Tag Archives: Andes

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

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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.

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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!

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.

A new job

(The photos don’t actually correspond to the trip in the piece below. We visited the above town, Cancha Cancha, the previous week.)

 

The chickens have been awake for some time. The faceless dogs that harassed me from half a kilometre up the steep side of a green, chacra-dotted mountain as I tore down running toward the river below (that runs among avocado trees and broad banana leaves) they’ve yet to be stirred from their cloudy sleep. Between roosters and our beeping cell phones, we creek into the day, the dirt of the morning and the creamy mist that evaporates imperceptibly with the rising sun. We’re cold enough to perk up, and when we hear them call from the other side of the adobe wall, we rush the last things into our knapsacks and race down to the waiting truck. Senovio holds the heavy wooden swinging door of the truck open and shakes my hand as I climb up the ladder into the back of the vehicle. We settle in – I am standing, Alison is sitting, and Nohemi leans against the wooden side, half asleep. The engine rumbles to life in the sleeping and dampened valley, disappearing into the milky air. At 5:30am the ink of the night has gone and as we labour up along the knife-edge snake of road past those faceless (and still sleeping) dogs, we find the crack that didn’t exist.

There is one other man in the back of the fruit truck with us. He is draped over a sack of potatoes, beside the bag of bread and the browning mangos. And he is persistent in his questions, slurred and tired. His eyes are red and only split open by the still morning that blows into the moving truck and reminds us of the speed of time. Trees turn to bushes, bushes to alpine flowers and prickly cacti and lichen, and we’re on top of the flowing ocean of white that crashes between the green and black peaks, splashing up their sides to leave tired and bright glaciers to gleam in the morning sun.

If you look closely as we head over the pass at 4500m, down between the black spires stabbing out through white clouds, that have already forgotten all the sounds of last night’s river as they kiss the earth, lick it, and float up into a disappearing cerulean blue – if you look down to the rock-studded green you see U-shaped dots, alpacas, eating as they do forever in their thick and cloudy coats. I watch the 13 or 14-year old boy open the turquoise door of the truck, moving the dense wood of the ladder, all its grains polished down by everything that has come before. He jumps into the back with a limberness of which I am envious (up here in the thin air) and rifles manfully through the bags to get bleary-eyed shepherds their breakfast of little white buns burned stale by the cold mountain.

The llamas and sheep graze on tufts of grass. The old leather-skinned drunk man has opened his eyes and jumps off the truck, steadying himself before he goes. He lands without a teeter, grabs his bread and thermos of tea to stand with the other men, watching his herd down in the valley where the clouds are now only a memory.

After almost forgetting to pay the driver, we take off our extra morning layers, stuff them in our bags, and head up the remnants of an ancient Inca road, slowly wheezing our way over a pass to the edge of a patchy bluff. There we look down over the crisscrossing paths – the same ones that split a hundred million square miles into ten times as many unique shapes. In the green and rocky cradle below are the small stone houses of villagers whose black shepherd dogs have come to life with the blazing Andean sun. We pick our way down to where we’ll meet with some 20 women, from young and vibrant to old and slow, even deformed.

(On the streets of Cusco there are women dressed in long woolen leggings and black shoes, a few thick and colourfully trimmed skirts, wool sweaters and oddly shaped hats with fabric draped overtop – or a sort of Andea felt tophat. They are then wrapped in colourful blankets. In my experience they don’t smile very much – they ask tourists for photos. These may have been their true outfits, but they have been forced into selling their history, their story, into commodifying their experience, making money off of the fetishization of traditional, of the poor, of the foreign.)

They are the shadows of the beaming women we find in Pitukiska, in the Mapacho River Valley. As they watch from their stone walled, dirt-floored homes in the nape and crook of the bending mountains, they can see us coming. We arrive and are offered coca tea and boiled potatoes and a fried egg by the strong and quiet women already there, their babies bound in rainbows to their backs. Slowly the remaining women trickle down the sides of the mountains, some between the black rocks and dogs, others with a whole herd of sheep.

As we talk about the next few months, the change in personnel (my replacing Alison) and the rainy season, Nohemi translates from Spanish to Quechua and vice versa. We smile and try to understand each other. The women sit in the shade of the once cold stone walls, the little squat toilet and the shushing river in the background, and we sit in the hot sun. We shake hands and say tupananchis kama (see you later) as the women drift back into earth’s harsh rocks.

There is nothing perfect about this. There is nothing easy about it – except for maybe a smile – that’s not so hard. Ordering textiles from indigenous women – buying or not buying them…(you finish this sentence)… women who live with domestic and sexual violence, intergeneration trauma, discrimination and neglect from the outside world and their governments, women who work from a tragically young age, who live in abject poverty; women who are not deemed important enough to receive schooling, who are tied to their stone homes by their babies and their God. Much like indigenous women in my own country. Much like indigenous women just about everywhere. I smile and I brace myself for the next two years.

The rocks and the llamas – even the faceless dogs – watch us, confused. They watch us as we wend our breathless way up and over the pass again and into hours of the blazing sun. They won’t see us again until the rains are over, until the frosts are back, and I suspect they won’t much care.