T.O. dentist wins 250km race across Chilean desert
The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, April 5, 2009 5:39PM EDT
TORONTO - After completing a gruelling, week-long, 250-kilometre foot race across the rugged terrain of the Chilean desert in 37 C temperatures most people -- if they finished the race at all -- would probably collapse with exhaustion.
But Capt. Mehmet Danis isn't most people -- he went sightseeing.
Danis, 34, a Toronto-based Canadian Forces dentist, won the Atacama Crossing race this weekend, beating out former Olympians, marathon runners and extreme athletes from 25 countries.
Organizers describe the Atacama Desert race as the toughest footrace in the world. The terrain was so rough it was "violent," Danis said, but to sum up the race in one word? Hot.
"The biggest challenge was just to motivate yourself to push harder and harder and the days just kept getting hotter and hotter," Danis said Sunday from a hotel in Santiago.
Canada is a country known around the world for its often frigid temperatures, so it may come as a surprise to some that Danis' win means Canadians have won the Atacama race more than people of any other nationality.
Ashkan Mokhtari, Danis' friend from dental school and Atacama competitor, knows why.
"Maybe it's because Canadians are tougher," Mokhtari, 42, said from the same hotel. He placed 23rd.
In all, three Canadians finished the race. The third was yet another dentist, though Mokhtari and Danis didn't know him personally. Stan Lee, 49, from Victoria placed 46th.
It's all about learning to deal with extremes, said Mokhtari. As a runner from Thunder Bay, Ont., he should know. But the extremes of the desert are unimaginable, he said.
"It's a place that I would say even animals would not want to go," he said. "In the week I think I saw maybe four or five things that moved...But quite honestly, it's very beautiful and if you are willing to tough it out I think it's worth the experience."
For Danis, the experience was worthwhile because he was fundraising for the United Way.
"Part of the reason why I was able to train for so many hours a week was I thought that it was going to be more than just personal glory, that I could make some kind of difference," Danis said.
He raised $4,300 for the charity.
There was no point in the arduous journey that he thought he couldn't finish, though a 40-minute gap between himself and the leader did cause him to doubt his ability to win, he said.
"There were definitely moments when I thought, `Why don't I just settle for second place? It would be really cool if I got second because it's a huge accomplishment just to finish this thing,"' Danis said.
"But at the same time that voice said, `You know, you're probably not going to be happy not knowing if it was your best."'
Mokhtari, Danis' pal since dental school, never doubted his friend would win. Danis came sixth in a race across the Gobi Desert last year and that's when Mokhtari told him he would win the Atacama.
"(Race officials) told me on the third day...he'd gained a couple of minutes on the top guy," Mokhtari said. "I told them, `He's like a bulldog. Once he bites he won't let go."'
Physically, Danis said he wasn't terribly tired after finishing the race. It's run in stages and the next one doesn't start until all the competitors finish the previous stage, Danis said. He finished the second-last stage in under 10 hours, while some people took longer than 25 hours. So he spent the day before the last leg waiting around in his tent.
"Once we crossed the finish line, which is almost like a ceremonial finish, I was ready to just jump around and walk around town," Danis said.
He walked up and down the town's promenade and had his first real meal in a week.
The fact that he had won what's billed as the world's cruellest footrace didn't sink in until the award ceremony the next day.
"It felt unreal," Danis said. "I couldn't firmly grasp the idea that I had won the race...I just kept on waiting for something else to pinch me or wake me up."