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.

Runner's World South Africa - - Contents - BY CARIN BE­VAN

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!”


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’).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.