By Bradley D. Youngblood
JULY 4-10, 2004
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Pics by Julia Leder & Gunnar Fehn
On July 11, the day after finishing the Atacama Crossing, I awoke with a sinus infection coughing up yellow phlegm chunks mixed with blood. I should have anticipated this happening because the course traversed across volcanic terrain mixed with ash, dust, salt, and other minerals. The Atacama is the driest desert on earth, with very dry, cold air, and temperatures ranging from the mid 20’s and high 80’s with an average elevation above 7,000 ft . Luckily, prior to leaving for Chile, I was put on antibiotics for a cavity ridden wisdom tooth. Otherwise I might have needed a visit to the hospital. My right knee is healing up with a nice scab covering the kneecap and four toenails are no longer on my feet.. Oh, did I forget to say this was the hardest ultra or ultra stage footrace I have competed in?
The Atacama Crossing is the second of four 250 km, seven day, six stage, desert race produced by Mary Gadams’s company Racing the Planet. The entry fee is $2,600.00. I competed and finished their first stage race, the Gobi March , held in China last September, 2003, in which I finished 14th place out of 42 competitors. The third is scheduled to be in Antarctica and the fourth in the Sahara in Egypt. The race format is similar to that of the Marathon de Sables, requiring each competitor to be self-sufficient and able to carry a backpack with mandatory gear and 14,000 calories/ 7 lbs of food. My backpack weighed 22 lbs, less the water. Racing the Planet supplied the water and the eight-person tents for sleeping.
In retrospect, the Gobi race was much easier on my body than the Atacama Crossing. The course was designed and directed by Ian Adamson whom is a veteran/ champion adventure racer and adventure race course designer. I remember some racers complaining how hard some of the stages for the Gobi March were, such as the Stage 2 with 10 watering crossings. Well Ian topped it. I think I was in survival mode for four of the six stages. He created a very stressful, challenging, memorable course that was peppered with my utterance of every verbal profanity.
Stage 1 – The fun began for 74 of us on July 4, at an elevation of 12,500 ft at least that is what my altimeter said it was. A trace of snow dropped from the sky for a few seconds before the start. We had a musical send off plus a local shaman handed out some dried coca leaves for us to chew on. The first 5 km required all of us to walk and to have one racer from each of the 21 nationalities that were represented to carry their country flag. The race officially began after 5 km and we would begin descending following the Rio Grande river valley and the Inca trail southwest to the finish for a total of 30 km. There was a lot of up and down on sand and loose rocks. The race had a Chilean military helicopter buzzing through the river valley and whom also had a BBC video cameraman shooting video for their documentary on board. The helicopter was also for search and rescue. I remember gasping for air as I climbed a very steep hill of loose rocks. We had four of these steep hills from CP 1 to CP3 and a nice stream crossing close to the finish. I finished 5:52:13. The course markings were a gold colored flag and a Atacama Crossing logo marker. Some competitors failed to stay on course and traveled on an unmarked low dirt road while five racers and I took the high steep well marked trail whom we arrived at the same time to CP1. We told the checkpoint crew what happen and we felt a time penalty was due to those that took the low unmarked route. It would be decided by Ian Adamson whom later in the evening felt a 15 minute penalty would suffice.
Stage 2 would be 44 km with numerous cold water crossings ankle and knee deep in a sandstone canyon from CP3 to CP6. I lost count after 30 plus water crossings and Irishman Vincent Carroll counted a total of 55. This was scenic and a lot of fun, walking across from bank to bank with a long 50 yard continuous ankle deep stroll through 60 to 100 foot high sandstone walls. I linked up with American Burt Cook during this section and we would finish stage 2 together. A long serpentine dirt road section from CP6 to the finish felt like a death march due to our feet being water logged. Burt, me , a dog and 17 year old Jodi Bloomer from Canada would finish together with a time of 8:33:29. The dog a German shepherd mix would finish stage 2 through stage 6 and became the official race mascot. The finish ended near the salt lake Laguna de Caja with flocks of flamingoes and scenic views of snow capped volcanoes on the horizon.
Stage 3 would be 30 km with no water crossings just a lot of loose sand, small dunes, ash-dust, rocks, a taste of some salt plains, medium size dunes, a hilly section and a finish in a forest of thorn trees, a malevolent version of the garden of Eden. One hour before the start I finally had my first bowel movement in three days. I felt like a new man, fresh and ready to go! I would link up with American Brent Weigner after CP9, who was the first person in the world to run an ultra-marathon on all seven continents. Brent and I would run and walk throughout the course except in the salt plains which was very difficult to walk through due to fear of twisting your ankle and tripping. We were gradually reeling in the Chilean army team and the British-Irish team Direct Line whom the BBC was doing a documentary on. Unfortunately for American team Illinois their female teammate suffered heat exhaustion and received three IV infusions, but still managed to finish. Brent and I eventually beat the Chilean and Direct Line teams and finished together with a time of 5:36:00 in eighth place. I felt really strong at the start and with the support from Brent became even stronger. It is rare on race day when you feel like you can run forever.
Stage 4 would be 46 km. The first 8 miles to CP12 seemed easy and later I met up with American Jeff Danielson. The next 8 miles to CP13 became a little rugged with a steep decent down a large dune into a canyon filled with trees through a maze of dense trees and irrigation channels that snaked its way to the other side to a very steep climb up to CP13 then toward the town of Toconao. Jeff took a break to fix his feet at CP13 and I moved on toward the town and caught up with Paul Soo from Singapore. We went straight into town then went right then left then out of town onto loose sandy dirt for 6 miles to CP14. The last 8 miles to the finish was the most difficult section in the whole entire race. How is that possible? You might ask, well, that section took me, Irishman Vincent Carroll, and American William Menard 3 ½ hours. William is an ultra running veteran whom has won Badwater twice and the first American to finish Marathon des Sables in less than 24 hours. He had not been competing for over three years due to a back injury and an operation. The Salar de Atacama or salt flats is anything but flat. You can barely walk on it. You take a step and sink knee deep, say some profanity, then take a step, sink ankle deep, take a step, sink knee deep, say some more profanity and so on. We took a brief break to savor the moment and to take some photos. I was contemplating in my mind an act of violence when I realized what a genius Ian Adamson is. This is exactly what I was seeking in a race, something I could never anticipate. We were able push forward and finish together with a time of 8:21:30. Unfortunately for some competitors, nighttime fell and chaos ensued. I believe 10 competitors were driven back to the campsite, some were almost hypothermic. A sweep horse following the last racer became stuck in the salt flats overnight and survived and was pulled out at dawn.
Stage 5 would be 80 km initially. I decided I was going to take it easy today and jog and walk to CP16. At CP16 Mary Gadams handed out a bottle of coke to each competitor, it tasted great! Then I decided I am just going to walk at a fast pace for the rest of the stage. I again linked up with Burt Cook and later on we linked up with Jeff Danielson, Chilean Andres Schuler Contreras, and American Tim Gushwa. From CP16 up to CP18 the temperature was in the high 80’s.
Upon reaching CP19 we took a break to eat a candy bar or fix our feet. We ask how many were ahead and the closest was Gunnar Nilsson of Sweden who was 5 minutes ahead of us. Burt and I felt we would eventually catch Gunnar. Jeff, Tim, and Andres left a couple minutes ahead of us. Burt and I set off in pursuit to catch Gunnar. We eventually passed Tim and Jeff between CP19 and CP20. Between CP20 and CP21 was the land mine field, a large sign in Spanish with ATTENCION and TERMINATO was probably suggesting for people to stay on the road. That’s how I interpreted the sign. Tim and Jeff spoke Spanish and I asked them later if the sign said land mine, they said the sign didn’t say land mine but sort of suggested to stay on the road and not venture off it.
Burt and I never caught up with Gunnar because he went in a wrong direction and was lost for one hour and we were ahead of him. I remember looking at the map at CP18 and thought some of the racers might get lost from CP21 and CP22 due to a figure eight road section and told a race official about it. I also remember telling Burt we should have caught up with some more competitors between CP20 and CP22, apparently Gunnar was not the only racer whom went off course! Burt and I worked well together. Like they say four eyes are better than two. Arriving at CP21 at night, we took a brief break and I talked to Jan briefly and he gave me treats of encouragement. Jan started the race on an injured hip on stage 1 but the pain became to much to bear and pulled himself out of the race and he had volunteered to help out at all of the stages.
Midway between CP21 and CP22 odd things began to occur such as coming across Mary in her truck . Burt and I stopped and talked briefly and she asked me if the Chilean, Andres, whom we caught up with could borrow some batteries for his headlamp, I said sure ok.. The three of us then resumed walking. The terrain then became very difficult to walk on. We began to stumble, then trip or at least I tripped first but luckily I didn’t hurt myself. I noticed that I began saying bad rocks a lot out loud. Then suddenly I tripped face forward really hard and slammed my right knee into some sharp volcanic rocks. I screamed out mother # ucker and thought I broke my leg. Burt and Andres picked me up and my water bottles that flew out of my backpack. I didn’t break my leg but I did tear a nice hole in my kneecap and thought I might need some stitches. Jeff Danielson caught up with us by following our voices in the dark. This volcanic rock section was probably the most hazardous walking section I’ve encountered in a race even more treacherous than the Flat Rock 50 km trail course, especially if you are walking in it at night. I definitely did not want to fall down again! I was really stressed out during the remaining miles to CP22. In the distance we saw a vehicle headlights coming slowly toward us and then stopped, it was Ian Adamson, he was placing more glow sticks on the course. He gave us some encouragement and said CP22 is not to far ahead. Then drove ahead of us. Well it seemed to take forever to reach CP22! Again we saw a vehicle headlights coming in our direction, it was an off road 4 wheeler, the man rambled on about something and said to follow him to CP22. We followed his lights then lost sight of him as he drove faster than we could walk. In the distance we some lights, a campsite or was it CP22? Andres thought it might local Atacamenos campsite but it was CP22, we arrived a last!
We handed our race passports to be signed and were told that the course was to be shut down and CP21 would be the nullifying point. Burt, Jeff, and I were confused at first then we became a little pissed off. The three of us wanted to finish the full course. A race official suggested to relax and see what Ian has to say and would get back to us. I went into the tent and sat down on a cot to check my knee. Next to me was American Charles Walker whom told me he had been waiting to finish the full course for almost three hours and so was American Scott Smith. Oh Yeah, Burt, Charles, Scott, and I were tent mates in tent number nine. Twenty minutes later Ian made the decision and offered any competitor at CP22 wanting to finish the full course could do so with him leading the way. Only Charles, Scott, Burt, Jeff , and myself wanted to continue and complete the full course, all knowing that it would not count in the final results.
We followed Ian for the remaining 10 km to the finish of stage 5. CP22 to the Finish was even more difficult and dangerous than I could have imagined. We zigzagged through an ashy –dusty canyon, breathing in the ashy dust. The headlamps gleamed on the fine particles and it seemed foggy outside. Ian was picking up the flag course markers as we walked. I noticed we were ascending upwards and I checked my altimeter which read 8,000 ft. We encountered a huge, almost vertical dune that appeared black under the ambient starlight.. We all had to stop and catch our breath four times before we reached the summit. We encountered similar volcanic rocky surfaces that tore my knee up and it slowed us down. Charles, Scott, and Ian were ahead of us and we had to yell at them to wait up for us a couple of times. Jeff and Burt were walking on raw feet and my knee began to throb with some pain now and then. Scott and Charles lead the way while Ian followed behind Jeff. Luckily it was nighttime, we came upon a loose rock, narrow cliff trail, maybe three feet wide, with a totally exposed drop off on the right side. My LED head lamp revealed a depth of at least 50 feet straight down to a black abyss. Later the next day Ian led three other competitors during the day to finish the last 10 km and was informed the drop off was at least 200 meters or 650 feet straight down.
We came upon a highway and crossed it and began to descend some loose crumbly volcanic rocks down a steep canyon. We saw some lights down below ahead of us and realized it must be the finish at camp 6. We kept descending and my gaiters failed to keep the sand out of my shoes and filled with sand. We all finished stage 5 at 2:58 am. Jeff, Burt and I were on our feet for 17 hours 58 minutes. Scott and Charles probably finished around 14 ½ hours. I was very happy to be alive! I was driven to a medic and he cleaned and fixed up my knee with a bandage wrap. No stitches. I was unable to sleep for another 20 hours. I was still in survival mode for the remainder of the day. My appetite was gone. I just hydrated and snacked on fritos and pecans. We had a whole day off until the start of the final stage.
In the afternoon I took my socks off and discovered a unique toe blister, whom I showed my tent mates, all were impressed and took pictures. I displayed my toe blister to John Vonhof whom is an expert on treating feet and written a book titled “Fixing your Feet”. He took photos of my blister and seemed impressed. I told him it doesn’t hurt at all. He was getting ready eat lunch, so I waited later in the day for him to fix the blister. Word got around camp and six other racers wanted to take a picture.
Stage 6 was the only easy stage of the entire race and it was just ten miles. William was unable to finish the final stage due to a severe bacterial leg infection and pulled himself out of the race. I could see the disappointment and pain on his face. We all started running as fast as we could down the canyon. We all wanted to finish as fast as we could and relax and eat a lot of decent foods and drinks. The finish was in the town square of San Pedro de Atacama. There was only one checkpoint but along the way we first had to run through some stream crossings, run near the river which was now dried up and zigzag through some dirt roads to the finish. I finished with a time of 1:20:25.
Cumulative Results. My total cumulative time of 41:04:37 for 24th place but if you subtract the three person teams from the solo category I placed Twelfth overall. Ten competitors did not complete the race due to illness and injury. The first place winner was Kevin Lin of Taiwan 27:36:29, second place was American Charles Engle 27:40:02 and third place went to American John Szymanski 32:30:34. First place woman went to Nancy Fudacz Burrows 40:54:58 although she was on a team Illinois not a solo female like Lisanne Dorion whom finished second 43:05:34 and third place went to Jodi Bloomer of Canada 45:34:50. The first place team overall was team Commonwealth Europe (Phillip Mosimann, Andrew Barnard, and Matthew Chapman) 34:31:31. Second place Team Chile (Fabian Contreras-Zuniga, Eduardo Monje Vargas, and Sandro Nahuelpan Martinez) 35:51:24 and third place team Direct Line Europe (Richard Donovan, Kenny Dyer, and James Henderson) 36:52:34
Post-Race Recovery. The race has been over for 12 days. I still have a slight cough but no phlegm. My right knee is almost healed and I lost four toenails. My cavity ridden wisdom tooth will be taken out in August. I feel like running again, so I think I am cured.