The Volcano Marathon - part 1 - acclimatisation

The journey to San Pedro de Atacama (Fri/Sat)

I was Chile-bound once again. This year it was my final destination as opposed to a stop-over and I was heading for the North rather than the South. It was also ‘Team Audrey’ this year as I was accompanied by Alasdair.

Learning from my experiences of last year I decided to take the day before travelling off. This resulted in better organisation and a far more relaxed start to our trip. The journey this year was going to be shorter with one less leg, but we were still looking at close to 28 hours door to door.

The itinerary was drive from Glasgow to Edinburgh airport, flight to Paris, then Paris to Santiago, Santiago to Calama and finally an hour’s drive to San Pedro de Atacama, our base.

It was a smooth and uneventful trip in terms of logistics, although not such a smooth long haul flight with regard to turbulence of which there was rather a lot. I will skim over the shockingly expensive refreshments in Charles de Gaulle airport.  I have to give a big thumb’s up to Air France. What a world of difference from Iberia/LAN. The service was impeccable, the food OK (given that it was airplane food), the toilets were kept fresh and clean and there were unlimited snacks and drinks available. So, whilst neither of us slept much, we arrived in Santiago in reasonable shape.

We bumped briefly into Mike King (event photographer) and Dave Painter (event cameraman) at Santiago before we then hooked up again along with several other competitors at Calama. The airport at Calama is new, built in the last 12 months to cater for increased traffic due to a boom in mineral mining in the area. Calama seemed dry and bleak.

As we drove towards San Pedro de Atacama we marvelled at the scenery which became increasing lunar in quality, dry hot and majestic. Alasdair remarked that it was not surprising that they chose the Atacama for testing for the Mars landings. The road was long and straight with the exception of the occasional hairpin bend.  Without exception, each bend had at least one shrine to the memory of someone killed in an accident. Luckily our driver seemed sensible and keep his speed reasonable. As we neared San Pedro, I became aware of the thinning air, nothing drastic, just that familiar sensation that I recalled from my training at Glasgow University.

San Pedro de Atacama (Sat)

San Pedro de Atacama is an oasis in the middle of the barren salt and sand dominated landscape and is just how you would imagine an archetypal South American desert town to be: narrow, packed earth streets and adobe style buildings, with the mountains and volcano peaks providing a dramatic backdrop. The competitors accommodation was situated a short distance from the town’s main street, and we were accommodated in simple adobe rooms alongside a pool. It was hot, very hot, and so the presence of a pool was much appreciated.

There was just enough time to get settled and have an initial wander around the  town to find our bearings before returning to the hotel to meet the other competitors at the race briefing. The town is a ‘hotch-potch’ of restaurants, cafes and bars, small grocery shops, gift and craft shops, day trip and tour organisers, a couple of banks and a couple of pharmacies. It was a successful foray. Top priority was to buy a copious supply of water as we were going to be drinking upwards of 2 litres each a day. We also found an amazing little ice cream shop with an assortment of ice creams and sorbets made using local botanicals such as Coca and Rica-Rica. We eagerly indulged in 2 large cones; I mean, it would have been rude not to especially after the owner allowed us to taste almost half of them. Yum!

The town is noted for its population of dogs. The dogs in question are considered to be ‘semi-feral’, mainly due to the fact that many do not have individual owners and fend for themselves. The town’s people feed them and clear up behind them. They are friendly and know the rules, namely to keep themselves-to-themselves and that shops and restaurants are out of bounds. If you are sitting in the open eating they will loiter in the hope of a scrap or two but do not make a nuisance of themselves. They have a great deal of character about them, and we quickly decided to make a bit of a photography project of them.

The race briefing

Early evening we gathered for the race briefing. My inevitable anxieties kicked in as I looked about me and saw myself surrounded by lean mean running machines from 7 countries. I whispered to Alasdair that I was feeling rather out of my league. he dismissed my anxiety as utter nonsense; pointing out that I had plenty of endurance experience, was suitably ‘qualified’ and that anyway, I was there simply for a finish and to enjoy the experience.

Richard briefed us with his usual relaxed humour, but also making it clear what we should expect and what we needed to do. We got the schedule for the next two days as well as race day; and were advised about the conditions and how to cope. Finally we were allocated our race numbers, drop bags and t-shirts.  I was allocated bib number 13! I am not overly superstitious, but it did give pause for thought and a ripple of laughter. I do wonder now if this had anything to do with the camera electrics failing, my Garmin going on the blink and a certain drop bag incident.

After the briefing we split into groups to go in search of dinner. Our group consisted of the UK, Irish and Norwegian contingent, Mike and Dave. Now, Chile is not renowned for its cuisine, and I had warned Alasdair about this this and it certainly lived up to, or should I say down to expectation. The meal was plentiful enough, gargantuan even, but just not good: oily and lacking flavour and with a strange unidentifiable taste which we concluded was either down to the water or the oil. As a result most of it was left. The dogs were going to eat well that evening. Perhaps that is part of a cunning plan by the town’s folk. Get the tourists to pay to feed the dogs, by giving them huge quantities of mediocre food that they will then not eat. As we became more familiar with the town's cafes and restaurants we were able to get better food.

 Acclimatisation runs (Sun) – The Salt Mountains

The plan for Sunday was leisurely breakfast, a bit more of a ramble round the town and then our first trip and acclimatisation runs in the afternoon and evening. At breakfast there was much debate about the fluid in the hot urn: was it tea or coffee? As there was a thermos of hot water and tea-bags also laid out we had to conclude that it was incredibly weak tasteless coffee. How is that possible in a South American country? The post-breakfast mission: find a decent coffee somewhere, and some more sunblock. Coffee addiction satisfied, sun block purchased and applied and we headed for a mooch around in a covered alleyway or arcade where there was a range of craft stalls.

We had agreed to meet back up with one of the other British runners, Judy, for lunch before getting organised for the trip: another restaurant, and an OK pizza, but again that odd flavour. It must be the oil. With hindsight not the best choice as it sat heavy and leaden in my stomach during the first run.

We gathered in our race day kit and a plentiful supply of water. The acclimatisation run would provide a chance to trial our kit and allow time for us to make changes or adjustments for race day. We piled into two mini-buses and headed out to our first destination: The Salt Mountain Range at an altitude of about 2,500m, and which reached via bumpy, pot-holed, sand-drifted tracks as befitted the location. At one point we passed a sign warning about mines: underground or land? Turns out it was land mines! We duly arrived at the chosen spot and piled out. There was no cover. The glare of the sun was eye searing, and the heat suffocating as the sun bounced off the white scorched salt encrusted earth. We were to run for about 5km.

We set off. I think just about every alarm in my body triggered within the first few minutes and I could feel it panicking. The chimp was out of the cage, charging around screaming and hurling poop. 

My heart rate shot up, my breathing became very rapid, my legs felt heavy, and my skin felt like it was on fire! Wow! I looked around and everyone else seemed to be coping fine, argh! I slowed to walk to focus on my breathing and get my body back under control. Steady, deep controlled breathing: calm logical thoughts. My head was covered, I had sunglasses on and I was covered in factor 50, I had plenty of water; nothing is going to go wrong, just take it steady. The chimp started to calm down and I was able to edge back towards the cage.

I started to run again and it was better, although my heart rate was still high, and I continued on slow and steady, walking the inclines. Soon I spotted the vans and the other runners ahead and jogged up the last small incline to meet them. Phew, job done; except it was not job done. We were only half way; there was another couple of ‘k’ to go after a short break.

 We rested and took some fluids. Most of us scrambled up a slope to admire the  open vistas for a few minutes before slithering back down the slope to seek some cover/shade in and around the vans. That was when I realised that these hills were not stone but large formations of salt and sand which was why they were so crumbly underfoot, hence the name: ‘doh’!.  It was amazing how out of breath you got negotiating what was in reality a short scramble.  Alasdair was ambling about doing his David Bailly bit, enjoying the chance to use Judy’s DSLR with mega-zoom lens. He was relaxed seemed to be coping well with conditions, better than me in fact.

The next stage of the run went much better. My body and mind were calmer and more controlled; and I was able to settle into a comfortable trot that left me able to admire the surrounding and the formations of salt crystals at the side of the track. The chimp was back in his cage for now. Some cloud had drifted in which eased the temperature. There was also some gust of wind that whipped up the sand creating mini dust squalls which coated you with dust. I realised that I was now covered in a lovely (not) sticky layer of sunblock, dust and salt from sweat that had evaporated the moment it appeared.

At this point I made a major re-evaluation and adjusted my expectations: the 6.00hr – 6.15hr that I had been optimistically, even naively targeting was most definitely not going to happen and got adjusted to 6.30hr, and only if the conditions and luck were in my favour. I had to accept that it may well take even longer.

The valley of the Moon

Back into the vans and off to our next destination Valley of the Moon. As we made our way there the sky clouded over again. If it did not clear there would be no sunset to see. There was a brief stop for a short canter to provide a further photo opportunity and then it was to the point from where we would walk up onto the cliff tops to watch the sunset. Luck was favouring us and the cloud lifted. As we and others made our way up between the hills and cliffs toward the top ridge it was a bit like a pilgrimage. You could see figures along the rise silhouetted in the evening sun. I was reminded of the film City of Angels, and the angels gathering at sunset. Alasdair piped up that it was like Planet of the Apes: no stereotypical gender split there then.

The views from the top of the ridge were breath-taking, simply stunning. This was an opportunity to relax, bask in the pleasantly warm sunlight and take photos. The quality of the light was superb. Mike got some photos of us bounding and leaping up a small slope and some group shots. Alasdair provided some entertainment by almost falling off the edge of the ridge whilst moving out of Mike's way. Hearts in mouth we were all shouting at him; he was waving and smiling at us totally oblivious that he was edging even closer to the edge with only a couple of inches to spare. Eventually, after I shrieked and swore at him he got the message and stepped forward. A group sigh of relief and laughter.

All too soon the sun dropped behind the mountains and we had to make our way back to the vans in the rapidly fading light. Alasdair told me to look behind: wow! The sky was the most intense orange and pink contrasting with the ridge which was now black. It looked like a reverse image.

Once back in San Pedro we showered and changed and headed out for food, but Alasdair was feeling unwell probably a combination of a bit of heat stroke and altitude. He decided to skip dinner and head back to the hotel, and I decided to go with him and make sure he was OK. Luckily I was not feeling particularly hungry. We rested in our room taking on plenty of fluids.

The Valley of Death (Mon)

The Monday schedule took us the Valley of Death in the morning for some more acclimatisation with a run that would include running in sand dunes. Alasdair was recovered and after a relaxed breakfast, with marginally better coffee we all gathered ready for the vans. It was short drive to the valley.

The geography and geology here was quite different from the previous day. It was rich and red with steep dramatic ridged and scaled formations of rock and sand that looks like the scales and ridges of a sleeping dragon. We started off with a bit of filming and then the drone that was being used for some of it dramatically committed suicide dive bombing into the canyon below. While some of the guys went to retrieve the remains we were briefed on the run.  It was to take us up onto and along the cliff above us and then down the sand dunes (which we could see further down the valley), initially traversing across them and then a final descent back down to the floor of the valley.

The scramble up to the top of the cliff was exhausting leaving me breathless as my feet slipped in the sand struggling to find purchase. Once on top I took a moment to catch my breath. I could see everyone in the distance: the eager front group running, a few individuals strung out behind, and a small group at the back walking. I was in two minds about how much effort and energy I wanted to expend with the race the next day, but since I was trailing everyone I decided to jog to catch the rear group, and I also wanted to see how my body would respond to running today.

It was fine. My breathing was still rapid due to the thinness of the air, and my heart rate was still high, but a bit less than the previous day and it felt easier. I caught up with the rear group and decided to continue jogging until I caught up with Sandra Nunez. Sandra is from Mexico City and is a world champion stair racer, and the hot tip for 2nd place in the ladies race. She was walking and I fell in step with her and we chatted amiably as we made our way to join the main group waiting at the spot where we were to go onto the dunes. She was not running today, wanting to conserve energy for the race tomorrow and I decided to do likewise. The views that we were rewarded with from the cliff top were once again spectacular, looking out over San Pedro, the desert and to the mountains beyond where the race was to be.

The next bit was the fun bit; wading our way single file across the sand dunes, slipping and sliding in the hot sand, our shoes filling up almost instantly. We did 2 single file traverses which brought us to the top of the final dune. Eek! That drop looked steep and sheer. We were advised that the best approach was to line up along the top and just launch ourselves down. There was a vague air of trepidation, some nervous laughs and banter, but it was the only way we were going to get down. It was not an elegant decent as I helicoptered my way down in true Phoebe (from Friends) running style, but it was fun, and nowhere near as scary as anticipated. The soft sand tempering the speed of decent and steadying you as my feet sunk into it.

Once down, we emptied the sand from our shoes while sitting around waiting for some photos to be completed before jogging on for a further kilometre or so. Then it was back into the van and home to San Pedro as our thoughts turned to what race day might have in store for us. After a relaxed lunch and afternoon we gathered for the pre-race pasta party before retiring early to make final preparations hampered by an unexpected power cut. Then some sleep, or not in my case.