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Atacama Crossing, Stage 3

Matt Cavanaugh

Today is Wednesday, and I’m typing from an adobe event center somewhere outside of San Pedro de Atacama. A sandstorm forced us to evacuate from normal race camp.

Yesterday was the 3rd stage of the race. It was the worst terrain I’ve ever run through. “False floor” dirt that looked solid but fell through to the knee. Terra cotta-like clay that, if you struck it in the wrong spot, flipped a porcelain-like dinner plate of hard dirt at your shin. Fields of “frozen broccoli”—hardened short grass that’s somehow shaped into sharpened points. Patches of non-ocean coral reef remnants that look so, so sharp. Rock piles, lava rock, bushes like a ye-olden-days schoolmarm’s switch, and twice I was on my hands and knees crawling up a straight-up sand dune on all fours.

And the sun is so powerful—I swear it’s like an X-ray machine going right through me. I’m covered in salt by the end of each stage, and gulp down a liter of water within 60 seconds after crossing the finish line.

I saw the two guys ahead of me yesterday—Rob from England (who’s really crushing the field) and Mori from Japan—but they pulled away in the last couple miles and put some time on me. I finished 3rd yesterday, and now find myself in 3rd overall. I’ve got about 45 minutes on the next guy behind me, so I’m confident heading into stage four.

After yesterday’s finish, I dragged myself over to my tent and just lay there for several hours. At about 2 p.m. the winds really picked up, and by 3 p.m. we had to secure all our stuff inside the tent, and by 4 p.m. we heard the attention-grabbing word “evacuate.” We got truck rides to where we are now, and huddled into this building to ride out the sandstorm. Last night they told us today would be a rest day, because the wind today was/is forecast to be worse.

One of my competitors—Reinhold Hugo from Switzerland, someone who shared a great deal with me about how to pack and prepare for these races—got hit with a flying wooden table during the sandstorm and had to get an X-ray at a faraway hospital. I hope he can come back, but considering the terrain, he might not. Another competitor fell hard in the bad terrain and had to get 5 stitches on his forehead, and the worst scrapes I’ve ever seen on both his knees.

Two more stages to go.