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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UTCB7

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!

Privilege and mountain running

There is a geometric quality to my thoughts. Always. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent all this time on edges, on the domes and cones of these mountains, climbing the squared steps of ruins, arching with rhythmic feet the soft perimeters of the unimaginable V that rises from each microscopic river into the rocks and sky. I always come back to the privilege of having the time to appreciate.

I start in the dark, the pink sun buried somewhere to the east, in black silhouettes. You get the feeling you’re being watched. A massive presence, full of earth and rock and snow and ice waits for the day to crack its eyelids, to wake slowly, to explode and give light to a landscape that makes Machu Picchu or Giza look, frankly, mundane.

First, as I move smoothly along the approach road to the campground, there is no one. Just tents, sleeping behind rocks and in between grazing packhorses and mules in the half-darkness. But lights begin to flicker on as I reach the trail. This is where tour groups sleep just before setting out on a four or five day trek. People appear at their tent doors like ghosts, brushing their teeth and watching me run by with groggy confusion.

 

The arrieros have been up since before dark in their dirty boots and crusting layers of wool. I watch them push packs onto waiting mules, pulling hard on the ropes to tie their bundles off – it will be hours of rough terrain and probably rain before they set up camp in advance of the trekkers. These men work ten or twelve days at a time, waking at 3am to tie loads, to make breakfast and start breaking camp, and they go until well after dark, cleaning and readying for the next day. They make enough to support their families in adobe, dirt floor houses. Some even have stone walls. But they only spend three days at home before heading back to the mountain. The mountain is their money, their food, it is their livelihood, towering above the valley a white and icy mess of jagged lines and 10,000 year old ice covered in last night’s snowfall.

I’ve slowed my pace, distracted as I think about the fully loaded packhorses and the men who spend their lives amongst these rocks, 4 kilometers in the sky. “Come on Liam, focus! It’s only been 3km and you’ve got nearly 50km to go!” I get back to my feet, finding a rhythm as they turn over like they have so many millions of times. I get beyond camp to a buttress where a stream flows out and the first bit of rugged singletrack starts up toward the pass. I’ve only been running for a half hour, and I estimate I’ve got another 7.5 before my proposed mid-afternoon arrival at the dam below Machu Picchu. I feel alive with the cold morning air and the rising mist, I feel the weight of three litres of water and the day’s food, a change of shorts and t-shirt for the long, hot bus ride back home. But there’s a long way to go before that.

The last few months have been busy at work, and I don’t get very many weekends off, as I’m visiting partner communities. I had been training hard though, for a race in Puno, the Ultra Titicaca Trail 60k. Only weeks out, the race was cancelled. So I had great fitness and a rare free weekend. My natural reaction was of wanting to take advantage of this to spend time in the mountains. I had had the idea of running the Salkantay route (a fairly popular 4-5 day mountain trek) in a day, so this would be a great test of my fitness and a beautiful day moving on my own power from high mountain pass to steamy jungle. Because in the end there are really only two reasons why I trail run: it makes my body and mind feel great, and it allows me to appreciate the beauty of forests, mountains, streams, lakes, meadows, rocks, and all the animals and plants that inhabit them. And – and I’ve thought this many times before – it occurs to me that this enjoying nature is a privilege and a luxury of people who can take days for themselves…a truly exclusive group.

I’ve left the camp behind me in the clearing mist where the tourists will have gotten dressed and stumbled to the breakfast tent. I’m holding my trekking poles by my side as I cruise the last rolling – if quite technical – singletrack before the real climbing starts. The river roars at the bottom of a steep embankment to my right (still swollen from the remnants of the rainy season), and in front of me a towering, steaming white Goliath, reaching its dry and snowy body to the sky, steep and impossible. Now the trail kicks up, gets rocky, and gets real. I’m dragging myself up the switchbacks (so tight they’re almost on top of each other) on the side of a rugged moraine. I’m breathing hard, but steady. I’ve already had my first bite of sandwich (not eating or hydrating on a solo outing like this is suicide) and I’m feeling strong. Out of the corner of my eye, something moves. I turn to the right to see a man floating down the trail on the other side of the gulch, a trail far more technical than the one I’m on. The trail blazes through a God size mound of scree that a glacier dumped in the middle of the valley some number of thousands of years ago. From my vantage point, the man seems to be wearing jeans, a jacket, and has a book bag slung on his back. He looks up, seems to see me, and then returns to the shoe-cutting stones. This kind of ease on this kind of trail is mind blowing, something you only see from professional trail runners. But then again, I think as I keep my feet moving, turning over despite the lack of oxygen and every muscle that screams to slow down – then again, this man is made of this mountain. This is not his weekend adventure but his daily commute – he belongs to the mountain. He disappears quickly into the gulch and I continue up past a shear cliff face on my left, the Apu Salkantay on my right, up toward the pass.

It occurs to me as I pause on a precipitous ledge to catch my break and grab an apple from my vest that my appreciation for these landscapes appears pure, but is really only aesthetic. It is like looking at a painting without knowing it’s history or context, admiring a naked body without knowing the human inside it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, only that there are whole dimensions missing from that appreciation. It is also a privileged appreciation. So many of us try to connect with our surroundings, nature, the trail, the mountain, the river, and we value that. It is laudable, especially in a world that seems to be both disconnected from and violent toward those natural spaces. But I can’t imagine the tiny Andean woman in her pollera (traditional skirt) pulling potatoes from the cold ground before sunrise, admiring the aesthetic beauty of the Salkantay valley.

Above 4500m my body REALLY resists running. But I will it to run here on a few hundred meters of flat pampa before the final ascent to the pass. Every meter of running saves time. I splash through puddles, muddy depressions on the grassy oasis. As I make the final push to the pass – even scrambling in a few sections – at 4650m I look back to see a massive cloud just behind me. It’s moving fast enough that I have no time to get my camera out to snap a photo of the beautiful mountain. Instead, I make it to the pass, a cemetery of rocks and cairns standing immobile in a cloud so dense I can only see about 20 meters ahead of me. There isn’t much point in staying up here: I can’t see anything, its cold, and I’m making good time, so I might as well keep the rhythm.

Easier said than done. After just over 1.5h of slow and steady progression up to the pass, I’d wanted to scream down the other side. But in the thick fog and the light rain, the steep rocky trail is technical. I remember I’m alone. “Take it easy Liam.” As the rain starts around 11k, (3.5k after the pass) I come across my first hikers with their neon rain covers and their ponchos. As I cruise easily through the rock garden past them, I say hi. I like to imagine what people think: “WTF!” Later I would actually hear “that guy has got to be crazy!” They were starting their second day of trekking.

The edge of cold, the bite in the air starts to abate as I get down to 4000m and again have to will myself (this time more easily) to run across a rainy and muddy field to where the trail really turns down toward the jungle. Another camp, more trekkers, some dogs, and those arrieros again, yelling at their mules and dragging them down the muddied slopes with their full load. Chewing coca, without any rain gear, they watch me go by and give me a gruff “Buenos dias.” Another day at the office, this time in the rain.

The trail down to Chaullay is steep and fairly wide. It’s raining steadily now, and I’m just trying to make good time. I always hit a low point on long runs, and it starts here, around 20k. My stomach starts to feel upset, I’m not eating enough, I take a wrong turn and have to squelch my way back through ankle-deep mud to the village to ask directions. “Of course, it’s down the valley.”

I had been told that some of the trail to Llaqtapata was washed out by landslides so I take the road. By this point, I’m fully out of the alpine, it’s steamy, the visibility is pretty good, and it’s time to take off my jacket. I walk for 5 minutes to eat and take on fluid and then I’m feeling great again. The next 10k I’m ticking off the monotonous road (narrow, dirt) kilometers quickly. It’s really easy going and my legs feel great. Van loads of trekkers drive by me, sometimes hollering encouragement out the window, other times just staring in bewilderment. At one point I am condescendingly told to wait by a man on horseback. I’m annoyed, but then I see the rocks falling from above, flying down the mountain to strike the road – remnants of a landslide. When you do go, when you make a dash for it you just hope it’s not the moment another rock decides to fall, because that would be it. Through a few small rivers whose cold water is like heaven on the hot and blistering feet. I stop to fill up my water and take off the last of my layers. It is a hot summer run now and I’ve arrived at Llaqtapata where the road splits. Only 12k to go. Here, men wait, drinking Coke, washing their cars, aimlessly waiting for tired trekkers to cave and get a ride. They’re working. I’m playing.

At Llaqtapata I head up, and thus begins my second low point, this one more of an angry one. I feel great physically, I’m moving well, but I expected the climb to be two or three kilometers max. So when it’s stair-worthy steep for four kilometers I start to get frustrated. I’ve slowed down, more out of frustration than fatigue, and I just want to be on the final descent to Hidroelectrica. Each turn I think it’s going to be the top. It’s not. The climb is an excruciating seven kilometers before it finally turns down. Just before, I stop at a campesino’s house (who sells soft drinks and cookies to hikers on this Inka road in the middle of the jungle). I sit down for one minute to drink my Pepsi (fluid, sugar, salt – it’s all you need!) before continuing on up. A man comes out with his adorable and precocious daughters and we chat briefly. People like me are how they make their living in this lush green canyon in the rocks.

This whole time I’ve been frustrated, yelling at the chickens that cross my path, I’ve been ignoring this vast valley of lush green forest, topped with shear cliffs and spiky mountains. Chatting with the little girls and confirming I’m not lost both brighten me up. I’m close and I’ve only been running for 6.5h.

“I’m going to scream down this last descent and I’ll be in under 7h, wow!” Nope. Nothing of the sort. The 5k descent is extremely steep, and unthinkably muddy. But not dirty mud. More clay, really slippery clay. It is like a skating rink. I have to hobble down with my hiking poles. I fall once, and consider it a miracle that I don’t fall a lot more. Once I finally roll into the parking lot, still feeling great, it’s around 1pm. I’ve been on the trail for 7.5h, moving for 7h 18mins. The sun is shining, the mountains are gazing down at the rushing and muddy Urubamba river.

I sneak between the trees, strip down, and sooth myself in the frigid waters. I just can’t stop thinking how this is a privilege. It is a privilege to do, to experience, to be, to move, and to appreciate.

I wash, change, sit in the sun by the river before sauntering over to the railroad track to buy some overpriced food. I eat while I wait for the train to come in, full of Machu Picchu goers. The people who said I was crazy in the last kilometer of muddy descent arrive. We exchange words. I get in a car and sleep and eat my way to Urubamba where friends wait with a warm welcome, a barbecue, stories of their day of rock climbing. Later, we pile seven people into a car for the dark drive back to Cusco.

The arrieros will have long gone to bed in their wet clothes. They’ll be waking up in a few hours while I rest my legs. They’ll be tying bags as I sleep. They’ll be getting on the trail, moving through rocks and canyons as I’m back in my bed, dreaming of the mountains.

 

 

Episodes

these things all happened:

When the car pulls over, I’m almost frantic. The driver brakes hard around the hairpin turn (rather than accelerating like he’s been doing) and heeds my quiet but urgent request. There is no shoulder, just the tarmac, a strip of gravel, and a thousand foot drop. As I exit the car, I throw my hydration vest and the half-eaten orange onto the seat of the Corolla. My clammy body lurches to the strip of gravel and, sensing the wind and what is about to come, I drop to my knees. The refuse that hurls from my mouth contains the last litre of water I consumed, and the last energy bar along with some nuts and the half orange I just choked down as we sped down the mountain from Lares. The last time I vomited like this was at km 50 of the Haliburton Forest 50 miler – great race – my best to date actually. This time is different. After starting out in the wrong direction, losing the path twice, slogging up over 1700m of vertical (from 3000 to 4700+), my training partner Julien and I have to throw in the towel at Quishuarani, a mere 25kms into our proposed 55km project of running the Lares trek loop. Through mountains of black and ice, and every shade of green, past stout brown women weaving at the base of a magnificent cirque, past potato fields and herds of sheep and llamas. We had stopped endlessly (probably too often) to catch our breaths for the views, and to take photo evidence. But our slow progress meant that with 6 hours of daylight left, we had only gone over one of the three big passes, and I wasn’t taking food or water on very well (looking a bit ghostly). We took our one opportunity to get on the road, and we ran the 10 or so kilometres down to Lares. I’ll be back.

* * *

I have become unphased by beggars in the street: the mumbling, the baked skin, the jangling tin of 10 and 20 cent coins, the wild eyes, the stories I tell myself about them. But I gasp if they bare their feet from beneath their twisting limbs, their torn garments. Those feet, bloated, blackened, caked in dirt or blood, were the last thing to come into the world, but they are the first to be beaten. I can’t watch.

* * *

According to Scott, there was an eclipse on Sunday. Who knows? According to just about everybody there’s a weird energy here. I’ve never once felt it. Except maybe last night. The sun hovered over the southern slums, stacked brick upon brick to the antennas at the top of one green mountain, and then all the others. (You can’t sense the chaos from all the way on the other side of the valley. It’s a quiet chaos, almost calming as you walk up the steep concrete steps…the steps are everywhere, and so are the dirty backyards filled with garbage and livestock and red-brown earth.)

The yellow light hung there in the sky, painting the silver rim of moon into a blue corner. I went up the switchback road, plodding into the grey horizon with its jagged edge. By the time I arrived at the Devil’s Balcony to descend the rough and thorny trail, everything was dusty with the recently set sun. I didn’t think to look up, but the moon would have been there, like a ring glinting in the sun. My legs felt unnervingly fresh for being on my second run of the day, and cruising at a good pace at nearly 4000m above sea level. Energy. Grizzly and grey but almost buzzing, the air was granular and the soft ground – once I got to it – was muddy and black as ink. I could still feel the horseshoe prints though – I could sense them.

Jenny says you shouldn’t go up there after sunset because you could get robbed. I’ve only heard third-hand cases…many of them…but all third-hand. I was aware of this fact though, almost twitchy with the buzz of the pixels as I silently started up the last climb on an old Inca road.

I heard it then. The beating of a drum and the hoot of a whistle. Just two instruments moving in the darkening sky above me. I was walking by this point, and could see three huddled figures silhouetted against what was still left of light in the sky. As I approached, they stopped. The woman was wrapped in a blanket, the two men hunched over, one adjusting his collared shirt and woolen vest while the other held himself as he urinated into the darkness. Stout, brown andean folk. The woman looked at me sharply and said, “where are you going young man?” I replied that I was going to get to the top and make my way back. The man with the sweater-vest and fedora looked at me urgently, the whites of his eyes bulging into the quickly falling night. I looked from one to the other: they all had purple flour smeared on their faces, and the man urinating into the thorny edge of the path had colourful pink and white and purple strips of paper round his neck. They were all drunk. The man in the sweater vest said, “I used to go up there as a young man,” pointing to where they had just come from. “I’d go aaaaall the way up, no problem. But you have to be careful. Things happen now.” Looking into their buggy eyes, I assured them all I was really just going a few hundred metres further before turning around. “Ok, ok,” said the woman, “but there are people out.”

The man who had had his back to me turned to shake my hand. He held it while he watched me through his dark and swimming eyes. “Sometimes things just happen. Not just out there, but here too. And we just can’t help it! There’s nothing we can do. It’s out of our control.”

I bid them all adieu, shook their clammy hands, watched their purple faces recede back into the night as I started up into the darkness again with the renewed beat of a drum and the flitting of a whistle. I don’t believe in premonitions, as I said. Or this energy. But as I floated down through the mess of rocks and the steep stone steps to where the street is lit with yellow light, where the dogs scavenge for garbage at the hairpin turn all day and every day, I felt those bugging eyes – dark and white against the night. They were from another time. A time when this buzzing night and these pixels under the sliver moon – when they meant something.

* * *

Three figures appear through the mist. They just appear. One moment it is green and black and the sitting cloud, and the next there are three figures. Within seconds, you can hear their breathing. There’re following the stones laid at the border of this old road. They are going somewhere. The road gets to the buttress cliff. They walk between the stones and amongst the cacti and low bushes. Across the Apurimac canyon mist is clearing, the clouds begin to reveal the edge of ridges, crests and peaks plummeting down and back into the thick ocean of fog below. Except for the green under their feet, everything is still black and white. You watch them approach what looks like an impassable rock face. Step by step, foot by foot. The two tall men are wearing shoes. They are the colour of canyon cloud. The man in front is wearing sandals. He displaces nothing but moves through the mist like knife through flesh.

After the river that comes down from the plateau where the alpacas graze, after hours that near them to the place of sacrifice, to the horns that overlook a kingdom of layer upon layer of mountains, after black and orange cliffs run the canyon like a ribbon under more rocks, more stones – after it all – and as the sun gets high above the canyon and into the blue sky, the short man starts to run.

His sandaled feet hardly touch the ground. They float his body up the trail as it reaches for the hot sky, up through the green and the river that flows down the trail. They are not afraid. You watch them, feel them graze the rocks and the dust that lays dry for thousands of years under the protection of cliffs. The two men behind, the two tall ones are burning in their chests. Their lungs have lost the elasticity they should have and their tongues are out of their faces like dogs. It’s the only thing you can hear from the ribbon cliffs all the gaping way down to the canyon floor (the invisible canyon floor).

At the top, sitting on Inca walls where life was cut through without a sound, between the horns of stone, the top of steps laid hundreds of years ago. You can watch them as they drink cloudy chicha from a plastic bottle, as they eat grains of yellow choclo. The sun is out, but there is no sound.

* * *

I lent my hat to a stranger. He lost it. On a night I expected the hard breathing, the skin of a woman, this man knocked, entered, and, through his round glasses and wisps of black hair falling to his shoulders, he opened his chest. He opened a plastic bag, he stuttered, he showed his love. In the bag was a bottle of wine from Mendoza, a hat knit by some old woman, and a CD of afro-peruvian music. He cared. A gift greater than gasps.

* * *

The long run starts with a relaxed 10km. Relaxed is not a physical state, it is a state of mind. I have water strapped to every part of me, I have a jacket bundled into the pocket of my vest, I have nuts and dried fruit, a soggy piece of french toast. I have hydration salts – I have water purification tablets, gloves, a cap and buff for the cold. (The feeling that I am prepared for everything).

I go up through fields, slipping in horse manure, rocks tearing at my shoes and thorns at my bare skin. When I get above the ruins and the dogs and the tern that dive-bombs me every time – when I have a solid birds eye view of the city below, I stop. Walking peacefully toward the V, the steep red trail in the green valley, up and up to the pass, there is a sun in the sky and across the valley I can see another trail, yet unexplored. When I arrive at the pass breathing hard, my legs are loose, they are eager to carry me, to turn over more quickly on the firm ground, around the grassy corner and into a ribbed and gasping canyon. The movement of my body is unconcerned, unconscious, dialed out – dialed in.

My hard kilometers start around the sweeping corner of the second pass, the narrow dirt path that feels downhill both ways. I’m cruising, I’m feeling as alive as it is possible to feel. Powerful. At the top, at 4300m I breathe hard, lactic acid surging through my legs. The thin air allows it to get everywhere, even my arms and my lungs burn. It is almost like sobbing. The sweeping peaks that surround me and the memory of mist without a breath of wind mitigate the suffering. There is a lake and endless cones, with stone ribs bent over ridges, lines against the sky like giant teeth, like the smooth lines of a naked body. The hard kilometers continue. I am pushing myself through the pain, breathing at the edge of thin air. As I turn down the valley, Cusco is a white dot in the distance far below and everything  is dark. With the black clouds comes booming in the sky.

A new kind of urgency.

I put on my gloves and jacket and make the next kilometers about outrunning the threat of lightning, the boisterous and flexing storm. I had never thought of being out in the bald mountains, on a ridge, in the lightning. But as the dark settles in above me, it seems that’s what’s happened. I run. My legs take me through the sounds, they take me through the silence, thank god!

The final 8k descending from the last pass the storm is gone and I feel the damage. The Inca ruins above the city are covered in a layer of white. The trails have swollen with water, they have become rivers. At some points I am on the edge of control, my feet churning over through the mud and tumbling rocks, through the clashing grains of ice. I crash through the coolness of bushes laden with water, overhanging the trail. Other times I am up to my ankles in frigid water. It is cold and refreshing to see a landscape covered in white, even just for a moment. I arrive home smiling.

 

Run

I

Yeah, that’s what most people say: why? I get it: it’s painful, uncomfortable, boring, etc. But don’t get me wrong, I loathe a 3k jaunt around suburbia as much as the next couch potato! The only difference I can see between that and a treadmill (and I sure hate treadmills!) is that you’ve got the weather instead of your favourite tv show. So, no. I don’t run as a means to an end.

I run because it’s the most stripped down embodiment of human capacity. That, and it gets me outside, and into a wilderness so disconnected from our urban realities that it’s almost unrecognizable sometimes. Any other outdoor endeavour (as rad as it may be) requires a fairly substantial amount of technology, resources, and gear.

Running is one of a small handful of sports that doesn’t discriminate between black and white, rich and poor, hot and cold, high mountain and steamy jungle. We can run everywhere. And we do. Kenyans and Ethiopians stormed the competitive marathon scene in the late 80s – but their running was only new to the West – they’d been at it forever. Buddhist monks in Japan run 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days as a meditative practice, the Tarahumara of Mexico’s copper canyons run hundreds of miles at a stretch to communicate, to play, and to simply hang out with friends and family. People still run their prey to exhaustion in the Kalahari desert… the list, I’m sure, goes on.

In 2010 I was in Chile. I was spending a lot of time hiking in the mountains of Southern Patagonia. Covering a lot of distance in a day, I realized if I traveled with less I could go faster, which meant I could also go further. It was liberating to trade my hiking pack for a small backpack and jog off into the never-ending mountains, finding that rhythm that is so natural. I’d return in a few hours, elated, hungry, and full of beautiful sounds and sights. This is when I (not so accidentally) learned about the “ultramarathon” – technically any run longer than the 42.2km marathon. I was intrigued. Here were men and women running distances of 100-200km at once. It seemed bizarre, given how the marathon has been canonized in our culture as the pinnacle of human capability and endurance. But 42.2km is both an arbitrary number, and, as it turns out, a wild underestimation of most humans’ abilities. Watching top ultrarunners is like watching any other mammal at an easy trot – it looks pretty natural! They’re also usually in the forest or on a mountain (rather than a track or road.) So, I was hooked…on the idea.

This past year I’ve put in all sorts of miles: fast, slow, long, short, painful, fun, horrific. The track for speed, the road for tempo, the trails for technique. 50km weeks, 150km weeks, 30 minute runs, 6 hour runs, rain, sun, ski-hill repetitions, 38 degrees, driving rain and wind. The more the miles went by, the more I felt totally natural.

Since this past summer’s training and a handful of ultradistance events, my mindset – my consciousness – as it relates to running and my own capabilities, has shifted hugely.

Like writing, running has become more than a means to an end (getting in your workout). It has become a continuous line, a long view, a lense through which I experience life and landscapes, as well as my own body and consciousness.

II

Since moving to Cusco, a city at 3500m above sea level, running has become a more efficient form of both exploring my surroundings, and staying sane. Living where I do, a mere 10 minute uphill slog from the countryside, I can huff and puff my way through small farm fields, wooded areas, up the spines of towering mountains, through the sculpted rock outcroppings and amongst the innumerable (and practically unacknowledged) ruins that dot everything. Some mornings, as the mist rises to reveal green peaks dusted with snow, I float up the ancient Inca road behind my house, Qapaq ñan. All I can hear is my laboured breathing and the odd barking dog. All I can feel is my aching body being dragged up these stone steps. It’s cold but I’m wearing running shorts, a t-shirt, thin gloves and a handheld water bottle. I arrive at work in the morning having been massaged by my surroundings, psychoanalized by the llamas and the tiny Quechua women who heard them, by the sweeping ridgeline of burnt orange-brown rocks and the creeping green of the rainy season.

I am lucky to have a friend and running partner (a former neighbour) who is both an incredibly strong athlete, and someone who motivates me to get up early to run before work. We’ve done some long running adventures on weekends that brought us over mountain passes, past alpine lakes (and yes, herds of alpacas). We once found ourselves wasted tired after three hours of narrow, steep, and rocky trails that wind and snake the impossible canyons and valleys outside Cusco, in the cold and pouring rain, and three valleys over from where we thought we were. Limping to the nearest road, we piled into a taxi that brought us (at no cost!!) the last 8k or so through a chaotic urban jungle and into Cusco. Sadly, he’ll be leaving with his family for Patagonia at the beginning of February, but it’s been a fun ride!

The altitude means that I go a lot slower than I’m used to, and distances feel roughly double what they are. It’s also pretty hard to go for an “easy” run, but bit by bit, as I soak into the whitewashed adobe houses of the San Blas neighbourhood with its impossibly narrow alleyways, its cobbled streets, my lungs are adjusting. And there are new projects on the horizon!

Now that I’ve done some exploring, I’ll be starting in on another training program with my coach Laura (@lauraperryultra), in preparation for some high altitude ultras over the next year, and some fun personal projects! In the end, it’s all quite natural.

Ata’s hands

My arms and hands, recently burnt lobster-red by the penetrating Andean sun (it is a different sun altogether), sustain a white plate on which lies the soft, orange remains of a mango. I get up from the small kitchen table. The robust legs of a metal chair are fitted with plastic tabs. They scrape over the ceramic tiles of morning. You can see through the erotic body to the sun.

I cut gently with my knife through
dripping flesh, juice creeps to
my elbows. you have to cradle it
firmly, gently

I have often imagined my Ata, my grandfather, with his elbows resting on the cheap tartan red table in my grandparents kitchen in Trenton Ontario, as he peeled a grapefruit. He would place each piece in his mouth. Juice would sometimes drip down from the corner of his mouth, pausing for a moment in the folded wrinkles of his weathered face. Ata would carefully hold the fruit as he leaned over the table or the sink – and the single paper towel resting on a background of red and becoming blotchy as the drips fell off his forearms and onto its thickness.

Any time I peel and eat a citrus fruit, leaning over the sink, I think of Ata. But the mango is a departure. This time I sit at a table and the action is different.The only common factor being I am “eating fruit”. But something about the care that must be taken – the loving and unconscious bond formed with the fruit as I look at its flesh – something about that soft gruffness

Ata’s gentleness pulls pieces apart
with strong, swollen mason’s hands
(place bricks on bricks
pull his strong body to a handstand

in the tired sun of afternoon’s end)
opportunities are straight arrows,
voids have sharp edges, words
pointed, losses impacts,
emotions facts –

so letting Ata’s thoughtful hands, covered in juice, sit in my consciousness feels cleansing, even invigorating. I don’t in fact remember the part about his face. That’s more my imagination. But I can see his hands – dusty, cut, sore, loving and holding his many children, tired and grateful. A strong sun comes in the window as I hold up the glowing orange mango peel like a stained glass host.

soft, thoughtful memory between my lips
like
bathing naked in mud
throwing yourself at an ocean
with some beautiful stranger

I remember my uncontrollable 8-year-old sobs as I saw his dead hands – they were missing what made them Ata’s – folded by a funeral director in that wooden box (cozily upholstered as if for a nap rather than for eternity and decomposing earth). I couldn’t even look at my cousins, chomping on complimentary funeral parlour mints. I was hardly breathing and all I saw was a body in a suit in a box through the stained and colourless glass of my puffy eyes.

eulogizing the long dead
trite and tiresome
I know.
the mango and the morning sun,
the
comforting infinity of Ata’s hands,
a slow flow of moments