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RacingThePlanet: Ecuador 2015 Contender Ralph Crowley: Chasing Down the Olympian

A funny thing can occur on 4 Deserts Races. The series, named by TIME magazine as one of the Top 10 endurance competitions in the world, reveals the mind-bending reality of just how vast our planet is—by leading competitors into some of the most remote and unexplored deserts on Earth. But at the same time, strange coincidences can play out amid these deserts, revealing how equally small and interconnected our world can be.

This was the case for the 29-year old American competitor Ralph Crowley, who put in an astonishing performance in The Last Desert (Antarctica) in 2014. Crowley first stumbled across the 4 Deserts Race Series back in 2010—when he read an ESPN article about the Boston based competitor George Chmiel who was using these races as a platform to build Running with Luci, which fundraises for children suffering from congenital panhypopituitarism. Crowley says he was so inspired by Chmiel’s story that he decided to take on the Sahara Race for himself in Egypt in 2010.

“I had never really traveled outside of the U.S. and Europe so I really wanted to travel elsewhere,” he explains from his home in Worcester, Massachusetts. “This just sounded so extreme, not only to travel to Egypt but to go out and run around in the middle of the desert.”

 He says his first 250 kilometer multi-stage race in the Sahara Desert was a brutal initiation. “I thought I was prepared, but I was totally unprepared. I was vomiting on the side of a trail a mile away from the Day 1 finish line! I probably went out as a typical, 25-year old American; I went out way too quickly. Then, I raced much more conservatively for the rest of the event.”

He persevered and then began to improve his game—making adjustments to the weight of his pack, and being sure to choose food that he could actually stomach when out in the field (make sure you actually like the food you’re taking with you, he advises). Crowley then took on the Atacama Crossing (Chile) in 2011 and competed in RacingThePlanet: Iceland (the Roving Race) in 2013 where he finished fifth overall. In the next Roving Race RacingThePlanet: Madagascar 2014, he took third place, not far behind the ultra-running legend from South Africa, Ryan Sandes.

By the time he arrived in the Argentinean town of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world on 30 October, Crowley was exhilarated to be finally arriving at The Last Desert and hoping for a strong finish in Antarctica. As he boarded the expedition ship with 69 competitors from 28 nations and a team of staff, volunteers and medics, he realized he would be sharing a cabin with George Chmiel, the very man that inspired the young American to sign up for the Sahara Race four years earlier.

For the next two days, they sailed across the Drake Passage—one of the most notorious ocean crossings in the world because of its huge currents where the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean meet. “I’d say our meals are the most entertaining parts of the day,” wrote Crowley in his 4 Deserts blog on the second day of the crossing. “Glasses are flying everywhere, chairs slide across the dining room, and there is a constant sound of plates crashing coming from the kitchen.

Fortuitously, Crowley didn’t succumb to seasickness and when they arrived two days later they found themselves in one of the most sublime landscapes on Earth. “We got there overnight and you wake up in the morning, you look out your little round window and see the snow-covered mountains coming out of the ocean.”

The Last Desert is the only multi-day stage race to take place on the Antarctic continent and it only takes place once every two years. You need to have already competed in at least two other 4 Deserts races to get a spot on the ship, so to engage in this race is already an achievement in itself. Unlike other 4 Deserts races where competitors sleep in shared tents along the way, in Antarctica they sleep aboard the expedition ship and race on various islands and settings around the region, accumulating the highest distance possible in timed stages.

At 07:00 on Tuesday, 4 November, the competitors arrived at Deception Island for Stage 1. The boat sailed through Neptune’s Window, an impressive gateway of volcanic rock formations that opens up to a large bay hidden inside the horseshoe shaped island. Competitors were taken to shore in zodiac boats and landed on a black sandy beach with historical buildings from the era of the whalers in the early nineteen hundreds.

The opening day’s seven and a half hour stage took competitors on a course that looped around the island, from Whaler’s Bay where the volcanic, black sand met the turquoise colored sea and past volcanic thermals that caused steam to rise.

Right from the get go, Crowley sprinted to the front with the favorite of the race, 43-year old Jose Manuel “Chema” Martinez Fernandez. This Spaniard had been making a name for himself throughout 2014, winning the Atacama Crossing and the Gobi March and coming second overall in the Sahara Race. He has twice represented Spain in the Olympics and has a 2:08 marathon time, all eyes were on him to see if his extraordinary performance would continue amid the snow and ice.

But Crowley was born and raised amid the harsh winters of New England, he had experience racing on snow and had been growing into a seasoned 4 Deserts racer, so he put in a strong performance. By the end of the first day, both had competed 61.1 kilometers with Crowley coming in just behind Chema.

The pair remained neck and neck all week. “I pretty much just tried to chase him the entire week,” explains Crowley, laughing. “He got a little over 20 minutes on the first day covering the same distance. Then everyday after that it was probably like five minutes. It was a little under 40 minutes by the end of the week as far as overall time goes. That was probably the most exciting thing, making this double Olympian and incredible runner look over his shoulder a little bit.”

There were also many moments where racing took second priority to the local residents; a rule of the race is that competitors have to give way to wildlife and stay a set distance away. “On Stage 3, we were on a switchback trail,” remembers Crowley. “We were coming into the checkpoint; it was Chema and I running together and there was a penguin that was rolling down on its stomach. He would stop on all the switchbacks, so we would be running across a switchback and have to wait for the penguin. This kept happening on every switchback, it was hilarious.”

By the final day there was an hour separating first and second placed racers and Crowley decided to enjoy the extraordinary setting for his final day. “I did try to push the pace a little, just to see if I could sneak ahead of him,” he says. “He’s pretty good at running; those Olympic runners are pretty good. But towards the end of the day, it was just taking the time in Antarctica because I was very much locked into my spot and got to enjoy myself as much as possible.”

Crowley says that a benefit of these races is how they open up the world in completely new ways to travellers. “I really like being able to see these very remote places in such a different way than you normally would as a tourist,” he says. “Like my first race in Egypt: instead of just driving through the Sahara Desert, you’re dropped in the Sahara Desert and run 250 kilometers across it. It’s just such a different experience. You see a lot of places you would never see doing it the other way.”


Clare Morin

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