Six weeks ago I had the pleasure of working as a volunteer staffer on Racing the Planet's Atacama Crossing. The Atacama Crossing is a 6 day, 250 kilometer, self-supported race across the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The competitors (about 140 of them) run the equivalent of 6 marathons in 5 days; climbing dunes, crossing rivers, and navigating various other hazards all while carrying backpacks weighing between 15 and 25 pounds. The Atacama Crossing is part of the 4 Deserts series which also includes the Gobi March, the Sahara, and Antarctica - The Last Desert. I ran the Gobi March in 2009 and it was such an amazing experience that I signed up to be a volunteer in Atacama before the Gobi race was even over.
Just a week before the race was to start a massive earthquake hit Chile. Tragically, hundreds of lives were lost and millions of dollars worth of damage occured. While the Atacama region was not affected, with the somber circumstances and the lack of information regarding the state of Santiago's airport (where most competitors and staff were scheduled to fly into) the status of the race was uncertain. After speaking to their friends and colleagues in Chile the race organizers decided that it was best for everyone if the race went on as planned. Thus, it was up to the competitors and staff members to figure out how to get themselves to the desert despite the chaos that was the Chilean travel system at the time. Through sheer tenacity and determination nearly all of the competitors and staff members made it in time. Luckily for me I was always planning on arriving overland and thus my travel plans weren't really affected. Although, at the last minute I abandoned my planned bus trip from Salta (Argentina) in order to ride over the Andes and through the desert in a pickup truck from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) with one of the competitors. While not quite as direct or as comfortable as the bus trip probably would have been I'm glad I took the pickup truck option as the scenery was spectacular and I got to talk race stuff the whole 10 hours (something I never get sick of talking about).
Tom and I in the salt flats on the Argentine side
The Chilean border was closed for lunch...we waited outside
After a hot, dusty 10 hour ride through the desert including 4 separate border/customs checks we finally arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. Once checked into my hotel and showered I headed out for a few beers with some of the volunteers. Halfway through my second beer the building began to shake and the ground below my seat starting rolling like waves in the ocean. Now, I've drank my fair share of strong beers in my day but none that made the ground shake after drinking just 1 (although if such a beer ever does hit the market it´s "Goodbye Heineken, Hello Rumblebrew"). The rolling lasted for about 15 to 20 seconds and about 3 or 4 seconds in I realized I was experiencing my first earthquake. The sensation was so cool that I didn't even think about getting under the table or heading to a doorway. Smart...I know. After it was over 2 of the volunteers I was sitting with, both from the San Francisco area, agreed that it was probably about a 5.5. When we got back to the hotel and checked it on the National Geological Survey's website we found out it was a 6.4 and occured about 40 miles from San Pedro. Nobody got hurt so I say it was pretty cool...not everyone agreed.
Over the next couple days the competitors and other staff members trickled in, some with extraordinary travel tales. Thursday night my good friend and 2009 Gobi March champion Eric Lahaie arrived and we caught up over dinner and then over a nice run on Friday morning. Friday was spent checking out the town, getting to know the volunteers, and catching up with friends from Hong Kong and the Gobi. Saturday was volunteer staff training...all day! It was actually way less painful than I had mentally prepared for but I was still shocked by some of the questions people came up with. I guess some people just have a knack for taking something totally straightforward and asking completely unrelated questions and making inane comments. But c'est la vie. By reciting a few mental "serenity nows" I was able to keep the blood pressure at normal levels and make it through the training.
Sam - leading volunteer training
After 45 minutes of training I was on the same page as this guy...sorry Sam
Sunday was competitor check-in, which includes a review of their previously submitted medical forms and mandatory equipment checks. I was assigned to the equipment check station which is way harder work than it sounds. 4 hours hunched over sifting through blister kits, Cliff Bars, hydration systems (should we really have to check for those? I mean - it's the desert they're probably at least bringing a water bottle. And if not, we've got insurance. Right?), sunscreen, lip balm, dehydrated meals, etc.; talking to nervous competitors who aren't the least bit happy about having to dump out the entire contents of their packs which they just spent the last hour packing; all in desert heat without a bathroom break. Enforcing certain specifics of the rules regarding mandatory equipment is no fun, (and definitely got me off on the wrong foot with a few competitors - as if I could change the rules?) but needs to be done - some for safety reasons and others for fairness. After the final gear check was complete everyone grabbed their boxed lunches and boarded their vehicles (competitors - buses, staff - pickup trucks) to head out into the desert.
George keeping order during competitor check-in
Cristobal and George taking a yogurt break
George was wiped after a long day of checking in competitors and eating yogurt...you and me both buddy
Once we arrived at the first campsite and everyone was settled into their tents there's really not a whole lot to do other than sit around by the fire and wait for it to get dark so you can go to bed. The feeling around the campsite was the exact same as the first night in the Gobi - the air is full of anticipation and is teeming with anxiety. Everybody just wants to get the damn race started. Once morning rolled around most of the competitors were up early eating breakfast, drinking coffee, packing their packs, stretching, taping feet, tying, re-tying and tying their shoes again. After a briefing from the medical director and a course briefing from one of the organizers the race finally started at 8:16 AM. Most of the people at the front of the start were veterans and went out really fast.
A little traditional Chilean music before the start
Lahaie getting rid of any excess weight prior to the start
Apparently it worked...there he is out front
The first couple days went by relatively normally - blisters, dehydration, injuries, etc. To tell you the truth I actually don't remember too many race details. It's amazing how busy the volunteers are during the entire race. As a competitor in the Gobi I had no idea how much time and effort is put in by the volunteers. It's an amazing experience and it was great to be able to see the race from a different perspective but unfortunately I missed out on a lot of the details so don't have too much to recount. Of the details I do remember: South African professional ultra runner Ryan Sandes came in first, American and 2009 Gobi Champion Eric Lahaie second, and American Sean Abbott third. 78 year old Welshman Laurie Brophy made it through 150 kilometers but sadly had to drop out 10k into the final day. I had the pleasure of walking roughly 25 kilometers with Laurie over days 3 and 4 and can say he made an extremely valiant effort and really gave it everything he had. While heartbroken to hear that he had dropped out I was actually a bit relieved as the conditions were so harsh it probably wasn't all that safe for him to be out there for upwards of 20 hours.
Having completed the Gobi I was able to fully appreciate what all of the competitors were going through and I think that's what made it such a great experience for me. I worked the overnight checkpoint on day 5 and was amazed by the cheery and upbeat demeanor of competitors arriving at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning after having been out on the course for 18 hours. Out of desire to see each and everyone of the competitors pass through my checkpoint for the final time I opted not to sleep at all and it is evident below. Throughout the week there were numerous incidents and performances by competitors that really were amazing, and while the effort put forth by all of the competitors was truly admirable far and away the most inspiring moment of the week (and possibly my life) was watching Italian Paolo Giannerini, who suffers from MS, cross the final finish line on the main plaza in the middle of San Pedro. In full tears, to a huge ovation, Paolo walked across the finish line and I don't think there was a dry eye in the entire plaza (thankfully I was wearing my super-reflective hipster shades). It was the perfect way to end an amazing race!
Team "Old Guys Rule" crossing the finish line - Day 2. Depsite being Canadian all 3 are really great guys and good friends of mine from the Gobi. I had no idea they were running and was very pleasantly surprised when I saw them the day before the race.
Americans Eric Lahaie and Sean Abbott approaching the final hill on day 3 with Chilean Rodrigo
These guys were 2, 3, and 4 all week
This hill was a doozie. I know...I did it twice
Nice work guys!
Middle of nowhere...day 3
Cristobal, Carlos, Me, Laurie, Sam - Checkpoint 1 Day - 4. Running water and working toilet....amazing!
Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon) - Day 5
George appeared in the middle of the desert on day 5 and spent the whole day and night with us. Sallie was happy to see him!
This is what you look like after 20 hours of sleeplessness after a week of sleeping in the desert and waking up at 5 AM everyday
The moon over it's valley
Andrea, Alina, Me - Volunteers getting some rest before the start of the final stage
Delirious from lack of sleep I don't think any of the 3 of us even closed our eyes during our 5 minute "nap" at the start line
Old Guys crossing the final finish line together
After the race was over and everybody had taken a few much needed showers and a gotten a couple hours rest everyone headed to one of the competitor hotels for a great banquet and party. After spending a week out in the desert together sleeping in tents, not showering, roasting in the sun all day, its a real blast to get to sit down and have a beer in the airconditioning with everyone. We got to watch a slideshow of pictures taken during the race, eat real food, and drink cold everything. It was great and the afterparty carried on pretty late into the night. After everything was over one of the other volunteers and I stayed around for a couple extra days to sort out our respective travel plans and got to experience a little of what San Pedro had to offer: a little desert running, mountain biking, and sandboarding. All in all it was a great experience and I'm looking forward to taking part in future races as both a competitor and a volunteer. I would definitely recommend this for anyone who is at all interested. It really is awesome! Hope to have some more updates soon.
Alina - apparently very proud of herself
Me - just generally being badass