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NEXT ROVING RACE IN SRI LANKA (Starts on 14 Feb 2016)
Champion Woodland teams up with blind competitor Dos Santos

On her way to winning the women's competition and a fifth-place finish overall at the Atacama Crossing 2014, Hong Kong-based Briton Emily Woodland, like many others in the 4 Deserts Race Series, took inspiration from her fellow competitors. Among those offering a daily dose of motivation was blind competitor, Brazilian Vladmi dos Santos. "I was completely blown away that a blind person could attempt such a feat - they are challenging enough for me, Woodland said. Some of that terrain in the Atacama Crossing is really technical [and] I couldn't fathom how he knew where to put his feet! Every day when I was cursing some of the more difficult sections, just trying not to twist an ankle, I would remind myself that he was getting through it all with a smile, and that I really needed to suck it up!"

At RacingThePlanet: Ecuador 2015, Woodland won't be admiring from afar, but up close in person as the 34-year old will work with dos Santos as his guide in July's Roving Race. Woodland's decision to guide dos Santos came from her own experiences, which also includes the Gobi March 2012 and RacingThePlanet: Iceland, and a desire to stay involved with the 4 Deserts Race Series, while equaling her experience in the Atacama Crossing. "I love the 4 Deserts races and wanted to stay involved without feeling that competitive pressure" Woodland said. "My friend Sallie pointed out that I had raved a lot about being inspired by Vladmi and Erin [Leighty], his guide in the Atacama, and that I should try and see if he'd be willing to do a race with me, as a completely different kind of challenge.

Dos Santos agreed, and while the pair has exchanged a few emails, they will next meet up in Ecuador later this August, with dos Santos first competing in June's Gobi March 2015. It's an experience Woodland is looking forward to and one she believes she'll gain just as much as she gives.

"It's not only the fact that he can physically get through it that is astonishing, but he is also such a kind and generous man who does a lot for numerous causes" Woodland said. "It was obvious to all of us that it was a two-way street with him and Erin, and that he was teaching and motivating her just as much as she was helping him."

Woodland confessed to being a "lone wolf" in races and adapting to Dos Santos' pace will be among the biggest challenges. With the 4 Deserts / Roving Race Series all self-supported races, Woodland will not only be looking after her own nutrition, hydration and foot care, but dos Santos as well. Her training for Ecuador has included longer, slower training days and Woodland plans on practicing with the blind athlete association in Hong Kong, although the mostly track terrain will be different from the hilly course and altitude in Ecuador.

"I have absolutely no doubt Vladmi could wipe the floor with me in a road marathon, but if the terrain in Ecuador is technical then I would envisage being on my feet for longer each day than I ordinarily would" Woodland said. "Plus it looks like a hilly course, and at altitude, which I've had mixed success with in the past. These issues will have knock-on effects for what gear and nutrition I decide to bring with me, as well as foot care."

Woodland has maintained a high level of fitness since the Atacama Crossing, completing a number of local races and will soon start training back-to-back long days, before reintroducing the pack weight. It's a different training regime to what she did in preparation for the Atacama Crossing 2014, when she was coming back from injury, before a stunning fifth-place finish.

"I did prepare hard for it and was secretly shooting for Top 3 girls but never in a million years thought I would get a yellow bib in one of these races, Woodland said. I'm not sure whether I'm more proud of the first place female or the fifth overall to be honest."

With the other leading females keeping Woodland on her toes, the fight for the female title was intense. Then again, being up at the front with the overall competitors and just four spots behind winner, double Olympian Jose Manuel Chema Martinez Fernandez was also an unforgettable feat.

"[It] just blew my mind, and still does to this day!" Woodland said.

As she prepares for Ecuador, one thing is certain that the experience as a guide will be much different than that of single competitor. It's a challenge and new perspective that Woodland more than welcomes.

Every time I do one of these races I take away some new positive experience - it's what keeps me coming back, Woodland said. You get to witness the most incredible feats of human accomplishment. Now I have the extraordinary honour of doing one side-by-side with an incredibly inspiring person who no doubt will teach me a completely new perspective. Once again I am reminded how lucky I am for a body that takes me on such adventures. It doesn't get much better than that.

Melanie Ho

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