By Clare Morin
As the writer Toni Morrison once said, “A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves - a special kind of double.” It’s a fitting description for upbeat Californian sisters Clancy Johannsen and Teresa White-Gellis who are heading to the Atacama Desert this March to take on very different challenges.
This is the second attempt at the Atacama Crossing for Clancy, an insurance broker and mother of two from West Los Angeles. She remembers the thrill of entering the race for the first time in 2010. “It was beautiful, it was hot, it was dry, and I was wearing a pink shirt that I haven’t worn since. I met some amazing people who are now my friends and experienced an incredible event. [This year] I come back to finish it.”
Clancy had stumbled across the race the previous year when, in the midst of starting to work out for the first time in years, she read a CNN article about the world’s ten toughest endurance challenges. “So there I was minding my own business, and found myself absolutely enthralled by the list,” she remembers. “I see Atacama… [so I] checked out the website, and I swear to you, your website just sucked me in – I had no control.”
It wasn’t long before she was making her way to Chile for the Atacama Crossing 2010, “despite the best efforts of the earthquake to dissuade me.” Clancy fell in love with the desert’s surreal landscape and otherworldly night skies. “It was the first time I ever felt dizzy looking at the heavens,” she remembers. “The Milky Way was a white ribbon and looked close enough to step on. All I could do was stare with my mouth agape and hope I didn’t fall over.”
Despite thoroughly enjoying the race, Clancy was unable to finish, pulling out just before the salt flats. “I cried like a baby for about 20 minutes on a volunteer’s shoulder, blew my nose and proceeded to make plans for 2011 (although my blog will show that I told everyone that if I ever said I would do this again they needed to lock me up and throw away the key).”
Clancy comes back to finish what she started last year. In addition to listening to the advice of her husband Peter and adjusting her training and food preparations, she is bringing her older sister, Teresa, who has signed up as a volunteer.
“She’ll tell you it’s because I promised her a warm vacation spot with drinks that have those little umbrellas in them,” warns Clancy. “I don’t know how I convinced her, the truth be told. I think I just said that she should volunteer; that the people she would meet would be some of the neatest, most interesting people; that it’s an experience of a lifetime, not to mention a lot of fun.”
“My sister Clancy signed me up,” concurs Teresa via email from her home in Santa Cruz, California, where she runs Union Grove Music, a popular music store with her husband. “She promised me warm weather and fancy drinks with colored umbrellas… But seriously,” she adds, “Clancy and I had a great adventure years ago traveling through Mexico by bus. We (well, she) thought it was time to have another sister adventure. And I am a good cheerleader.”
Teresa claims that she won’t be inspired to start running in 4 Desert races herself. “Age and a bad back keep me in on the sidelines, sipping a cool drink and cheering others onwards and upwards.” The sisters may be taking on different roles, but there’s no doubting they’ll be bringing a very similar sense of humor and a contagious lust for life to the Chilean desert – that will doubtless keep everyone around them smiling and looking at the bright side of it all.