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5 Days of Ultra-X Tanzania Magic - Jess Johnson

Some things are very precious to us at Camino.

One of these precious things is Jess Johnson x

Another is the exploration of the human soul - the compassion for oneself - the oscillation between calm and resilience - the idea that some or all of these could be found in a multiple day endurance format and this all occurring in one of the most exotic locations on Planet Earth.

Hence why Jess found herself in Tanzania lining up as race favourite for Ultra-X inaugural 5 day race in June 2023.

We asked Jess to share some of her race thoughts and the process made us go back and look at some of the WhatsApp messages that we shared before and during the event. Again we found ourselves tearful and inspired by the way Jess prepared for this, how she brought joy (to us!!) to the race (with the ever abundant smiley pics - which is one of Jess's superpowers) and this raw power that she exudes. There really are no limits with Jess - she is powerful and precious x.

We hope that you enjoy Jess's reflections. Please do message us about the race, the preparation for multi-dayers and what Jess smuggled in her kit bag!!!

Ultra X Tanzania

Writing isn’t my forte. Luckily occasionally I’m fractionally better at running, and I was in a spectacular place with amazing people, so hopefully that’ll stop this from being directionless waffle!

In June 2023 I ran the inaugural Ultra X Tanzania race – a 250km, 5 day stage race in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. I had signed up to the race as soon as it was released, having only ever raced 2 days on the trot in the past. My complete inexperience seemed to pass me by when I was lured by the thought of spending a week running in one of my favourite corners of the world. Thank goodness I have some friends at Camino Ultra who wouldn’t even be tired after that kind of run, and they offered to whip me into shape. Or at least try to, despite me swapping interval sessions with spontaneous races that I promise to take easy but end up running as hard as I can, and doing long loops around London as fun days out. It all seemed to work out quite well in the end. I think I’ve got away with it..!

Despite my inability to follow a training programme, I had done a few bits of targeted preparations for the race. The race was due to take us up to approximately 3700m altitude when climbing Kilimanjaro on the 3rd day. I had been to the Altitude Centre to do some lactate threshold testing, which was pretty horrendous, but fascinating to read the results. It appeared I tolerated the altitude quite well, but it was insightful to know just how much slower I was running to reach thresholds. I had no idea how long each stage would take me, but I now knew the 50km day up Kilimanjaro was going to be a big day out!

Prior to flying out to Tanzania, David, Paula and I chatted about all of the important things. The course, coping with the heat, my race tactics and the lack of toilets and showers we were going to have over the week. I’d never raced anywhere so hot, and I’d never had to cope with altitude before. I also had been written up as someone to look out for in the race, and I was terrified! I felt that the only way was down from that, and I certainly don’t know how to ‘race’! But I was awfully flattered, and glad a nice photo of me had been used!

Tanzania – my 5 day quest to get a sun tan

As soon as I arrived at the airport to start my journey to Tanzania, and saw people with their clear plastic bag of 100ml liquids filled with gels, it was quite evident who was also going to the same place. It turned out I wasn’t the only person who either wore or packed most their race kit into their hand luggage so that it didn’t get lost enroute! We had the most glorious first couple of days by the pool on Moshi and then at a lodge beside Lake Chala. It did seem rather unnecessary to then go for a series of 5 long runs, but after kit checks and a race briefing, that was what we had to do.

The first day was ‘only’ a 35km loop from Lake Chala through the savannah and we had all optimistically hoped this would be a gentle warm up to get us used to the heat and the terrain. Obviously we all went out far too quickly, found the heat far tougher than anticipated, and got back to camp wondering how on earth we were going to run 215km more. The run was absolutely stunning though, and was made better by bumping into some new friends 10km from the end. I’d played down my ability so much that they were genuinely surprised to see a little blonde girl shuffling up behind them, and I yet again wondered if I had overcooked it because I really wasn’t that strong. It quickly became clear to me that my survival was going to be dependent upon how well I recovered so I committed to my first ever sports massage. My fears of it being a mortifying experience because of my extreme ticklishness were soon allayed as it seems I’m not very ticklish when I feel like my legs are being run over (it was very helpful, and I am very grateful).

The second day was the first of what became a daily occurence – waking up wondering if I was going to be able to walk, knowing I had a whole day of running ahead! It also was the first of many early starts to beat the heat. No one really needed bother set an alarm as when the first person wakes up and starts whispering ‘quietly’, absolutely everyone was wide awake. I’ll never forget watching a group of 100 people sit in anxious silence, in what was effectively the middle of the night, eating porridge with camping sporks – mine symbolically broke on the final day, so I presume I need never go through such a ritual ever again.

On day 2 we ‘ran’ 50km of beautiful trails through mountainous banana plantations, crossing streams and meeting the most wonderful locals on our way. I was quite naïve prior to the race, not realising how diverse the landscape in Tanzania is, but I was blown away. It was absolutely beautiful and this was a wonderful way to see it.

At 3am on day everyone started rustling in the camp – it was the day we had all been looking forward to with a slight bit of fear. Today we were off to climb part of the way up Kilimanjaro, via a little shuffle/scramble/crawl/get stuck on a boulder crossing a river through the fringes of the national park.

For the first time I ran most the day with company, which was wonderful for me to be able to natter relentlessly until the altitude saved everyone from it. It was also the only day where we got a glimpse of the male leaders of the race as we ran an out-and-back route to our turnaround point on the mountain. Safe to say they were well on their way back down whilst we trudged up! 7 or so hours later, I made it back to our camp and was so glad to be out of the sunshine. I have so much admiration for those who were out longer each day on the trails. I don’t think I could have coped with the extra hours in the sunshine and the lack of recovery. They’re certainly much tougher than me, and I hope that we did enough to support them when they needed it as I was being given an unjust amount of praise.

Nothing like a 2am wake up call to start your 4th day of running! We waddled to the start line knowing we had nearly 70km ahead of us, ending in Namalok Nature Reserve. After a few hours clumsily tackling some trails by head torch, the sun came up and we could switch our focus from trying to stay upright to dreaming what food we would eat when we finally finished running. Whilst I was absolutely exhausted, I was having the time of my life. We all then had a giggle knowing we were so close to the finish, but we still had a 50km run to do, with a 1000m high technical climb in the middle.

As the week went on, I began to struggle with the fact I was doing quite well in the rankings, and didn’t want to decline, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than a tussle with the women I’d grown to like so much! I’ve definitely learned a great deal about resilience, and how I respond to pressure, and I’m so grateful to have been pushed (and supported) that week by so many strong runners. I knew that over the week we would likely forge friendships, but I’m totally overwhelmed by how kind everyone was to me, without me feeling like I had warranted it as I was likely tired and hangry most of the time. I’ve come home with new friendships I’ll cherish, and am slowly readjusting to what is a normal topic of conversation in the real world.

Day 5 is a bit of a blur of happiness, smiles and giggles. And then it was over. I ‘sprinted’ to the finish line at a fraction of my marathon pace, and was just so overwhelmingly happy. I’m so proud of everyone who finished, and I’m quite chuffed with myself too. I have never felt so supported by a group of people I’d only just met, race organisers, and a whole host of people back home. Everyone believed in me far more than I believed in myself. I hope I’ve made everyone proud. It’s currently my favourite topic to talk about, so humour me and ask me to tell you about it, and I promise to keep it to 30minutes!

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