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A Volunteer's Perspective: What is the 4 Deserts Race?

When I first heard about the 4 Deserts Race, I was at a city called Swakopmund in Namibia. My friend, Becky, was planning to meet up with her friend, Thanh in that city (it was a coincidence that she was there). Thanh happened to just finish the Namibia desert ultra-marathon race a week before. I, who tagged along in this dinner, basically witnessed one of the most amazing stories I’ve heard.

The 4 Deserts Race is an ultra-marathon that spans across 4 deserts, being the Gobi Desert in China, Sahara Desert in Africa, Atacama Desert in Chile and Antarctica Desert down south. In addition, every two years there is a special race that takes place in a different country, such as Jordan, Iceland, Sri Lanka etc. Each race is 250km and it is a self-supported race. Thanh was trying to be the first Viet in history to complete the 4 Deserts Race in one calendar year. I was super inspired that night. I really wanted to witness how people can just run 250km. Forget about running in a desert, even running on a concrete road for 42km (a normal marathon) is hard enough.

I wanted to witness this amazing feat myself. However, knowing that I’m not a runner, I may never have the chance to do so. This is when Thanh suggested that I could become a volunteer for the race. At least I’ll get to be part of it (not as a runner). Without hesitation, I applied to be a volunteer.

Volunteer Process

Entry to this race as a volunteer is pretty competitive. According to someone I know, for every 6 applicants, they only choose one. They ask questions such as 1) what makes you unique, 2) what is your education, and 3) a general information of your volunteer profile. Then they ask if you speak any additional languages and if you have a referral. The referral requirement is pretty important.

After being chosen as a volunteer, I was reading the profiles of fellow volunteers. What I discovered is that most volunteers were paramedics, nurses, doctors, wilderness tour guide, engineers etc. How the heck a tax consultant like me got selected? What I discovered later while volunteering is that I speak other languages. I was essentially a translator for the team as I am able to speak Cantonese, Mandarin, English and some broken Spanish.

When I attended the orientation, I discovered that many of the volunteers were actually family members of some of the racers who were participating the Atacama Race. They were there to support their family members. Makes sense.

Before you fly to volunteer, the organization would request you to provide proof of valid health and travel insurance.

Pre-Volunteer Preparation

A few months before the volunteer, the organization would send all volunteers a list of items that you have to pack, some are mandatory and some are optional.

Some of the mandatory items that you have to bring include:

  1. Duffel bag

  2. Day back

  3. Sleeping Bag that can withstand zero Celsius degrees

  4. Knife

  5. Digital Watch – you need it to keep track of the race time

  6. Headlamp – trust me, you need it all the time

  7. Sunscreen

  8. Hand sanitizer

  9. 7 Day food supply

  10. Electrolytes

The meal

When I saw the list for the first time, I was shocked because I didn’t know I had to bring my own food. Essentially, all volunteers live under the same conditions as racers. Racers are supposed to be self-sufficient, meaning you carry your own food and you run the entire race with your stuff. The only difference between volunteers and the racers is that volunteers technically have no weight limit. We can carry our bags via vehicles; whereas racers have to run with their own bag so they would limit the weight. Management recommended to bring freeze dried meals.

Some of the brands include Backpacker’s Pantry or Expedition Foods. These are freeze dried food and you would add hot water to turn them into a meal. The selection could be 1) Pad Thai, 2) Pasta, 3) Beef with Gravy, 4) Beef Pho etc…. Pretty creative. You can buy them at MEC. All racers brought similar stuff. You can also bring instant noodles or ramen noodles.

Why the two bags?

For me, after volunteering for the desert, I was going to head down south to Torres del Paine for a 5-day hike, that’s why I didn’t want to bring TWO bags. Afterwards, I discovered the importance of it. Volunteers essentially travel between check points and main camps. One bag can store your non-essential items like your backpack, clothes, toothbrush, food etc., the other bag would be your day pack in case you get sent out to do special tasks. The day pack would have your water, first-aid kit, flash light, extra clothes, basically anything that would keep you safe in case you are lost in the desert.

Sleeping bag

A big mistake that I made was that my sleeping bag couldn’t really handle a temperature of zero Celsius degrees, which happens all the time in the Atacama Desert nights. I was freezing every night. If you volunteer, bring a durable sleeping bag. You may also want to bring a foldable mattress, sleeping pillow and a Bivy bag (it keeps you super warm).

This is a Bivy bag – could be very small.

I would suggest that you bring a lot of zip-lock bags, useful for keeping things organized and clean. I don’t need to tell you that a desert is very sandy.

You can tell that this volunteering trip is very physical and the amount of things you bring is substantial. Be prepared.

What do Racers have to do?

Well, aside from training, racers do have to be prepared for many things. The amount of items that they have to bring is more stringent, such as the food intake. Because they are weight conscious, racers have a way to pack their items as tiny and as light as possible. Racers do have a minimum calorie requirement, but the key is the way they pack.

The entry fee for racers is US $3,800. This fee includes international staff and medical support throughout the event. They also provide them with two nights of hotel accommodation (before and after the race), award banquet ticket and an official T-shirt and jacket. Most importantly, they give racers bottled water during the event and hot water at night.

So what do volunteers actually do?

There are many tasks that we do. Some are structured, some are just special tasks. Every volunteer is a floater and we have to respond to any emergencies. However, some of the structured tasks include the following:

1. Check point

This is the biggest volunteer role for us. On the race, there are multiple checkpoints on the course, usually 4 checkpoints, about 10-15km apart. Volunteers are stationed at the check point to set up the tent, tables, equipment, water tanks.

When you see a racer, you could fill up their water bottles (ask them first in case one is for electrolytes), or give them spritz (spray their face with water to cool them down).

You would also record their time as they enter the checkpoint. This is a fail-safe procedure in case the chip doesn’t register.

Each checkpoint has a doctor in the station. In case the racer has any immediate medical concern, the doctor can address it. Sometimes, a volunteer has to keep an eye on a racer to make sure he/she isn’t staying at the checkpoint for too long (usually 15min max). They will need to be reminded to leave (friendly reminder) and continue the race, otherwise they’ll miss their cutoff.

Of course, moral support and cheering at the checkpoint site is essential.

2. Roving

At times, the space between two checkpoints may not be easily accessible by car. Sometimes, a volunteer has to be sent in between the checkpoints to make sure the racers are safe. Sometimes you have to be there to direct them. For example: I was stationed to be with two Chilean police to make sure that 1) racers know to cross a road, 2) the Chilean police was on duty. Sometimes, a volunteer is sent to be at the top of a sand dune to direct racers to go down on a certain path. The craziest roving role is to be stationed in the middle of a salt flat, while dragging a case of water. Yes, I’ve seen that happened.

If the road is accessible by a vehicle, you’re in luck. You can stay inside the car and provide shade and water for racers from time to time.

3. Campsite

There is a lot of stuff to do at the campsite. You help out the camp site leader to manage the finish line. These include recording the race time on paper, and use the scanner to record the chip time when they cross the finish line.

You could also be tasked to put up small items like stools, noticeboards, tent signs etc. During down time, you will be charging the radio equipment. The tasks are endless.

However, the most unique role in being at the campsite is you get to drum. The drum is essential in boosting morale of the racer to cross that finish line. You got to drum at the right time. If you drum too early, it becomes a tease to the racer and they may hate you forever.

4. Cybertent

A cybertent is set up in the main campsite. They are for racers who paid extra money to write blogs and to check emails. However, the information on the computer is offline (i.e. they are not live). Essentially, a management staff will drive back to town every day to upload the blog posts and email replies. He/she will also download any emails or blog comments back to the computer, and drive back to the desert to give the information to the racer. It is a really time-consuming task but good for the racers to still be able to connect to the outside world, especially with their loved ones.

A volunteer has to make sure the racers know what to do with the computer.

5. Sweeper

The most exciting role for a volunteer.

A sweeper basically has to run at the same pace as the last racer, keeping him/her in check and make sure he/she doesn’t faint. A sweeper has to carry 3.5 litres of water (not for yourself, but for racers in case they need it). The sweeper also has to carry a log book, a first-aid kit and multiple communication equipment such as a radio and a satellite phone. Your bag essentially will weigh at least 30-40 lbs.

Sweepers have to be fit and capable of walking/running 30-50km in a day.

You also have to pick up course markers (pink flags) and any litter on the course.

It is really tough but I am telling you that it’s fun.

The actual volunteer and race

General living condition

A volunteer essentially has to live under the same condition as a racer (except a volunteer can bring more food). This means volunteers also have to sleep in tents as well. These tents can fit 8 to 10 people. However, my tent usually only has 5 to 6 people at night.

A rookie mistake that I made was that I didn’t bring my mattress and pillow. I was basically sleeping on hard rock and sand every night. On top of that, the nights have always been super cold. I didn’t bring enough to keep my feet warm and my sleeping bag couldn’t withstand the cold. As a result, I woke up almost every 30 minutes or every hour. Next time, please bring a mattress and a pillow!

Every morning, volunteers have to wake up around 4:45am. You have to get ready by 5:30am and stay in your car, ready to leave to your checkpoint sites. The cool thing of waking up is that I was brushing my teeth under the bright stars. That’s a pretty cool view, except you are also freezing at the same time. Then, I would go to the fire and get hot water to warm myself up. I would eat my dry cereal and just wait for my body to warm up. A volunteer actually gave me portable milk so that makes the cereal more enjoyable. The best was when a volunteer, Kanata, actually gave me miso soup powder. That was a life saver! Never in my life had I tasted miso soup this good!

Maybe because I’m not a camping person, the one thing I actually was looking forward to every day was the dinner. I brought 7-days’ worth of freeze dried food, to be served as my dinner. For each bag of freeze dried food, they tell you the instructions on how much water to pour, and wait for the food to be cooked inside the bag. The beef stew and beef pho that I had was actually pretty good. The texture was there and the taste was quite similar. However, food options such as Potatos and Gravy with Beef, and Rice with Chicken and Persian Peach Sauce actually tasted bad. I guess I’ll just keep buying beef pho next time!

The course itself

For the Atacama Desert race, each day is very different and usually associates with a theme.

Day 1 – You navigate the race by the rock. The total distance for the first day was 36 km. In general, you run through loose gravel and soft ground and you run by the rocks. The course itself is moderate difficulty.

Day 2- You run through the slot canyon and through a river. The distance for the second day was 45 km. Because of the cold river, this is when your feet can get blisters. There is a point where you have to go through a cave too! I remember they had to send a doctor inside the cave in case any racers slip and hit their head. That part of the race was difficult, otherwise also moderate in difficulty.

Day 3- This is the sand dune day. You go through some bag landscape deserts. The distance is 40 km, but the last 2 km is the most difficult part of the race. According to the racers, they struggled the last 2 km. What happens is that racers can see the finish line from afar (2km), but the track was to go down a dune, up a dune again, down a dune, up a dune again (repeat this at least 4 times). At the end, you have to run up a massive hill to the finish line. When I was at the finish line, I only get two types of responses: either a lot of swearing, or no responses at all. Pretty scary.

Day 4- Welcome to the infamous salt flats. The total distance is 44 km, but the salt flat part is only 12 km. According to the briefing note, the 12 km section is the only part where it was rated as “very difficult”. Racers had to trek through the difficult salt flat without getting cooked. If you do make it out of the salt flat, you have another 8 km to reach the finish line. Good luck!

Day 5- This is the famous Long March. The total distance is a striking 74 km. The race was so long that there were a total of 8 check points. The organizers give racers a total of 27 hours to complete the race. This means that if the starting time is at 8am, you have until 11am the next day to cross the finish line. Since the race is so long, racers have the option to sleep at checkpoint 5 before volunteers kick you out at 1am. Imagine being a sweeper for the night shift…. Some people actually cry when they cross the finish line. I understand that it is quite scary to run by yourself outside at night. All volunteers were on duty for 32 hours, with only 2 hour of sleep in between.

Day 6- The glory run. The day is only 8km and is meant for you to cross the finish line without looking exhausted. Friends and families are waiting at the finishing line, ready to hand out the medals. A lot of racers just simply sprint a good portion of the day.

Racers themselves

The race itself is quite international. You see racers from all over the world, pretty much from all continents (not Antarctica of course). The country with the highest representative is Japan, then UK and USA to follow. There were also a lot of racers from Australia, China, South Korea, Canada, Germany etc. There were a total of 98 racers to begin on day 1. By the end, 83 racers completed the race. The ones that didn’t finish either missed the cut off time, or couldn’t continue because of physical pain.

At this race, there was a blind racer, Vladmi dos Santos, who was participating this race for the third time. I was shocked to see that a blind racer participating in this race. Not only did he participate, but he actually had a decent result. His guide had a string that tied their hands together. His guide would tell him the direction and certain moves that they would have to do (such as jump, crawl, leap). The run would be built on complete faith. Kudos to Vladmi!

At the end, the top racer from USA completed the 250km race at 28 hours and 52 minutes. This is an unbelievable result, because that means he ran at almost 9km per hour under sandy terrain, super tough conditions and carrying his own bag. Mad respect.

Special moments

The first night

The first night was very memorable.

I started the day at campsite two. I was stationed to set up the main camp, table and getting ready for racers to come. At the same time, I was also a drummer. By 4pm, the wind started to blow heavily. It progressed stronger and eventually reached 80km/h wind speed. The tents that were set up had to be taken down. The locals advised that the campsite was too dangerous and racers had to be evacuated. Management eventually had to call up 20 cars and transport the racers, staff and volunteers one-by-one to the nearest evacuation site. By then, there were still 43 racers stuck outside in the course.

At the time, it was a pretty brutal sight and I had to cover my entire face from the strength of the strong wind. While everyone was being evacuated to the special site, I remained at camp because I had the sense of responsibility to make sure runners that were still on the course can safely make it to the camp. I was the drummer at the time and the drumming noise was a big encouragement for racers to move through. Anyway, I stayed till 7pm when the last runner and sweeper arrived at camp. After, we all head to the special site.

At the special site, it was basically a refugee camp. The site was the museum for Valle de la Luna. The museum wasn’t equipped to fit 150 people sleeping at the premise. Every corner in the museum had already been occupied by a racer. The condition was bad. Toilet wasn’t working. The night was cold. In fact, some volunteers were already prepared to sleep outside because of the lack of space. I was getting a little worried because my gear was not designed to sleep outdoor. Eventually, I decided to announce to a room full of volunteers that I may freeze to death outside. After hearing that, some volunteers were kind enough to squeeze a little space for me to sneak through. Thankful for that, I survived the night.

Day 4 – roving

On day 4, we had the infamous salt flat to run through. I got (lucky?) to be assigned at checkpoint four, the most difficult part of the race.

Since the salt flat is a 13km open field, there is a high risk that racers may either faint in the middle, break their ankle, or collapse on the ground. The salt flat was virtually impossible to drive through, so if anything happens to the racers, it would be difficult for management to respond. In fact, it was even difficult for a motorbike to go through a salt flat.

We were then asked to do the impossible: To set up a satellite checkpoint in the middle of the salt flat, and to carry a case of water. Two paramedic volunteers were asked to drag a whole jar of water about 2km deep inside the salt flat. It was a pretty daunting task. However, the catch is that there is no cover in the middle of the desert. Imagine when it is around 2pm during the day, you will easily get cooked under the sun. Protection is key.

I was then asked to swap with one of the volunteers in the satellite checkpoint. When I walked there, I saw the two paramedic volunteers smartly created a makeshift tent by using scarfs and walking poles. Too creative!

Anyway, when racers came by our station, they were surprised to see us. The top racers didn’t ask for water, but the later runners stopped by and filled up their water bottles.

The funny thing is that our radio communications weren’t working at the satellite checkpoint. Oh well.

Day 5 – sweeping

I had the honour to be the sweeper for the beginning leg of the Long March. In fact, it was probably the most interesting aspect of being a volunteer. There are several reasons:

1) You actually run/walk through the race, so you are getting a glimpse of what racing is like;

2) The scenery changes so you are actually enjoying the beautiful view of the course;

3) You do feel that you are quite important because every checkpoint captains are looking for and waiting for the sweeper (so that they can close their site);

4) You do get a bit of glory when you cross the finish line. All racers and volunteers will clap for you because you are the last one coming through to camp.

The sacrifice you have to make is great though. Let’s face it: You have to be very fit. Running/walking for 40km in a day under the hot sun is no joke. Not only there is the walking condition, but you also have to carry 3.5 litres of water, radio communication equipment and a first aid kit.

Then there is role of picking up pink flags. These pink flags were set up by the course team the day before to make the track for racers. However, as usual with all national parks, we cannot leave anything behind. Therefore, sweepers also have the duty to pick up the pink flags. Since these flags were placed every 25 metres, there are about hundreds of pink flags to pick. What about night time? You have to pick up glow sticks as well! Each glow stick weighs 20-30 grams, good luck.

I was (lucky) to be tasked as a sweeper for the salt flat section of the Long March. The road condition was tough and you need strong ankles to walk. At the start, it was okay keeping up with the last racer. However, what I didn’t realize was that I was too close. At one point, a racer told us “Sweeper, can you not be too close?” I fully understood this request because it’s like you wouldn’t want to be tailgated when you drive. Understood!

My partner, Donna, and I only signed up for half of the sweep, which is about 23 km. It was still quite a distance but we had to change our layers as the day went by. The hardest part was you actually had to bend and pick up the flags (a lot of stress on the knees). Lastly, some of the flags weren’t placed exactly on the course, a little out of the way. Sometimes I wondered if those placements were meant as a joke for the sweepers.

I made it to checkpoint two by 1:30pm. Luckily, I didn’t sign up for the last segment as a sweeper for the Long March. I heard that section had land mines around the mountain and canyon. You have to be careful not to step on them accidentally. Imagine being tired, walking mindlessly at night as a sweeper. That’s super dangerous! No thanks!

That’s all I have for you about the 4 Deserts Race. Hope you are inspired to be a volunteer, or even better, actually running the race.


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Who is Henry Shew?

Henry is an avid traveler and a tax consultant by profession.


Walk In My Shew is started to document the travel stories and culture experienced in different countries.


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