Shelley Bolle is a 32-year-old Muizenberg mother of two, who is also part of the FunDza family. She recently travelled to the Atacama Desert in Chile, South America, to pursue her dream of participating in the prestigious Atacama crossing – a gruelling race across the driest desert in the world.
Shelley, who is also the youngest child of three children, says she has always held a keen passion for sports, running in particular.
“I’ve been running for most of my life. I began with road running which proved to be tiring on the body and suffered a few injuries. I was then inspired to try out trail running which has been amazing,” she says enthusiastically.
The energetic mother of two says she enjoyed the scenic nature of trail running and felt inspired by the great outdoors. “I loved the freedom and enjoyed the feeling of getting stronger and fitter each time I ran,” she says.
She attended Wynberg Girl’s High where she says she was always ‘sporty’ and her later career was filled with working with NGOs. Her trail running passion was inspired by one of South Africa’s top trail runners, Ryan Sandes, who, according to Shelley, literally levitates and simply glides through rocks when trail running.
“My trail running passion was mostly inspired by one of South Africa’s top trail runners, Ryan Sandes”
She was always a keen fan of Ryan’s and says her inspiration grew more each time she saw him run. “I follow his blogs and social media and once I read one blog entry where he spoke about the Atacama Crossing.”
The Atacama Crossing is an annual six-stage race which takes place in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, South America, in San Pedro de Atacama.
“I was drawn to the idea of taking part in the race and I believe I was drawn by the way in which Ryan described it, but back then it seemed like the furthest thing that I would ever go for.”
Being a mother and having so many other responsibilities would prove challenging if she wanted to take the challenge, and of cause, the travelling would require a lot of money too.
Shelley started a blog where she wrote about trail running and her dream of completing the Atacama Crossing. She was noticed by a few companies, one of which was Solomon, a sporting gear company which offered to sponsor her with all the necessary gear and some financial support.
“I asked myself why I always had to turn things down because I’m a mother, a wife or because I work.” It was then that Shelley set herself for the challenge and decided that she was going for it! She says she would have loved to incorporate some charity work with her run but that would’ve have proven more difficult given the existing challenges. However, she was determined to work hard in training and preparation for the toughest race of her entire life…
“This was not the kind of thing to jump into, I knew the challenges and that the only way was to train really hard… I got a coach who helped me put together a plan. Realistically it was tough because it meant I had to balance so many things.”
This meant great multi-tasking for Shelley who says she had to balance everything from work to kids, to husband and to training. It meant really long and tiring days, but it was her determination that kept her going.
“It was a real juggle; the real struggle was that something was always compromised, whether it was my kids, husband, work, or training.” She says her children (one three and one five years old) made her feel – what she called – ‘mom guilt’ because previously her life had centred on them.
“No matter how much training I thought I had, I was never ready for what was to come.” The race ran from 2 to 9 October. It was an experience she describes as being the harshest but most amazing of her entire life. “The altitudes were very high, about three and a half thousand meters above sea level, which meant the air was very thin, limiting the oxygen and making it difficult to breathe. It was unnerving; it felt like someone was sitting on my chest.”
“We travelled with heavy backpacks, which had our whole lives in them. They only got lighter when we either ate some of the food or drank some water. The sleep was rough and it was boiling hot in the day and freezing cold at night.”
To prepare for the event, Shelley did ‘block training’, where she would train for an intensive period – running for 25 hours over four days to cover 120 kilometres. However, she says that that was nothing compared to what she was exposed to.
“It was a completely different ball game, a brutal challenge, which was extreme on every level. Luckily I had the determination to make all those cheering for me proud, especially after having travelled such a long way… I never lacked inspiration because I knew in the back of my mind people were watching and I could not quit despite the conditions.”
Shelley says she undoubtedly met friends for life during her journey, and their bonds were made stronger by that extreme experience; even though it was short-lived, only they would understand what it had been like.
The race is divided into six stages over seven days – “each stage with its own challenges and obstacles. Participants run from camp to camp over the week, carrying all their belongings (clothes, food, supplies) on their back in a pack. Days/stages 1 through 4 are between 38 and 44 km each day and day 5/stage 5 is known as ‘The Long March’ which is 77km done in one sitting.”
The Long March took Shelley 19 hours to finish yet she says it was her best day. “Knowing the worst was over and knowing how far I’d come fuelled me for the rest of the way. Going through the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) at 2am with good company was a highlight of my life. I could have lassoed the stars.”
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I just was not there to fail.”
123 people started the race, and 16 dropped out. Shelley claimed the 72nd position medal and made us all proud.
Shelley encourages people to pursue their passions because nothing is more fulfilling than having done what you’ve always wanted to do.
“It’s all about the sacrifices we make that we actually reach out to achieve our goals.”
Visit her website.