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!

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