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Notes on Slaying Dragons (with Loads of Help): Final Post from the Atacama Race

Matt Cavanaugh

“There be dragons” was the label affixed to very old maps, including what’s now known as the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

It was always metaphorical. There are no actual dragons. Even if everyone didn’t know it then (or now).

But dragons exist. They can’t be seen, only felt. They don’t have wings or tails, fire or teeth. They are the problems that seem too big. The fear we don’t want to face. The pain that looks unbearable. The challenge that appears too great.

The Atacama Crossing race was my dragon. It was my third 155-mile self-supported race this year (in the 4 Deserts Grand Slam via Racing the Planet), and so that cumulative toll has forced me to think a lot harder on how to approach dragon-slaying in today’s world.

First we identify the dragon. Name it. See it, because we can’t kill what we can’t see. It’s a gut-level feeling that defies exact quantification. The Atacama was that for me, a strong sense that, having burned the candle twice down before (in the Namib and Caucasus races), there wasn’t much wick left to go. Even more so, when I got to see the course first-hand, the terrible terrain was worse than I’d ever encountered.

The goal, then, is simple. It’s binary, black-and-white. Not times or scores. It’s about getting the job done, slaying the dragon, no matter how ugly it might look or feel.

The most important lesson is to know that you cannot slay a true dragon alone. I mostly crossed the Atacama Desert without someone beside me—but I was never alone. With apologies to myths and movies, in real life, there is no Maverick to shoot them down, no Merlin to cast a spell that makes the bad stuff stop.

Everyone plays a part. Even those not directly engaged in the combat, even those who start but don’t make it all the way to the end help the others that do.

This week my list of support runs longer than ever before. My wife and daughters, through a scrap of blue baby blanket affixed to my race kit, pulled me to the finish line every day. The support team in my coach and massage therapist prepared me better than I ever could’ve hoped for. The race volunteers, one of whom kept beating the traditional race-finish drum through an honest-to-God sandstorm, who endured as much as we runners did, kept my spirits up when they were low. My fellow runners, who showed me how to pack, kept me on course, provided the greatest of company, and friendship when a friend was as necessary as oxygen. All the people who are part of the amazing kidney donor community, who sent messages of support from thousands of miles away.

And lastly, the people I’ve encountered over the course of my life who, after months or years or even decades, dropped me a line to take my mind off the long desert road for just a minute. I asked for some help, I pleaded for help, and you were there for me when I needed it. It will take me some time to get a proper personal thanks out to all of you, but I will, as soon as I can.

After an avalanche of support like that, that infusion of hope, I finished 3rd overall. Bronze felt golden to me, though, considering the field of fast, talented runners in this race.

But most importantly, when I think hard on it, I recognize if I were to slice off appropriate percentages to all those that contributed to this result, even the fairest judge would leave me with but a small minority share.

It took an army to slay the Atacama. I will never forget all who helped in that. I cannot ever thank you enough.

And really, there won’t be time. Because dragons don’t ever really go extinct. When you’ve slayed one, you go on to find another. In six weeks I leave for the next and last one this year, in Antarctica. In the snow. The Last Desert, the White Desert, the fourth and last event in the Grand Slam.