The Speed Project Atacama: The rebel race across a desert


Mandje is an Olympic track and field athlete, competing for Equatorial Guinea at Athens 2004.

Later in his professional career, Mandje raced at the World Cross Country Championships and the World Trail Racing Championships.

But the track was his first love, and specifically the 1500m.

Which is handy, because his team’s policy, and that of most of the other 14 teams, was little and often.

In essence, the favoured tactic for the fastest way to clock 500km was frequently swapping runners in and out and breaking the distance down into two or three kilometre sections each.

On repeat.

For nearly two days.

In theory, each leg sounded pretty achievable. About half a Parkrun at a time.

But, as Mandje attests, in the middle of the night, without any sleep and with a day’s running already in your legs, The Speed Project got serious.

Mandje made his living racing the 1500m at top speed, recovering with ice baths and complex warm-down routines.

In Chile, with recovery taking place while cooped up eating cold pizza in the back of a pick-up truck, he found himself suddenly reduced to walking parts of the TSP route.

“What made it really, really challenging is you’re running short intervals and then getting into a van, getting stiff, getting tired, then in another hour you’re jumping back out to run again,” says Mandje.

“After two days that starts to wear and tear on you – especially for those overnight legs when you’re out there with your thoughts and accumulated fatigue.

“The hardest point, somewhere on day two, I just hit a 30km stretch where I struggled. Each time I got out of the vehicle I had to start each leg as like a shuffle or a speed walk.

“It was also the point of the journey where you’re a long way from the start, so you can sniff the finish but you also know there’s a long way, and a lot of climbing, to go.

“But hitting a rough patch was part of the beauty of it.”

Long before Mandje’s personal crisis, the race itself was thrown into a wider crisis.

Much more serious than pain in the legs, this was related to the strong arm of the law.

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