The view of the Andes mountain range was spectacular as we flew the final section of our journey across Chile from Santiago to Calama airport. It was from here that we then drove to San Pedro, a small town on the outskirts of the Atacama Desert, the highest, driest desert in the world.
I joined around ninety international competitors who had entered the Atacama crossing, a 150 mile stage race, which is organised by the ‘4Deserts’ company.
Most ultra races have a special feature, and this race was no different, with altitude and terrain set to cause the greatest difficulty. The race was set to start at an altitude of 3500 metres, and I knew that running with a short supply of air whilst wearing a 10 kg backpack containing all my food, clothing, and water and survival gear would not be an easy task.
We arrived late at night at our hotel in San Pedro, and next morning it was clear that the Atacama was a unique and beautiful place, with hot desert surrounded by snow capped volcanoes on all sides!
Another runner I had met, Richard Weremiuk, had arranged for us to climb up one of these volcanoes as a form of pre-race altitude training, and a local guide picked us up from our hotel early on our first morning.
We headed out of town and we were soon reaching an altitude of 5000 metres at the base of one of the volcanoes. Our guide was able to drive us in his 4x4 right up to an altitude of around 5100 metres (close to the height of Mount Kilimanjaro). Here we parked up and began our hike further up the rocky trail towards the summit, but it was so difficult to breathe, and every step required a huge effort as my heart raced. It was not normal to start hiking at this altitude without prior acclimatisation, and after a few hours we reached 5350 metres, and decided that this was sufficient and we rested and admired the fantastic views across the Atacama valley before ascending back to our truck.
The next day was kit inspection day, and my backpack weighed in at around 10kg without water. This was mainly due to the 2000 calorie per day food requirement that I had to carry, which consisted of freeze dried rice and energy bars.
Once inspections were over, I went with around 95 other international competitors on a long drive into the desert to our first camp of the race.
This first camp (Rio Grande) was the highest of all the race camps (3263m), and it was in a spectacular valley location, with red coloured mountains on all sides.
Here, we were assigned our tents, in groups of 7-9 per tent. I was in tent number 8 (named Lascar). I was with Richard, Christian from Austria, Karen from the USA, and 3 other Brits, Fergus, Jonathan and Tim.
Stage 1 (Dist 35km, Starting altitude 3263m, +245m -973m)
After a restless cold windy night we woke to make final preparations to our kit, before lining up at the start line at the foot of the rocky gorge, with pink flags indicating an early climb upwards across the steep valley walls.
Off we went, and as soon as I started pushing up the first gravelly slope I felt like I could hardly breathe. A combination of altitude and exertion was leaving me light headed and I thought my heart was going to burst from my ribcage. I had to keep taking huge breaths as I slipped and slid up the hill. Everyone was struggling with the altitude, and it was a relief to eventually reach the top.
The view was spectacular, with desert and rocks as far as the eye can see, and once down the other side, the course flattened off into a long winding trail. The temperature was rising, and I tried to stay cool by getting into an even pace and trying to relax my breathing. Checkpoints were roughly every 10km, and I felt pretty good on the flat sections taking me through the first few CP’s without problems.
After CP3 though the route slowly went up through a rocky plain and it was now very hot. I was sweating lots and I felt like I just couldn’t breathe. I entered a long winding gorge which just seemed to go on upwards forever, and the temperature seemed to be magnified. Fellow Brit Adam Versteeg caught up with me here, and we stuck together for the remainder of the section, keeping each other going and agreeing that the altitude and temperature combination was definitely a shock to the system.
Just after an hour or we reached the end of the gorge and to our relief we could see the next base camp in the distance.
We crossed the finish together in 4hrs 27 mins and realised we had done well that day, but it was going to be a very tough race. Many people had arrived later than expected that day after suffering bad dioreaha and sickness, and Richard was especially suffering badly from this.
Stage 2 Distance 42km Starting altitude 2627m, +243, -535
This stage was described as difficult, and would follow the river Grande and take us to the ‘Dead Valley’!
I had pushed hard on yesterday’s stage, and managed to finish within the top ten, but I could feel that today I was lacking energy, and I decided to start nice and easy. Everyone was taken by surprise yesterday with the heat altitude and terrain.
We set off and I decided to pace myself, but it wasn’t long before we headed down into a canyon and actually into the river. It was a gorge with steep sides, and at some points we were up to our knees in the water. I didn’t mind this as it cooled off my hot feet and helped my sore legs.
I teamed up with another British runner, Phil Adams from Wales, and we worked well together, running at a similar pace.
Once out of the gorge, we were back into the baking sun and heading up on a long incline up a ridge overlooking the spectacular Dead Valley. This looked like an enormous version of a ploughed field, but with huge red rocks, like something out of the Jurassic age.
Once we reached the summit, the path took us over the edge, and down the biggest sand dune I have ever experienced. It was like running down the side of a mountain! This was great fun, and once we reached the bottom, we had gone as far as checkpoint 2, which was the stage half way point and had taken around 3 hours.
From here on in, it was pretty flat, but the heat was draining us as again we ran down a long dried river bed, that seemed to trap the heat.
We were struggling and using a lot of water and we were pleased to reach the final checkpoint and begin the last leg of the day.
Horrible crusty sandy terrain that seemed to go on forever, until we eventually reached a track and knew base camp 2 would only be a few miles away.
Another runner emerged behind us, and we pushed on, determined not to let him beat us at this late stage in the day.
We came into the finish, again within the top ten, but thoroughly drained with the heat. We didn’t realise, but the runner behind was actually Adam, who came in just a few seconds later.
Stage 3 Dist 40km Starting altitude 2335m, +260m, -150m
For this stage Phil, Adam and I started running together at the same pace, so we stuck together and called ourselves ‘Team GB’. It was good for pace and moral to egg each other on, across lots and lots of crusty ‘un-runable’ mounds of dried grass and salt. The terrain was really cutting into our shoes and twisting our ankles which proved hard going. It was a pretty featureless section which seemed to go on forever because of the slow progress we were making, and I was getting through my water quite quickly as it seemed hotter than ever because we were now down in the valley. After a few checkpoints I was beginning to flag, and once we were all through the final checkpoint some runners had already been beaten by the heat, with a few holding back to rehydrate. The last section was a hard rolling rocky and sand dune section that was energy zapping. And after over six hours of running we were all just hanging on. Phil dropped back a little as Adam and I pulled ahead desperately hoping to see signs of the base camp, but as we reached to top of each dune it was nowhere to be seen.
Eventually we spotted the race film crew ahead, and they told us it was just a few more miles to the camp. Then to our relief we saw the white tents in the distance. However, there was still a deep valley to navigate first, before a long heart pounding climb to the stage finish line. We arrived exhausted, with only a few other runners finished, and we all agreed that it had been a punishing stage.
The camp was exposed to the elements here up on a ridge, and the high winds gave the tents a beating during the night, making it difficult to sleep.
Stage 4 (The infamous salt flats) Dist 42.8k Starting altitude 2453m +155, -294m
Unfortunately Richard had now had to pull out of the race as his foot had become badly infected, and today would have been a struggle for him with a notorious 14km section of un-runable salt flats.
Again ‘Team GB’ started the stage together running up a sharp rocky canyon entrance and across steep crevasses until we reached a long sandy decent into a lush green river valley.
Once again, we were knee deep in water and pounding our way downstream through jungle style plantation and into a small village and the first checkpoint.
From here on things got hotter, as we were exposed to the sun across an endless desert plain, each of use taking turns to run up front and pull the rest of the team along.
Eventually, the heat was beginning to wear us down and our water was almost gone, so we used a walk/run strategy to conserve energy.
We reached the next checkpoint quite dehydrated, and we were advised to take the maximum amount of water into the salt flats section.
After half an hour into the salt flats I could see why we would need the extra water, as this was a horrendous section. The salt flats were like huge hard crusty ploughed fields that tore away at our shoes and twisted your ankles. Every so often you would break through the hard crusty surface and enter knee deep into salt mud. Several times my foot went so deep into the mud that I almost lost my trainer. We were only doing about 2 miles per hour now, but we were using so much energy as the sun beat down on us.
Again Phil dropped behind while Adam and I kept taking huge steps to move forward to get out of this section, which eventually began to turn into a more solid trail and we could begin to run again.
There was just 8km to go into the next camp, but I was drained and my pace slowed and Adam finished just ahead of me.
This new camp was situated on the edge of a stunning light blue lagoon dotted with a few groups of pink flamingos, which seemed a fitting reward for the days running. Later that evening, just as the sun was setting, I took off my socks and shoes and waded out into the cool water. It felt great.
Stage 5 (The long day) Dist 73.6km Starting altitude 2412m +342, -263
Effectively the race would be over after today’s long section, just leaving a final 10k ‘jog’ into San Pedro.
I ate double portions for breakfast, to try and give me extra energy for this long day. I was tired now, and my feet were bruised, but not badly blistered at all, which was due to my excellent UK Gears PT-03 desert shoes which had taken a real battering.
It was a staggered start today, and I started the section an hour later than the rest of the camp, in the ‘fastest fifteen’ group.
It was a struggle to get my legs moving again, and straight away we encountered more salt flats, but at least these ones were easier to run through.
Adam and I ran together from the start, and the trail turned into hard grassy mounds that I managed to cut myself on, before we were out into the heat of the day along dusty tracks.
Hours passed by as we caught up with some of the early starters and headed into what looked like snow covered plains. These were bright white salt flats, littered with rocks that magnified the sun and startled us.
Far in the distance we could see what looked like a mountain, with runners climbing up it, but as we got closer, we could see that it was the biggest dune ever. We reached the base and began our climb. It was so steep and the sand was packed hard. We didn’t look up, but kept stopping to catch our breath.
The view from the top was spectacular across the white flats with the volcanic background.
We dropped down the other side through some amazing rock formations to the next CP which was well over half way.
More long dry riverbeds were to follow, and I was beginning to run low on energy, and when we reached the next CP a few hours later I decided to stop for a freeze dried meal.
The sun was setting already, and Adam pushed on whilst I finished my food.
This last 10 miles was mainly on a track that took us past a worrying sign that read ‘Beware. Land mines’! And as it got dark I turned on my head torch and ran up a long steep road to the entrance of Lunar Valley.
Exhausted, I ran carefully through the strange rock formations of the valley, following a series of green glow sticks for directions.
In some sections I was squeezing through crevasses and ducking under huge overhangs. It was like some strange maze, with some quite dangerous dry waterfall descents, but luckily the really hard ones were manned to help you.
This was a relief to see, as it also meant I was close to camp and not a moment to soon as I was on my last legs.
The twists and turns seemed to go on forever until I hit a track that took me on the last mile into the base camp in around eleven hours.
Runners came in throughout the night, and the next day was a rest day before the last ‘sprint’ into San Pedro.
I just wanted to get to the end now, and I went as fast as I could and finished the leg in about 50 mins to a magnificent reception in San Pedro town square of bands playing locals and runners cheering.
I crossed the line to finish in 7th place overall in a total time of 36hrs 19mins to receive my huge Atacama Crossing medal…..one that I had dreamed of for quite a while.
Overall, this was a very tough, but beautiful race, with a terrain and altitude that in my eyes puts it a step above similar stage races such as the MDS.
Read the Running Fitness magazine article on the 2009 race at the link below: