Queen Of The Desert Working mom Shelley Bolle ran 250km – across one of the harshest deserts in the world.
How a working mom of two ran 250km across one of the harshest deserts in the world.
Shelley Bolle doesn’t let anything hold her back: not even crutches. Back in 2007, she ditched a pair to ‘run’ her first half marathon.
Eight years later, Shelley was inspired by a blog written by trail legend Ryan Sandes, in which he described what it was like to run across the Atacama Desert.
At the time, she was knee-deep in parenting her two kids (then aged two and four), had just started a new job, and considered herself an average runner. How on earth could she just up sticks to run across the world’s driest desert? Besides, she would need thousands of dollars just to travel to South America!
But the same can-do attitude that had prompted her to cast aside her crutches and run 21km made this hare-brained idea seem plausible.
“I thought, Hang on… why can’t I do this? she says.
With that, Shelley decided: she would run the Atacama Crossing in October 2016.
She began crowdfunding for the event, which was then only 20 months away. As friends and family bought into her dream, the money started pouring in. Now there was no turning back. Shelley got in touch with Ian Waddell, who had coached both Ryan Sandes and Daniel Rowlands to victory at the Atacama Crossing.
“Ian is phenomenal,” she says. “He has a holistic approach to training: it’s more about maintaining good spirits than achieving good times.”
In the past, Shelley and her husband Eligh had taken turns to go out and run, according to when they could fit it in around their busy schedules. But once she had built up a general level of fitness, Waddell prescribed an intensive training programme.
Shelley ran in blocks of 25km over a period of four days, committed to two weekly gym sessions, and had one rest day.
“It was intense,” she recalls. “But in the end, that’s what got me through.”
With less than four months to go, Shelley rolled her ankle. The injury wasn’t too serious; but even so, she had to take four agonising weeks off running, to allow the ligaments to heal.
Injury wasn’t the only challenge she faced. Often, she had to sacrifice family time – and her new job – to meet the demands of Waddell’s programme. And both of her children contracted tonsillitis at the same time.
“There was always something that was either compromised or failing,” she admits.
Nevertheless, she persevered. And in October 2016, she boarded a flight to Chile.
Shelley arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, the race’s host town, one week before the event was due to start. She needed to get used to being at high altitude.
“Breathing at 2 400m above sea level was no joke,” she recalls. “It hit me right away. I could barely walk!”
“I CAN’T DO MUNDANE OR MEDIOCRE ANYMORE.”
Within minutes of having started the race, Shelley was gasping for air. The dry heat caught many novice runners unaware, as it instantly evaporated the sweat on their skin.
“It was as though everybody was covered in white salt.”
Physically, the race was gruelling. On day two, Shelley reached her lowest ebb.
“It seemed to go on forever. I’d see the tips of camp flags in the distance, and think I’m close! But when I reached the top of the next hill, I’d see seven more just like it.”
When Shelley finally reached the camp, fellow South African Dirk Diemont was pacing up and down at the day two finish line. He was waiting for her.
“When I saw his friendly face, I burst into tears!” she remembers fondly.
Slowly but surely, Shelley became accustomed to the high altitude and murderous terrain. She even began to enjoy the experience of coursing across dunes, salt flats, canyons, rivers and sandy Inca paths.
Her favourite leg was the infamous ‘Long March’ (77km).
“I was walking through the desert, at night, with only the stars in the sky to keep me company. Acknowledging where I was and what I was doing was the most profound experience I’ve ever had.”
Family and friends followed her feat closely, via updates from race organisers, and through her sister Natalie’s Facebook shares.
“Eligh woke up at 3am (South African time) each morning, to check if I’d reached the camp. He sat there on tenterhooks until he knew I’d crossed the finish line.”
Shelley completed the Atacama Crossing in just over 58 hours, in 72nd place out of around 120 runners who had started the race. She crossed the finish line hand in hand with her ‘desert sister’, Tina – a fellow participant Shelley met at the race and bonded with.
Physically, Shelley felt wrecked: hungry, sleep-deprived, filthy. A three-year-old hip injury had flared up again. But none of that mattered. “It had taken 20 months of hard work to get to that point,” she says. “I was struck dumb.”
Fitter, faster, stronger
Afterwards, Shelley took a threemonth sabbatical from running, to allow her body to recover.
“At first, I worried I would lose all that fitness.”
But since taking her break, Shelley has returned to running stronger, fitter and faster.
“The other day, I ran 20km – just like that!”
Her running performance wasn’t the only thing that changed in Atacama.
“All the time I spent, either alone or having intense, meaningful conversations, caused me to reflect on my life.
“I came back from the desert a completely different person. I can’t do mundane or mediocre anymore. Next on my bucket list are the Gobi and Sahara races. I’m completely hooked!”
ABOVE: Bolle, and fellow runners Tina and Ginko, with whom she became firm friends, make their way past Los Ojos (‘The Eyes’).