In March last year, Sumanth Cidambi, CFO with a Hyderabad-based company, received an email from a friend that simply said “game for a run?” It also had a link to the website of possibly the world’s most challenging running event, the 4Deserts—a series of four 250km self-supported desert ultramarathons, each run over seven days, that include the Atacama in Chile, the Sahara in Egypt, the Gobi in China, and Antarctica.
Cidambi, who picked up running in 2005 after being diagnosed with diabetes, quickly found an aptitude and passion for the sport that went far beyond just health concerns. From struggling to finish even a kilometre in 2005, he was jostling with other competitors at the starting line of the Mumbai half-marathon in 2006. A full marathon in 2007 was a natural progression. Racing through almost the entire country of Chile on the driest, most brutal desert on the planet though was an exponential leap.
“I spent a couple of months thinking about it and researching the race,” says Cidambi, “and then in August 2010 I signed up for it as a 40th birthday gift to myself.”
Cidambi, who already had a daily 10km running schedule, began scaling up his training for the extreme race immediately. For the next six months, Cidambi turned the guest bedroom in his house into a supply and equipment depot, woke every morning at 3.30, ran for 2 hours, did strength training and stretching exercises for another hour, before returning home and leaving for work by 8.30. For his wife Nandita and their year-old son Atri, this crazy schedule meant tailoring all their activities around it.
High and dry: (clockwise from top) Cidambi at the Atacama ultra with volcanic peaks in the background; negotiating a rocky climb and at the finishing line at San Pedro. Photographs courtesy: RacingThePlanet
Nandita began a blog called The Runner’s Wife to write about her experience. “…all those missed moments of togetherness doing simple stuff like having a cup of tea together in the morning or staying late watching a movie on the telly, it is almost like I have loaned my husband to someone else in this whole period.” Nandita wrote on her blog during this period. Nandita, a doctor specializing in nutrition, played a crucial role in Cidambi’s training; managing his strict and complicated daily caloric requirements, and sourcing the specialized running shoes, equipment and supplements through friends and family returning to India from foreign countries.
By the end of six months of training, which included running the 2011 Mumbai Marathon, Cidambi was comfortably running 25km a day, and 35km on Saturdays.
On 2 March 2011, Cidambi flew from Bangalore to Santiago de Chile, before finally arriving at San Pedro de Atacama, a small sun-bleached town on the northern edge of the great Atacama desert. Cidambi spent two days walking around and acclimatizing at San Pedro, which is surrounded by volcanic mountains, lagoons and archaeological sites dating back as far as 800 BC.
On 5 March, Cidambi left San Pedro with the other 109 competitors, including 42-year-old housewife Michelle Kakade from Pune, an ultramarathoner and mother of two, for Camp 1, tucked in between high canyon walls. They were the first Indians to compete in the Atacama ultramarathon.
“Despite some last-minute-butterflies-in-the-stomach syndrome, I was quite calm and meditative,” Cidambi says.
He went to sleep early under a sky ablaze with fist-sized stars.
The next morning at 8, the race began. The stunning landscape of sand dunes, rocky climbs, bare mountains, canyons and volcanoes gave Cidambi the motivation he needed.
“Running is a solitary sport— you have to push yourself, fighting blisters, nausea, heat and dryness,” says Cidambi. “Ever so often I stopped and breathed in deeply, and found inspiration from the incredible views.”
The temperature soared to above 40 degrees Celsius in the daytime, and dropped to around 5 at night. Pink flags marked the race route, through breathless climbs and pounding descents.
Stage 2 began with an 8km run through a deep river canyon, and Cidambi emerged soaking wet after multiple river crossings. Next was an old mountain road and an ancient footbridge believed to be of Inca vintage.
“The next 9.6km saw us climb up and up and up,” says Cidambi. “Great scenery, but I wasn’t in a frame of mind to appreciate. The incline was really steep, at times almost 45-60 degrees.”
At the end of the stretch was a ridge-line with a volcanic mountain range dominating the horizon, with wispy smoke rising from their peaks. Cidambi then tumbled down a 1,000ft sand dune at an incline of about 60 degrees.
“I earned my first blister that day.”
For the last 26km of the day’s run, Cibambi, running all alone, spotted just one tree. One of the hardest stages of the race was the Salt Flats, the fourth day of the race—a 43km stretch with 20km of rough, crusty salt.
“I don’t even remember how I managed to complete this stretch,” says Cidambi. “But by the end of it my legs were hurting very badly after pounding through the sharp, jagged salt plain.”
But Day 5, a 73.6km run appropriately called “The long march”, was even worse. By then Cidambi’s blistered and sore feet were ready to give up, he had gone without eating for two days (the untested freeze-dried food he was carrying did not agree with him), surviving on soup, carb powder, water and antacids.
“The dry desert heat was brutal,” Cidambi says, “and there was no shade anywhere. I was hobbling for the most part given my bad legs from the previous day’s run and at one point almost felt like giving up.”
Six kilometres of Stage 5 passed along a fenced-off minefield, a result of a border dispute between Chile and Argentina, with glow sticks marking out a safe route.
“The key at all times was to stay positive,” says Cidambi. “I never gave in to despair out of loneliness or exhaustion, and always held on to good thoughts.”
On the morning of 12 March, after seven days in the Atacama, Cidambi ran towards the finish line at the San Pedro town square waving the Indian flag.
He became the first Indian to complete the Atacama Crossing in the eight-year-old history of the race. Eighty-seven other competitors, including Kakade, finished the race. “The feeling of elation and pride I felt is indescribable. ‘Being first’ was merely an optional extra,” Cidambi says. “At the race, we had several first-timers, sharing mutual hopes and fears. We helped each other and were helped by those who were running in such events for the second or third time. It was like being part of a large family.”
Cidambi then went straight to the food counter and ate 10 large slices of pizza, washed down with three cans of coke. His first “real” meal in a week.
Carry on luggage
Cidambi lugged an 11kg backpack through the self-sustained race
•30-litre Mountain Marathon backpack, Marmot sleeping bag
•Petzl Tikka 2 Headlamp (35-40m range), compass, knife/multi-tool, whistle, sunglasses
• Thermolite survival bivvy (a thin, warming 200g blanket)
•Sunscreen, lip screen, blister kit, medicines, toilet wipes
•Red flashing LED safety light
• Mountain Hardwear jacket, CW-X shorts/tights/underwear (meant to support key running muscles and featuring quick sweat-drying technology)
• Inov-8 rocklite shoes (a multi-terrain shoe that can handle wet rock, loose rock, sand and shale)
• Cap, fleece hat and iPod
•Freeze-dried food such as veg ‘tikka’ and rice for seven days, Hammer Nutrition range supplements such as Sustained Energy (slow-releasing carbohydrates) and electrolyte capsules
• Water bottles (2.75 litre)
Cidambi spent roughly Rs 4 lakh on the race, including the $3,300 (around Rs 1.46 lakh) registration fee, and Rs 1 lakh for return airfare (Bangalore-Paris-Santiago) and gear.
The Atacama Crossing is the first ultramarathon in the 4Deserts series. The others are:
26 June-2 July
Start and finish: Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region
Temperatures will reach a maximum of 45 degrees Celsius. The ancient city of Gaochang, a key point on the Silk Road dating back to 1 BC, falls en route.
Registration:$3,300 (around Rs 1.46 lakh)
Start and finish: Pyramids of Giza, Cairo
Competitors will cross the Valley of the Whales, the remnants of an ancient sea that contains fossils believed to be whales with legs that died 40 million years ago. Temperatures reach a maximum of 50 degrees Celsius.
The Last Desert (Antarctica)
The final part of the series has not been scheduled yet for 2011, but usually happens in November. Competitors pass near vast penguin rookeries, fur seals and spectacular ice shelves and glaciers. Entry is by invitation only, extended to those who have completed at least two of the other races.
Information courtesy www.4Deserts.com