I recently had the honor of volunteering on the Racing the Planet (RTP) 250km Atacama Crossing, and what a week it was. For those not familiar with RTP, it’s a company that puts on 250km multiday races through the four main deserts of the world: the Sahara in Egypt, the Atacama in Chile, the Gobi in China and Antarctica. This past October, I competed in the Sahara race and am registered to do the annual roving race in Nepal this November. Since I am down in South America traveling, I figured it would be a cool experience to see everything that goes on behind the scenes of a race like this and all of the work that goes into it. To say I was surprised by the amount of planning that it entails would be an understatement.
I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, the host town on a Thursday evening. Volunteer training began that Friday, with all of the competitors arriving Friday evening and heading to the desert to the first camp on Saturday night. I had requested to be on the course team because I thought it would be an interesting way to see what the runners would be up against, interact with some of the local team that is hired for the race, and work with the other volunteers and RTP staff. Friday morning arrived and I headed out with Javier, Jorge, and William, three local guides from San Pedro. I don’t know what I though being on the course team entailed before I signed up for it, but 14m of running and marking the course on the first day was a rude awakening to the poor shape I was in. I have been doing a ton of hiking over the past 2 months, but the day to day life of being on the road has cut down on my running big time. With the higher altitude of 8,000 ft., I was sucking wind the first few days. Most days would consist of using a GPS system programmed by the course director, Javier, to follow and mark a set course that the runners would be running the next day. Jorge and I were doing the majority of the marking and 155 miles doesn’t get done by itself, so I was pretty beat by the end of the week. What made it a bit easier was the awe inspiring scenery that I ran in each day. The Atacama Desert is one of the only places I have ever been in my life where, if you stop in your tracks and listen, you hear complete and utter silence. No birds chirping in the background or wind whipping through the trees… just nothing. Throughout those days of marking the course on my own, I would often stop to take in the silence and enjoy something that is so rare in most of our lives.
One thing I did find amusing were the certain areas where it wasn’t silent due to the large amount of wild donkeys that inhabited areas of the desert. I think after I took my 20th picture of “burros” running around, my partner Jorge started to have questions about me. But it was cool running through the trails and finding donkey bones, and herds of live ones looking at me curiously and wondering what the hell I was doing running around putting pink flags into their land.
As for the race itself, it was really difficult, and one that I feel is tougher than the one I completed in Egypt. But just like competing in one, what made it truly an amazing week was working with an unbelievable set of volunteers and competitors. One thing that is truly unique about an RTP event is the very large role that the volunteers play in making the event a huge success. The RTP staff, led by Sam Fanshawe and Alina Browne, does an unbelievable job in handling the logistics to perfection, but without the strong support of a volunteer group of about 15 and a volunteer medical team, the race would be impossible to put on. I have such enormous respect for the volunteers that were up each day before the competitors and worked on short hours of sleep but always with a smile, positive attitude and a humorous takes on things to keep everyone focused. It made me think back to when I ran and helped me to appreciate so much more all of the volunteers that were out there each day giving me water and taking care of anything I needed.
Anders Jensen, who beat me out in the Sahara Race, took first in this race as well, which I was really happy to see. Not only is he a world class runner, but more importantly, a stand up guy and gracious competitor. It was a really close race to the end but one that he prevailed in. But there are always so many other stories besides who wins. Stories like that of Diego Carvajal, who came back to the Atacama a year after dropping out due to injury, to complete what he started. And so many other stories of people that refused to quit, even when their feet were blistered and double the size of normal. The stories and the people are what make being a part of the race worthwhile.
I am currently registered to do the 250km race in Nepal this November, but to be honest, I was thinking of dropping out at one point. The massive time commitment of both training and searching for prospective sponsors is daunting, especially when you throw in my current travel plans for the second half of this year. But standing at the finish line of the long day, watching the day’s winner Darren cross with his hands held high, changed my feelings about Nepal. He had just pulled off a pretty big upset after 74km of running, and I watched him as he took a seat and grabbed some water. He sat for a moment, and his eyes began to water a bit as he stared off into the distance. I could only imagine the sense of achievement he felt at that moment, the sense of pride in himself and in what he had just accomplished. And it made me think back to how I felt when I crossed the finish line on the long day in Sahara, and it made me want that feeling back. I better start training.