Atacama Blog: Day 1

Stefan Danis' team, Old Guys Rule, comes in first on Day 1 of the Atacama Crossing.

Mandrake CEO Stefan Danis blogs about running the Atacama Crossing (Chile) – a 250 km, one-week trek unaided in the Atacama Desert – to raise funds for NABS.

We come in first as a team! Who would have thought . . .

We chased all day. Now we are the target.

Around 7 p.m. last night, it seemed like the teammates weren’t up to drinking the bottle of champagne I had been carrying around. So as the good mule, I put it next to the cigars and took in the extra three pounds. Am I ever glad I did! Out of nowhere we took the W as a team. For Louie Santaguida, Ernie Votis and I, this was our best personal athletic moment since being teenagers. It explains why the race organizers came over and candidly said they never saw it coming.

Here’s how it unfolded: The night was brutal, wind and temperatures descended too low for my sleeping gear. Ironically, I had shopped for a couple of hours in Buenos Aires looking for a liner, and I bought a fleece too. Full pop retail, like a marked man. When I had my last look at the backpack, it was full to the brim, weighed too much, and I left the two items at the hotel after reading the weather reports. I didn’t have a wink and was trembling all night – my own this time – no earthquake. Being slow in the morning, I almost missed the start and was grumpy. Louie didn’t sleep either, thanks to Ernie’s snoring and the cold.

Race started and we bolted. Louie was nauseous from the altitude and within 500m we were trying to understand how to pace ourselves. I recognized a few faces from the Gobi and knew intuitively where I should be relatively speaking. But this is a team event. It was clear the focus was going to be on managing ourselves and trying to move Louie along. We got lost with 15 people and incurred a five minute penalty and managing our upsets was our second issue. We figured the folks ahead of us now would have to be reeled in. Louie was in trouble and negotiations started; can you give more, how much can you give, how do we support you, etc. Tough stage and we rolled by in 33rd or so. Ernie who is a well-oiled running machine, would sprint out to the limits of our required distance range and would wait with the occasional yell/encouragement. I did the same, blowing up a stack in the process. Team work is hard! That stuff works with CEOs, or so we think.

We made no progress and I decided to talk Louie through and constantly pace him. The challenge we had was none of the rules of engagement were discussed – how does each of us want to be supported when slowing down the other two? We were finding out live.

I was in constant negotiation with Louie, and Ernie paced hard. Possibly too hard – he rolled his ankle and injured his Achilles. My new mantra being ‘suck it up’ I asked him not to talk about it and give a bit more. Then on the horizon three perfectly choreographed white shirts appeared; the race favorites. Clearly they were having a rough day as well; they are elite runners who have placed top three as individuals. Ernie came over and asked if today was going to be our day. He increased our pace and I kept on sharing with Louie it was possible. We got to the bottom of an interminable 10km climb. We were 25m behind the studs we have read about and handicapped what would happen if we pass. When you buzz around too much, you can get swatted. Ernie had plenty of gasoline, Louie not. A little whisper and we walked by them anticipating a reaction. We were all walking uphill. No word was spoken, no reaction. 25m passed, we needed to capitalize and I asked Louie to run for a minute just to put some distance. Ernie pulled from the front, I grabbed Louie’s bag from the back and pushed him uphill for 5km. We sped up at the checkpoint and it was essentially downhill from there. We chose to misinform Louie and have him believe they were right behind us. They weren’t and he never looked back. We crossed the line first with a 5 or so minute lead, and under 5 hours of agony in the heat and mountains.

The embrace, the laughter! I fessed up I lied to him and Louie confirmed it was the right call. I spent my currency, I won’t be able to do it again!

We all ended up in the medical tent, blistered up. Louie is in bad shape; Ernie and I probably would have quit. He has a broken toe and Achilles issues. We spent time with the guys from Hong Kong and one guy was having altitude issues. We laughed. It is all communal and we empathize. Today was the day, and augmenting our pace moved us from low mid 30′s to low 20′s. We are sitting here on top of the world and it’s time to uncork the champagne. We are teenagers again. Priceless.

Also, my thanks to a bunch of former Gobi racers and others who are sending their well wishes.


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