Atacama Crossing 2012

In March this year I competed in my first multi-stage race, the Atacama Crossing. I had done as much preparation as my full-time job allowed and I had spent a lot of time training with my race pack and cutting down on the gear I would carry. It was a very international field that met up in San Pedro to start their 7 days in the desert. Here is an adapted version of my race report, describing the terrain of each stage and explaining my overall race.

Atacama Crossing: Stage 1 – 34km

Stage 1 started at a very fast pace with several athletes sprinting off the line. I followed the leading pack, but when I felt the pace was too fast for me I slowed to my original race plan and aimed to hold a speed that I could maintain for longer than just the first part of the first day.

Initially the stage was very rocky with tricky footing, a good introduction to the racing that we had in the week ahead. The next section of the stage led off from the flat river bed and into a climb that had 20m slopes on either side. It was difficult to see where the end of the climb would be so I maintained a strong run-walk pace and followed in the footsteps of the leaders which I could see in the sand in front of me.

It was a beautiful stage with some climbs and a really long section on level ground that seemed to last forever. I ran by myself for about 20km out of the 33km and really enjoyed it.


Atacama Crossing: Stage 2 – 39km

The first part of Stage 2 was a climb from a river flowing through a canyon to the ridge line along the river. The ridge line is visible from San Pedro and really a spectacular place to run. However, it meant that we had to work very hard in the first part of the day as CP1 was the highest point of the day.

After running along the ridge we descended towards the road leading to San Pedro. It was a fantastic and fast descent down a beautiful sand dune. I had never run down dunes like that before and really enjoyed how fast and soft it felt. One of the longest sections of the race followed as we ran along another dry riverbed while making a circuit close to the town of San Pedro. After a dry, sandy section we ran into the first real salt flat section. I didn’t like it at all. Every footstep was like plunging your foot into mud and trying to pull it out against the sucking and squelching salt. It was tough!

The final part of the stage was a short road section to Laguna Cejar. I was just happy to get this stage over and done with and only later took the time to admire the stunning lagoon next to our camp.

Atacama Crossing: Stage 3 – 40km

Stage 3 had a mix of everything and after two tough days of running is generally considered to be one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, of the stages. We all started off together heading into a salt flat that was covered with small bushes and shrubs. It was a strange start as everyone wanted to run, but almost nobody could because of the really difficult terrain.

The next section was a sand road and this is where I think the people with previous desert experience showed their skill. It was not too long or difficult, but rolled up and down like a beautiful beach. After the sand we got a slight reprieve as we ran along a well-packed dirt road for about 4km. However, the flags soon led from the road directly into another thick salt flat. I started out running this, but as we approached CP2 I was walk-running and a group from behind caught up to me.

Fortunately the next section was a dry, hot desert with deep sand. I managed to find a rhythm and slowly caught the group in front. It was getting hot and although we could see the camp, there was still about 12km to go. The ground was sandy, but rocky, meaning that every step was changing from cushioned ground to hard rock. In addition, we had to cross three river beds with steep slopes and climbs back up the other side. Every time there was an obvious route to the finish we turned left and either ran down a dune, or into a river, or along a dry river bed to a massive climb on the other side. After three left turns, and I guess some winding rights, we really were very close to the finish.

The finish, however, was on the other side of yet another river bed. This time we descended and climbed what seemed like a long, never-ending slope to get to the finish. It was a hard, yet appropriate ending to a very tough stage. I finished strong and I think that this was one of my best stages of the race.


Atacama Crossing: Stage 4 – 40km

After stage 3 I wanted to continue running strongly and I started Stage 4 with that in mind. The first part of the day was through rolling, rocky dunes and eventually came out at a small town where the CP1 was located. The next section was completely flat over sandy desert. It was great running and one of the only places in the race where we could settle into a rhythm and run. This section was long and hot and I was really looking forward to the next checkpoint which never got any closer. I took my time at the checkpoint, filling up with extra water as I knew that the infamous salt flats were coming up next.

We ran into the salt flats which sapped my strength. The salt would change from being a path that could be run on to crusty salt that was almost impossible for me to run on. The amazing perspective of the salt flats means that the furthest thing you can see is 6km away so even though I could see a checkpoint and other competitors in front of me they were easily 15 – 20 minutes in front!

At CP3 we left the worst of the salt flats and ran along a jeep track through the flats. It was only 3km to the finish and this went by quickly. The best part of the stage was arriving at the finish and learning that there were two large lagoons that we could swim in. The water was so cold and it was an absolute treat to be a little cleaner, a little cooler and to do something different after a day of running. All the camps were great, but this was almost unbelievable!

Atacama Crossing: Stage 5 – 73km

The first 30km were on dirty roads, flat and easy running. I set out at a pace that I thought I could maintain for the day. This put me a little further back in the field as there were some competitors who started off very strongly. After CP2 we went off the road and into more sandy conditions. I kept the pace even and that helped me move forward in the field. I was feeling strong and enjoying the challenge.

We then headed into some salt flats and unlike the previous days, where I didn’t enjoy the salt sections, I was feeling great and running consistently in that terrain. I caught Mark (also from Zimbabwe) and we arrived at a massive dune together. From a distance the dune looked very intimidating, but when we got to it the sand was much more firm than it appeared and we could climb it at a slow walking pace.

At the top of the dune was the most spectacular landscape I saw all week. It was more salt flats, but it looked like a choppy sea or some type of lunar landscape. The crests of all the salt waves were hard and in between it was soft. It wasn’t easy running, but it was breathtakingly beautiful and that made things a little easier. This was only a short section and we descended to CP4 on another dune. It was a long section between the two checkpoints and I had finished my water. I was also about to start another long section in what would be the hottest part of the day.

At the checkpoint I loaded up with water and set out with a plan to keep the consistent pace I had in the earlier part of the day. This didn’t last very long! I struggled with the heat, probably because I had not eaten enough food during the first part of the day. It was a flat part of the course along a winding river with us running through each of the corners and passing in and out the dry river bed. There was no wind and the heat was unbearable. When I finally made it to CP5 I was overjoyed. The best thing about the checkpoints was that you felt like you could start again from zero. No matter what had happened before the checkpoint it was possible to be a different runner after it. So I left CP5 running strong.

The distance between CP5 and CP6 was 9km, all on a slight incline. We could see for kilometers ahead and it was all uphill. The last part of the day was a climb to the camp in the Valley of the Moon, with some rolling ups and downs for the final kilometers. I caught up to Mark again and we walked in the last few kilometers and enjoyed having some company at the end of a long, hot and challenging stage.

Atacama Crossing: Stage 6 – 8km

Stage six was a fantastic day! We all knew that it would be short and fast and that there was pizza waiting for us at the end. After a week in the desert eating freeze-dried meals, thoughts of fresh food were the talk of the camp. The final stage started later than the other days, at 10 o’clock, so there was a little extra time to pack and get ready for the day. Everyone was taking photos with new friends and tent mates and the spirit of camp was light and excited.

We started running in the dry, salt-covered river bed from stage 5, but quickly turned onto a dirt road that was flat and fast. After 3.5km we crossed the river and turned into the town of San Pedro. The final kilometers were along beautiful tree-lined streets and I could almost taste the pizza at the finish.

The most exciting part of the final day was seeing Vanessa who was waiting for me at the finish line! She was so excited, shouting for me to sprint the last few hundred meters, and I could see her standing in front of everyone else just across the finish line. I was pleased to be done, happy that it was a short day and glad to finish 9th overall and win my age group.


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