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Across Andes- The Long Story*

That smell. The smell of food stands and urbanization. It reminds me of a border town in south Texas that I visited as a child. Why am I pedaling my bike through a border town at night? What is this strange dream I’m experiencing. I can hear my labored breathing and the gears on my bike turning, all to the sound of dogs barking in the distance. I look up at the stars; Orion is flipped upside down in a handstand. I slow down to take a breath at a bus stop, and then I remember the hills. Hills that are steeper and more omnipresent than those in my home of Colorado. I see them through the darkness looming over the city. As if awaking from the dream, I know where I am. I’m outside of Santiago, Chile. I am racing my bike roughly nine hundred miles across the Norte Chico region of Chile, it’s 1:30 a.m., I only have about ten miles left.

Six months prior to the first ultra endurance cycling event in Chile, I began to have an itch to compete in a bike packing race. My first race, the Colorado Trail Race, was the highlight of my previous racing season, and it left me craving more. After a quick search on Bikepacking.com, I found the event, Across Andes, and immediately started planning.

The Norte Chico (near north) region of Chile is extremely mountainous. The Andean Cordillera rises quickly from the Pacific Ocean, creating narrow fertile valleys contrasting sharply with the arid desert hillsides. Descending into a lush valley from the dry mountains always left me with a fairytale feeling, as if the green plants came to be by some unknown magical force.

The morning of November 30th, I stand shivering at the start line of Across Andes as the only woman taking on the challenge. At 6:00 a.m. we take off at a conversational pace. I remain silent as my fellow competitors chat lively, Spanish words circle around me, words that I barely understand.

All racers are required to make six checkpoints during the race, and checkpoint one is the most crucial. Located in a small town called Petorca, about 130 miles from the start line, a participant’s race will be over if they cannot make it by the end of the day. My goal is to arrive in Petorca by 6:00, giving me plenty of time to consider my options for continuing or catching a few hours of sleep at the checkpoint’s hotel. I arrive in Petorca around 5:30 in third place, feeling the heat from the day’s ride. On the first day, it was the heat and the overwhelmingly strong sun that became my enemy, an enemy that I will continually battle as the race progresses.

I decide to stay at the hotel and catch a few hours of sleep since camping options are limited over the next fifty miles. Four other racers and myself split a hotel room. I am happy for the company, and even more happy that three of them speak excellent English. All the men keep saying to me, “Ashley, you’re the only woman! All you have to do is finish and you’ve won.” I smile sweetly at them, but my internal monologue is much more aggressive. I want to scream, “Don’t you know, I’m racing YOU.” Despite my competitive attitude towards these men, I cannot shake the feelings of admiration and friendship. They share my love for ultra endurance cycling, and despite our many differences, I have hope that they are my tribe of people.

I leave the next morning at 1:00 a.m. This will become my typical schedule. I ride to the checkpoint, eat a huge meal, sleep a few hours and get moving early the next morning, or in some cases late that evening. I want to put as much mileage in the cool hours of the night that as possible. The heat and sun continue to be my kryptonite, sucking my strength and vitality, consistently reminding me of my humanity. I tell myself that the sun cannot be as bad as I in the mountains of Colorado, but I am wrong. The sun in South America has the ability to cripple even the strongest of athletes, and when combined with the heat, it can bring anyone to a halt. This force of nature is my constant enemy, and I have the utmost respect for it. I move slower during the day, taking advantage of any shade I might find. My only consolation while battling this enemy is found in the faces of my fellow racers. I know we are racing against each other, but we are fighting the sun together.