By Dave Flanagan
There will be no cake and no candles. And forget about balloons and party hats too. As locations for a birthday celebration go, a camp in the Atacama Desert is a pretty unusual one, but for New Zealander Tony Emanuel it’s where he’ll turn 41.
“It’s just coincidental, but I think being in South America is a pretty good 41st birthday present,” said the Auckland based cabinet maker. “I’m just happy to be here.”
As if having a birthday fall on the first day of the Atacama Crossing 2009 wasn’t significant enough, the 29 March will also represent Tony’s inauguration into the world of endurance racing. And the father of two is the only Kiwi taking part too. Not a day he’s likely to forget for a very long time then.
“It’s my first multi-day event of any kind,” says Tony, sitting under the shade of the trees outside event headquarters ahead of the competitor check-in. “I’ve done a number of standard distance marathons and that sort of thing over the last four or five years, but this is the longest distance I’ve gone. I’m understandably nervous, but excited at the same time.”
Like all the competitors milling around San Pedro today, Tony is visibly amped, but he looks ready. He’s prepared for a solid year, even enlisting the help of a coach to ensure he made it here in the shape of his life. But mentally, his journey towards his first 4 Deserts has been an even longer one.
“About three years ago I read an article in an endurance magazine in New Zealand about guy who did the Gobi March,” recalls Tony. “He was a diabetic and he got through it, but you could read between the lines that he suffered a bit of pain. I had a look at the events on the Internet and thought ‘that’s too big for me, I can’t do that’. But I couldn’t get it out of my head.
“A year and a half ago, I was talking to my wife about it and she said: ‘Look, if you can’t get it out of your head, just do it.’ So I paid the entry fee and I was off.”
Tony says he was “fairly averagely active” in his youth, scuba diving and playing squash and rugby, but he then he had a ten year period in which he started a family and built his own business, crafting furniture and kitchens. Understandably, that was when sport went on the “back burner”, but running has since proved to be the ideal pursuit to mix with his domestic and work responsibilities. And now he’s about to run further than he’s ever gone before.
“I think for most first timers, the priority is just finishing,” he says. “I’m an adequate runner, not a top runner, but I’d like to see myself finish in the middle or above. We’ll see though. If I’m crawling in at the end I don’t really care to be honest, as long as I get there. I’m also proud to be the only Kiwi here.”
Not being able to share his birthday with his wife and two young children will be tough for Tony, but now that word’s slowly circulating in San Pedro about his special day, there’s no doubting his fellow competitors will do their best to help him mark the occasion. Sure, it’ll be expedition food he’ll be eating instead of cake, but the party photographs will be like nothing his kids have ever seen before.