I walked into the foyer of the Hotel San Pedro at lunchtime on Friday the 3rd of October. I knew the race organisers had arranged for each competitor to share a hotel room, but I wasn’t sure who I was sharing with. I was told by the receptionist that my roommate had already checked in and was in the room. I was absolutely thrilled when I walked in the room to discover Cat Simpson – the girl I had meet a week earlier in the Square in San Pedro.
We chatted like school girls whilst Cat reluctantly sewed nationality patches onto her water proof jacket and I desperately tried to shave a hundred grams off the weight of my pack – deliberating whether I could afford to pack that extra pair of underwear.
Soon it was lights out and I spent a restless night worrying over mandatory gear checks and before I knew it, it was 9:00 am – time for the race briefing. I knew I should have been listening to what the organisers were saying, but instead I was looking around at the other competitors. Everyone looked so fit. Yeah, yeah yeah, follow the pink tape, but look at these people! They’ve got muscles on muscles and no fat! Why oh why do I have such an obsession with cake?
Then it was time to tip out all our gear on the floor and check it off piece by piece to make sure we had all the mandatory gear. Dave was the volunteer who was checking off both me and Cat. I noticed his accent straight away and yelled “Aussie!” Little did I know at that point in time what a great source of support Aussie Dave would turn out to be over the course of the next week. At this point in time however, I was happy to get Dave’s tick of approval to start the race.
Before the competitor check in was over though, I had to weigh in my pack. This pack had everything I would need for the next week: food, sleeping gear, clothing and mandatory safety gear. It clocked in at 8kg without water. I was happy with that. I dashed back to the hotel room to grab an extra pair of undies and my eyeliner – 100g well spent.
Later that afternoon the buses arrived to take us out into the desert for our first night of camp. We drove further and further out into what felt like the middle of nowhere and I wondered how the hell the bus drivers were managing on roads that were clearly meant for four wheel drives.
Suddenly we were there. The big yellow sign ‘Atacama Crossing’ welcomed us in to camp. We found our assigned tents and suddenly, everything became very real. Cat and I moved in to Tent 3 and introduced ourselves to our comrades. Ten people in each tent. Ten people who were to become family over the course of the next week.
Of course, there was Cat, the humble Londoner who had been happy to plod along on a training run with me earlier in the week, not once letting on what a phenomenal runner she is. I knew Cat and I would get along when I saw her Instagram account was full of photos of crazy cats and stray dogs. I could never have imagined just what a huge source of support, inspiration, friendship and laughs she would turn out to be.
Then there were Paul and Ross, two very funny guys who we came to know as Maverick and MacGyver.
Sergio, my vegan friend living in Brazil. A man who had lost over 30kg after converting to veganism and who taught me not to take the price of vegan protein powder for granted (Sergio faced over $90 in taxes for a tub of Vega in Brazil).
The power team – Alex, Shin and Fraser who were aiming to finish the crossing as a team.
Vladmi, who is the greatest athlete of us all but so humble about it. Vladmi is a Brazilian athlete who seems to excel at everything including keeping his feet dry by incorporating his long jump talents to avoid some of the river crossings involved with the race. Vladmi is blind and was running the race with Erin.
Erin is a woman with an exceptional heart and an energy that just flows out and calms and nurtures every fibre of your being. Erin and Vladmi run with a simple tie of string between them. Physically, this is their only connection, but after running behind them during the race, I was fortunate enough to see that the real bonds that bind them are billowing ribbons of love, support, sincerity and trust.
The first night in the tent was freezing. I had every item of clothing on that I had brought and I was still concerned that I was getting hypothermia. I didn’t sleep a wink.
I started the run with my gloves on and my hands ached as I felt them slowly defrost.
By checkpoint 1, I was already heating up and had to stop to remove all my excess clothing and apply sunscreen. I had never experienced such polar extremes in temperatures all within a few hours.
Most of Day 1 felt like a joyful dream. I just couldn’t believe that here I was, the Aussie girl who had failed Physical Education at school, running 250km across the Atacama Desert in Chile South America. The altitude was apparent. Even on the flats I couldn’t run without having to take walk breaks just to slow my heart rate down from time to time, but on Day 1, none of this bothered me. I was just happy to be there doing exactly what I was doing.
Then we got about half way between Checkpoint 2 and Checkpoint 3. I knew that there should be about 5-6km to go until the next Checkpoint. There was a guy standing at the base of the hill in a 4 Deserts shirt and he said “2.5 to the next Checkpoint.” I let out a whoop of glee.
The next 2.5km was uphill. I wasn’t wearing my Garmin but after about half hour of climbing I knew I had covered at least 2.5km. Where the hell was this Checkpoint? I kept trekking, up, up, up. The heat of the sun was pounding on my face, on my shoulders, on my legs. It was unrelenting. Suddenly I realised that the guy must have meant 2.5 miles. I was so angry. I dug my trekking poles into the ground and yelled out “This is bullshit!” I don’t think the Spanish runner to my side spoke English and he looked fearful at my angry outburst. I apologised and kept trekking. Eventually I reached the checkpoint and Aussie Dave was there. “That was a bit shit” I said to him. I’m not quite sure what Dave said, or if he said anything. Perhaps it was just that I felt that he got my little outburst and wasn’t judging me for my filthy trucker mouth. Either way, I was out of that Checkpoint in fine spirits and ran most of the last 6.8km to the finish. 36km completed in 6 hours.
Dinner was a calorie controlled freeze dried meal consisting of rice, textured vegetable protein, seaweed and vegetables. As food weighs a lot, I had only taken the minimum 2000 calories a day. Most of those calories consisted of Cliff Bloks, some trail mix, a protein shake and that left only 500 calories for dinner.
Day 2 caused me the most distress. I spent most of the night worrying about it so not a lot of sleep was had. The first section of Day 2 involved 8km of river crossings. As the remainder of the course involved sand, I was quite concerned about my feet. How would my feet cope running 44km in wet shoes filled with sand? I needn’t have worried however as given temperatures were in the 40’s my shoes were dry within half hour of exiting the river crossings. Further, those 8km of river crossings were some of the most spectacular terrain I have encountered, clambering through canyons waist deep in the the cool water. I finished the day in just over 8 hours.
This was when I realised that I had no real experience at what I was doing. I had thought the Big Red Run (250km across the Simpson Desert) in 2013 was a similar type of feat. I was so wrong. The terrain in the Atacama Crossing, the temperatures, the altitude and the fact I was carrying around 10kg on my back including water meant that I was running a lot slower and tiring a lot quicker than I did in the Simpson Desert. It also meant that the daily distances were taking a lot longer to complete meaning less time to recover and prepare for the next day. After running for eight hours, I only had a few hours to eat and rest my feet before it was time to sleep and then get up and do it all over again.
I had expected Day 3 to be challenging mentally. During the Simpson Desert run, I had experienced a great depression on day 3. However, my mind was feeling strong. It was my body that really broke on this day. The final 4km were brutal. Temperatures were in the 40s. The fact that one of the Chilean volunteers was listening to Pantera really loudly in the middle of the desert cheered me up momentarily but not enough to forgive the race organisers for placing the finish line at the top of a sand dune. Another 40km and 8 hours out in the Atacama Desert complete.
Day 4 did not start out well for me. The first 12km were sand and it was barely runnable terrain. Starting the day out walking slowly I started to get really down on myself. We got to a little oasis in the desert and I was so miserable I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. I slipped and fell in the river. The creek crossings and the thought of more sand were making me angry.
Shortly after leaving Checkpoint 2, I found myself out in the open with an ever expanding horizon in front of me. I started running, slowly to begin with. Then I found my rhythm. As I ran, my mood lifted. So far, I had mentally been dedicating each day of my run to someone special in my life, someone who I could think of and draw inspiration from. Day 1 was dedicated to my vegan friends – Tay, Jan and Tanya in particular and all the animals. Day 2 was dedicated to my dear friend Gwak who passed away. Day 3 was for my family. Suddenly I decided Day 4 was for me. I ended up having a fantastic run. The rest of the day I was strong – physically and in spirits. I came into camp after 44km in just over 8 hours.
Day 5 was the long day – 76km. I tried to not over think it. I was just going to put one foot in front of the other and when times got tough I would draw on my mantra “I am my father’s daughter.” Today I was running for my Dad. Every day I run, I run for my Dad but knowing that today was for him would give me that little bit of extra strength to dig deep. I couldn’t let him down.
I started off well. In fact, I got about 30km in to the day without so much of a hiccup. Then it started to go down hill (though unfortunately not literally). Checkpoint 3-4 felt like I was running on Mars: salt flats, uneven terrain, moon like craters. It was well over 40 degrees. I felt like I was running in a furnace. The checkpoint must be close! Then I see a giant sand dune up ahead. I think we can’t possibly be going up that. I look in every direction, searching, hoping for an alternative track but to no avail. Up and over it is. Finally I come into Checkpoint 4. Julie, one of the medics asks me if I’m okay. I can’t answer her. The tears start to roll down my cheeks. I force down a Cliff Bar and half a litre of water and then I get out of there before the water works really start.
(Climbing the up into Checkpoint 5)
I try to pull myself together and have a strategy – run 4 trail markers walk one. This works for a little while, then I start to feel really sick in the stomach. The heat is unrelenting. I beg for sunset. I am reduced to a walk. Over the course of this 13km section my walk gets slower and slower. I start to lose sight of the flags – not because the trail is not well marked but because my mind is going on me. Eventually I get to Checkpoint 5.
Checkpoint 5 is the main rest point for the long day. There is a rest tent and competitors can have a sleep if they need to. I have traveled over 50km and have 19km to go to the finish. It’s 7pm. The reality of the situation is that I’m going quite well. I had two goals for the long day, the first to finish before midnight, the second to finish by 10pm. Neither goal is off the table at this stage except for the fact that I’m not moving and I have no idea what I’m doing. I can’t eat or drink and I can’t fathom continuing at the pace I just completed the last section in.
Next minute Martin and Ian come bouncing into the checkpoint all smiles. They have a strategy and they are executing it well. They have allocated half hour to eat and hydrate before tackling the last 19km. They invite me to accompany them. I would love to go with them. I didn’t really want to do the night time section alone, but I fear I won’t be able to keep up. Martin assures me they are walk/running. I say I will start out with them but if I can’t keep up I won’t hold it against them if they leave me behind.
At 7:40pm we put on our warm clothes and our head torches and head out as the sun begins to set. We chat and get to know a bit about one another and before we know it we’ve reached Checkpoint 6. I can’t believe it. My spirits are high and we are keeping good pace. We pick up a few other runners at Checkpoint 6 including my tent mate Paul who is a phenomenal runner and should have been finished hours earlier, but the heat of the desert spares no one. Together, we finish the last 9.5km under a full moon in the Valle De La Luna (Valley of the Moon). We come across the finish line just after 11pm hand in hand.
I couldn’t sleep after that. I was on top of the world. Erin and Vladmi were still out on the course and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Erin’s feet had been in such a bad way that morning. I had no doubt her mental strength would get her to the finish line but I couldn’t rest until I knew she was okay. Early that morning her and Vladmi crossed the finish line after nearly 24 hours out on the course. Everyone in Tent 3 was home.
Day 6 is probably the most horrible day of the event. It’s a rest day except no one has any food left. We lay around exhausted in our hot tents in the 40 degree heat dreaming of food and beer. At one stage Erin pulled out a small bag of peanuts and we all dove on her like rabid dogs.
Finally, Day 7. This day is a 10km run from our final camp into the town centre of San Pedro De Atacama. As I ran I reflected on the race, on the amazing people and spectacular terrain I had encountered. I also reflected on the months of hard work and dedication that had gone into training for this event and the gratitude I have for the people who have supported me in this adventure. As I crossed the finish line, I felt like the happiest girl in the world.