Struggling through day four of Racing the Planet’s annual Atacama Crossing, my aching body once again trips and falls into the muddy goop of the desert salt flats. Somehow, I have enough energy for a burst of profanities as my eyes suddenly mist over. “Don’t cry – water is precious,” I tell myself. Nevertheless, I think of the tiny llama pinned to my hat – an ode to my mom – and a tiny drop escapes, leaving another shmear on my prescription sunglasses. It’s a peculiar experience. I can’t remember the last time I actually cried. I order myself to save the emotions for the finish line and scramble to my feet. I glance behind me, more energy wasted, and see the backpacked zombies gaining ground. Meanwhile, there is a searing pain in my backside, demanding attention it won’t receive until the race is finished – another 54 miles away.
Since 2009, I’ve participated in eight Racing the Planet events. seven times as the official photographer, and once, as a competitor in Australia 2010. Poorly trained, I nearly joined the cattle and kangaroo skeletons strewn about the sweltering Aussie outback By the end of the first day, I required not one but two intravenous drips. Nevertheless, I managed to finish the race in next-to-last-place and concluded: never again.
Fast-forward two years and I am on a plane en route to San Pedro De Atacama, Chile in order to attempt one of RTP’s four annual desert races. The memories of Australia had faded enough for me to reconsider another ultra, and I relished the opportunity to visit my father Tomas’ homeland. Having photographed the race twice, I also looked forward to enjoying the unique beauty of the Atacama without the pressure of work. In stark contrast to the no-training approach for Australia, I began preparations two months prior
in order to savor the experience of the week-long, 150-mile race.
Upon arrival in Santiago, I welcomed the uptick in temperature relative to the NYC winter and resolved to stow away my long johns and down parka as soon as I cleared customs. Unfortunately, the watchful customs agents identified my raw almonds through the x-ray scan. I was pulled out of the security line with my bags and ushered into a customs office, and then into another customs office, deeper still into the recesses of the Arturo Benitez International Airport. Finally, I was seated at a Soviet-era desk, face to face with a solemn official who interrogated me as to why I had not declared my nuts. My weak yet sincere excuses – they were packaged after all – were enough to evade a hefty fine, but not sufficient to keep me off a government watch list, I was informed. As soon as I left customs, I purchased the first bag I came across – salted macadamias. I needed my nuts for the race.
While waiting for my next connection, I carb loaded at Dunkin Donuts, which offered Chilean versions of American fare such as Manjar (Dulce de Leche) Munchkins with coconut, and Manjar donuts with apple and cinnamon. I felt like a competitive eater feasting on double orders. I also ordered an espresso, which in reality was regular coffee, but served in an espresso-sized cup.
Landing in San Pedro De Atacama, the air was noticeably thinner than sea level, crisp and less dusty than normal thanks to the unprecedented rainfall of recent weeks. The precipitation had caused major floods, as well as last minute changes to the course. For
the first time in four trips to San Pedro, I saw foreboding clouds in the sky.
San Pedro is an oasis amidst a snow-capped, volcanic mountain range that caters to both hostel-dwelling backpackers and five-star hotel tourists alike. It’s a perfect place to chill out before a race – though perhaps too relaxing. Amidst sightseeing, carb loading in any number of confidently cool cafes and hanging out with new best friends from the hostel, I lost track of the days and nearly missed the mandatory pre-race check-in and the bus trip to the start. At the last possible moment I suddenly realized I was a day behind. In an instant, I reverted back to NYC-mode, madly threw my belongings together, commandeered a taxi and tore off to the RTP meeting point. Unfortunately, there isn’t such a thing as being in a rush in San Pedro so the easygoing taxi ride was excruciating. I missed the race briefing and barely cleared the various gear and health checks, which were already closing down. I breathed an altitude-shortened sigh of relief as I slumped next to my friend and tent-mate Ash Moktari, who had been kind enough to save me a seat on the bus.
Excited chatter on the bus subsided as we climbed to the top of the Valle de Arco Iris and it became more difficult to breathe. I wondered how my body would react when I actually had to race. I had arrived five days early in order to acclimatize, but apparently I needed more time to adjust to the 12,000-feet start line. The evening was cold and another out of place thunderstorm descended on camp. In one night, it rained more than in the previous century. My tent mates and I scrambled for dry patches under the leaking canvas, bonding quickly and resting fitfully before the first day. I might have slept more
soundly except I heeded the advice of my friend Ryan Sandes who suggested I forgo a sleeping mat to have more food packing space. And for this I owe a great debt to Ryan. Hunger and nutrition were never an issue for me during the race though I probably never slept more than an hour straight.
STAGE 1 After the short race briefing, the runners sprang off the line at 8am sharp, feeling as spry and healthy as we would all week. I noticed the course was rockier and softer in parts compared to previous years when I had photographed. Also, there was an abundance of snow at the mountaintops and the sky was cloudy – not the usual perfect clear blue. I couldn’t help but smile and feel overwhelmed with joy to be in the middle of such idyllic surroundings. I creeped along the 22-mile course, alternately jogging nine minutes and walking one, depending on the terrain. Based on my past performance, I aimed to be conservative and avoid the IVs. During the walks, I sipped on a Nuun electrolyte drink and chased it with Sustained Energy mix by Hammer Nutrition. To my surprise, I actually started overtaking runners as the day wore on. I felt myself running low on energy and nutrition as I approached a “hill” (or was it a “hell?”). What the course notes glossed over as an “incline” turned out to be a five km steep, switch-backing climb under a South American heat lamp at 10,000 feet. Desperate to end the day, I forced myself to alternate running and walking—instead of just walking the hill as some of the other runners were doing. My lungs searched for oxygen that didn’t exist. My legs threatened to cramp. If I pushed too much now, would I pay the price later in the race? Finally, a checkpoint appeared.
The volunteers informed me only five more km separated me from the first camp. I pounded water and trudged away before another runner crested the hill. The remainder of the course was rocky and downhill—which was as bad as the uphill, but for different reasons. Urban New York City training did nothing to prepare me for the assault on my quads, knees and ankles, and now other muscle groups started to cramp. Unfortunately, I was aware that my tent mate Alex Reinhart was bearing down on me so I could not rest my legs and persevered. Even though I didn’t intend to race anyone during the week, my competitive urges came through. I reached the finish line depleted, but still ahead of Alex. How would I be able to do this again tomorrow, and for five more days hence?
STAGE 2 My quadriceps muscles were learning the language of ascending and descending trail running on the fly and paying a heavy price. They were in complete shock. No conditions in New York had prepared me for the rigors of the course. That morning I could barely walk let alone squat over a hole in the desert to go to the bathroom. Since the level of aggravation was unprecedented, I was not sure how my muscles would respond to another 25 miles of rough terrain.
The morning of Stage 2 set the tone for the rest of the week. I would wake up, assess the various aches and pains, drain and redress blisters and wonder how in the world I could run another marathon. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have considered getting out of bed.
The stage began with a descent into a river valley and multiple cold-water crossings. I started slowly and worked my way towards the front of the pack. After a massive, lung- burning climb, the course afforded an unforgettable view of verdant fauna set in front of snowcapped peaks and a blue sky. I stopped for a photo op, prying my point-and-shoot from my pack, allowing a Belgian runner pass me. Suddenly, my ultra-running animal came to life. I put away my camera.
Annoyed with myself for having lost a hard-earned position, I caught up with the Belgian at the next checkpoint, but once again, was left behind as he barely paused to refill his bottles. From a strategic perspective, every ounce of energy and every second were of consequence if I hoped to be competitive. I was curious to see how I would fare against other runners if I committed to the task of running.
I spent most of Stage 3 on my own somewhere in between the third and fifth place runners. The sun seared over the course which passed through nasty brush and soft earth. Running was often impossible as I sunk to my knees in the mixture of wet clay and salt. At one point, I came to a parched ravine marked by a course flag. I descended the sand, half skiing the steep sand wall to the bottom and then had to guess which way the course went next. I guessed wrong. By the time I got back on track, several runners had overtaken me. It was a blessing and a curse. I’d figured out the course, but was also overcome with frustration and self-pity over the effort I had expended to stay ahead of the pack. By the time I scaled the sand embankment on my hands and knees out of the ravine, my emotions had turned to a kind of rage which I used to overtake all but one of the runners who had passed me.
By the end of this grueling stage, the race was taking its toll. The distance people were willing to walk from the campsite to a pee area shortened relative to the health of their legs. In fact, our tent reprimanded a weary competitor for fertilizing the ground a little too close to our sleeping quarters.
Stage 4 The day was a classic desert ultramarathon grind. While the course itself was not as physically challenging relative to previous stages, the long open stretches tested one’s mental fortitude. At this point I had resolved to maintain my top five and first American standing and ran with the Spanish leaders until the first checkpoint. To my surprise, I felt okay except for one glaring problem – a massive pain in my butt. I could not ignore my aching hemmorhoids any longer. The pain was excruciating and frequent stops were required as I tried in vain to find some kind of relief. In spite of it, I was in battle for 3rd place with a Belgian and Greek runner over the final 12 miles of the day. Eventually the Belgian and Greek runners pulled ahead. As much as I tried to keep up, I fell behind. Where was my will? Where was my energy? Why was I out of water? What was happening to my butt? I stumbled yet again. Tears filled my eyes. I took a long moment to compose myself. My mental and physical resources were so drained I could barely start a thought and finish it. There was nothing I could do about the Greek and Belgian, so I resolved to simply finish the stage. A wave of relief washed over me and I let out a whoop. I finally understood my friend Stephanie Case’s reaction to finishing RTP Nepal when she simultaneously celebrated and wept.
Stage 5 The field started the 47-mile Stage 5 at a conservative pace. Eventual champion Juan Vicente Garcia Beneito and I eased away from the field. He explained that his race strategy was to get a comfortable lead and then monitor his pace enough to stay ahead of the competition while conserving as much energy as possible. It was an effective strategy—for those in world-class physical condition. At any rate, Vicente and I ran in cadence for quite some time. Eventually we stopped talking, communicating only with our breath and footsteps. At one moment, we simultaneously looked at each other and fist bumped, acknowledging our mutual respect and incredible fortune to be doing something we love. Eventually, Vicente pulled ahead and overall runner-up David Ruiz Gomez caught up to me. Ruiz and I worked together matching paces and trading leads, and ultimately tied for second place on the Long Stage. I finished fourth overall for the race, won my age group and was the first gringo overall. To my knowledge I was also the fastest runner with hemmorhoids. The pain was so intense after the race that I was barely able to limp into a Chilean emergency room the day after the race for treatment.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what motivated me to sign up for the Atacama Crossing 2012, but when the urge came I was loathe to resist. I can recall moments of blissful running and cite these as sources of inspiration, but how to explain the desire to continue when things get tough, deadly even, and physical and mental logic demands one to stop? Maybe I will have a better understanding in my next ultramarathon.
Photos Courtesy of Scott Manthey and Zandy Mangold