The Atacama Challenge , says Jo Zakrzewski, 34 year old doctor from Dumfries and winner of the women’s event long-distance race across the Atacama Desert in Chile, “is about beating yourself and knowing you can do it. Ninety-five percent is willpower. I’ve always been stubborn — this is a way of channelling it and actually using it. So it’s not about beating other people, although it’s always nice to beat men.”…. Jo came in 6th overall, quite an achievement for someone taking part in their first endurance race ever.
Ryan Sandes of South Africa, an experienced endurance runner, won the men’s event with an astonishing 23 hours 58 minutes 39 seconds for the entire event – a staggering 5 hours and 44 minutes ahead of the second finisher. “He’d probably had 3 naps and 3 meals by the time I got in every evening. Bastard! Nah… He’s the most humble owner of the most amazing legs on this planet. Go and win everything!” says Kristina Narusk from Estonia, another successful competitor in this extraordinary race.
Endurance events such as the famous 4 Deserts organised by RacingThePlanet draw together an amazing group of people – adventurers one and all. With each morning beginning with a course briefing and warnings about the potential hazards ahead such as: soft sand, hard packed sand, some climbs, river crossings, 45 degree ascent, sand dunes, soft salt, crusty salt, spiky salt, loose sand, rocky ground etc. you would need to be a pretty special sort of person to be contemplating such discomforture with a sense of adventure.
Gao Qing from China, a rock climbing, mountaineering, ice climbing, deep-sea diving, and endurance racing enthusiast, claims that his reason for taking part in the Atacama Desert event was simply because “The Gobi March was too close to home so I chose the race in Chile.” He first heard about endurance racing when he saw a program on the Discovery Channel about a footrace across Morocco. He immediately knew he wanted to participate in what he calls “these kinds of crazy things.” Whilst competing in a 100km race in Beijing a friend told him about the RacingThePlanet events and he was immediately hooked. “The hardest thing about this (Atacama) race is the temperature”, he says. “I expected the race to be difficult, it’s not just a run. I came from temperatures of minus twenty in Beijing to here where it’s over forty degrees. You have to prepare yourself to face anything on each and every stage.”
Time Magazine puts The Atacama Crossing at number two on its list of the top 10 endurance events in the world. It is tough by anyone’s standards. During the day, temperatures can go up to 45C. At night, they can hit zero and it is the driest place in the world – some river beds in the region have not seen rain for 120,000 years.
Which brings us back to winner of the women’s event, Jo Zakrzewski. A newcomer to the world of extreme running, she was not even sure if she would complete the six-day, 250 km course. And on top of that, her luggage got lost somewhere in airspace and she completed the entire race in borrowed clothes, a pair of running shoes that were 2 sizes too large, and sharing other peoples rations. A vegetarian at home, she found herself eating whatever anyone else had spare, including such things as dehydrated spaghetti bolognaise and chicken tikka. “There are around 800 calories in a bag: you pour boiling water in it, leave it for eight minutes and that’s your dinner. They taste better and better as the week goes on.” Apart from the daily mammouth helping of rehydrated porridge – “I can’t look at another dehydrated porridge meal. Eight hundred calories of porridge is an awful lot. It’s like wallpaper paste.” Back in Santiago for a couple of days before flying home to Dumfries, Zakrzewski was reunited with her luggage and was delighted to be wearing clean underwear and a clean shirt that did not belong to someone else!
It is interesting reading blogs and articles written by people who have competed in events such as these. You know that blisters are going to be common, sunburn must be a problem, rashes on their bodies from clothes rubbing almost a certainty, and loss of toenails an unimaginable horror, but burnt lips? inside and out? Ouch. “You are always putting your water bottle in your mouth, you sometimes pour water over your head and you burn the inside of your lip,” says Zakrzewski. “Then you find you can’t eat, you can’t smile, you can’t talk.” Apparently not even the most tenacious sunscreen can protect your lips sufficiently.
It’s details like this that bring the rigours of such a race to light.
“Memories of the 45 degree C temperature through the canyon on day 1 persist, the foul tasting water, the flats on section 3 and 4 of day 2, the brutal sand dunes on the last section of day 3, the notorious salt flats and of course traversing the sand dune on Cordillera de la Sal on the long day will live with me for a long time..” says Ken Reid, another successful competitor. But, having said that this would be his last RTP event, he heard himself uttering the alarming words “next time I’ll… ” !
“Thank you to the Atacama Crossing organisers and all the volunteers and staff who made it all possible. The smile which was permanently across my face was real. I loved it, every minute and every hard earned kilometer of it, and, as Alan is always saying: If the Pope´s a Catholic, I am going to do another of these crazy 4Deserts events!!” says Marilena Wilkinson from the UK.
It’s a bug.
If you follow the link below you will hear others trying to explain why they love the RTP endurance events, what it is about them that makes them want to do another…
“For anyone new thinking about doing anything similar: please think again! For all the folks already at home or on flights or relaxing anywhere near who’ve gotten the bug: see you at the next one!” says Kristina Narusk… that’s the sort of buzz you get from these events.
Next up is RacingThePlanet Australia – 25th April… more on that later. This is not one of the 4 Deserts events – just a little bit of extra-curricular activity…