Atacama Crossing

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by Troy Schaab

I blame YouTube. That’s where I stumbled upon a video about a 7-day, 250-kilometre race in Chile’s Atacama Desert. I was in.

Upon arriving at the village of San Pedro de Atacama, I met the other 81 runners from around the world who were also jacked up about this adventure. I remember feeling way out of my league. Most of the runners had done previous multi-stage races and seemed to have all the latest in cool gadgets and running gear. The majority of the supplies in my backpack still had the price tags on them.

Troy (right) and fellow runner Ryan Thornton await the start of Stage Five, an 80 km journey nicknamed “The Long March.”

The race organizers, RacingThePlanet, supplied only a tent and water. Camp One was very well organized with the tents all set up in a circle. Water was being heated over a fire, to be mixed with the freeze-dried meals we had for the week.

Stage One was 35K, a perfect distance to get the legs rolling and adapt to the desert heat. After five and a half hours of trucking through breathtaking views and wild terrain, I had completed the first stage. Aside from sore shoulders from carrying my 10-kilogram backpack, I was feeling awesome.

As part of Stage Two, we crossed rivers and descended a large, steep sand dune that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Following a six-hour journey, I returned to camp feeling pretty good. After a post-run dinner of freeze-dried mac and cheese, I discovered that my air mattress had unfortunately sprung a leak. This was not great news during a week where I would need my sleep in order to run 250K.

In Stage Three, things came crashing down on me. In addition to my leaking air mattress, I now had a sore knee. Knee pain is quite common in these races due to the uneven and extreme terrain. Thankfully, we were treated to some cloud cover on this day and so the heat wasn’t as drastic as I limped along. The sunset that night was breathtaking.

Day Four presented a 46.3K run through the infamous salt flats. Salt flats are as uneven as any terrain can get—they are best compared to frozen broccoli. After another gruelling day, I crawled into my sleeping back for a post-run nap. That’s when it hit me: I had basically run four marathons in four days. I had never done anything remotely close to this. My body was beginning to feel the effects.

Day Five is known as The Long March. This 80K day would take many runners well into the night to complete. As expected, my knee worsened. At checkpoint two, a member of the medical team worked on my left foot to alleviate the blisters I had developed. With roughly 40K to go, we encountered a substantial windstorm and were forced to cover our faces with our Buffs. At that point, I heard the voice of Nicolas, a runner from New Zealand that I had met at camp. Like me, Nic was experiencing a great deal of pain from blistered feet. Over the howling wind he yelled: “Let’s buddy up.” For the next eight hours,

Nic and I hobbled our way to the checkpoints ahead, and at 12:45 a.m., we completed Stage Five. I learned a great deal about myself that night. Nic also played a massive role in me finishing that stage. I’m so grateful for the guy.

Day Six was a day to lick our wounds. The medical team was as busy as ever, patching blisters and taping injuries. Despite the pain, I was in excellent spirits in knowing I was 12.9K away from the finish.

A 13K run seemed like a drop in the ocean in comparison to what we had already accomplished. One more sleepless night!

Finally, Day Seven. With great joy, we dressed in our seven-day-old running gear and ate our last freeze-dried meal before setting out. Running with every last bit of energy I had, I recall hearing a volunteer yell: “200 metres… 200 metres!” Unable to contain my emotions, I struggled to the finish line. It was over. I had run 250K through a desert that demanded respect. A medal was placed around my neck and I cried. I was honoured to share the moment with my new friends who had fought the same battle.

 

After completing 250 km, the runners celebrate in San Pedro de Atacama. 

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