As Chile’s Nelson Sepulveda ran into San Pedro de Atacama’s main square on Saturday, he wore the kind of expression reserved only for moments of astounding athletic achievement. Ecstasy and pain flickered behind a visage of monumental relief; the Atacama Crossing’s 155 mile (250 km) desert gauntlet was behind him, and to cap it all off he’d placed ninth out of a field of 150 competitors, including some of the world’s premier endurance athletes.
The man, who had been talkative (if not somewhat worse for wear) 24 hours before at the race’s final campsite, was all but lost for words, simply saying: «Incredible . . . I feel incredible.»
The scale of achievement in completing the Atacama Crossing is perhaps best summed up with the words spoken by medic Michael Caudell the day before the finish. At a checkpoint deep in Valle de la Luna during the fifth and penultimate stage of the crossing (an unreal 48 miles or 77 km), he said: «I’m astounded at the amount of pain these people can suffer through. It is events such as this that have us constantly revising the limits of what a human being can endure.»
Have a look at the unforgiving itinerary:
Stage 1, Mon 4: 35.2 km / 21.9 miles
Stage 2, Tues 5: 41.8 km / 26.0 miles
Stage 3, Wed 6: 40.0 km / 24.9 miles
Stage 4, Thurs 7: 40.1 km / 24.9 miles
Stage 5, Fri 8: 76.8 km / 47.7 miles
Stage 6, Sat 9: 16.0 km / 9.9 miles
This is Chile writer Angus McNeice recalls the last two days of the race . . .
I sat with Michael Caudell at a checkpoint 10 km from the fifth stage’s end and we watched as the last dozen competitors limped toward us like a war-wounded platoon. The early morning cool was making way for an intense heat they had all come to know well, and Caudell offered words of encouragement and treated blisters the size of golfballs.
A competitor, dressed in a white sun hat and bearing Mexico’s flag on his shirt sleeve, invited me to join him for the final stretch into camp. Carlos Perelman is a professor at Universidad Panamericana, and, at 63, the oldest competitor to enter the race’s fifth stage.
«For me, the definition of extreme is a ‘lack of slack’,» he said as we marched together through salt encrusted canyons. «We have no buffer here – we are only provided with water rations, and we survive for a week in these conditions on the food we had in our packs at the start. There is no room for error if you are to complete this race.»
Perelman knows this better than most, having been forced to drop out of the competition in 2010. His shot at finishing this year’s race was a gift from his wife.
As I entered camp half an hour before the 12 noon deadline, the mood was mixed. Some lay in their tents with legs raised and faces contorted with the pain of cramp. Others wandered across the sand in blood-stained slippers, giddy on a cocktail of natural endorphins, waning adrenaline, and gathering lactic acid.
The walkers and those who mix running and walking – around 40 and 45 percent of competitors respectively – seemed to have formed bonds with one another over the hours spent side by side in the desert. The runners, however, were decidedly more subdued, the solitude and agony of their endeavors just below the surface as they spoke.
«I’m feeling a bit more relaxed now – the longest stage is over and it’s a short stretch to the finish tomorrow morning,» Australia’s Vlad Ixel said. «Usually, I’m just thinking about the race. I can’t even taste my food – the race consumes my mind.»
Ixel, 26, spoke to me as he stood second in the overall standings. A monumental achievement, considering the Crossing is not only his first stage race, but his third competitive race ever – the other two competitions being marathons. Ixel, a former junior tennis champion, only started running nine months ago, but managed to reach 125 miles (200 km) a week in his preparation for the race.
«He’s an animal,» fifth placed Kyle McCoy chimed in as we sat under a canopy that did little to fight the searing heat of the Atacama sunshine. McCoy, an American with a Sahara ultra-marathon under his belt, highlighted the uneven terrain as the Atacama Crossing’s most testing challenge.
«One minute you’re running across salt flats, then you’re crossing a river, then you’re up a sand dune and down a gravel track. It’s impossible to find a rhythm.»
As the day wore on, I found Nelson Sepulveda sharing a meagre dinner with fellow Chilean competitor Fernando Valdivieso. He greeted me with a smile, though his attempt to stand up and shake my hand ended with his legs giving way and he slumped back on his stool.
«I’m in so much pain,» Sepulveda, a physicist from Universidad de Santiago, said. «This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The dunes, the sun, the weight of the pack, it’s all so difficult. My body is not functioning well any longer, my mind is the only thing keeping me going – I have to say over and over, ‘I can continue, I can continue’.»
Having slept the night on the rocky desert floor, staff from Atacama Crossing organizer Racing the Planet drove into San Pedro early Saturday morning to set up the finish line. Music from a live band carried on the warm air through the main square, and tables bore medals, fruit, pizza, and beer.
Forty five minutes after the 10am start time, Ixel was first across the finish line, followed closely by McCoy, both confirming their second and fifth overall positions. Both men embraced their partners amid the cheers of over a hundred staff and spectators.
The cheers rose to a crescendo as Zimbabwe’s Daniel Rowland sprinted across the finish line to claim first place overall.
Rowland, who lives in Santiago, came ninth in last year’s Crossing, and spent several weeks training in the Atacama before this year’s competition.
«My only goal was to improve on last year,» he told me, with a modest smile. «To win it . . . I’m just so happy. You make sacrifices – you quit drink, you eat well, you train when it’s the last thing you want to do, but it’s all made worthwhile by this incredible feeling.»
As Rowland retreated beneath the shade of a tree to ponder on the enormity of his victory, a cheer broke out to rival any on the day. Perelman, with a Cheshire Cat grin across his weathered face, danced a jig across the finish line.
Do you have what it takes?
The Atacama Crossing is part of Racing the Planet’s 4Desert Series, that includes similar stage races across the Gobi, the Sahara, and the Antarctic. To learn more about the race and find out how to begin the registration process, visit Racing the Planet’s website.
Watch out for further content on this year’s Atacama Crossing, including full interviews with Chile’s only female competitor Andrea Lopez and race winner Daniel Rowland.
By Angus McNeice