Atacama Crossing Blogs 2023

James Crowe



Atacama Crossing (2023) blog posts from James Crowe

29 September 2023 05:00 pm (GMT-04:00) Santiago

It’s 2 pm on the rest day, and I feel good. There are a lot of interesting things i am noticing. One is that today was not frantic scramble to dress, tape, eat, pack, disassemble tent etc. Every day until now i was hustling continually from 5:30 am til the 8 am start. Today, i noticed that since i am just moving slow, taking my time to execute each thing.  

Also noticing how very hot it is. We are all clustered under the temporary tent shelters. Stepping out into the direct sun for 3 minutes feels very harsh, bright, hot. On previous days I guess I just did not allow myself to fully register the elements, but rather focused on managing the physiology of it all.
I’ve been letting the (very many) blisters on my feet dry out after draining them today. I washed my feet last night in the cold, but washed them again today and still cant get all of the dirt and grit out, since some of the blisters are pretty tender. There is only one more day of 10 miles, so it seems like the best path is to let things dry a bit today, and i will wrap them carefully tomorrow and we’ll be done with it. I’m not the only one with lots of blisters. The terrain causes shifting and rotation of shoes on your feet almost every step, so, many people are hobbling around today, and the scene in the med tent was impressive. 
I’m basically out of food, which is great cause my pack is lighter for the last day! But also a bit hungry. Having time to stop on this day allows one to feel everything that we were not paying attention to on previous days. 
I managed not to get sunburned here at all, which is pretty amazing given the extreme UV irradiation and my Viking genetic heritage (one of the doctors commented ‘you are very white’, meaning pale). So many of the racers from all over the world have beautiful darker skin tones, and plausibly have a safer time of it in this exposure. So far, I managed my risk well.
One of the amazing things about the community here is that no one ever complains about anything, ever, that I have heard. Everyone accepts the conditions, the difficult elements on the course, course changes, limits. Everyone pulls for other,  a model for community. No one ever says “bad day”, rather “challenging”. Everyone is glad to finish. There have been a lot of withdrawals. Heat mostly, or injuries (turning ankles, which is kinda constant). I’m glad i have made it so far. As one of the few ‘oldies’ in the race, and one with a body habitus primed for overheating, it’s good I got through. There are so many fit experienced racers here, it’s really impressive to see people pressing on. 
We’re having time to chat today, about things that are working or not working. Everyone is swapping tips on favorite tapes, creams, food strategies, pack designs, shirts, hand care, back friction, and on and on. There is an infinite amount of choices and tweaking one could make. Given this is my first stage race running with a backpack, i’m satisfied on the whole with choices I made on what to bring. In the end, i only wore my long sleeved desert shirt with thumbholes. I never considered wearing the short sleeve shirt with arm covers, the UV is just too high. I wore thigh and calf compression sleeves, which has been good for me before, and that turned out great cause the calf ones give UV protection too. I also wore compression shorts on top. The Outdoor Research desert hat turned out well, I had it completely closed almost the whole race, and still was putting on 100 spf on my face neck and knees. I used soft flasks for water (not really water, i used Nuun electrolyte tabs in water the whole time, since hyponatremia was a serious risk). Lemon lime! But i’ll need to change flavor in future. A week of lemon lime sipping every 5 min. My shoes, I would do differently. My new balance trail 3 is a good shoe i think, kinda Hoka like, and the runs i did on road or trail at home were fine. But on the extremely uneven desert terrain here, they gave me a lot of hotspots and friction. >> blisters. I spent an enormous amount of time putting velcro on the sides of my shoes to fasten the sand gaiters. I used Boot fix glue, and some superglue, but the velcro was separating (?melting) even on day one. Its been messy but still probably kept some sand and grit out of my shoes. The gaiters are pretty shredded now. The surface here is rough. 
There’s a lot more I can learn about this stuff. But the decisions i made were good enough.
So, catching up today is good.

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29 September 2023 04:58 pm (GMT-04:00) Santiago

Hello all. It’s day 6 and I am doing well. Yesterday was quite a long day, 8 am start, 45 miles, desert, some salt flats, more huge dunes, baked cracked mudflats. It was very hot again, but it felt slightly less brutal than stage 4 (where one of the racers measured a peak temperature of 56C on course that day, I can’t do the F conversion in my head but I know that its hot!).

I was just sorta one foot in front of the other yesterday, trying to maintain something like 3 miles an hour. I stopped briefly at each of the checkpoints (and made my rehydrated dinner and ate it at one of the late checkpoints). Again I spent most of the day alone, though for one hoe segment I chatted with an Israeli friend who is an engineer, so we had a good friendship. The sun set about 7:30, and a full moon arose over the desert. The 360 view of purple/orange sunset on one side and full moon rising on the other was stunning. I had difficulty navigating though since the marker flags were hard to see and I only could find my dark sunglasses/prescription. I managed, only got off course a few times. Another large dune at night, a canyon, some hardpacked road. My watch battery died and I was uncertain what time it was or far I had left. That is a very purifying experience, just moving forward not knowing when it will end, but knowing that it will. I crossed the finish at 11:30 pm and there was drumming and clapping. That was nice. It was very cold, and i sat by the fire for 45 min just to stabilize, then set up my tent and stripped everything off and got into my sleeping bag and slept. On and off. It was very cold! Now, there is a ‘rest day’, sitting under tarps in the heat, chatting, people from all over the world. 
It’s an amazing experience and I’m glad i am here.

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29 September 2023 05:05 am (GMT-04:00) Santiago

This has been a sweet ‘rest day’, with everyone sitting under tarps in the heat of the day, resting, drinking water, and sharing thoughts and stories. People have such varied reasons for doing this sort of thing. This group of people likes doing hard things, and doesn’t complain. I am so inspired to meet all of the racers, and to hear their stories, and to seem them push through. The crew and race staff and photographers and doctors, the volunteers, they are also all very interesting, and working so hard, and so optimistic and encouraging. Everything here has been so positive all week.
Our last stage turns out to be 10 miles, they extended it a little, but it’s ok. We’ll make it. Finishing in the little dirt road town of San Pedro in front of the church, which is cool. At some point tomorrow night I’ll be in a hotel there, taking a shower. We only use the water for drinking or rehydrating food, so no washing or bathing since last Saturday. I imagine I’ll be ready to eat real food again. There is a  ‘banquet’ tomorrow night where we’ll all gather to celebrate, and see some of the photos for the first time. We don’t really have internet access here, so you’re seeing the race in the photos and videos in a way we can’t. 
Being off of technology for a week has been profoundly interesting. I have been realizing how conditioning phone, email, texting and all that is to one’s brain. It’s obvious. But to be so out of touch for a week, its been informative. I haven’t even always known what day of the week it is here. I have done a lot of thinking about the perception of time, ‘use of time’, and ideas like that here. Well, thinking isn’t the right word. Meditating on ideas I guess. Because Thinking in the midst of the heat and fatigue and survival tasks isn’t really conventional. Just doing what is needed, and listening.
I have been working on some mindfulness concepts for a while with an adviser at home, and learned a lot about the ideas of Awareness, being in Now, touching on infinite and the transcendent. This week was the practicum. Finally, I am “really getting it” in terms of being Aware.
This is the last entry on this blog from the course. Tomorrow I’ll be “back”.

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27 September 2023 09:59 pm (GMT-04:00) Santiago

Hi all,
Today was wonderful, and hard. I finished stage 4 and I am healthy and happy.
I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag at 5:30 am this morning, because it was cold and I was tired. But I did it.Went through all the tasks of making breakfast, foot care, packing, breaking down the tent, water, the briefing, etc. There so much to do every morning and night. The stage got off to usual start at 8, and was up and down a lot in the first section and climbing and descending huge dunes again. I tumbled a bit on one. I was feeling expectedly (relatively) good this morning so I was trying be steady. But it became clear after a while that I (and many other people) were moving more slowly than desired and people started mentioning “cutoff” times. No way did I want to end my race with a missed cutoff, so I picked it up a bit. I felt ok and was running within myself, not so fast, but I started passing people, which is unusual for me. At the checkpoint 2 I mentioned to a volunteer I thought I was moving well but my time was slow, and he said, everyone was slow today because of the extreme heat. Turns out I was one of the first 40 or so people through that checkpoint and shortly after I left there they stopped everyone behind (about half the racers) and wouldn’t let them continue because of the extreme heat, they use stopped them. I carried on, one foot in front of the other and entered the salt flats. There is an extreme beauty to that area, but also vey difficult, it was very challenging even to all with a pack on. People describe it as ‘frozen broccoli’ and that’s pretty accurate, you’re crushing ankle deep into salt and baked mud that feel like fragile ice. And the surface is extremely irregular. My shoes were twisting and turning (think blister abrasion ) and ankles turning constantly. It was slow. And extremely hot and bright. I don’t know the temp, but it was extreme. 
I have always been interested in ‘silent retreats’, and today was one. I was on the course 10 hours (8 am to 6 pm, I was the last one they actually let carryon) and I was by myself most of the day. There were so few racers on the course most f the day I couldn’t even see persons in the distance. The salt was amazing, white or yellow, in fantastic sculptural forms, crystalline beauty. I was thinking if someone designed a screensaver or video game, people would say it looks too exotic and advise to tone down the complexity of the crystal trees.
I was 100 percent focused almost every secnd today, because almost every single step felt a little dangerous. I fell a couple of times, and certainly excited my many foot blisters. And I had to fully execute on drinking and electrolytes and eating and UV management with complete coverage plus 100 spf sunscreen constantly reapplied. I did all of that perfectly, for 10 hours, and I was healthy all day. Despite being constantly focused, I felt like I was not thinking at all. Not really  having thoughts.  Still mind. Periodically I looked up, across the miles of salt flats to the mountains and volcanoes in the far distance. And thought. Alive!
The air was motionless all day but in the last few miles, a breeze picked up, became strong, and a bit of a sandstorm. Fun!
Wow, this place is so much. I am glad to be here.

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Mary Gadams

Posted On: 29 Sep 2023 07:36 am

Hi Jim, I just wanted to say congratulations. You finished in the top half, what an amazing accomplishment. It's been great following your blog. One of our doctors at the Gobi March worked at Vanderbilt, an awesome university in an awesome city, Nashville. I hope you have a great Stage 6, enjoy the incredible finish. Best, Mary

26 September 2023 07:19 pm (GMT-04:00) Santiago

Hello friends, 
I finished stage 3. I’m kinda nonverbal right now, today was very challenging. I was pretty good the first 6-8 miles but then i was getting a lot of hotspots in my shoes, and then all of a sudden i heard a voice in my head that said your race is going to end in 2-5 minutes if you dont address your feet right now. So i listened, and sat down right in the middle of the desert and dropped and unpacked my pack to get tape and KT and bandages, pulled off my gaiters, shoes, socks and checked out what was going on. I drained the largest blister, and then spent 20-30 minutes taping/retaping all of the hot spots. I couldnt seem to get it right. I tried removing the soles to make more space (not good) and tieing loosely (worse) and then fiddled with the lace tightness and eventually found a place that was the least bad. That plus a weird asymmetric gait got me moving forward again slowly. I kinda did the same at a later checkpoint, more retaping. I managed to get through it
The terrain was very challenging today, especially the salt flats which were crusty and something like a deeply plowed field, which seemed to go on for a very long time.
We spent most of the day in wide opendesert, just super high UV and heat and dry. Huge dunes again. Long vistas. And string of volcanoes, one smoking at the top. We saw the observatory. I find it interesting there are absolutley no bird or animals here, have never been a place so desolate. A few beetles. The stones are fantastic, every shade of white, grey ,green, brown. The surfaces of the stones are maybe the best part. 
I spent a lot of time in my head today, just revisiting favorite mantras. In fact, for the first time i found them stringing together successfully. “I’m glad I’m here” because “this is what i came for” and “nothing displeases me”, because “what’s better than Now? Nothing!” I spent hours in that sequence today. I have never had a deeper experience of those. 
Despite my sorta disastrous experience with my feet, i did a lot of things right today, again. I drank the right volume (was about 6L today) and hit all my electrolyte targets and was peeing all day (hitech medical monitoring!). And I ate all day despite the extreme conditions. Sport bean, stroopwaffels, cliff bar, perpetuem, etc. It takes a lot of concentration to do that all day. Plus applying lip and 100 spf sunscreen every hour or so even though i am completely covered in white spf 50 desert wear.
The community here is amazing, people are kind, from 40 countries, and amazingly strong and fit and determined. I am humbled to be here with these people.
I’m glad I came. I wanted something that was both physically and mentally challenging with deep spiritual experience of the Glory in nature, and simplification of everything. This race is at least 5 times harder than I expected, and the beauty is more constant and strange. I feel like I am in a place out of time and not on earth, not in history. 
Each day I am more challenged. I dont assume I can finish this now, because of the feet. But i’m grateful for being here, no matter what happens.

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Charlotte Nicholson

Posted On: 26 Sep 2023 11:03 pm

Hi James, rob Nicholsons wife here (he’s doing the race with you) - just reading everyone’s blogs and in awe of you all. Even if your feet are full of blisters, no matter what they’re the luckiest ones in the world to experience that beautiful terrain. It’s truly once in a lifetime - unless you’re crazy enough to complete one again! We are cheering for you ALL.

25 September 2023 06:41 pm (GMT-04:00) Santiago

It’s hard to explain in words the incredible and otherworldly and varied beauty here. The mountains with snow.  The desert flat and long. dozens of river crossings today, especially back and forth in the slot canyons which are too wild to be believed. The water is freezing, my feet went numb over and over, which is odd given we are running in a desert trending toward 100 degrees. Amazing dry canyons of super-baked clay, dry, dry, dry. The height of it, and beauty, reminds me of cathedrals. Then we were out on the top of a mountain ridge for quite a while and could see mountain ridges as far as the eye could see in 360. To descend the ridge the course required slaloming down the largest sand dunes imaginable, which was the most fun I’ve probably ever had running. Then more dry canyons, all starkly beautiful, a long dark tunnel through a mountain, then more steep climbs. Supposedly we’re losing elevation but it felt like we were going up most of the time. Eventually I spilled out onto the open desert and there was a long along to the end, maybe 7 miles, and it was high 90s, bright, rocky, and, featureless. That part was quite difficult mentally. One foot in front of the other. At the end, there was another dune to climb and descend, and finally into camp.
Mostly I nailed my plan, for eating, drinking, electrolytes, which takes quite a bit of concentration. And just not falling down! The one glitch I had was that we spent quite a lot of time in water (wet feet) and in deep sand up to calf level (sand) and in the desert (small rocks and grit), so I ended up with a bunch of blisters, which I normally would never get, but my taping came off because of the water. 
I’ve made friends at the campfires at night and on the trail. Really fun to meet others from all over the world who think this is fun.
I’m seeing emails from some folks but can’t reply in this system easily, so, thank you! I’ll do my best to update once a day on this blog.

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24 September 2023 07:29 pm (GMT-04:00) Santiago

I just finished a little while ago, rehydrated, ate powders and gels, and set up my tent. The after work is almost as much as the day.

I did everything right today. I hit my target fluid volume, electrolytes, even ambitious calorie intake. I wore conversate all day and even still slathered on my 100 spf at each of the three aid stations. And, when it felt hard, I just slowed down, i decided to just stay within myself since it was the first day and it was difficult. All the normal ultra stuff happened - my aggravations (plantar fasciitis, ITB, morton’s neuroma and missing knee cartilage complained (normal!!) with the added bonus of the great toe i broke 2 weeks ago. And i have a mild URI, and my nose bleed on course (super dry here!). And turned my ankle, which I almost never do. But its all fine, its kinda usual stuff for doing something like this. After an hour, I gave up any plans to race this hard, or race for that matter. I just aim to finish, if possible.
This place is spectacularly beautiful. It’s like being on Mars. The stars at night are stunning. Milky Way, and all of the things you never see in modern geography. I don’t think I have ever been in a place this remote and unusual. This is definitely a spiritual journey. There is no water, just dust and rocks. I am so glad I came and fought through all the obstacles to get to the start. The mountains have snow, though we’re running through the driest place on earth. We saw ancient rock glyphs while running through some of the slot canyons. The terrain was varied, open, canyons, narrow slot canyons, wide open fields of stone that stretched for miles and miles. We saw skeletons of llama and and picunya, a sign of the extreme conditions. 
This event is much much harder than I anticipated. The elevation, heat (and freezing cold in the morning!), UV, extreme dryness, rugged terrain, dust, etc. It’s much more difficult than i thought it would be. If I can get to the end, I’ll be super proud.
There are people from all over the world, that is a very cool part of it. Everyone is kind and helps each other out. 

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