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Every Ounce Counts When You Carry it All

Matt Cavanaugh

It’s now been 7 weeks since my legs stopped working in Georgia. They’re not fully healed, but enough to prepare for the next race—the Atacama Desert in Chile.

In an ideal world I would take more time off to rest, relax and recuperate until I’m ready to run hard again, but I don’t have that kind of time. In a little over a month I will be standing on a start line in northern Chile, in the highest and driest desert in the world.

I may not have a lot of time, but I do have a sense of urgency. Now that I’ve done two of these races I have a better idea what to expect. And I know how hard the race is to come.

After Georgia, I took about 2 weeks of downtime to heal my misfiring muscles that forced me to walk when I wanted to run. But since then, I’ve gone back to tough training. I ran the 3-day TransRockies Run as a training event. (Yes, it was a race, but the difference is running with a little more care than usual so as not to injure oneself.) I finished second in that competition. Over 3 consecutive days of running, a little under 60 miles distance, in about 8.5 hours total. That works out to roughly 8-and-a-half minutes per mile over a lot of mountain-climbing terrain.

Then, this past weekend I had a really long 4 days. On Thursday, 2.5 hours; on Friday, 3 hours; 4 hours each on Saturday and Sunday, for a cumulative 13.5 hours. That’s roughly half the amount of time I’ll be up on my legs in the Atacama. Yikes.

What made it worse was that I ran Saturday and Sunday in the middle part of the day, which was in the 90s, and that heat and sun really stole my drive to push forward. It just takes so much out of you.

So while a little weary, I am back to training.

But I learned in those first 2 races that there’s another side to these events I could really improve at. That’s the pack weight. In my first event in the Namib, my pack came in at a hefty 12 kilograms (about 26.5 pounds), while the guys that finished ahead of me carried race packs in the 6-7 kilogram range (13-15 pounds). At my second event in Georgia, my pack came in at 9 kilograms (about 20 pounds), a 25 percent drop from last time!

My goal for the Atacama is to get down to 6 kilograms, which is yet another 3 kilograms lighter. I don’t know if that’s even possible, but I’d like to try.

There are no easy ways to do it. It took a lot of stripping to get down to 9 kilograms, so knocking that number down another one-third seems impossible.

But if my competitors can do it, so can I. There’s roughly 3 dozen items of mandatory gear, and I can ask a simple question about each one: is there a lighter alternative? That’s the first step, the stuff I have to take with me, which is the easy part.

Step 2 is calories. I’ll need to scrutinize my food and aim to get my calorie-to-weight ratio down to 200 calories per ounce, which means that every pound of food should get me close to 3,000 calories (not accounting for wrappers and bags, which adds to weight and cuts down on efficiency). Considering that I’ll want about 18,000 calories or so, my aim for food weight will be about 2 kilograms total.

Then there’s the stuff that isn’t mandatory. For example, a mattress pad isn’t mandatory. Music players aren’t mandatory. Equipment for physical therapy, like a band or a ball to roll out sore and busted muscles, also not mandatory. I’ll have to decide whether each item is this something I really “NEED” or simply something I “need” or something I just “WANT.”

Every ounce counts.

My perspective on “stuff” has changed since doing these races. I used to be lukewarm in favor of lightening my load. Sure, I’ll get rid of stuff now and then.

But when you have to carry it all somewhere, when you physically must move it all, that’s when you realize whether you need it or simply want it.

Apologies to Mari Kondo and her “does it spark joy?” methodology for determining if you need some possession. I don’t think you even need to ask that question. Instead, you should force yourself to carry the item to another location—from say, the basement to the garage or up 2 flights of stairs—and that simple act will tell you all you need to know about its value.

What do you tell yourself while moving it? Are you angry that you have to be careful with something you don’t perceive as valuable? Do you resent its existence? Or are you cautious naturally, out of worry that it may be damaged, because you know just how priceless the object in question is to you?

Packing for the Atacama is similar to choosing what to carry with you in life. But the Atacama only runs 155 miles long, while all that other weight you bring with you will go all the way to life’s finish line. So choose wisely.