Race 250km across a massive South American desert

What’s it like to run 250km across a desert? These incredible images take you to the painful truth.
By Jon Williams

Why would you want to run 250 kilometres across a desert? Well that's a question the 200 people who sign up for the annual Atacama Crossing will ask themselves several times, maybe in the same hour.

The answer lies in the unique joy that comes from pushing your body through an intense experience – especially in a part of the world that is as remote and remarkable as the Atacama desert. Runners can expect extreme temperatures as high as 30° C during the day and as low as zero at night. 

The race involves not only extreme heat, but hunger and discomfort. (Once sand gets in your shoe, it acts like a cheese grater on your skin – just see pics #11 and #12). But travelling such a huge distance across such an incredible landscape brings a reward that few experiences can match. Enjoy the visual ride below, and salute the brave who take part.

Pro tip: use your keyboard to jump between photos
Wide open desert
Run... run... keep running.
Wide open desert The Atacama desert stretches far across South America – really, really far – over 1,000km. The Atacama crossing covers 250 of them. Trust us – it's still very, very difficult. © Thiago Diz
A good night's rest
Run... run... keep running.
A good night's rest During the crossing, the 'camp' follows the runners across the desert. It's broken down and resurrected each day. Organizers provide campfires for competitors to boil water and cook food, and racers sleep in 10-man tents. © Thiago Diz
Wet run
Competitors run through a creek
Wet run Even though it's a 'desert' crossing, there's still water. Here, competitors run through a creek, which provides a welcome relief from the relentless sun. © Thiago Diz
The route takes racers through rock and sandstone caves
Ata-cave-a The route takes racers through rock and sandstone caves. At the very least, it's a welcome break from the sun! © Thiago Diz
High above the hills
An incredible view of the Atacama Desert
High above the hills What's the appeal of torturing yourself with 250km of self-propelled travel across a remote desert? Views like this. © Thiago Diz
Dashing through the sand
Run... run... keep running.
Dashing through the sand If you're going to try to go fast during a race like the Atacama, it's highly suggested that you do it on the downhill. © Thiago Diz
A place to cool off
An oasis at the end of the race
A place to cool off When you've been running through sand all day, this is probably one of the most welcome sights in the world. © Thiago Diz
A moon-lit night
The moon in black and white
A moon-lit night The moon looms large over the horizon as racers traverse a high ridge. The highest point of the race is at Camp 1, which sits 3,000m above sea level. © Thiago Diz
Going it solo
A waterhole in the middle of the Atacama desert
Going it solo While over 200 competitors will enter the race, it's not uncommon to feel very, very alone. Well, you won't be totally alone – you'll have the 10kg backpack with all your food and supplies. © Thiago Diz
Your feet will take a beating...
Bandaged feet
Your feet will take a beating... Many cite the hardest thing about doing a race like the Atacama is taking care of your feet. Think this one is bad? Scroll down... © Thiago Diz
...and we really mean a beating.
A very sore heel
...and we really mean a beating. Doctor, it seems I am in need of a new heel... © Thiago Diz
Follow the leader
A group of runners cluster together
Follow the leader After hundreds of kilometers together, other racers feel more like teammates than adversaries, and you're glad for the company in the middle of the big, big desert. © Thiago Diz
Down and dirty
Going down a dune
Down and dirty Contrary to what one might assume, the Atacama Desert crossing involves plenty of up and down. © Thiago Diz
The lonely road
A racer runs solo, with many long kilometers stretching out before him
The lonely road If you can call it a road. A racer runs solo, with many long kilometers stretching out before him. Of the approximately 200 competitors, 20% run the entire course, 60% combine running and walking, and 20% walk the entire race. © Thiago Diz
Hitting the finish line
The finish line of the Atacama Run
Hitting the finish line It's pretty easy to guess how this guy feels. Exhausted, but elated. © Thiago Diz