Take 5: Chile’s Atacama Crossing with vegan ultrarunner Ben Dame
Few deserts are more unforgiving than the high, dry, mountainous climes of Atacama in Chile — and Ben Dame is about to spend seven days in the thick of it.
Earlier this week, the 36-year-old left Summit County (his training grounds since August) for tiny San Pedro de Atacama. It’s home base of the Atacama Crossing, the first event in the 4 Deserts series, a collection of diabolical, multi-day events held in the nastiest environments on earth: the Gobi Desert, the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and Atacama, plus a roving race.
The races share a similar format — typically seven days across 250 kilometers, with no support other than the gear on a runner’s back and small tent villages — and are considered a few of the toughest races in the world. For Dame, who has finished two of the roving races, that was part of the appeal: he grew up on a rural farm in Germany and running soon became second nature.
“Since I can remember I was always a runner,” Dame said shortly before leaving Colorado for Chile on Sept. 26. “I’ve never actually owned a car in my life, so even as a young kid I was running to the bus, running to school — running back and forth from all. I was born and raised on a farm, so there were long distances to see friends in the city or go to school.”
As a teen, Dame paired running with his other passion, soccer, and was soon recruited by the Penn State soccer team to play forward. He moved to the U.S. at 20 years old, but was forced to give up a career in soccer after a rash of ACL injuries (something Summit locals know about all too well).
That’s when simply running became his forte — no ball, no gear, just shoes and a route — and, in 2012, Dame joined Team USA to compete in Olympic triathlon at the National Championships. He took seventh that first year and was invited to the 2013 World Championships. Those events morphed into ultra-running and adventure racing like the 4 Deserts series and 2016 Atacama Crossing.
And it all started in Summit. To prepare for the Crossing, Dame came to Colorado for training in a similar dry, high-alpine environment. A few weeks before he left, the Summit Daily sports desk spoke with Dame to hear more about the Crossing, his local training and how he did it all on a vegan diet.
Summit Daily News: You’re in Summit County now training for the Atacama Traverse. Is this your first time tempting that race?
Ben Dame: Yeah, it’s my first time doing the Atacama, but it’s actually my third race in the series. The series, called 4 Deserts, is when they go to the four most extreme deserts in the world. You have the Atacama, the Sahara, the Gobi and then Antarctica. But the concept is always the same: It’s 250 kilometers over seven days, self-supported, so you have to carry your own stuff. You carry your sleeping bag, your food — everything — and the only thing they provide is water at the camps and the start, plus tents.
My goal is to do all four of the races, but they also have roving races every year and I’ve done two of those.
SDN: What are the other two?
BD: My first was in 2014, and that was in Madagascar, on the east coast of Africa. Then the second was in Sri Lanka earlier this summer.
SDN: Now it’s time to do a standard series race — one of the big ones. Why start with the Atacama?
BD: I’ve heard from a lot of folks that this is the hardest. There are three things: It is the hottest, very hot, and then gets very cold at night — maybe 34 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also the highest, with a start at 10,000 feet. It’s also fairly remote in Chile, so you have to go out of your way to get there. It’s a big challenge just to get there, but at the same time it’s a great adventure. NASA actually uses the Atacama Desert to try out a lot of their Mars rovers because it resembles the Mars terrain quite a bit.
SDN: Wild, I didn’t know that. And now you have to run through it.
BD: Yeah, it’s insane. You have salt flats and sand dunes, and you can imagine one of the big challenges of these races is to get your equipment right. You want light shoes, but in the desert — in this desert — there are also quite a few river crossings. You need something that can dry out quickly and something that is light, and then something that has gaiters to keep the sand out. You need it all in one.
There is also the other equipment. You need warm clothing for the cold night, you need food, so it’s not just getting there and doing the race. The food is a big-ticket item: At minimum you need 14,000 calories, and as a vegan I need to pay extra attention to what I’m bringing. You need to be prepared and a light backpack means speed. If you want to compete for a top spot you have to make sure you’re traveling light.
SDN: Do you have your sights set on the podium then?
BD: I’m trying to get in first, trying to get the top spot, and that’s why I’m in summit county. I want to mimic the high altitude as much as I can. In Sri Lanka I was among the top two to start, but on the fourth day I had shin issues and had to pull out of the race. Literally on the way to the tent I said, right away, “I’m going to Atacama.” I made up my mind.
SDN: Why train in Summit County over anywhere else? You lived in Boulder for a while and that’s another big Mecca for endurance athletes.
BD: After the first half-marathons I was doing Ironmans and more, and I became part of Team USA, competing for the U.S. Part of my training for the National Championships in 2012 was being in Boulder for two months to train full time. I knew boulder quite well and always looked back on it with a smile. The altitude is perfect, the weather is perfect — I was in Seattle back then and it was very cloudy — and when we came back we loved it, but it was very crowded. It’s also high, but it’s not as high as the Atacama Desert, or as high as Summit County.
I remember my parents came here (to Summit County) in 1966, in October, and I remember seeing photos of Lake Dillon. I knew of the area and wanted to come back. I’m really surprised there aren’t more people in Summit County. Boulder is just crowded with lots of athletes training, but Summit County has the same thing with less people and just as many trails. It’s astounding.
You also have the infrastructure here. You have these grocery stores, you have a coffee shop, whereas you go to the same sort of elevation in Europe and there isn’t anything — there might not even be a paved road. You have to drive very far just for groceries. The tree line in Europe is also much lower — there’s nothing but gravel above a certain elevation. Here, you can go so high and still find trees.
SDN: You’ve been on a strict vegan diet for almost five years. How does the infrastructure in Summit County help you stick to that, even when training hard?
BD: It makes all the difference. My wife and I cook at home, so having access to a farmers market and grocery stores is much different than training high-altitude in Europe. There, you would have to go down and come back up for what you need. Here, where you have a network of trails combined with the infrastructure, that is very, very hard to find anywhere else.
SDN: What will your diet look like during the Atacama race? Similar to what you’re eating now?
BD: I became a vegan about four or five years ago so I have experience with this. The main thing is to get as many high-calorie foods as I can. That starts with good fats, good carbs, good proteins, and my go-to meals are the same for all races. I do my own trail mix, my own nut butters — almond and peanut — and I mix water with chia seeds to get fiber. When I was in Sri Lanka and Madagascar, you see lots of people go back to freeze-dried foods, and I actually do the same in addition to my trail mixes. I take lots of dates, raisins, seeds and nuts with me, and I also have a high-density dried food for vegans. I start my day from a nutritional standpoint, and then fill in the running.
SDN: Why make the switch to vegan?
BD: I had high blood pressure and high cholesterol running in the family, and coming from a family of doctors we got blood testing very often. It’s natural for me to look at that, and so making sure my blood pressure stays low was part of the switch. I cut out red meat, then cut out poultry, and then cutting out dairy was the last frontier. Now, I feel like I recover much faster when I’m on a vegan.
SDN: Looking ahead, what’s the final piece of the puzzle before the race?
BD: I think a lot of the preparation has been done. Before Summit County I was in Spain, training a lot in heat and at sea level, and coming to Summit County was all about the altitude — getting used to the elevation. Coming to race day, we’ll have been here, at high altitude, for six weeks.
The three things I’m focusing on are continuing with sessions on a daily basis, equaling to about 100 miles per week. I want to make sure I’m not getting hurt so I’m starting to dial things back, so I can get there healthy, with all my ligaments and bones and everything ready.
Finally, it’s getting the equipment in place — getting everything light and mimicking the race conditions as much as I can.
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