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“I was born and raised in the southern foothills of the Alborz Mountains of northern Iran,” says Ashkan Mokhtari.  “The first time I went to San Pedro, I went for a run outside the village, and was struck by the similarities to my homeland.”

Since that day in San Pedro, the host town of the Atacama Crossing (Chile), back in 2009, Ash has run the Atacama Crossing four times.  He will return again in 2013.

“For me, going to Atacama is a homecoming,” he says.  “The colourful changes in the landscape are just amazing.  It is beautiful in a very solemn way.”

Solemn, perhaps, because Ash knows deserts like the Atacama can make you pay for the privilege to cross them.

Two months before the Gobi March (China) 2008, his first-ever ultra marathon, Ash slipped and fell on some ice while training in a remote section of Ontario’s Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.  It took him eight hours to get back to his car and, shortly after, he found out he had torn his right calf muscle.

He raced anyway.

“I saw people who were at the end of their mental and physical strengths and yet were somehow managing to continue their journey,” Ash says.  “I guess people call that discovering one’s limits and smashing through them.”

Ash smashed his own limits, finishing the race on a calf that was “swollen like a grapefruit.”

He calls it the most difficult and painful thing he has ever done, but the next year Ash bounced back for the Sahara Race (Egypt) 2009.  That year, he also ran RacingThePlanet: Namibia and the Atacama Crossing, events that were held only one month apart.

After the Atacama Crossing 2013, Ash will have finished 11 RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts events.

The Atacama Crossing calls him back again and again not only because it’s like home, but also because it’s so very foreign.

“I love two sections where we run on the ancient rocks that have been cut sharp by the wind over thousands of years and the whole place looks very Martian,” Ash says.  In fact, he has a sneaking suspicion NASA’s photos of Mars are actually photos of the Atacama.  “I saw pictures of the Martian surface on the net and it was exactly like parts of day three and day four.”

But it doesn’t always look like outer space. Ash says the Atacama’s environment changes drastically even over the course of a day, and that’s another part of its appeal.

“I love the course because every day the terrain changes from the previous day, so you don't have the monotony that you get in other places.  Even in the span of a single day you experience so many different running environments that are always challenging and interesting,” he says.  “One day, you’re running on soft sand and hard rocks, and the next you’re crossing the unforgiving salt flats or you’re waist deep in the freezing waters of the Slot Canyon.”

That diversity makes the Atacama Crossing a tougher race than most – and all the more worth racing.

“It is really a privilege to be able to run in a place like this,” Ash says.  “Most of us will not notice it because it is such a harsh place.”

Take it from someone who has gone back to this harsh place over and over: Take notice. Take it in.

“The scenery is breathtaking.”

by Alexandra Graves

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