Moving on from the Atacama Crossing

Atacama aftermath post

It’s nearly a week after the Atacama Crossing and I still can’t find the words to tell my loved ones about the time I spent in the desert. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve drunk too much wine. I’ve consoled myself with the fact that I’m travelling around Chile for two weeks, before returning home to a dream job and people whose love and support is unconditional.

There’s a marathon in Los Angeles, 12 hours south of Santiago by bus, a week after Atacama. Jon’s running and I want to join him. My head says, rest up, but with two weeks of altitude training in my lungs, I can’t resist the chance to race a flat, easy course. A novelty foreigner, I run hard, thinking only of the prize money at stake, and finish proud in three hours and 23 minutes. Third lady, with just over £200 in my pocket. I don’t regret anything.

I’m familiar with the post-race blues. I’ve written about them before. But this time the fug takes longer to lift. Three weeks on and I’m still not sure it has. I’m reticent to jump straight in and enter new races. The ultra-marathon roller coaster isn’t easy to get off once you’re on it: I’m in love with the experiences, the freedom. The people I meet and the solitude at the same time. Maybe slightly addicted too.

I put a lot of asks on my body while training for Atacama, and during the race itself too. Part of the reason I don’t want to set new race goals just yet is because I still want to soak up the experience of the desert. I also don’t like to take my body for granted. The miles stay in my legs for longer than I think. Although they feel well rested now, a few short runs and my hip flexors are tight and sore, so it’s back to stretching. Cycling to get places rather than running there.

Yoga helps me to check back in with my mind and undo some of the miles I ran in the desert. ‘After Atacama’: I said this a lot in the lead-up to the race. I’ll catch up with friends after Atacama. There’ll be time to get this-and-that-in-my-life back on track after Atacama. Now it’s after Atacama and I’m still not quite in the right frame of mind to be getting on with all these things just yet. But, like my body, my mind is still healing as well. And hell, if I want to lie in rather than doing a park run, or watch repeat episodes of Breaking Bad all afternoon, then I will. No drama.

Mind over matter: I guess it’s no big secret that a race like Atacama is the ultimate test of this. And when highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the matter is much tougher than before, I probably shouldn’t be alarmed that it takes my mind longer to bounce back.

I learned a lot during Atacama, like the importance of running my own race, rather than someone else’s. I went in without any new races on the horizon, as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after completing such a big goal. I considered dabbling in triathlon or racing shorter events, but now that it’s over, I’m still just as much in love with running long distances as I was before. So in 2015, there will be 125 kilometres at Trans Gran Canaria and my first 100 miler. I think my mind is ready to do it again, and hopefully my legs will follow.

Race report: The Atacama Crossing

Atacama tent mates

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.

Cat River crossing

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.

Atacama top 3 women

Emily (1st), me (2nd), Ruthann (3rd)

Photos: Racing the Planet, Vladmi Virgilio

Atacama Crossing: Week 2-and-a-bit training

Warning: Contains geeky spreadsheet stuff, obsessive kit weighing and tales of cutting toothbrushes in half.

I learn a lot of stuff this week and had a pretty epic week (and a half) training for the Atacama Crossing.

  • I started training with a weighted rucksack. Possibly a bit late, but I’ve been run commuting for a few years and am used to carrying stuff around with me on runs. So I headed to the supermarket and bought six one-kilogramme bags of rice to carry on training runs (as you do), starting with three bags and gradually increasing to six. And the bonus of using rice, over other heavy items (like rocks or bricks, not to mention being kinder on my back), is that I can eat it after I’ve finished training (if I want).
  • On Thursday night, I went to a social hosted by Racing the Planet, who organise the 4 Desert race series (Gobi, Jordan, Atacama and Antarctica). We drank lots of beer and discussed stuff like what food has the highest calorie per gramme ratio (ie how to meet the calorie requirement of 2,00okCal per day, while carrying as little weight as possible. Some food I’ll be taking with me includes:
  1. Go Noodles: 5.7 kCal/g – these are actually more calorie dense than expensive, freeze-dried meals
  2. Peperami: 5 kCal/g –  not something I usually eat, but I imagine they’d taste heavenly when you’re tired/hungry/craving salt/protein
  3. Peparami peanuts (YES!): 5.4kCal/g – I’d love to meet the person that invented these because I think we’d get along very well.
  4. Clif Shot Bloks: 3.3kCal/g – not so high, but I’ll be taking them as my sugar source because I know they work for me on long runs
  5. Cashew nut butter: 6.4kCal/g – very high, I’m tempted to decanting around 30g a day into zip lock bags as a treat.
  • I made a kit spreadsheet to ensure I’m not carrying any more than I need to be, and have managed to get my total pack weight down to around 5.8kg (before water). This will comprise of 500g food per day (mostly high calorie items) and not much more than the mandatory kit. The only luxuries I’ll be taking include ear plugs and sudocreme (will blog a full list of things once I’ve worked everything out).
Atacama kit

Take the metal ring off a compass and cut your toothbrush in half!

  • I also spent an evening weighing various bits of kit and finding ways to make them even lighter, like cutting a toothbrush in half and decanting sudocreme into a small ziplock bag. I even laminated a small square of tin foil to make a mirror (on the mandatory kit list to attract attention in case of emergencies), which I’m quite proud about (full credit goes to friend Matt for suggesting this one).
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Ride to Box Hill

  • I did a bit of light training throughout the week, including CrossFit, some high intensity circuits and a reformer pilates class, topped off by a day cycling 50 miles in Saturday on a trip out to Box Hill. On Sunday, I joined Jon on a marathon near St Albarns, with mostly Hundred Club members. The event was in memory of a member who had recently passed away with cancer, and it was a real privilege to be among such amazing runners. One was completing his 999th marathon and there were others who’d run 500+ marathons, yet you wouldn’t have thought it by being around them. They really are some of the most humble, unassuming and unsung sports people out there.
  • I ran this marathon with 5kg on my back (including pack weight and water). Then I headed out again on Monday to run 20 miles with a similar weight pack. This was hard, hard, hard, but it’s the tough stuff that’ll make me a much stronger runner (both mentally and physically) when I take on 250 kilometres across the desert.
  • Because I wasn’t sure if that was enough, I cycled to Box Hill again on Tuesday with my brother Edward. We met at 5:30 to ensure we were back for 9am, but road closures (due to landslides after the bad weather) meant we had to go a very long way around, were both late and covered 55 miles. Ouch.

If you’ve got any tips for surviving multi-stage endurance training and events then please share them with me!