Atacama Blog: Day 4

Surviving the salt flats.

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.

Sweet Day in the Salt Flats

I stayed up as late as I could to cheer my tent mates. Charlotte Valentine, an ER nurse from Charleston came in and was bruised beyond repair, yet she took the start this morning. She, Clancy Johannsen from SF and Rod Bovee all made it in; in various states of agony. We looked after them the best we could to comfort them. I waited for Lorrie Brophy, the 78 year old Brit, but got selfish and drugged myself to sleep. I had the best sleep ever in a tent set on a hill. We all moved our sleeping bags at an angle to prevent everyone rolling down to me, the far right side.

I lost two toe nails thus far and second skinned them, performing amateurish surgery, and made the start, just in time. Similar refrain; push Louie Santaguida as hard as possible early and then give him the lead once he is spent, encouraging him along. Unbeknownst to him, we took stuff from his pack and loaded it in Ernie Votis’. Louie would be too proud to allow it to happen but you do what you have to do to bring the hardware home.

We had a surprisingly strong start in sloppy sand, steadily climbing. We were running hard, wanting the impact of our fast time at Checkpoint 1 to deflate the competitors. Air was cool, shaded and the idea was to get as far as we could before the 45 degree temperature would fry us. The top of the ridge fed into another 50 degree glorious sand dune, a 300 footer. I snapped a couple of pictures from the top and leaped in, told a couple of slower guys I was passing left going mad speed, uninhibited screaming down. Ernie was having a similar experience and went all the way to the bottom, unable to stop tasting the descent. The three of us did. There were no flags down there. We had overshot the 90 degree right turn by 50 feet and needed to get back up. From dream to nightmare in 5 seconds. We finally saw ourselves back up, two steps up, one sliding backward. Then ran side hill causing more pain for Louie’s fragile ankles. We then arrived to the bottom where thick brush awaited us, jungle running with a snaking river to cross or hop. At the last crossing, Ernie fell in the water, chest high. Thinking he had slipped, Louie ventured in and disappeared. I jumped in, pushed him out and started sinking in a 5 foot deep mud hole in the middle of the river. They pulled me out. We shook ourselves out and noticed our iPods and iTouches stopped working, permanently. We weren’t happy. We flagged it to the organizers who redirected the folks behind us, but at camp tonight, the ‘hole’ could claim its share of victims. We pitted and cleaned our muddy shoes and ran into a small village.

Temperatures were rising and I ran under the trees to find shade until I sloppily hit my head on a large branch. The guys helped me back up; and I now sport a clean Atacama tree cut on the top of my head. We made it to Check Point 2 and learnt that the team from the had imploded. They have two top 10 individual previous Desert finishers in their team.

We rolled into the dreaded salt flats knowing this race is now ours to lose. Louie was spent so we walked. And walked. The flats are made of the sharp dry corral that shreds your shoes. By the time we were there in 25th position, a path had been created. I can’t believe how Ryan Sands who won the event could have gone in first, hopping around, foot at times puncturing the surface, for 10km. But that’s his problem; ours became dehydration. We stayed together all the way. I followed Louie to assess his foot planting and as soon as he was getting sloppy I’d ask him to move his right hand backward, sometimes twice as he was nauseous and haggard and would feed it electrolytes, pepperoni, gel to give him a surge.

We got caught by a few people but made it to camp under 8 hours. We did what we had to get it done, working as a team, everyone with a role, Ernie pacing, me pushing from the back; then alternating. We put 90 minutes on our closest competitors today; padding up the lead to over 3 hours we believe.

Camp is next to a pure white salt flat lake, with a dozen volcanoes in the background. Two of our tent mates are now out of the race, pulled out by the medical crew, and they are staying on to cheer us and the others for tomorrow – a complete act of generosity (I’d be heading for the spa).

Tomorrow will be the most physically demanding day of my life. We are moving slowly as a team and expect to be run-walking for about 16 hours. I can run, but I can’t walk. When we make it through, we will have won the team competition of the Atacama Crossing.

Due to the earthquake of 10 days ago, the long day race will start at 730am tomorrow for 74km. We will hopefully make it by 1AM, but most of the field will come in the morning having moved along as fast as they can. They are the champions here; it is incomprehensible how they can continue to move along, one step at a time overcoming adversity I can’t even understand. The final ceremonial 17km would have otherwise started on Sunday but it will now happen around 4pm Saturday. Some folks will roll in around 1 or 2pm, eat, and start again. We will hopefully have had a chance to sleep.

Looking at the medical tent, I can’t help but to pinch myself and reflect how lucky I am. The experience thus far has had ups and downs, slowly learning to work as a team being. I finished the stage today, sat down, was told there was another earthquake in Santiago today – a 7.2. This may affect our flight back. I walked to the tent and started weeping – don’t know why. Sometimes you need to step outside of your comfortable environment and suffer on the salt flats to re-learn to be grateful for the ones you have.

Good night


Thanks for the email support. It is extraordinarily uplifting. Sometimes I hold on to the terminal and read them twice even if there is a line up.

I’m running to win but also to help raise money for Nabs. Consider visiting and make a small pledge.