By Clare Morin
There are many conditions that come together to make a great 4 Deserts race, and one big factor are the volunteers who help power the events. In addition to all the work they do in helping the event run smoothly and helping the desert to remain pristine and unspoiled, the cast of volunteers also offer tremendous encouragement to the competitors.
Susan King, a Sydney-based Kiwi, took part in RacingThePlanet: Australia 2010, but wanted to try volunteering at the Atacama as coaching commitments prevented her from competing. “It’s interesting to understand more about the operations, the things that you don’t notice when you compete,” she says.
“The time that goes into operations is much more than I expected,” she continues. “I used to think that checkpoints were for giving water, but now realize what a huge part safety planning plays - everything that goes into headcounts and safety operations - I really appreciate it now.”
There are also volunteers who sign up in order to witness the event up close. John Williamson says he has volunteered at the Atacama Crossing 2011 in order to get an insight into a race that he may one day compete in.
“I thought that this would be a good way to find out if I’m capable of doing it,’ explains the South African. “I was also interested in seeing behind the scenes, and I love meeting new people and being outdoors.”
John says that it has been witnessing the extraordinary qualities of competitors up close, and developing strong bonds with them, that has struck him the most from his experience out in the Atacama.
Both he and Susan have been sweeping the course behind the final competitors, wiping out all the footprints and returning the desert to its pristine beauty. “That’s where you see the back of the pack and understand how strong these people are mentally, as well as physically,” he explains.
Indeed, while out in the lonely expanse of the wild desert, John says he has realized another important role that volunteers play; they are the people that struggling competitors can talk too. John says he has enjoyed being on hand to help people move through their rough spots. “The fact that I was able to convince people to continue the stage when they had already decided to stop was something that made my day,” he says.
“It was great that, just by walking with them, chatting to them and encouraging them you could make a difference. Competitors would thank us but we had a rule for that “no thanks otherwise you need to do 10 push-ups”, to emphasize that it’s not a favor, but something natural.”
It soon becomes clear that these two volunteers of the Atacama have had as profound an experience as the people who ran across it.
Susan says that when she landed at Calama Airport, “I looked at the desert and thought, oh my god, how can I take this brown desert? As a Kiwi I am used to the colors of green and fresh blue. But already on the first day I got to love it here. To me, this has been about the scenery, the people – and the amazing stars.”