The four South Africans making up Merrell Adventure Addicts have been ploughing their way across the barren, inhospitable coastline and grasslands of southern Chile like a team of oxwagon, with heads down into the fierce headwinds. Two days into the 600km Patagonian Expedition Race and they have already covered half the course distance – 34km trekking and an epic 272km on the bike – but it’s likely they will need another five days or more to complete the second half as they head now into the more tricky mountainous sections with no trails at all and a variety of new terrains to deal with.
So far they have been following their plan, to move slow and steady through the first few legs while acclimatising to the extreme weather conditions. At the start of the third leg they were in third position with two teams having pulled hard ahead right since the beginning. Already four teams have retired from the race, many others have suffered eye problems – from the biting wind – and stomach bugs, but Merrell appeared strong and in good spirits at the check points.
“The trick is not to panic.” Said the philosopher of the group, Hanno Smit. “There are always ups and downs. You just have to back off a bit and you come right.”
The views so far have not lived up to the postcard imagery that puts Patagonia on so many people’s bucket lists, but the snow-capped mountains, glaciers and fjords lie ahead of them, and how much more spectacular they will be to the athletes who have crossed the continent under their own power, to reach them. And then immerse themselves in the picture.
At the end of the current leg which has them navigating through peat bog wetlands and forests, they will meet their bikes once again and ride 110km, passing through Puerto Natales and then rest their legs for a brief time as they kayak just 6km across Seno Ultima Esperanza. Timing is critical here as a dark zone is enforced overnight when no one is permitted on the water. If the team arrives after 22h00 they will be forced to rest until dawn. Sleep is needed though, and a lot more on this than other races as the demanding conditions tax the bodies. The race organiser warned teams that during the following hiking leg in the mountains “Even now in the middle of summer it can snow in bad weather so be prepared. On difficult ground it might be best to sleep and not move in the night.”
So when you’re having a braai this weekend, when you’re fighting traffic next week, fitting in some hours of training or going to a movie, anytime at all over the next five days or so, send a warm wish in Merrell’s direction. They’re doing South Africa proud out there. Crampons and ice picks and bags of biltong to hand.