October 18, 2015 ultra.mel.jon@gmail.com

4 Deserts Atacama Crossing – What’s so great about Stage Races?

Volunteering at the 4 Deserts Atacama Crossing – 2015

4 deserts ultramarathon chile camp 3

So what is it that draws people to stage races?

Competing in these multi-day ultra marathons is not easy.  Organizing them is a logistical headache…And volunteering for them will work you from sunrise to sunset.  Yet through all the turmoil and long hours, people return year after year, and continue to sign up to endure the experience.
Atacama Crossing Chile ultra marathonMel and I spent 9 days earlier this month volunteering for the Racing The Planet 4 Deserts Atacama Crossing, a 7 day stage race covering more than 250km near the beautiful town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile.  We were blown away by our experience competing in the roving race by Racing The Planet in Madagascar last year, so we thought this was a great opportunity to see the other side of the whole event and pay back those volunteers that help make the experience so memorable.
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Throughout the volunteer training, competitor check-in, and each one of the 6 stages, we heard from all kinds of people why they signed up and for many of them, what keeps them coming back for more.  And it was interesting to see that it wasn’t really a black and white answer, but a dynamic mix of everything these ultra marathons bring together.

It’s not just the challenge of another ultra marathon…

With the eruption of ultra marathons and other ultra distance events popping up all over the globe, there is no shortage of new and difficult races to sign up for.  At the 4 Deserts races, there are fast runners and determined hikers who all step onto the same starting line and in the end, the positions don’t matter, in the words of all three top male finishers “these races are about the camaraderie!”  It’s about pushing your OWN limits, but it’s also about running alongside racers you’ve never met before, it’s helping someone who is struggling so that all can experience the victorious feeling of crossing that ultimate finish line.
ultra marathon runners Atacama desert

Sure there isn’t any bathrooms or kitchens, but is that so bad?

atacama crossing mel and jonIt’s not easy planning out a week’s worth of food into your backpack, maximizing calories and nutrition, while trimming weight where ever possible, and on top of it all trying to find foods that you will actually want to eat.  And you might have to skip a weeks worth of showers, but one of the race directors had a very interesting outlook on this topic.  Science shows that humans only have the capacity to make so many decisions in a day, so wearing the same clothes for a week, not having to commute to an office, or go grocery shopping, brings a unique sense of peace and simplicity to your life during the race.

Travelling is more than taking pictures…

Many of the people attending these races love to travel and have the money to travel luxuriously, but stage races give you the chance to see a country in a very raw state.  Here in the Atacama, racers saw nearly everything travel agencies can show you, but did it on their own two feet, breathing the high altitude air, feeling the scorching sun in the middle of the salt flats, and scaling many of the deserts sand dunes…very different than the experience you would have tutting along in a van and gazing out behind a glass window!  This kind of travel is difficult to explain, but in a similar way as we felt leaving Madagascar, you feel like you’ve connected with the land, shed a little blood, inhaled some dust, crossed paths with many animals and smiled, waved (and even hugged) many locals and their children.
Mel in the Atacama Desert, sunset

Like minded people just migrate together…

Whether you are a runner, part of the volunteer crew, on the medical team or in charge of the race organization, everyone seems to operate on a similar wavelength.  Conversations will flow naturally and go deep quickly, cutting through most of the small talk about where you live or what you do for a living, you learn about peoples lives, their dreams, their families, and this in our opinion is a difficult thing to find in today’s society.  So being surrounded by these type of authentic and sincere people for a week is priceless, and I always fly home grateful for all of the friends I’ve made.

Inspiration is never hard to find…

Stage race in Chile, racing the planet

Can you spot the running blade?

It’s incredible to see the speed that the lead running pack has, but in these types of endurance races, there is inspiration to be found all throughout the competitors field.  This 4 Deserts race was especially inspiring, having the oldest competitor and finisher an impressive 70 years old! This years Atacama Crossing also had the organizations first leg amputee runner successfully complete the 250km footrace, using a prosthetic running blade!  And on almost a daily basis, it was always impressive to see the competitors come through the checkpoints not being able to stomach a single calorie or electrolyte, yet they find the motivation deep inside to keep pushing forward and finish each stage on their way to the finish line.

Reflecting on all of this amazing and dynamic blend of factors, bring us all back to the question “What’s your excuse?”  Attending these multi-day stage races by 4 Deserts definitely make it a lot harder to complain about having to go on an 1 hour long run!  Especially when you don’t have a 20lb bag on your back, you can eat whatever you want, and you know that night you’ll be sleeping in a proper bed… 
Whatever your motivation, excuse, or deeply rooted “why” is for attending, or wanting to attend, these events, we can’t think of a good reason not to!  Everyone grows inside and out, and as a nice little perk, you meet adventurers from all over the world, so next time you travel, you might just run into a friendly face! 🙂
Run Free

– Ultra Mel and Jon

4 deserts race in san pedro, chile

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