I didn’t train the way I should. I didn’t run enough. I should have included more strength training. I should have stepped up my core work. I was a nervous ball of energy before this race, and rightly so, it was a beast.
Valle Arcoiris: Rainbow Valley as the gringos call it. But I see no rainbows. I only see a place that clearly has not had rain in ages and is beautifully embedded in the middle of the middle-of-nowhere canyon. Waking up late for the day, I barely made the start line. I was pinning my number on my front pack and slathering on sunscreen as the countdown roared in front of me. We began with rolling, dusty, and solid track. There were few rocks to contend with and the track gradually gave way to rock-dominant open land. The expanse endlessly stretched in front, but I felt strong and rolled into the first checkpoint. Once beyond, I noticed two things: First, a lot of people were going the wrong way and avoiding the slot canyon, so I should not jump off the bridge with them. Second, this front pack won’t stay still, and I felt like I was being punched every time I took a forward step. The slot canyon was beautiful enough to blur out the pain, so I ignore the gut punches and make it to the largest and only descent of the day. The beginning of the Atacama experience. A view as far as the eye could see, with the peaks of desert mountains towering over the serenely desolate landscape below. Little tracks weaving in and out of the canyons and rock piles.I left the view and entered one of those weaving tracks and disappeared into another canyon and the uphill of death.
It wasn’t that the uphill was so dramatic, it was that it wasn’t dramatic at all. At home, I never would have second guessed the hill, it would seem like any other flatish road. This was not like the roads at home. It was deceptive. Like a black magic woman, the track begged me to run on it, and run on it quickly. But the fiendish little beast of terrain zapped the strength from my legs and only allowed me a slow crawl. I was barely moving by the time I reached the turn. Normal track to the finish. I neared the finish and grew bitter. I was sure that I had started off poorly and was somewhere in the middle of the pack. I came through the finish and dutifully asked my placement. Top 10%. The bitterness disappeared.
RIVER CROSSING DAY! But I didn’t want to cross any rivers. I didn’t even want to get out of my sleeping bag. It was damn cold. I made my silly little green drink smoothie breakfast at 6:50 AM without leaving my sleeping bag and drank it in the cold and quiet stillness of the morning. Looking over at Filippo, I saw he was doing the same thing. It became a ritual in the morning. Waking up and making a cold breakfast while listening to the rhythmic breathing of my tentmates struggling with the cold. By 7:30 the temperature had warmed up enough to get me out of my sleeping bag and start preparing for the day. This time without the gut-punching front pack. I was lucky and able to transfer everything into my 20L Raidlight by 7:50. Always one of the last out of the tent, I struggled to get everything done before the countdown began. For the second day in a row, I rushed to the start and was sent off to run. We began on beautiful, rolling dirt track leading generally downhill. Quickly, the track turned into a rock bank, and then switchbacks over a river. I pranced through the river crossings as much as the current would allow and misjudged the depth of the water more than once and stepped in up to my thighs. But as quickly as the water came, it was over, and I was on a road. Wet socks and all. I zoomed by the checkpoint without a second glance. I had decided before the day started not to change socks, and hoped the dryness of the Atacama would dry me out before blisters began to form. I continued as the road gradually became an uphill and crevassed jeep track. I had completed this run during a few scouting missions, so I knew what was coming and my legs were not surprised. I backed off a little on the incline and kept going strong until a long, dark tunnel. I had thought that the tunnel signified the end of the incline, but I was surprised. I exited the tunnel and prepared for nice and easy flat running. Wrong. The flags took a sharp left into the steepest incline I had seen on the course. Shit. I was not prepared for this.
I trudged uphill, and trudged mightily. Disheveled and demotivated, I made it to the top of the ridge and finally lifted my head from my feet to see the route ahead of me. My motivation crept back to life as I saw hundreds of sharp peaks below me to the right and left. I felt the earth under my feet and the tall mountainous ridge I was running on for the first time. My speed picked up and I was able to kick it into relative gear for one last uphill push. At the end of the incline I was met with the best obstacle a man can face. A large, steep, downhill dune. I was a child careening downhill. Not worried about falling. Not worried about giving my knees a shock. Running down a dune is running without worries. When you fall, you bounce back up and are ready to go again. When you stay standing, there are no obstacles to prevent you from going faster except for your own body. I finished the dune and arrived at the checkpoint, shoes full of sand, like a kid coming back from the sandbox. I emptied my shoes and continued down the path. Slowly. The uphill had broken down my muscles more than I thought. I was utterly spent. My personality quickly changed from that of a careless youngster to a grumpy old man.The terrain didn’t help. Still full of sand, but this time there was no downhill to accompany it. Just energy zapping sinking. I ran when I could, but most of the time I was able to walk just as quickly as I ran. After what felt like an eternity, I made it to the checkpoint. The volunteers were much more enthusiastic to be there than I was. I mumbled something unintelligible and sat down to clear out my shoes once again. Sitting beside me, Ash, a competitor in the process of completing his 8th Atacama race in a row, told me one of the most horrifying things a person can say during the race “You know, the finish is actually just 2 or 3 kilometers straight that way. You can almost see it from here. But they make us go around in a circle to get there.” That gave the complainer in me something to whine about for the next 10 kilometers.
As I picked up my feet and my pace, I started to enjoy the run. Back on a dirt track, it was lovely to be able to move somewhat quickly. I really should know better by now, nothing ever lasts long during a multi-stage race. The course veered off into a ridiculous looking area full of bushes, bramble, and sand. Although fairly runnable, it destroyed me. Maybe I was mentally exhausted for the day. Maybe the sand had thoroughly zapped everything I had so that I couldn’t possibly go quickly through this area. All I knew was that I had to lie down. And so it went. Slowly making my way through the path that was not a path I pushed until, to my delight, the course found a road. A real road. I didn’t move any quicker at this point, but was happy to see the light at the end of a long day. I heard a faint beating in the distance. Drums? The beating grew louder. My feet sped up slightly to match the pace. I could see the banner. The volunteers could see me. I crossed the finish for the day. Spent.
My morning green-smoothie ritual went according to plan and I was surprisingly prepared enough to listen to the morning briefing...still listening from my tent, but at least it was an improvement. The announcer described the track as “broccoli”, so of course I was excited. The last time I heard something described as broccoli was during the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, and those greens were the ugliest thing I have ever seen. Other than the vegetable problem, I felt strong. This was the first race that I have survived to Day 3 with no hint of a knee problem, the first time I have actually wanted to run by Day 3. The lineup happens as per usual and we began our day on an easy jeep track. A few runners tempted me by sprinting, by my standards, but I kept my pace. I knew I would die if I attempted to match their speed. Luckily, we quickly moved off of the fast stuff and onto some cooked broccoli. I happily ran through and got to the checkpoint feeling strong. The terrain after the checkpoint was a road leading to seemingly nowhere, which was where I felt my life was trending at this point. Quickly though, life got worse. We traveled back into the wild desert, past another checkpoint, and into the land of no return. Crinkly, sinking, crunchy broccoli. The worst kind. It was as if God designed this part of the world to show us what hell is like. Every step was a gamble, there is always a possibility of sinking. There are a few breaks, but few and far between.It was a game of reverse whac-a-mole, and I really would like to stop playing. Respite slowly came, but in the form of more energy zapping sand. Why I thought this race would be fun, I have no idea. I began estimating the amount of pain per dollar paid to participate and depression sat in. Sure, the checkpoint was right in front of me, but beyond the checkpoint more sand and torment awaited.
The torment came in waves. Slow..arduous waves. My mind was going wacky on me. Massive mood swings. Heat flash. The symptoms of menopause. I may be 21 and a man, but dammit if I wasn’t sure I had menopause. The terrain went up, down, sideways, left, right. Sometimes the flags would disappear and sometimes they were right in front of me. However, whenever I lost a flag I would run towards the ugliest looking route and I eventually find one. The field was spread out now. I think the whole field was going through some sort of existential crisis. I could only see a dot ahead of me and a dot behind me, but no more. I tried running towards the dot and it moved no closer, I walked and it moved no further away. I really was in the Twilight Zone. Finally, I reeled in the dot, a person, like a fisherman bring home a fish. Unlike the fisherman though, I walk with my fish-man to the next checkpoint.
“Almost there, only about 5k to go,” they say. Liars. After climbing up two or three dunes, I saw the campsite. Much to my chagrin, I also saw a deep gully and someone climbing out of it. So instead of turning towards the site, the flags went away and down. Going down only to know I’m going up while being able to hear the drums of the finish is cruel & unusual punishment. I was pretty sure I could sue for this. But, as I got into the gully all thoughts of legal action fade away as the vertical walls, the green shrubbery, and the lightly flowing creek led me towards my destination. I exited the gully a new man, I even high fived a volunteer. But the flags never made it easy. As I bounded towards the finish, I noticed a towering, steep climb and a man struggling up in order to make it to the finish. Why they had to put the finish at the top of the hill instead of the bottom I have no idea. But I struggled up just as the man before me and am greeted with a slap on the back and a smile. 3 down. 3 to go.
By now, you understand my wake up cycle. And today was the same. Down, but not out. The day began quickly and I was feeling confident going into the first 10 kilometers. A comfortable uphill over rock with a bit of sand was nothing I couldn’t handle as the day began. And the views. Oh goodness the views. Running uphill through the rocks only to come toe to air with a sand dune steep enough to be a cliff. Screaming down the dune and into a beautifully upkept green forest and cool river. If that wasn’t enough, today I was running with some of the faster folks. As we passed through the park and into the adjacent town people waved and smiled and bakeries wafted their sweet smells out, but I kept running with a smile on my face. Exiting the town was an expanse as far as I could see of pure desert track. Not enough sand to zap my energy, just enough to soften the force on my legs as I kept running. Some small hills and slight variations in the terrain kept me interested, but I kept running. Arriving at the checkpoint was quick and painless, as I was starting to feel like I could run forever. The unending expanse of desert track was starting to give way to a strangely well thought out, but improperly run, orchard in the middle of nowhere. A rumor was flying around that the orchard was a government project gone awry, but who knows what the government is responsible for. As I weaved in and out of the trees I saw a group of llamas directly in my path, as I edged closer, I must have disturbed their peace. They began to run. But not away from me at first, with me. I could see the hair moving on their bodies with the wind they created. I could sense their energy as if they sent it to me personally. Then they were gone, and I was face to face with 13k of tiny singletrack salt flats.
I was required to weigh my pack down with an extra liter of water for this stretch, because they knew it would be long. And of course, running the way I had meant that I hit this stretch during the hottest part of the day. Off I ran into the minefield. And it was like a minefield. I would raise my eyes to see the path ahead of me and trip. I would zone out while running and trip, fall, and empty my backpack on the ground. All the while enjoying the experience. The difficulty of this terrain awakened something in me. I encouraged the complexity. Maintaining presence in each step while being painfully rewarded for losing focus thrilled me. So invested in the moment I scarcely noticed when I stepped out of the salt and into normalcy. The only notice was a waypoint of volunteers encouraging me onward. Through the dirt track I went, slowly losing speed. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the day had spent my energy. I had nothing left. I could see the end, but it was over the lake. The beautifully calm and inviting looking lake. A truck of volunteers passed and I kept notice as it followed the track, kicking up bits of dust and not stopping to notice the ground. How sad for them, I thought, that they don’t get to experience this ground. Feel what I feel. For once, I appreciated how slowly I was going. For once, I felt it was nice to be in the slow lane.
The Big Kahuna. The Day. Rise and Shine. Wake and Bake. Everyone was late today. As I scrambled to get water in my bottles for the first 15k checkpoint I heard Ritta say “We will delay the start by 10 minutes.” Oh thank goodness. The energy is always different on the long day. Tense. Excited. Happy. Nervous. And for the first time I am strangely attuned to the emotions of my fellow runners. I started off the day quick enough to stay in the first few groups, but knowing of the long day ahead. Luckily for me, the pace of the leaders had to slow due to the difficult salt flat terrain. Keeping up this time was not too much of an issue. As the checkpoint grew on, the distance between my running mates grew steeper on both sides. This was going to be a tough day. Once exiting the salt flats, the terrain became easy. Flat, hard, and comfortable. I shuffled as quickly as I could, pumping my arms like the little engine that could and had little contact with anyone other than the occasional volunteer and checkpoints. Finally, after fighting through a fairly rocky section I met up with the amazing Chan brothers and connected with them as we trudged through some nasty technical terrain. I say nasty now, because when you can’t pick up your feet all terrain is nasty, and this was no exception. We traveled as quickly as we could, but I was anxious to hop on a truck and power through the crap. Finally, the only thing that was between me and the last of the technical terrain. One. Last. Dune. This time, the dune was uphill. And steep. I saw a few people attempting to go through switchbacks and a few going straight up. I chose straight up. It may hurt more, but it will hurt shorter. I counted six flags before I started. 1...2….3……………..4…………………………..5……………………………………………...6. I turned at the top and looked back at the bright, white, almost blinding landscape below. Taking it in, I turned to the next adventure, a few alpine hills and a valley below. A flat valley. A valley with no surprises, at least for a little while. I reached the checkpoint, cleaned out my shoes, and was offered a Coca-Cola. Which is something I have never understood. How anyone can stand a soda in the middle of the desert while running nonstop is beyond me. I would throw up in a heartbeat.
While the valley had no surprises, my legs did. The more I pushed, the slower than turned. The tank was at empty. It was everything I could do to get to the checkpoint. Having no real dinner, I pulled out a full bag worth of Lays and started my walking dinner. Nothing fancy, but salt works when salt works. I’ve never eaten chips quite that good and it may be a while until I find any that match. (No I am not sponsored by Lays, just an avid supporter.) My energy came back, but not in droves. What I really needed was a break. Unfortunately, the break would have to wait. As I wandered through the desert the infamous Ash (remember Day 2?) came up to me and started talking “I can’t hold any water down. So instead I do this.” and he took a swig, swished it around, spit it out, and smiled at me. “Anything to keep moving. I feel like I want to puke.” And on ahead of me he went. Criss-crossing back and forth until the wind hit us. And once the wind came, so did the road, and so did the uphill. Blowing right at my face, it took all my strength not to move backward. Finally, a right turn in the road allowed me to run again, but now all I felt was a cramp. I looked up at the sun and realized, I can get in before sunset.
I ignored the pain now that it was a race against the clock. I desperately wanted to beat the sun. Partially because I had no clue where I put my headlamp. I stormed through the checkpoint into Valle de la Luna, and started trekking uphill. Not intending to stop, the wind carried my face to my right into the beautiful dunes my eyes followed the wisps of sand being carted off into the air. I cried. Partially because of pain and partially because I realized it was over. Sure, I had to finish the day and a whole other race to go, but it was over. I officially knew that I was changed internally. It’s funny how a moment like that could help me realize the changes that had taken place, but it took me through the entire year. From the first day of nerves in Namibia to this moment, I was a changed person. Holding back more tears, I pressed onwards. As I crested the hill, I saw multitudes of tourists on the road in front of me. Step after aching step, I scuttled towards the tourists on the road. As I got closer, a few pictures were snapped, and one guy ran next to me with his camera, “Why are you doing this?” Hmph. I gave him the inspired response of “because I signed up.” and continued on my way. I was too tired to think, and he seemed to understand. I smiled, he gave me a thumbs up, and they continued yelling as I slogged further along.
At this point I was doing intervals of 10 minutes of running with 5 minutes of walking. Roughly. There were times when I would forget myself and run for a little longer or a little shorter, but generally was hitting the number right on the dot. I did pass a few bikers struggling up a hill, and felt much faster than I was, but in retribution for my brash running they quickly pedaled past on the following downhill. Leaving me feeling much slower than I actually was. As I curved along with the road, the only thought was about the pain in my legs and how much further I had to go. The last checkpoint had said it was approximately 10k, but I could have sworn that I had traveled at least 15. Finally, I was at the top of the valley and could see San Pedro. But it was what I couldn’t see which was more striking. The finishline.
I looked around, stopped for a second to admire the scenery, and realized that the finish was nowhere in sight. Slightly frustrated, I decided to walk for a few steps. Quickly though, I felt that the end was near, I could sense it. Dogs were running and barking behind me. Running with another competitor who looked much stronger than I did. I began running again. 1 minute of running felt like 5. I was really moving sluggishly now. More spirit than man at this point. Baked down to more core, but then...drums. That was it. The finish was close. I saw the competitor in front of me take a turn into the wide, shallow, still lit with sun canyon below and knew I was within a few hundred feet of the end. As I turned my own corner, the drums grew louder. And louder. Until finally the finish was in sight, I could see the finish. I could see the volunteers. I could hear people cheering. I could still see the sun. I crossed the finish line amazed and happy. I had finished. Grinning from ear to ear, I went to the competitor who finished before me and gave him a hug. Tough canadian guy, had been fighting all week. I then went to the tent to enjoy the oncoming day of R&R with my best friends.
I thought I felt great last night. After a full day of rest I should feel relaxed and ready to go. But not this time. The only thing that got me out of my bed was my excitement and joy of only being 10k away from the finish. A short run. A pleasant cool-down after a hard day’s work. We didn’t start at 9, so there was no early, in the cold wake up. I woke up leisurely and packed my stuff for the last time this week, and really the last time it would be properly packed in 2016. Finally, my tentmates and I left the tent, took some photos, and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere before the end. Finally, all runners excitedly (but somewhat painfully) moved to the start line for the day. “5….4…..3….2….1….GO!” And off we went; some with a burst of energy that should be impossible, some with a sort of slow meander that told everyone they knew they couldn’t run another step, and me, with a herky jerky movement that indicated I wanted to go fast but definitely belonged in the slow lane today.
Running down the dirt track, everyone was happy and excited. The people were laughing, joking around, happy to be able to see the town. As we inched closer, people spread apart a little bit, and we started running alongside walkers from the town. We ran beside an adobe wall which turned into adobe homes and shops. The dirt track turned into a road with a suitable drainage system. The pink flags turned into volunteers pointing in the direction of the finish. The volunteers turned into a sign that said “Atacama Crossing 2016.” I had completed the race. The tears were the happiest I have ever shed.
There is the feeling of a finish-line, and then there is the feeling of a finish-line that you deserve. I finally felt I deserved this one. Knowing that I gave everything I had all the way through, allowing myself to reminisce on the journey that this year has brought me.