Running challenges don’t come much tougher than this.
The Atacama crossing is a 6-stage race covering 250 km (155 miles) across an enormous plateau in Chile. It offers a variety of challenging terrains, with nearly 1700 metres of height gain, starting at an altitude of 3200 metres.
Queen of the Extreme Fiona Oakes took on the event with the North and South pole marathons behind her (she has broken the course record for both) as well as two Marathon des Sables.
"Boy, was this a tough one for many, many reasons," Fiona told Great Vegan Athletes soon after. Preparation was hampered by the delayed purchase of a larger site for the sanctuary she runs – she has just moved in when it was time to leave for Chile.
"The day before I went I was still frantically trying to get the fencing sorted, the cattle moved and plans for Winter accommodation for the animals sorted at the new site.
"Not an ideal way to be throwing yourself into, what in my opinion and those of many of my fellow competitors, was the toughest week long stage race they had ever competed in."
The vegan athlete has seen some extreme conditions, but says this race was harder than her previous adventures.
"This race has everything," she said. "Freezing cold night conditions, high altitude running, extremely hot conditions in the day, lots and lots of river crossings, long distances, week long self- sufficiency, exceedingly rough terrain, many climbs and, more worrying in my case, many descents.
"I find coming down a lot harder than going up as is stated in the film about me which Keegan is just releasing. I have had multiple knee surgeries which have included having my knee cap removed which make descending – even on tarmac and even surfaces – almost impossible.
"Add to that stony and uneven ground whilst scouring the terrain for guider flags which can be lost in the blink of an eye when the sun is glaring down and a foot, ankle or knee can be easily damaged. Indeed, one competitor did break his ankle whilst many others had to retire with knee related problems."
Director Keegan Kuhn has made a film about Fiona Oakes and her remarkable endeavors. Subscribe to PBN's YouTube Channel here
Due to the busy life with the sanctuary, Fiona had not researched the task ahead of her, and admits that had she done so, she may have decided not to proceed.
"I didn't have time to acclimatise in Chile to the high altitude so arrived late on the Friday night with bag and kit checks the following morning and the long trip into the Atacama Desert and our first base camp in the afternoon.
"We had been told it was going to be cold that night as we would be at very high altitude - around 13,000 feet and then descending over 3000 feet in the next day's First Stage."
As it turned out 'cold' was an understatement, it was freezing - quite literally.
Sub zero exposure
"I think everyone on camp awoke the next morning absolutely frozen to the core, shivering and shaking before we even ventured from our sleeping bags," Oakes revealed.
"The problem was that we had to get up early to prepare for the stage in this freezing cold and dark – it gets light around 7 a.m. – be fully prepared to run by 7.30 a.m. for a morning briefing and then set off as the temperatures start to rise so it was really hard to keep warm as all your gear was stowed in your pack.
"I had taken some extra clothes to wear on the first night and then throw away on the morning of the race but this plan totally altered when I sampled the cold and a last minute plan had to be formulated to cram this night gear into my 20L Olmo Raidlight pack which was already bulging at the seams with my clothes, food, medications, blister kit, head torches, dry sacks, sleeping bag, spare water bottles and, of course, Percy bear!!
"How I did it I don't quite know – I think it was desperation and realisation that if I didn't I would have many more such cold nights ahead on the back of days of long running too."
She added: "The first day was descending over rocky and uneven ground – an absolute 'no go' for me. By the second checkpoint my bad right knee was so bad I had leaned heavily on my left leg for extra support and now my ankle on that side was hurting.
"Things were looking a bit – to say the least – grim and it was only the first day. But I had to remember I was only there to trial my new Will's Vegan Shoes – the Oakes Cross Trainer – in preparation for Marathon des Sables which I am doing again next year with a clear site and focus on achieving a good result.
"With this in mind I took things steady, battle through the first day and onto day two, three, and four. Strong and steady was my progress – carefully picking my way through the rocks, uneven ground, salt flaps, river crossings – where the main focus was not getting washed away in the current – climbs, descents and trying to make up ground on the parts I could actually run."
The longest days
"Day four was the longest stage of the race up to that point with a 48 km stage – not easy with an 11kg back pack – but surprisingly I did it quicker than the previous day's stage which was ‘only’ 39km which proved that I could cover the ground when the terrain was to my liking.
"Then the next day was the 'long one' the 80km March – something every runner dreads.
"These long stages take you to such dark places they really hurt your mind and body. I actually started quite well and making steady progress through the field when I came upon some ground which looked like hard, baked mud – quite flat and runnable I thought.
"At first, the plan was going well and I was eating up ground and blasting across it until my foot went through the ground and into a hole which some have suggested was a tarantula’s nest. Whatever it was my knee suffered as it bent inward on itself through lack of stabilisation due to me having no knee cap and immediately started to swell, and sell and then swell some more."
Vomiting with pain
"I hobbled up the 800m sand dune which followed and then descended in horrific pain to CP4. With no Doctor on hand I decided to push on the CP5 where medical help was available.
"It took me absolutely ages and by the time I reached there I had one huge knee, was vomiting with pain and advised that if it continued, withdrawing might be the only option. After a 28 hour journey half way around the world to trial my shoes and prove veganism is not prohibitive to anything, this was not the news I wanted to hear or was willing to accept lightly."
"So on I battled through the baking heat, across the sand, gale force winds and miles and miles on, into the night. Quite how the time passed I don't know. Just relentless distances and desperation to finish the 80km. By CP8 I realised I had eaten nothing all day and was holding down very little fluid but the end was finally in site and eventually it came – not a second too soon.
"I crawled into my sleeping bag at around midnight and hoped and prayed that when I awoke the bad dream would have gone away and the swelling, and hopefully the pain, subsided. By the next morning things were looking better, not good, but better at least.
"I tried everything to get the swelling down but with basically nothing available like ice or even much water, it wasn't easy. It was just a matter of elevating and hoping the amazing power of recovery my plant based diet has always afforded me would kick in just one more time."
"The next morning, Saturday, was the last stage – a 13km run to the Finish and totally more my territory, free running with no obstacles. Problem was I didn’t know how my knee would hold up to it but I figured if I had to walk it would just have to be a little 'longer day at the office' than I intended.
"I set off gingerly and started to progress, felt strong and relatively quick given the 250km of running and back pack laden clambering I had already done that week.
"I started to pick up other runners fast and by the time we were at 10km I was in the lead. Now it was just a push to the Finish Line and the totally unexpected bonus of a last stage win proudly sporting my cow suit."
"Yes, did I mention I was doing it dressed as a cow so when people ask 'why the cow' I can introduce them to the horrors of scary dairy?! So, what looked like an absolutely improbable impossibility of a race turned out to bring me an Atacama Crossing finish, Age Group win by over 10 hours and a full Stage Win on the last day – results totally over and above my expectations.
"Obviously, after each Stage people asked about my plant based diet – many questions why, how long and, mostly, what did I eat. So what did I eat on the race? Very basically as I do at home was the answer.
"Noodles, dried fruit, nuts, Gathia noodles, dates, marzipan and dried vegetables with my ‘secret’ ingredients of lots of ginger and Tobasco sauce with the extra special motivator of doing for what I believe in most passionately and vehemently – a plant based future for all."
Oakes was able to make it back to the sanctuary - not for some well-earned rest but to start on some of the demanding jobs involved in running a sanctuary. Incredibly she has her mind on more adventures and told Great Vegan Athletes: "Next stop – Antarctica in November!"