improbability of existence — the thin line. Although our species is well suited for the hot weather running, there is enough genetic variation among us that some of us simply aren’t as good. I walk. I dream of water. I pout.

Wendy Drake in the Tatasberg Boulders | Photo by Kelvin Trautman

The plants of the Richtersveld have it figured out. For many of them the life cycle is short enough that they never have to endure the highest temperatures of the summer. One even lives, grows large, and dies in just four days. Others put their seeds directly into the ground themselves. The environment is so harsh that if you want to live you must do things quickly. The Richtersveld Wildrun is the same; move quickly through the heat, conserve water, and protect yourself or perish.

I stumble to the finish line at the riverside campground of De Hoop in third place today. A whopping 42 minutes behind Rukadza, and five minutes behind South African Filippo Faralla.


Faralla joins Rukadza and I at the late start and we run the dry riverbed out of camp. Together we cover a few miles before Faralla decided better of it. It took me a few more miles still, but eventually Rukadza disappears from sight. When I arrived at the first aid station on Lizard Pass, the volunteers yell, “Alright, first place!” I laugh, “Nope.” As I pass more runners it becomes obvious that Rukadza must have made a navigation error. I pick up the effort as the trail disapears and instantly get a off course. I’m not lost, I just didn’t take the best route and waste some time. I catch the two women competing for first place on the climb to Halfmens Ridge. An interesting story in itself, as the slightly faster of the duo has no idea how to navigate and isn’t even attempting it. She’s fast enough to simply follow.

With Rukadza now hungrily hunting me, I make frantic ignorant decisions. The sandstone and shattered shale bands are a dark blood red and I wonder how much of my own Rukadza will make me give to reach the finish-line first. Without consulting the map I drop off the Halfmens ridge to the West, much too early. The halfmen on the ridge shake their heads in disappointment.

The girls disappear to their more manageable route. I’m left to descend this nasty, rocky, steep, gully to who-knows-where. I stop to contemplate and pull out the map for the first time in the race. I’m descending the wrong gully, but it goes. Replacing the map in my front pocket I hear rockfall — it’s Rukadza just a couple hundred feet above me. I give a hoot, because, after-all this is extremely fun, and set to losing him.

I traverse over a rib and into the next drainage. After many miles of descent I pop out just a mile from where we started four days and 93 miles ago. Sendelingsdrift is close, but there is the possibility that Rukadza’s route got him to the dirt road and the finish-line much faster than my traverse. With white quartzite crunching under foot I push myself through the Crystal Fields. The ground potpourri is otherworldly, black dolerite, pink quartzite, grey shale peppered with red oxide soil. I somehow make it to the finish-line first. When Rukadza arrives just minutes later he’s covered in sweat streaks and the effort he put in to catching me is obvious. This is comforting.

Sharing so many days of hard running in a unique environment with the same people gives you a level of intimacy that isn’t possible during single day races. Lasting friendships and memories are made. Our final finish-line leaves me satiated, happy, unpretentious… evolved.



References:

Daniele E. Lieberman The Story of the Human Body (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013).

Neil Shubin Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008)

European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology
June 1986, Volume 55, Issue 3, pp 259–266
The energetics of endurance running
P. E. di Prampero, G. Atchou, J. -C. Brückner, C. Moia

Nature magazine 432, 345–352 (18 November 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature03052; Received 25 July 2004; Accepted 23 September 2004: Endurance running and the evolution of Homo: Dennis M. Bramble1 & Daniel E. Lieberman

Census 2011: Census in brief. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2012. ISBN 9780621413885. Retrieved 12 January 2013.

Scientific American magazine; Why do people snore?; Feb 2, 2004
Lynn A. D’Andrea, a sleep specialist at the University of Michigan Medical School, explains.

Discover Magazine; Ten things you don’t know about the Milky Way Galaxy; Phil Plait; March 12, 2008

Smithsonian Institute; Species Extinction;

Science Daily; How running made us human: Endurance running let us evolve to look the way we do
Date:November 24, 2004; Source: University Of Utah

The Best of Outside: The First 20 Years Paperback (September 1, 1998) Edward Abbey; story