Meet Nahila Hernández: winner of Chile & world’s toughest race

Ahead of the Atacama Crossing 2013 next March, This is Chile talks with a former winner about what it takes to conquer the planet’s most demanding ultramarathon. 

Earlier this year when Nahila Hernández came down with a virus in Asia, she wasn’t thinking about bed rest or stocking up on flu remedies. She wasn’t thinking about doctor’s appointments or sick days. She was contemplating how to complete the final third of a 155 mile (250km) race across the unforgiving wasteland of the Gobi Desert – without being able to hold down water.
When asked if she ever thought about stopping, Hernández’s is visibly offended: “Stop? Of course I didn’t stop – that thought doesn’t even cross my mind. The only thing I think of is the finish.”
Born in the former Soviet Union and raised in Cuba and México, Hernández admits to being sporty her whole life, though she only got into running in 2008 to get into shape after the birth of her second child.
“I saw a video of of an ultramarathon in the Moroccan Sahara which inspired me,” Hernández told This is Chile. “I decided to start training for the same race that year. After completing it I fell in love with the sport. It was paradise.”
Setting records
This December, Hernández made history by becoming the first woman from Ibero-America to complete all races in the 4 Desert Series: the Gobi March (China), the Sahara Race (Egypt), the Atacama Crossing (Chile), and The Last Desert (Antarctica), together recognised by Time Magazine as the “ultimate test of human endurance.”
The Atacama Crossing in 2011 was perhaps Hernández’s greatest achievement out of the four, as she was the first woman to cross the finish line.
“Even though I was well prepared, when I entered the race I didn’t consider myself a contender for first place,” Hernández said. “But by the third day (of seven) I’d passed quite a few of the top women in the race and I started to think, wow, maybe I could win this thing. It was such a great feeling when I did, as I’d trained so hard.”
The Crossing
Pablo Neruda once wrote that the region collects, “All the silence lost in time.” A borrowed Martian landscape, the Atacama is the driest place on earth, and its crossing is infamous in the ultramarathon community.
South African Ryan Sandes – arguably one of the top five ultramarathon runners in the world and the only competitor to win every stage of each of the 4 Desert races – called the crossing, “One of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Around 200 competitors will start the race next March, 9,800 feet (3,000 m) above sea level in the Arcois Valley, aiming to traverse the 155 miles (250 km) to San Pedro in the allotted seven days. Most will drop out. Chilean Cristian Sieveking, Hernández’s partner and an ultramarathon runner with three Atacama Crossings under his belt, listed off the challenges to This is Chile:
“You don’t just have the altitude and the oppressive heat – you also have stretches of the salt flats where you are running across fossilized coral formations that are like cauliflowers made of glass.”
Hardships aside, Hernández says that most people in the running community agree that there is a special atmosphere in the Atacama that draws people back time and again.
“When I arrived in the Atacama, I felt this special energy,” Hernandez said. “I was reminded of Isabel Allende’s book Inés del Alma Mía (Inés of My Soul) that follows the first Spanish woman to come to Chile and her relationship with Pedro de Valdivia (Santiago’s founder). I thought about what it must have been like for her to see this surreal desert for the first time, and it inspired such strong emotions.”
Run Chile
Hernandez now lives in Chile with Sieveking, and the two of them are committed to bringing running into the lives of as many Latin Americans as possible. Their company Rompiendo Limites (Breaking Limits) offers training workshops for all levels – from jogs on the streets of Santiago to ice runs across Patagonian glaciers.
The pair are also Executive Directors for the Latin American branch of Impossible2Possible (I2P) – an organisation started by legendary runner Ray Zahab that aims to educate, inspire, and enable underprivileged youth through adventure expeditions.
Next year, Hernandez and Sieveking will train a group of Chilean students from low income households for a 155 mile (250 km) running expedition in the Atacama. Beforehand however, the pair will run the desert’s length, from Arica to Copiapó – 745 miles (1200 km) in 20 days.
“It’s important to get across I2P’s message to the kids,” Sieveking said. “We want to show them that most of us need to redefine what we consider impossible.”
If you want to run with Hernández and Sieveking, visit the Rompiendo Limites site here. To find out more about the Atacama Crossing, including registration information, visit the 4 Deserts webpage here.
By Angus McNeice