Scott McMurtrey Takes on the Atacama Crossing

At 8am this morning, Washington-based ultra runner Scott McMurtrey along with 109 competitors from around the world began the Atacama Crossing, one of the most challenging races in South America, if not the world.

This 7-day 250km race cuts across the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, and requires competitors to run self-supported across salt lakes, lava flows and sand.

Race officials are posting live updates from the race. You can track Scott's progress at The 155- mile Atacama is just one leg of the 4 Deserts Endurance Series offering the most intense desert endurance races on earth. The 4 Deserts series also includes races in the hottest (Sahara Race in Egypt), coldest (The Last Desert in Antarctica) and windiest (Gobi March in China) deserts on earth.

I had the opportunity to interview Scott before he caught his flight down to Chile. As I previewed in a previous post, Scott has some interesting thoughts on what compells him to take on these endurance challenges.

[Joel Ballezza] So you're running across Chile, what gave you the idea for this adventure?

[Scott McMurtrey] I’m always on the lookout for international races. This year I knew I wanted to travel to South America.  I’ve had my eye on a few marathons and a couple ultramarathons, and then I came across the Atacama Crossing race.  My first reaction was, “No way. Too scary. I’m not ready for something like this.”  In other words, “It’s out of my comfort zone.”  So about ten seconds later I decided that this would be the perfect race for me, and I sent in my application.

[JB] Can you describe the distance you're undertaking, start and end points and what type of terrain you will be traversing?

[SM] The race covers 250-km across the Atacama Desert in six grueling stages.  The Atacama Desert is regarded as the driest place on earth.  Stage 1 starts at 10,000 ft.  Temperatures will be over 100 degrees.  It looks as though the course will wind over mountains, salt flats, rock, sand, and just about any other variation of hot/dry earth that can be made.

[JB] What type of support will you have?

[SM] This is basically an unsupported, solo run.  Participants are required to carry everything they’ll need for a week, expect for tents and extra water.  This means a week of food and energy gels, a sleeping bag, first aid, extra clothes, etc.  There will be checkpoints along each route where we can refill out water bottles.

I believe it’s going to be an extraordinary adventure.

[JB] What are your expectations with your Chile run?

[SM] I’m expecting to have my butt handed to me.  I’m confident I can complete it, but I’m preparing myself to be absolutely unprepared for the conditions that I’ll face.  I mean, c’mon, it’s winter here in Washington.  I’m training in sub-freezing conditions for a 100+ degree hellhole.  I have no illusions that this is going to be an easy week.  I’m mentally prepared, I hope, for a long, long, long slog.

[JB] Previously you've crossed Idaho. What is it about crossing a geographic region, either a state or a country, that fascinates you?

[SM] It just sounds cool, doesn’t it?  The run across the Idaho Panhandle was 93 miles and took me about 21 hours.  I wanted to say that I did it in a single day.  That was the farthest I’ve run in a single go.

I’m even hatching a plan to run across Washington with my dog.  I’d love to run across the United States someday, but I don’t have the resources to do something like that right now.

[JB] What would you say to someone who thought the idea of crossing a country by foot is too difficult or insane?

[SM] Difficult or insane?  Heck, those are two of the best reasons why.  Again, it’s all about comfort zone.  Many of the best moments of my life have been a result of testing my own boundaries.

But you know, the reality is that I’m still kind of in a comfort zone.  Sure, I may be pushing my own limits, but I still know that other people have done these things before (and most of them have survived), and I know that the human body is capable of great endurance.  So though part of me feels like it really is crazy or insane, there’s the part of me that keeps reminding myself that I’ll be relatively fine as long as I’m smart.

I guess it’s just about finding that thing that gets you excited to live.

As I publish this post, Scott's been running for 5hours and 53 minutes, day one of an amazing adventure. Cheer him on at