Crossing four deserts
Sahara, Gobi, Atacama and the Antartic: four deserts, one extreme race. With 10,000 kilometres to cross at temperatures ranging from extreme cold to 40 °C, simply surviving the course is the prize on offer.
What the devil was I thinking when I took on the challenge?” jokes Carlos Garcia Prieto, the first Spaniard to complete this ultra-marathon (The 4 Deserts Grand Slam), one of the most demanding extreme challenges on earth. In the Sahara, it’s running; in China, it’s walking; in Chile, mountain trekking, and in the Antarctic, crossing the polar desert.
Garcia relies on adrenalin to overcome any nerves he may feel ahead of the race – an event that will see him attempt to cross1,000 kilómetros and four deserts in 28 days. It’s an experience only for the brave, for those willing to push themselves to the very limit of human endurance. “These are extreme races in hostile surroundimgs, though the experience is made even more intense thanks to the campfire company and the contact with the locals,” says one ultrarunner, as he recalls the time he drank camel’s milk in the Sahara or when he crossed paths with a humpback whale and her calf while running through Antarctica.
Approximately 90% of the Antarctic is covered with ice.
Sahara and the Gobi Desert: surviving the heat
The first desert to be tackled is the mighty Sahara. The opening stage leaves from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast National Park, a sanctuary for elephants, rhinos and lions. It crosses 300 metre-high dunes, weaving its way between mountains of golden sand – “keep going as best you can,” Garcia advises – all the way up to 2,000 metres. It is held from 1st to 7th May, when temperatures range from zero to 35°C.
RacingThePlanet, the race organiser, funds an educational scholarship programme for girls in the Gobi Desert.
The Gobi Desert section is, above all, a test of determination and staying power. It starts out from Hami in Xinjiang province, moving through Alpine-like countryside, with dried-up rivers, farm lands, grazing lands, and rocky terrain, before moving into the Tian-Shan mountains (known locally as “the heavenly mountains”) through an asymmetrical 8.000 metre high gorge. This stage is run from 19th to 25th July, beginning just short of 500 metres above sea level and then rising to 2,400 metres, at temperatures ranging from zero to 40°C.
There were thirsty times in the Sahara, Carlos Garcia recalls. And hungry times, too: All runners are required to carry their own food.
Atacama and the Antartic: from salt lakes to polar ice
Located between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountain range, the Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the most extreme locations on the planet, and the setting for the third stage. Runners will have to climb 1,693 metres, and descend 2,508 metres over tough, rocky terrain.
This section of the marathon will be run between 2nd and 8th October across the Salar of Atacama, a 3,000 square kilometer expanse of salt flats that looks like the surface of Mars Once a place of worship for the Incas, it’s now a nature reserve and famous for its huge colonies of colourful flamingos.The route skirts the Licancabur volcano, whose crater lake is covered in ice for most of the year and, as the runners leave the Salar, they need to keep their footwear moist otherwise their running shoes will be transformed into rock salt.
For the final stage, those competitors who have made it this far then need to follow in the footsteps of Captain James Cook who, in 1771, was the first to cross the Antarctic Polar Circle. The Antarctic remains one of the few virgin territories on the whole planet. Runners will not see rivers nor lakes, just vast ice oceans and barren yet spectacular polar landscapes as they tackle this stage between 18th and 29th November.
At the end of it all, simply surviving the challenge of crossing four deserts on four continents is prize enough. But despite appearances, the race isn’t over. “The journey”, writes the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, “never ends.” The dunes, gorges, salt and ice of this awesome challenge will stay in the memory forever.