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Of sun, salt and sacrifices

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17/01/2019
 

Taking runners past ancient Inca graves and over the world’s largest salt pan, the Ultra BOLIVIA Race is a rugged challenge set against a spectacular backdrop.


The ultrarunners’ shoes crunch over the brightly glistening surface underfoot. For hours at a time, the athletes battle their way across an unbroken sea of white. What might look like a sheet of ice extending to the horizon is actually the largest salt desert in the world, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. This otherworldly plain is 140 kilometers long and 100 kilometers wide – an inhospitable and barren landscape where it’s rare to encounter a human being. But for a few days every two years, things are completely different. The Salar de Uyuni becomes the stage for one of the world’s most physically challenging foot races, the Ultra BOLIVIA Race.

 

The ultramarathon is run in seven stages. The starting signal sounds in the small town of Salinas de Garcí Mendoza. From there, the runners work their way through one of the most breathtaking regions of South America. During the first four stages, the athletes circle Tunupa, a sleeping giant that no one wants to awaken. This dormant volcano rises up more than 5,000 meters into the Bolivian sky. Its colorful strata and sometimes bizarrely shaped rock formations set it apart from other peaks in the Andes. The indigenous people of the region, the Incas, regarded Tunupa as a sacred place. Hundreds of years ago, they brought the volcano human sacrifices to ensure the fertility of the land. The thin, dry air at this high altitude has almost completely preserved these mummies, which can still be seen today in the graves of Alcaya. The runners pass this archaeological site in stages three and four.

The cracked pattern of the salt surface is reminiscent of ice floes. The salt reflects the sunlight so brightly that participants must wear sunglasses at all times. Photo: Gabriel Pielke

 

But most of the athletes won’t have any thoughts to spare for the Incan culture – they’ll have more urgent matters on their minds. Like protecting themselves from the sun as they cross the Salar de Uyuni salt desert during the fifth stage of the race. Anyone who fails to apply a sufficient amount of sunscreen risks being disqualified by the race officials. Since the broad, flat surface of the salt pan acts like a huge mirror reflecting the sun, all athletes are required to use sun cream with an extremely high sun protection factor and must wear sunglasses at all times. The reflected light from the salt surface is so strong that otherwise, participants could be blinded after just a short time. And because the entire race takes place at an altitude of more than 3,600 meters above sea level, the very thin, dry air can pose an additional difficulty for many runners, pushing them to their limits.

Another hurdle facing Bolivia-Ultra participants is the need to provide their own food and equipment. This means the runners have to carry food and clothing in a backpack for the entire race – the organizers provide only water and tents at each night’s camp. The final camp is located in the middle of the salt plain, where normally any kind of camping is strictly prohibited.

So far, the fastest athlete to finish the ultramarathon is Emmanuel Fabre of France, who managed to complete all the stages in just over 25 hours. He’ll hold this record for at least another year and a half: the next Ultra BOLIVIA Race kicks off on September 21, 2020.

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