CAN YOU HEAR THE DRUMS OF THE ATACAMA DESERT?
Nicholas Coyle, New Zealand / Finishing Time: 51hrs, 43 min / Finishing Position: 49th
Stage 5- Those Still Out There
I knew it was still early, but definitely well past the dark, cold and ungodly hour that we had all gotten used to waking. My running watch was completely dead. No need looking for my mobile battery charger; that was dead too. I patted around in search of my dusty iPhone for a time update; 8:32 am. Warm. Sunny. Still. I had been asleep for just under seven hours. Troy (Canada) and I had completed our Long March (Stage 5) in the early hours of the previous night. Samantha, Dr. David and some weary-eyed and wonderful volunteers – all heavily clad to keep the desert chill away – had administered our entry into camp at around 01:40 am. As Troy and I entered camp arm-in-arm that cold dark morning, the drum beat was somewhat quieter and less fervent than usual. In fact, I was taken aback that the drum was active at all, especially at that late hour, and given that many of the runners were already fast asleep in their tents. But it was; the drum was active and manned by an outstanding team of volunteers. They beat it quietly for Troy and I as we stumbled home that morning, both nursing painful injuries. They would have roared it into life a dozen or so hours earlier as the winning men and women raced in to camp. And without fail they would continue to sound it until the last runner made it home. Of the million and one uncertainties we faced as we traversed the Atacama Desert, one thing was certain; we would always hear the Drums of the Atacama Desert as we made our way into camp. Indeed, at the end of any given stage of the race, the exciting drum wraps and loud hollering was an uplifting moment that I had come to love. As I would approach the finish line, I would hear them – soft at first from afar, then louder as I got closer. Then the flags of the world would also come into view, and I would know that I had come one stage closer to conquering the desert. But this time, as Troy and I hobbled home in the middle of the night – our bodies totally destroyed – the slow and soothing drum roll seemed to be addressing my inner vulnerabilities which I had secretly carried with me all day. It was as if they were talking to me now. “You made it; why did you doubt yourself?”; “No need to worry about your injuries anymore; you’re home now.” “The pink flags really did bring you home, didn’t they!?” ‘And, dude… no vertigo attacks; nicely done!’ Curiously, I felt like a small child learning at my mother’s knee the answers to some of life’s important questions. How strange it was to be reminded of my dear mother at this time. How utterly relieved I was to be – at last – anxiety free in this most unforgiving place.
I woke finding myself on top of my sleeping bag, probably getting that way in my sleep so as to avoid overheating from the morning sun. Only one other tent mate was resident. It was Mika (Japan). She too had completed her Long March into the early hours of the morning and she was still fast asleep. Tom (USA), Andrew (Australia), Shiela (Sweden) and Nicola (Italy) – all of whom I guessed had finished their adventures much earlier than Mika and I – were most probably resting, recovering or taking breakfast outside in the sun.
Even from inside our tent, I could instantly tell there was an air of quiet-Sunday-morning-like mood about camp. As I peeked out, I was able to confirm this. People relaxing. Shirts off. Voices subdued. Nothing required urgent attention this morning. Today was rest day, and what a huge relief that was. But first things first; I had demons to confront; demons in the form of blisters that needed assessment and attention. I took my crusty socks off, and saw new blisters atop old blisters. Blisters between blisters. Blisters under blisters. Blisters within cracked skin. Blisters caked with sand, dirt and puss. After assessing my damaged feet, I made a mental note to visit the medical tent later. Then I hobbled out to the campsite to greet my fellow wounded camp mates. But this morning, we greeted each other a little differently; the normal handshake, fist bump or slap on the back was replaced with a softer and more sincere embrace. We looked one another in the eye that little bit longer as we enquired about each other’s condition. We sat closer to each other around the camp fire, almost in need of a tactile exchange for a short moment. Those of us in camp had all successfully finished the grueling 80km Long March of the Atacama Desert Crossing. We had done it, each hearing the drum beat at varying hours of day and night, each having stories of hardship and adversity to share, and each eager to learn about the fate of those who had not yet returned to camp, those who were now fully exposed to the rising temperatures of the morning heat, those ‘still out there’.
For the rest of the morning we wondered. We worried. We waited.
Stage 1- Altitude, Pink Flags & Biology
Usui San (Japan) and I were to experience the intense – almost deafening – drum roll for the first time as we ran across the finish line under a hot sun and bright sky. 36km of running at high altitude took us down dead and dry riverbeds, up lama-beaten tracks, through Space Mountain-like canyons, along miles of rock and shale tracks, up an un-ending mountain pass cut out through beautiful apricot-colored rock formations. We had gotten together earlier that morning through sheer luck, as both of us had lost our way due to the misplacement of course flags. This had caused much confusion and concern for a short while to many runners. But in actual fact, that concern stayed with me all of the race, and would continue to be a constant source of anxiety for me in the desert. It is certainly not a location where someone like me I – having virtually no sense of direction – wishes to lose one’s way. I constantly harbored that fear of getting lost again on each and every stage, almost obsessively hunting for and stalking those pink flags along the way. But this time, thanks to the good and speedy work of Fernando – our course marshal – we were able to get on our way in the correct direction relatively quickly.
When I have the pleasure to meet and run with someone for the first time, I enjoy immensely the opportunity of chatting, discussing, and interacting. However, by the time I had met up with Usui San, I was in intense discomfort from erratic breathing and hangover-like headaches caused of course by the high altitude (3,200 meters). I was lousy and unpleasant company for Usui San; he did not deserve my sullen, sorry and sad company that day. By Check-point 2, I was now realizing that my one-and-only climb to the top of Mt. Fuji two weeks earlier was woefully insufficient altitude training; true that I climbed Mt. Fuji relatively comfortably that day, but true too that that had lulled me into a false sense of security. I was hurting badly now, and kicking myself for not heeding Harrisson’s insistent advice of tackling Mt Fuji multiple times prior to the race. Mt. Fuji is 3,700 meters high and I really needed to spend more training days at that altitude to acclimatize; maybe that would have alleviated my ailments, which by now included diarrhea and the urgent need to establish my very own organic footprint under a thorny desert bush…!
Stage 2- Is My Pack Empty?
On Stage 2, Patrick (USA) and I were to hear the gutsy drum roll after a life-changing 37km run. It started with us running down, through and across the stunning – but quite treacherous – slot canyons, making 29 river crossings along the way, scrambling up high and handsome ridge lines that towered over a sea of salmon-colored mountain tops, along tedious and uneven clay-packed terrain, and mile after mile of rocky and uneven shale. Along the way, we were able to alleviate our fatigue by exchanging much about the people in our lives who were special to us. It was over the mountain passes where I learnt that Patrick’s family were planning to visit him in San Pedro, and greet him across the finish line at the end of Stage 6. I started wondering how it would feel to run over the finish line in San Pedro – after what would seem like a lifetime in the desert – and have the chance to hug and squeeze a family member. I remember feeling thrilled for Patrick, and ever so keen to meet his guests on that day. I of course was not to have the luxury of meeting my family at the finish-line in San Pedro, but I got the next-best-thing; my gorgeous family, Tomoka, Joe and Jake surprised me at Narita Airport to welcome be home and greet me off my flight that landed at 06:30 am…! Narita Airport is 60+ kms away, and they all got up at 4:30 am that morning to make the trip. Such a wonderful welcome home that ended my trip on a complete high!
The kilometers and time that Patrick and I spent together were unforgettable, and they enabled us to develop an instant kinship with one another along the way. Tom (USA) – my tent-mate – joined Patrick and I by the time we had reached the infamous sand dune. Everyone had pre-warned me of it; Samantha had mentioned it in the pre-race briefing that morning. It was extensively covered in the racing notes and on the web. Ash (Canada) raved about it in his pre-race Ask-Ash seminar talk. Benji (USA) had even spoken about it at Lima Airport when we first met and were waiting for our connecting flight into Calama. But no one could adequately prepare me for what I was about to encounter. No description of the colors seen atop that dune would ever sufficed without having actually seen it with my own eyes. No video could have possibly recorded the feeling I had inside when running nearly knee-deep in hot sand. Neither could a still photo accurately display the joy I had as gravity assisted me down a near 1,000 meter dune. We all carried heavy packs, filled with the essentials we needed for 7 days in the desert; some were 6kg, others 15kg; mine was 10kg, and starting to become a very annoying piece of body part. From the very moment I let myself go at the top of that dune, nothing was weighing me down, or worrying me. Blister pain forgotten. Back discomfort gone. Hamstring tightness cured. I felt lucky to be alive and thankful for this experience. It was an incredible day of running, on an incredible course, together with incredible friends. That day will stay with me forever as one of the most wonderful places I have ever visited on this earth.
Stage 3- Everybody Hurts in the ‘Real Atacama’
It was about at the 11 or 12km mark; I was running along a desert road, and catching up to another runner in a blue shirt and tan shorts. His full beard gave himself away as he turned around; it was Ash (Canada). He had heard me and my loud iTunes music approaching from behind. He seemed quite charmed by the catchy Bengali music I was playing. He told me it was very similar to Persian music that he was familiar with through his Iranian ancestry. We started running together, enjoying the music along the way. Ash is the most celebrated of all Atacama Desert runners, having completed 10 Crossings already. Not only that, he has completed 25 Desert ultras in total! As we ran along the road, we talked about many things; Donald Trump, the US Presidency in general, the industry of war, the Bolivian Mountains, Canada, dentistry – topics which wouldn’t usually carry me too far in distance, but with Ash it was a fascinating interaction and each subject moved us many kilometers down the road. I could tell from the moment we buddied-up that he was a strong and super smart ultra-runner, imparting many of his well trusted strategies and secrets of desert running to me. At one point he warned me; “In about 1 hour, expect to experience the real Atacama.” Being on day-3 of this desert race, I was a little confused by that comment, thinking that I was well and truly in the Atacama Desert already. But I continued on anyway, not really taking notice of this. It was simply stunning to run with him.
Then I had a fleeting thought; it went something like this; if I run well today, maybe – just maybe – I could go all the way to the finish with Ash, then hear the Drums of the Atacama with him that afternoon; how awesome would that be!? As we followed the pink flags that lead us off the desert road and into the salt flat terrain for the first time, only then did I realize what a ridiculous thought that was; a perfectly repugnant and odious brain fart! The terrain ahead was so hard, so dangerously unstable and so frightening to run / walk / stumble on that at parts I would have to stop, search for alternative routes, retreat, stumble along, and find other ways through the brackish bush and horrid terrain. After about 20 minutes, my idiotic thought – and Ash – were now invisible to me. And I was a pathetic afterthought in Ash’s rear-view mirror. How could I have even dreamt of running the remainder of Stage 3 with the King of the Atacama? What was I thinking? Back to the salt flats. Back to reality.
After exiting Checkpoint 2, the going got very tough, and the ‘real Atacama’ suddenly was upon me. And upon my blisters. By now, I could feel them tearing open as I stumbled over bleached rocks, salt crystals, and soft sand. Each tear delivered awful pain through my system. It was a very long way to the next Checkpoint but unexpectedly I spotted it way in the distance; the small black tent. There was still a very long way to go. My only wish in life was to make it to Checkpoint 3 so the doctors could treat my feet. Eventually I made it there, and found the always-lovely and smiley group of volunteers awaiting my arrival. As I climbed a hill and approached the Checkpoint tent, Benji (USA) was doubled-over in fits of laughter; he heard the iTunes song that was blaring from my iPhone; R.E.M’s ‘Everybody Hurts’! By now, I was paying no attention to the music at all, and the irony was totally lost on me. Benji however was loving it; the perfect union of the lyrics of that song and my sorry-ass condition. I decided that this was as appropriate a time as ever to flip him ‘the bird’! The awesome doctors applied fresh taping and ‘second skin’ to my feet, and the volunteers so kindly filled my water bottles. I headed on my way to Checkpoint 4 but, just before leaving, one of the volunteers announced that word had come through that Jovica (Serbia) – the race leader – had just completed today’s stage; the time was exactly 12:38. What a phenomenal runner and competitor; here I was about to leave Checkpoint 3, and he had just completed the treacherous 41km Stage 3, in 4 hours and 30-some minutes.
All of a sudden, the drums of the Atacama seemed a very long way away.
Hours later, I would climb the last remaining sand dune of the real Atacama – alone and degraded – and tumble over the finish line. Aside from my brief encounter with Ash earlier that morning, Stage 3 marked the only stage where I ran / walked mostly on my own, finishing as ‘Nicky-no-mates’. Humbled and exhausted from the multiple ordeals of this stage, I sat for an hour speechless and motionless in a deck chair inside the medical tent. Too tired to even prepare something to eat that evening, I went straight to my tent and wriggled into my sleeping bag. As I lay in my tent, unwilling to move and un-wanting of food, I heard the Atacama drum and camp applause for Bill (UK), the oldest competitor in the race at 74. The last thought I remember before closing my eyes was; ‘Bill is back; the banter and camp-side stories won’t be far behind!’
Stage 4- Soft Drinks & Pep Talks
It was dusk when Usui San and I completed this stage of 50km. The last 10km had been a tedious, wind-swept slog that played games with our heads. We had gotten to know each other earlier in the race, having completed the first stage in sync. So, it felt somewhat comfortable to be running / walking the last few kilometers together again; sort of like wearing an old pair of shoes if you like. Not much to talk about now; both of us just desperate to finish.
The Drums of the Atacama delivered little joy to me that day when I reached the end; I only felt relief. Huge relief that this fucking stage was over.
For the third day in a row, Andrew (Australia), my fabulous tent mate, was waiting to greet me at the Finish Line. He peeled my pack from off my back, led me to a place to rest at the finish-line Checkpoint, and couriered my gear to our new tent location. Andrew’s concierge services were not only provided exclusively to me; he would do this to other tent-mates as well all through the race. It humbled me every time, and I think I will recall his kindness and generosity, long after the sights and sounds of the Atacama have left me.
The race started with much promise that morning. After the first section of climbing up soft and loose sand, I settled in behind Saki Chan (Japan) and Mr. Eggplant (Japan), making good progress through the uneven rocks and gravel sections. Then trouble. Suddenly I was faced with the need to transfer my often unstable-self across huge rocks that sat high above the ground, having prominent gaps between them. 23 years of tinnitus, dizzy spells and damage to my inner-ears has gifted me with poor balance and vertigo. To be truthful, I have never gotten accustomed to the crippling attacks that vestibular damage randomly inflicts upon me. But I have learnt to deal adroitly with embarrassing / harmless faux-pas which imbalance often brings, such as unexpectedly swaying into people or bumping into objects. I would simply smile and make light of it, apologizing my way out of each awkward and harmless episode. But when a drop attack hits, especially at height, – like when driving over a bridge, experiencing an earthquake in a high rise building, or when standing on the crest of a high rock – it no longer becomes an embarrassing episode. It immediately transforms itself into fear. Perfect fear. Fear that I will spin. Fear that I won’t be able to tell up from down, or left from right.
At the lip of the rock, I was frozen; not knowing what to do. I tried once to jump, but found that my feet were super-glued to the rocks. Then I tried again; no luck this time either. Other runners behind me were now waiting for me to launch, propel myself across. They must have been wondering what was going on, and what my problem was. I couldn’t do it; simply could not do it. I looked to see if there was an alternative way across. There probably was, but it would have taken me off course – away from the comfort of my pink flags – , up and down unwanted terrain and it would have cost me a lot of time, distance and energy. Thankfully I was not spinning, just scared that I would. Out of options, I took a deep breath, braced myself and mustered the courage to make the over-extended step. I had made it across, and then felt more confident in negotiating myself over the next one or two ahead. Thrilled with my new found cockiness, I careened down the dunes and into the green valley and river sections with chest out, arms flailing, and head held high.
I was surprised to see Tadahiro San (Japan) resting at Checkpoint 1; I thought he and his cheery self were well ahead of me. We decided to run on together, and ended up shoulder to shoulder for the next 14km. We waded across the open and very expansive plains of the Atacama, feet slipping and sliding in the rocky and sandy underfoot. We would run the distance of 3-4 flags, then walk 1, then repeat this for kilometer after kilometer. It was a very workable formula that broke up the monotony of the journey and allowed us to chat and laugh along the way. Every now and then, we would slow down, turn around and crane our heads back to catch a glance of the beautiful snow-capped Bolivian mountains behind us. They were beautiful and intoxicating to the eye; as addictive as a riveting novel that couldn’t be put down. We met Benji at one point, out in the open, and he told us that we had 2-3km to go to reach the next Checkpoint. But, he didn’t tell us that there would be soft drinks waiting for us there…! When we arrived, we had a choice of Fanta, Coke or Sprite; such decisions to make in the heart of the desert!! The sugar hit brought the Checkpoint atmosphere to great heights. Music was loud, and frivolity levels were even more festive than usual. But not for long.
As we went on our way, we were to encounter – I think – the toughest and most challenging 14 km section of the race. More salt flats. Salt flats like we had not experienced before. Salt flats on steroids. These guys were nasty and treacherous. So bad that access for Fernando and his trail bike was dangerous and restricted in many parts. A careless step would result in a bad fall, and bad fall would most definitely result in a serious injury, and serious injury would mean withdrawal from the race. We were required to carry an additional 1.0 liter of water so as to stay hydrated through this expansive and dangerous wasteland. I had been told that the two most common causes for DNF in the Atacama are injuries to feet and dehydration, both of which brazenly presented themselves as real possibilities along this section. Unlike Tadahiro San, I was slow and clumsy across the salt flats and I quickly fell behind him. I would next see him waiting for Usui San and I, bare chested and smiling, at the finish line that evening.
Dr. Ellen was a truly special sight to see as I hobbled into Checkpoint 3, almost in tears. She treated my feet so carefully while giving me the most encouraging of pep talks. I thought about what she said for the remaining 10km back to camp, and it impressed upon me how a gentle word can really lift a person out of their depths. The details of what she said are not for pen to write nor for paper to record. Not now, anyway. But her words filled me with the resolve to continue, not only to the end of this fucking stage, but right to the very end of this incredible race.
Stage 6- 14 Months, and 13 Km to Go
July 2018. Haneda International Airport, Tokyo. I had gone through immigration control, and – like a bad habit – headed straight to the duty free stores to scout out any cheeky bargains; nothing was biting today. So, I went into a coffee shop, and got on line. Then I did it. I clicked on the Racing The Planet Website. I had been avoiding it for the last few weeks, almost afraid to poke the bear. I knew I was playing with fire. But Comrades 2018 was nearly two months behind me, and there was next to nothing in front of me. I hated that; hated having nothing in my sights to aim for. A state of mind that literally scares. Almost unravels me. Secretly, I had decided some time ago that I wanted to do this race, but what did it entail? How does one plan for such an adventure? What should one prepare? Would my wife, Tomoka, approve; how was I going to get this one past her!? Two hours later and heading to my flight, I was awash with bewilderment. The equipment list alone – downloaded and now safely stored in my newly created “Atacama 2019” folder – already intimidated me. So much to prepare. So much to purchase. I owned only three things on that list; shorts, socks, and long running tights! And possibly a suitable running jacket or two. I realized then that everything about this adventure in front of me would be new; unfamiliar norms in unchartered waters. I would need to adopt totally unaccustomed training regimes. I would need to find different terrain upon which to train. I would need help in developing specific types of nutrition planning suitable for this race. I would also need to convince Harrisson to coach me through this foolhardy crusade! There would be new lands to travel to and new things to learn. Over the boarding call for my flight to Seoul that morning, I could already hear the pangs of anxiety resonating inside of me.
For the next 14 months, I wondered. I worried. I waited.
As I trundled into the sleepy town of San Pedro after a 13 km trot, backpack light now but shoulders still very sore, someone yelled to me; “Nicholas, you have 200 meters to go!” My journey through one of earth’s most unimaginable places was about to finish. After hearing the drums of the Atacama beat for me for the very last time, I received a hug and my race medal from Samantha. Then, rather unceremoniously I immediately let my pack-back drop from my shoulders, and with it all of my uncertainties over the last 14 months. I grabbed a can of Coke and a slice of pizza, then started to enjoy the celebrations as we waited for others to finish. I saw Patrick and met his family. I congratulated the two super-human winners, Jovica and Deb. I hugged my awesome tent-mates Tom and Andrew.
Then I looked over to where the drum was beating at fever pitch, and recalled that Rest Day morning once again.
Stage 5- Education in the Desert
The volunteers told us that the last ones ‘still out there’ were about to finish; Helen (Malaysia) and Julia (UK). As was custom by now, we gathered at the finish line to cheer the last ones home. On any other day, this would be fun and festive occasion. The Atacama drum would beat thick and quick and hollers would ring out around camp. Tent mates would gather closest to the line and meet their companions as they finished. But not this time. Not today. Not for Helen and Julia. Helen fell victim to a very bad ankle / foot injury early on in Stage 1 of the race, and Julia was not about to abandon her. I am not familiar with the details of Helen’s injury, but word around camp was that her injury was bad; heavily swollen, delicate to the touch, exacerbated further by every stage that she completed on it. It was so bad that apparently the medical team had advised her early on to withdraw from the race, a recommendation they would not have made lightly I am sure. But Helen chose to continue; day after day, salt-flat after salt-flat, kilometer after kilometer. And Julia decided to stay close to her – at her side for the whole of the race. As they approached the finish line that morning, more than 20 hours after starting their Long March, I could not hear the drums at all. They were silent to me, inaudible to my ear. Their clatter was drowned out by the immense applause of everyone at camp. Not a dry eye in sight. No cat calling. No hollering. No cheering. Just thunderous applause in the middle of the desert for two incredible women.
Helen and Julia taught us a few lessons that day. Helen schooled us on what it really takes to endure extreme pain and ignore adversity right up to the end. Julia gave us all a free education on how to put the ‘less’ behind the word ‘self’, a valuable lesson that I for one often need to be reminded of. I watched them, through water-logged eyes, embrace at the finish line amidst a cacophony of applause and a sea of motionless people. It was at this moment when I fully understood the significance of this race, the spirit in which one must approach it, and the real meaning of that drum.