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Pacing the Penguins


Even just the name puts shivers down your spine, doesn’t it? And not just because of the thought of its frigid temperatures. Antarctica conjures up thoughts of adventure of the most extreme kind in a constantly changing landscape. Vast, barren, harsh, and yet stunning all at the same time. Antarctica is surely not for the faint of heart. Legend has it that Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest early explorers to this area, posted this advertisement before setting out on his Nimrod expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Another one of Zandy Mangold’s amazing photos…

Naturally, this forbidden territory provides perfect ground for the Racing the Planet 4 Desert series. Antarctica is aptly named in the series as the “Last Desert” — the area has not seen rainfall in over 2 million years!  As many of you know, the Racing the Planet series comprises a number of 250 km, self-supported running events, which take place in the hottest, driest, windiest and coldest locations on earth. Only those competitors that have completed two of the four deserts are eligible for Antarctica (sadly, the fifth ‘roving’ desert events — such as the Vietnam, Namibia, and Australia races — don’t count).

Just a few weeks ago, Racing the Planet held its fourth “Last Desert” event and I decided to catch up with one of the competitors, Diego Carvajal, to get the inside scoop on what it is like to not only visit, but also RACE in this crazy land. Read on to hear about Diego’s personal running story and his experiences in the “balmy” South…*

Ultra Runner Girl: Have you always been a runner?

Diego: Well… Simply put… No. Running has never been what I would call “my natural environment”. Due to a plethora of injuries, I have always found running to be quite painful. I often get asked by others, “do you still hate running?” My answer is always “yes”… But I LOVE what I am doing. I love the experiences I have had, the people that I have met, the places I have seen… and even the injuries I have received.

Ultra Runner Girl: Okay, so what drew you to this kind of event?

Diego: About 15 months ago, I literally just woke up and wanted a challenge. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was after or what I wanted to achieve, but I wanted something that would push me physically, mentally… maybe both?! I had a long list of adventure races; the coast to coast in Costa Rica, The Yukon River Quest, and the Racing the Planet series. Because running is something that is not my ‘comfort zone’, I thought that it would represent the hardest and biggest challenge to me. I think that was one of the biggest draws, that I knew that it was something so far away from what I and my friends associate with me, that it would be also be the most fulfilling journey by the end of it.

Ultra Runner Girl: I understand that your goal was to become the first person to complete all six deserts. Where are you at now?

Diego: My intention was to try to complete the 4 Deserts series in one year, the roving race in Australia (aka the “fifth desert”) and the new 100km event. I wanted to find a way to test my resolve, mental and physical strength. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned… During my first race in the Atacama, just after the first checkpoint, I was running down a winding section when rolled my ankle, putting partial tears in my MCL, ACL and meniscus. I managed to carry on until the end of the third day, but the doctors feared that I was in danger of chipping the bone in my knee or causing a fracture in my tibia. I had to retire, and with that, everything that I had worked towards was gone.

However, I think I’m in a much better place than I would have been had things worked out according to my initial plan. In losing the “first” tag, it allowed me to really focus on doing this challenge for me.

With just three months to recover from my injuries before the next race [the Gobi March], I had my work cut out for me. However, with a great support system and nine weeks of rehabilitation, made it through the training and got to the Gobi March in time.

So here I am now, having finished the Gobi March 2010, the Sahara Race 2010 and the Last Desert 2010. I am the proud owner of a fractured foot, a bad knee and a few scars… but probably the happiest I have been in quite a long time.

Life is about contrast. You can have the most amazing life, but unless you have experienced bad times, then how do you know what good ‘is’? So I know and recognise that every drop of pain I have had, it has all yielded positives for me and made every finish line just that little bit sweeter.

I have one race left to finish the 4 Desert series in succession: the Atacama, where it all started and where I am hoping I will be able to lay things to rest.

Ultra Runner Girl: Okay, now I feel like a complete wimp. But moving on. Describe how you trained for this crazy event!!

Diego: A lot of running and a lot of trial and error to try and find the best solutions that would protect my knee. Kettlebell training, conditioning and weights are part of the regime, but nothing beats good old fashioned ‘pavement pounding’. I try to focus on quality miles. It’s tough… I feel like I am always walking on a knife edge. Too much and potentially I won’t make it to the next race; not enough and I am putting myself in a bad situation for the race.

I run hills, jog with lots of weight in my backpack 20kg (45lbs), run backwards, do interval sprints and run with leg weights on in the swimming pool. Lots of people think that I carry too much weight in my workouts [Ultra Runner Girl is one of them Diego!!], or that I push too hard for my knee… But ultimately I would say it’s just something that works for me. It is incredibly important for others not to assume that what works for one person will work for them, but instead, to try everything. Try lots of different techniques, work outs, etc…and ultimately settle with what they think works best for them [Ultra Runner Girl concurs!].

Ultra Runner Girl: Did you ever feel like quitting either before the event or during? Come on, be honest…

Diego: Yes… Never before an event, but during the Sahara I had an internal monologue for about 130km of the 250km about “whether I needed this enough to keep doing damage to my knee”. I hyperextended my knee on day one and the pain was just mounting with every day and every step.

I was lucky that my friend Matt Owens had decided to do the race with me and although we had to split up and he was trailing me, his determination meant that I had to keep going. Every check point that he would make it to, meant that there was one more checkpoint that I couldn’t stop and quit at.  I probably came close in the Sahara, but I crossed the line… So I guess it wasn’t close enough.

Ultra Runner Girl: What was your lowest/highest moments in these races?

Diego: The moment I had to retire from the Atacama Crossing 2010 and I realised after limping my way through another 113km that it hadn’t been enough… I felt like I had failed and let everyone down.

The highest was crossing the line at the Gobi March 2010, three months later and realising that I had repaid everyone’s faith in me. That I had done what many thought was impossible and I had recovered enough to finish and put some of the demons to rest.

Ultra Runner Girl: Alright, ‘fess up. I have heard that the Antarctic race is really all about the partying on the boat at night. I mean, you get all the food and drink you want, right? How hardcore was this? Give us the dirt.

Diego: Hahahahaha… Ok ok, yes, the Last Desert is a massive change in luxury compared to the other Deserts where you get a bed, shower, food, etc… But like with everything it comes at a price. One of the most important things that I found during the Gobi and Sahara is ‘the ritual’. The ritual is what you do when you get in after a long day: put your feet up to reduce swelling, take a recovery drink, eat, blog, eat then bed by about 10pm to ensure that you have about 8 hours of solid sleep. It’s something that makes all the difference out in the Deserts.

Here on the boat, we could finish a day at 9pm, have dinner at 10pm (which was very nice!) but then you would need to be up and ready to leave the boat by 5am, meaning that you would have a 3am wake up. This means that the added ‘luxury’ would leave you with around 4 hours sleep per night, skimping on recovery drinks, and somehow feeling like you wanted to spend all night watching TV rather than sleeping!!

Don’t get me wrong, it was incredible to have dinner made for you and take a hot shower at the end of a day of racing, but it did nothing to help me stay in “game mode”. In this way, it was actually much harder than the other Deserts.

Also, in the Last Desert the stages are not done on a distance basis but instead on a time basis. You had to keep moving until you were told that you could stop (max 15min break at check point). For example, in two days, Ryan Sandes ran over 190km (!!) which is an incredible feat.

This year there were a lot of people trying to achieve records in the Antarctic, so most were quite restrained when it came to drinking or partying. However, once the race was over… There were certainly a few of us that got to see some spectacular sights courtesy of some late night celebrating 🙂

Ultra Runner Girl: The course was set in a loop for safety reasons, right? Did you ever get bored just running around in circles?

Diego: The course was set in a loop both for safety reasons but also due to regulations in Antarctica. On the islands and the continent itself, the penguins have more rights than we do, so the course had to have minimal impact on colonies, wildlife, etc. While it was very boring going around in loops over and over, I had plenty to keep me occupied, as on day two I injured my left knee and left foot. I spent pretty much all day with my ipod on focusing on the importance of every slow and painful step.

Cheeky little penguins

Ultra Runner Girl: As is sometimes the case with these extreme events, not all competitors are able to finish, either because they have to drop out by choice or they are forced to retire by the medical staff. These decisions are not always easy and, unsurprisingly, decisions by the medical staff sometimes cause, er, controversy. As I understand it, Antarctica was no exception and there was one penguin in particular who has been rather public about his discontent. As someone who has done a number of these events now, what are your thoughts these issues? And would you do it again?

Diego: From experience, I know that the doctors will always try everything that they can to help you finish the race before considering having to pull you out medically. I think that a lot of people ‘fear’ that the doctors will overreact or will just pull the plug on you before you have given it your all, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I have so many problems – shoulders, knees, ankle and foot – that I talk to the doctors and check in with them every so often just for a ‘catch up’. As a result, they understand my situation and are able to help me come up with ways give me the best possible chance of finishing.

For me, the medical team has been exemplary…and believe me, I have made sure that they have had their work cut out!

Yes, sometimes things go wrong, or sometimes things are not ‘what one would expect’ but that is a part of what we are signing up for. If it were easy, if it were perfect, would it have the same draw? By the very nature of what we are seeking, we are asking that we get brought right to the edge, or as close to the edge as possible, so that we can try to see if we have what it takes to pull ourselves away from the abyss.

Despite all the pain, I would 100% do it again, and in fact, I am at the Atacama Crossing 2011 in a few months so that I can try and finish the 4 Deserts in under a year.

Ultra Runner Girl: If you had to make the choice between continuing the race or sacrificing a toe to frostbite, would you have done it? If so, which toe?

Diego: If I had to make a choice between frostbite or finishing, I think I would have kept the toe! Having had the experience I did with the knee in the Atacama 2010, it really showed me that the finish line is just something ceremonial. Don’t get me wrong, I would think long and hard before I left a race… But I have just come to realise that there are more important things now.

If I had to choose a toe, I would likely go with the little toe. I can pick things up with my toes like a monkey (socks, etc) so it would be the one with the least detrimental affect I believe.

Ultra Runner Girl: Did you grow that beard for extra warmth?

Diego: Funnily enough yes and no. I have had the beard for quite some time now and it came around because I was heading to Everest Case Camp and couldn’t be bothered to shave while I was on the trek. By the time I came back, I had the beard. Everyone seemed to like it more, and I had already gotten very bored of shaving by this point so it stayed. Everyone asks if it’s ‘really hot’ for the Deserts, but it really isn’t. It just means that I have less surface area to cover in sunscreen and worry about getting sunburnt.

Too tired to shave?

Ultra Runner Girl: What gear were you thankful for during the race? What did you wish you had brought/left at home?

Diego: There were a couple of things that I found vital to my campaign:

  1. My Ipods… Had it not been for these, I don’t know how I would have been able to shut off the pain and focus on something else during the hours I had to keep moving.
  2. Before I left I was also very lucky in getting Orca to sponsor me and provide me with Merino base layers and mid layers. Out in Antarctica, one of the most important things is to make sure that your layerings don’t cause you to sweat profusely. Otherwise, when you stop for any reason or slow down, the sweat will freeze on you and then you can get in all sorts of trouble as your core temperature plummets. Armed with Merino high neck baselayers as a primary, and then a Torque Jacket as my secondary, every day my core temperature was warm and it was just a case of being protected when the wind kicked in. In fact, it’s so good and among one of my favourite pieces of gear that on returning to the UK I am still wearing the base layers to ensure I am nice and warm.

Ultra Runner Girl: Tell us about InnerLimits!

Diego: InnerLimits is a vision that my business partner and I had to try and make adventure more accessible to everyone. One thing that we have found is that a lot of people would ‘love to do something like this’ but always feel like there is some sort of barrier that prevents them from taking that last step, whether it’s training, gear, experience, etc.  Essentially the site will focus on trying to liberate people from those fears by providing as many support structures as possible, information and user generated content. It will also aim to operate on a ‘pay it forward’, where users will support new adventurers to help them achieve their dreams. There will be kit lists for different events, food lists, training tips, logistical tips, etc and hopefully we will also be able to count on the support of suppliers so that we can try and make adventure as accessible to people as possible.

We also want to build a charity that will hopefully be able to provide scholarships to people who come from less advantaged backgrounds so that they can experience adventure.

*Content has been edited. In fact, this interview isn’t even with Diego. Just kidding.

3 comments on “Pacing the Penguins

  1. zandymangold

    diego’s ever present grimace made for a compelling photo subject..his gutty performance was 100% inspiring

  2. ultrarunnergirl

    And what beautiful photos they were!!! CREDIT TO THE AMAZING PHOTOGRAPHER (and former Australian tentmate) Zandy Mangold!!

  3. Ryan Bennett

    Great article and congrats to Diego!

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