By Clare Morin
There is one thing, aside from the dreaded salt flats, that sets the Atacama Crossing apart from the other 4 Deserts races. It is a factor that makes this truly one of the world’s most challenging endurance races. Not only is this desert dry, and merciless, and hot, it also lies on a plateau that is over a mile above sea level.
This, as you can imagine, has a big impact on competitors. The Atacama Crossing takes place at a minimum of 1,600 meters (one mile) above sea level. The first stage began with the highest altitude of 3,263m, and then drops down with each day. And competitors have definitely been feeling its effects.
Sophie Collett of the United Kingdom spent the first two days as number two in the women’s field, but was struggling with the altitude. “The high altitude here makes it a lot harder,” she said when she arrived at Camp 4 at the end of the third stage. “Catching my breath is harder! I’m getting used to it now though.”
Sophie works as a physiotherapist with the National Health Service, and only managed to get to San Pedro a day before the event kicked off. This didn’t give her very much time to acclimatize, she says, and she also opted to not take pills to counteract the high altitude.
Fellow Brit Nick Ashley Cooper (31) says he also felt the altitude for the first few days. “I’ve just felt tired,” he says. “Mostly on the hills. I’m used to going to mountains, but in the desert you don’t really expect this kind of altitude.”
The young athlete, who has spent the past year recovering from a broken back caused by a near-fatal fall from a horse, suggests that the key is to not focus too much on the anxiety such altitude can bring about. “Don’t worry about it too much,” he says. “Look at me, I’m surviving well.”
Some people were able to sense the altitude in their bodies as soon as they arrived in the region. Shanghai-based Stephanie Cave says she could feel it as soon as she landed at Calama Airport. “I have taken high altitude pills,” she says. “But could still feel the symptoms, my hands and feet were tickling.”
Her husband Campbell adds that, “the other thing that’s hard for your body is the extremes between day and night temperatures. That makes it hard for performance, as well as recovery.” Their advice to future competitors undertaking this race is to arrive in San Pedro several days early to allow time to acclimatize.
But how are the Chileans faring? The team known as Nunatak all hail from Santiago, which lies at 2,000m above sea level. They arrived without acclimatizing, and say “they felt it the first day, but are now totally used to it.” Does it help they have an advantage as Chileans? They grin and look at us: “Maybe an advantage over people who are from colder countries. But otherwise, no!”