“Wow, what a roller coaster ride”. A term regularly used in ultra running, but in a multi day event this comes in spades. Camaraderie, characters, and amazing stories too, these are all massively exaggerated with day after day to suffer, endure, and fall apart, as well as bond, support, and soldier on. Racing The Planet’s Atacama Crossing 2013 was the absolute definition of all these for myself and many other competitors, what an amazing journey!
The short version: 50km of pleasure, 200km of pain, with massive highs and lows along the way and a massive bonus at the very end.
The longer version…
The race started fantastically well. We started at a crazy pace on Day 1 and it felt great. Loving the down hill sections in the Hokas, I managed to fly down the descent to Checkpoint 1 in first place. It felt wonderful and I was elated that the acclimatisation had worked to perfection, and I had been justified somewhat in my belief that I could be a contender in the race, early days but huge optimism engulfed me.
At Checkpoint 2 the lead group was down to 4, with myself, Daniel, Vlad, and Kyle both duelling and working together. The pace remained frenetic but we seemed like a very strong team, very even, and very focused. My focus unfortunately wavered with a forced toilet stop (due to the excessive carb-loading the day before), and I was dropped from the leading pack. Unlike the Tour de France the guys didn’t wait for me and I can’t say I blame them. With a barren desert offering no cover, it would be a far more pleasant experience for all concerned if they put some distance between me and themselves.
I tried to catch up, perhaps a little too quickly, and ended up blowing up a little. I was happy enough to arrive around 6 minutes after Daniel, Vlad and Kyle into camp and tick Day 1 off. We all agreed the pace had been crazy and that the following days couldn’t stay at that pace, although it would mainly be terrain that would control us rather than our own brains.
Day 2 started off with some great fun as we attacked multiple river crossings. The 4 of us from Day 1 were joined up front by Adam and Craig, with Zandy just narrowly behind understandably swearing loudly every time his already injured ankle was twisted and turned by the rocks both above and below the water.
At Checkpoint 1 we caught Adam who’d had a great little jaunt up front, attacking the leaders in the guise of a young Claudio Chiappucci or Marco Pantani. Shortly after it seemed like normal service had resumed with the usual suspects from Day 1 all back together up front, with myself, Kyle, Vlad, and Daniel creeping away from the others. It seemed like a pattern was emerging, even amongst us front 4, with “mountain goats” Daniel and Vlad bouncing up the inclines while Kyle and I suffered, only for Kyle and I to chase them down again on the declines using our weightier bodies and gravity to our advantage. It was perhaps this pattern that would lead to my downfall which was just round the corner.
After an incredibly scenic climb up to “the tunnel” and up to the summit ridge, we came to a spectacular sand dune descent. Daniel and Vlad had pulled away on the ascent so now was the time to catch them again, with this in mind Kyle and I attacked.
The sand dune had a sting in it’s tail however, a sting for me anyway. On launching myself down, with eyes on making Checkpoint 2 and catching the leaders, I was surprised by the make up of the sand. The first 15 or 20 steps had been soft, soft, soft, so when suddenly the sand was HARD, my left knee that had expected soft ended up hyper extending itself and it one fail swoop my race was all but over. I shuffled to Checkpoint 2, emptied the sand from my shoe, filled my water bottles, then hobbled on hoping all would be well but knowing deep down it wasn’t. I quickly gobbled down a couple of cocodamol and a couple of ibuprofen, half in desperation, and half in denial, and walked on.
Things were bad for 20 or 30 minutes. I was passed by Adam, then Craig, and expected Zandy, Andrea, Rich and Power to come past at any moment. Things were made even worse when myself, Craig, and Adam got a little lost and had to back track, but at least it was a little distraction from the pain.
I tried to shuffle and after the pain killers kicked in I found I could do around 35 paces each time before the knee totally locked, I’d then walk again to ease the pain. I used this technique for a while and after a while I caught up to a point where I could see Kyle, Adam, and Craig ahead, after all three had been out of sight for a while beforehand. At this point the painkilling effects of the 2 drugs, plus the natural adrenalin and endorphin from seeing three fellow competitors within catching distance, helped me get going again and I caught the group and myself and Craig even kicked on. Craig was fantastic to run with, although his controlled and consistent pace was vastly in contrast with what I could myself perform. Instead I’d walk for 20 paces and let Craig get ahead, then when the knee was not too stiff I’d hobble quickly for 35 to 50 paces to catch up again. Craig must’ve thought I was a complete loon and I explained much later what was going on. At the time though I didn’t really want to admit to him (or myself) that I was injured.
Craig dropped me after a while as my right quad was screaming at me. The left knee was screwed and so my new hobble meant my right leg was doing all the work. I started to feel a little sorry for myself before Zandy caught me up. As two pre-race-favourites and during-race-injured-runners it was great to combine to finish off the stage. With total respect and empathy it was impossible to feel low and we made a great team, running for 4:30, then walking for 20 seconds. We got close to catching Craig but backed off. At this point I even remarked that it was no problem, we’d beat him tomorrow, back was the belief/denial that the injury wouldn’t be severe, ahhh, such optimism…
We chatted and dissected the stage and waited for Kyle a little concerned. The poor guy had had a bad time on the stage and possibly suffered either with altitude or heat causing some vomiting. We were super happy to see him come in not too long after us, and gave him a big welcome after his obvious suffering.
After a tough day I had all sorts of emotions bouncing around. I’d screwed my knee and I’d lost time on the two leaders Daniel and Vlad, but I’d jumped up to third at poor Kyle’s expense. My guts had been more stable, and I felt full of energy and unstressed with the heat or altitude. I went to bed again full of optimism that the injury would be short-lived and I’d wake up ready to run fast again. Just one good sleep and all would be well…
On waking it seemed as though the optimism was justified. No pain whatsoever in the knee, whoopee!!! On standing and then barely able to walk outside to the toilet, the optimism soon faded however and suddenly a huge chunk of reality bit my on the ass. I returned to the tent and moped for almost an hour, lost in my own thoughts of what to do. The desire to continue was strong, but so too was the desire not to make the injury worse and perhaps ruin my chances of running for Great Britain at The World Championships in May. In the end there was one thought that won through. I realised that the reason I do these events is about far more than simply the competition. Okay, so I hoped to come to Atacama and do well but I always told myself that however well I did that I should never lose sight of the reasons I fell in love with these events in the first place. These reasons are the camaraderie, the characters you meet, the campfire stories, the personal challenge, the beauty, serenity, and surrealism of running in the desert, and the whole caveman lifestyle feel of what we do out there. All of these aspects remained in tact, only one facet was lost, and in so losing the one of competition, I’d gain a little more in each of the others that would more than make up for it. So I told myself to go out and give it a try, and if things start getting worse in the knee, I could always pull out at Checkpoint 1.
So Day 3 began slowly and painfully but I remained positive. It was great to share time with other competitors and have the ability to talk a different brand of crap with them. One of the first up was Peter who got me through much of the first couple of hours.
Later in the stage I had great company from another fellow Brit named David, and then caught the always entertaining Colin and Brian along with Annabel and my trusty Canadian hombre Jim Willett at Checkpoint 3. With the massively inspiring Jim, I stomped on with my patented power-limp and we made pretty good progress through a tough final section. At the end I was just massively relieved to still be in the race and it didn’t seem as though the knee was too much worse.
The least said about Day 4 the better. The knee didn’t relent all day and I really struggled to complete. On the plus side I got to chat with the awesome Ash for the first part of the day, and Steve helped me through some of the second section, but in reality I struggled throughout. A massive blow came when I arrived at checkpoint 2 and discovered Zandy had pulled out. Zandy had been amazing, battling each day despite his ankle problem, and his withdrawal really hurt. It sucked that such a great guy had been defeated by an injury, and it also kind of made withdrawing more of an option to me, “if the awesome Zandy Mangold can withdraw then so can I…”.
I tried to convince Zandy to limp/hobble/stumble through the rest of the race with me and even offered to go back to where he pulled out (a few miles back) to continue with him. I’ll never know quite how much this was a gesture of altruism or selfishness from me, but either way I sure liked the idea of sharing the pain with a great guy who could keep me entertained. Zandy was tempted but thankfully he made the right decision. Thankfully because if he’d done any further damage I’d have felt guilty forever more.
After being beaten up all day, I was almost in tears when I crossed the line, this made even more emotional by a fantastic welcome from Zandy himself and fellow tent mates Jim, Rich, Power, Al, and Jeffa. They knew I’d had a massively tough day by the fact I’d taken so long out there, and so I thank you with all my heart for that welcome. Without such support I’m not sure I’d have been able to get up and face Day 5, the long stage.
Day 5 was epic. It was beautiful, varied, challenging, exhausting, and at times excruciatingly painful. I did have some great drugs though, from my own personal stash and from tent-mate Al, without which I wouldn’t have made it. The day was made incredibly rewarding and entertaining by sharing almost all of it with my good friend Jim Willett. We walked almost the entire thing and stayed strong throughout, helping each other through the odd tough moment. Without the constraint of time concerns I even managed to pick up a couple of awesome Atacama rocks for posterity and myself and Jim had the chance to use my inherited walking poles for an impromptu bout of fencing.
We finished in a reasonable time considering and were beaten but not broken by the time we finished. Such a relief knowing the hard work was all done and that the overall finish was all but assured.
After the rest day came a delightful 8.2km victory lap into San Pedro de Atacama, the place I’d called home for almost a month and had completely fallen in love with. Using the poles again (borrowed from the amazing Jennifer Murray) I managed a speed-power-pole-induced-run/limp and was joined by Zandy who again kept my mind off the pain with fantastic stories and general nonsense. I’m sure these two pre-race-favourites-come-cripples didn’t look too smooth running along the way, and I probably let the side down again by gaining very few style points (sorry Zandy), but we got to the finish in one piece. Zandy stated that he had unfinished business in Atacama, that was music to my ears, I have unfinished business too, so put your money on a Mangold/Moroz 1-2 in 2014!
Oh yes, I mentioned in the short version a massive bonus at the very end. This came at the awards ceremony which happened in San Pedro the night of the final stage. The night saw much debauchery, with 130+ competitors, volunteers, staff, friends, and family all catching up after a week in the desert eating freeze dried meals and being limited to warm water to drink. After the usual awards for winners and age groups came the special awards which are given out at each Racing The Planet event. The ‘Spirit’ award was given to an amazing blind competitor and his guide from Brazil named Vladmi and Alex. They were incredible throughout and made amazing time in incredibly tough conditions, just so inspiring. Then came the big surprise when I received the ‘Sportsmanship’ award, I’m not sure I’ve ever been so proud in my life, especially with so many other deserving competitors in this years event.
Now I was a little tipsy by now (having not drunk in months) and so I can only try and remember, but I think the wonderful Sam Fanshawe explained that it was for my efforts during the week to carry on through the hardship of the knee injury, to stay positive though out, and to carry on supporting everyone around me during this time of physical stress. In my mind I really had no choice and I love to support everyone I can as I know first hand how much difference it can make. I wasn’t going to argue, and I thank everyone who voted for me.
So now it’s all about dusting myself off and recovering and training for The World Championships in May. I’m very hopeful of being back to full strength, ready to take on the World by the 11th! And as for desert races, I’ll be back as soon as I can, they’re the absolute best!