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Words > Daniel Rowland
In the cool morning breeze I shivered a little. I was a little terrified of what lay ahead: 250km in the driest desert on earth across brutal terrain. Amongst the competitors my feelings were shared, but they weren't based on the same underlying thoughts. I didn't hold a fear of the unknown. One year ago I was standing on the same start line. Six months ago I was running sections of the route and trying to acclimitise to the heat and altitude. I knew exactly what was coming. Exactly how hard it would be. Exactly how far I still had to go. That’s why my stomach was churning.
Six long and difficult hours into ‘The Long March’, I started to free-wheel down the dune to checkpoint four. It was starting to get hot as I pushed on in the afternoon sun. This was the first and last time I would be running in the harshest hours that the desert had to offer. And I knew that this was where the race would be decided. I had imagined the sensations of running it a thousand times, but now I was facing reality. It was tougher and hotter than I had visualised. I kept running and trying to rid myself of last year's demons: of breaking down and walking and spending an eternity in the endless, dry riverbed. I ran on, taking in calories and emptying my water bottle. I suffered, but I never walked.
Running at the front of the pack added so much to my experience of the desert. I wanted to compete last year, but by the second day I was only surviving. I finished and told myself that I had done as well as I could based on my circumstances at the time. I was working long hours. I had to train in the dark in the mornings. I didn't have as much experience as the other competitors. All true, and not excuses, but I wanted the feeling of winning. This time around I left my job. I went to the desert to learn the route months before the race. I arrived two weeks before the race to acclimatise. I chose the pressure of trying to perform.
With 20km still to run on The Long March I couldn't see anyone behind me, but I didn't know how far back they were. Vlad and I had battled everyday for the top spot. Less than six minutes separated me from second place. We had challenged each other with fast sections and sprint finishes in the early stages, and hadn’t lost sight of one other for the previous 200km. I wanted to win and I wanted the race to be finished. I wanted to be able to tell everyone that I had made the right decision. Most of all I wanted my legs to stop hurting and that persistent voice to stop telling me to walk. I ate another warm, sickly sweet gel and kept running.
At the last checkpoint I was in more pain than I could ever remember experiencing before. But as I looked through the pain at the 4km stretch of road behind me, I couldn't see the chasing pack. I kept up an honest pace to the flags waving a welcome into the final camp. It was enough. I had done it. A year of dreaming, six months of focus and I was going to win.
The last stage was easy: 8km into town with family, friends and real food at the finish line. Content with my 40-minute advantage, I took the time to savour the last few steps in a long journey. I felt a sense of relief at finishing the race and seeing my biggest fan waiting for me with my medal. At the start of my training my coach asked me how I would feel if I won. ‘Happy’, I replied, for lack of a better word. And so he wrote at the top of my training programme, where I’d see it every day: “I happily win the Atacama Crossing 2013.”
Follow Daniel Rowland on Twitter or visit his blog for updates on his next trail running endeavour, and for more information, results and photos from this years Atacama Crossing, head to http://www.4deserts.com/ or follow RacingThePlanet on Twitter