How do you engage people with a slow moving problem like air pollution?
In July 2015 I went into the Chilean Andes and climbed 31,000m. This is my story from my daily journey to get some perspective on the smog in the city below.
In July 2015 I went into the Chilean Andes and climbed 31,000m. This is my story from my daily journey to get some perspective on the smog in the city below.
[:en]In July 2015 I ran a project to draw attention to the seasonal air pollution that haunts Santiago, Chile. I climbed 1,000m every day of the month into the Andes mountains above the city and used this point of vantage to raise awareness about the dangers of the pollution below and what we can do to combat it.
I am very proud to be published as the lead article in issue 7 of Like the Wind – a boutique print running magazine, published in the UK. You can read an extract from the article below, or read my original posts about the article here and here.
We’d been running through driving rain and sodden trails since before dawn. Soaked to the skin, we’d been flexing our fingers back and forth to keep the circulation going since the first climb by moonlight onto Little Solsbury Hill. On reaching Marshfield High Street we were at the furthest outpost of our very long run.
Just then a delivery van came splashing down the deserted street, windscreen wipers raging, parking just in front of us. A small man lowered a misted window, and with a wide grin spoke but one word:
Taken aback at first; we soon laughed it off. Over the next three hours back to Bath Spa we tossed the phrase between ourselves. We discovered it was a generous fit for many situations in times past or escapades planned when the logic seems absent, but the experience so fulfilling.
In six days’ time my friend James will arrive here in Chile from the UK.
We planned the trip in February over Skype. Back then the South American summer was in full rage and it was more than 34°C on the cactus studded trails near my home at foot of the Andes. James punched in his passport details online then waited for his winter to warm up, spring to come and go and summer run its course.
Here in South America it’s getting warmer again now: the clouds are lifting from the summits; the bean plants are pushing through the soil of our vegetable patch once more and it’s time to go on an adventure…
At the very bottom of the South American continent – where the land draws thin, and the fiords wind two hundred mile tendrils into the mountains – that’s where they found Patagonia. There is no other land further south on the planet besides Antarctica. Adventurous travellers have long since travelled here – to the end of the world – to tackle the infamous Torres del Paine trek. There are swooping condors, glaciers the size of European countries and the black monolith towers after which the park is named. The 77mile hike is a full loop of the TDP massif and has over 6,000m of elevation gain. It usually takes 8-10 days. This November, James and I are going to give it a crack – hoping to run it all in one push.
Both now in our thirties, the trip can’t be filed away as a Gap Year adventure nor as a mid life crisis. It is just a frivolous trip where two friends have cleaved out some time from seemingly hectic lives to have a long run together in the mountains. And when we look back on it one day – we’ll hope we can we say we were idiots.
“I call it my catharsis” he tells me.
Tito is gesturing to his stomach with clenched fists, describing the feeling that overcame him whilst running the trails of the 8th Natural Wonder of the World.
“It’s like PHHFFF!” he thrusts out his fingers “and there’s something firing out of me, connecting me to everything else. It’s happened only a few times before – when I’ve been alone, usually in the mountains, and it happened to me yesterday at Torres del Paine.”
Before Tito even began the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine, he made the odyssey of a journey to its extreme southerly start line. I had arrived the previous weekend for the Patagonian International Marathon road race, gawping as I ran along the shore of Lago Nordenskjöld at the otherworldly mountains across the lake.
Now however, I would be thrown inside them. This trail race would explore three southern valleys in the Torres del Paine massif. The 50km journey across glacier-gouged slopes, boulder-strewn gorges and sinuous single-track is known as the “W.” Trekkers come from all over the world to complete the infamous tour, usually taking three to four days. The race organisers allowed just 11hours.
The pace was hot and fast from the start-line. The runners around me soon silent with steady breathing, measured movements and private focus. We worked our way into the mountains up a steep escarpment. From here a trail cut aggressively across a wide scar of glacial moraine, long since ripped from the mountain, and covered in a softer tissue of grass and grazing horses.
We pattered uphill. The Chilean runners: Moises Jimenez and Enzo Ferrari just out in front; the Brazilian, Fernando Nazario on my hip and Bryan Toro from California shadowing behind. Momentarily the Ascencio valley flared wide and open, and then quickly pulled us in, roller coasting us down its river cut flanks of scree towards the water which seemed to rush uphill towards us like the impossible staircase of an Escher drawing.
A wooden bridge led into tight deciduous forest and a hopscotch of sidesteps and ducking. Polished trees marked the trail, where burdened backpackers had hauled themselves uphill. Overhead, the Paine towers would make occasional pallid appearances in the low grey light. But mainly concentration was on closer things: tree roots, flashes of blue cotton between branches and the pressing sound of close footfall behind.
Choosing to run
Choosing to run, rather than walk, means the stimulation from the outside world is turned down. The bass drum of avalanche, drowned by the sloshing of water bottles. The playing of wind over high crags, replaced by the scramble of footsteps and breathing. And yet it is not a lesser experience. Running 50km in the mountains requires control of your exertions, and focus on the needs of the absolute present. Your emotions turn inwards. It is, if you will, meditation. Its lessons are in patience, perseverance and of purpose. When you do look up, the grandeur of the landscape is not something to be marvelled at, but as Moises Jimenez said, who was leading the race, “something you are part of.”
Three hours in and my eyes were fixed to the ground, tiptoeing carefully across the dry stones of a river. On the other side, there were tracks, fresh and wet. The panicked runner in 2nd place must have spooked straight in, and waded out with leadened feet to begin the long climb into the Valle Francés. Two hours ago Enzo had been moving so swift and nimbly when he pulled away. Now he was being worn down by the mountains; tired from the chase; running lame and leaving telling stains on the dusty trail.
I turned steadily north into the second valley; the icy Cuernos del Paine shifting aspect each time I risked a look up. A long climb began and the American was right on my tail, chasing me wretchedly as I clambered over boulders and pedalled leg-sappingly through scree. Deep into the race, focus was now hard and whittled. Sweat ran into my eyes; the mountains momentarily washed away. Then back again. Hands pumping on my knees. Testing one another to the edge of exhaustion; grating ourselves against the mountains.
As we moved up into the snow line a hot rub was building in my eyes again, but it wasn’t sweat this time. I felt it building in my face, behind my eyes. Ready to burst…
Tears on the trail
Alexis, a Chilean journalist, came and trained with some of the runners in the build up to the race. The summit we set out for was much further than expected. As Alexis stumbled up through the snow and birch forest with the pitio birds whistling in the undergrowth, he began to cry. Big boys aren’t supposed to cry. Especially macho Chilean ones. But it’s surprising how the mountains break you down. As Moises Jimenez explained to me after the race: being out in wild and unexplored places is an emotional experience that can provoke tears. These are not tears of self pity or sadness however. They are an expression of a deep seated relationship with nature and with life. The emotion, he explained, is almost unbelievable. It’s directed at something and not someone. But the name for it is clearly Love.
At around the marathon distance mark, the UTTP makes its third and final climb, weaving up into the Grey Valley. If you study the course profile, you’ll know this last climb is demandingly runnable and if you stop to walk, you are going to get overtaken. The “W” however has been grinding your muscles with its steep technical trails for the last 40k and the rush of beauty and hardship you have been swilling around in has become a disorientating fog. Enzo was just ahead now, making one last frenzied dash and Bryan Toro had already leapfrogged past to reel him in.
At the first kicker in the terrain they both stopped to walk. Enzo was bleeding at the knee after a fall and Bryan didn’t seem to respond this time like he had before. I grimaced past, hoping to appear to be running strong. The landscape roared open again: Lake Grey below with discarded icebergs fading slowly, and then higher still – the first sight of Glacier Grey – a long lick of millennial ice, attached to the mountain swallowing throat of the Hielo Sur ice pack. I ran on in a craze of ambition and effort, punctuated by cramps in my feet and choked by lumps in my throat that I would wash clear with intermittent deep groans of pain and satisfaction.
The final turn around point was on an isolated rocky outcrop on the glacier’s edge. As you approached, there was a cool sucking of air that dragged you towards it: the ice pack creating its own wind, pulling the life out of the air and into its interminable crevasses. Standing over the great precipice, it was here that Tito would have his catharsis. “Oh God” he would say, as the feeling overtook him.
I crossed the finish near the shore of Lago Pehoé in 2nd place, after 5 hours and 46 minutes on the trail. Moises Jimenez had been waiting more than 20 minutes and embraced me tightly with the same inimitable passion he had flowed past me with, every time we crossed paths in the three valleys. Bryan and Enzo arrived safely shortly afterwards.
As the afternoon wore on, the news of a tragedy sifted slowly amongst the runners. A 24 year old runner, Jonatan Canto from Argentina, had died in the Valle Francés. It is suspected that he suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack.
Beneath the Cuernos del Paine towers, a minute of silence was held in respect. A boat then arrived across the still lake. The runners were ferried solemnly over Lago Pehoé in full sight of the mountains they had come down from. The majesty of landscape Jonatan died in would never make his death more consolable. In being part of it however – where you can cry and fall in love – at least we can be sure he had lived.
Results from the race, and details of the 25km race and the vertical kilometre event are available at ultratrailtorresdelpaine.com
(El artículo original esta publicado en LimitlessPursuits.com en inglés.)
“Yo le llamo catarsis” me dice.
Tito esta apuntando a su estómago, describiendo la sensación que lo inundó cuando estaba corriendo en los senderos de la octava maravilla del mundo.
“Es como POOOFF” abriendo sus dedos hacia afuera “y hay algo que se dispara dentro de mi cuerpo, conectándome a todo. Me ha pasado muy pocas veces antes – cuando he estado solo, normalmente en las montañas, y me pasó ayer en Torres del Paine.”
Incluso antes de que Tito empezara la Ultra Trail Torres del Paine, el se embarco en una odisea hasta la largada, en el extremo sur del mundo. Yo había llegado el fin de semana pasado para la carrera en ruta – Patagonian International Marathon – donde quedé embobado con las montañas al otro lado del lago.
Sin embargo ahora, sería lanzado dentro estas. La carrera de trail running exploraría tres valles en el macizo austral de Torres del Paine. El viaje de 50km a lo largo de pendientes talladas por glaciares, barrancos peñascosos y single-track sinuoso es conocido como la “W.” Mochileros vienen de todas partes del mundo para hacer este trekking famoso, normalmente cumpliéndolo en tres o cuanto días. La organización permitiría solamente 11 horas.
Desde el comienzo el ritmo fue rápido y agresivo. Los runners a mi alrededor de pronto en silencio, moviéndose al son de su respiración, de manera calculada y observando su foco interno. Nos adentramos a las montañas por una escarpa empinada. Desde ahí un sendero atraviesa el glaciar como una cicatriz que hace mucho tiempo fue rasgada de la montaña, y que ahora esta cubierto con un tejido mas suave de césped y caballos pastoreando.
Tamborileamos hacia arriba. Los chilenos: Moises Jimenez y Enzo Ferrari justo enfrente mio; el brasilero, Fernando Nazario al lado y Bryan Toro de California persiguiéndonos. Momentáneamente el Valle Asencio se mostró en todo su esplendor y rápidamente nos llevo adentro, tirándonos hacia abajo como un caro de una montaña rusa, mientras que el rio aparecía subir hacia nosotros como el dibujo de una escalera imposible de Escher.
Un puente de madera nos metió por un bosque caducifolio y por un sendero donde esquivé y evadí y me agaché como un juego de rayuela. Arboles de cortezas pulidas por excursionistas que se han sostenido de ellos, marcaron el senderito. Sobre nosotros, Las Torres aparecieron en algunas ocasiones pero generalmente mi concentración estaba en las cosas mas cercanas: raíces, flashes de algodón azul entre los árboles y el sonido de pasos acelerado detrás mío.
La elección de correr
La elección de correr, en lugar de caminar, significa que el estímulo del mundo exterior queda disminuido. El sonido de una avalancha, ahogado por el chapoteo de botellas de agua. El juego del viento sobre los altos riscos, remplazada por la lucha de los pasos y la respiración. Sin embargo, no es una experiencia menor. Correr 50 kilómetros en las montañas requiere del control de tus esfuerzos, centrándolas en las necesidades del presente absoluto. Las emociones vuelven a ti. Podría decirse que es una forma de meditación. Las lecciones están en la paciencia, perseverancia y el propósito. Cuando despegas la mirada de lo cercano y contemplas la naturaleza, no te sientes un “visitante,” como dijo Moisés Jiménez, quien lideró la carrera, pero “parte” de ella.
En la tercera hora mis ojos estaban fijos mirando al suelo, y yo cruzando en puntillas el roquerío seco del lecho de un río. Al otro lado habían huellas frescas y húmedas. El corredor apanicado en segundo lugar se debe haber asustado; cayó al agua, y salió vadeando con los pies pesados para comenzar el el largo asenso hacia Valle Francés. Hacía dos horas Enzo se movía tan rápida y ágilmente que dejaba al grupo atrás. Ahora, las montañas lo estaban desgastando, dejándolo cansado de la persecución, y dejando manchas reveladoras en el camino polvoriento.
Me dirigí cada vez mas al norte entrando al segundo valle; el hielo de los Cuernos del Paine cambiando de perspectiva cada vez que me arriesgaba a mirar hacia arriba. Comenzo un largo asenso y el Americano me seguía muy de cerca, persiguiéndome incesantemente mientras yo trepaba rocas y pedaleaba inútilmente a través del pedregal. Ahora, en el medio de la carrera, estaba inmerso en ella: el sudor me caía por los ojos; las montañas momentáneamente desaparecían, y luego volvían a verse. Empujando las rodillas hacia abajo con las manos, poniéndonos uno al otro a prueba hasta llegar al borde del agotamiento, desgastándonos en contra de la montaña.
A medida que avanzábamos hacia la linea de nieve, un picor caliente molestaba mis ojos otra vez, pero esta vez no era sudor. Lo sentía crecer detrás de mis ojos, listo para reventar.
Lagrimas en el trail
Alexis, un periodista chileno, vino y entrenó con algunos de los corredores antes de competir el fin de semana. La cima que queríamos llegar estaba más lejos de lo esperado. Mientras Alexis tropezaba entre la nieve en el bosque de abedules, adornado con el silbido del pajaro Pitio sonando de fondo, comenzó a llorar. Se supone que los tipos grande no lloran. Especialmente el macho chileno. Pero es sorprendente como las montañas te pueden emocionar. Como Moisés Jiménez me explicaba después de la carrera: estar en un lugar no explorado y salvaje es una experiencia emocional que puede provocar lagrimas. Estas no son lagrimas de tristeza o autocompasión. Son una expresión de una profunda relación con la naturaleza y la vida. La emoción, él explica, es casi increíble. Está dirigido a algo y no a alguien. El nombre para ésto es claramente Amor.
Cerca de la distancia de una maratón, la UTTP presenta su tercera y última subida que va hacia el Valle Grey. Si analizas el perfil de la carrera, te darás cuenta que esta última subida es corrible y, que si te detienes para caminar, vas a quedar atrás. Sin embargo, la W ha dejado tus músculos agotados en los últimos 40K, con sus senderos técnicos y empinados y su avalancha de belleza y dificultad por la que has atravesado se convierte en una neblina desorientadora. En este instante Enzo estaba adelantado, haciendo una última frenética corrida y Bryan Toro ya me había adelantado y iba tras Enzo.
En la primera subida empinada, ambos se detuvieron para caminar. Enzo tenía una rodilla sangrando luego de una caída y Bryan parecía no responder de la misma forma que lo había hecho antes. Pasé al lado de ellos, intentando simular que estaba corriendo con fuerza. El paisaje se abrió nuevamente: abajo, el lago Grey con sus icebergs consumiéndose lentamente, y luego, en las alturas, la primera vista del Glaciar Grey, un lengüetazo de hielo milenario, emergiendo desde la garganta de Los Campos de Hielo Sur. Corrí con una mezcla de ambición y esfuerzo, acompañado por calambres en mis pies y nudos en la garganta, que iba a limpiando con intermitentes y profundos gemidos de dolor y satisfacción.
El ultimo punto de retorno de la “W” estaba en un lugar aislado y peñascoso, cerca del borde del glaciar. Cuando te acercabas, sentías que el aire frío te succionaba hacia el: el hielo tan frío e inmenso creaba su propio viento y absorbía la vida desde el aire y hacia sus cavernas interminables. Parado encima de este precipicio, fue donde Tito tendría su catarsis. “O Dios” diría él, cuando la sensación lo sobresaltó.
Después de 5 horas y 46 minutos, crucé la meta al lado de la orilla del Lago Pehoé quedando en segundo lugar. Moises Jimenez me estuvo esperando más de 20 minutos y me abrazó fuerte, con la misma inimitable pasión con la que había seguido mi paso cada vez que cruzábamos caminos en los tres valles. Bryan y Enzo llegaban a salvo justo después de mí.
Mientras la tarde avanzaba, la noticia sobre una tragedia se filtraba despacio entre los corredores. Un corredor de 24 años, Jonatan Canto de Argentina, había muerto en el Valle Francés. Se sospechaba que sufrió un repentino ataque al corazón.
Bajo las torres de Cuernos del Paine, se guardó un minuto de silencio con respeto. Entonces, a través de las tranquilas aguas del lago, llegó un barco. Los corredores balsearon solemnemente sobre el Lago Pehoé con vista completa de las montañas de las que habían bajado. La majestuosidad del paisaje donde Jonatan murió nunca daría consuelo a su muerte. Aunque, haber sido parte de ello – donde puedes llorar y enamorarte – al menos podemos estar seguros que vivió.
If the Patagonian International Marathon was a movie, it would start like this:
An extreme long shot of our planet, far out in space.
“Seis, Cinco, Cuatro” a Spanish voice would say and we’d zoom in, the continent of South America flaring up, the Amazon leading our eye south, the Andes spiking, the Hielo Sur ice cap draining into the furthest reaches of the land mass before the earth breaks up altogether.
“Tres, Dos, Uno” and in we would go, deeper. Between the barren windswept Land of Fire and the condor brushed peaks, a single mountain range would then fill the screen. Shards of granite would threaten to impale us as we raced towards its snow dusted peaks, and down its glaciated flanks. At it’s foot there’s a small turquoise lake. Petrified trees float up through the water with hairy-green lichen clinging to the silvery branches. On the shore, a cast of 150 brightly coloured runners are poised behind a tight tape.
I was lucky enough to be one of the extras in what happened next.
The Patagonian International Marathon is now in its fourth year. It has been developed by the same Chilean organisation that in 2001 created the Patagonia Expedition Race; once described by National Geographic as “The Last Wild Race.” Their goal is to raise awareness of this remote region, providing runners with inspiring memories and photos that keep them connected and concerned with its pristine preservation for a lifetime.
The PIM – despite its extreme location – starts just 100m above sea level, and, allowing for the dizzying crags overhead – follows gravel roads that wouldn’t trouble a road runner. The event now offers a 10km race, a 21km half marathon (the most popular), a 42km full marathon and a 63km ultra distance event. International stars such as Ryan Sandes and Matt Flaherty have glittered the start lines in previous years – but this time, in the absence of a male lead – I decided to try and fill those running shoes myself.
30 Seconds of Fame
I was running in the 21km race – “saving myself” for the more challenging 50km Ultra Trail Torres del Paine the following week (read at Limitless Pursuits soon!) With the 10km race starting further up the road and sharing the same finish line, I estimated I could run 16km before I encountered anyone. The park guards had closed all roads to cars. If I could run then at the front, I would be alone for an hour at the end of the planet – running my closed gate tour of the Torres del Paine park – the 8th Natural Wonder of the World.
Or so the plan went….
A Year in one Day
To arrive here at 51degrees south you will most likely transfer from Santiago; Chile’s capital city. It’s a four hour flight and is the equivalent of travelling from London to Morocco, or New York to Mexico City – and then you’ve still only travelled half the length of this immense leviathan of a country that stakes its claim on this rugged terrain between the Andes and Pacific Ocean.
The PIM is held in “The Province of Last Hope,” in the deep south of Patagonia. This was the very last part of the planet to be colonised by migrating man as he travelled down the Americas after crossing the Bering Strait. Today there is still a definite frontier feeling to the climate and geography; one of unhewn roughness and unpredictability. The weather is known to present all the fluctuating conditions of an entire year, all in the same day. It’s the stomping ground for winds that push you flat, and the forging grounds for mountaineers who can still seek first ascents. The world’s largest network of fiords are found here, and glaciers march brazenly down to them at sea level, avalanching spectacularly into their frigid waters. And yet, despite this feeling that time is in a spin and there is too much to see – the very worst mistake you can make in Patagonia is to move too fast – as the locals say here, “Those who hurry in Patagonia, lose time.”
I’d set off too fast. That was painfully clear at the top of the first climb: the lactic acid working its way into my quadriceps like a caustic burn; my breath rasping out like a sawmill. The effort had buried me and I’d experienced nothing of that magic time I’d imagined alone at the front of the pack. Two runners came up behind me, clocked me for the imposter that I was, and quickly took control of the race… My private screening of the natural world’s 8th most coveted attraction, gatecrashed.
The PIM’s rolling course weaved on through hills of glacial moraine, past wind sculpted trees and turquoise lakes – the road just kissing their stoney shores as we passed. The last of the morning cloud was rising, and slowly I slipped out of the desperate rush in which I’d started the race. The air was warm now. The muscles in my face relaxed; the desperate concentration dissipating as I started to look beyond the gravel I’d been pounding.
The other runners had already moved out of sight, and I was alone again. Scuttling along the rugged road. A blip in the Patagonian wilderness, a flash in its unfathomable history. Breathing in. Breathing out. To my left, the Cuernos del Paine pushed 8,000’ out of lake Nordenskjöld – the great horns of rock jostling for geological prominence, rutting imperceptibly across ice ages. Their black granite tips, capsules of eroded time. The rock gouged in millenniums past, now lying sediment across ocean floors.
The last few kms to the finish line sent us powering down a hillside on a step gravel road. You don’t go to Patagonia to run a PB (the 21k is seven times as hilly as the entire London Marathon) but as I cashed in on the climbs and lengthened my stride downhill – I could see 2nd place ahead and tried my best to reel him in. I was passing lots of the 10km competitors. They were clearly exhausted by the mind bending scenery and had a sort of loping, head-twisted, affectation of running as they tried to juggle forward momentum with the sensory overload that Torres del Paine weighed them down with. I exchanged high fives and was greeted in a dizzying array of languages as I chased after my man in red.
Close to the finish line I passed alongside him. “Matt” he said “ I remember you from the start line!” And I was impressed. It had been only 85 minutes, but as we ran through the land that time forgot, it had felt far longer.
The finishing gantry perched atop a grassy flat buff of rock, overlooking a wide U-Shaped valley below. A pack of guanaco had wandered over earlier on. The music had been turned off so as not to startle them, and now they were nibbling peacefully nearby. I bounced unsteadily onto the uneven surface of the thin landing strip; my footsteps muted suddenly by the soft ground. Perhaps my ears had not yet popped from the descent, but I was very aware of how silent the photographers and spectators were: respectful perhaps of the experience we were coming down from, or in awe themselves at the Torres del Paine monoliths behind us, swirling yet steadfast in the mist.
I learnt a new Spanish phrase recently. “Buena vibra.”
But like all new knowledge, it is is very difficult to comprehend, if it is not understood in context. Last Saturday, at 11:08am, in the last few strides before the finish, it finally sunk in.
5 hours earlier, however, it was a different story altogether.
A Dark Night
I was running along a sea cliff by headlamp, the invisible waves pounding the rocks below. A cool mist clung to my beard, and the temperate climate and the soft folds of the landscape had me thinking of England, and feeling very far from home.
With only 8km run, now was not the time for such nostalgia however. I needed an empty mind, to gather in the kms before sunrise and foster positive energy for the later stages of the race. But it wasn’t happening. I bimbled along in 8th place, feeling sorry for myself and demotivated.
Slowly, the sun rolled across the Argentinean plains and, arriving at the Andes mountains, shot shards of light up its flanks, and into the Chilean sky. Other sensations returned too at daybreak. The smells of the earth mixed with the lavender that I was brushing through. The liquidy swill of the grouse’s call started up from the espino bushes, and the rolling country that I traveled through by night, slowly began to steepen.
I left the last bad vibes in the 20km aid station. Three other runners arrived simultaneously, and we set about the business of breakfast together. I laughed at the gentle jokes directed at the gringo’s expense, and then set off, intent to catch as many Latinos as possible.
A change of mood
Climbing mountains shouldn’t be an Englishman’s forte – not when racing Chileans whose training runs start from an altitude greater than Scafell Pike. But I had grown fond of the thinner air, and spent many long days in the mountains this winter. The climb brought a change in breathing and rhythm, and was a welcome break from the fast, flat pounding of the night. It calmed me down, and emptied my mind. The meat of the event – 15km in the mountains – had started.
The few times that I have had “the flow,” I don’t remember much afterwards. Only fleeting moments. There was Harold Ponce climbing out of La Quebrada wearing his laser stare of concentration. A man in a tin house watching television, who greeted me as I ran past. And then, higher up – floating summits, piercing through clouds, and a waterfall of thick most air, pouring silently over a rock face, far out across the white ocean.
I passed Luis Valle around KM32 and looked around to frame him against the backdrop, and check that I wasn’t imagining it all. There’d be only a few other people on this side of the Andes who’d witness this today, whilst everyone else was reading books and drinking coffee beneath grey clouds on their sedentary Saturday. I laughed at my good luck and my swings in mood, and pushed on.
At Km35 they told me I was in 3rd place. 2nd had a 25minute lead. It was all downhill now. Technical and absorbing, and I threw myself into it aggressively, keen to not be overtaken. I started to whoop and shout, grinding my teeth in pleasure at doing something so simple and hard for so many hours. I ran a few kms with other runners joining the course from their shorter distance race, infecting them with my battle cries as we paced one another noisily to the finish.
Just outside Puchuncavi, I descended a hillside to a paved road that I was certain would lead to the finish. The organiser, Crisitian Valencia, doesn’t do things by halves however: His route plunging us back into forgotten copses, through fallow fields and along a dry river bed. In truth, the last kms of the race captured the essence of his race: always searching for the perfect line, guiding his adventurers down paths less travelled by and away from their lives quotidian. After crossing the finish I gave him a wild hug. He looked a bit embarrassed to be embraced by such a sweaty and affectionate gringo. But I was positively shaking with the “buena vibra,” and I didn’t have any other words for it.