Wednesday 8 April 2009

Atacama Crossing 2009

Let me first congratulate Racing The Planet on staging the Atacama Crossing 2009. The event is well organised, and very professionally run. Their website is informative, and their online store well stocked and reasonably priced, especially for international delivery costs.

For additional features and reports on ultramarathons accross the Globe, indluding this one, go to where all the Worlds top ultras are listed.


If you have been following my blog you'll know that I have suffered some serious misfortune whilst training for the event. In December an MRI scan confirmed diagnosis of a Meniscus Cartilage tear and Focal Patellar Tendinosis of the left knee. In January I took time off training to recover from the acute phase and then started a much reduced training schedule just to try and make the start line, or lose some £3000 in race entry fees and flights. A month before the event I injured my foot on a training run and couldn't run a single step until the first stage of the race itself. All in all, it's been a bit of a disaster. Maybe my luck would change in the race itself?

I flew to Santiago in Chile, via Madrid in Spain. Another competitor was on my flight, Mark Cockbain, a well known, hugely experienced and successful UK Ultra Runner. Upon arrival in Santiago all of our suitcases were scanned for banned food items, such as meat, fruit and nuts. I knew I had contraband!; some jerk Beef (Peperami), porridge oats and dried fruit in my suitcase, all wrapped up in my vacuum sealed daily food rations. Sure enough the sensitive equipment flagged my suitcase for inspection, and I had visions of my whole weeks food being taken off me. A stroke of luck and a carton of electrolytes had opened mid flight and the inspector spilled them on the floor as he opened my case. He apologised profusely and helped me pick them up. He then saw a Clif Energy bar on the top of the suitcase, and said that this kind of food was acceptable. He zipped up my case and sent me on my way; a lucky escape. Another competitor was hit with a $200 USD fine for having 20 raisins in a bag. My advice is keep your food in its original packing and tick "items to declare" on your landing card. Let them decide if the food is acceptable; at worst you lose it and don't get a fine. Dehydrated meals and energy bars, still sealed in manufacturers packing, seem to be acceptable.

We had an eight hour wait, so we opted to catch a bus into Santiago city for some sightseeing. We were both decidedly unimpressed by the nation’s capital. It just seemed to lack the cultural identity that other capital cities exude. We spent about 3 hours looking around, seeing sights such as the Presidential Palace, Cathedral and main shopping district.

You can click on any photo in the blog for a bigger view.

All in all it was disappointing. Admittedly 3 hours is not a great deal of time to see a city, but I wouldn't make a special visit to see it again.

We caught our 4pm connecting flight to Calama, continuing our 30 hour torturous journey, ending in an hour long taxi ride to San Pedro de Atacama. Worryingly our taxi driver nodded and waved to roadside graves and memorials along the main single carriageway road, victims of head on fatal collisions on the road I assume. Sometimes parts of the wrecks were left behind. I've never seen anything like it, and gathered that Chile's road could be a dangerous place.

The taxi took us to Hotel Casa de Don Tomas, which was also the race headquarters. The (3 star) hotel is clean and comfortable but offers only basic amenities for it's (somewhat overpriced in my opinion) $130 USD a night twin room rate. Still, when there are few hotels in town I guess they can charge what they like. The hotel was not the cheapest in town, as there are a few hostels where the backpackers stay, probably offering better value for money. It is also far from the most expensive hotel in town. Some competitors were in staying in other slightly more expensive hotels, but there are a few 5 star spa-hotels in San Pedro (though you wouldn’t guess from the mud-brick walls that surround them!); The Awisa and Explora both of which charge over $1000 USD a night. These cater for the jet-set I assume. Me and Mark had a meal, from the small menu. The food was well prepared well presented and tasted good. I'm still a little fascinated as to why half the dishes on the menu were served "on a bed of hydroponic lettuce" though?

We went to bed, getting up at 7:30 for a breakfast; choice of cereals, omelette, toast, slices sponge cake and even biscuits! We were met at 8am by our guide Jamie, who we had hired (I arranged it from England) to guide us up a nearby volcano called Cerro Tocco. He drove us for an hour, initially on the main road to Bolivia, then for the last half hour on a bumpy 4x4 track rapidly gaining altitude to park at 5000M (san Pedro is 2400M altitude). I got out of the car, never having been at this altitude before and was shocked at just how thin the air was. Even putting on my backpack had me out of breath. You can see the car parked bottom right of the shot.

Here is Mark all kitted out for the cold air at that height.

You can see the route ahead was steep and cold. Brrrr

Our guide Jamie waiting for us to catch our breath as we climbed painfully slowly.

Even at snail pace my heart raced to 130bpm as my muscles fought to transform what little oxygen they could get into movement. Oxygen is at 53% that of sea level at 5000M and were we learning that the hard way.

We'd probably been walking for the best part of an hour and the car is still in sight.

The way ahead just got steeper and colder too.

We got to a plateau at 5350M an hour and a half after setting off, and Jamie told us that it would take us at least another hour to climb the remaining 300M to the top. We decided that we would stop, take a few pictures there and descend. Me and Mark both had altitude headaches and rather than risk more serious altitude sickness, not to mention wear ourselves out for the upcoming race, we would go back down.

A self portrait.

Mark, catching a breather before the descent.

The descent took us less than 15 minutes, so it seemed like a joke that we had struggled for an hour and half to get to that height. This altitude business is to be taken seriously you understand! Obviously you are not meant to go from sea level to scaling a 5600M volcano in a single day, you are meant to acclimatise over several days. However, we were on the mountain just a few hours so the risk of serious altitude sickness was very low.

Back in San Pedro we walked the few handed metres to the main street. San Pedro is a charming town full of character. It puts you in mind of a Wild West frontier town or somewhere in Mexico in the time of cowboys. I was half expecting Clint Eastwood to stride out of any passing door, wearing a poncho and chewing a fat cigar to ask me if I was a Gringo and was I feeling lucky punk (ok, ok movie aficionado’s I know I'm mixing movie genres there, just give me a little creative liberty will you).

Look beyond the dirt roads of San Pedro to the background to see the volcano peaks which surround the Atacama Desert.

The pretty church, in the town square where the Atacama Crossing would conclude as it transpired.

Below is a nice picture of the typical mud-brick type walls that surround all the properties in San Pedro. The dirt road leading out of town towards Bolivia, and the 5900M volcano Lincancabur that dominated the skyline all week.

A very typical San Pedro street scene: dozens of well tempered dogs lazing in the shade, out of the heat of the midday sun.

Behind most of the doors in town are souvenir shops; typical tourist trap style goods. Lots of “I’ve been to Chile” mass produced T-shirts, copper items, statues, and clothes made of wool. Every shop pretty much sells the same thing. Every other premises is either a tour operator; trying to talk you into visiting the high altitude lagoons, or the geysers, or a restaurant. I ate at a few of them. The food was quite good, but I didn’t really see any examples of Chilean food on the menus. It was all pizzas, pasta, Mexican food etc. Maybe I ate at the wrong places, or maybe everywhere in town has adapted their menu to the tastes of their North American and European clients?

The next morning we changed into our race clothes, and queued up at the race control to have our race numbers issued, backpacks weighed (mine was under 8.5kg as expected), mandatory contents checked and roadbooks issued. I noticed that stage 6 was missing from the Roadbook. A race official said that the last stage was a "secret" and was 15km. I rather suspect this was a cover story for a missed roadbook page, since the last stage turned out to be a 9.5km easy flat-terrain dash into San Pedro, unless it was so secret not even the race officials knew the distance in advance!

Shortly after we were given packed lunch and boarded one of several small buses for the one and half hour bumpy ride into the desert to the first camp "Rio Grande". You could not have hand picked a more stunning location for the start of the race.

Here you see the brand new tents that had been shipped out from Egypt. There were 10 competitor tents, sleeping around 8 or 9 people in each one.

There were also tents for the volunteers, an internet tent (staffed by Elizabeth), and the medical tent (Staffed by the doctors Alice, Grant, Jay and Marla - all to whom I am indebted as you will read).

A photo looking across camp to the start line.

A picture looking down to camp with Mark dressed for the race.

The sun soon set and the temperature dropped like a stone. The camp was at the highest altitude all week, above 3000M. I put on my windproof jacket, PHD minim ultra down vest, hat and gloves, oh and my Helly Hansen base layer underneath. I always kept my Under Armour running tights on, all day and all night!

Local Chilean guys were hired to pitch and strike the camps, as well as maintain the camp fires and boil hot water for us in their huge kettles. These guys really did a great job all week. There was always hot water when you needed it, and they moved the camp every day so quickly it was always ready for when you finished the day’s stage. If I had to pick fault about one thing though, it was their food handling hygiene; please don't test if our chicken is cooked by opening the foil and pressing your fingers against the flesh! Our pre race meal was re-warmed on the camp fire; chicken in tin foil, some vegetables in a tray and empanadas. Empanadas look like Cornish pasties, but they have mystery contents. They appeared to contain beef and onion, parts of boiled egg and whole olives (with the stones still in them!). I thought the food was a bit high-risk, and low in carbohydrates, for a pre-race meal but I ate it figuring that surely everyone couldn't get sick the day before the race. To be fair the food tasted good. However, those empanada's have been declared prime suspect by the race doctors for the epidemic of sickness and diarrhea that swept the competitors, volunteers, media team and even the event doctors over the next few days. In the post race video one of the doctors did a funny little sketch where he singled the empanadas out for the food poisoning crime. I did laugh at it at the time, but I've since wondered if those people forced to abandon the race because of the problem found it that funny? My advice for the organisers; ultra runners all love a good pasta party, so play safe in future!

After the food we all went straight to our sleeping bags to escape the cold. I wore all my clothes that night, though I wore my down vest on my legs (like a nappy!) as extra lower limb insulation from the cold. No one slept much that night as the temperature dropped to around zero, maybe less with wind chill. Racing The Planet (RTP) say your sleeping bag must be rated to 10C minimum, but if you want a good night sleep, especially on the first cold night at altitude, my advice is take a 0C bag. My PHD Minim Ultra bag (370g) was too cold for the first night in the Atacama, but I got away with it on the subsequent warmer nights (due to camps at lower altitude) by wearing my clothes. Next time I'd take my PHD Minim 300 (650g) though.

Stage 1 - Navigation by Rock - 35.2km (My GPS recorded it at 36.7km)
Beginning altitude 3263M
to CP1 - 10.8km Difficult. Ascent +67M, descent -94M
CP1 to CP2 - 10.7km Moderate. Ascent +0M, descent -637M
CP2 to CP3 - 10.2km Moderate. Ascent +178M, descent -159M
CP3 to end - 3.5km Moderate. Ascent +0M, descent -83M

The following morning I ate my breakfast of porridge with cranberries, washed down with PSP22. My stomach felt a little rough, but I put it down to pre-race nerves. Either Alasdair or Zac gave the pre-race briefing each day, and were also to be found around the course giving enthusiastic encouragement to the competitors from the first to the last. We were warned to take it slow as we would climb to 3350M, and we would all find the altitude very difficult. The first leg was going to be especially difficult.

We lined up on the start.

The countdown to the start of the 2009 Atacama Crossing.

After a steep 5M drop straight after the start line, we route turned sharp right and headed into the neighbouring canyon across large boulders and rough ground.

There was a short section of easy ground before the course headed up towards a rubble strewn re-entrant (top left).

Here is a little closer up the re-entrant. Needless to say we were all walking at this stage.

It's a little blurry this one, sorry, but you can see how steep it was. This is all in the first 700M of the stage too!

That's RTP founder (participating in one of her own races for the first time ever) Mary Gadams negotiating the steep ascent.

The altitude was really hitting me. I was climbing slowly, and with such effort. No sooner had we crested the first hill, and several more came into view, and still it was within the first mile. It was without doubt the hardest first mile of any desert race I have done so far.

Finally, the top of the last hill and the amazing views across the canyons, where amazing green rock (the copper for which the Atacama is famous) was sandwiched between the red/orange outcrops.

I descended down this spur really quickly. I love fast loose-rubble descents.

The route then followed a wide canyon and old river bed, strewn with small rocks.

…and bigger ones!

Careful footing was required to avoid turning an ankle. I was still running at this stage, following the small pink flags that marked our route. I missed one and trotted into this canyon.

Then I retraced my steps, finding the 20 people behind had also missed the route. A couple of minutes of frantic searching and I spotted a pink flag half way up a nearby hill and the race was rejoined. Everyone I had overtaken had caught me up and I had added some extra distance onto the first leg. We all walked slowly in single file up the hill, breathing hard from the lack of oxygen. At the top I ran with UK competitor Lucy, on the slight incline towards the awaiting media cameraman Adam, and stills photographer Zandi. It's an unwritten rule that you are always running when a camera is pointed at you, no matter how little oxygen is in the air!

We joined a 4x4 track and continued onto CP1.

At this stage the media team 4x4 vehicle screeched to a halt beside me and Lucy, and Adam stumbled into the desert and was violently sick a few times. Poor guy I thought. He ended up back at the camp on an Intravenous Drip (IV); he got the ball rolling in that department I think.

A photo looking across to Lincancabur and its neighbouring volcanoes; the Atacama is truly a spectacular landscape to run through.

A few k's later and I ran into checkpoint (CP) 1.

A few people rested, but I quickly filled up my water bottles and added some Perpeteum powder to one of the 800ml bottles. I set off with my stomach churning, something was wrong. I hadn't got half a kilometre out of CP1 when I too was violently sick. Then stomach cramps had me shedding my running tights and I had a lot of Diarrhea. Things had just gone very wrong for me, very fast. I sat for a few minutes recovering; stomach still churning and with a fast developing headache. I picked myself up, strapped on my pack and rejoined the trail explaining to those around what had happened. Feeling sick, I now turned from runner to walker, and that signalled the start of my subsequent problems. Having to walk when you have trained to run means one thing; foot damage - blisters.

I looked at the roadbook. It said that there was no ascent on the way to CP2. It lied. There was about 2km of rollercoaster terrain, up and down 10M and 20M hills that had not been factored into the calculations. This was pretty torturous for me, as I felt increasingly worse. The rollercoaster’s finally ended with this spectacular descent and walk across a long gradual incline plain.

I would stop periodically, sometime finding a little shade by a large rock, sometimes just sitting in the sun. A felt terrible and wished the next CP would come soon. The route turned sharp left and headed for a kilometre towards a sandy dry-river bed canyon.

As I took this photo, I distinctly remember thinking to myself "Sick as I feel, I have to take photos for my blog".

The sandy canyon snaked back and forth, going on and on.

It finally opened out to a flat stony plain and CP2 loomed into view. Not too soon, since I was out of water.

The doctor asked what was wrong as I approached, I clearly looked rough. I explained the sickness and diarrhea bouts. She got on the radio and said to the other doctors that they were starting to see a lot of cases; the epidemic had started. I was given anti diarrhea meds, along with an anti nausea pill, and some Tylenol (Paracetemol - for my headache). I sat with Astrid, a Dutch competitor also suffering from the same ailments. The doctor told us to take as long as we needed, and not worry about the 15 minute time limit for stops at cp's. Nevertheless we were both up after about 15 minutes rest and headed on our way.

The route to cp3 was an initial gradual downhill on a stony plain.

Towards a pass in the hill that a 4x4 dirt road would be found.

I took a photo looking back into the distance where I had come from. I had managed to run a little. I would run for ¼ of a mile, and then walked the next 3/4. I did this for about 3 miles to the foot of the pass shown here.

I took this photo of me (looking a bit peaky) at the foot of the dirt road that I would then climb for well over the next hour.

The dirt road wound back and forth gaining 178M in height, all the time in the hottest part of the day. Sometimes there was a little shade to offer comfort.

Not always though. I initially walked quite quickly, passing a few people who asked how far it was to the next cp? I said it should be within the next mile. It turned out to be further, annoyingly. I walked on but my diarrhea struck again. I took anti diarrhea pills and Dioralyte (sugars and salts). Two guys from my tent John and Tim who were walking the whole event caught me up. I walked with them into CP3, once again I had run out of water, as I had done on the way to CP1.

That's Nikki from the UK in the red hat, Karen (Germany) in the camo tights, and Astrid from Holland (I think). The doctor at CP3, Marla, had been told to look out for me. I explained I had more problems but I had self medicated. I took a few minutes rest, and then set off for the final 3.5km leg to the finish. That is Tim and John pictured.

The pink flags that marked out route were not always easy to spot. This one was.

We headed down a stony plain to join an undulating 4x4 track which would lead to the finish. It could not come soon enough as I felt wretched.

A picture of Tim and me, just before the finish. I've looked better, and I don't just mean the outfit in this case.

I finished in 7 hours 40 minutes. Something like 66th position. Dismal, but at that point I was just glad I had made it to the finish. Mark was shocked to see me take so long, so I explained I was sick. Karen from the USA in our tent said a friend of hers had been given antibiotic pills the previous night after getting the similar problems, and was better this morning. I went over to medical and Doctor Grant gave me 750mg of Cipro anti biotic, plus a cocktail of anti nausea, ant acid and pain meds. I took them all straight away and went to use the internet tent. Multi-linguist Elizabeth showed me how to use the laptops. I think RTP are testing them out for the manufacturer in extreme conditions. They are kid’s laptop so the keys are a little small and fiddly, but they worked perfectly well all week. You could read emails sent form the RTP website to you for free. Everyone's messages were in the same Excel spreadsheet, so I smiled to myself as I scrolled down to my messages. The senders did not realise their messages were on public display, so you'd see all the pet-names they call each other; snugglebums etc. At least something brought a smile to my face that day. To send emails or update a blog you have to pay $50 USD which is a bit pricey. Every other event I have been to offers this facility for free.

I didn't manage to eat much of my evening meal, which I knew was very bad. If you don't replace lost calories you won't be fuelled for the next day. This knowledge doesn't always allow you to force down food when you feel sick as a parrot though. The camp was at 2600M altitude so the night was warmer. I settled down to sleep, hoping the antibiotic would cure me as I slept. I couldn't face another 8 hours in the desert. I had not trained to walk, I trained to run. Walking stresses your feet in different ways to running, so I had some battle damage. I had a large painful blood blister on my right heel. These days I don't normally get any blisters, or if I do, they are minor ones and never on my heel. Being forced to walk from sickness had created a nasty dilemma for me. You can drain clear blisters, but you should never drain blood blisters - every walker and runner knows that; you risk infection. I had over 200km left to complete and I couldn't do so with this painful blister. I was going to have to gamble and drain it. I used a sterile hypodermic and then a threaded needed to allow the red and clear liquid to drain out. Then I applied some antiseptic and dressed it before going to sleep.

Stage 2 - The Slot Canyons - 41.8.2km (My GPS recorded it at 44km)
Beginning altitude 2627M
to CP1 - 11.2km Difficult. Ascent +50M, descent -152M
CP1 to CP2 - 9.6km Difficult. Ascent +193M, descent -195M
CP2 to CP3 - 10.5km Moderate. Ascent +0M, descent -133M
CP3 to end - 10.5km Moderate. Ascent +0M, descent -55M

I did sleep well. I am giving credit to my Thermarest pillow a nice soft (not inflatable) pillow. I always sleep badly on these events, so maybe I have found the secret to a good nights sleep? I was not however cured of my gastrointestinal problems. I lay curled up, knees up to my chest in my sleeping bag with stomach pain and headache. Everyone else got up and ate, I didn't. I lay there until well past 7am until I was coaxed out. Mark said I would have to suffer another 30 hour journey next year and I would hate myself if I didn't event start the stage. This was true. I got myself ready, but couldn't eat my breakfast. I hadn't rehydrated properly with more than 3l of the 4.5l water handed to me at yesterday’s finish line remaining.

I lined up on the start with everyone else. We knew today was slot canyons, and lots of water crossings.

Just 200M after the start we crossed out first, but mercifully-shallow river.

There was about 3km of undulating road before another river crossing.

We then turned right to follow the path of the river into a steep sided canyon, offering welcome shade from the sun.

I would estimate that the route crossed the river about 20 times in the next few miles; I lost count to be honest. The water level was always above the ankles, but more often above the knee. The river was fast flowing with large stones on the bed, meaning competitors frequently stumbled and some actually fell in.

As promised the canyon sides closed in, the river bank disappeared and we had a 500M section where we just waded through the river, dragging our heavy water-laden gaitered feet through.

The water was freezing cold and I actually lost feeling in my toes, coupled with the shade from the sun, it left me shivering, in the daytime desert! The water had taken my mind off my sickness, but I was still feeling very drained as I had not eaten. I look pretty rough in this photo.

Eventually the river bank returned and my feet could dry off. However, just a few minutes later I would have to cross the river and again in this 8km slot canyon section.

There was one final river crossing just before CP2 where I sat down, refilled my bottle and managed to eat 1/4 of an energy bar, providing calories I was so badly lacking. I took some Tylenol off the doctor for my headache. I was living off that stuff, I must have rattled I took so many pills. I set off again. The route was now in a fertile valley with some local tribe settlements alongside the river. RTP have to negotiate with around 14 different Atacama tribes to cross their land, and they have to renegotiate each year. Although the first 2.5 miles were flat, I was getting progressively weaker and had more diarrhea to add to the problems. I was also tearing through my water ration at an alarming rate. I was getting slower and feeling worse. The route turned off sharply to the left onto an old dirt road and wound it's way steadily up 193m (633ft).

I was sick again, and had more diarrhea. I sat down in the shade of a high canyon wall for 10 minutes and thought about my situation. I glanced skyward and could see the faster ant-sized in appearance competitors running along a ridge-line high above me, after tackling the long climb ahead. I just didn't have the strength to make a climb like that did I? The area was inaccessible to vehicles, so if I got into trouble, help would be on foot and take a long time. I reasoned it would be irresponsible of me to put the doctors in that position. I came to the sad realisation that I thought my race was over. Just then 15 or so competitors, including John and Tim, and Lucy and Nikki caught me up. I explained I could not go on. They offered their condolences and moved on up the track which would then get steeper.

Defeated, I picked up my pack and started to walk back to CP1. I stopped, started to walk back up the hill, then turned around again and started to walk back down. I was battling with myself. My mind was willing, but my body wasn't. I remembered telling people that in ultra's you get peaks and troughs. You feel good for a while, and then 5 minutes later you feel terrible. You have to ride the waves. I knew that but this felt different; I was sick and drained of all energy, but I refused to accept abandonment by going backwards. I would get to CP2 and quit there if anything. There was more dignity in that at least. I turned on my heels again and walked up the hill, trying to catch some of the slower ones up.

I managed to catch up USA Karen who kindly gave me a couple of hundred millilitres of her water ration. I had run out already, and I was not even at the half way stage to CP2. Without her help and others I would not have got to CP2. I lost the will to take photos for a while here, I'm sorry. I was focussed on getting myself out of the situation I was in. The track turned into a 200M long tunnel and passed right under the mountain. I wish I had taken a photo of it. It was pitch dark in the middle, in sharp contrast to the bright blue and clear desert sky.

After the tunnel we stepped off the dirt road onto a narrow footpath where we climbed steeply up the last 80M to the ridge top. The blister on my heel was hurting again, but I wasn't minded to attend to it at that time. Karen and her boyfriend Alex, both from Germany, gave me a little more water and also some Lucozade powder before going on, thank you both. Karen from the USA had to open it for me as I was really struggling with everything at this point. I tipped the powder into the few hundred millilitres of donated water making a sickly-sweet strong brew. I sucked it down greedily; the fast calories were just what I needed as it turned out. The energy bars I had nibbled at were all slow release calories, and in my state I needed fast sugar to bring me around. Less than 15 minutes later and I began to improve, at least in terms of energy levels. I knew I would ‘crash’ though, so it was a race to get to CP2 before that happened. I followed the ridgeline for a few K, it undulated and appeared never ending. The checkpoint was certainly going to be further away than it should have been, again. Eventually I saw the sand dune descent from the ridge that we were told preceded CP2.

I could see Cp2 from the top of the dune just out of shot here.

I wanted to get to the CP as fast as possible as my sugar rush was pretty much over. If it is one skill I perfected in the towering Merzouga of the Sahara desert it is 'dune descent'. You simply take huge steps down a steep dune, letting your legs sink up to the knee before throwing out the other leg and repeating, you drop about 10ft with every footstep. I don't believe anyone has ever come down than dune faster than I did; losing 633ft in what felt like seconds. I did manage to lose my camera and a Peperami in the descent, but sharp eyed Tim and John spotted them and repatriated me with them. Thanks guys. They took a picture of me looking back up the way I had descended.

There was then a half k walk over soft sand to reach CP2, a sight I thought I would never see just an hour earlier.

At the CP I stripped off my socks. The blister had sealed and filled back up, as I had suspected whilst climbing to the ridge. The doctor reminded me that I shouldn't drain a blood blister, but I had already taken that decision the day before. I drained it, applied more antiseptic and the doctor put some foot tape over it for me.
By the time I had got back into my shoes and sorted out some Perpeteum into my bottle 20 minutes had past. I still could not face any solid food, and asked the doctor for more Tylenol to ease my headache. I also accepted that I was "a walker" now. I didn't have the reserves to run anymore. I unpacked my walking poles, which I had brought specifically for the salt flats on stage 4. A couple of years ago I learned to use them Nordic style, angling them backwards and pushing off with my arms. It burns a lot more calories, but you can move along at quite a pace. I left CP2 and headed down the wide dirt road.

I crossed a main road where a local policeman was stopping traffic for the competitors and into a wide sandy river bed.

The sand was soft, but sometimes the route cut outside of the river bed onto harder packed ground littered with small stones.

Despite not eating anything the extra push from my arms was lending me speed, and I ate up ground quite quickly as I headed into some firm parched earth and onto CP3. I got to CP3 in good order, but was tiring quite badly. I knew that I had to sit and not continue until I had forced myself to take in a lot of calories. I ate 1 and 3/4 energy bars, and refilled my water bottles which once again were empty. This process took about 15 minutes as I ate small mouthfuls, to get the food down.

The roadbook said it was just 10.5km to the finish and it was mainly flat, but crusty and sandy. I set off using my poles again, at least for the first 5km. The calories didn't go very far; as I guess I was in deficit. I became too tired to use the poles, but couldn't raise the effort required to collapse them and pack them away. I just walked, more slowly now, and then got the dreaded stomach cramps again. I scanned the horizon and saw a large tree which was slightly off the route, but would provide me some respite from the sun as I attended to my gastrointestinal problems.

I sat down afterwards, resting for 5 minutes, once more all the people I had passed in the last half hour streaming past. This happened to me all day it seemed. I would get going, feel a little better, then the sickness would come back I would be forced to rest or be sick and everyone would catch me back up and pass me.

I set off again, my GPS telling me that I had just a couple of kilometres to go. I passed a few people again and we were all concerned we could not even see the camp on the horizon as we were travelling along a pretty flat dusty road.

I just wanted the stage to be over now. It wasn't that my legs was tired, I just felt awful. However, the road went on and on until finally the finish came into view.

I crossed the line and crashed out in a chair whilst they logged my time. They logged it as 7 hours 32 instead of 9 hours 32. People were congratulating me via email the following day on being 58th overall, when that was clearly wrong. Once I realised the mistake I told RTP’s Sam and she also had to adjust quite a few other competitors who had finished between 1700 and 1800 hours, to ensure the correct overall standings.

I also said I wasn't impressed that the stage was 44km instead of 41.8km. Others had also got the same on their GPS apparently, and I was told they'd look into it. There definitely needs to be some tightening of the roadbook descriptions and route lengths. 2km extra is significant to water management in a hot desert. I didn't feel very well at all, and Sam took my pack over to medical. The doctor lay me down for a while and said I had "earned" more powerful antibiotic tablets, since the Cipro was seemingly ineffective. I was given 4 x 250mg of Azithromycin to take at once, along with more anti nausea and antacid pills.

I updated my blog in the cyber tent and then went back to my own. I did manage to eat all of my evening meal, which was a good sign. However, I had dug as deep as I had ever had to earlier that day and I had used up all my reserves. If I was still sick the following morning, it was over. I wasn't even going to start the stage.

Stage 3 - The Atacamenos Trail - 40km
Beginning altitude 2335M
to CP1 - 9.5km Difficult. Ascent +0M, descent -0M
CP1 to CP2 - 9km Moderate. Ascent +42M, descent -0M
CP2 to CP3 - 10km Moderate. Ascent +19M, descent -0M
CP3 to end - 11.5km Difficult. Ascent +200M, descent -150M

The next morning, I felt somewhat better. I ate all my breakfast and actually enjoyed it. The race briefing said that the first two legs were mostly flat, but the first 4.5km was nasty terrain. The last two legs were tricky with 200M of soft sand dune climbing just before the stage finish. I checked my blood blister which had once more refilled, but worse there was redness around the edge, which could only mean infection. I showed it to be doctor who was concerned and put a pen mark around the redness to monitor any change.

The camp was next to a salt lake. I think I had a little more colour in my cheeks that morning?

I lined up with everyone else for the start of stage 3.

For the first time in the week, the leaders did not disappear out of sight within a few minutes. In fact they stayed in view for the whole 4.5km of nasty crusty uneven dried mud that you can see below. Everyone walked, this was really unpleasant terrain to tackle.

Eventually we cleared it, and the front runners dashed off leaving the rest of us to the open plains.

A great vista in the morning sun; looking towards the volcanos.

The terrain turned into a dirt road, but the salt crystals all around made it look like there was a dusting of snow, or frost, don't you think?

I was feeling good, and for the first time in the week I had visions of myself crossing the finish line in San Pedro. I was going to be alright. Even a stomach cramp just before CP1 couldn't darken my mood. The CP came half a K early, which made a pleasant change. The doctor directed me to a far off bush to attend to the diarrhea, and then medicated me with anti diarrhea pills. Still I was happy and positive; the worse was over. I refilled my bottles and set off on a sandy track over small dunes towards CP2.

After 2.5km of sand, life got even better with a 3.7km gravel road section. This was the best terrain so far. I seriously considered running I felt so good. However, I reigned myself in and remembered that I was still pretty weak and I didn't want to ruin the recovery. I had imparted the age old truism to other competitors and doctors in the previous days "If you are feeling good in an ultra, don't worry, it'll pass". It had made everyone smile. I took my own advice this time and maintained a fast walk.

Finally the route turned off the nice firm road onto more unpleasant terrain, a little similar to the first 4.5km but not quite so bad, with at least a faint 4x4 track to try and use for better footing. CP2 was just coming into sight, and again it was more than half a K early. Things were getting better all the time.

Out of the blue I got a sharp pain in my right leg, behind the knee. I dismissed it initially, but I got more pain, first in the calf area and then higher up in the quad. I was confused. What could be causing this? My other leg was fine, it wasn't cramp, I hadn't had pain quite like this before. I took off the knee brace, one I was wearing to protect my left knee cartilage tear and moved it to my right knee. I'm not sure what I thought it might achieve, but anything to relieve the pain. I hobbled into CP2 as confused as I was in pain. Doctor Jay examined me, pushing and prodding up and down the leg and hip area, and then he saw my blood blister. The infection had spread significantly. It looked liked this at 8am

…and this by 11:30am

The infection was clearly creeping up my leg. The doctor said the pain was a sign that the infection could be spreading to my lymph nodes. He shook his head and said "I'm sorry but you are through".

I sat there stunned at what had happened. I don't think I could take it in. The doctor called for Medic 1, Doctor Grant, on the radio and said something about Cellulitis. Nikki who was sat down resting said “who has got that?” I said “if it meant infection then I think it is me”. She said it was very nasty. I had never heard of it. Doctor Grant and RTP’s Zac turned up in a 4x4 a few minutes later. My pack was loaded onboard and I was told I needed to back to camp for an antibiotic IV drip straight away. I sat in the car, and I don't think I fully understood. I thought I was going to get treated and then I would be back on the course in short order.

Back at camp Doctor Marla fitted a 1 litre IV to my right arm, then slowly over the course of 15 minutes added 750mg of Cloramphenicol antibiotic, to prevent me being sick or it being too painful. The drip was a slow one, and I lay there for more than an hour and a half. When it was disconnected I thought I was ok, and went and sat in the internet tent to update people back home. Half way through my email I fell ill and more of less stumbled back into the medic tent and lay down. The doctors looked a little worried and Doctor Grant fitted a larger faster IV into my other arm. It dumped all of its fluid into my arm so quickly it literally made my head spin. I felt better again afterwards, but it began to dawn on me that the infection had taken more of a toll on me than I first realised.

I sat at the finish line, watching the leaders come in. It was good to see them finish. There was some controversy when some competitors seemed to make a bee-line for the finish instead of following the course markings, probably cutting 20 minutes or more off their time. It was put down to some unclear route markings on the course I later understood. Mark finished and I explained what had happened back at the tent. I said I was hopeful that the doctors would allow me to compete the following day. After all, I had only missed out 13 miles in the grand scheme of things. I was also somehow dreaming up ways that I could make up the distance and still complete the total distance. Seriously I was; crazy when I think back to it.

I surveyed my UK Gear PT-03 desert running shoes with horror though. I had not even completed 3 full marathons in them in the last 3 days, and the soles on both shoes were partially missing!!

I compared these with another competitor who was using them. Shockingly the same had happened to both of his too. Clearly a design or manufacturing fault is to blame. Back home I received a call from the MD of UK Gear. He had heard what had happened to my shoes. He said UK Gear are taking the issue very seriously, after also having shoes returned by Marathon Des Sables (Sahara) competitors with the same issues. He offered a refund or replacement. To be honest a replacement is no use until they fix the problem. I told him I would send back the shoes to their lab for analysis and he promised to call me personally with the findings. At that point I'll make a decision if I am to ever use their shoes again or not. To be honest my confidence in them has been hit pretty hard. By day 3 everyone else’s shoes; be they Nike, Asics, or New Balance were still in one piece. So UK Gear has got a fundamental issue to tackle if they wish to promote their PT-03 shoes as shoes suitable for desert races.
Everyone else in the tent came in and I ate all of my main meal and took a couple of photos at sunset and dusk.

I went to bed confident that I would be on the start line the next day.

Stage 4 - The Infamous Salt Flats - 42.8km
Beginning altitude 2453M
to CP1 - 9.3km Difficult. Ascent +145M, descent -148M
CP1 to CP2 - 13.5km Moderate. Ascent +10M, descent -114M
CP2 to CP3 - 14km Extremely Difficult. Ascent +0M, descent -12M
CP3 to end - 6km Moderate. Ascent +0M, descent -20M

I woke up and felt fine. I looked at my ankle and the redness had receded right back to the very rim of the blister. I thought I was cured. Soon after Doctor Marla called me over to the medical tent for a 7:30am shot in the ass; more Cloramphenicol antibiotic. I asked who made the decisions on if I could run, and she said Doctor Grant had the final decision. I asked him, but he shook his head and said No. He said that they doctors had been very concerned about me the previous day, had a bit of a conference and decided that it would be too risky to have me out on the course. If I broke the blood blister, perhaps going across today’s salt flats, and got water into it, then the infection could spread to my blood and very rapidly I could need medical evacuation to Calama hospital. I thought the doctors were overreacting, and that I was really fine. I was totally wrong, and they were fully justified in their decision as it turned out. I owe the whole medical team a debt of gratitude for the care that they provided me, and their good sense and good decision making. Who knows what might have happened to me if they had allowed me o rejoin the stage. I've since read that Cellulitis can be very dangerous and potentially fatal. A French competitor told me that a guy who took part in a similar event that he was also taking part in, also this guy contracted Cellulitis. It wasn't treated fast enough and the guy had a leg amputated. Read this short piece on Cellulitis, it is very sobering. I was shook up after I read it. What scares me is that I had several of those symptoms at the time, or over the next few days. The doctors made the right call on day 3 by pulling me out, and I got the best treatment fast.

I watched a little sadly as everyone lined up for stage 4.

The salt flats are badly named and evil! The competitors later all told tales of horror. The middle section of just 9km of salt flats took the slowest competitors 5 hours to
traverse! They are like razor-sharp coral crust that sometimes breaks underfoot plunging you up to your waist in salty murky water. Here you can find a picture which illustrates their evilness. Still, I was sorry not to be tackling them. I started to help pack up the camp, but I felt quite ill suddenly and had to go and sit in one of the cars. Who knows what would have happened to me if I had started the stage, and got sick? I felt a little better after half an hour, but was shocked at just how little effort it had taken to knock me back. The infection had hit me harder than I understood.

I travelled with the organisation to the next camp site, at the foot of a salt lagoon, which had largely dried up since there had been little rainfall in that area in the last year.

I watched the local guys pitch the camp with well praciced efficiency, completing the entire camp in under an hour!

Then I helped to erect the finish line, and sat and waited for the competitors to come in.

Lucy and Nikki arrived back early in a car. Nikki had terrible blisters and could not walk, and Lucy had twisted her knee. I suspect she'll also be getting a knee operation (mine is on 21st April incidentally). Lucy is doing all the 4Deserts events, so we'll probably cross paths again. Nikki is taking part in the MDS in 2010. Good luck to them both. I chatted to them whilst they were in medical, and I did ask Doctor Grant if I could run the 75km stage the next day. He cast me a withering glance and shook his head. He definitely knew best, I know that now.

Mark arrived back and said stage 4 was the most difficult single stage that he had ever taken part in. The leaders took over 6.5 hours to complete it, and the last people came in well after dark. All told tales of horror in the salt flats. I recorded an interview with Elizabeth in the cyber tent, telling of my retirement, which you can view here. I was feeling bright and sparkly when I did that, but I went rapidly downhill the next day.

It was colder that night, and I wasn't quite as warm, but I still got reasonable sleep.

Stage 5 - The Long March - 73.6KM
Beginning altitude 2315M
to CP1 - 15km Extremely Difficult. Ascent +32M, descent -0M
CP1 to CP2 - 12.7km Moderate to Difficult. Ascent +9M, descent -0M
CP2 to CP3 - 14.5km Moderate to Difficult Ascent +100M, descent -143M
CP3 to CP4 - 13.5km Moderate. Ascent +33M, descent -0M
CP4 to CP5 - 13.5km Moderate. Ascent +68M, descent -0M
CP5 to End - 13.5km Difficult. Ascent +100M, descent -120M

I woke feeling ok, and wished everyone well as they prepared for the big day. This was in essence the last stage in everyone’s minds. 4Deserts have quite a strange format when compared to similar events. They have their long day, then you get a whole days rest, and then run less than 10km to complete the race. Many similar races have their long day, a days rest, then another full marathon stage, then a shorter finish stage the day after that.

So when you complete the long day in this event, the last stage is just a formality, a fun run into San Pedro really. That's how the competitors I talked to viewed it. Some were kicking their heels on the rest day and just wanted to get the last stage over and done with. Maybe the slower competitors appreciated the full day of rest before their dash (or hobble) into town for stage 6?

The race briefing for The Long March

I waved everyone off, and assured all my tent mates the worst was over and that I was confident in their ability to complete the long stage.

I took this great photo just after they set off.

I didn't doubt for a minute all my tent mates would finish, and finish they all did, some well into the night but 100% success (Well, except for me).

Sam asked me and Nikki if we wanted to go back to San Pedro for an hour whilst they uploaded the race results to the 4Deserts website. I jumped at the chance as I needed to get more food. I had been eating like a horse since pulling out of the race, and my diarrhea had stopped. I've eaten a massive amount of food in the last week, since being pulled out of the race, but yet when I got home I was only 9 stones 13lbs (63kg) I dread to think what weight I was when I was at my sickest, whilst in the throws of the worst diarrhea. My family have told me how thin I look too. Maybe I went down below 9 and a half stone (60kg)? My usual weight is 10st2lbs to 10st4lbs stone (65kg).

So, we travelled back to the hotel in San Pedro. I decided to walk into town to pick up some supplies. It was only a 200M walk, but further than I had been since getting ill from the infection. It proved to be too much for me. My leg started to hurt, and I felt faint. I think I actually swayed as I walked back along the dirt road to the hotel. I thought I was going to pass out before I got there. I made it into reception and everyone asked if I was ok. I wasn't. I just lay down on the floor in reception feeling really unwell. I felt totally spaced out and I felt cold.

Sam let me use her room at the hotel. They helped me to bed and I wrapped myself up in all of the blankets. I shivered and struggled to get warm, but at the same time developed a fever. I got quite worried for myself. It looks as though the Cellulitis was fighting back, despite me now taking a 10 day (4 x 250mg a day) supply of Kelfex to fight it off. I took another pill right there and then. Nikki was asked to stay behind and keep an eye on me, as the race organisation was worried. She came and checked on me periodically over the next few hours. At one stage Sam was going to call a doctor, but it turned out the doctor didn't speak English and I would have to go to see them. I was in no condition to go anywhere, so I opted to try and sleep it off and took some pain medication. I tried to cool down by wetting some clothing and applying it to my face. Nikki came in and turned the room fan on which helped. I lost track of time and had fitful disturbed sleep but then woke up again about 4 hours later. The fever had subsided thankfully, and although still feeling very spaced out, I was much improved. Only at home when I read that description of the symptoms of Cellulitis did I realise that I was quite poorly all in all!

I'd really like to Thank Sam, Elizabeth and Nikki for looking after me and the use of the RTP room at the hotel that day. RTP really went out of their way to make sure I was ok; my heartfelt gratitude.

I stayed at the hotel that night, and most of the following day until me and Nikki could get a lift back to the final campsite. It was great to see everyone, and congratulate them on completing the race. Stage 6 was just a formality after all. That evening the race organisers brought in some birthday cake for a few competitors who had birthdays during the race. It was literally pounced on by the runners before the speech was over!

I slept my final night in the camp.

Stage 6 "The fun run" (that's my name, not RTP's incidentally!)
Beginning altitude circa 2400M
Start to Finish - 9.5km Easy to moderate (my guess). Ascent +0M, descent 0M (my guess)

Everyone got a lie in, as the start was staggered. The slowest competitors started at 9am, the middle group at 10am, and the fastest at 10:45.I took a last couple of pictures of camp as the sun came up. The course briefing announced the last stage was 8.5km to everyone’s cheers. It was changed to 9.5km half an hour later though. When you have covered 240km, what's an extra K amongst friends?

Most of the camp was disassembled quickly, and the start line moved to the finish.

The camp fire was maintained for everyone though

The slowest group lined up on the start line at 9am for the final dash

At that point I travelled by car into San Pedro and to the finish line to wait for the racers. The slow group seemed to find their sprinting legs as some finished within an hour.

Here's a picture of Carlos from Brazil, a great character. He is sponsored by Crocs; those plastic shoes. This was his 4th and final 4Deserts event, he got the special 4Desert medal. He did them all in Crocs believe it or not!

Not far behind was Lawrence (Wales, UK), at 78 years old the oldest competitor. He has completed both the Sahara and the Gobi 4Deserts events. He had to pull out of a couple of the Atacama stages, but still always rejoined the following day. Personally, I'd have given him a medal anyway!

The runners were played into town by traditional Chilean pan pipes, and accompaniment.

Now all the UK Woolworths have closed there's nowhere to pitch outside, so they've had to find work again in Chile ;-)

Tim and John receiving their medals. They became affectionately known as "Team Soy". Excessive-weight backpacks stocked with ridiculous luxuries, including a whole bottle of soy sauce earned them their name.

Well done Team soy!

This is another tent mate Karen from the USA finishing, being filmed by media cameraman Adam.

Karen with her well earned medal, she finished top woman in the age 21-29 category. Race photographer Zandi looking on.

My friend Mark Cockbain, who finished the last stage in about 45 minutes I think, and finished 7th overall. A superb achievement, once more proving his credentials as one of the UK's top ultra runners.

Mark, and Adam (Scotland).

I stood and clapped every single person in, from the first to the last. Alistair from the UK came in last. It took him 4 and a half painful hours to do 9.5km on his raw soles. He got the biggest cheer and won a special 'spirit' award that evening too. Here, he is being presented his medal by Mary Gadams; Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Racing the Planet.

Here are all the volunteers, some medical staff and Sam from RTP is there too. A big thank you from me to all the volunteers for everything this week. Their encouragement on the CPs was especially welcome.

My special thanks go out to these guys. The race doctors: Jay, Alice, Marla and Grant. Without their wisdom and treatment, who knows fate would have befallen me this week.

This is the medal which has eluded me. I'll be back to claim mine next year. I also didn't want the T-shirt which was offered. Until I've earned it I wouldn't have worn it anyway!

Back in England my son (aged 4) was upset when his mother told him that I wouldn't be getting a medal to bring home. He told her that he wanted to make me one. Even more upsetting was that the craft shop was closed when they got there to buy the things needed, and there were tears. Both returned the next day, and he made me this medal to make up. Naturally I had him put it around my neck. How proud was I.

Post race

In the evening there post race banquet was held in an outdoor restaurant in town. There was meat aplenty served; lots of barbequed huge steaks and chicken and salad bar. No empanada's thankfully ;). There was a couple of bottles of wine on the tables, but being a non-drinker I had to pay £1.50 for a tiny bottle of water :(

A slideshow of photos was shown, along with a 20 minute movie of the week’s highlights. Cut into it was Doctor Grant's little sketch about food poisoning, for which he got a round of applause; it was after all very funny. I'm just glad it was Cellulitis and not Gastroenteritis that had me hauled out of the event in the end. The awards were given out. Memett from Canada finished first overall, and Fleur from Australia finished as first woman. I left soon afterwards, but I believe some of the competitors were propping up the bar late into the evening.

Most of us had to be up for a 7am bus to the airport the next day for a 09:55 flight to Santiago. I had a four hour stopover there, a 13 hour flight to Madrid, a 3 hour stop there, then a 2 hour flight to London, followed by a 2 hour drive home. I got home about 9pm; after setting off at 7am, the previous day! The long and very expensive flight from London to Chile (around £900 to £1100 if you shop around), is reason enough alone to make sure I am successful next time!

I had to check in with my GP on my return, who was somewhat alarmed when I told him I had Cellulitis. He was even more upset when he heard I was administered an IV in the middle of the desert and not a hospital or an ambulance. I reassured him that I got the best, and prompt, medical care possible. He gave me additional Cephlexin antibiotics to see out my prescribed 10-day course. I have just a day's worth left to take now and hopefully I'll be cured. My foot won't be very pretty for a couple of months, but I am rather attached to it, so I hope the Cellulitis has gone away for good. I have knee surgery on 21st April to cut out my torn Meniscus cartilage. I'll be off my feet for a few weeks, but hopefully back to running before June. I have no more desert races planned this year, but I hope to be taking part in the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) in October. I have entered, but it is a lottery to get a place. In between time I will just work on getting my knee strong and my fitness back. I will of course be taking parts in LDWA events etc, so I will keep updating the blog as usual. After the OMM I will then start training for next years Atacama Crossing.

I will make another blog post soon, as I always do, reviewing my equipment, food and overall performance. I know many of you find my equipment reviews especially helpful, judging my all the email that I get about them. Hopefully anyone thinking of tackling RTP's Atacama Crossing will have found this post useful. I would certainly encourage anyone considering it to take part. It takes stage amongst spectacular scenery, best seen on foot, whatever your pace! RTP are thoroughly professional, but not such a large organisation that you can't go and speak to a race director. It’s not like in the MDS. Everyone here is helpful and approachable. The event costs $3100 US dollars, which is just over £2100 at today’s exchange rate. Looking at RTP's website I gather that price is fixed until 2012, though I guess it could be subject to change if something like fuel prices go crazy again. The flights from the UK did catch me out; I had no idea they were that expensive. Many people paid over £1000.

What would I like to see RTP do differently?
1. Make the pre-race banquet a pasta party; plenty of high-carb foods (and no empanadas!)

2. Tighten up the course marking. It was on the whole good, but could have been better at times.

3.Make sure the roadbook tallies with the course distance and descriptions. The race distances between checkpoints, and thus overall were wrong several times, usually quite a bit further than advertised. Also the elevations were incorrect but I assume these were reliant on some software which itself may be inaccurate?

The price is therefore on par with what the UK entrants pay for the MDS including flights and accommodation. The race is certainly much tougher than MDS's billed "toughest footrace on earth". The altitude in the Atacama demands respect, as does the often ‘evil’ terrain. The smaller size of this event, much like the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme marathon, makes them friendlier than the MDS. You barely get to know anyone outside of your own tent at the MDS, but during the smaller events you get to know, or at least recognise, more or less everyone. The race organisation are always accessible and always helpful.

As always I am happy to answer any questions from a competitor perspective, be they via comments or email, or of course you can contact RTP here.

About 6 weeks ago I wrote a blog post entitled "Is Someone trying to tell me something?"....stay at home; referring to my horrible run of bad luck. Given what happened during the week maybe the answer should have been yes! However, I would have missed out on the excellent experience and the chance to meet so many people from different walks of life. I'm sure I will gain a whole new set of friends on Facebook to talk 'shop' with, and no doubt meet on future events. I will also be armed with some knowledge of what to expect during The Atacama Crossing 2010

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely brilliant blog Richard. Great to meet you out there and best of luck for future events.

    Dave Flanagan (AC09 media team)