Atacama Blog: The last 10K

Danis and his team celebrate victory, and head home.

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 race to the finish line

We woke up on 6th day knowing the Win had been bagged. We didn’t exactly know by how much, but were confident we weren’t going to be caught. It would turn out to be by 8 hours on the second team, a decorated group of world class endurance runners who had their troubles, and a group from Chile. Two teams didn’t finish as a team, both from the UK.

My body was already acting up; it sensed the end and wanted to go through its finishing ritual; get sick, cold sores, or just plain apathy; a suitable finish to neither the end of a 10km, nor a 250km race; but rather the end of a monster 7 month project. I was a bit lost; ‘try to be in the moment’ I thought. Enjoy it. Savor it.

The race started with some tent drama. Our mate Clancy Johanssen had been pulled from the race a day earlier. Possibly witnessing us getting close to the finish released some emotions for her. She had spent herself on the course, and once pulled out of the race had selflessly given us her time, energy, and care. She was part of our team, a key player in our team’s success; not on the course but off the course. She wanted to run the finishing leg and experience her own closure but the race organization had denied her permission. I was encouraging her to do it for herself, and hoping we could run it with her. ‘Let’s finish together’ I said to add to her confusion, ‘You are part of our team!’ In the end, she chose the path of benevolence and again put others’ interests ahead of her own and decided to help our other tent mate Charlotte Valentine to her hotel; she was in visible pain with a strained knee.

The last stage started and we all found our familiar roles; Ernie Votis in front pulling, Louie Santaguida in the middle grimacing in pain, and me at the back to keep him company. We weren’t moving fast but ran the whole way, needlessly. I wanted to re-enact a Tour De France last stage where the leaders drink champagne, take it in, laugh and smile, and let the guys willing to win the stage fight it out amongst themselves. But team and compromises go hand in hand; we were going to honorably push ourselves, beat all other teams on that stage again, and try to move up in the standing, which we did. It meant a delay to drinking, reflecting, laughing, and smiling until after. I felt robbed of ‘a moment’ but got over it, trying to focus on the big picture and not sweat the smaller stuff on which I can get hooked so easily.

The Finish line should have magnetically pulled us in but in this case, it was just… painful. 2km from the finish, we came upon the amazing staff of the Tierra Atacama hotel where we had stayed prior to the race. They had come out to cheer us and lift our spirits to the finish. Upon seeing them our pace increased magically, soon followed by the hugs and high fives. A week before, they had massaged us, ran yoga practices for us, helped us summit Toco (18,500 foot volcano as a team bonding exercise), shared a couple of earthquakes with us, and even took us sand-boarding on huge Desert sand dunes. We had had unprecedented service and established strong relationships; we were essentially the only guests at the hotel in light of the earthquake.

As we neared the finish line we discussed how it was going to go and settled on holding hands. I held hands but closed my eyes at the crossing. With the ‘finish’ medal around our necks we witnessed 70 others finishing behind us, each attaching their own meaning to crossing the line, and another 35 at the finish line to cheer us on despite having either abandoned or been pulled out. About two third of competitors also had the satisfaction of having raised money for a charity, in addition to a program by the race org to donate some funds to the earthquake relief efforts.

Simple things you take for granted then got really amplified. I had the best pizza and beer, sat on the cushiest couch, lied in the fluffiest pillow, and had the long out of body type shower experience. I placed the two key calls I had been meaning to make for a week, to my family and my mother. I resisted turning the Blackberry on for the rest of the day, floating in a rare state of disconnectedness. Damage assessment followed, and I had my own screaming moment de-taping my upper body, covered with Leukotape (medical duck tape) to prevent chafing from the back pack.

The Award ceremony followed and my feet had regained two sizes and I had to be carried back to my room after the acceptance speech. My comments were simple, I thanked the organizer for putting out an event allowing you to go back home more alive, more grateful for who you have in your life and to quote Mehmet Danis ‘for extracting you from your comforts to awaken you.’ For a few moments I carried achievement and pride as opposed to a latte and a cell phone.

Building on what I learnt in the Gobi Desert, I avoided returning home right away. I recalled decompressing then at home, needing space when I should have been elated to see everyone. I chose to stay there an extra couple of days. We had a celebratory dinner at the W Hotel in Santiago. Suitably, during dinner a 6.4 earthquake shook, adding to the already visible stress fractures on the hotel, its closed elevators. The roofed pool, closed, oscillated two meters. It was a signal to get out of town. I visited the beautiful wine valley and saw the ocean in Valparaiso before returning to a re-opening make shift airport.

I landed last Thursday on the red eye and to my surprise, my family had joined other friends at the airport. They had managed to misinform me and pretend they were in Florida, reunited at last. Later I went to work, and today, for the first time, I traded in my sandaled bare feet for socks and shoes.

While it has been a great 7 month journey, the bigger the project I take on, the more confusing it is to cross the finish line; the euphoria of finishing soon to be followed by post partum, and the inevitable question ‘So what’s next?’
I had no answers then, and none as of yet.

‘You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.’
- Frank Shorter, Olympic Marathon Winner

I am trying to raise money for Nabs to help distressed and unemployed executives. If any of the above speaks to you, please visit www.running4nabs.com and make a small pledge.