A change is as good as a…

This will be a round-up of sorts. Let’s start with a race report, before moving on to my rank among the most heinous of Luddites.

I did my last race of the 2018 season at the Bromont Ultra 50 miler on 7 October. A season of injuries and cross training meant that since July I’d been checking in daily with my coach Laura Perry to adjust workouts and manage whatever pain I was feeling. We did a good job at mitigating injury so that I could race, but there is an underlying stress to feeling like you’re perpetually on the brink of injury (or just injured).

Lining up at Bromont was a relief. I put in a solid (injury free) training block for it, so I felt zero pressure. There’s a mantra: “the work is done, now time to have fun,” which is true, but sometimes hard not to put pressure on yourself when you have put in all that work. I think I was just feeling a deep relief that I had arrived injury free, and would be able to have a mental rest really soon.

I awoke in the darkness of my motel room at 2:30am. I packed up, stuck my head outside, and was greeted by thick fog, misty rain, and about 5C. The gun went off at 3:30am and immediately I could see that I shouldn’t be in the front group. But I gave it a shot anyway, just to see how long I could/should stay up there. It was an infernal pace. And it didn’t stop when we hit the base of the ski hill. We were hammering the muddy single track and I was holding on for dear life through the thick fog. The only thing I could see around me was the ground and the white balls of light of the 6 guys in the group. In any event, the answer to my question was 4.92km. That’s when I said “fuck it,” pulled out my poles, and watched the white orbs disappear very quickly into the inky night.

I was caught from behind by three guys with whom I ran for some 10-15k. Without them, I would have gotten lost. At times you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of you for the fog. The one anglophone in the bunch gave us all a tip, to hold our headlamps down low so they actually lit our path instead of blinding us (same concept as foglights on a car). That guy turned out to be Brian Rusieki. If you don’t know who that is, look him up. He’s an ultra running legend. And he showed me that as he turned the screw on the long flat logging roads around the 20k mark. Never saw him again. One thing he said while we were scrambling up some steep rocks was “you Canadians start too fast; most of those guys won’t last.”

I finally found a great pace, and picked up two running buddies, Rich Paddy (an ironman triathlete doing is first 50 miler) and another Brian who was the first casualty of that front group (or, I guess, the second, as I took the honours). The three of us ran and chatted for probably 30k. They would get ahead of me on the runnable roads and double track, and I would set the pace on the steep single track, up and down.

By this point it had cleared: perfect temperature, great trail conditions (if a bit muddy at times – but what’s a trail race without some mud!) While I wasn’t able to eat as much as I had at Black Spur, I was still eating regularly and enough, and feeling pretty good at the 60k mark. So I started to push the pace, and was able to pull away from both my companions on a descent (where I also fell and smashed my knee). I caught two more casualties of the front group, and subsequently got passed by one of them.

Out in the clearing I looked at my watch. I was calculating a 20k acceleration, and a particularly fast final 5k. So I was confused when I saw the finishing arch and my watch only said 76.5k. I finished a bit stronger than I should have, with a somewhat confused smile on my face. Turns out my watch was a little off, and the course was a little shorter than 80k. Something like 78.5k.

I finished in 9:25, 35min faster than my personal goal and good for 8th overall in a pretty stacked field, where Brian Rusieki beat me by only 30 minutes, and the former course record was broken by the top 3. Able to push the whole time, but also be quite comfortable, I think it was a great and rather epic-feeling end to the season. I drove back to the motel, napped for 3 hours, and then packed up to drive the last 3 hours back to Ottawa to sleep in my own bed.

As always, a huge shout out to the race organizers, the town of Bromont, all the volunteers, and to everyone who toughed it out in the mud and rain and fog and cold. A special congrats to Rich for such a strong showing in his first 50 miler ever – top 10, DAMN!!

***

Right after I got home, my new mountain bike arrived – uber excited!!!! I have been riding a lot, resting those running muscles and ripping it (but more just ripping myself) up on the mountain bike trails. Around the same time I got my hands on a knock-off GoPro-type action camera.

I had been taking little videos while mountain biking, and learning how to use the camera. Two weekends ago I participated in a 6h team orienteering event with some friends – what a blast!!! And as I keep telling people: running AND thinking at the SAME TIME is pretty hard! Needless to say, while I do know how to use a map and compass, I wasn’t able to take bearings as quickly as Emil and Evan, so while I almost always knew where we were, I spent most of the 6 hours following Emil’s bearings. A fun mix of “braun” AND brains!

There too, I was trying to take some action videos during the event. All this to say, that as I sought to upload all the videos for editing, I accidentally “formatted” the card, thus deleting ALL the (probably sub-par) videos I had taken of friends and myself biking, running with maps through the woods in the rain, and generally having fun outside in the beautiful autumn colours. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to remember those moments like we used to.

 

 

 

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black spur ultra 108k race report: adoptive families, self inflicted suffering, bikes, etc.

I’ve had a season full of stops and starts, full of cancelled races, missed weeks of training. It’s been pretty hard to actually get into the rhythm of regular running because of all the injury. First it was patelo-phemoral pain, then shin splints, then more shin splints, then more again. Then just when I thought I was in the clear, bone scans told me I had a stress fracture in my tibia. Goose cooked.

I missed what would have been the most competitive ultra I’ve ever done in the Cayuga Trails 50 miler, but I refocused, spent many hours in the pool and at the gym trying to halt the backslide of fitness. Luckily I love being outside so it wasn’t hard to keep the life stoke high… it was pretty hard to be excited about running though, honestly.

Before I ever ran an ultra marathon, I had looked at Black Spur Ultra 108k in the Rockies in Kimberley, BC and thought that it would be an epic race and a beautiful thing to do. I loosely set my sites on it. I’ve thought about that race many many times since I started running. Steady as she goes. Each year I was building, and this spring I felt fit enough, ready enough to train and give this race my best shot. But you never know what will happen: here I was arriving at the airport in Cranbrook, cruising through the smoky skies, and being greeted by no view at all. My tibia still felt weird, my throat was getting itchy, I had started to sneeze and blow my nose, and a very real threat of cancellation due to forest fires raging all over the province. This would not be “what I signed up for.”

The first thing I did was to head downtown to rent myself a bike so I wouldn’t have to walk/run 4k to AND from the Kimberley Alpine Resort. At the evening briefing I met a family: the woman, a non-runner, with her husband (a self identified non-trainer) doing the 108k, and their two 20-something boys gunning for the win in the 54k. They adopted me, and how comforting it was to have my adopted mum at the aid station each time I rolled through.

I was all alone at my Air Bnb, pretty isolated from everything going on around me, so I had a lot of time to doubt myself. Early in the year I had set some lofty goals for this race, a sub 13h and podium finish. Now I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to finish, whether I’d remembered in this past month of no running how to keep a pace, whether the smoke would force me to quit, whether my leg would give out, or my stomach. The lack of long runs this summer might jeopardize my ability to digest during the event. Stomach issues can end your race pretty quickly. Heck, I didn’t even know if I’d be starting with all the wild fires. Basically there was a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of self doubt – a lot!

So I was relieved (more than anything else) when the gun finally went off Saturday morning. I ended up in the front group along with some 54k speedsters and some relay runners (also going faster). But I’ve matured. I went out conservatively, really just thinking about finishing injury-free.

Normally, Black Spur is a clover: three loops (we’ll call them A, B, and C) which the 54k runners do once each, while the 104k runners do twice each. Because of the fires, we were alternating A,C,A,C,A,C. Loop A is 16k with almost 900m+ elevation, while loop C is about 19k with 670m+.

On the first loop there is one long climb up to a ridge that starts as a road and fairly quickly kicks up and becomes a goat path. I went up this in a controlled manner, chatting with some other runners. I guessed I was somewhere in the top 10 at this point, but it was hard to say.

I descended very gingerly all the highly technical powder-dry single track into a shale rock ravine, and finished the first 16k feeling pretty good, and gaining a bit of confidence about my leg. I wasted no time at all in the aid station and felt I was moving quickly on the more flowy single track of loop C. But less than half way through I was caught by two runners. One of whom very shortly after sped away from us on a climb and into an eventual podium finish.

I spent the next 40k at least with Doug. We chatted, laughed, commiserated. We didn’t actually run together very much. We more yo-yoed. I would get ahead on the climbs, Doug would catch and pass me on the descents. It is fascinating to observe the high and low points of two different runners on the same course. Sometimes Doug would fly by me, whooping with joy while I seemingly shuffled down the mountain, nursing my blistered feet. Other times I’d energetically hike right past Doug on some steep uphill, keeping a strong rhythm youhooing into the smoky mountains and the quiet forest.

My last race was Sulphur Springs 50k, where I probably would have done a lot better if I hadn’t succumbed to one fatal error: not enough electrolyte. That error led to 20k of cramping. This time, I was on top of the electrolytes, and the two isolated times I felt the beginning of a cramp I made sure to drink double electrolyte drink at the next aid station. I also focused on balancing out all the sweetness of my (albeit delicious) Clif Bars and Endurance Tap maple syrup gels with salty snacks at the aid stations: chips, pickles, the works. I always chat with aid station volunteers because what they are doing is so selfless, and in many ways just as hard as what we runners are doing. But I never spent more than 2 or 3 minutes maximum in an aid station, and often much less.

One of the last aid stations that Doug and I rolled into together, I noticed that he had the words “not all pain is significant” written on his arm. We talked about this. We all make an informed decision to self-inflict this “suffering” on ourselves. We do it because it teaches us something about our own resilience. It is training for the real suffering of life. As our feet blister and pop, our muscles tear in thousands of places and each step becomes painful, even agonizing, there is a deep understanding that this pain, this physical (and even emotional) suffering is insignificant in the absolute sense of that word. It does not matter.

This may sound masochistic or egotistical, but I think it would describe it as meditative and deliberate. When you do an event that takes all day (or more, or much much more) you find that just as  in life, you are surrounded by people who are going through the same pain, the same vomiting and cramps, the same spasms as you. They are also experiencing the same euphoric highs, the same outpouring of gratitude and love. They understand and respect, and are supportive, compassionate. All that is true. And, in the end, you are alone. It may not have been possible to do without the support of other – that is true – , but in the end you go your own speed, you leave and get eft behind, and when you arrive at the silly blow-up arch at the finish, and the small crowd has gathered to cheer you on, you cross that line into the empty dark  alone.

In the last 40k I felt pretty good, and was eating well, about 300kcal/h. I was even able to push the last loop very hard as night fell and we all became moving lumens in the pit of the smoke-black night. I willed my legs to turn over, to fly back. I drifted far enough in front of Doug, that he didn’t end up closing the gap. I ran myself into 4th place for about an hour, and then fell back to what ended up a 5th place finish. As I hobbled or barrelled (depending on your point of view) down the ski hill into the finishing stretch, I could hear the announcer and the small gaggle of people clapping and cheering in the gathering cold. I didn’t collapse at the finish. I took my finisher’s medal and my beer. I leaned down into the pain in my hamstrings, the pain everywhere, into the dark ground, into the relief, into the happiness. I leaned down alone, into my dusty shoes.

My adoptive mother was there with a bucket of water for me to wash my legs. My socks were drenched in blood. I ate some (heavenly) soup and I gave my beer to a guy who was in the tent to change his shoes. He still had 35k to go. That was it. As I coasted down the hill on my rented cruiser bike toward home, I thought of all the many people still out there in the dark. I was done, I was pretty darn elated with 13h52m and 5th place, mostly because nothing went wrong: I did not vomit, I did not cramp, I did not break my leg (!!), I did not get nauseous, I did not get suffocated by the smoke. And if I had, it would not have been all that important, because as Doug reminded me, not all pain is significant.

 

The rest of my trip was a combination of cramming my blistered feet into climbing shoes and struggling (very happily) up my first multi-pitch climb with my childhood friend Aaron and sharing with other adopted families! We hiked a few days of the beautiful Sunshine Coast Trail with Aaron’s amazing family; I laughed til it hurt; I became very well acquainted indeed with BC Ferries; and I capped it all off with a lot of excellent coffee in Victoria, where the true highlight was the people. I was welcomed, loved, guided, and deeply inspired by the generosity, creativity, calm, and openness of my dear friend Kayla and her housemates, partner, friends, and community.

 

Now I’m home, and hot damn I feel recharged!!!!

 

A bzillian thanks to all the (to me) nameless volunteers, to Brian Gallant and the Sinister 7 crew for putting on such a fantastic event; to Doug for the company and perspective, to Patty from Purcell Outdoors for being a friendly face out on the course and in town; to Trevor from Mountain Works Kimberley for the freedom of a bike in town; to my amazing magician of a coach Laura for getting me here, to the generous support of Clif Bar for keeping me fed in all my training and racing, and to Endurance Tap for keeping the tank full of maple syrup on race day!!

Finally, thanks to my dear friends Aaron for making race recovery fun and sendy, to Gillian, Ranjit, and Janet for the laughs and amazing hiking; to Kayla (and co) for making Victoria a welcoming, fun, inspiring, and accessible (yay bikes and gardens) place and showing me what rich community can look like!

New and old poems

Settling back into a familiar environment in Ottawa these last few months has meant, for some reason, that I have not given myself the space to sit and write. I have time. And sometimes volition. What I lack is the ability to overcome the inertia of life’s moments .

One day, I’ll sit down and try to put words to the feeling of comfort, love, freedom; and the stifling claustrophobia, the nostalgia of home. The work of putting into words what it is to be alive is less of a project and more of a process – one that I’d like to continue. Sometimes, when I realize it’s been ages since I last wrote, I revisit old writing, hoping to spark something inside me. And it often works – enough to get me writing, even if the final product isn’t worthy of anyone else’ eyes.

New and old poetry:

Two years ago, I spent 6 months in Nunavik in the small Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq. It was a beautiful, tragic, joyful, inspiring, exasperating, humbling time. I wrote a lot while up there, and after a few great editing sessions with my talented and dear cousin Stephan, and a lot of time to settle, a handful of pieces are as ready as they’ll be for the eyes of others. For more on the North, read Martha Baillie’s In Search of Heinrich Schlogel.  A fantastic novel and meditation on the North.

* 2018

**Nunavik (2015-16)

*

You have watched me through a crook of  branches

How have you seen me, moving through the years?

parting their stocks, husking cobs with steady, wizening hands?

am I strong? Do I stand an obelisk amongst the cracking shafts

bent in fingers of October howl? have I had purpose, my teeth

in peach-soft kernels? have I been straight and sure, smiling wisely?

 

these years you have watched me through a crook of branches

you have thought me strong, unwavering, bristles of adventure

growing on my chin

 

did you see the crackling light, my knees

in a rasping desert copse? did you see drops of blood parched

and flaking on my shins?

 

you have made something without my bulk. covered

in the pencil sketches of a child’s dream, a rose-coloured tunnel

you have become God

 

but you will be nothing

at the end

 

Spring

the blizzard grinds into soft flesh cheeks of spring

pelt the world with frozen lattices

origami into the ruffle of feathers

unflinching on a grey and swaying branch

it has transcended old hearths and rattling doorknobs

strangled failing army officers with hemorrhoids,

oxidized throats, chafed the angry skin of brittle limbs,

torn at family fabric

an overgrown garden of tiny feathers lie

for months, til they are consumed by a lithography of soil.

you sweat into the prickly bend behind your knees which is

soaked in expectations, the warming wind, a sun that is

toxic with eyes, and pins you to the same fluttering spot

where your head spun like an owl

 

**

the cycle

the kid everyone knows

is the kid whose insides

decorate one                       smoke peeled

room, one                       busy

funeral                       parlour

with traffic to match

the birth rate

what sage prophesied

a naked man, worn-out

leather draped on bone,

with a beard–

running over bearable

embers of blue ice

to a crack where he slips

beneath the roof

to look for mussels –

would never

sit down again

he would disappear

die?

a knot is not hard to tie

a loop is not hard to tie

a noose is not hard to tie

its like this, and then this,

I tie it, you remember

(actually, everyone does)

and then you’re done

you’re under that ice

it’s like when you put your  feet

into the snow, or your hands,

long enough they burn

and the burn goes away and then

you just don’t feel anything

anymore. once you’re down there

everything just turns off

even your ear drums freeze

so you can’t hear them talking

its not bliss, its just nothing

who never imagined

the ruinous contents of a bottle

half-empty, half-empty?

 

which mother gave her life

to a boy, her son, to eat

and walk into the warmth

of a far off winter camp

and where is she now?

 

where is her spirit in these

surrogate bottles?

 

End of a day

A stomach hollow emptied out each night

like the frozen body of a skinned fox in the snow

(soon it will be sinew and bones only)

 

when sun slides behind winter taiga – docile white ptarmigans

from afar, howling violent on approach – heaps

that grey and disappear behind ceaseless wind

there is not enough meat in the hollow to hang hopes

just frail sinew of that forgotten fox

twangs and resonates in the yawning glut of night

 

yellow globes in the river’s black bellows where

hooded children silenced by gutting wind, frozen stones

no more words

 

surely the little beast went blind before drifting away

 

it is an irreversible hollow and the night goes on

 

 

Nicholas: 2 poems

I

the birds are back

twitter in treeline brush

stunted spruce.

they are late. he has gone.

no more

steady muscles

silent in ripping wind.

 

his soft mouth pulled

a squinting smile.

 

snow melts in May; scrapes rock

clean and boggy – a cigarette butt

caught on granite fills its plastic

pores with brown, living water.

 

It is not Nicholas’, his hand

can hold nothing now

for the rest of time.

 

II

this is a poem for you

even though you can´t hear me

even though everything goes on

while you decompose

 

I wrote something else about

you, but it just sits

waiting for time to forget,

you´ll go too, I know

 

you´ve already faded

like everyone does –

give it a few years

you´ll hardly be a synapse

 

just flowers and permafrost

ok, I´ll probably never forget

you, and your sisters won´t

and your brothers –

 

My mind from a rocking chair

I rearranged the jars in the kitchen cupboard today

I moved the peanut butter into the fridge, shuffled

the dusty barley one spot to the left, put almonds above the stove

hid my guilty nutella behind something – I don’t even remember –

maybe the oats. the little vitamin jars I left right where they were

it snowed – not like the rains that come and go

old passions that turn blue and indifferent –

no, this snow was steady: hard, brash and delicate.

I sat in my rocking chair reading a story by Hugh Hood

 

wandering the streets of Montreal talking and laughing

with my lover between kisses as we passed

garden-rimmed brick mansions bantering and drawling

with the whiny well enunciated voice of a grainy

 

Jimmy Stewart, or a bespectacled newscaster talking

out of one side of his mouth, puffing into the studio’s

carpets and glass. Mr. Fenessden – was that his name?

– was remembering the drive to Williamstown

 

he was dying. an old bearded friend of mine in Indiana

told me the older you get the more you think about

your own death. I wondered am I old? between feeling and not,

warm yellow rays moved through leafy trees

overhanging Mr. Fenessden’s shimmering Raisin River

our lovers’ cheeks brushed to rosy by the sharpness of autumn

our eyes still warm, still brash and delicate. when I looked

up from my book, out from a petrified window

the snow continued its numbing project, powdering the icy street

 

with arctic air. some local Inuit boys ripped down the road on their ATVs

I finished what was left of the oily grilled peppers I had eaten for dinner

I rummaged through cupboards for sticky and sweet

managing a batch of almost healthy almost vegan energy balls

I thought of Mr. Fenessden’s dilapidated yellow house, the one

 

he never bought, crumbling under the weight of years

under the steeple of a scorched and sleepy town

his life whirred by me like a film real, a steady thing

like the snow – but there was time yet until the night

put darkness beneath my eyelids

so I got to shuffling around my cupboard

but I didn’t move the vitamin jars.

 

 

projects and reasons

The drying hills, dustier by the day, have a way of soaking up the passage of time, of soaking up just about everything. Except maybe the nightly fireworks, and the sky. The whole month of August swept under my feet so quickly I have had little time to contemplate what it meant.

I have spent a lot of time sitting on a chair at work, running errands, cooking, sleeping (maybe not enough), staring at a screen (definitely too much). This monotonous routine – what we call the “necessities” of life – provides moments to learn from, moments that allow me to better appreciate what it is that I love to do. Like being sick (writhing to the rhythm of gut cramps, spending all day on a toilet, or shaking with the heat of a raging fever) sitting on a chair staring at a screen makes me sure it’s not what I want to be doing, and sure of the joy that I get from pushing my body, being on the trail, in the mountains, between pines and peaks.

This past month has been one of some of the biggest physical objectives, the most ambitious outdoor projects that I’ve yet undertaken. Hopefully it’s just the beginning.

 

A project:

In my thirst, like the dry mountains, to soak up everything while I am privileged enough to be here, I’ve been on a constant look out for routes through high places that challenge my physical, mental, and emotional limits. The moments that I crave while sitting on that chair, looking at that screen. I’ve already done a few spectacular longer routes (such as Salkantay and Lares), but it’s not a bucket list. I hate the cliché. It’s not a list at all. It’s breathing in the mountains, covering myself in the endless sky.

The project came to be via a friend, Andres, whose idea it was to run the iconic out-and-back route to the ruins of Choquequirao. (Lonely Planet just deemed Machu Picchu’s sister city as the number one destination to visit in Peru.) The route is about 60km (57km as it turned out) and usually takes fit hikers 3 to 4 days to complete. On 4 August, we donned our minimalist vests and running shoes and set out to benchmark a Fastest Known Time (or FKT) on the route. Starting from the village of Cachora, the trail starts on a high plateau before plummeting down more than 1500m to the floor of a churning river. I can only guess that water was responsible for this, that as you look down from the upper trail, down below the diving stone walls and ancient trails scraped into their sides in an endless Z pattern, down to the white thread below, carving and sweeping through the immense grey-orange canyon – that water and tectonics were responsible.

The thing about moving through this terrain at all, and especially “fast,” is that it can be immensely rewarding, infinitely beautiful. I use the iceberg analogy to explain this: the experience of a one-time event can be the the spectacular tip of an iceberg, but below the surface, to be able to enjoy it, there is a gargantuan time- and energy-commitment, months of sweating it out daily for hours on end. If you are not prepared, it can be quite “unfun,” even dangerous.

It had been some time since I had felt so good moving through nature, through the mountains. Full of raw euphoria. Not a forced emotion, not a thought-out or rational process that comes like a “oh, I should appreciate this because it’s special, few people get to see it.” Instead there was a smile, a hoot just bubbling beneath my lips. I did some whooping and shouting especially on the descents.

After hitting the river, the stifling heat and bugs, you go back up the other side. It’s equally as steep and the going is slow, but we stayed steady, looking across the canyon behind us to sheer cliffs, a zig-zagging trail and into the grey sky. We made it to the gate of the ruins, stretched, ate, and turned around. Then it was 8km of tight steep dusty switchbacks down to the river, where the humidity and bugs kept us moving across the bridge and back up the other side. From this point on, we passed a fairly steady stream of donkeys, guides, and bewildered hikers with their huge packs. After pushing to run the last 12k of rolling dirt road, we finally made it back to Cachora, setting a “fast time” of 9h 36m. Being able to feel so good, enjoy the movement of my body, the scenery, even the monotony was a huge privilege. Neither Andres nor I are under any illusions of course: this record could have 2 hours taken off of it by a pro, and can certainly be lowered by other dedicated runners. And it will be, and I can’t wait to see that!

A race:

On 26 August I lined up with 75 other people in the small mountain village of Lares in the cold morning. After having tossed and turned under the glow of fluorescent lights, the pounding and tinny huayno music and the shouts and laughs of drunken locals all night, I arose at 5am to check in and line up.

Only three weeks later and the memories seem to have faded into the jagged peaks. I can see the bushes, cut with orange flagging across the side of the first climb, a mountain reaching to a panoramic plateau. Fighting through this section, branches whipping my face, cutting my lenses, I tailed the 5th place runner until it really kicked up and I was able to pass him. Hiking and scrambling up to a second plateau, shuffling through high mountain hamlets where leather-skinned campesinos cheered, clapping their slow hands, calling their shepherd dogs out from behind adobe walls.

I picked off 100k runners (who had started 10 hours earlier and 40k before us, passing through towers of black stone and blue-white hanging glaciers in the black of night, the white of fog). On a long and technical descent into a small town I was passed by Lorena, the #1 woman. For the next 25k I kept her (just) in sight and finally, shortly after the red-black Ipsaijasa pass that rose like a castle wall from the green pampa, the last high point of the race at 4500m, I was able to catch and pass her. The last 22k of cruisy downhill punctuated by short, steep climbs, went by slowly. I just wanted to finish. The heat grew with every step down into the valley, and though I was eating well (something that I have struggled with since getting into running) and my legs felt fairly good – despite that, psychologically I just wanted to be done. I wanted to stop at the river crossings and bathe in the cool clear water. But I pushed down through the towns, pastures, forested river banks, and arrived with a spring in my step on the streets of Ollantaytambo, cruising in to the central plaza and the finish line in 9h 20mins, and the cheers of strangers and close friends alike

.

As I sit here at my computer, dreaming of the mountains, of the thin air and the biting teeth of ridges of rock, I am reminded of what it is to live, to explore the places that take the breath from my lungs. I’ve got another race on the horizon. As a mountain experience, it will be more pared down: most of the race will be run at night so I’ll only have my feet, my ears, my gut, by which to appreciate the scruffy and stony Andean range, the wild country between pastures and hamlets.

People ask why someone would ever want to run for 9 hours, or 15, or 30. There is most certainly the physical challenge, but nobody runs through all of the daylight hours (and more) to “stay in shape.” For me, still very new to ultra running, I would say it’s really just life boiled down. It’s living through joy and elation, anger, sadness, indifference, resignation; dealing with sometimes unbearable physical discomfort; a wandering, calculating, even hostile mind; it is feeling the sun warming your skin in the freezing cold; it’s also feeling the sun scorching down when all you want to do is stop and lie in a cold stream; it is loving those around you; respecting their work and deeply understanding their struggle as a human being; it’s feeling invincibly strong one moment, utterly broken a few hours later; it is feeling the earth and rocks under your feet, watching in slow motion as clouds gather to strike the jagged peaks; it’s being so sure you’re in the right place only to notice you are utterly lost, and alone.

Ultra in the sky: running a high mountain trail race in Peru

It was still dark when my taxi rolled up to the start line of the Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca (UTCB), just a 10-minute drive from downtown Huaraz, Peru. Runners and race volunteers moved about to the light of headlamp beams in the cold morning, and at 6:30am, just as the sun rose above the ridgeline in the distance, the gun went, and we were off – the start of a 50km day in the mountains. Locals watched from their adobe homes in the dusty streets as runners from all around the world started up toward Lake Churup at 4576m, the course’s first big climb.

Huaraz, nestled in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca among some of South America’s highest peaks, is a world class destination for trekkers, alpine climbers, and trail runners alike. It’s also the backdrop for the UTCB. With distances of 10k, 25km, and 50km, as well as a vertical kilometer race, the event is part of the annual Festival del Andinismo (a mountain sports and film festival).

I ran right near the front for the first 2 kilometers, but quickly realized I was going too fast, and brought the pace down to a comfortable rhythm, something to settle into for the better part of the next seven and a half hours. I was able to stay amongst the top 10 up to the second aid station where the trail really kicked up. It’s an unrelenting (at over 4000m), and just when you think it couldn’t get any more brutal, it does. A long line of runners waited to grab cables installed on the side of the cliff that we reached at km 12, to drag ourselves up the almost shear face. Getting to the lake provided only very temporary relief, and I wasted no time in starting back down the treacherous trail to a road, and aid station 4 at km 18. Aid stations were well stocked with water, Gatorade, Coke, fruit, and chewy candies, though I was only filling up on water and electrolytes (I’ve got a finicky stomach).UTCB1

UTCB2From aid station 4 it’s a few kilometers of single track by a stream and a few hundred meters of well marked bushwhacking to the aid station at km 21. The next 10km or so was a set of switchbacks on a rough gravel road. Tired and feeling the altitude, I didn’t have the legs to run this whole section. Instead, it was a fits and starts sort of affair. The course continues through a high alpine meadow, up an impossibly steep glacial moraine to the race’s last high point at over 4500m. I arrived at km 34, passed over the dyke, took in the jaw dropping views of a turquoise lake and a massive, blinding white glacier tumbling down a mountainside against an emerald sky. I also watched three of the four runners who had passed me on the first descent start making their way down to the finish. That motivated me. I took two photos on my phone, buckled down, and started the chase!

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For safety reasons, all runners must carry a headlamp, thermal blanket, jacket, food, whistle, and base layer – if you you’re missing any of them, you’re disqualified, no exceptions. I had to wait five minutes at the check point while they went through my gear. Getting back on the road to the descent was a mental battle. I had been running, hiking, and scrambling for the last 5.5 hours, my legs were pretty beat up, and the sun was only getting stronger.

Five kilometers on the dirt road, followed by five of some to event’s steepest and most technical descending. Actually running this section required a ton of concentration, and while I certainly didn’t bomb it, I was able to run carefully to the final aid station at km 45, where the road gets steep and you’ve got to go fast. And it hurts even more. I finished strong and smiling, and within 5 minutes of 10th place male.

Having trained at altitude for some months, I was able to enjoy the race and its awe-inspiring alpine scenery. Everyone I met was friendly and supportive, as is the norm in the ultra running scene. As I started my long journey back to Cusco via Lima, I had lots of time to reflect. It’s actually hard form me to envision a better event. Superb race organization, excellent course markings, well stocked aid stations… Combine that with great people, good race preparation and a dose of good luck and weather, and you’ve got yourself an unforgettable experience. I sure hope I’ll be back!