Tag Archives: mountain running

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.

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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!

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.