Tag Archives: running

High Trail Vanoise 70k, 5400m+

We are these beings, moving up like glow beetles on a black expanse of night. The utter insignificance of our choosing to bring ourselves to this point, at whatever speed, makes my head spin. Think of how many hours all of us have spent in our lives preparing for moments in the cold morning, shouted at by a loudspeaker; watched by the yet invisible mammoths of stone and ice that will still be here when the sun has risen above them and melted the snow and our rubber into the rocks; still here when our legs no longer work today, and in 20 years; still here when even our great grandchildren are wind and soil.

I’m here because I very much want to be. I crave this insignificance enough that I seek it out at every opportunity. I search the shared solitude that comes with finding a way to breathe my racing heart into the indifferent world, to push off of the ground that falls away behind me for hours and hours. To be able to voluntarily suffer, exist in movement on the side of a mountain, is a privilege and a need. And to end that pain is also something I search out.

Working hard at moving fast in the mountains is not more noble than any other distraction (though in my humble opinion it may be less destructive than some). Great or awful, the goings on of any life are random. Taking time every day to plan workouts, to run, to train, to stretch, to hydrate, to refuel takes many hours of effort and dedication, all of which gives me the illusion of control.  I am the boss. There must surely be some adage that says we are the makers of our destiny. I have never once believed that, but training hard certainly gives that comforting illusion.

Many events in my own life – as well as observing the world around me – have assured me quite clearly that most of what happens is simply chance, luck (good or bad). We are never deserving of what happens to us. We just exist. I know that.

So what High Trail Vanoise (HTV) reminded me was not that I am not in control: I already knew that. It showed me something about preparation. There are many details to consider, and I completely disregarded one key factor: the altitude.

I have raced three times at altitude, and two of them were some of my best performances in ultra mountain races. What I forgot, was that I was also living at altitude when I did those events. From the moment the horn went off for the start at 4am I was reminded that 2 kilometers in the air there is less available oxygen (and at 3600m there is even less).

The first kilometer I ran in the front group, but very quickly realized I was working extremely hard. I fell back to probably 35th or so as I found a rhythm. It was dark. The mountains were just a little darker than the sky. The back of my throat was too dry for the speed I was moving. After a couple of kilometers of gradual uphill, the trail kicked right up. As we turned into the first switchback, I looked behind me to see the line of over 300 headlamps marking our trail through the dark, down, down, until they disappeared around a rock.

The sun came up and we were still traipsing up a glacier at over 3000m. The obligatory spikes came in handy as the gradient was by this point much too steep to go up “sans” major slippage. My head was pounding, the air was thin, and every time someone skied by on the fresh corduroy under the sun, I asked myself politely what the fuck I was doing here. Then I remembered.

After watching the leaders on both sides of the knife-edge of control as they came barrelling down the glacier at the edge of the world, their feet sinking in past their ankles to the ice below, eventually I got my turn, and it wasn’t pretty. I fell probably four of five times on my way down that glacier, already half an hour behind the leaders at less than 15k (to give you some perspective).

Once I found some rhythm and a bit of steadier (but still very soft) knee-deep snow, I really sped up and started to catch people as I ski/ran down the ~35% slopes to the aid station in the sky, and further to the wet access road. Then I stopped catching people and began to pound the further 5 or so kms to Tignes, around the lake in the sun, past the golf course and the gawking tourists (most of them quite encouraging. There it kicked up again, and there, that rolling terrain at altitude, that terrain that truly kicks my ass. I have a hard time keeping a good rhythm on here, and the grupetto of runners just ahead of me opened a gap on me. But thanks to the long descent through a pine forest, just technical enough, I closed the gap and caught the three or four runners just before the aid station at La Daille.

The next 4km had 1000m+, what is called a vertical kilometer or “VK” and here I found a rhythm leaving the village again and could begin to pick a couple of people off (really just the ones I had caught before the aid station) , keeping my eye on them above me as the pine forest made way for the switchbacks and the infinite hot sky.

Close to the top of the VK the front of the 42k race began to catch me. Just as I watched some fall back to me, I observed them moving smoothly, becoming smaller, until they finally went over the top, again near 3000m. The middle of the race from about 30-45km is a bit of a blur. I was moving fairly well, swiping my foam-fronted trucker hat in the cold mountain streams as I ran by, and forcing myself to eat every half hour or so.

Before feeling the altitude, I thought I could legitimately do this distance and elevation gain in about 10h. As soon as I started in the thin air though, I recalculated. 11h was possible. It would be tight, but possible. And until about 45k, I was just barely on pace. But as I passed the aid station at Col de l’Iseran and started my way up to the next ridgeline, scree field, and finally knife-edged glacier, this is where the altitude hit so hard it smashed my will.

I slowed to a crawling pace. My progress was slow, my breathing was fast, and my heart was racing from the effort. The final kilometer of straight climbing before turning back toward the aid station also offered the most panoramic views. Infinite jagged peaks, sawing into the blue, leaving snow about like sawdust, white and glaring in the sun.

The descent was through steep sometimes knee deep snow with the occasional treacherous drop or boulder. I rode the line of chaos for a bit, but it is a lot of concentration, a lot of energy to do that, and at some point that mental energy flags. I was over 11h now, and I still had 10k to go.

The aid station was packed with runners going up (as I was coming down). Thinking that they were well over an hour behind me and had a heinous climb in front of them made me almost want to vomit or cry for them. The road comes up to the Col, so there were spectators watching as I slipped pathetically in a puddle and fell face first in the only patch of mud on the whole course. What’s a trail race without some mud, right!

The last 10k were a battle of attrition, one that started with a scramble and a fixed rope up a near sheer loose cliff face to a tunnel. Then, it was apparently all downhill. Except that it wasn’t. This broke my spirit again. My legs were actually ok. All the repeats I’ve been doing at my local ski hill miraculously prepared them for the alps. However, so massively past my goals and so mentally broken by the effect the altitude had had on me, I did not move down those last 8k as I should have. More snow, more up hills, and more tourist hikers as we approached the final 3k descent to the finish. There I saw someone in the distance that had passed me on the last long descent. I didn’t have the will to chase. But then out of the corner of my eye I saw someone coming up on me quite quickly. And I thought “common Liam, do this, it’s a consolation, but you can do it!” and so I ran, I flew, I fucking soared down those last few kilometers, solidly dropping the guy who had almost caught me, and catching and passing two runners in front of me as I blazed out into the ski village. I looked at my watch. It read 12h40m as I rounded the corner into the gated area to the finishing arch. One final kick through the pain. One final kick. As I crossed the finish it occurred to me that the ground was the only thing I wanted. I let myself down and panted into the dusty ground as I waited for my heart rate to come down from 180.

“You’re ok Liam, you’re ok. You suffered well.” My friend Julien (my support, chauffeur, cook, jokester, friend extraordinaire) was waiting for me. After some minutes feeling the sensation of stillness, noticing the telescopic zoom lens in my face, hearing the crowd (a crowd at an ultra!! This must be Europe!!) I got up. I laughed, joked, smiled, ate, hugged, and hobbled my way to the shower. Bliss and some solid learning.

 

 

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A change is as good as a…

This will be a round-up of sorts. Let’s start with a race report, before moving on to my rank among the most heinous of Luddites.

I did my last race of the 2018 season at the Bromont Ultra 50 miler on 7 October. A season of injuries and cross training meant that since July I’d been checking in daily with my coach Laura Perry to adjust workouts and manage whatever pain I was feeling. We did a good job at mitigating injury so that I could race, but there is an underlying stress to feeling like you’re perpetually on the brink of injury (or just injured).

Lining up at Bromont was a relief. I put in a solid (injury free) training block for it, so I felt zero pressure. There’s a mantra: “the work is done, now time to have fun,” which is true, but sometimes hard not to put pressure on yourself when you have put in all that work. I think I was just feeling a deep relief that I had arrived injury free, and would be able to have a mental rest really soon.

I awoke in the darkness of my motel room at 2:30am. I packed up, stuck my head outside, and was greeted by thick fog, misty rain, and about 5C. The gun went off at 3:30am and immediately I could see that I shouldn’t be in the front group. But I gave it a shot anyway, just to see how long I could/should stay up there. It was an infernal pace. And it didn’t stop when we hit the base of the ski hill. We were hammering the muddy single track and I was holding on for dear life through the thick fog. The only thing I could see around me was the ground and the white balls of light of the 6 guys in the group. In any event, the answer to my question was 4.92km. That’s when I said “fuck it,” pulled out my poles, and watched the white orbs disappear very quickly into the inky night.

I was caught from behind by three guys with whom I ran for some 10-15k. Without them, I would have gotten lost. At times you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of you for the fog. The one anglophone in the bunch gave us all a tip, to hold our headlamps down low so they actually lit our path instead of blinding us (same concept as foglights on a car). That guy turned out to be Brian Rusieki. If you don’t know who that is, look him up. He’s an ultra running legend. And he showed me that as he turned the screw on the long flat logging roads around the 20k mark. Never saw him again. One thing he said while we were scrambling up some steep rocks was “you Canadians start too fast; most of those guys won’t last.”

I finally found a great pace, and picked up two running buddies, Rich Paddy (an ironman triathlete doing is first 50 miler) and another Brian who was the first casualty of that front group (or, I guess, the second, as I took the honours). The three of us ran and chatted for probably 30k. They would get ahead of me on the runnable roads and double track, and I would set the pace on the steep single track, up and down.

By this point it had cleared: perfect temperature, great trail conditions (if a bit muddy at times – but what’s a trail race without some mud!) While I wasn’t able to eat as much as I had at Black Spur, I was still eating regularly and enough, and feeling pretty good at the 60k mark. So I started to push the pace, and was able to pull away from both my companions on a descent (where I also fell and smashed my knee). I caught two more casualties of the front group, and subsequently got passed by one of them.

Out in the clearing I looked at my watch. I was calculating a 20k acceleration, and a particularly fast final 5k. So I was confused when I saw the finishing arch and my watch only said 76.5k. I finished a bit stronger than I should have, with a somewhat confused smile on my face. Turns out my watch was a little off, and the course was a little shorter than 80k. Something like 78.5k.

I finished in 9:25, 35min faster than my personal goal and good for 8th overall in a pretty stacked field, where Brian Rusieki beat me by only 30 minutes, and the former course record was broken by the top 3. Able to push the whole time, but also be quite comfortable, I think it was a great and rather epic-feeling end to the season. I drove back to the motel, napped for 3 hours, and then packed up to drive the last 3 hours back to Ottawa to sleep in my own bed.

As always, a huge shout out to the race organizers, the town of Bromont, all the volunteers, and to everyone who toughed it out in the mud and rain and fog and cold. A special congrats to Rich for such a strong showing in his first 50 miler ever – top 10, DAMN!!

***

Right after I got home, my new mountain bike arrived – uber excited!!!! I have been riding a lot, resting those running muscles and ripping it (but more just ripping myself) up on the mountain bike trails. Around the same time I got my hands on a knock-off GoPro-type action camera.

I had been taking little videos while mountain biking, and learning how to use the camera. Two weekends ago I participated in a 6h team orienteering event with some friends – what a blast!!! And as I keep telling people: running AND thinking at the SAME TIME is pretty hard! Needless to say, while I do know how to use a map and compass, I wasn’t able to take bearings as quickly as Emil and Evan, so while I almost always knew where we were, I spent most of the 6 hours following Emil’s bearings. A fun mix of “braun” AND brains!

There too, I was trying to take some action videos during the event. All this to say, that as I sought to upload all the videos for editing, I accidentally “formatted” the card, thus deleting ALL the (probably sub-par) videos I had taken of friends and myself biking, running with maps through the woods in the rain, and generally having fun outside in the beautiful autumn colours. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to remember those moments like we used to.

 

 

 

black spur ultra 108k race report: adoptive families, self inflicted suffering, bikes, etc.

I’ve had a season full of stops and starts, full of cancelled races, missed weeks of training. It’s been pretty hard to actually get into the rhythm of regular running because of all the injury. First it was patelo-phemoral pain, then shin splints, then more shin splints, then more again. Then just when I thought I was in the clear, bone scans told me I had a stress fracture in my tibia. Goose cooked.

I missed what would have been the most competitive ultra I’ve ever done in the Cayuga Trails 50 miler, but I refocused, spent many hours in the pool and at the gym trying to halt the backslide of fitness. Luckily I love being outside so it wasn’t hard to keep the life stoke high… it was pretty hard to be excited about running though, honestly.

Before I ever ran an ultra marathon, I had looked at Black Spur Ultra 108k in the Rockies in Kimberley, BC and thought that it would be an epic race and a beautiful thing to do. I loosely set my sites on it. I’ve thought about that race many many times since I started running. Steady as she goes. Each year I was building, and this spring I felt fit enough, ready enough to train and give this race my best shot. But you never know what will happen: here I was arriving at the airport in Cranbrook, cruising through the smoky skies, and being greeted by no view at all. My tibia still felt weird, my throat was getting itchy, I had started to sneeze and blow my nose, and a very real threat of cancellation due to forest fires raging all over the province. This would not be “what I signed up for.”

The first thing I did was to head downtown to rent myself a bike so I wouldn’t have to walk/run 4k to AND from the Kimberley Alpine Resort. At the evening briefing I met a family: the woman, a non-runner, with her husband (a self identified non-trainer) doing the 108k, and their two 20-something boys gunning for the win in the 54k. They adopted me, and how comforting it was to have my adopted mum at the aid station each time I rolled through.

I was all alone at my Air Bnb, pretty isolated from everything going on around me, so I had a lot of time to doubt myself. Early in the year I had set some lofty goals for this race, a sub 13h and podium finish. Now I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to finish, whether I’d remembered in this past month of no running how to keep a pace, whether the smoke would force me to quit, whether my leg would give out, or my stomach. The lack of long runs this summer might jeopardize my ability to digest during the event. Stomach issues can end your race pretty quickly. Heck, I didn’t even know if I’d be starting with all the wild fires. Basically there was a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of self doubt – a lot!

So I was relieved (more than anything else) when the gun finally went off Saturday morning. I ended up in the front group along with some 54k speedsters and some relay runners (also going faster). But I’ve matured. I went out conservatively, really just thinking about finishing injury-free.

Normally, Black Spur is a clover: three loops (we’ll call them A, B, and C) which the 54k runners do once each, while the 104k runners do twice each. Because of the fires, we were alternating A,C,A,C,A,C. Loop A is 16k with almost 900m+ elevation, while loop C is about 19k with 670m+.

On the first loop there is one long climb up to a ridge that starts as a road and fairly quickly kicks up and becomes a goat path. I went up this in a controlled manner, chatting with some other runners. I guessed I was somewhere in the top 10 at this point, but it was hard to say.

I descended very gingerly all the highly technical powder-dry single track into a shale rock ravine, and finished the first 16k feeling pretty good, and gaining a bit of confidence about my leg. I wasted no time at all in the aid station and felt I was moving quickly on the more flowy single track of loop C. But less than half way through I was caught by two runners. One of whom very shortly after sped away from us on a climb and into an eventual podium finish.

I spent the next 40k at least with Doug. We chatted, laughed, commiserated. We didn’t actually run together very much. We more yo-yoed. I would get ahead on the climbs, Doug would catch and pass me on the descents. It is fascinating to observe the high and low points of two different runners on the same course. Sometimes Doug would fly by me, whooping with joy while I seemingly shuffled down the mountain, nursing my blistered feet. Other times I’d energetically hike right past Doug on some steep uphill, keeping a strong rhythm youhooing into the smoky mountains and the quiet forest.

My last race was Sulphur Springs 50k, where I probably would have done a lot better if I hadn’t succumbed to one fatal error: not enough electrolyte. That error led to 20k of cramping. This time, I was on top of the electrolytes, and the two isolated times I felt the beginning of a cramp I made sure to drink double electrolyte drink at the next aid station. I also focused on balancing out all the sweetness of my (albeit delicious) Clif Bars and Endurance Tap maple syrup gels with salty snacks at the aid stations: chips, pickles, the works. I always chat with aid station volunteers because what they are doing is so selfless, and in many ways just as hard as what we runners are doing. But I never spent more than 2 or 3 minutes maximum in an aid station, and often much less.

One of the last aid stations that Doug and I rolled into together, I noticed that he had the words “not all pain is significant” written on his arm. We talked about this. We all make an informed decision to self-inflict this “suffering” on ourselves. We do it because it teaches us something about our own resilience. It is training for the real suffering of life. As our feet blister and pop, our muscles tear in thousands of places and each step becomes painful, even agonizing, there is a deep understanding that this pain, this physical (and even emotional) suffering is insignificant in the absolute sense of that word. It does not matter.

This may sound masochistic or egotistical, but I think it would describe it as meditative and deliberate. When you do an event that takes all day (or more, or much much more) you find that just as  in life, you are surrounded by people who are going through the same pain, the same vomiting and cramps, the same spasms as you. They are also experiencing the same euphoric highs, the same outpouring of gratitude and love. They understand and respect, and are supportive, compassionate. All that is true. And, in the end, you are alone. It may not have been possible to do without the support of other – that is true – , but in the end you go your own speed, you leave and get eft behind, and when you arrive at the silly blow-up arch at the finish, and the small crowd has gathered to cheer you on, you cross that line into the empty dark  alone.

In the last 40k I felt pretty good, and was eating well, about 300kcal/h. I was even able to push the last loop very hard as night fell and we all became moving lumens in the pit of the smoke-black night. I willed my legs to turn over, to fly back. I drifted far enough in front of Doug, that he didn’t end up closing the gap. I ran myself into 4th place for about an hour, and then fell back to what ended up a 5th place finish. As I hobbled or barrelled (depending on your point of view) down the ski hill into the finishing stretch, I could hear the announcer and the small gaggle of people clapping and cheering in the gathering cold. I didn’t collapse at the finish. I took my finisher’s medal and my beer. I leaned down into the pain in my hamstrings, the pain everywhere, into the dark ground, into the relief, into the happiness. I leaned down alone, into my dusty shoes.

My adoptive mother was there with a bucket of water for me to wash my legs. My socks were drenched in blood. I ate some (heavenly) soup and I gave my beer to a guy who was in the tent to change his shoes. He still had 35k to go. That was it. As I coasted down the hill on my rented cruiser bike toward home, I thought of all the many people still out there in the dark. I was done, I was pretty darn elated with 13h52m and 5th place, mostly because nothing went wrong: I did not vomit, I did not cramp, I did not break my leg (!!), I did not get nauseous, I did not get suffocated by the smoke. And if I had, it would not have been all that important, because as Doug reminded me, not all pain is significant.

 

The rest of my trip was a combination of cramming my blistered feet into climbing shoes and struggling (very happily) up my first multi-pitch climb with my childhood friend Aaron and sharing with other adopted families! We hiked a few days of the beautiful Sunshine Coast Trail with Aaron’s amazing family; I laughed til it hurt; I became very well acquainted indeed with BC Ferries; and I capped it all off with a lot of excellent coffee in Victoria, where the true highlight was the people. I was welcomed, loved, guided, and deeply inspired by the generosity, creativity, calm, and openness of my dear friend Kayla and her housemates, partner, friends, and community.

 

Now I’m home, and hot damn I feel recharged!!!!

 

A bzillian thanks to all the (to me) nameless volunteers, to Brian Gallant and the Sinister 7 crew for putting on such a fantastic event; to Doug for the company and perspective, to Patty from Purcell Outdoors for being a friendly face out on the course and in town; to Trevor from Mountain Works Kimberley for the freedom of a bike in town; to my amazing magician of a coach Laura for getting me here, to the generous support of Clif Bar for keeping me fed in all my training and racing, and to Endurance Tap for keeping the tank full of maple syrup on race day!!

Finally, thanks to my dear friends Aaron for making race recovery fun and sendy, to Gillian, Ranjit, and Janet for the laughs and amazing hiking; to Kayla (and co) for making Victoria a welcoming, fun, inspiring, and accessible (yay bikes and gardens) place and showing me what rich community can look like!

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.