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Atacama Crossing, Stage 1

Matt Cavanaugh

An update from the highest and driest desert in the world–I can attest to the really high and the really dry.

After coming together in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, on Saturday, 118 runners from 39 countries boarded a bus a to head a couple hours north for Camp 1. It’s a really tough field – there’s a blind ultra-runner from Brazil, a one-armed Norwegian woman who still manages to sling her pack and move fast, an Alaskan airline pilot who donated her kidney in 2017 to save the life of one of her flight attendants, and a British military guy who just completed a solo-row across the Atlantic (over 111-days).

Onto the “high” part – our first camp was at 10,500 feet – and when the sun dropped under the nearby red rock ledges, it was freezing. The one redeeming feature was the biggest, widest sky of stars you’ve ever seen. It almost made up for the fact that my feet were iceblocks at the startline.

The Atacama is about the size of Kentucky, and holds much of the world’s copper and lithium reserves (lithium being a major component in EV batteries). We started at 8am and it took me about 3 and a half hours to finish the course, and I swear I didn’t sweat a drop. That’s the dry. It evaporates before you know it, and all that was left was a smear of salt where sweat should’ve been.

My time was good enough to cross the line second, with another runner, and I’m trying my best to conserve my energy for the very-far-trail left to travel. My left shoulder is pretty bruised from my pack, and my right foot is banged up. But it was a good start, all things considered. I never would have had such a good day without help from my friend John Bezou, and other runners I’ve grown to know this year in these races.

Last thought – my tentmate is Jack, the Brit who just rowed across the desert. In the tent, after today’s run, we were talking about the Badwater 135 miler, which goes through Death Valley in California. He said, “I would never want to run in a place called ‘Death Valley.’”

To which I reminded him – tomorrow’s second stage runs right through a place called the “Valley of Death.” No joke.