Race Report: Atacama Crossing

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The Atacama Crossing is part of the 4 Deserts series of 250km self-supported stage races by Racing The Planet. The Atacama desert is beautiful and offers a surprising variety of terrain from sand dunes and salt flats to red rocks, mountains and slot canyons. The course therefore offers some nice variation, it is mostly off trail and quite challenging on ankles and feet despite fairly limited elevation gain throughout the week. The Atacama is also the driest desert in the world and the dry heat adds to the challenge, although I much prefer this dry heat to humidity. 

I had completed my first 250km stage race in the Gobi desert a few months earlier and by the end of it my new running friends I had shared a tent with had successfully convinced me that I hadn’t tried hard enough (I walked a lot of the course and was just focused on finishing, not my pace). Some of my old competitiveness from my high school track days had apparently returned (I hadn’t done a single race since) and I agreed to train and sign up for the Atacama race to actually try to go fast and race.  

Training

I had started training earlier in the year for my first race. My goal for this Atacama Crossing race was to not only make it to the finish line, but to actually see how fast I could go. I knew I could run fast from my track days in high school, but I had not run more than 10km at a time until a few months earlier, so I mostly focused on increasing my weekly mileage, getting comfortable with longer runs, back to back days on tired legs and running with my backpack. In the three months leading up to the race, I ran a minimum of 40 miles with a peak week of 100 miles in the Alps a month before the race as part of a training camp. I also had an 80 mile week with a three day stage race in Colorado, the Transrockies Run 3, which was a good test to see what kind of pace and intensity I could sustain over multiple days. 

Gear

Bringing the right gear or deciding what to leave behind, is a lot more important for a weeklong self supported race. Once the race starts, whatever is missing will be missing for the week and every extra bit of weight will be felt for every single mile or kilometer of the race. Optimizing for the lightest possible gear makes sense, especially for mandatory equipment, but not bringing some extra thing will always be less weight than the lightest version of it. Shoes and backpack are probably the most important items. If they don’t work well, the week gets pretty miserable. I had tested the Inov-8 Roclite 290 shoes for almost 3 months and had felt good running in them multiple days in a row and in rugged terrain in the Rockies and in the Alps. I was pretty confident that I could run any terrain in those shoes and just added Raidlight desert gaiters to keep the sand out. I had used the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 35 that I had used in my first stage race and aside from some shoulder pain that was probably inevitable with the weight, I had been happy with it and decided to use it again (I have since found a lighter 25L Raidlight pack I prefer). Sleep is key and staying warm is difficult and important for me, so the right sleeping bag, an insulated light weight sleeping pad and a warm down jacket were some important choices I researched. I ended up taking the Marmot Phase 30 sleeping bag, a small version of the Thermalite NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad and a Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer down jacket with me. I tested my shoes and backpack on many training runs, because you are stuck with them for countless hours and testing whether they still work without blisters and chafing after a few hours is key.

Food and gear for a week

Nutrition

Thinking about and planning for nutrition and hydration needs is always a good idea for ultras (some people call them eating contests while running), but planning well is particularly important for a self supported stage race. You don’t want to go hungry or be stuck with only things you can’t stomach by day 3, but you really don’t want to carry more than what you need for the week either. Food is about half of the weight of the backpack at the start even if you only bring what you really need. Many races require a minimum of 2000 calories per day, for me 2300 feel comfortable, but I can do with less later in the race and on the rest day. I didn’t go with the minimal amount of calories, but I tried to bring dense items with a good calories to weight ratio (over 5 calories per gram is really good and you can get that with nuts and some freeze dried food). Anything with water will be heavy and I don’t use gels for these self supported races, for example. I ended up bringing freeze dried porridge for breakfast (400 calories), an 800 to 1000 calorie meal for dinner and a mix of bars, chews, Tailwind to put into my water bottle during the run (for calories and electrolytes) and some nuts and chips as snacks after the run.

Getting ready to prepare my freeze dried dinner

Planning and Preparation

The Atacama desert is not the easiest place to get to, but after three flights and a bus ride, I made it to the charming little town of San Pedro di Atacama. There are plenty of flights to Santiago de Chile from around the world and from there it is a short domestic flight to Calama and then a bus ride to San Pedro.

Some competitors arrived in San Pedro several days before the race started to get over jetlag and to acclimatize (the Atacama is a plateau and the race starts above 3000m). We didn’t really have much time to acclimatize, but we had a day to explore San Pedro and to go for a short shakeout run. The next day, we had the race briefing and equipment check and got on a bus to the first camp site at 3200m and settled in for the first night in our tent. 

Reflection – stage by stage recap

Stage 1 started down a rocky canyon and we ran down a fun sand dune and up an Inca road. I started out fast with some of the guys, but fell back a bit and made my way up the Inca road by myself. I was quite surprised when I arrived at the finish line in 3rd overall and realized that my friend @desertfox had gotten lost somewhere along the way.  

The most interesting part of the day started after I was done running, since we were hit by a massive sand storm. We huddled in the only tent that was still standing and watched it sway, rip and almost collapse on us. The porter potties blew over, there was sand and dust everywhere even inside the tent and we just waited there for hours – face covered by a buff – until the last competitors arrived. Eventually the organizers decided to evacuate us to a small visitor center nearby and we were grateful for some shelter and lined up like sardines on our sleeping mats to get some sleep. 

The start of the race into a canyon

Stage 2 started with a bus ride back to the scene of the sand storm, but everything was much calmer the next morning. The stage started with an 8km section through a slot canyon with countless water crossings. The first few felt refreshing, but then my feet went completely numb, which made crossing the muddy river quite challenging since I could neither see or feel much of what was going on. Still one of the most fun sections of the course and my feet eventually dried and warmed up again on a long climb up an old Inca road and up a ridge, before a really fun descent down a steep sand dune. I was a bit sore and my toes hurt at the end of the day from hitting rocks in the river, but I had a nice dinner, got some early sleep and felt good and well rested the next morning. 

One of the many river crossings in the canyon

Stage 3 started with a fast section on a dirt rode and then we got the first taste of the infamous salt flats. I had heard descriptions that compared them to Crème brûlée or “frozen Broccoli” before and I started to understand why. The salty dried mud created a crunchy surface that was sometimes firm, but sometimes muddy and often cracked upon impact, which meant that you never quite knew what to expect with each foot step. Add to that random bumps, bushes and thorns everywhere and running becomes almost impossible. I was pretty excited to be done and make it to camp after that experience.

I discovered that hitting my toes on rocks and crusty mud had bruised one of my toe nails enough that it had gone blue and basically developed a blister underneath. The doctors nonchalantly told me to just drill a hole through the nail to drain it and when I looked a bit perplexed, they offered to do it for me (I watched for future reference, but hopefully won’t need to repeat that anytime soon). Stage 4 started with fun hilly terrain, a really fun descent down a steep sand dune and through a small town, but then we got stuck in a loooong section of salt flats that was so bumpy, crusty and uneven that we hiked a lot in the burning mid-day heat. When we eventually got to a dirt rode for the last 10km, I was so excited to be done that I almost started sprinting. 

Fun in the sand during stage 4

The long stage 5 was the day I was most worried about. I had done plenty of marathon length training and racing days at this point, but nothing of the almost 50 mile length that was waiting for us. We started out through more uneven salt flat crust and got going pretty slowly. I think I was pretty quiet and grumpy the first third of the course and my friend @desertfox picked up some rocks to juggle at some point as a last resort to cheer me up. Clearly, I wasn’t the most fun company that day and at the half way mark, I sent him off to go ahead and walked for a bit through a river bed in the mid day heat. I soon realized that I had less than 30km to go and settled into an alternating running and walking pattern that turned into mostly running again and finished the 73km in under 10 hours.

I realized my struggle early on was more mental than physical and that I was too intimidated by the distance and wondered whether the slower pace had really been necessary.  So much of ultra running and stage races is a mental game.

Climbing a sand dune during the Long March on day 5

Stage 6 was a short 8km run back to San Pedro di Atacama. Despite the much lighter backpack at the end of the week and a rest day, it was surprisingly difficult to run my regular pace, but the prospect of pizza, coke and beer at the finish line was pretty exciting and made us all sprint, run or shuffle to the finish line as fast as we still could after this week of running. I had won every stage for the women and finished first female and 5th overall in 31 hours and 8 minutes, which was almost 10 hours faster than my first 250km stage race 4 months earlier (running vs. walking a lot does make a huge difference). 

Crossing the Atacama Crossing finish line in San Pedro di Atacama

This was my first race I really raced from the start and tried to see how fast I could go (slightly worried that I would crash half way through, but luckily that never happened) and I was excited about my first win. I finished first female in 31:08:02 and 5th overall, my race kit and nutrition worked well, the damage was minimal (one toe nail, but no blisters or pain otherwise) and I had an amazing week with a group of great people in an incredibly beautiful place.

Other than food, the main thing that was on my mind after the race was whether I was done or whether I would continue with more stage races next year.  For the next few days and weeks, I actually wasn’t very motivated to run and wasn’t sure what the answer would be. But I realized that running in beautiful places had become and important part of my life and one of my favorite ways to see new places and I started to think about new adventures and races again pretty soon. 

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Angela Zaeh

​​Outdoor lover and ultra runner. Exploring the trails of Marin or the Alps when I am not working on Prokit.
Trail Running, Ultrarunning, Mountain Biking, Climbing, Ski Mountaineering
San Francisco, California

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