[8 May 2016, Namibia] – Wataru Iino of Japan and Jax Mariash Koudele of the United States brought superlative performances to the Sahara Race 2016 to claim their first 4 Deserts Championships. Held in Skeleton Coast National Park in the country of Namibia, the race boasted agreeable weather, beautiful sights and competition that kept both competitors and viewers on their toes.
Iino took an early lead on Stage 1, but was followed less than two minutes later by Taiwan’s Tommy Chen. A pattern soon emerged: Iino finishing first, with Chen just behind him. The tight race was only fully realized on Stage 5 – the 77-kilometer “Long March” – when Iino’s 47-minute win over Chen essentially assured his victory. With a final time of 22:28:29 over 250 kilometers, it was an outstanding performance worthy of gold.
Chen took silver in a time of 23:47:51 and, as a Grand Slam contender aiming to complete the full 4 Deserts Race Series in 2016, looks to be a strong contender in follow-up competitions. Scotland’s Thomas Watson ultimately took bronze in a men’s battle that was hotly contested by multiple competitors. His final time was 28:20:09. Takuya Wakaoka of Japan placed fourth overall with a time of 28:20:32, just 23 seconds behind Watson.
The women’s race was no less exciting. The week started off with Kathia Rached of Lebanon leading the way. Rached, an elite athlete that previously finished as the third female at the Gobi March 2015, had accumulated nearly 20 minutes over Jax Mariash Koudele of the United States in two stages. But on Stage 3, Mariash Koudele took the lead and held onto it for the remainder of the week with a final time of 29:10:20. Also a 4 Deserts Grand Slam competitor, Mariash Koudele will be looking to repeat her performance in more races in 2016.
Rached finish second in 30:03:38, while Magdalena Dombek of Germany placed third in 31:03:37. Fourth place female finisher Maki Izuchi-Suban of Japan was only 20 seconds behind Dombek, finishing with a final time of 31:23:01.
In the team category, CEIBS Friends from China placed first in 38:10:23. The team had no trouble keeping their position throughout the week. Team Mental Muscle from Singapore/United States followed in second position in 52:35:00, while E&E Global from Canada secured third in 65:11:18.
Men’s and Women’s Age Group Winners were as follows:
Under 30 Filippo Rossi (Switzerland)
30-39 Takuya Wakaoka (Japan)
40-49 Hidechika Kabasawa (Japan)
50-59 Uwe Paschke (Germany)
60-69 Helmut Tschellnig (Austria)
70 Yoshiaki Ishihara (Japan)
Under Alexandra Schneider (United Kingdom)
30-39 Echo Gong (China)
40-49 Maki Izuchi-Suban (Japan)
50-59 Ann Verhaeghe (Belgium)
A couple of special prizes were also awarded at the conclusion of the race. Brits Neil Bacon and Simon Wheatcroft won the Spirit Award. Wheatcroft, who lost his sight at age 17 due to a degenerative eye condition, is the first blind competitor in 4 Deserts history to attempt the race without a guide. Despite withdrawing after three stages, for many participants, he epitomized the spirit of the race. Bacon spent much of those first stages accompanying him. The Sportsmanship Award went to Giho Kim of Korea, who assisted several competitors throughout the difficulties of race week.
The location of Skeleton Coast National Park was a first for the Sahara Race, which has temporarily moved out of its home country of Egypt due to political and social unrest. A stunning location, race participants were allowed special access into the national park at a time that it is normally closed to the public. The race worked closely with Dr. Philip Stander, a wildlife and conservationist expect, of Desert Lion Conservation to ensure the safety of both race participants and native fauna of the area.
Despite extreme temperatures which varied between the heat of the inland and the cool of the coast, competitors enjoyed the course immensely. Many, such as Overall Champion Iino, described the 77-kilometer long stage as a highlight, saying, “My favorite part were the sand dunes during The Long March.” Team CEIBS also exclaimed, “The course was wonderful, and we loved The Long March so much we wanted an extra 10 kilometers!” In addition to running along sand dune ridges, competitors enjoyed the pristine Atlantic coastline, sweeping cliffside views and animal sightings, including large seal colonies on the shoreline. At nighttime, they slept on misty beaches and atop desert sands under breathtaking starlit skies.
The Sahara Race will return to Namibia in 2017 and is sure to again be a popular event. Erin Leighty of the United States perhaps summed it up best when saying, “I love these events where it’s all about pushing yourself and being outside your comfort zone – it’s about the sand in your teeth, pure grit.” Mark Stiles, also from the United States, pondered on the quality of the race as whole, saying: "You… have created something incredible. In this world you have stadiums which have cost millions of dollars to build, but this one is the best of all.”
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