What is the Atacama Crossing? Well, sh*t, if you don’t know by now (it’s only the only thing I’ve spoken about for the last like, year plus) Just in case you weren’t listening: it’s a 250km foot race through the Atacama Desert (the driest desert in the world) over 6 stages/7 days. The race is self-supported, meaning all your belongings for the week are carried on your back, in a pack.
So, what do you need to bring? The mandatory equipment list is 6 pages long, which includes the usual medical kit, emergency items and all your food for the week (minimum of 14000 calories, which is enough sustenance, IMHO, for a 11-year-old). All that is provided is water for drinking throughout the course, and hot water in the mornings and evenings (to make your porridge and freeze-dried meal for the day). A big round tee-pee type style tent has a thin groundsheet, but you must bring your own sleeping bag (and sleeping mat, if you want to add that weight to your pack!) and not to mention your “luxuries” such as a toothbrush and iPod!
With extreme temperatures, long distances and being exposed to the harsh elements, this is one helluva challenge. The first 4 days are more moderate distances, no more than 44km, and then day 5/stage 5 is known as “the long march” at 77km, which then runs into day 6. Day 6 is unofficially classified a rest day, as some participants only cross the line at 10am – for the quicker ones, it’s a day of rest! Then the last day is a quick 8km “sprint” to the finish line in the picturesque town of San Pedro.
Before I launch into a (caution: highly detailed) account of my race and time, I must tell you that it wasn’t what I expected. I knew it would be tough, but not THAT tough. I knew I’d make friends, but I didn’t expect to make the kinds of connections I did. I was also (pleasantly) surprised that my race was hugely social – almost more so, than physical in some ways. You’ll notice this in my words below – for me, so much of it was about the people. I met the most incredible people from all over the world. And formed bonds that I didn’t think would be possible to form in just a week. 43 nationalities, 1 crazy family!
I entered because I’m a huge fan of Ryan Sandes (who isn’t? No, really, who isn’t?) and he creamed this course, coming first back in 2012, surprising everyone including himself. He still holds the record for the fastest time on the Atacama Crossing, finishing it in under 24 hours. I took over 57 hours. Anyway, I trained as hard as I could and was ready for October 2016 to swing on by!
Sometime in May, I met Dirk at a 4Deserts social (the team had just finished the Namibia race and were jolling a little in Cape Town and hosted a little get together at Arcade in Cape Town) and Dirk is a Stellenbosch local, also taking part in the Atacama Crossing. Here, I also met Kris West (BOS iced tea athlete and a proper malkop). It was great to meet them both and compare preparations. Not that it compares, because Dirk had recently completed MDS, placing 99th out of 1200. He also ended up being quite the dark horse in the Atacama Crossing and made the top ten! Kris similarly is quite the athlete, creaming the course of Atacama in 2014. I was grateful to have met them both beforehand and we have shared some wine and braai before and after!
24 September 2016: Finally, I found myself in San Pedro de Atacama. I chose to arrive a week early to acclimatize and relax and hopefully visit some decent altitude before the race. Rhianon West, a fellow 4Deserts athlete, also arrived early and we hung out, ate various meals together, and had a few short desert runs just outside the town. We bonded and she was there when the news from home of a friend passing away came, and I am so grateful to her for the friendship. It was also a great way to get used to being so far away from my family, and build up some excitement for the ATACAMA CROSSING 2016! She is a real desert sister!
San Pedro is a gorgeous little town, with an abundance of restaurants and bars and of course, all the desert excursions available. It’s hugely geared for tourists, and you won’t lack for things to do or places to eat, drink and be merry, yet it hasn’t lost that quaint feel of a small town (somehow placed in the middle of the desert). I took the time to go to the Geisers (geysers) – volcanoes at 4350m above sea level, which was incredible. And incredibly cold. The altitude, thankfully, didn’t make me sick, but I could definitely feel it – it was good to experience that kind of height and I had hoped that it would prepare me, just a little, for what was to follow. It was super having Dirk around during this week too, dubbed my “Desert Dad”, he was kind and helpful and positive thinking.
After a week of jolling around the desert and town, it was soon “Hotel Friday day” on 30 September! Runners coming in thick and fast, bogged down by bags, backpacks and packets, with trail shoes hanging over shoulders. The vibe was electric with excitement, everyone keen to get started. Huge tables of sporty types for lunch and dinner that day and night, throughout the small town of San Pedro, as more and more people arrived, and we all eagerly anticipated the race briefing at 9am the next day. I shared my room with Laura-Louise from Scotland, she was there under duress as she was entered into (an ultramarathon!) by her well-meaning (!!) father. Chatty and happy, we attempted to sleep that night.
I was lucky to connect with a number of competitors before actually meeting them, so finally seeing them face to face was a treat, and the camaraderie began long before actually clapping eyes on them. Tina (USA), Olivia AKA Ollie (Hong Kong) and Lisa (Brit living in Oz) took me under their wing as the novice I was and these girls are just the best. Varied inappropriateness began from early days, and the laughs ensued and didn’t end. I’ve stayed in touch with these beauties – testament to the bonds formed during our time in the dust.
Race briefing and introductions of volunteers and medical staff and general safety information was belted out over a megaphone. I struggled to concentrate – I was so keen to get into the desert, and just get flipping going. My anxiety had me buzzing, I was feeling quite manic. People were talking to me and I couldn’t really compute the words, I was raring to go! Zeana, Riitta, Tony, Jay all spoke and made me feel like we really would be most looked after out there. I felt really confident that 4Deserts knew what was potting, and the medical team looked pretty athletic themselves. Then it was time for gear check; pande-frikken-monium. Meant to be checked per tent, and being tent 2 I was thinking that it would be a quick affair and I’d be able to pack (strategically and leisurely) afterwards, prior to being booted out of the hotel at 12pm for check out. FAIL! It took an age, and I only wrapped up at 11h45 and felt really rushed and frazzled to get out of the hotel room in time, without forgetting something crucial behind! Leaving our other luggage in a hotel room, I walked away from that bag praying to the desert gods that I hadn’t forgotten a critical item.
Lisa and I were eye-wateringly desperate for the toilet by the time we pulled up to Camp 1 (gorgeous canyon, we felt like we were at the edge of the world) and we bolted from the bus, making a bee-line for the (glamorous) portaloos. But then… What! Wait, what’s happening? Why can’t I breathe? Camp 1 was at the highest altitude of the race at 3500m above sea level, and it felt worse than I had expected to run at this height. Yes, I’d done okay at the Geisers, which was even higher, but I was just strolling around then. It was a bit unnerving, but here we were!
Joining us four gals (Tina, Ollie, Lisa and myself) in Tent Two were the four boys: K and Tom – young students from Japan, and Rich (a friend of Lisa’s) also from the UK and living between Sydney and Bangkok, followed by Genko, a Bulgarian dentist living in Maine, USA. The motley crew! We became friends within minutes and should there have been any ice, it was swiftly broken by Ollie’s “pass the pigs” game, and we thus became known as “the loud tent”.
Because it was just camp arrival day, we could bring whatever we liked for dinner (as ultimately it wouldn’t be in our packs the following day) so people grazed on pizzas and “real” food. I had a croissant and soup and fruit and olives, random but things that were easily found in town and things I came to crave as the week wore on.
Camp 1 from our arrival until bed time, the spirits were high and I initially struggled to sleep from anticipation. Then I struggled to sleep from discomfort (a big rock in my ribs). And then I struggled to sleep from 1-5am because it was f*cking freezing. WOW! A rude awakening to the conditions out there and what was to be come in the following days. Breakfast was a struggle, excitement and knots in my tummy but I managed some oats with peanut butter. Race briefing through the megaphone and at 8am, off we went!
First impression was that damn altitude again. It felt like a leprechaun was sitting on my chest, and mentally (within the first 2km) I took strain. Was this the way it was always going to be? Lungs bursting at a min pace, I was not impressed. The scenery certainly helped! Then, I went over on my bad ankle (an injury from training) and this was all within the first 2km! WTF! ASSEBLIEF! I was cursing so badly (silently, in my head – I was still trying to act cool, calm and collected on the outside). I quickly adjusted my thinking and plodded.
I found Ollie and a few others and we zig zagged our way through the course. Well marked with pink flags every 100m, it was awesome to cruise through dry river beds, sandy pathways and through the desert. To-ing and fro-ing with other participants, there were times when I was lone which was quite amazing, and other times when I was in pods of people and the conversation was incredible and funny. I was having a blast! I came upon a long Inca road that in my head (from a rough recall of the race briefing) I thought was going to be 3km but it was actually 9km. Dubbed “the oven” I was here during the hottest part of the day, and at this time, alone. There was a group behind me, but I just wanted to GET OUT THE HELL OUT OF THE SUN so I didn’t want to slow down, and I just didn’t have the energy to catch up to the people that I knew to be up ahead. I didn’t expect to have to dig so deep on day 1, it was gruelling – I nearly suffered with “canyon fever”! Each corner looked the same, and as I rounded another bend, I was certain it was the same corner! It was quite terrifying. I ran out of water and I got quite panicked that it just wouldn’t end. I eventually got to the end of the road and found the last check point before camp, and thankfully met up with Genko and we did the last stretch together. Amazing how some company can make such a difference – even if he did want to discuss evolution and ancient Egyptian history whilst I was utterly exhausted and couldn’t muster much more than a “uhuh, sure”. This started my bond with Genko – the crazy Bulgarian dentist with a wealth of knowledge about all things. What a character! Day 1 was the shortest day of the whole 250km course, 38km done and dusted. Camp 2 was a beaut, and we feasted on freeze-dried meals (just jokes, they are hardly a feast but you’re ravenous by that time!) and even had time for a quick pass the pigs game before passing out.
That night was even more brutal. The first night had been cold, but I’d been distracted by the anticipation of the race starting, however, by night 2, I was fed up. Genko was sleeping so soundly next to me, I was pretty sure he was fast asleep, so I slowly but surely sidled up to him and bit by bit moulded against him, making sure I didn’t wake him up and creep him out! Warmth, hooray! Slept soundly, and woke up sheepishly spooning. I argue that it was survival.
Day 2 was by far my worst day. Lots of soft sand (double the work and little reward) and salt flats that went on for DAYS. Really tough terrain – I found it very tricky to get any decent pace on. My day felt like it consisted of check points that just felt eons away, and endless pathways leading far ahead to more endless pathways. Some sections just stretched out for ever, where the runners ahead of me looked like tiny specks. The sun beat down, the sand in my shoes had my feet feeling raw and swollen. An old hip injury from road running days flared up (ancient injury, easily 3 years old!) and I was forced to distract myself from the pain.
My feet started hurting a lot, and I was RAVENOUS but I wanted nothing that I had, the race food bars made me sick (I gave those away) and I struggled to get calories in. I was bone tired, and got really lonely. Even when with people, I found I didn’t want anyone around but when I was alone, I craved company. I didn’t want to deplete my iPod battery so early in the game, but in hindsight I should have turned that shit right on. I really took strain, and I kept hearing the finishing drums (they beat a large drum every time someone crosses the finish line) but I couldn’t clap eyes on the evasive camp!
I literally was just putting one leg in front of the other at this point, and when I finally crossed the finish line and my Desert Dad (Dirk Diemont) was there waiting for me, I dissolved into tears. I cursed and blinded the desert gods and thought that every soul here was mad and should have their heads examined. Who runs 250km through a f*cking desert?? So many people back home have been surprised to hear about my low moment “but you were smiling in all the photos we saw!”, well I’m hardly going to cry in front of the photographer am I? Truth be told, each day was a challenge. But the high comes hard and fast, once you crossed that stage’s finish line. Them drums! Christian Spangenberger and I see-sawed a lot this day, we looked beaten and done in and had a good watery eye hug.
I was so grateful to Dirk that day, he pepped me right up and after an ugly cry and some oxo stock cube to replace my salt (it sounds disgusting, but out there it was something I looked forward to – a stock cube swilling around in oily hot water) and I felt much better. A winner is also Hammer Recoverite – it bounces me right back. After lying in my tent without a top on (bra and shorts became normal attire – or was that just our tent?!) and cooling down and wiping my tears, I went to the medical tent to have my feet tended to. This became a part of my afternoon routine. I visited the medical tent each day to sort out my blisters. Also, at this point, I had not made a pee in 48 hours, so I was being watched for this, but thankfully this came right on day 3. So kidneys were haywire and physically it was tough going.
Tina arrived in tears with Genko in tow, and Tina and I had a little cry. It’s very cathartic and we ended up laughing. Nick Desilla and Pete Ford from South Africa were also a comfort, so funny and cheeky and they cheered me right up. Pete was suffering with some blisters but mustered on. I got my head space right again, and felt more determined than ever. 44km done – total mileage: 82km. I’m glad to report that this bad day was the only bad day. It’s like I hit rock bottom, and the rest was going to be JUST FINE.
Day 3, off we go. Headspace, okay. Feet, stuffed. Hobble-walked the first while, until my feet numbed sufficiently to carry on. It’s really quite something – putting on your shoes in the morning, there is a resounding OUCH throughout the camp. For me, the dampness from sweat and some river and bog crossings result in perpetually damp shoes – add a light dusting of salt, and putting on my shoes felt like trying to put breeze blocks on my feet. They were rock hard! My shoelaces even caked so that I couldn’t loosen them without help. Trying to run in breeze blocks is as fun as it sounds. Pretty much started popping pain killers for my hip and feet from this day forward. Not ideal, but it made such a difference. I must’ve been taking 8 paracetomol a day.
On this day, Lisa and I bonded – we covered ground by chatting up a storm and swapping stories. Tears over losses and hardship – we hardly noticed the mileage as we stomped on. We each had our turns to have some low moments “can we carry on” – Lisa’s feet were really bad, I was so thoroughly impressed by her determination! She is fierce, a warrior. The dunes were tough – it was a slow day, but thankfully the forerunners had stomped out almost like staircases in the big dunes, which really helped us.
We seriously took our time on this day. We found a little river, and didn’t hesitate to strip down and “shower”. We were in no rush and thought this more prudent. Wilson (Taiwanese living in South Africa) had a tiny block of soap that we got all kinds of intimate with (sorry Wilson!) and it did absolute wonders for our spirits. To feel CLEAN again, just made us feel so good. It’s no wonder your mental state is such a factor, we felt like a million bucks. We even washed our clothes and underwear. We skipped into camp with broad smiles, making people jealous about our impromptu douche. We didn’t care about the added time, we were hardly going to podium finishes! Lisa had a really hard time at the medical tent with her feet, she is a trooper. I remember sorting my feet out and looking at her lying on the ground of the medical tent, holding back tears as the main GP Jay was sussing out her feet and working on them. She wasn’t present, I could tell. Her mind was taken elsewhere as she handled the pain, and it was at this point that I realised that Lisa is one of the most incredible women I’ve ever had the honour of knowing.
After your stage that day, most people are heading to the medical tent each afternoon for a foot wash and blister session. It’s kind of a gross rite of passage. Sleep comes easily that night and pretty much going foward, I’m sleeping like a top – warm with Genko sandwiches’ (Tina and Genko and Shelley were the warmest runners there!) and so exhausted that “being uncomfortable” didn’t matter. Day 3: 39km, total mileage: 121km.
Day 4: Up and at ‘em. The last “short day” at 44km. Lisa and I plodded through the salt again, more sandy paths, a couple more dunes, through a “forest” of somewhat life-threatening thorn trees. Both of us struggling with our various eina’s, it was a gruelling day. I noticed Lisa slowing down more and more and getting real quiet, even at check points. I started to punt that if she didn’t finish, then I wouldn’t – would she really want that on her conscience?! My intention was to encourage her.
She dug deep but after the second to last CP (check point), she grabbed my shoulder and said “that’s it, that’s me, you carry on” and turned around and high tailed back to the CP so quickly that I didn’t even have a chance to try change her mind or hurl abuse at her retreating back. I was so sad – she had worked so hard, but I could see she was totally finished. I didn’t want her to feel worse, so I glumly put the iPod on and upped the ante. I was getting really tired, and wanted to get out of the sun. Across the salt flats here, I was getting sun spots in my eyes and was feeling super fatigued – then I saw a murder of crows and literally ducked, holding my head, only to realise that there were in fact, no crows. That was pretty scary, so I quickly took some electrolytes and hustled to the next CP.
Caught up with Tina and Genko, and even though it was a long day, we rocked out to some good old school 80s rock as we crossed the finish line. Tina is a champion – with her sticks, she moves at a pace and never falters. Super, strong woman who wears desert like a pro, she is a beautiful thing. Rich was there waiting for Lisa, and Ollie too (tent two squad game was strong) and I had to tell them the sad news that Lisa had pulled out at the previous CP. Rich was doing well in the field, and didn’t lack energy – he was always the first to crack a joke when we were all still catching our breath.
You get used to the sound of the drums beating, and it’s awesome to have all the competitors cheer you in – there is big respect to people out there in those conditions for 10+ hours. It’s gnarley out there. So we heard the drums, and went out to cheer and we hear someone say “it’s Lisa”. Well oh my GOD, the tears. She had only turned back 200m or so before she decided to dig out her big girl panties (and to really grin and bear the pain of her feet) and finish the stage. I was blown away by her tenacity and spirit. HUGE celebrations and tent two was whole again. 45km more ticked off, total mileage: 166km.
Stage 5, day 5: The Long March. Much anticipation of this day, across the board. 77km in one fell swoop. I was so nervous but ready to rock and roll. Mentally at this point I was cruising. Physically with the conditions being as they were, and having withstood said conditions for 4 full days and then some, I was anxious but I knew that I just had to finish this, and I’d pretty much completed the Atacama Crossing. That was motivation enough, and when the countdown got to 1, my heart skipped a beat. Go time! Game plan for the day was survival. Survival and finish. By this point, I was so filthy that my top could stand up by itself. I stank of sweat, and wood smoke, and tears, and blood. I was calorie deficit and hungry and not peeing properly. I was sunburnt, sleeping about 4 to 5 hours a night and pretty much an all together wreck. I am pretty sure I aged in just 4 days, and my hip felt like it belongs to my late grandmother and not me. But I had a HUGE smile on my face.
I started off strong, and was happy to use up my iPod battery. I had all the good feels for the day! Then the hip got really bad. I got called Frankenstein (thanks Tia!) because of my gait, and I actually got really worried that even if I hobble-walked the whole course, I actually wouldn’t make it. Painkillers weren’t touching sides and I slowed right down. Ollie caught up, she was struggling with her knee and blisters and between the two of us we were not looking great. I took more painkillers (to the chagrin of the med team – I may or may not have lied about how recently I’d taken some…) and my hip started to ease. Genko caught up with us and from CP2 to CP3, Ollie, Genko and I had some story telling sessions and poems. Such a laugh – possibly a little deliriously, but great company. We left Ollie at CP3, she was taking some strain with her knee and blisters but the day was getting hot and Genko and I were keen to hit the road. We didn’t need to worry about Olivia – this chick has some serious determination, we knew that she’d finish no matter what.
Genko and I knuckled down and were ready to get this long march over with. I ended up spending almost all of the 19 hours of the course with Genko, and we spoke about all kinds of things. It’s amazing the conversations you have out there in the dust – small talk is over with pretty much before you even start stage 1, if not before, so gloves are off and it’s real nitty gritty conversation. A few more tears (from me, maybe him, though he’d never admit it) and we climbed the MEGA dune. I loved the big dune – I saw it as a challenge and we scaled that thing, one time. The top of the dune was some sort of Mars-like plateau with salt and rock formations, entirely other-wordly. Down another small dune, and Laura-Louise from Scotland came upon us. This CP had coca-cola for us! Nothing has ever tasted so good. I changed into running tights, knowing it was going to start getting cold and the 3 of us got going. The sky started darkening and we slowly but surely went from corner to road to ditch to path and chipped away at the 77km with our headlights blazing and blinking rear red lights. CP5 we decided not to stay for an optional 4 hour rest, Genko and I were keen to wrap it up so we ate some food and chilled a bit before pushing on.
There is something so magical about walking through the Valley of the Moon at 2am. At this time, I was an hour from finishing, and I had the most profound feeling of peace and satisfaction. I knew I’d done it – nothing could stop me now. The feet, the hip, the fatigue, the hunger, my general physical health – nothing short of a natural disaster was going to stop me. The stars at night were unbelievable, pretty much along the whole course, but Valle de la Luna was just incredible. I felt like I could have lassoed the stars and even though it was a new moon, it was a clear as I’d ever seen it. To wax lyrical, I felt electric, like my world was new and open, and on my lips was the taste of opportunity and possibility. I had such a strong sense of accomplishment and success, that I felt quite giddy.
At this point, Genko and I had rather started weaving along the road, like drunkards. We are beyond tired, no doubt about it. Somehow, we didn’t run out of conversation or laughs, and I am so grateful to him for his awesome company. When we crossed that finish line (more drums, poor sleeping forerunners) I was euphoric, elated. And effing exhausted. We shared a cappuccino at the fire, watching a few of the others coming in and sleep came easy that early morning.
Going to sleep at 3am and waking at 7am after 77km through the driest desert in the world, is not a good idea. Day 6: rest day AKA death camp day. Most people were finished the race by the time I woke up, so we cheered in a last participants. Later that morning, team AHO came in (the only team in the field, 10 Japanese friends) and everyone cheered them in, it was a wonderful moment. Other than that though, I was properly grumpy. I had pretty much run out of food, and the lack of calories in my life was really taking it’s toll. I ate what I had left, and then turned in for a nap, after a game of pigs. The problem is that having never been in the tent before at 11am, it was STIFLING hot. Kit off didn’t help either, I was sweating and tired: so uncomfortable. The smell of pizza and the fizz of coke were teasing me from the nearby town of San Pedro de Atacama and I started fantasizing about showers and food and cold beer. Especially the shower, oh to be clean!
The next day, the last day – day 7, stage 6: was a strange day – my spirits were high, 8km dash to the finish line but I had such a sense of loss. For so much time, the Atacama Crossing – the prep, the planning, the training, the compromises made along the way so that I could train… it was all over. 7 days, just like that. It was a surreal feeling. It was fleeting, as we got the count down to go and Tina and I bolted the hell out of there. We crossed the finish line holding hands, my desert sister and it was AWESOME. Pizza and coke in my hands, and bag off my tired back. Even mustered a little celebration dance. Nick took a photo and sent it to my family so they knew I’d done it.
The camaraderie at the finish line was unparalleled. No one disappeared, we were all there to cheer every last competitor through, it was unbelievable. I’ve never seen so many hugs and smiles and tears. Everyone was so damn happy, but not just for themselves, but for their comrades. The vibe between the volunteers, medical team and the competitors and race organisers was ecstacy – there was no politics, everyone throughout the course was friendly and happy and helpful. It is an experience like no other.
A parade came through the town just at that moment, and even though it had nothing to do with us, the race or 4 Deserts, it was serendipitous. Sitting on the curb with my cold Coke watching the traditional dancing and costumes, I was overwhelmed by the whole encounter. I had never put myself through anything like that before, not even in my training. You can only prepare so much – there is so much you can’t ready yourself for, and that is part of the epic journey. And I can’t wait to do it AGAIN!
Special thanks go to all my tent mates and others who really made my journey an epic one: Lisa, Tina, Genko, Rich, Olivia, Tom, K, Rhianon, Christian, Dirk, Nick, Pete, Tim, Thomas, Diana, Tony, Ingred, Linda, Claire, Riitta, Zeana and pretty much everyone. May you all have a little bit of desert in your everyday life.