The September 2014 Cordillera Ranch Living featured Paula Mitchell, Cordillera Ranch resident and club member, who shared her stories of traveling the world competing in ultra-marathons and other endurance events. She also talked about her upcoming race, the Atacama Challenge in Chile’s Atacama Desert, in which 163 competitors from 36 countries would attempt to conquer this 6-stage race starting on October 5th. Paula charted her journey in this 155-mile race in a blog which she offered to share as a follow-up to the previous story. After a week of brutal stages she crossed the finish line in 43 hours, 5 minutes and 36 seconds, which was good for 1ST PLACE in her age division! It’s quite an incredible feat and her account of it below is fascinating (and exhausting). Stage descriptions from the Atacama Crossing website are in italics at the end of each of Paula’s stage reports.
Thank you so much for your support during the Atacama Crossing. I have the best husband, daughter, family and friends in the world! The race was incredible – there’s something special about living life on the edge for a week, pushing hard, being uncomfortable, and finding a way to survive it. I don’t know why it makes me feel so alive. As compared to other races I’ve done, the Atacama was definitely the most difficult in terms of technicality. I usually have mantras that I repeat over and over again. Not this time. I kept saying “Pay Attention” – that’s it. The terrain was so varied and difficult that you could not relax. It required a tremendous amount of mental focus. If I ran too fast, I knew I was risking getting hurt, twisting an ankle or blowing out a knee.
The race was a wonderful experience. I met so many inspiring people. I made new friends. I reconnected with old friends. I tested myself. I passed the exam. I lost a few toenails, I lost 5-6 lbs, I lost any hopes of a foot modeling career in my future, I lost my way a few times during the week but I gained so much more than I can explain. I gained a better understanding of myself. I gained a renewed hope in humanity – people are good, people want the best for those around them. I gained a better appreciation of the fragility of this life and this body. I reconfirmed the belief that we can accomplish so much more than we ever ask of ourselves.
Stage 1 (23 miles): Day one wasn’t bad. They called the stage “Navigation by Rock” which was fitting. Sand, rock, sand, rock, etc all day long. Time: 5 hours, 50 minutes, 8 seconds. Today’s course was a 23-mile winding journey down through canyons and spectacular rock formations, with loose gravel and larger rocks serving as the running surface.
Stage 2 (28 miles): This day was a hoot and horrible at the same time. I was really scared about the river crossings but after a few crossings, I was fine. It was easiest to jump right in, move downstream with the current until the far side could be reached. As I said in the email, the water was frigid – it would take your breath away. With each crossing, my feet would freeze then start to thaw, freeze, then thaw, etc. It’s hard to run on frozen feet. You can’t really trust them. When the feeling starts to come back, the pain is shocking. We had some brutal climbs that day with one cresting at the top of a huge sanddune. Running down that dune was definitely a highlight of the week. Time: 7 hours, 38 minutes, 50 seconds. This stage moves by the Rio Grande River and Dead Valley to “Laguna Cejar” in the Salar de Atacama—the largest salt flat in Chile. It is a 28-mile course opening with difficult sections and finishing with a moderate 12 miles through varied terrain.
Stage 3 (25 miles): I blew stage 3. That’s about it. It was horrible. From start to finish, I struggled. I was completely spent; it took all night to get the electrolytes back in balance. Others in my tent had a rough time with Stage 3 as well. I remember Lishe and I looking at each other and just shaking our heads. We were both wondering why we signed up for this race. There was no need to say it out loud. It had been a rough day. Time: 7 hours, 33 minutes, 7 seconds. The 3rd stage is a 25-mile course through the flat area of the salar and through Laguna Liona. Competitors will see a total elevation gain of 261 meters and a loss of 150 meters.
Stage 4 (27 miles): While Stage 3 was the worst for me, Stage 4 may have been the best. The salt flats are notoriously difficult but I enjoyed it. You can actually see the heat coming off the desert. It creates a shiny haze that you can see on the horizon. The Atacama is unbelievably dry. One of the race teams had a small weather station which said the humidity was under 2%. It feels like you’re in a microwave oven being cooked from the inside out. The dryness is indescribable. No amount of fluid intake will make it go away. “Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention”. There’s no room to let your guard down out there. Time: 7 hours, 44 minutes, and 45 seconds. Stage 4, which is 27 miles, is called The Infamous Salt Flats, and as the title suggests, includes sections through the Salar de Atacama.
Stage 5 (48 miles): On these races, there is always one “long” day – usually something close to a double marathon. This one was magical. As with every other day, the terrain was extremely technical. I could rarely relax and just run flat out. The last leg was the hardest but the most spectacular. We had a huge climb out of checkpoint 6 heading up into the Valley of the Moons. I arrived at the top just as the sun was setting and a full moon was rising. It was exhilarating. I shut off my headlamp and ran by moonlight through the area. I finished in 13:15 or so and was pleased to be “home”. I managed to get down half of a recovery drink and crawled into my sleeping bag ignoring the dirt, tangled hair, sticky sports drink down my shirt, and sand everywhere. Thankfully, there is a day of rest after this stage. Time: 13 hours, 18 minutes, 11 seconds. Only 129 of the 160 competitors that started the Atacama are still in the race and battling through this 48-mile stage which runs through moon-like valleys to sand dunes and endless plateaus whitened by salt crust and pure Atacama Desert. The final competitor finished this stage in 24 hours 10 minutes.
Stage 6 (6 miles): The last day is a celebration from start to finish. There were hugs all around and tons of photos taken, then all of my tentmates and I headed to the closest bar to celebrate. I skipped the alcohol but ate half of a huge pizza without problem. Time: 1 hour, 35 seconds. The final stage is called Final Footsteps to San Pedro which runs through the Moon Valley and then into the square of San Pedro de Atacama for the finish line.
Congratulations to Paula not only for finishing the race but for winning her division in this event.