It has taken a while to settle back into the real world after the Atacama Crossing and it’s been even harder to find the words to describe the race. A year of meticulous planning, several months of training, a week bumming around San Pedro in the name of acclimatisation, and then it’s all over in a flash. I guess it’s not surprising that the post-race blues have probably been the toughest part to deal with.
The sense of detachment in the lead up to the race was there for a reason: so I didn’t have a total meltdown even before getting to the start. The day before, competitors gathered in the race hotel for check-in and pre-race briefings. I shared a room with Tash; we’d met before in San Pedro and really hit it off. We spent the night sharing ultra-running tales and obsessively cutting weight from our packs, shedding excess food and other non-essential items. We both agreed we couldn’t survive for a week in the desert without eyeliner, so added this post-kit check. My bag had weighed in as one of the lightest, 5.75g before water, and I figured an extra ten grammes was worth it.
In the afternoon we were bused to camp 1, Rio Grande, at an altitude of 3,200m. The air instantly felt cooler and much thinner than in San Pedro: would the extra time spent at altitude pay off? Camping conditions were rudimentary and cramped, with ten in a tent. The first of the six sleep-deprived nights felt the coldest and most uncomfortable; even with a warm sleeping bag and mat, every stone dug in and the temperature dipped to nearly freezing. But I don’t think we were expecting anything five star.
On paper, day one didn’t look too daunting. It was the shortest stage, 22.5 miles, with 700 metres of descent overall. We set off at 8am, the pace seeming frantic. Rolling hills and a few gorges to navigate, the first 10k completely floored me and I felt exhausted and nauseous. There was soft sand and a never-ending plateau pebbled with rocks. I’d trained to run, not walk, and did what I could, but the path was so technical and it was a huge mental effort to scan the ground both ahead and directly under your feet in order to keep up the pace and avoid twisting an ankle. Power-hiking for five kilometres of gradual ascent before the final four kilometres into camp. I tried to stay positive, but in the back of my mind were huge doubts about the week ahead. I questioned my preparation and training: it hadn’t seemed hard enough. I’d thrived off the buzz of casually telling people I was travelling to Chile alone to run a self-supported, 250k race across the desert. I’d enjoyed training and the ultra-distance training runs with a weighted pack.
Day two was the most beautiful and it was impossible not to fall in love with the scenery, despite the course being brutally hard. My race tactics, to cover as much ground as possible before it was too hot, weren’t much use: the first 10k took in multiple river crossings, with water up to waist height. Several kilometres of ascent, some ridge running with spectacular views across San Pedro, then a descent down a massive sand dune. It was an adventure, not a race, and this mantra carried me through the day, albeit not very fast, but I was happy just to finish the 27.9 mile stage. I reasoned that I hadn’t paid a small fortune to suffer and not enjoy the scenery. I wanted to compete, but I didn’t want to spend six days suffering.
Stage three was 25 miles and was rumoured to be the hardest. After a five kilometre march across dusty, uneven ground, we came to a flat, straight road and it was a relief to finally have some runable ground. Emily, Ruthann and I, the top three placed women, came out together and we had a brief ‘girl power’ moment. At no point did it feel like we were competing – we all got on so well and I teamed up with both on several tough stages. For the next 20 kilometres, I kept with the lead pack, as I figured this would motivate me to run more as the temperature rose, rather than run-walking. It paid off and I caught Emily, the lead female, as we came to the final checkpoint.With ten tough kilometres to go on difficult terrain, we agreed to stick together and help each other out. We power-hiked across the sand and rocks and scrambled up a massive dune, not saying much but knowing we were stronger as a team than alone. This final stage took an eternity and finished with a sadistically steep climb into camp. We hugged and I felt very emotional about the enormity of what we’d just achieved: joint 1st place and 13th overall. We were about halfway through the race and had just conquered one of the toughest stages. I felt exhausted, but deep down, ready for anything else that was thrown at us.
Stage four. Legs were working on autopilot, I’d lost my appetite and with The Long March looming on day five, people were nervously conserving their energy for the stage that would be double the previous days. But first, there were 27.5 miles over ‘The Infamous Salt Flats’, with a section described as ‘extremely difficult’ in the course handbook. Crunchy, sharp, not the sort of terrain you want to misplace a foot on. On reaching them, we were met by a wall of heat: the white salt flats reflected and amplified the midday sun (which reportedly reached 42C). While approaching the ominous crusty terrain, two Austrian competitors approached at speed from behind, and I made a snap decision to join them. I ran the entire length with them, not looking up, only focussing on the feet in front of me, and before we knew it, the next checkpoint was in sight, then camp five.
The Long March had been looming for five days now. We’d come so far, yet there was still nearly 50 miles left to run in one stage. I wanted to finish in daylight, but had learned over the previous stages that nothing was a given. I teamed up with Ruthann and James, both experienced ultra-runners, and we agreed to stick together. We set off strong with the lead pack, but were split up after about 10 kilometres when Ruthann was struck down by nausea. James and I pushed on; I felt bad for leaving her, but there was still a long way to go. I’d been running without a watch since mine died early on the first day and it wasn’t until over half way that I discovered what good progress we were making. There was another climb up a massive sand dune, but we got our heads down and made light work of it; we were just focussed on reaching the few remaining checkpoints. Our goal of finishing before sunset seemed within reach. James and I maintained a consistent run-walk strategy and we picked up Emily at the last checkpoint for the final nine kilometres into camp, through the Valley of the Moon. We shuffled past the first tourists we’d seen all week and down into the final camp, finishing hand-in-hand, in ten hours 55 minutes, joint sixth overall, Emily and I joint first females.
And then there were tears and more tears. Elation, exhaustion and the realisation that the race was nearly over. After spending the week in a state of limbo, wishing away the pain on one hand, but wanting to savour the experience at the same time, this was when the achievement really hit home. The following day would be a rest day, where competitors compared blisters and fantasised about the food we’d eat when we reached civilisation, followed by a short ‘fun’ run, around 10k, into San Pedro on the final day for the awards ceremony in the evening.
So many superhuman feats were witnessed over the course of the week: blind athlete Vladmi and his guide Erin, volunteers who gave up their time to support the race, competitors sacrificing their own race to help out others. As you might expect, life back in the real world looks and feels a bit different after experiencing an event like the Atacama Crossing. And while I’m sad it’s over, I’ve come away with friends, memories and strength that’ll last a lifetime. And one eye on the next adventure, of course.
Emily (1st), me (2nd), Ruthann (3rd)
Photos: Racing the Planet, Vladmi Virgilio