Race #4: Ultra BOLIVIA – The Race Above The Clouds

So much has happened since my last blog back in August. We flew across three continents and lost our sense of time. Night became day and day became night. All Paul and I could think about was food, shower, sleep, more food, and not miss any flights. We have achieved what we thought was pure insanity: competing in 4 desert races in 6 weeks (#4in6) to break the Guinness World Record for “The Most Desert Races Ran In One Year“.  But that’s not the end. This project was about testing our limits and what better way to do it than to experience every terrain Mother Earth has to offer.  The last race of the 8 Deserts Challenge will be held in the Lapland, Sweden in the Arctic Circle. What started off as a physical challenge for a great cause turn into something much much more. It changed me in ways I didn’t envision.

But first, I want to fill everyone in over the next four blogs on what transpired during those magical 6 weeks we spent running in the Highest (Salar De Uyuni), Driest (Atamaca), Most Hostile (Big Bend) and Sandiest (Arabian) Deserts of the world in Bolivia, Chile, Texas (USA), and Oman.

The Salt Flats (Salar De Uyuni) in Bolivia presents one of our toughest challenges in this endeavor: high-altitude running. With elevation between 3,700m (12,000ft) and 4100m (13,500ft), it is the highest desert in the world. Having spent most of our lives at sea level, this race doesn’t work to our favour. To make matters even more difficult, we have a family history of thalassemia. Thalassemia is a genetic blood disorder that affects the Asian population, which leads to anemia. Depending on the severity, exercising at high altitude can be a serious problem. With our upcoming races in the Salts Flats and in the Atacama Desert at 3200m (10,000ft), we had to take our preparation very seriously. Not only is altitude acclimatization important for our performance, it may also save our lives. Paul had suffered so badly from nausea and headaches running over the Tian Shan mountain in the Gobi Desert (2,900m, 10,000ft) that nothing can be left to chance. Give the mountains the respect it deserves or she will unleash her full wrath!  With an acclimatization plan that includes 6 weeks at the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten, Kenya (2400m, 8,000ft), a 4 day summit up Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (6000m, 20,000ft), and two weeks training in the second highest capital city on Earth in La Paz, Bolivia (3600m, 11913ft), I was confident of our preparation.

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In our time spent acclimatizing to the high altitude in Bolivia, I gain an appreciation for the comforts we take for granted back home. Even though our AirBnB place was in a good neighborhood, central heating is non-existence, insulated walls do not exist, and consistent hot showers is a luxury.  On top of that, locals here also experience altitude sickness every once in a while. It really makes you wonder how people can live and thrive under these conditions. This reminded me of my time in the Sahara Desert where I saw children playing outside their tiny houses without any type of vegetation or any living soul for miles and miles. Ironically, there’s a satellite dish beside their homes and their father own a sparkling new cell phone. Civilizations somehow find their ways to prevail in the most hostile environments. I’m beginning to understand the meaning of a commonly used idiom; Home is where the heart is.

With great anticipation, we arrived at our base camp 500km south of La Paz in the small town of Salinas two days before the start of the race. As a transit town, tourists used to come here before visiting the Salt Flats. With new developments and investments drawn to the town of Uyuni, however, Salinas is now in steady decline. In fact, most of the nearby towns are in similar situations. Many of the structures in these towns have unfinished outer walls or are half-built. It feels a bit strange staying inside a ghost town, but Paul and I remained focus on the task at hand.

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During our pre-race medical check, the medical team cleared the both of us with our blood oxygen saturation level of 93% (98-100% being ideal, 75% being fatal). There’s a sense of relief knowing our preparation worked like a charm!  The atmosphere was buzzing at the camp until it got deadly serious the day before the competition, when one of our fellow competitors arriving from sea level, suffered from hypoxia. Later we found out that his condition had worsened because of a respiratory infection.  To put it simply, his oxygen saturation level had plummeted to 78% and he needed supplemental oxygen to keep his condition under control. He was coughing up blood and was quickly transported to La Paz for treatment at a hospital. Everyone at camp was relieved once we learned that he managed to recover.  Indeed, he was well enough to be back with us as a volunteer in the final days of the race. This incident is a stark reminder that the challenges presented in completing the 8 Desert Challenge (never mind the absurdity of 4in6) are very real. There’s simply no margins for error. Any mishaps could spell the end of our journey in the blink of an eye.

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Aside from the Salt Flats, Stage 1 was one of the most scenic and challenging stage of the race. We went up and over an ancient archaeological site named Alcaya where you can’t help but stop to look at skeletal remains of human sacrifices encased inside rock formations. How many foot races are out there where you can run through an archeological site? Very unique indeed. At 4100m (13,500ft), it also doesn’t hurt to take a breather or two every once in a while! It was not surprising that the first day of racing leads itself to a crapshoot. While everyone went out guns blazing with reckless abandon, Paul and I stayed back to conserve our energy for the latter stages of the race. Running too fast early on in the competition can spell disaster and build up unnecessary lactic acid in our muscles. To compound the problem, flushing out lactate from your bloodstream becomes much harder due to reduced oxygen levels in the air. At the Salt Flats, the oxygen concentration is only 50-60% as compared to sea level.

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In Stage 2, Paul and I decided to go on the attack mode and went after the race leader. Everyone except for the leader felt the effects of the first day and quickly got spit out the back. We quickly got behind him and matched his every move, but something immediately stood out. The guy is almost twice our age! That is simply incredible. The guy looked like he has the same amount of body fat as mine. I knew right away that I was up against some serious competition. We worked hard to stay close to him, but he kept pushing the pace whenever we go uphill. At over 12,000ft, running at this intensity became harder and harder to do. By the time we reached a local township with about 8km (5miles) to go, I was already several hundred meters behind. Paul was stronger and he was still within striking distance of the leader. I started feeling the effects of our earlier efforts and my breathing was laboured. The old man made a strong move as he took a left turn out town; Paul and I lost sight of him. As an experienced athlete myself, it was quite obvious that we are dealing with a seasoned veteran. Only after the race did we learn about his athletic credentials. His name is Marco Olmo and he is a two-time winner of UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, the most prestigious trail running race in the world) at the age of 58 back in 2006-2007! A living legend of the sport and one of the pioneers of trail running. Now that he’s 68yrs young, I guess he lost a step or two, but that still doesn’t mean we can keep up with an athlete of such caliber.

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From Stage 3 on, it was pure survival. I have never experienced more fatigue in my life. Each competitor was asked to bring the minimum calorie count of 2000 per day, but nearly everyone brought along 2600-3000+ calories with them. I took a calculated risk to gain an advantage by bringing the minimum allowed and having the lightest pack possible (6kg, 13lbs) because the distance for each stage is shorter than our other races. In hindsight, it was a big mistake because I didn’t take into account the additional calorie consumption required at higher altitude. Boy did I ever suffer. I had so little energy left after each stage that the only time I got out of my tent was for cooking food, and toiletry. The rest of the time I spent either sleeping or resting. Talk about pushing yourself to the limit! Going to bed hungry and running the next day was really something else. It gave me a new perspective on what a child feels like going to school hungry. All I could think about was when do I get to eat again.

The 8 Deserts Challenge taught me one thing that will forever ingrain into me. Our most creative ideas come from times of crisis. I was able to manipulate my own perceptions to keep a bad situation from spiraling out of control. To combat hunger urges, I altered my nutrient timing for this race. With my limited calorie diet, I consumed extra calories at breakfast to reduce my hunger urges during the race, nibbled at my afternoon snack until late afternoon and ate dinner right before going to bed. That means I only had to endure three to four hours of hunger at a time before my belly starts growling again. It was still very difficult to keep my urges under control, but I managed to get through it and still compete when it was time to run. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t made that adjustment, I surely would have succumbed over those 6 days and called it quits. The impossible is possible. We just have to put some faith in ourselves.

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The highlight of this race for me was the marathon day in Stage 5. Even though I struggled mightily that day, it was exhilarating to get a chance to run the entire stage on the Salt Flats (Salar De Uyuni). With a special arrangement between the race organizer and the local government, we were able to camp overnight under the stars on the Salt Flats. It was a magical experience that I will never forget. Never have I seen so many stars crowd the sky and shine so brightly. I was engulfed in complete darkness that stretched well beyond the horizon. I was certain that there wasn’t a living soul in the 50 mile radius.

We started off the stage at the edge of the Salar and ran inland towards the Isla del Pescado. It got its name because it’s in the shape of a fish during the wet season when light reflects off a thin film of water off the Salt Flats. The most important thing I learn not to do on the Salt Flats is taking off your sunglasses. With sunlight reflecting off the white salt on the ground, you literally can go blind staring. Running on the Salar is like skiing in 40C (90F) heat! One of the female competitors tried to soak in the experience and took off her sunglasses; she was left partially blinded for 3 days. She made a full recovery so we can laugh about it now, but in the great outdoors, nothing should be taken for granted. You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times or nature has a way of letting you know. It’s serious business.

Running on the Salar was no ordinary experience. It’s the world’s largest natural treadmill. Imagine being stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean but replace that water with chunks of salt. Your perception of distance is compromised. The surrounding mountain ranges that look to be 10km (6miles) apart could, in fact be 30 to 50 km (20-30miles) apart. I reached my checkpoint after 3 hours of running, but I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer until I was 3km (2miles) away. Falling is completely out of the question because you wouldn’t have any skin left to speak of. The crystallized salt is so hard and jagged that the texture resembles rocks covered with sand paper. On top of everything, I had to pay special attention to my footing looking out for weak spots because stepping on these spots will have your feet submerge in a brine/mud mixture. If you’ve got any blisters on you, that brine will let you know! One thing about running on the Salt Flats is you will never see anyone complain that their meals not being salty enough. Almost everyone cooked their meals by harvesting some of the salts along the trail. There’s enough salt there to feed the world’s population for the next millennium, I kid you not! Running in a straight line may seem simple, but if you don’t look around every 10-20sec or so, you may end up running way off course. To remain mentally focus for the entire duration of the run was a challenge, to say the least.

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Paul had an excellent showing at Ultra BOLVIA Race. He was beaming with smiles for coming in third place overall! I had to settle for fourth. I gave everything I had, but the altitude and the hunger got to me.  It was the first time Paul beat me in a running race and he wouldn’t let me forget it! Kidding aside, I was happy to see my brother succeed after what happened in Kilimanjaro. It was his first podium finish in any race so it could not have happened to a better person. Let me explain.

After our time spent in Iten, Paul and I bussed ourselves five hours south of Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania to summit the world’s highest free-standing mountain in Mount Kilimanjaro. The ride was an adventure on its own, but that story is for another time. Getting to the top of Kilimanjaro was not only a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but also a perfect altitude acclimatization opportunity. What better way to stroke our egos than to climb all the way up to 6000m (20,000ft)! Go high or go home right?!?

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The Highest Free Standing Mountain in the World – Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

On the evening before our final approach to the summit at 4900m (16,000ft), Paul ate some poorly cooked food that led him to vomit uncontrollably in the early hours of the morning. I started to worry about him because it might not be safe for him to continue. There was still a 7km (4.5miles) hike with 1000m (3,300ft) of elevation ahead of us, on some seriously dangerous and treacherous terrains on the Western Breach, before we would reach the summit. His mental strength was tested that day and it was astonishing to see my brother will himself up Kilimanjaro. I’m convinced that anyone else would have given up and be happy getting carted off that mountain.

 

To see my brother succeed after overcoming such adversity is a true test of his character. No amount of talent can replace grit. No amount of talent can ever replace preparation and hard work. I know it’s cliche, but all we did was doing what others aren’t willing to do. Our preparation paid off and he was rewarded. Now we are off to our next race where we have to navigate through some of most technical terrain any multi-stage race has to offer; The world famous Atacama Desert in San Pedro, Chile awaits in less than 7 days!

4 thoughts on “Race #4: Ultra BOLIVIA – The Race Above The Clouds

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