Thursday, July 14, 2011

Atacama Crossing 150 Brutal Miles


I recently returned from my latest adventure, the Atacama Crossing which once again proved to be an experience I will never forget. In the past, on returning from my trips, I usual burst with emotion and the words flow out of me easily. The races themselves prove so brutal and difficult, that it seems effortless to put the experience into words. This time however, and I'm still not sure why, the race went very well for me and with the exception of a few not so low "lows", I felt incredibly strong and full of energy throughout the event. So upon return, I've spent most of my time thinking about how great it was, but lacking a bit of the emotion of "hitting the wall" and "peering over the edge mentally and physically" that usually comes with running 150 miles in one of the most unforgiving places on the planet.

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of those places. It is noted to be the driest place on earth, and is basically a rainless plateau made up of salt flats...and these salt flats which we crossed many times, are excruciatingly uncomfortable in that they are sharp and rough, provide enough stability "sometimes", but not enough of the time to be any more certain than you are of a coin toss. So you have no idea whether your foot will stay on top, or break straight through up to you shins. And trudging through this type of terrain for miles and miles, with nothing but a lunar landscape to help relieve your mind of it, proves to be quite a challenge. But it's not just the salt flats....throw in 6 days, an average elevation of 10,000 feet, monster sand dunes, rocky terrain, slot canyons, wind, temps near 100 during the day and about 40 at night...and oh yeah, carrying in upwards of a 20 pound pack...and no matter how "great" it goes, it's still tough as hell!!

A new experience for me this time around, was running the race as a team, with 2 Aussie friends I had met in a previous race in China...the Gobi March. Along with my teammates Mike Hull and Pete Wilson, was a couple other friends from the Gobi, Pete Bocquet, an Aussie living in Singapore, and a Brit named Jimmy Elson...and we would all be in a tent together. We had all been corresponding for months and as the time kept getting closer, we kept getting each other more and more amped up for our reunion in southern hemisphere.

Two months before the race, I had developed a stress fracture from the obvious pounding incurred running with my pack on for training...but probably more specifically from the a marathon I ran with my pack. So I was ordered by my doctor to not run for 3 months, but with the race only 2 months away, I had to cut that healing time short. So going down to Chile, I was quite worried that my leg would either slow our team down, or quite possibly get worse or even fracture, and I would ruin it completely for us. Pete and Mike are great athletes and well accomplished Ironman triathletes, both completing about 10 Ironmans each. I was quite burdened by the thought of being the weakest link. This was quite a lot of pressure to be thinking about and I did in fact call up the boys and give them an out, if they felt they wanted to do the race on their own. To their credit, and as an example of their character, they both expressed surprise that I would even consider the thought that they might want to bail on me.

In a race this extreme, and in a location as remote, there's always a very limited number of people who will sign up...whether it's the physical aspect, the mental hurdle of the thought of 150 miles through a desert, the monetary price tag, or simply the amount of time needed to prepare, or take off from work for the actual race...only about 70 hardy souls signed up to participate. And of that amount, there was only one other team that we would battle for the top team spot...but it would prove to be a very talented Chilean team...much more so than us. The organizer of their team, had other runners from the country apply to join the coveted spots. He chose 2 men that were incredibly fast, and on paper it looked as though we had little chance to compete against such strong and experienced runners...not to mention that they had the 'home field advantage". But speed was not the only factor that mattered...teamwork would prove to be a much more important aspect, and what our Team (Team Trifecta) lacked in skill, we more than made up in teamwork, camaraderie, drive, and friendship. During the 1st 4 days of the race, we went back and forth with the Chileans, but each day the 2 faster members of their team, pushed the 3rd way past his ability and literally drove him to tears. They went out hard, while we looked on and stuck to our plan...nice and easy...strong and steady. We operated with military precision, with me literally keeping the clock, down to the seconds, letting my teammates know when to run, when to walk...sometimes mostly encouraging, but sometimes having to yell and cajole with some harsh words...words that they knew weren't meant to be mean spirited, but none-the-less, strong enough to get them going when they thought they'd had enough. I'd tell them that they'd thank me for it later, and I'm pretty sure they did. After the 4th day, the Chileans disbanded their team, so that the 2 faster fellows could go on their own...obviously the term "teamwork" was a concept they didn't understand. One of the moments of the race that I will always remember was...on the 4th day, with the Chileans ahead, and gaining about 15 minutes of our overall lead at every checkpoint...on the second to last section, we got word that they were beginning to slow. This news was like a lightening bolt striking a shark smelling blood in the water..I felt the adrenaline flowing and I told the boys "let's go!!". Even though we promised to stay with our game plan, and managed to do that for most of the time, I have to admit (and I was denying then) I was totally obsessed with catching them and drove us on a bit harder than we planned. We were certainly the underdogs and it was sort of like the tortoise and the hare...and the satisfaction I felt when I saw them up ahead....and the look on the face of the big, cocky Chilean as he saw us coming up from behind, and was helpless to stop us as we passed....was PRICELESS!! That was one of the most satisfying physical achievements I can remember and surely won't forget!!!!

On the long day, we also followed our plan...went out slowly, almost in last place, and slowly but surely, reeled racers in one after the other. We likened it to catching fish....we see one ahead (getting a bite), establish our pace (setting the hook), and the reel them in!!!!! Up until the very last 10K of the 46 mile day, we were right on...and then we hit a bit of a speed bump...Pete felt we needed to walk, Mike was being a good team member and didn't mind complying, and it was only me that really wanted to finish strong, like we had done all day. Looking back on it, I think I was a bit harsh, but I knew that they could both still run, but were letting their minds take control and trick their bodies. However I was actually having some leg pain at the time and so even I didn't push the matter as hard as I would have liked. Honestly, I had convinced myself that I had developed another stress fracture in my other leg, and was so paranoid, I was afraid of doing some harm that would ruin my plans after this race. It turns out that my "broken" leg, ended up being a torn tendon, and would only sideline me for a month. (As a side note, in all three of my 150 mile desert races, I have NEVER once even stepped into the medical tent for as much as a piece of blister tape) But with Pete saying "I've snapped my tendon" (which we are still laughing about) and Mike not putting up much of an argument, we walked much of that last 10K until I told them we WERE running it over the line...and we did, coming from almost last, to finish that day in 15th place!!

All in all, Team Trifecta got along incredibly, and worked together like a well oiled machine. I would never hesitate to run another race with the boys...and I'm sure they feel the same way!!! Our tent life was one big laugh after another and I think my abs hurt more from laughing for a week than my legs hurt from running. Even when the day's stage was rough, we all knew we had the evening to relax and recuperate...and commiserate!!!! The phrase misery loves company is certainly true in the middle of the Atacama Desert, where shared pain is forgotten as quick as the first joke flies!!! There's just something about knowing your mate is going through the same pain as you are, that eases that pain! When one of us was low, we always had the two others to pick us up or push us on!

The scenery through this epic event was magnificent....lunar desert landscapes, mountainous sand dunes, incredibly blue skies during the day, heavenly star filled skies at night, amazing canyons, barren salt flats for as far as the eyes could see...all surrounded by souring snow capped volcanoes looming in the distance...almost too much for the eyes or brain to comprehend. More than a few times I would look around ain amazement that I was actually there...and doing something that ten years ago I would have thought impossible. And what is always more amazing than even the landscapes, are the friendships that are formed and the lifelong bonds that are formed. I always tell people that spending a week of pain and suffering in the desert with these guys is equivalent to years of friendship back in the real world. And getting that medal at the end is fulfilling, but the real rewards are the friendships made...knowing that I could visit any one of them and be invited into their homes in any number of countries...and knowing they are all welcome in my home...THAT'S the real reward....although that "bling" (the medal) doesn't look so bad on my wall either!!!!

I'm so thankful for stumbling into this "extreme" world, for it has taken me to places I never dreamed I'd ever visit, introduced me to interesting people I never would have met, and made strong friendships I am sure to keep!!!

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