Atacama Blog: Final Day

Old Guys Rule race to the finish line.

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.

The Long Brutal Rewarding 73.4km Day

I just finished reading some emails and looked at my cyber neighbour Erica Terreblanche, a South African second in the women’s category. We both had the experience simultaneously of getting an intravenous dose of energy, love, and support. Never dismiss giving your support to a friend; you have no idea the impact it has. Thanks for taking some of your time to write a note.

At the end of 73.4km we ran into camp after I don’t know how many hours. Attrition was taking its toll; we lost half, four in our tent alone. Lorrie Brophy, the amazing 78 year old was pulled out by the medical team, so was Charlotte Valentine. Clancy Johanssen, another tent mate, had been waiting and she doted on us as we arrived, nursing us, helping on each of our damaged toes, like a mother with her children. Both my hands seized up. I was looking at them like they didn’t belong to me and Clancy massaged my arms to bring life back to them. All week I had been working actively to focus on others (the girls had showed me how by their actions) to cultivate a different experience here. When Charlotte arrived I didn’t have anything in me to offer her. I looked at her from my corner of the tent, my eye got watery she was in so much pain, and I turned my head away to block the image. I did nothing. We all have our limits and I had reached mine.

The day started early at 7:30 am to allow us to put as much mileage in as possible before the high sun. The first stage was in pure white salt hard flats, we were hopping from salt island to the next in a very irregular pace. The white, the puddles made me think it might look like Antarctica in the spring. It was spectacular; never seen anything like it. Ernie Votis took on the pacing while I got distracted taking memorable pictures with a reborn camera; soaked the day before but willing to work on the long day. Our category has turned out to be that of the Invalids.

The interesting thing about leadership is that you need followers to lead. We intermittently changed the pacer and everyone got a chance to pull from the front. Louie Santaguida found another gear and Ernie and I were grinning flocked behind him as he ran 2 meters in front of us for 90 minutes. Deep down, all of us needed to lead and it happened seamlessly.

After 30km or so we started climbing steadily and on the horizon, a massive sand dune was coming into view. I started wondering if we were going to have to climb. As we got closer, ant hills were on it and I started preparing mentally for the climb. We got to the bottom. Ernie looked back and needed the reward to run it up as he has endless gas in the tank. He went up; running the whole thing and in may ways having a personally defining moment. Louie and I zigzagged up, each turn I would stop and give him the water bottle. We would then lock hands, and I would help get him to the next turn. We got to the top and realized there was another one. Ernie and I changed roles and I ran up the last mound with my own ‘Rocky’ moment at the top hyperventilating. It’s all I needed to replenish prior to a re-focus on the team.

The terrain at the top of the hill was extraordinary, hard crusts of mud and clay, dramatic rock formations; again running on another planet. A km later was the reverse of the climb, a 500ft drop, with Check Point 3 at the bottom – the 42km mark. I got selfish and asked Ernie to go down and filmed me running all out at 60 degrees. Louie was in very bad shape by then, not holding his food, in acute pain.

We carried on for another 15km and found ways to amuse ourselves to pass the time. We decided to each do a lifeline telling each other our life story. After an hour of a detailed account of my life’s high and low points, Ernie put his iPod on. I felt cheated; I was only in 2001 at the time. I took the cue and changed the subject. Spent hearing me; they never did their lifelines.

About two hours later, as we carried on, we came to share how we felt about our respective experience on the race. We had a no holds barred conversation and stuff was said that can only happen when you no longer have inhibitions. We realized we had somehow come together, but that our emotional suffering during the race was due to the fact we had unaligned expectations; one was here to win, one to finish, one out of guilt.

When you invest 6 months of time preparing and realize not all team members put the same priority on the event, it makes for a messy run in the Desert. That’s why many teams here imploded as is usually the case. Cleansing done, I was able to truly enjoy the last two hours of the race like they were the most glorious. We got to the last Check Point, breeze above 50km/hour tent blown off. Louie got the right foods and meds in him and found another gear to see us home. Sun was setting, we put our lights on and we canyoned down for 6km, in a sandy bottom. Stars came out, glow sticks led us in and every turn was beautiful. I wished my family was here with me to walk it down.

We were fed out on a road leading to the camp. Mehmet Danis, who won the race here last year, had mentioned he had never seen such shiny stars low on the horizon; so much so it was hard to get your balance as the sky appears to go all the way down to your feet. We ran in the balance of the never ending stage and crossed together knowing we were the better team (this week), despite being handicapped to fourth based on the experience of the others.

The race turned out to be emotionally as opposed to physically draining for Ernie and I. For Louie, he suffered immensely physically and gave us his best. He put his mid term health at risk – he will require surgery when he returns.

I leave the cyber tent now and will go put my dusty, disgusting running clothes on. I won ‘the worst toe in the tent’ and I am not sure how my feet will get in shoes. The camp looks like an infirmary. People hobbling, crying hugging… We have 10km to go as a community for a ceremonial finish. Real food is waiting for us. We could crawl and still win. We worked hard to put ourselves in this position; but I get a sense Ernie will want to run hard for honor’s sake. Run, walk, crawl, it will turn out to be a life defining week where the adversity quotient grew; thanks to sun, sand, wind, and friendship.


I am raising much needed funds for NABS, which helps individuals in distress. Consider a pledge at