It would be fair to say that preparing for the Atacama Crossing was a complete guessing game in terms of kit and training. Although my main objective was to travel as light as possible, I didn’t have an infinite budget to splash on expensive, techy kit that I might only use once. Similarly, living in a big city made it difficult to find trails to train on that replicated the technical desert terrain (hashtag London runner problems). Below are some things that worked well, stuff that didn’t and what I’d do differently next time (hypothetically; I don’t have plans to do another desert race in the immediate future).
This is by no means a definitive list, as what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. But overall I was really happy with my kit choices: my pack weighted in as one of the lightest and I wasn’t too cold at night, despite having minimal gear.
Salomon Speedcross trainers: Trainers are a very individual thing, but I really loved everything about these. The tread was perfect and they felt sturdy and supportive. They drained well over the multiple river crossings and, most importantly, they didn’t let in any sand, which was a problem for competitors with predominantly mesh trainers.
X-Bionic Fennec top: I liked this – it was comfortable and didn’t chafe, but it didn’t exactly work miracles either. I still felt hot in the heat of the day and reckon a white, technical top at a fraction of the price (it retails at around £90) would have worked just as well.
Skins shorts: I initially felt short-changed when I discovered these didn’t have zips or pockets, but this was probably the best thing about them, as there were no excess features to rub or chafe. Very comfy.
lululemon Stuff Your Bra: supportive running bra with the added bonus of pockets that came in handy for transporting blister tape, loo roll, spork, etc, around camp.
Karrimor anti blister socks: most competitors ran in a combination of toe-socks and Drymax socks, but I stuck with what I was familiar with and was really happy. I had a few blisters but nothing you wouldn’t expect from running 250k across a lot of water and sand.
Inov-8 gaiters: my decision not to take full-shoe gaiters paid off, partly because of my footwear, but these kept out sand where the dunes were over the ankle. I’d use them again.
OMM Adventure light 20l pack: I really loved this bag – it was the perfect size for a small-framed person wanting to race light. In a world where a lot of bags are made for men, this is a great female-friendly option.
Mountain Hardware sleeping bag: this did the job but wasn’t the lightest or warmest out there. If money was no object I’d take a PHD Minimus Down bag next time.
Klymit X-light sleeping frame: I considered not taking a mat but am very glad I did – the race would have been misery and doom without one. Once I’d got the knack of not rolling off it, it was comfy, but I’d be tempted to take a larger, foam one next time, as a lot of time was spent hanging around camp and attempting to stretch, post-running.
Fuel: I thought I’d beaten the system when I discovered instant noodles that were of a similar high-calorie-to-gramme ratio as freeze-dried meals and tasted great too (and were a lot cheaper). But in the desert, they got a bit monotonous and I struggled to eat 800kcals in one go, so in future I’d probably take a mix of freeze dried meals and instant noodles, divided into a couple of smaller 400kcal portions.
The same goes for the rest of my food: protein bars and nuts tasted OK (by the second day I’d lost my appetite anyway), but not great. When fellow competitor Emily shared her crunched up salt and vinegar crisps with me they tasted incredible so I’d definitely pack these in future.
Electrolytes: I’d only ever used these in tablet form (like Nuun), but when I realised I’d need about six tubes to meet the mandatory requirement (too much weight) I took a chance and just packed s-caps. Although I’d tried them out in training, it was under less sweaty conditions so it was hard to know how many I’d need. So I guessed, then added a few more for good measure. I planned to take them roughly every hour, but when my watch broke early on, I did it based on when my fingers started to puff up from water retention (maybe don’t try that at home though).
I was happy overall with my training and, finishing as 2nd lady and 13th overall, must have done something right. But having trained predominantly on city trails (think Richmond Park, the Thames towpath, Wimbledon Common: off-road but not particularly technical), these were nothing compared to the tough terrain in the desert (think, big rocks, gorges, soft sand, rivers.). If I did the race again I’d get out to the wilderness and run on some more technical ground (eg the North Downs Way, Scottish Highlands, or Lake District). As with the big European races like UTMB, it’s no great secret that the runners that excel at these are the ones that live and train in the mountains, so it goes without saying that replicating race conditions as much as possible in training is the way to go.