July 15th, 2020
2008 Atacma Crossing
Monday March 31st, 2008
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 more so than 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. But 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 runners from all over Chile, apply to join the coveted spots. He chose 2 men who 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....(we still laugh about my threats of where I was going to jam my running poles into them, if they didn't stop bitching and just RUN dammit!!!)...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 me...like 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 from passing....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'd 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 had caught a lot of fish!!!...and then we hit a bit of a speed bump...Pete felt we needed to walk, Mike was being a good friend and didn't mind complying, and it was only me that really wanted to finish strong...as we had done all day. I kept dropping hints like "I think we can jog this boys" and "how bout we kick it up a little"....until finally they came right out and said "No, we're not running mate." It seemed I had a bit of a mutiny on the "USS Frank"...so I tried to calm down and keep a brisk walk going. 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....but I think my competitive juices were flowing a little too hard!!! However I was actually having some leg pain at the time myself, 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 real 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. 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 well, 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 quickly as the first joke flies!!! There's just something about knowing your mates are 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!
And I guess I've got to admit that it's not ALL totally hardcore...we had some helpers ...one was Pete's mate from Australia, an awesome guy named Erik who was one of the volunteers... and another was a gent named Dan from the US, who was an actual competitor and tent mate of mine in the Gobi...and then our "little tent sister" Lauren from the Washington Post...well they might have just looked out for us just a bit more than the rest of the competitors. On the last night of the race...after the long day and before the easy 10K finish...so it was basically when the race was done...each of them gave us a bit of a treat...Erik snuck into our tent one chicken leg...which we passed around and savored like it was our last meal (while Pete B. was asleep...bummer for him)... Lauren brought us in a piece of chocolate which just might have been the best tasting piece I'd ever had...and Dan just happened to misplace a 6 pack of beer right in our tent...hmmm imagine that!!!....so we each bit of a piece of chicken, had desert with some nibbles of a chocolate bar, and washed it down with a...not so cold...but damn good beer!!! Ahhhh the hard life!!!!!!!
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 soaring 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 in 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 made 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 relationships made...knowing that I could visit any one of these guys... 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've met, and made strong friendships I'm sure to keep!!!
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