Friday, February 26, 2016

La Mision--160 kilometer adventure run, Patagonia, Argentina

At 11:00 A.M. on Saturday the 20th of February a sea of red-shirted, backpack carrying, helmet-wearing ultra runners started running en masse through the streets of Villa la Angostura. The red shirts were mandatory wear for everyone, at least for the start of the race; presumably for the sponsor, Salomon. The helmet OTOH seemed like  a strange requirement for an ultra-run but I did hear a report later of a runner who went head over heels on this first day, broke his helmet, and suffered injuries severe enough to send him to the hospital. The backpack is necessary to carry the gear needed for emergency survival and food.

I first heard about the La Mision Adventure Race in 2012 while running in the Coastal Challenge stage race in Costa Rica. Jim Breyfogle, on a South and Central American running tour at the time, just raved about this incredible ultra in Argentina. Did he finish? No, he had to drop out 65 kilometers into the 160 kilometer course (160 km = 100 miles) due to extremely harsh conditions, including snow in summer and high winds. He went back and completed the course the next year. Thus the seed was planted and my obsession to run this race began.

As if the race itself weren't hard enough, the mandatory gear list took some time to assemble. I would use the European 25-liter ORR pack I'd purchased for the Iceland Racing the Planet stage race in 2013, where we had to carry all our food and gear (except tent) for a week. Among the mandatory gear were tights, rain coat and pants, warm sweater/jacket, sleeping bag, bivy bag or tent, gloves, warm hat, and emergency medical gear, sometimes obscure and hard to find. At gear check they tagged some of the items to make sure you didn't exchange them for lighter less acceptable gear. Later during the race they actually did a gear check in Camp 1.

We plodded through the village at a rather pedestrian pace. No one was in any rush to break out. Once we left town and joined a single track trail the climbing began. The trails are more like "Costa Rica trails" or as I like to say, "more way than trail"-- Logs, often 3 or 4 feet in diameter lay haphazard across the trails; trails that sometimes climb absurdly steeply, or plunge down hair-raising chutes. The trail was soft volcanic ash, which is the base for the region. All these peaks we would be climbing bear the nomer "Cerro" meaning volcano. In 2011 one of them erupted and locals cleared a heavy blanket of ash with snow shovels.

Stuck behind a conga line of runners not going fast enough for my liking, I worked on getting around them until I broke free and had a clear path to move at my own pace, eventually reaching tree line and into the gravel-ashy cinder cone heights. The flora pattern is fir trees, then tall deciduous trees with broad canopies, followed by leafy trees with fern-like canopies, then smaller bushes sometimes with thorns. The trails are not well-maintained, and the thorny bushes extended into the trails, making a less than pleasant presence for those of us wearing shorts. In the course of the entire race I never saw anyone using these trails outside of the competitors or people associated with the race. All brought back memories of Costa Rica's Coastal Challenge stage race, that I've run four times.

Reaching the first high pass "Colorado" and looking back I could see the blue waters of Lago Manuel Huapi where we had started far below. The weather was perfect with some high clouds and just enough breeze to keep it cool enough. I was comfortable in shirt sleeves and shorts all day. A steep drop and then a climb up to the summit of Cerro Buol. The climb was steep, they don't go in much for switchbacks, much like European trails. Plunge-stepping in soft sand steeply down, down, down to treeline, where I stopped to empty my shoes, take off my socks too to get the sand out--this is necessary to prevent blisters from forming. I would get problems anyway later, but stayed on top of them for the most part with band aids and moleskin.

We now ran for long miles along a river through the woods. I found my rhythm and ran consistently, but still found my average pace to be just under 3 MPH. Pathetic. The slow pace the result of a combination of primitive trails, steep ascents, and a 20-pound backpack. I couldn't believe how long it was taking! 26.2 miles went by in 9 and a half hours. According to the race info we had 40 miles to Camp 1. This turned out to be incorrect, as I had 34 miles on my watch when I reached the camp. Thank Dog!

As the sun went down, a brilliant nearly full moon (it went full on night two) rose above a jagged ridgeline as the trail started climbing. And climbing.

I talked myself into thinking that we would find a pass below treeline and then drop into Villa Traful. No. We kept climbing, climbing, all the way to treeline and to the top of another 6,000' volcano. When I saw Lago Traful's waters shimmering in the moonlight far below I knew it would be far less than 40 miles. I wasn't doing very well and when I finally staggered into the gym where the camp was staged just after midnight, 13 hours into the race, I decided to try and take a nap. I couldn't eat very much because I felt nauseous. I laid my sleeping bag out in a corner of the gym, but only rested my eyes for half an hour before giving up due to the noise. I assembled my pack and set off again down the moonlit road for six kilometers, running, even though I felt terrible. You have to use the easy parts to make up time. After the road, a trail turned up into the mountains again. I decided to try and take another nap, but instead of breaking out my sleeping bag I put on my tights, down jacket, warm hat, and gloves and lay down with my pack as pillow. I sort of slept for an hour, but this arrangement was too cold for comfort. Little whispers of cold penetrated, keeping sleep at bay. Back on the trail around 5:30 AM, I climbed with headlamp until reaching treeline as the sun announced the beginning of day two.

A new day! Feeling rejuvenated from the sun I climbed to the junction high pass Verrunco for the second time--the early light painted the high country grass a brilliant green. The course stayed high and flat for a couple kilometers before dropping back down to the woods and more endless stream crossings, back and forth. Feeling ragged I pulled over for a quick 15 minute nap--just right for staving off the sleep monster. Then came the dreaded nausea, but only dry heaves. I stopped trying to eat. Then I started wheezing. Couldn't get air into my lungs. Asthma attack. I tried albuterol hits, but they didn't work. I stopped on the side of the trail waiting, trying to relax, calm down. Walk slowly. More albuterol. Relax. Stop again. Wait. Walk slowly. Breathe. More hits from the breather. Finally after a couple hours the wheezing stopped. I beat it!

The trail descended steadily through the woods, finally coming to the base of what appeared to be a dilapidated ski lift. Old rusted gondola pods, falling down buildings. Someone with the race directed me onto a steep downhill trail going down to a ravine crossing before climbing steeply back up to a more level trail. I thought I heard him tell another runner that there were only five kilometers to go to Camp 2. The battery having gone low on my GPS watch, I'd turned off the GPS tracking. Now I didn't know how many kilometers I'd covered. Five to go sounded good.

Another kilometer or so and I stumbled into a checkpoint. I must have looked pretty bad because one kind English speaker asked me when was the last time I'd eaten something. I told him I couldn't eat because of nausea and I'd last eaten about six hours ago. He asked me to stay for at least half an hour and see if I could eat. After that he would decide if I could continue or not. I said that I was going to finish the race. He agreed that I had plenty of time and that I was around 50th place out of 240 starters. They were cooking pieces of chorizo and meat on a grill over an open fire. I normally don't eat meat, but made an exception now, taking first a small piece of chorizo, then three small pieces of steak. They went down easily. Another runner gave me a package of cheese crackers to carry. The kind man agreed to let me go, but advised me to eat just a little bit every half an hour to get my stomach used to accepting food. He also ominously warned me that there were 15 kilometers remaining to Camp 2 and two and a half hours of climbing directly ahead. He further warned that it would take six hours to get to Camp 2. Yikes!

He was mostly correct. There were actually closer to three and a half hours of climbing, and I climbed strongly, passing six runners without getting passed once. It took only five hours though to reach Camp 2.

I climbed slowly, but steadily in the warm afternoon sun. I had no sunscreen, so every bit of shade was welcome. The trail ascended initially through the hated sticker bushes before entering a more expansive high canopy deciduous forest. I met a pair of spectators (?) One asked where I was from and when I said Colorado, he said he hadn't heard of it. Where in the states was it? I said in the middle, and it had "mucho montagnes" and "mucho skiing" but when I mentioned Aspen, Colorado the light went on and he recalled the state.

Meanwhile, the climbing continued, now breaking out above treeline I could see a long ridgeline of high peaks extending far to the right--little did I realize that I would be climbing every one of them! I could see two climbers ascending high above me nearly gaining the ridge, both of whom I would catch up to and pass eventually. It was about an hour and a half since I'd left the campfire and I foolishly thought I would be finishing the climbing well before the two and a half hours the kind man had forecast. I caught up to an Argentine man, "Gustavo" and he told me we would be climbing all these peaks. I thought he meant tomorrow or after descending to Camp 2. No. We would climb them all now! Two hours of ridge climbing over several false summits, minor and major peaks.

Gustavo stopped to clear his shoes of sand, and I passed another young lady who was the other climber I'd spotted high above. I extended a considerable lead over Gustavo as I reached the final summit, but looking back I saw him quickly scrambling, running the downs and fast hiking the ups. He caught up to me on the steep descent back down to treeline, where we both paused to empty the sand out of our shoes. He said blisters prevented him from finishing last year, so he was taking care of his feet this year. I showed him a blister on my heel and he winced. This blister would prove more and more painful in the next 24 hours. Indeed, I walked most of the steep downhill trail through the forest, while Gustavo ran ahead. Going down reminded me of Costa Rica trails--almost like falling off a cliff--you can see the lake far below--that is the level we'd reach--getting there is a bitch. Finally reached a dirt road, descending now less steeply, runnable, down, down, down to the main highway. A sign points left down the highway, stating 2.5 kilometers to Camp 2. Ugh. Seems like nothing, but I was not enthusiastic about running the highway.

Following the signs off the highway they pointed to the beach of the harbor. People in beach chairs, swimming in the water, boats on piers, a man points down the beach, I walk the beach. No sign of the camp. Keep walking, a small cantina/cafe. Climb the stairs. Behind the cafe the familiar signs of runners and backpacks.

It was now 7 PM. I felt confident enough in my stomach to order a pizza from the cafe. Asking the middle-aged lady for a vegetariano pizza was not easy. I had seen vegetarian pizzas for sale everywhere and seen them called vegetariano. She acted like she didn't know what I was talking about, so I said vegetarian. She still acted dumb. A young teenager working there pronounced it slightly differently and suddenly the woman said, si! She could make me a vegetarian pizza. What did I get? A cheese pizza, no vegetables. I ate about half of the personal pizza and it stayed down. I think that's a first for me at this stage of a 100.

I got out of there in under an hour, I wanted to get on the trail before dark and there were six kilometers of road to run further to the east. I ran the road, covering the 6K in about 45 minutes, turning onto the trail about 8:40 PM, just in time to don the headlamp. I remembered from the race briefing something about a 20 kilometer approach to the first Cerro Newberry.

The trail traversed back to the west, up and down through the forest with the full moon shining brightly through the canopy. About 10:30 PM sleep called most persistently. This time I broke out my sleeping bag, cleared a flat spot behind a log of branches and debris and laid it out under the moon and stars. I didn't even set an alarm, sleeping the sleep of the just for a full two and a half hours, waking about 1 AM fully refreshed.

Back on the trail, walking quickly through the forest trail with headlamp I saw many tents and bivy shelters along the way. I didn't see anyone who had laid their bag out in the open as I had. About 5:30 AM I stopped again for a fifteen minute nap, but just lay down without the bag, using my pack as pillow.

Finally as the dawn broke the trail climbed above treeline and I could see runners ascending high on the slopes towards a ridge. Would we be climbing all the peaks on the ridge? I knew we had two Cerro's to climb in this 50-kilometer stage, Newberry and Bayo. Actually it turned out that we didn't climb to the summit of either one, in Newberry's case we just climbed to the saddle and then steeply descended back down to treeline. I caught up to one of the runners I'd seen earlier climbing high above as he puzzled over locating the trail markings. I pointed out to him the markings as they continued staying just above the treeline, traversing for some distance, before eventually dropping into the forest. Now we were back running alongside a river. People come to this region from all over the world for the fishing. Didn't see any fishermen back here though--too remote I guess.

Meanwhile I kept thinking, when do we climb the Cerro's? I didn't know that we'd already climbed Newberry. When I left Camp 2 I had thought I could finish at 8 AM, which was a reasonable 12 hours. Sleeping for three hours stopped that possibility. I found a package of cheese crackers someone had flung to the side and adopted them to my eating routine. I also found a couple packets of nuts and raisins that I'd packed away and forgotten, so I had fuel for the rest of the journey. Little bits to eat every half an hour and S-Caps every hour.

Finally we came back to familiar ground near the dilapidated ski lift. I was surprised to see a woman going the opposite direction. Was she running the 80k or was she 24 hours behind me in the 160k? Came to a river crossing with a large log with wooden slats for balance. I stopped to fill my bladder with water and clear out my shoes. This was the base of Cerro Bayo, the final climb. After crossing the log bridge the course went up a road that switchbacked beneath a running chairlift with no passengers. I could see one guy about 200 meters ahead walking steadily up the road. Here we go, I thought. Back up to the top. After only about 1,000 feet of climbing I was surprised to see trail markings leading off the road and down--in the distance the lake and Villa la Angostura in clear sight. The end was really near!

My feet were killing me, though I had mostly patched up the blisters and hot spots. The steeper descents I walked painfully, fortunately this trail had some well graded switchbacks and I was able to run some. Finally back down to a dirt road, down, down, down to the highway. I caught up to the guy who I'd seen ascending earlier (the same guy I'd caught up to descending Cerro Newberry) and passed him running. Now on the highway going towards town and the finish line I kept running. All the way to the finish line on the other side of town, cars honking their encouragement, heads turning as I breezed through town, they had no clue what I'd gone through to get here now. I crossed the finish line overcome with emotion. The feeling of accomplishment was just about the highest I've ever felt. I recognized Maria and Ines, two ladies who had helped me during checkin, and Maria I'd seen at Camp 1. How great it is! Ines kept asking me if I wanted a beer. Finally I accepted one and drank it down.

3 comments:

Carol Benight said...

Sounds so amazing! Thanks for taking the time to post! Was a fun escape for me as I sit here for 80 hours a week doing taxes, dreaming about being out on the trails again, thank you :)

Unknown said...

Congratulations,Steve, what an accomplishment. Thanks for sharing with us at home.

Jim Strub said...

Steve:
Which is more amazing -- you or the scenery?
You.
Muchos felicitaciones!