Pre-Race Update: October 4 2014
There was an air of excitement and energy pervading the quaint town of San Pedro de Atacama this morning as 163 competitors from 36 countries came together in this final day before the 10th anniversary edition of the Atacama Crossing opens.
Many had been here for several days, experiencing Chilean life and dining in the local restaurants. “It was my first time experiencing chocolate sauce on steak, a heavenly combination!” said Ireland's Ruthann Sheahan.
“San Pedro is an incredibly chilled out and very welcoming place,” said British competitor Paul Smith who is based in Singapore where he works as a lawyer. “It’s a good place to put your feet up for a couple of days before running across the desert.”
Gathering around the glistening pool of the Hotel de San Pedro this morning, 4 Deserts Founder Mary Gadams led the competitor briefing with Samantha Fanshawe and Alina Prendville of the 4 Deserts offering more information on the coming week’s racing. It was a scene of keen anticipation, with competitors eager to get out into the wilderness and start the challenge.
Special mention was made of several competitors in this year’s race including the blind athlete Vladmi dos Santos of Brail who is taking part in the Atacama Crossing for a second time, this time with his guide Erin Leighty of the United States. There was also mention of the 23 people taking on the 4 Deserts Grand Slam, an attempt to finish all of the desert races in one calendar year.
Once the briefing ended it was time for the competitor check in, where bags were checked for all mandatory items. The lightest pack of the day belonged to Sweden’s Edward Hult who works for EF Education First in the United States; his bag weighed in at a mere 5.5-kilograms. At the other end of the scales was Hirotomo Yoshizawa, an engineer from Toyko and first-time 4 Deserts competitor, who had the heaviest pack at 15-kilograms.
By the afternoon, competitors were boarding buses and heading out on a two-hour journey through stunning desert scenery with vast mountain ranges and river crossings. The sun had been out all day in clear skies with temperatures opening in the morning at 30 Celsius and rising to 38 degrees in the sun by noon.
By the time everyone arrived at the first campsite, the temperatures had cooled significantly to 20 Celsius. Tonight’s first campsite is named Rio Grand and lies at the altitude of 3,300 meters in the Arcoiris Valley—named after its rainbow-colored hills spanning iron red, sulfur yellow, blue green and gypsum white.
The mood at the camp has been happy and upbeat, with competitors taking photographs of themselves against the backdrop of the 100-meter peaks in all four directions. Right now, they are at the highest point of the course—and throughout the week will be gradually descending in altitude.
Tomorrow’s opening stage, Navigation by Rock, is a 36.2-kilometer course opening with a difficult opening section of undulating terrain before moving through more moderate sections of rolling hills and a dry gorge. Competitors will experience a total elevation gain of 245 meters and an elevation loss of 973 meters throughout the day. The stage begins at 8am.
Stage 1 Update: 5 October 2014
Chema Fernandez and Emily Woodland Win Stage 1
The Spanish double Olympian, Jose Manuel "Chema" Martinez Fernandez, has won the opening stage of the Atacama Crossing, finishing today’s opening 36.2-kilometer course at 11:18:47.
This is Chema’s third 4 Deserts race of the year as he takes on the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. “The first two hours I felt good, because I took it easy on the hills and rocks,” explained the Spaniard as he came over the line. “For the last hour I decided to go faster. My legs felt heavy in the final four kilometers.”
In second place was Herbert Lehner of Austria, a first time 4 Deserts racer who finished at 12:04:24. He was followed by British competitor Jonty Cowan in third position at 12:09:20. When asked how he was feeling, Cowan—who is racing in his first 4 Deserts race here in Chile—said he was: “Surprised! For the past few weeks, I would seal up a room, turn on fan heaters for an hour, then train on a turbo trainer.”
British competitor Emily Woodland put in a tremendous performance in the women’s division, coming across the line at 12:22:58—in a remarkable fifth place overall. This is Woodland’s third 4 Deserts race. Second-placed woman was Ireland's Ruthann Sheahan who finished at 12:33:37, followed by London’s Catherine Simpson at 12:56:30.
The day awoke early after cool temperatures overnight. The evening wind had fortunately died down with temperatures falling to approximately 10 degrees Celsius and dipping down to 5 degrees Celsius just before dawn.
The atmosphere at camp this morning was relaxed and excited. Competitors were huddling around the campfire in the morning, sipping on coffee and eating all manner of warming meals.
Sweden's Edward Hult and Italian competitor Marco Giordano were found standing outside their sleeping bags and saying “I think these weren’t rated low enough.” To which, the avid outdoorsman Jonathan Mills replied, “No such thing as cold weather: only inappropriate clothing.”
By 8am, the 160 competitors were gathered at the start line amid the glowing red landscape of this otherworldly setting.
Today’s course was a 36.2-kilometer winding journey down through canyons and spectacular rock formations, with loose gravel and larger rocks serving as the running surface. Competitors were able to run beside petroglyphs dating back to the Incas—and many said they were amazed by this setting.
“I haven’t seen anything like this before,” said Danish competitor Johnny Nielsen. “It’s beautiful. I took 250 pictures today!”
It was a stunning day with clear skies and slight gusts of wind offsetting the bright sun to a comfortable 28 degrees Celsius in the shade.
However, the combination of altitude and hot air packed into the canyons made for a tough opening stage. The overall change of altitude during the day was 3,263-meters to 2,627-meters—and the last four kilometers featured a particularly difficult uphill section until past Checkpoint 3.
Poland's Andrzej Gondek—who is taking on the Grand Slam here in Chile—said he found the course challenging. “I thought the first day at only 36-kilometers would be easy, but I was wrong; the heat and terrain were very hard today.”
Competitors appeared over the finish line throughout the afternoon, with the final competitor Shigeru Tomiyama arriving at 18:50pm—at which point, every single person in the camp dropped everything they were doing and headed over to applaud his perseverance and running spirit.
The general mood tonight at camp has been a mixture of cheerfulness and general bewilderment at just how hard this opening stage was, considering that it was the first day and a shorter distance—yet such are the effects of the high altitude in the Atacama Desert.
Tonight’s camp, titled Inca, is located above Salar de Atacama, with a spectacular view of the mountain range, Volcan Licancabur, glowing in the distance. People glance over the landscape as they type their blogs about the difficult yet rewarding day behind them.
Tomorrow’s second stage, The Slot Canyons, moves by the Rio Grande River and Dead Valley to “Laguna Cejar” in the Salar de Atacama—the largest salt flat in Chile. It is a 44.8-kilometer course opening with difficult sections and finishing with a moderate 20-kilometers through varied terrain.
Stage 4 Update: 8 October 2014
Front of the Race Tightens Amid The Infamous Salt Flats
Jose Manuel (Chema) Martinez Fernandez has won the fourth stage of the Atacama Crossing, coming over the finish line at 13:09:22 today.
He was followed very closely by second-placed Herbert Lehner of Austria—a first-time 4 Deserts racer—who finished just ten minutes behind Chema at 13:22:13, making the gap between the frontrunners much closer.
Jonty Cowan of the United Kingdom held steady in third place, finishing the 44.2-kilometer course at 13:35:04. “That was the hardest six kilometers of my life,” said Cowan as he came over the line.
The women’s field was equally compelling with Emily Woodland keeping her lead and completing the course at 14:07:17. She was followed just ten minutes later by Ireland's Ruthann Sheahan at 14:17:20.
The third-placed woman was Catherine Simpson at 14:26:36. As she came over the line, she commented on how one’s sense of time and distance seems to change in this landscape.
“If you were in the United Kingdom and looked over there,” she said, pointing. “It would be about one mile, but the Atacama seems to bend time.”
The day opened this morning following a pleasant night with temperatures around 10 to 14 Celsius with some wind. There was also the extraordinary opportunity to watch the lunar eclipse from the camp—in one of the most alien settings on our planet.
Then, a total of 138 competitors gathered for the 8am start. When asked if he was ready for this stage, South Africa’s Paul Gillot said, “As ready as one could be. Ready for Checkpoint one, then ready for Checkpoint two, and so on until the finish.”
Today’s course, named The Infamous Salt Flats, was a mostly flat route featuring exposed terrain all the way through. This stage is known as the “mental stage,” since the relatively easy and flat terrain makes the day challenging in terms of sustaining one’s motivation.
“Today I ran as if there was only me and the heat,” said Zachary Goldman of Spain.
As the course title suggested, the salt flats were the hardest part of the course; competitors were met with a 14-kilometer a hot stretch of crusty, barren land before arriving at Checkpoint 3. Race leader Chema of Spain commented that it was very hot and difficult—as evidenced in the gap closing behind him on this stage.
Claude Begin of Quebec meanwhile said, “I trained for this by running on the beach, intentionally going into the sea water and back onto sand again. I was still surprised at how hard the course was.”
The day’s total elevation loss was 2,453 to 2,315 meters—with a total of 131 finishers. Temperatures had varied from 10-14 degrees Celsius in the morning and 31 Celsius in the shade in the afternoon and reaching 41 degrees Celsius in the sun.
The final competitors into camp were Lourens Roets of South Africa, Paul Gillot of South Africa, Leo Fang of China, Samantha Harper of Canada, Frank Pearce of the United Kingdom and Kim Sellentin of Australia.
Australian competitor Michael Thomas said the highlight of the day for him was, “Taking my shoes off and realizing there was no sand in them!”
It was also the 40th birthday of New Zealand's Inia Raumati today—who managed to come in 40th place. A doctor from New Zealand, Raumati was sung to as he arrived at all the Checkpoints during the day, which was entertaining for all around him.
This evening, competitors were eagerly checking in with their families on their blogs and reading the latest results. There is a strong and concentrated field in this year’s race, with most competitors running well out on the course and everyone at camp looking strong and fresh considering the distance they have already covered.
As the evening progressed, the campsite became progressively quieter as people mentally prepared for The Long March tomorrow. Stage 5 is a 77.8-kilometer course that may see competitors continuing overnight. It begins at 8am.
Stage 5 Update Part 2: 10 October 2014
Festive Atmosphere at Final Campsite
The Long March came to a close at 08:10 this morning—two hours before the cut-off time—as the final competitor, Mike Smith of the United Kingdom, crossed the finish line just over 24 hours after the start of the 77.8 kilometer course.
It had been a long stage for many as they crossed the otherworldly setting of the Atacama Desert at night, pushing their bodies to extraordinary new frontiers, with just the moon and glow sticks illuminating their way. Cheering for the finishers continued throughout the overnight stage, with drumming, music and loud encouragement offered to racers as they moved into sight and the final few hundred meters. Volunteers danced to keep themselves warm in the chilly desert air.
The results are now online, showing racer leader Chema Martinez Fernandez nearly five hours ahead of the field. Emily Woodland has also put in an extraordinary result, so far coming in fifth overall position as well as first-placed woman. For many here today, it was simply the joy at finishing this arduous stage.
Competitors spent the day relaxing in the sun and making the most of the scenery all around them at this final campsite next to Moon Valley. Last blogs from the field were sent, with some Long March finishers getting very emotional, with tears falling as they read their latest messages of encouragement from family and friends willing them on from all around the world.
In the evening, founder of the 4 Deserts Race Series Mary Gadams brought out a special Atacama Crossing birthday cake, which was positively devoured in a matter of seconds after being cut. Competitors literally jumped at the opportunity to supplement their emptied-out food resources with this much-deserved treat. It was hard to believe how quickly they grouped about the table and then quickly dispersed, leaving nothing but crumbs.
The atmosphere in the evening remained cheerful, with lots of happy chatter about both the experience of the past week and what tomorrow morning will bring. A pleasant warm breeze of around 20 Celsius and an extremely clear, starry sky is making this a beautiful last camp night.
Tomorrow’s final stage is called Final Footsteps to San Pedro. It is a timed stage and a 9.3 kilometer course through the Moon Valley and then into the square of San Pedro de Atacama for the finish line.
Stage 5 Update Part 1: 9 October 2014
Race Leaders Complete The Long March
The Spanish double Olympian has done it. Chema Martinez Fernandez won The Long March this afternoon, completing the 77.8 kilometer course with a time of 7:55:24.
“Today I feel better,” he said as he came over the finish line. “In the final stage, I wanted to run under eight hours and I did. I want to run with the best in the world and now in the long races in the desert I feel good.”
Herbert Lehner of Austria was the second over the line, finishing with a time of 9:16:01. He was followed an hour later by Jonty Cowan and Félix Allen who arrived in joint third position with a time of 10:10:42. “I can't believe we're here,” said Allen. “That was long!”
In the women's category, Emily Woodland and Cat Simpson—both British racers—arrived over the line hand-in-hand with fellow Brit James Watkins in sixth position overall and an impressive time of 10:54:30. The three shared an emotional hug at the finish line.
The 77.8-kilometer Long March started at 8:00 this morning with 129 competitors heading out into the challenging course. They have been moving through a range of amazing scenery, from moon-like valleys to sand dunes and endless plateaus whitened by salt crust and pure Atacama Desert.
After the race leaders arrived in the afternoon, there has been a steady flow of people appearing over the line. Many competitors are still out on the course now—moving under the glowing light of the full moon. They will be continuing through the night; all are now between Checkpoint 4 and Checkpoint 7 and camp.
It has been a day of truly positive spirits throughout the course. The mood at camp is festive with drums and music playing at the finish line where competitors are congregating to cheer their friends and fellow racers over the finish line to much cheering and applause.
British competitor Jonathan Mills came over the line and said it has been the hardest week of his life. He lay down on the mat in the checkpoint tent to rest after finishing.
Other competitors are sitting around the campfire eating, telling stories about the day and soaking up the warm rays of the fire. The camp has been designed in the shape of the number 10 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the race.
Part 2 of this update will be posted when all the competitors complete the course on Friday.