Race #5: Atacama Crossing – Triumph in Atacama

Of all the races in the 8 Deserts Challenge, Atacama Crossing is the one race that Eric and I dreaded the most.  There are two reasons for that:  terrain and lack of rest.  I had first read about this race almost one year ago while researching for our World Record Attempt.  It was talked about as the most technical and challenging race of the 4Deserts Series.   When a race promises sand dunes, river crossings, gravel fields, salt flats, and everything else, you know it is going to be tough.  More importantly, with this being our first back-to-back race amounting to less than 7 days rest, our conditioning and recovery prowess will be put to the test.

Before the Race – Catching up with Old Friends

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Atacama Crossing is a special reunion of sorts.  Since Gobi March, we have not seen any of our 4Deserts friends for over 3 months so both Eric and I were elated to reconnect with them.  If there ever was a perfect host town, the San Pedro De Atacama would be it.  Prior to coming to here, we knew almost nothing about this place.  Upon arriving, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that it is quite the tourist attraction!  Many people come here to do rock climbing, star gazing, geyser watching, rappelling, etc.  In fact, due to its high altitude and lack of light pollution, this desert is host to 3 major astronomical observatories.  In most self-supported races, runners don’t usually get a chance to mingle before competition because many come only 1-2 days ahead of time.  However, with this race being held at high-altitude, most people wanted at least 4-5 days to acclimatize.  It was time to party!

The usual suspects from previous 4Deserts Races were all here: Tommy, Jax, Jared, Funk, Thanh, Allen, Bruno, Fillipo, Avi, David, and the rest of the gang.  Isabelle, a friend of ours from the Canadian contingent in MDS, was also here.  Apparently, one desert a year was not enough for her either … hahaha.  She was our lifesaver because she brought with her our much needed supplies.  As you would expect, the logistics of doing back to back self-supported races is tremendous.  Re-supplying after each race is next to impossible.  For the Ultra Bolivia race, we found help in our fantastic friend Victoria, whom we were able to meet up in Kenya.  She just happened to drop by Africa for vacation so she volunteered to carry extra supplies for us from back home (Ok we cajoled her).  Without friends like her and Isabelle, we would never be able to complete the 8 Deserts Challenge.  In our reunion dinner, everyone inquired with great interest about our adventures in the Bolivia race, especially with Salar De Uyuni being so close to San Pedro.  We didn’t realize how close until we checked Google Map and it turned out to be “only” 520km away.  Our friends joked that maybe we should have just ran from one desert to another instead of taking the plane!

Basecamp – Calm before the Storm

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Excitment brewing in Basecamp before the start of Stage 1

Like previous years, the race will start at the highest point of the competition at 3,200m, descending to around 2,500m by the end of Stage 1.  From then on, the course will settle at somewhere between 2400m and 27000m.  Unless you already live in high altitude, running at this elevation can be a serious concern.  Another problem, of course, is the huge variation in temperature.  Atacama Desert is extremely hot during the day and frigidly cold at night.  Temperature can go as high as 50c and drop as low as 0c all in the same day.  Fortunately, our experiences in Ultra Bolivia with altitude and Golbi March with extreme temperatures prepared us well for these exact conditions.

Time flies when you are having fun and before you know it, it was time for us to head out to the basecamp.  We will spend the night there until the race officially starts tomorrow morning.  After a smooth 3 hour drive from San Pedro, we arrived at our picturesque destination.  It was a spectacular site.  We were surrounded on all sides, except the south, by gigantic rock formations.  From our campsite, we could admire the desert landscape in all its glory.  Now, the waiting game begins.  This is the hardest part of desert racing in my opinion.   You tend to overthink things because you have all the time in the world to do just that.   Did I pack correctly?  How fast should I run?  When should I eat?  Anticipating an action-packed day ahead with nervous energy, most runners retired early for the night.

Stage 1 – Riding High In Altitude

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The night at camp was freezing cold, almost as cold as some nights in the Salar De Uyuni.   After a hot breakfast, we were all eager to start running if only to just warm ourselves up.  The first part of this stage is an interesting one: a run through the canyons.  As both Eric and I have never done this before, we were consumed with excitement.  Admittedly, we felt some fatigue from the previous race in Bolivia, but the good news is that we were definitely acclimatized to altitude.  The race got off to a furious start.  Eric and I stayed behind to make sure we don’t get caught up in the moment, reminding ourselves of the long road ahead.  Over the next 20km, I began picking off runners one by one until I was in the 7th position.  When I turned around to look for Eric, he was nowhere to be found.  The only runners I could see were my tent mates Sarah, Tom (Sarah’s husband), and Isabelle.  Although I was feeling really strong, I remained cautious about going too fast.

Midway through the stage, I sensed that maybe I had gotten lost.  By now, there was no one else around me and I had no idea where the next set of pink course flags were.  I stopped to examine my options, but there was none so I kept running, hoping for the best.  My situation did not improve until out of nowhere, a Swiss runner went passed me.  I swiftly followed him out of desperation and boom the flags started reappearing again!  I was beyond excited to finally have someone lead the run that I foolishly let my guard down.  This would cost me dearly as he too eventually went off course!  We must have ran close to 1km in the wrong direction before we realized our mistake.  I guess you just can’t rely on anyone in the desert!  All that unnecessary running naturally contributed to my declining pace as Sarah, Tom, and Isabelle zoomed past me one after the other.  When the finish came, I had nothing more to give.  Eric started off slow, but he was only 4 mins behind in the end!

Stage 2-3 – Defeat and Resurrection

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With 26 river crossings, Stage 2 was touted as one of the most technical stage in the race.  We knew we had to be careful because the water level in some of the crossings is more than knee high.  Unfortunately for Eric, luck was not on his side as he suffered a serious injury early on.  While crossing a river in the slot canyons, Eric underestimated the depth of the river bed and he lost his footing.  To regain balance, he launched his foot forward only to bang his right knee against an invisible rock.  I was right behind him when he screamed out in pain.  Almost immediately, I reached out to help Eric cross the river.  His knee was badly swollen and he couldn’t even move, never mind run.  Before the race, we told each other that we would compete individually barring injuries.  Needless to say, I decided to wait for him given the situation.  We sat for a long time, almost 30mins or more, before his condition improved.  When his knee pain subsided for a bit, we started walking.  Ironically, it was my turn to suffer as my legs had stiffened during the wait and they seized up.  Hobbling along the course, Eric and I managed to finish the stage together, but it was ugly.  Eric was angry with himself for making this mistake, but he was a bit unlucky, to be honest.  A lot of runners almost suffered the same fate on that very day.

Despite his misfortune, Eric somehow mounted a dramatic comeback in Stage 3.  He would later recount to me that he did so by channeling his anger and frustration.  In his words, he ran “angry”.  We didn’t know it at the time, but this would turn out to be one of the most difficult stage in the race.  The first 10k was run on tarmac; we took full advantage of that and sped away.  The real test came with the first appearance of the salt flats.  They are like hardened broccoli that sprouts from the ground, unbelievably tough and crusty.  I had no idea how you can run on them but some people did!  A fast hike was all we could muster.  Having spent almost all of our energy in the broccoli fields, we finally reached the sand dunes.  Tragically, our lack of gaiters doomed us.  Due to our inability to re-equip shoes with gaiters between races, we took a risk running in Atacama without them.  Our gamble failed as sand filled our shoes and jammed our toes.  We lost precious time removing sand at every checkpoint.  I was in complete misery, surrendering myself to self-pity.  Eric, on the other hand, maintained his composure.  He felt defeated by what happened in Stage 2 that he was determined to not be a victim again.  It is a testament to how powerful the mind can be in shaping our own destiny.  He ignored the sand and his debilitating knee pain; he ran like a man possessed.  While I plodded to the end, Eric went on to finish in the Top 12.  A truly miraculous comeback if there ever was one.

Stage 4 – Staying In The Game

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Doesn’t look too bad until you have run for miles and miles on that crusty stuff behind Eric.

We knew the Long Stage would be a monumental struggle so we tried to conserve energy.  It would be a mistake for us to attack at this point in the race.  The stage started out relatively tame and we even passed through a nice village between checkpoints   But then the salt flats came.  Now, there only exists an extremely narrow single track on the salt flat.  It is so narrow that if you don’t run one foot ahead of another in a straight line, you are guaranteed to trip over.   Running became impossible, having almost face planted a few times when I tried.  It was another miserable stage, but we stuck to our game plan and finished in good spirits, hoping the salt flats wouldn’t return.  We were so wrong.

Stage 5 – Transcendence

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In the land of ultramarathon racing, nothing compares to the Long Stage of a desert race.  It is a test of will and perseverance that will either make or break a runner.  After a 4-day roller coaster ride, this one is for all the marbles.  To start things off, much to our dismay, we would be welcome by miles of sand dunes.  This was quickly followed by grotesque swamps and more salt flats, the single lane kind of course.  Our strategy to conserve energy in Stage 4 paid off in spades.  We took off at full tilt because we wanted to get over the toughest sections while we still had the strength.  As we approached the same brutal salt flats, both Eric and I were able to run through them without any problems.  Others weren’t so lucky though.   Both our tent mates, Isabelle and Sarah, fell early on in this section.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but Isabelle was cut in the head and Sarah broke her fingers.  Incredibly, they carried on as if nothing had happened, a real testament to their phenomenal toughness.

Before long, we had to cross more crusty trails, waterbeds, gigantic sand dunes, and more dunes.  By that time, exhaustion overcame most runners and many fell back.  I tried to follow Eric for as long as possible, but I couldn’t hold on to the pace.  As we made our final exit out of the soul-sapping terrain, a long stretch of road lay in the horizon.  “This is what I have been waiting for!”, I murmured to myself.  After surviving over 55km of unforgiving trails, we were ready for a break.  As I moved my feet one ahead of another, I realized that I was spent and my legs were dead.  I watched in frustration as Eric’s figure got farther and farther away until it eventually disappeared.  There was no one I could see ahead nor behind.  I was all alone in the desert road.  The sun was starting to set in Atacama and I had all in the time in the world to think.  Truth be told, all I could think about was stopping.  I reasoned that I had tried my best and there is no shame in stopping a little, perhaps even walking the rest of the way.  With still more than 20km to go, there was absolutely no way I could keep running.  At that instant, I got emotional reliving what had transpired just 2 days ago.  I remembered what it was like to give up when the going gets tough.  I had witnessed Eric’s resurrection despite his injury and watched him triumphed over adversity.  “This is the way it has to be”, I told myself.  Overcoming any great challenges in life always is.  Instead of shying away from the pain, I embraced it.  I refused to be defeated again, not this time.  I was determined to triumph in Atacama.  So I marched on, step by step, even as I slowed to a crawl.  For some reason, my legs started to recover and I picked up speed.  After some time, I even managed to catch Eric before the last checkpoint.  It was a miracle.

Both of us thought the hardest part was over given what we went through.  We were told by the staff that a mere 10 km separates us from the finish line.  What they didn’t say was that we had to climb over Valle De La Luna, a steep mountain, to get there.  Running uphill at this stage in the race was just demoralizing.  How can they do this to us?  Haven’t we suffered enough?  Eric surged ahead once more and I wouldn’t see him again until the finish.  Step by step, kilometer by kilometer, I desperately tried to stay positive while searching for the elusive finish line going up and down Valle De La Luna.  After what seem like an eternity, I finally caught a glimpse of the checkpoint flags hidden at the bottom of the valley.  The end is near!  As I made my final approach, I knew that Eric would be there waiting for me and he was.  When I crossed the finish line, we embraced wholeheartedly and pumped our fists in victory.  We had finished the Long Stage in just under 11 hours, the best performance we have ever had in any desert race.

Stage 6 – Triumph

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I gave everything I had in Stage 5 so this stage was more of a celebratory jog for me.  We had come full circle in finishing the race where we started, in the town of San Pedro.  My legs were thrashed and I never felt more pain after a race.  With a can of coke and two slices of pizza in hand, both Eric and I celebrated our 5th desert race finish post-race.  We are extremely proud of what we have achieved here, considering we had just raced 7 days prior.  We proved ourselves capable of transcending our perceived limits when the moment arose.  We had triumphed in Atacama.

Post-Race

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Because this would be our final race with Racing The Planet as part of the 8 Deserts Challenge, we were sad to say goodbye to old and new friends alike.  Many runners here would go on to compete in the epic Last Desert Race in November.  For now, we opted to make a 3 day stop in Santiago for a little R&R before heading to El Paso, Texas to prepare for our World Record Tying Race, the Trans-Pecos Ultra, in 14 days time.

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