It was on the ride from the Calama airport to Casa De Don Tomas, in San Pedro de Atacama, that I actually realized how beautifully remote and desolate this race would be. A six stage, seven day, self supported (everything but water and a canvas tent) journey through a 250km (155 miles) hot, windy, high altitude course.
There were some 180 of us that headed out in a caravan of buses, 149 incredibly brave souls of whom would toe the start line, anticipating what they couldn’t on that ride out to camp one. Sunset and night fall, we watched as the Milky Way lit up the sky, lights out then sunrise, and Racing the Planet‘s 9th Atacama Crossing was born.
I am really not sure what to say after this point. You see, this is where everything melds into a world that almost becomes indescribable. We became a tribe, a group of survivors. The runners became the warriors, the support staff and volunteers a small link to the precious resources of any desert, water and shade. It just all happened, and I had the best seat in the house.
Thiago Diz, who is an incredible human, photographer and now lifelong friend (he was along to photograph the brilliant story of the blind Brazilian Vladmi dos Santos and guide Alex for Outside Magazine Brazil), myself and our driver Christian, set forth. Chasing after the best vantage points, we traveled some 250km+ by car and 70km+ by foot throughout the week. We witnessed the warriors fly down thousand foot sand dunes, trudge through knee deep river crossings, salt flats, Mars like terrain, all between 8,000 and 10,000 feet of altitude.
There were no showers. Just a will. Deep down, to do everything possible to get from the start line to the first check point, then reassess and get to the next. One step at a time. Freeze dried food and lukewarm water became a luxury each night. I didn’t experience the exact same journey, but by the second day, I could feel the athletes pain, through their eyes, posture, blisters. Running along side, climbing mountains of crumbling volcanic ash deposits, sitting in the rivers, I tried to get the closest to the journey as possible without distracting or slowing it.
And what an incredible display of pushing the human experience to the edge I witnessed. Some may question why anyone would ever subject themselves to such a brutal mental and physical challenge, and I think the athletes themselves would all admit to asking that very question at least twice a day, but that’s the part no one will ever know unless you too experience the ultimate triumph you feel at the finish line.
When I was walking backwards on course the 3.5k from check point four on stage four to a makeshift water station in the middle of the 104 degree salt flats, I came across Andrew Espin of South Africa who summed it up as he ran by, “It has now officially changed from a running to a religious experience.”
There are so many more words I could type to convey the feelings deep within, the many lives we lived, the brother and sisterhoods developed, but I want to pause, and allow it all to soak in.
Thank you so much Racing the Planet staff, Alina, Sam, Ross, Mary, Alistair, and all the volunteers. A huge thank you to all the athletes who allowed me to run along side you shooting away and get all up in your grill when you were exhausted.
And an even bigger thank you to my new brother, Thiago Diz, who pushed me to dig deeper to get the best possible shot. You can see a shot of Thiago flying down the dunes taking a photograph of Vlad and Alex about halfway down below.
Cheers to you all until the next time we meet…Gobi anyone?!
The following are some of my favorite images from the week. You can see the entire collection at Racing the Planet’s Atacama Crossing photo display.