Tag Archives: race

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!



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!

Portraits: Rio de Janeiro


The street is called Rua Joaquim Murtinho. It is cobbled and winding, making its way from the bustle of bars in Lapa, the transvestite prostitutes, the nights of suave samba and old men crowding the street with their beers. It leaves behind the nightclubs and dirty streets overflowing with young folks, old couples, ancient men in fedoras shuffling and singing to the warm and heavy night. Small general stores stacked with cookies and sweets, pastries, sauceless pizzas soaked in grease and an infinity of cachaca bottles waiting to be poured – stores whose small quarters are cramped with yellow crates of Skol beer, and double as bars. Joaquim Murtinho leaves the chaos behind and winds up steeply through the coconut palms and banana trees and old dilapidated mansions, bars, galleries, restaurants, workshops. Rio is one of the few great cities of Latin America where street performers are officially allowed, so on a Sunday night at the beginning of spring I wandered up the shaded streets where the tram car is being reinstalled, and I came across two live samba shows in the street. People live in the street. They don’t go out to do something or go somewhere; they go out to go out. They wander up and down the streets, where there is meat, old records and books, where here a man who makes sculptures from old engine parts has opened his workshop to the public, where there is a small group of old black men singing samba in their strong but almost failing voices.
You get the feeling that if you go out enough, you start to know everyone: the warmth of embraces, spontaneous meetings, laughs, pats, a swivel of the hips, cheers to sizzling churrasco slowly but surely lead to incomprehensible drunken ramblings, shouting, confusion, stumbling, sex, fights, beautiful views, new friends.
At the samba a big black woman is singing to the band of ten or so and to the crowd that overflows from the small bar’s door and into the street. Families are standing outside and a man in a white suite dances up to some middle aged wives, moving his feet, moving his hips – everybody smiles. Everyone is laughing. Around the corner weathered black men are sprawled out on benches, drunk and sleeping where they always do. Others are yelling at eachother.
An emaciated man with black leather skin and crutches asks me for change. I keep on walking. sit down in a gas station cafe and suddenly feel how insensitive, how heartless I have been. So I go out searching for the bandaged man on crutches. I circle Lapa’s blocks, between the stumbling stilettoed women in their tight pants and their round brown breasts half out of their shirts, past middle aged men in worn-out cloth ball caps selling popcorn and condensed milk to the multitudes. I scour the streets until the only thing left are the flashing police car lights and some lone voices drifting into the hot night. The man has disappeared. So I buy a bar of chocolate and walk back to my hostel. I lie in the hammock and look up into the night.

Midday. Ipanema beach is burning up. People do foolish things when the sun is too hot to think. They buy R$17 grilled sandwiches, and spend a whole wad of cash on sunglasses that probably do more harm than good. Christ the Redeemer, the same one that blesses everybody when they kiss goodbye on the cheek, can’t see the sand from his perch up on one of the many granite mounds that stand sentinel over Rio. Though well out of the green and sweating rainforest that braids through the city, he doesn’t see the beaches – only the multitude of bodies under striped umbrellas. Boys play soccer where the turquoise waves break on the shining beach. So many thousands of people cramped on the sand move like one beast. When a stray ball hits someone everybody gasps, thousands move as one, nervously shuffle, stand on tiptoes to see what happened. But it’s never anything.
One group of boys is running through the masses, dodging families and kids, yelling, ducking under umbrellas and jumping over beach chairs. The boy at the front of the pack is holding something in the air. He is skinny, svelte, and maybe sixteen years old. His black hair is cut short and his curls cling tightly to his head. The other ten or so boys look similar from far away. They are all between 14 and 18 years old, shouting with glee as they run patterns through the lounging beachgoers. Suddenly four white men in white tshirts start yelling. I hear them from my left, and they part the crowd, sprinting in the suffocating heat. They push people aside on the sidewalk, jump down the steps onto the sand, and begin to run toward the boys, stumbling through the sand. Everybody turns to watch, except for the group of boys. They scatter like frightened livestock. But it’s too late. The police have grabbed a few of them and are beating them to the ground with their black sticks – the ribs, the legs, the stomach. One of the boys manages to get back up from the sand where he has taken several blows. Two women step in between the white man with the weapon and the little black boy giving him just enough time for him to run, quickly putting distance and humans between him and his aggressor. More white men with police badges come sprinting onto the scene while the multitudes watch, some interested, some laughing, few surprised. By this point the boys have scattered and blended into the crowd. A policeman runs by me, pushing me aside, yelling his way through the crowd. He grabs a black boy in front of me, far from the area of incident – a boy who does not know anyone involved in the issue occurring hundreds of metres away – he grabs him by the neck and delivers a startling blow to the boy’s side with his black stick. As the child falls to the ground, the officer drops him and runs on.
Later on, on my way up Joachim Mourtinho to my hostel, I tell a friend about this incident, wondering out loud what the boys were doing to provoke a violent attack from the police. He looks at me, and asks with a sad face: ¨were the boys black?¨ Yes, they were.