Last year I took on the Atacama Crossing in Chile – a 250km self-supported stage race through the highest and driest desert on the planet. It took months to prepare for it and pushed me to my physical and emotional limits, way beyond what I’d experienced in other endurance challenges.
The amount of preparation needed for a desert race should not be underestimated. You need to be physically fit but the kit and nutrition you take is equally important. Apart from water and tents, everything you need for the week has to be carried on your back; the focus to make my pack weigh as little as possible was all-consuming. Each entrant is given a long list of mandatory items, including a minimum number of calories for each day. I tried to shave some grams off each piece of kit I carried and took no luxuries at all, unless you can class ten pieces of toilet paper per day a luxury…
My nutrition consisted of two Expedition Food ration packs per day (decanted into plastic jiffy bags as the ration pack bags weighed a bit more) and a variety of snacks including biltong, energy bars, Peperami, crushed crisps, etc. Mentally and physically, this food would come to play a huge role in my race. At race check-in on the evening before the main event, my pack weighed 8.1kg without water, after months of testing, weighing and adjusting pieces of kit.
The race itself was held over seven days with the stage distances differing each day. The first four stages were roughly a marathon each and stage five was the big one – “The Long March”, 77km in total. There was then a day to rest and a final 10km to the finish. It started and finished in San Pedro de Atacama, a small, sleepy outpost in the Atacama Dessert. The main challenges with running in this area are heat (normally over 40 degrees Celsius in the day but close to freezing at night), the tough terrain (soft sand, salt flats, river crossings, loose rocks, sand dunes, dirt tracks, marshes and ravines) and the altitude (the race started at 3,200m and finished at 2,400m), and out of these it was the terrain I found the hardest to deal with.
I soon realised I hadn’t spent enough time hill training or trail running and my feet paid the price. Going into the race I knew that blisters would be an issue and I had a tried and tested way of preventing and dealing with them, but the sand, heat and water soon put pay to that. By the end of stage two both of my heels and balls of my feet were in agony and would only get worse over the next four stages. It felt like running barefoot on broken glass and razor blades. I was not the only one suffering and a lot were far worse and had to drop out because of their feet. One American competitor lost the skin on his entire heel and sole.
Despite the harsh conditions, injuries and lack of sleep (we slept in 10-man tents), the lack of food and pure physical exhaustion, the possibility of not finishing the race didn’t cross my mind until I was 65km through stage five. I had started the stage quickly, with the aim of covering as much distance as possible in the cool part of the day and finishing in under 10 hours. Thirteen hours after I had set off I crawled into the penultimate checkpoint, dehydrated, exhausted and delirious.
I couldn’t read my watch or make sense of where I was and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. The medics looked after me for a while but, because IV drips are not allowed under the race’s rules, there is not much they could do. Taking on the last 12km in the dark on my own was not an option, for me or the medics. Eventually, I joined a group of five runners including a tent-mate that came through the checkpoint and we walked the last section together, finishing just before midnight. I have never been so glad to cross a finish line in my life.
Throughout the race, I met scores of inspirational people from all over the world. I was lucky enough to complete the race with an old school friend and have my girlfriend there as a volunteer in the amazing support crew. We experienced a brutal terrain but, at the same time, the landscape was absolutely breathtaking. I had expected monotonous desert and endless sand dunes, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The vista was constantly changing. When times got tough, you just had to look around and realise how lucky you were to be there. An epic event that I took so much away from and will carry with me into future challenges.
The organisers of the Atacama Crossing, 4 Deserts, also run three other similar races: Gobi March, Sahara Race and The Last Desert (Antarctica). Find out more at www.4deserts.com.
Words and Photography: Paul Smith