Monday 22 March 2010

Atacama Crossing 2010 Race Report

If you haven’t already read my report from last year’s event you can find it here, and will give this story some context. If you don’t want to read it all, the short version is that I got sick the night before last year’s race, had to walk instead of run, then as a result of the unfamiliar gait I suffered a blood blister which got infected with Cellulitis, after I made a reluctant decision to burst it because it was too painful to walk on. The medical team withdrew me half way through stage 3 last year as the infection was aggressive, to the extent I ended up in hospital back in the UK. As if I wasn’t bad enough, I had an unrelated knee operation (meniscus tear) 3 weeks later that would put me out of action, so I spent the next few months licking my wounds. I’d have to rebuild from nothing.

So, I signed up for 2010’s race. I couldn’t be that unlucky twice could I?

It would be 6 months of light training until I could run properly, taking me up to October last year. I made a training plan to take me up to the start of the race, and followed it pretty diligently. I hit all of my event targets, and noticed my fitness improved beyond my previous best. After Christmas I looked for ways to lighten my racing pack weight, eventually getting it down less than 7kg. With 6 weeks to go a did a 46 mile training run, equivalent distance to the long day race in Chile, just as a confidence booster. At around that time, I had a mental blip. Worries started to creep in, I think some personal problems encroaching onto my training and preparation. I put all else out of my mind and gave the race the single focus. I then concentrated on boosting my fitness further with speed work in the last 6 weeks, which seemed to work well. I met up with a few competitors tackling the event for the first time, Chris (who finished his first desert event and finished well I’d like to add), and also Jack (who I’d coincidentally end up being in the same tent as). I also emailed a few people including Tremaine who is a great guy, and can I recommend you go to his website and read his story and support him if you can. I also emailed newcomer Louise, and offered a few words of wisdom learned from my demise from the event last year. I discovered during the event she is afflicted with serial cheerfulness, even half way through a miserably difficult ultramarathon. I need to learn that skill.  I had quite a bit of contact with Hamish from New Zealand.  We had a few kit and race strategy exchanges during the training, and Hamish really impressed during the race, coming 10th overall in the final standings.

Everything went very well, right up to a week to go when the earthquake struck Chile. I thought the race would be cancelled for sure when I heard the airport was damaged. I just accepted thw at it was one of those things, and that the suffering of people in Chile was more important than the race anyway. A few days later RacingThePlanet(RTP) announced the race would go ahead, that the Chilean authorities wanted it to in fact, and so they setup a fund for the earthquake victims, which by the end of the race had raised a hugely impressive $15,000 USD. Further justification was that the event was 1000 miles from the quake zone, and brought a lot of money into the local community of San Pedro De Atacama. All the competitors then set about trying to get to the start line. This became the secret first stage. People got stuck in neighbouring countries or airports all around the world. Some got the bus from Argentina and Peru and took almost a week of travel to arrive. The RTP forum proved a valuable resource for information sharing to get us all there. The race was delayed by one day, as a result, which meant that the rest day was cancelled. The last stage would start at midday, so anyone taking more than 28 hours to complete the long day, would be out.

My journey; the last leg (Santiago to Chile) of my flight was cancelled the day before I was due to fly. Well I say cancelled. Opodo left the first two legs of the flight for March 4th, and changed the final leg of the outbound flight for April 5th (1 month and 1 day later - the world longest ever connection I suspect). This would also be a full 2 weeks after I would have already come home! I pointed this out and they helpfully offered me a full refund, with just 24 hours notice. Thanks for your service Opodo.

So, I bought a totally new flight for twice the original cost (I’ve since had a personal thank you note from American Express for single-handedly helping them through the recession. I’m living on gruel until Christmas), via Madrid to Santiago, instead of Brazil (it seems TAM airlines, Brazil’s national carrier has pretty poor links with Chile in comparison to Iberia. My tip, fly with Iberia via Spain and avoid TAM. Chile airlines can’t alter a booking made by TAM, even though the final leg is with LAN the Chile airline. All in all, booking with TAM was a disaster waiting to happen).

At Heathrow by chance I met some competitors that it transpired were also in my Tent. Joasia and Ian from Dumfries. Joasia is a GP, and Ian works for the Fire Service. We flew to Madrid and onto Santiago and I got to know them a little better. Joasia has been running just 2 years, and had never taken part in a race like this, though has a lot of experience working as a doctor at them. She was very modest about her abilities, but let it slip she could run a 3 hour marathon. When I picked my chin up off the floor, I then began to suspect that she was going to surprise a lot of people during the week. Ian had done the MDS is 2003, but nothing of that type since I understand, so he was along to prove he still has what it takes. In Santiago we met Diana from Ireland and Dave from South Africa, who do events all over the world together. They were also both in my Tent. Diana was a RTP champion from the Gobi desert, and Dave is an age category winner and great athlete himself. James also turned up. I met James briefly in the 2008 MDS, so I knew at least one person in my tent. The other members of the tent were Jack, who I mentioned earlier; I met him by chance at Metis, a gym in London, when doing some hypoxic training in the weeks before the event. The final tent member was Michael, from Germany, another superb runner finishing in the top 20 all week. You can find Michael's website and race report here.

Santiago airport was (quite well) organised chaos, as you can imagine. The airport was operating out of tents following the quake. It was a free for all to find your suitcase on the tarmac when the plane landed. Most people found theirs, Joasia didn’t. I didn’t have a ticket to get to Calama, the next and final airport destination in Northern Chile. Another competitor Bert from Belgium helped me out, as he speaks fluent Spanish. We struck up a friendship during the event, and my favourite photo from the event is of us both walking towards the start line on one of the days sharing a moment of laughter. You can see it later in this post.

The long and the short of it is that I got a £750 refund for my original flight from Opodo, but then had to pay £1350 for a new flight to Santiago, then $400 USD for a one way flight to Calama. It all went on that Amex for me to worry about when I got home (On the food front, I’ve been asking Mr Bumble for some more and he hasn’t been happy about it) . Near the airport, we found a small cafe near the airport and sought some shelter from the sun whilst we waited about 7 hours for the flight. We met up with some of the volunteers, including Tony (all 4 deserts completed) and his wife Bev.

Eventually we checked into security in the makeshift tent on the runway.

We arrived in Calama, and my suitcase appeared, much to my relief. I had all of my essential kit in my racing pack that I carried as hand luggage, and I wore my running shoes for the journey. I suggest you all do the same in future (I’m sure most of you do anyway), since bags always go missing. Joasia’s bag didn’t turn up until she found it in Santiago a couple of days after the race finished. It had been on the next flight from Madrid, but never sent to her. Before the race started, realist that I am, I told her she needed to just prepare for the worst and assume the bag was gone. Unfortunately my big mouth got me in trouble and I managed to upset her with my stark outlook. I think I’m forgiven by now, mostly.

We got on a bus to San Pedro, when a 6.2mag earthquake hit about 40 miles from us, and rocked the bus from side to side. It was quite a welcome to the area. Shaken and a little bit stirred, the bus ride took about 1.5 hours up over the 3500M pass and down into San Pedro, lying about 2400M altitude. Everyone was in various hotels, I didn’t have one booked. I paid half of the bill and stayed with James for the first night in his hotel. The next day I moved into the race HQ hotel the Casa de Don Tomas. It’s the most basic of the three race hotels, but very convenient as the admin day is held there, and it’s closest to town. I went and checked out the hotel that virtually everyone else was in, the Kunzas. It was a spa hotel and very luxurious. It had indoor and outdoor showers, massive rooms and beds, plasma TV. Basically 10x better than the Don Tomas, but almost 2km from town. Oh, and very expensive. Ian paid about £60 for a small bag of clothes to be washed, and beer and 2 cokes was £10. San Pedro is a very expensive little town anyway but the Spa hotels are good at extracting coin from you. All the hotels in town are pricey, except for the room/bathroom share hostels that the backpackers favour.

We’d arrived a day earlier than most of us expected, so I suggested we go on a trip to see the high Altitude Geysers the next day. It was a 4-5am start but Ian, James and Joasia from my tent all decided to come along too.

The bus picked us up about 4:30 from our various hotels, and collected 3 or 4 other tourists too, including a couple of Swiss girls, one of whom lent me her towel later (and had amazing colour eyes I might add). It was a 2-hour bone-shaking ride for 85km on roads and tracks of varying quality to get to the geysers which were at 4300M. We were told to walk slowly and take it easy at that altitude. It was also very cold, around freezing 0C.  Ian, Joasia and James from my tent.

We spent about an hour touring the various water and steam geysers, before being fed breakfast, complete with Geyser warmed milk for cocoa and coffee! It had been well worth the visit already. After that we drove another half mile to the hot springs.

Only I was game for stripping off in the cold, changing into my swimming shorts and getting into the hot springs. It was lovely and warm in there, as I chatted to a few random people, whilst the others went to see the killer geyser! Two people had previously fell in and died apparently. After half an hour bathing I emerged into the freezing cold air, knowing full well I didn’t have a towel. The lovely-eyed Swiss girl had decided not to bathe and so kindly lent me her towel. I felt a little guilty handing her and wet towel with thanks, and leaving it at that. I must learn “any chance of coming out to dinner this evening” in Swiss. I do however suspect that was my one and only opportunity in life to ever use it! Missed opportunities eh?

We got back on the bus and taken to a small village, still above 4000m where a few locals were selling craft items and Llama kebabs! I opted not to eat them, but many did. I think they said they tasted like chicken ;)

We were back in San Pedro by midday where we had a wander around the town to try and find Joasia replacement kit. She had nothing at all, not even shoes. She bought some (blokes) shoes that ultimately caused her foot problems in the race. I gave her some foot tape, a load of spare food, and eventually donated half of my week’s supply of electrolyte sachets to her. In hindsight (see stage 5 of the race!) that electrolyte donation probably a little overgenerous, but she’s a lovely girl, and I was still suffering guilt from causing her to get upset about losing her suitcase the previous day. She had lots of food donated by everyone else and miraculously managed to put together a pretty lightweight pack, also around 7kg. After that she never once complained about the pack or kit for the rest of the week. She just got on with it, and then some.

Admin day dawned, and I was practically at the front of the queue. I was weighed in at 6.7kg (the scales they used weighed about 200g too little I estimated). I was all signed off ready to go 15 minutes later. I had the luxury of retaining my room for most of the day, whilst the competitors from other hotels had to check out early and queue in the hot sun. Still it is a small price to pay for the luxury hotels they had versus my very basic one. I chatted over the course with my tentmates, and after getting the road book to find that other than the first 10k the route was more or less the same as last year. I had been hoping it would be, as I wanted a confidence booster myself. I think the course briefings I gave my tentmates every day were even a little more detailed than Alistair’s excellent briefings (Alistair is RTP founder Mary’s husband, and a very nice chap!). I’d love to say it helped them on their way to all finishing so well every day, but I can’t take any credit as they are all great athletes and needed very little help from anyone; especially not a failed 2009 competitor. I use that term deliberately, because that’s how I viewed it. I had failed. You could say it was bad luck etc, but I gave myself a good kicking over it. I have a spare room in my house (I’m not advertising for a lodger I should add!). It’s where I seem to do my packing when I go abroad. The suitcase I took to the Atacama last year; it has lay in there on the floor, open and half-unpacked from last year. Yes I took all the clothes out, but bits of kit have just lay in there waiting for this year. It was all trapped in some kind of limbo. It was unfinished business.

We boarded the bus for the 1.5hr ride to camp 1 – Rio Grande, where I had practically frozen to death in the night the year before.

Me.  The shorts were underwear actually.  I'm brave, but not brave enough to sport that outfit all week.

Joasia and Ian.

There was no pre race food supplied in camp that night, it was all in our own hands this year. I prefer it like that, full marks to RTP for that decision. It became evident that although cold, the temperatures were practically tropical compared to a year ago. Holding the race a month earlier (hotter season) made a huge difference. So, my decision to use the same ultra lightweight sleeping bag paid off. I still wore my down vest around my legs at night (every night), and wore my hat in bed usually too. Almost everyone else had much warmer sleeping bags, and had no such need to supplement with clothes.

Stage 1 – Navigation by Rock – 35KM

It was a cold morning, but I had got about 4-5 hours sleep which I figure is enough. I had my breakfast of Shreddies cereals, powdered milk and Chia seeds (another one suckered in by that “Born to Run” book, lol). That said I had no major hydration problems during the week, so who knows. For those that have no idea what I’m on about, I suggest Googling “Chia Seeds”, and see if you buy into it. Breakfast was washed down with 50g of PSP22 carb loader drink. We all clipped on our packs, exchanged handshakes and kisses (Despite his protests I told Big Scot Ian he’d have to settle for a handshake from me in the end, lol). We then all and lined up on the start.

Rather than take up my usual place right at the back, and stood in the mid pack. I decided I wasn’t screwing around this time. I was making a conscious mental decision to place myself higher up the field. I’m never in danger of finishing near the front, but I’m not standing at the back anymore, I’m better now. This is as much psychological as from physical training gains. If I thought “compete” and not just “complete” maybe I could do better this time. All thoughts of that faded quickly as the race started and we set off for a mile steady downhill. Immediately I thought I felt the effects of the high altitude (3200M), even running downhill. I reigned in to a very slow jog, and watched as everyone streamed down the hill ahead of me, leaving me trailing in the back 3rd of the pack in a few minutes. After a mile we turned into a wide valley and my slow start paid off as half the field had gone the wrong way and were now back-tracking, then heading for a steady climb up a hill out of the valley.

This part of the course so far was all new. Last year it started with serious all fours scrambling in the first mile. It took the wind straight out of everyone’s sails and was to be honest an awful bottleneck as well. This new start was much better, even if I was suffering. I was having a minor crisis of confidence already I think. There was 248km to go and I was having flashbacks to the previous year. I wasn’t sure I could do it again. The altitude was hitting me hard I thought at that point. I was struggling for breath. After the climb out of the valley there was a gradual incline over the next few miles with I mostly ran with some short walking breaks as I thought the altitude was still killing me. After a few miles we joined a dirt road which I recognised from last year, and so I would then remember the rest of the course (at least until half way through day 3).

This proved to be just the confidence boost I needed. It had taken me 5 miles of slow progress for my respiration to settle, and that was really all that was wrong. It’s the same at home, I don’t settle into any run until I’ve done 5 miles.  In fact, the altitude was having far less effect on me than I remembered the previous year. Sure I could tell I was still at a high altitude (over 3000M) but actually it wasn’t that bad. Maybe those sessions I had on the Hypoxic machines atMetis in London had helped. At this point I’d just like to thank Rachel from The Altitude Centre for her guidance and advice on altitude, as well as giving up her evenings and working with me until gone 10pm sometimes to supervise me; Lovely girl, very knowledgeable and a very good cyclist I understand! Thanks Rachel.

I knew CP1 was coming up, so put my foot down to overtake a dozen or so people ahead, so I didn’t get stuck in a queue for water.

Some locals giving their support.

It was times like this when some course knowledge proved to my advantage in the initial stages of the week. I had capacity to carry 2litres of water, but I would normally only take 900ml; a full 500 in one bottle and 400ml in the other leaving enough room to add 50g of electrolyte and then shake it up. I could take this little water because I knew how far it was to the next CP, and I knew I could run there quick enough not to need too much water (and hence extra weight). After CP1 we hit the rollercoasters.

 a series of hills of between 10 and 30M that would in turn kill and thrill me for the next couple of miles. However, en-route, in one of the dips I recognised the place where I had been struck down with my initial bout of dioreah and vomiting the year previous. I was a little nervous as I passed it, my tummy grumbled ominously. I hoped it was just nerves. It was time for one of my Kellogs Nuts About Nuts bars to throw to the growling monster. Kept him quiet for a while it seemed. After the rollercoasters was a big descent onto a flat plain for as far in the distance as I could see.

I began to make slow progress through the field now, eventually catching up with James and Ian. I slowed and walked with them for a few minutes, telling them about my nervy start. James has a sterling strategy for these races. He never stops at CPs. He just gets his water and goes, no time wasted at all. He doesn’t always run a great deal of a stage, but because he never stops, he finishes well up the field, ahead of all the runners who languish at CPs for too long despite running between CPs. After a couple of mins I ran on, a very steady slow pace, but constant. I didn’t need walking breaks at this speed; this was my long distance shuffle. I remembered where the route turned sharp left from last year and followed it into a sandy river canyon, where I distinctly remember suffering badly last time.

I ran it all this time. I had to stop once to empty my shoes of sand. I had made a horrible choice of gaiters, which you csan read about in my Atacama Crossing equipment review blog post from this year. Needless to say, the gaiter choice cost me time, and blisters, over the week.

I ran on, out of the sandy canyon and across the crusty and stony plain to CP2.

It was at CP2 where I had to rest for 15 minutes last year, and been dosed up with pain meds, anti acid, anti sickness and anti diorreah pills. It was also where I began to get on first name terms with the doctors last year. No offence, but I didn’t intend to get to know the doctors at all this year! I spent as long as it took to refill my water bottles and trotted out. I continued to make my way through the field, though they were well strung out over the course now. I ran across the vast stony plain towards a V shape gap in the cliff that I remembered marked the start of a 3 mile uphill slog up a seemingly endless winding road.

I knew it was 3 miles because I was mildly cursing the road book the previous year for underselling the distance when I’d reached CP3 last time. I’d gone home, found it on Google Earth and measured the length from the V Gap to the CP. I knew it was a 3 mile torture session, so was fully mentally prep’d for it. As I approached it I caught up with my costume twin, a guy called Tom. He was in similar white leggings to the ones I wore last year, all white with long sleeve white top on too. I’d opted for the white/grey camo Skins leggings this year, and a loose fitting Railriders Adventure top that I wore two years ago in the MDS. It was the hottest part of the day and I had no intention of trying to run up the hill for 3 miles. A few in the top ten might have tried, and I suspect not all of them managed it either. I decided to set a fast marching pace and Tom joined me. We passed quite a lot of people walking slowly up the hill, complaining that it was going on forever.

Knowledge of the course meant I knew just how far it was to the CP so mentally I could march fast, knowing how long I had left. Nevertheless, I ran out of water, not for the last time in the week either. In fact I frequently ran out of water between CPs; the price I paid for taking a minimum ration for the sake of speed.

CP3 eventually loomed into view and Tom thanked me for setting a mean pace up the hill. Again, I didn’t waste time at the CP and ran out and downhill for the last 4k into camp. I had a lot left in the tank so I ran on ahead of Tom, determined to chase down the half dozen people I could see strung out in the distance. I managed to reel them all in and overtake them. Last of all being a girl from Denmark called Anna who sad sadly injured her knee earlier in the stage and was limping badly. I felt really sorry for her, and knew she’d have little chance of completing the race. She retired at CP1 the following day. A very brave and wise decision. I ran up the last small hill and headed across the line in 5hrs 09 mins, in 31st place! Far exceeding my expectations. I was very happy. Not so much my slow start though, but course knowledge had given me a slightly unfair advantage in the latter stages I think.

Diana and Dave were already back, Diana finishing second lady. Michael was also back too, all three of them finishing in the top 20. Most impressive though was Joasia, who had finished 1st lady, about half an hour ahead of next place Diana. Her unfamiliar shoes had rubbed a nasty blister on her arch, but she had come from a UK fell racing background to make this desert race her own already. My suspicions were confirmed, she was seriously good.

Ian and James came back next, followed later by Jack. The whole tent was back in good time, as would be the case all week. We did ask RTP for a fastest tent prize half jokingly. We were tent 14, “Puritama”, very poorly named I discovered after an evening in the tent with that lot whose jokes and innuendo were far from “pure”. James and Joasia were the main culprits. It wasn’t long before the whole tent was laughing and giggling well into the evening, and so it would continue all week. I was in with a great bunch of people. It’s the camp life that makes these events special. It’s just a shame the inconvenient ‘racing’ part gets in the way of such a good time. I’ve never fail to feel so at home when on these events, when you meet people with the same interests and goals as I do. We have so much in common, and the same obsessions and drive. That said, I was more than the butt of many jokes regarding my weight saving. I’ve been pretty obsessed with saving weight and getting bang for buck calorific value, and can judge the weight of a staple at 10 paces now. I was given a lot of grief by my tent mates over that. It’s lucky I have a sense of humour equally as bad! Joasia has some interesting ways to lose 12 calories that you can ask her about if you ever bump into her at a race.

Sunset in camp.

It got dark about 8:15pm, but was a definitely a lot warmer than the previous evening. Still, I swapped places with Ian, who was in a very cosy sleeping bag. He slept by the door and I slept in the middle of the tent in my ultralight excuse for a sleeping bag. I still ended up wearing my down vest on my legs again, and my fleece hat in bed as the night wore on. It gets colder towards dawn. I slept very well by all accounts. I got at least 6 hours. I put it down to my compressible Thermarest pillow, a 200g luxury that guarantees me a good night’s sleep. Everyone else seemed to be downing sleeping pills, which for some reason I’m just too scared to take. The less drugs the better as far as I am concerned. I only used a few painkillers during the week, and that was in the last day or two.

Stage 2 – Slot Canyons – 42km

I remembered this stage very well. I was pretty sick last year, I walked pretty every step of it, so had plenty of time to burn it to memory.  Joasia was awarded the yellow bib for being in the lead of the womens race.

I gave everyone the unofficial course briefing whilst eating my breakfast; raspberry Granola, chia seeds and powdered milk this morning, with the PSP22 of course. Yesterday’s Shreddies kept the hunger at bay for longer I would note later on. I knew a fast start was needed as 2 miles into the leg the trail narrows and it’s difficult to pass for quite a while alongside the river.

I stood up at the front of the pack as we set off, and fell in around 30-40th place I estimated; just where I wanted to be. This again was a very conscious decision. I’d found my place in the pack already I decided. I was never going to stand near the back again. It put me in the wrong frame of mind.

There is a small river crossing almost straight away.  This is a photo of it that I took last year actually.

I'll drop in a few pictures from last where, where appropriate.
The first two miles undulated over some rocks and boulder strewn hills, which slowed progress at times.

Sure enough, after a couple of miles we entered the slot canyon to follow the Rio (river) San Pedro down a valley for the next 5 miles.

The trail becomes more narrow and a few people made some attempts to jump the river, unaware that a few hundred metres down there was no choice but to go in up to your knees many times over (20+) as we criss-crossed to different sides of the river, as the shore disappeared.

At one point the shore disappears on both sides and I put one hand on the canyon wall to steady myself as my feet feel their way down the river.

There are large stones under the water and it would be easy to turn an ankle, so I’m as careful as I can be, but hasty as I dare. The canyon then widens out into a lush green valley. I’d warned my tent mates that it was a false dawn. You come out of water for a while, and your feet are almost dry when you are forced back across the river several more times.

Forget changing your shoes and socks until you are well passed CP1 and the last crossing, and your shoes have dried. I found it was easiest to come through the water then walk for half minute so the majority of the water came out of my shoes, socks and gaiters. Otherwise I was running with heavy lead-feet and wasting energy. I told a couple of young German guys that CP1 was near. I frequently saw them during the week and gave them a heads up of the parts of the course I remembered and they said thanks at the end of the week. I was more than happy to share any course knowledge with whoever I came across if they were interested. About 2.5 miles after CP1 there was a pink flag party at the side of the road, indicating a sharp right turn that Alistair had briefed everyone about and instructed them not to miss. Unbelievably some people still missed it though apparently.

The ridge in the distance is the one we would now have to climb up to and run along.

I could have found it without the flags, as it was near this point where I almost quit last year. Half a mile after the turn off we joined an old mining road which winds its way upwards.

Here I took this photo of a piece of shade, which means nothing to anyone but me.

There last year, I was sick and having seen the big climb ahead, up to the ridge 200M above me had decided I could go no further. I had turned back defeated, fighting back tears, and started to walk back to CP1. Then I had stopped, forced myself to continue on the route, then turned back, and back again, and fought with myself for probably 10 minutes before eventually deciding I would at least quit going forwards and make it to CP2 if it killed me. Last year I had to beg water off several passing competitors to get to CP2, I was in a bad way last year at this stage. I smiled, and gave the shady spot a strange kind of salute, because I wasn’t sick this time, I felt good. Not good enough that I felt like running up the winding incline, I’d save my legs for later. I slipped into my quick march to save energy and headed up the track.

After about 20 minutes of climbing I reached the tunnel which is bore through the mountain to the other side. It is about 150M long and pitch-dark inside.

There is also a huge boulder half way through, now preventing a vehicle from making it to the other side. I wasn’t sure if an earthquake or landslip had left it there, but all I could think of as I went through the tunnel was “pray God don’t be another aftershock now”. I breathed a sigh of relief when I emerged out of the other side, and joined the steep path up to the ridge a further 100M above. The camera crews were waiting half way up the hill, cruelly preying on us, knowing that this was a tough old climb and they’d get some prize shots of tiring competitors. I didn’t disappoint them and deliberately put on a more tired looking face than was necessary. I thought I’d get some sympathy from the folks back home, lol.

The steep climb gave way to a more gentle, but still tiring ascent to gain the ridge proper.

I recalled there was a few K along the ridge. This was my favourite part of the course, with spectacular views of the desert in all directions. I also remembered that after that few k, came the best bit, the 200M dune descent and I was secretly hatching a plan to write myself into Atacama Crossing folklore as well as have a bit of a giggle. I ran along the ridge enjoying the views, and pleased I had got up the climb well before the midday heat set in.

In the Atacama it gets hot around midday and it doesn’t really cool down much before 5pm. The ridge run was much shorter than I remembered, though last year I was walking it and in a very sorry state, so it’s hardly surprising that time passed much quicker this time. T

hen there they were, some pink flags on the lip of the ridge, and peering over the edge there was an impossibly steep looking dune descent.   I've used a few others above, but this is another pic from last year.  There weren't as many people on the descent as shown here, I was much further up the pack this time.

I smiled to myself, took off my backpack, opened it and retrieved my Thermarest sleeping mat and inflated it. Today I was going to be Desert Dune Rider! Now, if you saw how steep this dune was at the top, you’d think anyone would have to be nuts to want to slide down it on an inflatable mat. By fortune my home village was missing its idiot, who was last seen heading for some crazy race across a desert in Chile.

Now, I’d love to tell you I glided down the 200M dune like a champion surfer, grinning and waving to startled competitors as I whizzed last them. The reality was that I dived headfirst onto my “board” and slid about 20ft before the floppy board dug in and I got a face full of sand! Undeterred however, I ran a bit further down and had another go. Whoosh, sink, buried. I got up, spat out the sand, laughing out loud, ran down a bit further and did it again, and again. Same result every time, a few seconds of glee followed by a mouthful of sand. I picked up my surfboard, ran down the rest of the dune and jogged into CP2 with it still tucked under one arm like a surfer returning from the water. I got some amused looks from Allistair, the CP staff and a couple of competitors. I was covered in sand, sand in my ears, nose and all over my back, but had a thoroughly entertaining time. “How are you feeling today” someone asked? “Awesome” I said. “If you can’t have a laugh half way through an ultra, it’s not worth doing is it?” A that moment I really believed that was well. I packed away my surfboard, telling everyone they needed a harder board for future descents, and then the Desert Dune Rider retired. I was 29th into the CP, but took a few minutes to change my socks as they were still wet from the earlier water and my shoes were full of sand. I lost a few places, but I changed them as quick as I could before running down the dirt road.

It eventually ends and you have to cross the main road linking Calama and San Pedro.  I waved my thanks the Police stopping the traffic as I crossed.

The next leg is positively dull in comparison to the breath-taking nature of the previous one. In fact I found it hard. I ran the first half of the leg, before getting bogged down in soft sand and small dunes. It was relatively flat, but slow going, and I walked parts of this section.

It was now the hottest part of the day, at the lowest altitude we would be at all week. The heat was searing, and I struggled on, just overtaking a couple of people on the long dull stretch to CP3.

CP3 couldn’t come soon enough. I was tiring a little by then, and my shoes were full of sand again (several times over). I was cursing my choice of gaiters once more. I changed my socks again, checking If I had blisters. The ingressed sand had the unexpected benefit of acting like foot powder, so my feet stayed dry and blister free (well, it worked like that for a day or two anyway). I ate some of my snacks, which I had not done for a couple of hours, unusually for me. I’m quite disciplined and try to feed myself at least once every half hour normally. I left the CP, remembering that there was a dirt road, at least for a while. So I ran the first 2k on the dirt road, before the terrain turned sandy and crusty again and I found it more difficult.

I decided to run half a K, then walk half a K until I rejoined decent dirt road by “the tree”. This was another spot I remembered well from last year, having had another bout of diorreah there.

I got on the road, and remembered that it was a much longer stretch than I had expected last year, and so paced myself carefully for the next few K.

Eventually the camp came into site and I crossed the line in 6hrs 57mins in 29th place. I’d gone straight to the medical tent when I finished last year. I was fine this year, but the stage was still almost 2k longer at over 44k, just like last year. There were a few grumbles about the stage lengths. Alistair explained one morning that RTP have done some test with various GPS and found them to be inaccurate, so you’ve got to more or less trust the distances what the course directors write down. I didn’t make any complaint about it though, as I knew some were legs were longer from last year, as was already mentally prepared for it. I figured they’d just deliberately made it a bit longer to torture us more, and to make up for the shorter final day. Once you finish you get to say, it was further than advertised and we still did it!

We all arrived in the same order in the tent again, and so we would all week long. Joasia had extended her lead even more, winning the women’s race by about 40 minutes over her nearest rival if I recall correctly. I was very impressed, she’s a class athlete. We warned her to pace herself, but she told us she only has two speeds “running or not running”. Her big blister looked to be getting infected so she took some antibiotics straight away. I certainly didn’t want her foot to go like mine had done last year. She’s a GP, with a lot of expedition experience, so she knew the type of antibiotics she needed but the race doctors only carry a limited supply she was told, and she didn’t think they carried the right type for skin infections. I hoped she wasn’t going to end up like me last year. She’d hit the antibiotics early, so I had my fingers crossed.

Camp 3 was on the edge of the salt and mud “flats”, so felt rocky and not as comfortable as the other sandier camps. It would have been one of those nights where the people without sleeping mats would have been cursing their decision to save some weight. Despite being at the lowest altitude the night was a bit colder again, maybe being out in the open and exposed? The wind gets up in the late afternoon in the Atacama, and can blow pretty fiercely until about 9-10pm. Ian, James and Jack were improving their times and positions on a daily basis. Jack was getting faster despite carrying a heavy pack laden with Biltong and Skittles, and more foot tape than the medical tent! Again we joked our way through the afternoon and evening. It’s like summer camp for grown up’s someone said; great description.

Day 3 – the Atacamenos Trail – 40Km.

D-Day dawned.

I had got to CP2 last year before the aggressive infection had spread up my leg and got into my lymph nodes causing me bizarre pain. It was there that the doctor with barely a few seconds hesitation withdrew me from the race and a car was quickly dispatched, and I was taken back to camp for a rapid antibiotic IV, followed by another shortly later when I fell unwell in the cyber tent a couple of hours later. The doctors normally let competitors run the latter stages unranked. They had a conference and had decided it was too risky to let me back on the course. They made the right decision as I was much weaker than I realised, as my story from last year explains. Mary interviewed me that morning.  It's here on youtube.

So, I briefed everyone on what I knew of stage 3. After CP2 I was on new ground. My stage knowledge advantage would evaporate one step out of CP2, if I made it that far this year. I wasn’t feeling that well. I ate my breakfast, but I knew I had an upset stomach, much the same as I did at this stage last year.

The race started with 4k of wicked mud flats, horrible unrunnable terrain.

Eruptions of mud in spikes and ridges, designed to twist and turn your feet and make your feet grind against the inside of your shoes.

I fell well back in the pack, feeling pretty rough, even after the mud flats gave way to a rough 4x4 track.

James caught up with me as I had slowed to a walk at this stage. My stomach was churning and I knew I had to go to the loo. Last year I had a bad case of diorreah at CP1, but was beginning to get over the main vomiting. I thought maybe I could hang on to CP1 this time, but didn’t really want to tread in my footsteps of last year, so to speak, so I peeled off the path to the right, found a convenient bush and went to the loo. I took some dioyalyte (rehydration sachet) straight away. I would have one of these every night anyway, but this time I was using one for the purpose for which they are made. I upped my fluids straight away too and forced myself to eat something. I got back on the trail and headed into CP1. By the time I got there I was feeling a lot better. I had however, lost a lot of time and was languishing in 75 place. I knew there was a sandy section, which I set off on at a good pace.

That was then followed by a long hard-packed dirt road coming up, it was very much runnable, so I pushed a little harder here.

Nice and steady but reeling in the field again and gaining about 20 places by the time I got to CP2, the place where I was withdrawn the previous year. I didn’t pay it much heed, I had a job to do, I was feeling good again, I refilled my bottles and ran out of CP3 taking my first steps into unknown territory. Those first steps weren’t too scary with a couple of k of dirt road, then a road crossing and some ‘light’ mud flats. The fun stopped all too soon as the mud flats turned to full fat torture terrain. I was back to walking, I had no choice about it, and neither did anyone else The sad thing is that I was taking photos but my camera shutter was not opening. The sun was so bright I could not see the screen, so over the next day or two I only actually took a fraction of the photos I thought I had taken. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the terrain was miserably hard. I had a bit of a sense of humour failure after about 10k of the mud flats. It’s amazing how rough terrain affects your mood. I began to look for things wrong with me internally; was I too hot, dehydrated etc? I was none of these things but it’s amazing how your mind runs wild when you are feeling a little low. I trudged on, managing to pull a good lead on the people behind. I might hate the terrain, but I was going to damn well get through it as quickly as I could manage. The mud flats eventually gave way to sand dunes; not much better for someone whose shoes were leaking sand like water. I spotted CP3 and ran up the last dune and across the short plain, and over the road. I had still made a few places up anyway I reasoned, as I emptied my shoes and socks of sand. My mood had lifted as the mud flats had faded, testament to my theory that bad terrain = bad mood.

CP3 to the finish line and camp that night was tough. I would be climb a couple of hundred metres initially over sand dunes, then up over sand and slate. It was a long steady unrelenting climb, that would just get tougher and more draining in the midday sun. My shoes not only leaked sand, also the diamond shaped grips were useless in dunes. I got no grip whatsoever, and just slipped back as much as I climbed it seemed. I was constantly seeking harder ground where possible but it wasn’t always to be found. The slate climb went up past the Paranal Observatory; a location used as a hotel in the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. No time for studio side-tours though, as I trudged up the slate, which eventually gave way to full on big dunes. I spotted the camp in the distance, but had warned everyone in the tent that it was a false dawn and the course cruelly wound around for another 45 minutes before you reached it. I remembered this from tales of the finishers as I lay in the medical tent the previous year. So, I was mentally prepared for the slog up and down the rolling dunes. I was out of water again, for a long time, but I knew the camp was near. There was one final very steep descent down a down into a green valley where I had to empty my shoes again quickly, and then ran on back up and out of the valley over a couple more dune and then up one final all fours scramble dune to the finish line. I crossed the line in 6 hrs 59 minutes. The last leg had been 1k longer than expected at 12.5k, but I had defeated the day-3 demon and made it back in 27th place. I was however, very hungry. I ate what bits of snacks I hadn’t eaten on the course and then later on ate my 800 calorie meal. It wasn’t enough though, and I knew it. I had however planned what I thought was a fairly cunning nutrition strategy. The last two days were the rest day and the final 10k stage, so I figured I could get by on very little, or even no food, on those two days (I still carried over 15,000 kcal overall, just top-loaded into the beginning of the week). So, I packed no breakfast for either day, just one single main meal (total) and the rest of the calories were made up of snack bars that I planned to use earlier in the week in case I got hungry. This was just such an eventuality so I cracked open a bag of pork rinds; yum - fatty and salty, just what my body was craving. This bumped my calorie intake up by another 350 calories. I felt satisfied. Good plan I thought, and still do, despite my later problems.

Everyone was back in the same order again. Joasia extending her lead further, Michael finishing around 10th place, then Diana and Dave in about 17th place, me next in 27th, then James and Ian around 40th, and finally Jack improving again in about 50th spot. All of tent 14 home again safe and sound.  The typical post-race ten scene. Everyone draining down their feet.

I set my mind to thinking about the next stage, the salt flats. I freely admin I had “the fear” about this stage. I had heard horror stories of razor sharp coral-like structures tearing shoes apart, then the next minute you break through the crust up to your waist in salty water. I decided I needed to start really slow, and save all of my strength for the 14km salt flat leg between CP2 and CP3. I settled down to sleep. Well, I tried. They have a drummer on the finish line who drums everyone as they approach the finish line for the last few hundred metres, those few hundred metres which can take tiring competitors a few minutes to cover sometimes. So, sleep wasn’t going to happen until the last person got back. Unfortunately this was the same every night from now on, as the stages got longer and harder, and people arrived later and later into the night. I wouldn’t miss the drummer to be honest; it didn’t add a lot of value from my point of view. It just succeeded in raising a bunch of groans and grumbles from half asleep people in the tent well into the night. Can you get drums with headphones?

Day 4 – the infamous salt flats – 43km

This was IT as far as I was concerned. I’d got it into my head that if I finished today I’d finish the race. After all, they’d make stage 5, the long stage, pretty flat and easy wouldn’t they? Race organisers usually do, so all I had to do was get through this horror salt flats stage, and then will-alone would carry me through whatever minor obstacles the long stage threw at me tomorrow. I’d slept well and ate all of my breakfast, plus one of the bars that I would normally eat later in the day. I ate it because I was still hungry after my 400kcal breakfast, and the 200kcal carb-load drink to wash it down. My body was already well into calorie deficit this week it appeared. I’d lost weight already, unsurprisingly. We’d sat around in the tent one night and roughly calculated we were burning about 5000kcal a day. I was only putting 2700 back in. Still, I was managing ok for now I thought. The first leg of the stage would involve 200m of ascent, according to the road book. It turned out I found this much harder than I anticipated. Even though the sun was still rising as we started, and the canyon wall to our left provided half an hour of shade, we were straight into some good size dunes.

My shoes we have already established weren’t the greatest for providing purchase on the sand. For whatever silly reason I only took 1l of water at the start, figuring it wouldn’t take me long to get to CP1. I found the dunes tough, and then there was a long steady relentless climb over sand and slate, just like the previous day. This went on for an age, and it wasn’t long before I drained the last of my water with about 4k left to go. It wasn’t the end of the world. I could manage with no water for a while, physically, but psychologically you don’t like to be without water. It’s a comfort thing for me. I really found that first leg tough, and was pleased to finally see people descending into a valley. But wait, look at that descent. It was really steep, into a gorge with a small river at the bottom. We had to descend about 20m and then remain on that level and make our way along the side of the steep dune. All the time we were slipping down and having to climb back up to follow the flags. Some people fell all the way and had a hell of a time getting back up again.

Eventually the flags descended into the lush valley undergrowth at the bottom of the canyon, and straight into a narrow river.

I was in amongst a group of people at this point, as we waded through the water. I was bent double sometimes as the overhanging trees were so low. At one stage we emerged into a wider pool and Sam from RTP was instructing everyone to “keep left” because of a deep hole in the water. I got the message in time, but not everyone did. Ian from my tent and many others came running too quick and went up to their necks in the water. A few iPods and cameras were destroyed I heard. Oops.

I followed the few people ahead as we got out of the water and made our way up a small hill to CP1. I decided to change my socks for a dry pair, which was a bit of a waste of time in hindsight since my shoes were soaking wet still. After a long drink I was feeling better again. I took a full 1.5l ration this time. I wanted to stock up on water for the later salt flats. I had 2l capacity between my 2 x 500ml bottles, and lightweight 1l roll-up platypus. I was feeling hungry, which was a mixed blessing. It’s not often in a hot desert ultra that you feel like eating. You force yourself to eat because you must. Often you are force-feeding and almost gagging to get food down. So, this hungry feeling was a novelty, but I was very hungry considering I was only at CP1? Still, let’s make hay while the sun shines I thought. I ate a Peperami and a nuts bar too, leaving me just a single nuts bar for the rest of the day, since I had already eaten one of them at breakfast too. I ran on through the lush little oasis, alongside an irrigation channel.

Then it was time to leave the oasis and I climbed up a hill to emerge into the village of Toconao. I followed the flags through the streets. It felt strange to be back in civilization after a few days in the desert. There were houses, cars and people about.

There were a few American tourists that clapped as the runners went by. I crossed through and out of the village, emerging on a vast sandy plain. I could see runners snaking into the distance for the next 10k; it’s a demoralising sight I can tell you.

I set as good a pace as I could manage in the crusty sand, and caught James up after a few K. We’ve established he doesn’t stop at the checkpoints ever, so had overtaken me as I changed my shoes and socks at CP1. He got a lot of nasty blisters during the week, but he’s a hardy chap and just puts up with them. He always thinks he should take better care of his feet, but he just never gets round to it he says. We were a few K off CP2, so I decided to walk with James at least that far. I still had the fear about the salt flats, so I figured I needed to store up my strength. Time passed quickly as we chatted. Running or walking with someone on these events is a real mental boost. You take each other’s minds off the things that are hurting, and your mind doesn’t have time to ruminate on phantom niggles. We crossed the vast plain and made out way into a strip of widely spaced trees. There was evidently some underground water around somewhere here. We were on the edge of the salt flats, so I figured that made sense. Here’s James.

We strode into CP2 and refilled our bottles. James headed straight out whilst I was forced to empty my shoes and socks of sand again. A camera crew took the opportunity to film me, and I gave a brief interview as I changed my socks I told them about last year and how today was all new ground, and how I wasn’t looking forward to the next 14k. I ate my last nuts bar as fuel. There was about 2k of half reasonable ground before the salt flats erupted.

Salt flats do look a lot like coral, some of them are very sharp.

A little like meringue in places, vast uneven waves of spikyness. I decided Salt flats are purpose-designed by God to give you blisters, and tear up your gaiters and shoes. Sometimes it’s better to try and tread on the spiky bits as there just isn’t enough ‘flat bit’ in between to put your foot down level. This wouldn’t be feasible unless you were in trail shoes though. I’m pretty sure you’d get sore and bruised feet in soft soled road-running shoes. The soles on my trail shoes were pretty tough, so they were fit for purpose this time. They did however get cut up. Some of the diamond shaped grips tore off and the sole started to peel away at the front of my shoes. They did however stay in one piece unlike the Desert PT-03 shoes that I took last least (see the 09 report).

I didn’t break through the salt crust at all though. It seemed that maybe a drier weather season in the last few months meant the salt flats had spared us their full potential hideousness. Sometimes a narrow, but uneven, trail appeared that made things easier. I caught up with James again around this time.

It wasn’t long before the salt flats were relegated into fairly tame mud flats. Was that it? Was that all I was worried about? I’d given day 4’s salt flats far too much respect with my slow start. As the terrain improved, I started to run again. I had to jump couple of salt water creeks, but neither were a problem. Sometimes the spikyness returned for a while. I past Alistair and one of the volunteers, both of who had hiked out for over an hour into the middle of the salt flats to give some of the slower people a few extra mouthfuls of water. That’s what I call service! I didn’t need any, as I had taken a full ration and had in fact stored up 2l to see me through the 14k. Alistair advised it was an hour and 10 minutes walk to CP3. So, that was a 45 minute run I figured (and got it about right). I put a lot of effort running at this stage.

There were some nasty mud flats towards the end, and I was really pleased to see CP3. I had more or less used all of my water, and I had really cooked myself up running pretty hard over the previous few K. I sat down for a couple of minutes at the CP, using up some of my ration by pouring it over my head to cool down. The CP staff wet my hat and I took just 1l to make it through the last 6.5k to camp. I was feeling hungry, but I could make the last leg ok. It was almost dead flat and most of it was on a dirt road. I ran on trying to make up ground and places, runing past two fresh water holes; the eyes of the Atacama.

I manage to claim back a few places but couldn’t quite catch the group of 6 people who finished 3 or 4 minutes ahead of me. As a result I finished in 34th place, but with 27th place finishing just those few minutes ahead I figured it didn’t much matter.

I was very happy at the finish. That was it I thought. I’d done it. Tomorrow I would put my head down and just get through stage 5. It was the last stage and no one was going to quit on the last stage, because it was going to be easy in comparison to today. How those thoughts would come back to haunt me the next day. Back in the tent Joasia had extended her lead again. There was one remaining question that hung in our minds over her. She had never run an ultra distance (over a marathon distance) in her life. We all knew she could run a mean marathon (Good luck in London Joasia!), but this was 46 miles, so was a massive jump. Second place Erica, although a couple of hours behind was a seasoned desert vet, and knew how to pace herself for the long day. We told her to take it easy and not throw it away on the last stage. I don’t think she actually listened to us though, she knew what she was doing. I had donated half of my electrolytes to her all week, one reason I was in calorie deficit. My electrolytes had quite a high carb and calorie content you see. I figured I could get by with less on the long day too though, and so gave her another 4 bags of my long day electrolyte ration. At this stage I’ll say, I was tempted to mug her for them the following day when I saw her, but to be honest I’m glad I gave her so many anyway. Call it my one very minor contribution to her victories. I think she’d have got by without them anyway.

I borrowed some glue from Jack to repair my damaged shoes. Jack was the number 1 useful chap in our tent; you’d get no argument from any one there.

The drummer drummed late into the evening, but almost everyone still in the race made it, including 78 year old Lawrence. Less tough competitors had been withdrawn, or withdrawn themselves but this 78 year old would slog it out every day so far and more often than not finish ahead of other people! I ate my meal and dug deeper into my final day’s rations, which were now dwindling. I slept very well the again and woke up, not really very nervous about the 75 km ahead.

Stage 5 – the Long day – 75km

There were only 5 CP’s today. They were well spread out; the early ones about 14-15k apart. However, I figured that was because the terrain was flat and easy between them all. The first 15km was marked extremely difficult salt flats. I dismissed this and thought they’d be nothing like yesterdays salt flats. Maybe a k or two of unpleasantness then some easy running mud flats for the rest I thought. A lot of nervous competitors lined up on the start.

I was outside the top 20, so I would start with the 7:30am mass start, and it transpired, break a neat trail for those who started later. I saw Bert from Belgium on the start line, and he was looking very nervous himself.

I told him all he had to do was to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and the finish line would find him. We shared a laugh and some comradeship on that start line, that crossed the international boundaries, well captured by the official photographer. Thanks to RTP for the kind use of the photograph below.

The camp was alongside a spectacular salt lake which we ran across from the start. It was like being in the Arctic don’t you think?

The smooth surface gave us 1k of easy running before the horror set in. We got into salt flats; the real deal this time. Yesterday’s salt flats were like babies compared to these.

Here the salt flats were surrounded by salt pools of water. Eruptions of salt sometimes provided stepping stones across them.

A few people missed a step and went splash into the salty nastyness. Alistair had described this section as being like Broccoli – a very accurate description as it turned out. This section went on for a while and then the razor shapr ones came back.


These then gave way to ‘slushier’ salt flats, which I think were in fact worse. Your feet sank in like mud and this made it hard going. Every step was hard work, and a lot more tiring. We were breaking a trail through most of this. I hoped the faster guys on the late start appreciated it later. There was no running to be had at all here. I just trudged on pretty miserably, having to stop with an upset stomach again and one point and seeing James and Ian go past. The salt flats became mud flats sometimes, but they were equally as bad. Whereas yesterday only a few k of the salt flats were bad, today this was a full 14k of torture. It took 2.5 hours to get out the other side. I was starving as well, I had burned up my breakfast already, and eaten a couple of chewy bars on the way. I was feeling tired and rough and I had 60km left to cover. I needed to take a break at CP1. I sat down and ate both of my Peperami’s. I looked down at my remaining food ration for the next 60k; 45g of pork rinds and a chewy bar, plus 6 electrolyte powders, 2 of which I mixed up and had straight away. This wasn’t good. I didn’t have enough food and I knew it. Still, it was pointless saving it until I felt more rough, so I spent 20 minutes getting through those 2 electrolytes and 2 Peperami’s. Longer than I had spent at any checkpoint all week. Michael, who had set off an hour later, breezed through at this point, just showing how slow I had come through that stage. I dare say 120 people had broken a pretty good trail through those salt flats for the leaders, but nevertheless he was flying. I’d learn later that sadly 78 year old Lawrence was withdrawn at CP1. He’d arrived late in the previous night, and had no chance to recover, especially since we were starting earlier than normal. I was gutted when I found out about this.

I got up and set off on the 14k to CP2. I had a decision to make here. Did I try and run and blast through my calories quicker, or walk and try and save them. I tried to recall some piece of knowledge that said maybe you used the same amount of calories over the distance regardless of how fast you got there. However, I couldn’t remember if it was true or not? I erred on the side of caution and set off at a march, instead of a run. I knew I’d slipped well down the field again. You get to recognise the people who go at the same speed you do all week, and all the people around me were very unfamiliar. Just then Louise trotted past me, with just a smile and a wave, and her iPod on. It seems she had discovered the secret to ultra running was being always cheery and listening to Pink. I must store that knowledge for later use.

Not long after, I saw Joasia running up behind me. It would be the first and only time I would see her running all week. She started an hour behind as well. I snapped this photo of her in action.

The leg from CP1 to CP2 was quite sandy initially and I wasn’t enjoying it.

It was sapping my fading strength. Even when it turned into a flat dirt road I wasn’t feeling any better.

I was feeling weak and a little shaky. I was just really low on calories. I was paying the price for burning too many up, and not really bringing enough in the first place. This was pretty bad I thought. I wasn’t even at CP2 and I was really starting to struggle. I had a period of half an hour when I was beginning to question if I could complete the stage. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’d convinced myself this stage would be easy, and that I’d push through on willpower alone. My stomach had other ideas. It wanted feeding, but now I felt a little nauseas too. I wasn’t sure I could even eat anything. I took out my little QBe mp3 player and put in on. I made myself fully concentrate on the music, and not allow myself to look internally and worry about things; which I am definitely prone to doing. The music got me through to CP2. I switched it off and sat down. Immediately I felt worse. I had time to think again, at how rough I was feeling. I had to eat something, but I had little left. In my pack I had only one thing of substantial calorific value a 523 calorie Chicken Korma Mountain House meal. I knew what I had to do. I opened it up, filled it with cold water and put in out in the sun for 15 minutes. I then tried to force myself to eat it. It wasn’t pleasant. Each mouthful took me about 5 minutes to chew and swallow. I had 2 more electrolytes as well. The CP’s weren’t being stingy with water because the distance between the CPs was so much longer today, so water wasn’t a problem there. I remembered back to the Kalahari where I had spent a long time at a CP, and almost waited for the heat of the day to pass. Problem was, it wasn’t even midday yet, and it was just a non-starter if I wanted to preserve any decent time. I had already been about 30 minutes at this CP, pushing unwanted cold dehydrated food into my mouth. In the end I probably managed about half of the packet. I left my spork inside the packet, closed it up and put it in my pack.

One of the doctors asked if I was ok. I said I was just a little shaky, feeling a little weak. She said did I want to come and sit in the car for a second and she’d see if she could find anything for me. I said no I didn’t, fearing getting in car meant they wanted to pull me out (I didn’t look that rough I thought?). She reassured me that wasn’t the case, so I went and sat next to a guy called Burt (From the USA), who to be honest looked 10 times rougher than I felt. I asked him how he was. He was really struggling in the heat. I think he’d had an IV the previous day, and wasn’t sure he could carry on. I told him to take it easy until the day got cooler, maybe spend some extra time at CP’s, and then push on when the sun went down. The doctor was doing a fairly good job of encouraging him to pull out. She was being ultra cautious and obviously didn’t fancy his chances. She pulled out a can of Pepsi and offered it to me, “it’s the last one” she said. This is what she meant by finding something for me it transpired. I looked and it and said “No, save it for someone who needs it more than me, I’ll be fine”. I looked at Burt again. Sometimes you have to see someone a lot worse than yourself to snap yourself out of it, and stop feeling sorry for yourself.

I went back under the shade of the CP, and strapped on my pack. I’d been there for what must have been 45 minutes; a damned waste. I still wasn’t feeling great, but I’d push on to the next CP. I hadn’t once looked at the road book all week. It sat in the bottom of my pack. I didn’t want to know if the next stage was moderate, or difficult; it was information that wasn’t useful to my state of mind. The only thing I ever wanted to know was how far it was, so I could judge how much water I was using. It was another long stage, 13.5k I recall. I filled up my bottles with a full 1.5l and set off. I still decided to march this stage. It was now midday and it was hot. I still didn’t have enough calories to last the day running on carbs I realised. Plus, I’d eaten half of tomorrow s meal already as well. It turned out that the next leg, which I hoped was going to be easy, was in fact pretty tough.

It started on a sandy track, then a few dunes, before some salt and mud flats. I switched my MP3 player back on and tuned back into the music, giving it my full concentration once again. There were some light hills about half way through the stage, which in some strange way helped. It gave me something else to focus on. I was thankfully again overtaking people, since my marching pace is pretty quick. I’d lost a horror amount of time and places so far, so I was on damage limitation now. Up ahead I saw a huge sand dune and some little dots going up it. Oh dear. Alistair had mentioned something about a 45 degree angle sand dune, and said we’d think “they can’t possibly be taking us up that”.

Sadly, the photos do it no justice at all.

He was right. I hadn’t expected it to be on this leg of the stage, so it came as a double shock. I could see a few people snaking up it from a couple of K’s away, and the terrain became sandier and I started to walk up a gradual incline to the bottom of the dune. As I approached it, I began to suddenly feel a lot better. I had about 2 mouthfuls of water left, and likely 3k or more to go, but I was feeling good again. I hadn’t had any more food since CP2. I think I’d run on empty for so long that I’d hit the wall, and was now over it. My body had realised that it wasn’t going to get fed, so it had decided to burn more of itself. As soon as it got used to that idea, I felt alright again. Just in time for the big climb.

A set a slow but steady pace up the dune to the rousing sounds of Gatecrasher Classics on my MP3. A poor guy was throwing up repeatedly in front of me, dragging two ¾ empty water bottles in the floor in front of him, almost using them as walking poles to get up the steep dune. I asked him if he was ok, and he nodded. At least he had a bit of water left, which was more than me. I drained my last drop half way up the dune. I put the bottles away and freed up my hands. Actually, it felt a little liberating. I had no water anymore, and I was a good way from the CP. I knew I’d be ok, since I was pretty well hydrated, so it was just a question of toughing it out and pushing on as fast as I could.

I made pretty good time up the dune, passing a few more people, then reaching the summit. It was timed nicely with a breakdown from all time classic dance track, Tiesto - Suburban Train. I stood on the top of the dune, and put my hands above my head a little triumphantly to the euphoric breakdown.

Looking back

That was the turning point. I wasn’t feeling rough anymore, I wasn’t just feeling ok, I felt really good. I read in a book recently that Scott Jurek; all time best ultra runner for my money, one year during Badwater had a big meltdown before the half way point and laguished well down the field. He lay at the side of the road, and told himself when he got up he would feel like he was running from fresh again. He did just that, got up, and won it. I felt like that now. I was just starting. It had taken me 25 miles to warm up, but now I was rearing to go.

Beyond the summit was a flatish plateau. It looked a little like monument valley in the States, with odd little rock formations everywhere.

It was also blowing an absolute gale, straight at me. Rearing to go as I was, running into such a firece headwind was a waste of energy, I did try it! But even marching became that much tougher, with a full on headwind. The wind was hot, and not cooling at all. It was more of an irritant, because I had to push my hat down firmly to stop it flying off, and that in turn just made me warmer. I pressed on as quickly as I could in the wind, across the uneven plain to the other side of the range and got a welcome sight. From the top of the hill I could see CP3 about 1k below in the basin.

There was just a little section of rock to climb down, then a nice run down the spine of a dune, and run I did. I ran past a few others down the dune and into CP3.  This picture taken looking back up.

I filled my bottles and dumped the last of my electrolytes in my bottles. I told the doctor to watch out for the uy who had been sick, wished everyone well, and set off. I’d probably spent almost 10 minutes there, after changing and emptying my shoes and socks too. I set off running again along a 4x4 trail.

It was about 3pm, and still very hot but I’d done it now, I’d beaten this race. It had taken me that first half to warm up, but now I was hungry for it again. I ran the first few K until we entered a dry river bed. This put pay to the constant running, as it was pretty sandy and too draining in the heat. I’d save my energy for better terrain. I ate my last food ration for the day, 45g of pork rinds, hoping I’d get some further boost off them. But, you know, it felt like I was dripping water onto a hot plate. The food just evaporated as it hit my stomach. It didn’t even touch the sides. If anything I felt a little worse for a while. My body had just got used to the idea of burning itself for fuel, when here I was trying to feed it again. The dry river canyon was another one of those endless sections. Every twist and turn you hope for a change in terrain, but there never is; just another bend in the river. I ran parts; I walked parts, but continued to pass people.

Steph, you will be pleased to see I found chocolate in the Atacama, as well as the Sahara.

I ran into CP4 to see a collection of pretty exhausted looking competitors there all huddling under the extremely low roof, due to the wind. I felt a little guilty. I now felt pretty fresh. The volunteers just auto-refilled my bottle and in 20 seconds and ran back out of the CP. It must have looked a little odd I guess, to be a good way down the field where most people would be struggling, yet here I come trotting in and then trot straight back out. One volunteer said “you are looking really strong” which you know, I really was.

There was a long 4k gradual uphill road out of CP4, and I had a damned good go at running all of it. I walked the last k, then the road turned sharp right and headed back down at the same angle.

Ok, who stole the chillout bar? (a few people might get it).

I ran it all, only pausing to take this photo. If the earthquakes and volcanoes don’t get you in Chile, there’s always the landmines.

General Pinochet’s regime laid hundreds of thousands of these things all over the Atacama desert during tensions with Bolivia in the 80’s. The Chilean government now lacks either the money or the will to clear the minefields. I did a little reading around the subject, and worryingly some of these mines have a tendency to drift in the sand and people have been killed or maimed in the fairly recent past when wandering off the road in some areas. There’s no danger to us staying on the marked route of course, but wandering tourists should be wary.

However, you wouldn’t believe how gingerly I trod when approaching that sign for a close up. Like treading softly would make any difference?

The road turned right again, joining the remnants of a tarmac road that lead uphill to the valley of the Moon. I was still running, confidence growing with every step. I clicked off this photo as the sun set.  I always get my long-shadow sunset/sunrise photo in a desert.

I then kicked off running again up to the entrance to the Lunar Valley. A few minutes later some of RTP pickup trucks came past, filming as it transpired. I made it onto the video shown at the banquet, running up the road to sunset; 5 seconds of fame.

Mary and Alistair were in the car “go on Richard!” they said, “CP5 is just up the hill around the corner”. I ran up the hill and into CP5 where Mary and the team were struggling to erect the overnight camp that some competitors could sleep for a few hours if they wished. I think someone told me the tents actually blew down, so I think those that slept there may have ended up sleeping under the stars. They had hot water there, so I decided to get a splash of it on the half eaten meal in my pack, and wolf it down in double quick time. I must have looked like a pig as I ate. My head practically in the dehydrated meal bag as I shoveled the remaining couple of hundred calories down me. I threw away the packet and looked in my bag. What did I have left for the week to eat? One nuts bar, and one half eaten nuts bar I found in the bottom of the bag. Lifesaver I thought, that half a bar might just come in handy. I this last ran out of CP5 but within 300M I was walking as it turned into a steep tarmac road that it wasn’t worth killing myself to run up. A photo of the dune alongside the road.

I ate the half nuts bar. I figured I was going to just fuel myself and get this last 10k over and done with, despite it being “difficult” rated. Light was fading fast. I got to the top of the hill and saw about 8-10 competitors in a group about 1k ahead of me. I ran down the road initially, but then the flags took us off the road and into the Valley of the Moon proper.

The light had now gone. I switched on the red blinking light on my backpack to help anyone behind me, and put on both my main and backup head torches. They were both 30g lightweight models, so I needed the light from both to see where I was going. I caught up and passed the first half dozen or so, and then climbed up a steep dune, whistling the theme tune to “The Great Escape” for reasons known only to my inner psyche at that time. After that dune, it was all downhill from there. Well at least I hoped it was.

It was dark, but I could see the light from the glowstick markers stretching out below me. Before long the route went into a narrow canyon and snaked its way down. It was fairly deep sand underfoot, but I was running all the time now and feeling good. Up ahead I saw the silhouettes of two familiar people; James and Ian. I caught up with them with a cheery hello. James said he half suspected they’d see me again. I walked with them for a few minutes as we climbed down some rocky sections. I did offer to walk with them the rest of the way, but they said to push on and get a good time.

That was as much convincing as I needed, so ran on ahead, continuing down the sandy twisting narrow valley for another k or so, before emerging at the bottom. I’d only taken one litre of water at CP5 and was now dry again. Despite the darkness, it was still hot too. Still, I’d be fine now, and packed my bottles away. A short climb later and I was on a proper road again, and it was still headed downhill. I could only be a few k from the finish line now, so I really opened up. I felt like I was running a 10k pace at home, now in darkness. The glowsticks were about every 25 or 50m and they whizzed by. I caught up and passed another few people who were well strung out on the road. I knew I was going to finish it my poorest position all week, but at least I was finishing in some kind of style; a little redemption I thought. The flags turned off the road onto a trail and the last k to camp. It was during those last 2k that I had the most emotion about finishing the race. I knew I had it done. The last year, I’d been in limbo, after failing to complete it. Ok, so there was a 10k run tomorrow and I had one small chewy bar as remaining weekly rations, but like that was going to stop me. I was happy and relieved. I had carried the handycrafts home made medal that my son had given me when I didn’t complete last year, all week. It was for good luck and it looked like it had worked. I ran into camp and crossed the line in 40th place, 13hrs 35 mins. I should have probably done it an hour and a half faster, but hey, I’d done it. I was gasping for water and drank plenty on the finish line. Alistair congratulated me, knowing my story from last year. It felt good to know I’d done it. I’d not been mentally prepared for just how difficult that first leg of the stage was, and it had sapped my morale. It took me until past half way to get my wits about me again, and get myself moving quickly. I hadn’t had a meltdown, but I had a nervy few hours out there.

The usual few were back in the tent. Joasia had completed the stage in 10hrs 20 minutes; 45 minutes ahead of second place Erica. So, rather than take it easy and run on her shoulder like we advised, she just blitzed the stage again and improved on an already insurmountable lead. The best news was that her foot was looking much better. The early dose of antibiotics had killed off the infection. I’m sure she’d have hopped the last stage 10k if she would have had to. Diana did really well with 3rd place lady overall, and Dave had won his age category as well. I got the medical tent to give me an electrolyte tablet as I had none left; just to rehydrate with. I had no food to eat of course, just that one small chewy bar that I’d save for a pitiful breakfast the next day. I was fairly certain that plenty of food would just get thrown away by everyone the next day, but I wasn’t going to have any. I’d made my nutrition strategy, so I’d stick to it and suffer the consequences as well. James and Ian got back about 15 minutes later, and Jack got back in 15.5 hours. The whole of tent 14 back safe and everyone one of us would make the finish line in San Pedro the next day; a fantastic achievement. When the drumming stopped I got off to sleep, relishing the prospect of a “lie in”. There would be no 06:00-06:30 wake up, as the final stage was not due to start until 12pm.

Stage 6 – the final footsteps to San Pedro – 9.3k (on my gps).

I slept well, but was still awake fairly early. I lounged in my sleeping bag fairly lazily until about 8:30am. I didn’t have a breakfast to prepare. I ate the last chewy bar. I was really hungry and it didn’t take the edge off it at all to be honest. I wasn’t too upset with my nutrition strategy, after all this was more of less what I planned. I think I’d take another 300kcals a day in future though. That said, this desert was more demanding, physically than the others I have done, so it’s hard to say. It was hot lying in the tent in the morning sun. I half hobbled out over to the cybertent to update my blog. I had lost the skin on my small toe on one foot, and the next smallest toe on the other foot. I also had a blister on the outside of my heel on my left foot. Some of this tape was to protect the blisters, most of it was just to prevent them.

Not bad I guess, after 240km of tough terrain. All damage was down to the rubbish gaiters of course (they’ll be named and shamed in my next post: equipment review). There was a very relaxed atmosphere in camp. It was just a fun run into San Pedro. Under my shirt I put on the medal my little boy made me. One last bit of good luck. The course; it was going to be dead flat and all on the road I figured. You can see where this is going eh?

Rule 1: Never assume the race planner will make a stage easy, just because they are in other races you’ve done. I made that mistake twice this week.

Alistair didn’t give the race briefing today, he was setting up at the finish. I forget the guys name who did, but the race briefing was this, word for word “5k trail, 5k road, have fun”. No mention of terrain at all, so I figured it must be all flat and easy.

Everyone started at 12. There was 1k of steady incline on a sandy trail, then, rather unexpectedly the route headed behind some hills.

There it became apparent that this wasn’t just going to be a flat run-in to glory after all.

Thankfully there wasn’t a great deal of scrambling, probably half a k, then another couple of k of small rollercoaster hills. I was feeling pretty drained due to not eating, so just ran the downhills and walked the up’s. Then the course did finally level out and gee’d on by a running James, I ran the remaining 7k into San Pedro. I was actually looking at my GPS and was taking it a little easy planning to open up on the last 1k for a fast finish.

James was running about 100m ahead of me, and was evidentially watching where he was going and not watching his wrist like me. I rounded a corner and he was nowhere to be seen. I looked around and I was pretty much in San Pedro’s main street, already.; about 1k earlier than expected. Didn’t look last the last leg was going to be 10k after all. I rounded the next corner and 300m in front was the finish. At that point I did sprint, hearing all the cheers of all the volunteers, staff and locals, a great atmosphere at the finish. I actually don’t know what place I came in, maybe around 30th or something? I took off my hat and put my hands in the air as I crossed the line. Yes!

I then dropped my hands onto my knees, bending double, gasping for breath as that last sprint had left me in some oxygen debt! Mary took that opportunity to drop the medal round my neck and congratulate me, as did Alistair and the others. I think after my problems last year, they were glad to see me finish. The medal is a big one; and heavy too. You feel like you get good value for the pain and suffering of the week at least!

Here's both of my medals.

I congratulated Joasia on her well deserved victory. Yuu can read more of her story on The Times newspaper online here.

And also James too

Here is the whole of tent 14 on the finish line (Yes, Michael really did run in a Bayern Munich football strip all week!).

Next, my stomach demanded finish line pizza. There were about 75 pizzas ordered I believe. I definitely had my half a pizza. I had to stop myself eating after 4 or 5 pieces, as I was beginning to feel sick. My stomach wasn’t used to proper food. I washed it down with a can of Coke and sat on the wall in the town square just going over the memories of the last week. A good start, then a shaky long day, but I don’t think there was ever any serious doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t make it. I’ve had those doubts on other races, but this time I think I was better prepared. I was fitter this time, that was for sure. The 46 mile training run I did had given me confidence when I wobbled a bit on the long day. I’ve done this before I told myself. After that it became more manageable. The lighter pack was a big help too. If you are going to do yourself one favour, get a pack weight of as close to 7kg, or less, if you can. I waited for Bert to finish and got this photo of him and Roy (who had to pull out of the race sadly).

I also saw Burt from America sitting down on the floor in the shade. He’d made it! He’d ignored the doctor, pushed on and finished. I was pleased to see him, and went over to say as much. We’d hadn’t actually introduced ourselves the previous day, but did so then to mutual congratulations. There was plenty of exchanges of handshakes, and congratulations amongst us all before we gradually began to filter down into the town and back to our hotels.

I looked down at my tattered shoes, realising I didn’t in fact have any other shoes with me. Half of the grips underneath had sheared off in the salt flats, and the sole (which had already been glued – thanks Jack), was starting to peel off at the front on both shoes. They were looking pretty sorry, and although I bought them home with me I think they are going in the bin. I’d only used them in one training run before the race. Just shows how harsh the Atacama terrain is. I bought a pair of sandals on the way back to the Don Tomas hotel where I took a shower for about 40 minutes. I stood there in a bit of a daze I think. My body now realised that the demands I had placed on it for the last week were over, and it was shutting down. I dozed for an hour, but the bus to take us to the Kunzas hotel was coming about half 6, so I couldn’t really sleep. I managed to rouse myself, dress and ate 3 or 4 complimentary boiled sweets left in the hotel room, and washed them down with the free litre of water left there too. I felt a little better after that. I got on the bus with the others. Everyone was all clean and shiny, and the girls all looked so nice again! It was pretty tricky to recognise people, now no longer covered head to toe in sun cream, sand and salty-sweat encrusted clothes. It was a 5 minute drive to the Kunzas, where the couple of bar staff were running around like headless chickens as dozens of people crowded round the small bar for a beer.

At 8pm we grabbed a table for our tent, plus a couple of other people and sat down for the meal. The food was great, a really nice buffet including lots of pasta. The only slight problem was that our eyes were bigger than our shrunken bellies, so after half a plate of food, most of us ended up pushing the rest around the plate for a while somewhat guiltily. Then the awards ceremony took place. All the deserving staff and volunteers were dutifully thanked, and I’d just like to add my thanks to them as well. RTP events run like a well oiled machine. After so many years of experience running desert races, it all ran like clockwork. RTP are always quick to answer emails and address issues, absolutely first class.

South Africa’s running superstar Ryan Sandes not only won the race, he won it by about 5 hours, and get this, in under 24 hours for the whole course! Stunning performance. RTP’s Eric LaHaie came second.

There were big cheers from us all for Joasia who took the women’s title. She was very humble and said it was a team effort for getting all her kit together. It’s a complete lie; she’d have won if we’d have given her a carrier bag of borrowed boulders to haul around, and heavy tins of beans to live on for a week. You know, she’s such a nice girl that she waited 5 minutes on stage 3 for a competitor (a guy) she’d run with for most of the stage. He’d fallen off the pace and dropped back as the stage wore on though, so she climbed to the top of the hill just before the finish line and refused to cross the line. She waited a full 5 minutes and then crossed the line with him hand in hand. I told her she lacks a killer instinct; she needs to get shod of that. As a result, on the last day, the guy was a minute ahead of her before the last 10k stage. She’d have beaten him in my humble opinion. As in turned out, the hatchet was half-buried, he said could they run in together, and he’d ask RTP to put them joint 6th overall. I suspect he realised she’d probably win in a show down! Still, I’ll grant him the benefit of doubt and salute the good sportsmanship. What was nice though, was that no one but her tent mates really knew any of what had happened earlier in the week. Then during the award ceremony, they showed the clip of Joasia waiting at the finish line for 5 minutes and then crossing the line together. She got a rapturous round of applause. Maybe being popular is better than a killer instinct after all?

Diana took third place lady, behind Erica, and Dave won his age category too. I think we’d have a good stab at one of the most decorated tents; well done tent 14. After the awards was a photo and video montage for about an hour. I didn’t watch all of it to be honest, as it was quite long and my feet were throbbing. The Diclofenac I had taken was clearing wearing off. I retreated from my standing position, and sat down at our table for a little while longer, then as the evening drew to a close said my thank you’s and goodbyes to everyone who wasn’t on my flight the next morning.

The flight back was largely uneventful until I got to Heathrow and my luggage didn’t. I figured there was some poetic justice for inadvertently upsetting Joasia when asking (with genuine concern) if her luggage had turned up a day before the race. I wasn’t looking forward to filing an insurance claim. They probably wouldn’t have believed the value and contents of all the kit. I had however wisely kept my medal in my hand luggage. It has cost me 10x the value of luggage contents to win over these last 2 years! Anyway, my luggage was delivered into work to me the following day, all intact. I had gone straight from the airport into work in the London office, and only got back home at the weekend.

That’s the story. 2 years in the making. For once I feel more or less happy with my performance. Well, I say more or less, I’m very happy. I would have taken ‘a finish’, but been happy with top 50%. To come 29th overall is inside the top 20%, so that far exceeds my own expectations. There is no doubt I’m fitter than I have ever been, but I handled the race itself better mentally. I had a few doubts on day 5, but nothing serious. I’m gradually learning to shout down the self doubt when it arises. It’s something I guess I’ll always work on, and hopefully continue to improve on.

My son’s mother dropped my little boy off at my house on Friday night, and I was finally able to give him a medal in exchange for the one he had made me a year ago. He was very happy when I put it around his neck, and gave me a congratulations card. It’s all worth it you see.

Three deserts down. Next?



  1. Great write up Rich, loved the photos- especially the 'chocolate slabs'!! It's amazing how much it does resemble broken chocolate- or maybe I'm a chocolate addict!

    This is definately an event I'd love to do in the future, congratulations again, bet your little boy is really proud of his Dad!

  2. Absolute champion Rich, love your story, spirit, effort and best of all ability to come back in the face of adversity,

    Cheers Hamish

  3. Hi Richard, great report from Atacama Crossing. I added a link to your report to my site
    Best regards from your german tent 14 collegue Michael

  4. Hi Richard, great report from Atacama Crossing. I added a link to your report to my site
    Best regards from your german tent 14 collegue Michael

  5. Thanks Michael, I've now added a link to your website in the post above, when I first mention you.
    Good luck in your next race!