I started with the knowledge I had gained from last year. To that I added a new coach, some new equipment, and some very specific training camps in San Pedro. The result of all that work is that I won and I got to live my dream of running in the lead of a desert race for a week!
This is my typical race report which is more objective and straight-forward than the article I wrote for GoTrail, but which is also a little less detailed than my report from last year. (If you're looking to learn about the route of each individual stage I would suggest reading last year's race report). Here we go!
Stage 1 - 1st, 2:49:15
The first day is one of the shortest of the race and a great introduction to what is to come during the week. We started at the highest point of the race before gradually descending into a dry river valley, where we ran a flat, rocky and sandy section to the bottom of a canyon. Finally we climbed up a long and slow ascent before a fast 3km sprint to the finish.
I started near the front and within the first few kilometers a group had formed with faces that would become familiar as the week went on (Vlad, Matt, Kyle and Richard). We were running fast and that's why we had separated from the rest of the field so quickly. By the first checkpoint the group was well established and we had settled into a rhythm. I had enough water and didn't need to stop so I ran right through leaving a small gap that the others would have to close if they wanted to be at the front of the race.
Vlad caught up to me in a couple of minutes and we ran locked in step which would become a familiar pattern for most of the race. The pace was a little easier than the first section and eventually Matt and Kyle caught up to us as we were running in the dry river bed that led to checkpoint 2. Again I had enough water and ran through the checkpoint with Matt who also didn't need to stop. Vlad and Kyle were quicker this time and caught up to us right away.
We ran together to the bottom of the canyon which is a 3km winding climb. It's a very difficult part of the day's stage as it's impossible to see the top or know how long the climb is. Fortunately I had run this climb before (in last year's race, in November and once again in the two weeks before the race) so I knew to keep a steady pace and just keep on running. Vlad and Kyle ran away from me a little but they were never too far outside of view so I maintained my pace. About half way up Kyle slowed a little and I passed him. About 500m before the crest of the climb Vlad ran off the trail (I later learned that he was having some stomach troubles that would plague him for a lot of the week). I took the lead and pushed to checkpoint 3 just over the crest of the climb.
|Climbing to checkpoint 3 (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|
I crested the climb of the canyon in the lead, grabbed a bottle of water in a great rush and pushed hard on the descent towards camp. I ran hard all the way in and when I arrived the finish line banner hadn't even been put up. Vlad was less than a minute behind me and ran in looking strong. Kyle and Matt rounded out the first four in the next ten minutes.
Stage 2 - 1st, 4:26:30
This stage is one of the most beautiful of the entire race. We started in a winding river that passes through the slot canyons, climbed up and through the tunnel to the top of Vale de la Muerte with its spectacular views of San Pedro, then we descended and ran through our first section of salt flats to the last tree in the desert, finishing with a fast 4km road section to Laguna Cejar.
I was pleased to start the day with the leader's yellow number and that gave me the confidence to run out in front with Vlad. As we entered the slot canyons the pace slowed a little, as the footing is tricky here, and we all grouped up again. Adam ran ahead telling us he was claiming his 15 minutes of fame at the front of the race and I ran in a group with Vlad, Kyle, Matt and Craig. By the time we had reached the first checkpoint we had a small lead and had settled into a good pace for the day.
|Slot canyons (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|
Kyle, Matt, Vlad and I passed Adam at checkpoint 1 and picked up the pace a little as we were on a smooth sand road that was flat and easy to run. When we reached the climb that would lead us to the tunnel and to the ridge of Vale de la Muerte, Vlad and I picked up the pace a little and left Matt and Kyle behind. It was a tough climb and a relief to reach the ridge and know that there was no more climbing for the day. The route then descended a massive dune before arriving at checkpoint 2. The descent was so much fun and fast even though a lot of the sand had been washed away in the recent rains.
Vlad and I then ran together through the flat and barren landscape to checkpoint 3. This is a tough section of the day as the course is less beautiful and exciting than the ridge we had just run, and it was also starting to get hot. We slowed a little, but still maintained a decent pace and were very happy when we reached the checkpoint as we were both out of water. After the checkpoint was a soft, crusty and green (small shrubs growing every 10m) salt flat. It wasn't too hard to run on this and we maintained the pace until we hit the road at the last tree of the desert.
The last section of the day is a flat and hard-packed dirt road for about 4km to the finish. As we started on this road we picked up the pace and were constantly testing each other with little half-steps in front of the other. I wanted to slow the pace as it was only day two and we were in the lead, but I didn't want Vlad to run away from me. We kept this up all the way to the finish and the pace grew constantly. Finally in the last 100m we started to sprint. I pulled ahead, then Vlad took a lead of a few paces and finally I managed to take the lead again win the stage by one second! It was a crazy way to end the second day of the race, but it sure made the people at the finish excited.
|At Laguna Cejar (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|
Stage 3 - 1st, 4:49:17
Stage 3 is generally considered the toughest day of the race. It comes after two days when we were starting to feel fatigued and includes plenty of difficult terrain. The stage starts with a section of salt flat covered in thick shrub, moves on to a fast sandy road and then dirt road, returns to about 15km of soft salt flats, before the final 14km section from checkpoint 3 to the finish through sand dunes, soft-slanted footing and multiple dry-river bed crossings. The last section was especially difficult as it was hot and it feels very long.
I enjoyed the start to this stage as the dense vegetation on the flats makes it hard to run and keeps the field close together. Leading to the first checkpoint the field looked similar to previous stages with Vlad and me near the front, but the field wasn't very spread out at all. Andrea was with us through that first checkpoint and as we slowed we could see plenty of runners behind us.
On the sandy road and then dirt road section we ran a good pace. Vlad seemed to love picking up the pace on the roads and we did it again on this stage. We opened a gap on the rest and only Andrea came with us. The flags soon take a 90 degree turn left off the road and directly into the salt flats. From there it was at least 15km of soft salt flats passing through checkpoint 2 and leading to checkpoint 3. The three of us ran a conservative and slow pace through the salt flats with the only intention of keeping on running.
About half way between checkpoint 2 and 3 Andrea dropped off the pace and Vlad and I continued slowly running in soft sand. It was difficult running again and we weren't going very fast at all. When we reached checkpoint 3 we took on extra water and decided to work together through the long last section to the finish. After stage 2 we had a good lead over third and our hard running at the end of the previous day meant we were both feeling a little more tired on the tough terrain.
Vlad and I stayed together through to the end and it was great to be working together. The ground in this section is a sandy, red color with lots of reddish rocks and it's quite difficult to see the pink flags (even though the course was very well marked). I think it gave us an advantage in this section and we definitely managed to hold off Andrea and Craig who were not far behind us earlier in the day. We finished together and I was given a time one second faster as my chip was scanned first.
Stage 4 - 1st, 4:25:54
This stage is relatively easy even though it contains the "salar" (white, corally salt flats). We started in terrain similar to how stage 3 ended with rolling sand dunes before descending to Toconao, from there it was a flat and easy sandy section until checkpoint 2, followed by a long "salar" of about 14km to checkpoint 3 and then a final 6km on a soft salty road until the finish.
Vlad and I started running up the dunes well and opened a small gap on some of the other runners. However, during the descent to Toconao we were a little slower than the rest, I was struggling a little with blisters and the tough footing, and by the first checkpoint the front group was almost together again. The next section was a long sandy and flat run to checkpoint 2. I felt good and opened up the pace to make sure that anyone who wanted to run with me would be getting tired by the time we arrived at the salar. Vlad and I arrived at checkpoint 2 without anybody in sight behind us.
|Almost at checkpoint 2 (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|
In the salar there are paths where people have run before that are a little flatter and smoother than everywhere else. It's not always easy to see or follow the paths, but if you can it's much faster running and much easier on the feet. Vlad and I started well together, but a few minutes into the salara Vlad stopped and then didn't pick up the pace when he started running again. I grabbed the opportunity and picked up to the best pace I thought I could maintain to the end of the stage.
At first the gap didn't open, but gradually as we spent about another 30 minutes in the salar I started to get away from him and could feel the gap opening. I ran hard to checkpoint 3, grabbed a bottle without stopping and pushed on hard towards the finish. I knew from the previous year it was about 3km to Los Ojos (last year's stage finish) and after that I believed it would be another couple of kilometers to the end of the day. I ran hard and felt like the finish would never come, but eventually it did and I had managed to build a 5-minute lead. This lead was vital for me going into the next day, as I had been less than a minute ahead of Vlad over the last three days.
Stage 5 - 1st, 9:07:08
The long stage is about 75km. It started with about 17km of unrunnable salt flats until checkpoint 2, followed by easy and smooth ground until checkpoint 3. After checkpoint 3 we ran into some salt flats, up a massive sand dune which was way too steep to run, before descending down the other side of the climb to arrive at checkpoint 4. From Checkpoint 4 it's mostly flat all the way to the end with only a small climb up to Vale de la Luna. However, it's a long 30km in winding dry river beds where we couldn't see beyond the next turn, followed by long stretches of rocky dirt roads that seemed to stretch forever. After climbing up the Valle de la Luna it was only about 9km of rolling dirt road to the end and essentially the end of the race as the final stage would only be 8km.
The first part of this stage was quite strange. We ran through the salty waters of Laguna Tebinquinche splashing ourselves with salt that would mark our clothes for the rest of the day. However, after 5 minutes of running we left the Laguna and moved onto hard, crystallized salt flats. We tried to run, but the ground was like a coral bed of sharp and uneven salt. The whole field of competitors was spread out in a long line and we trudged on through the salt flats. This lasted for the first 17km and through the first checkpoints so that there was a massive group of us together leaving checkpoint 2.
After the checkpoint we moved onto more friendly terrain and I ran in a great group with Vlad, Craig, Adam, Nelson and Rick. We were enjoying the easy and quite slow pace that marks the beginning of a long day of running where we could still chat and joke with each other. There was one runner from Korea ahead of us, Hyechang Rhim, but he was significantly behind in the overall time so we didn't worry about him too much until checkpoint 3.
At checkpoint 3 I was feeling good so I picked up the pace a little as I didn't want to settle into too slow a pace for the whole day and I wanted to catch up to the runner in front. I went ahead on my own and after about 20 minutes caught up to Hyechang and we ran together through the salt flats and up the sand dune. I had run the last 30 kilometers of the course from checkpoint 4 to the finish as a trial run in November and I knew that the knowledge of the course could benefit me to gain some time on my rivals. I rushed down to the checkpoint and I was first in and out of the checkpoint with a mission ahead of me to run the final 30 kilometers evenly and faster than the rest.
|About half way on the long day (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|
I didn't run fast at all, but I also didn't slow too much even though the sun was beating down on me and it felt so dry in the sandy river bed. I stayed strong for as long as I could with the aim to run the section to the next checkpoint better than last year and perhaps as well as I had in November. It was tough and I really struggled, but I arrived at the checkpoint with no one in sight behind me and without walking at any point. I knew I was in a good position and just focused on getting to the finish.
It was a long and painful final 20km. I was constantly looking behind me to see if anyone was coming while trying to maintain the confidence that I could get to the finish the fastest on the day. It was a fantastic section of the race as I was asking my body to give everything to finish the stage while trying to hold off blowing up and slowing down. These types of testing moments are what define ultra-running. I didn't run amazingly, but I did deliver and arrived at the finish line feeling relieved and happy that I had clinched the stage.
I had no idea how much time I had over second and was pleasantly surprised when a group of three arrived together about 30 minutes after I was done. I knew then that I had won the race and that I just needed to take it easy on the Friday and run it in on Saturday to the race finish.
|Very happy to be finished (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|
Stage 6 - 4th, 0:39:47
The last stage was just over 8km. It's fast and flat all the way from Valle de la Luna to the town square in San Pedro. I wanted to win the last stage, but I was still feeling the effects of my effort on the long stage and didn't have the legs to go with Vlad, Kyle and Hyechang. It was great that Vlad won a stage after working so hard for the week and to see Kyle finish so strong after his struggles with altitude sickness during the week.
I was extremely happy to be running towards V who I knew was waiting at the finish, to be running with the yellow leader's bib and to know that I was securely in first place. The crowds were fantastic along the streets in San Pedro, I ran past my friend Orlando (who looked after me when I visited San Pedro in November) and at the finish the noise was incredible.
|Winning the Atacama Crossing (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|
V was waiting for me and holding my medal to put it around my neck. It was such a relief to be finished, to know that we had achieved our goal, and to be together again. I was ecstatic!
|With V at the finish (source: racingtheplanet.com / Shaun Boyte)|