Blind on the Ice

When Rebecca Walker joins the The Last Desert (Antarctica) 2018,  the emergency physician from Stanford University will not only be competing in her fourth RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts ultramarathon, but she will also be undertaking her first as a guide for blind Brazilian runner Vladmi Virgilio Dos Santos.

Dos Santos is an experienced marathoner and ultramarathoner who has competed around the world, including at marathons across Brazil and Europe, alongside a number of 50-km races. He has also been part of six RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts ultramarathons, winning the Spirit Award at the Atacama Crossing 2013 (he has also raced the Atacama Crossing in 2014 and in 2017), the Gobi March (China) 2015 and the Sahara Race (Jordan) 2014. When he crosses the finish line at this year’s edition of The Last Desert, Dos Santos will join the 4 Deserts Club and will be the second blind competitor to do so.

Previous RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts ultramarathon competitors and volunteers are also more than likely to remember Dr. Walker. As a competitor, she has completed the Gobi March (China) 2013, the Atacama Crossing (Chile) 2014 and RacingThePlanet: Patagonia 2017. As a doctor, she has also worked on the medical team at a number of RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts ultras since 2009 including in China, Australia, Egypt, Chile, Madagascar, Ecuador and Namibia.

But this is Walker’s first time as a guide, an experience she’s looking forward to. “[I’m]  inspired by Vladmi, as he's certainly managed to make the best of his situation even considering how difficult it must be to lose your sight,” Walker said.  “It will also be a lot of fun to be with the RacingThePlanet group who I've gotten to know really well over the years.  And -- I can't wait to learn more Portuguese!”

While this is the first time Walker and Dos Santos will partner together, the two previously met at the Atacama Crossing 2014. And while they haven’t yet run together, they’ve been in touch ahead of The Last Desert 2018 -- often using Google Translate to help.

Dos Santos is equally excited to run with Walker.  “Yes, I remember Dr. Rebecca!! I am so happy!! I like Dr. Rebecca, She is a good person. Thank you, thank you!!”

On his Facebook page, Dos Santos thanked Walker for her support. “We met in 2014 during Atacama Crossing and now in 2018 we will be united in one goal to finish the 250km of The Last Desert Antarctica and experience with joy all the beauty of the icy continent! Thank you so much Rebecca for being able to take me through your eyes in such a challenging, icy and charming place. Thanks for the friendship and solidarity!”

As part of her preparations for The Last Desert, Walker has looked to what previous guides have done, and will also have the advantage of getting to know Dos Santos better as they make their way across the Drake Passage en route to the start line of the race. “I actually know one of Vladmi's previous guides, Erin as we've been on multiple races together. I've also been on another race with a few blind runners in Namibia and they had some very cool ways of guiding! Vladmi and I will have a few days together on the expedition ship to really get into the details,” Walker said.

Walker grew up playing soccer and she began distance running while living in Spain because she hadn’t yet joined a soccer team. Calling that first long-distance run an “accident”, Walker said: “ When I realized I had been running for well over an hour, it occurred to me, maybe I could do a lot longer if I trained or something.”

Her first RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts experience was at the Gobi March as part of the medical team. At this race  Walker knew she also wanted to take part as a competitor. Now she switches between the two roles. As a competitor, Walker says she enjoys the physical activity and the sense of camaraderie throughout the camp.

“Even the best runners can have a bad day or a unlucky race, especially when you're going that distance over tough terrain and carrying a bunch of stuff,” Walker said. “It’s humbling, and I love it.”

In California, Walker is an emergency medicine doctor at Stanford, spending half of her time working on developing emergency care systems in low and middle income countries. 

“The Emergency Dept keeps me on my toes and provides for a lot of fun and rewarding patient care,” Walker said. “The global health 'system strengthening' work is similar to consulting in many ways, to design healthcare workforce solutions, ambulance systems or other endeavors to provide increased access to emergency care.  Both are interesting and rewarding, so I feel pretty lucky to have those opportunities.”

Her skills are invaluable to RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts competitors who rely on her and the entire medical team to help them get through the challenging ultramarathons. It’s a challenge that Walker also welcomes from a medical perspective.

“I like the challenge of problem solving in an austere environment to give someone the best chance at recovering or continuing in the race,” Walker said.

Her next challenge is with Dos Santos as they attempt to complete the only multi-stage race in Antarctica (where competitors must qualify by having completed two previous RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts races), but if past results are anything to go by, both Walker and Dos Santos will be celebrating at the finish line.