Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Good Day Down Under: RTETR #6

Matt and I had been looking forward to the mountain marathon in Chile for weeks. Having been sidelined at both RTETR 4 and 5 with a case of the runs, Matt was itching to race again. I had a pretty crazy August-in the field conducting toilet market surveys, up to Guatemala for a week for a meeting, and even in Lima for a few days. The long training run we did in Lima was a pleasant surprise-I cruised at sub-8 pace for almost 18 miles, a vast improvement in what I was doing before we moved to Arequipa earlier this year.

We took advantage of a new, somewhat more direct flight from Arequipa to Santiago. It is the only international flight out of Arequipa and when the representative from Sky Chile told us to be there three hours early, I rolled my eyes as I am always one to get to the airport at the last minute. But we needed every minute of those three hours! A make shift customs area was set up, so after waiting in line for the only Sky Airlines attendent to check us in, we waited in another line, where we had all of our bags open and the contents inspected by customs authorities. My inspector even took the time to smell one of my sweaters and open up a box of tampons. After that we made our way past the equally makeshift migration area, where for the first time in two years, I had to fill out a form saying I didn't earn any Peruvian income with my business visa. Again, not a lot of international flight action out of Arequipa. We were shortly on our way, hitting the potholes in the runway as hard as usual on takeoff.

We rented a car in Santiago, as the race was about 1.5 hours south of town. The race meeting was held at one of our favorite places in Santiago, MallSport, which is literally a mall, full of only outdoor activity shops and activities themselves (rock wall, artificial wave, etc). It's always exciting to be around running communities down here. Perhaps because they are so few and far between, espeically in Arequipa, but fun, nonetheless. The photos from earlier that week showed knee deep snow on parts of the course and at least three river crossings.
Although Santiago is pretty close to sea level, the race would climb nearly 6,000 feet in about six miles. What goes up, must come down, and we would have to descend those same 6,000 feet in the same six miles on the way back. The race didn't start until 8:30 am, sort of a late start for a long race. But as we were driving down the race start and the only light around was the moon-at 7 am!-I understood the later race start.

The start and finish were a camping area around Laguna Aculeo, a small lake on the outskirts of Santiago. We arrived early, as Matt likes to do on race days, and pulled on the race-issued, bright orange shirts. One of the rather strange rules at this race was that not only did you have to wear the race shirts-which had abnormally large and loose sleeves-but at all times, you had to have the race shirt on top of whatever layer you were wearing.
Just over seventy of us marathoners toed the start line. There was another race-a 15km-also taking place, so probably about a hundred runners in total. Gun shot off-right on time, and we were off. The first 5km followed a paved road around the lake, and I was really taking it easy. There was a group of four women in front of me, whom I passed as we turned onto the dirt road into the park. The next 5km gradually climbed uphill, but all runable, expect for climbing over a cattle gate. I loved this part of the trail; shaded, slightly uphill, and in the forest. I passed another woman and caught up to the woman who I had pegged at the race start as the gal who would win. I was really surprised to find myself at the front of the chick pack as Chile and Argentina have a pretty robust mountain running scene.
Right after the 10km aid station, that 6,000 foot climb starts. And it is steep. Some of the "trail" was so rutted out, you were really hiking in a foot-wide run-off channel with shoulder-high dirt on both sides. It flattened out just a bit and felt good to run again. Right before the next steep uphill, I heard a grunt behind me, and turned around to see an older woman, complete with a small tree as a hiking staff, cruise past me. The trail got steeper and looser as the views became more breathtaking. As far as the eye could see north and south stretched the snow-capped Andes-remember, we're in the dead of winter down here.
A short downhill section led to the 15km aid station, literally staffed by a few cowboys and their horses. I had been really good about eating and drinking and re-filled my water bottle, took a few salt tablets and kept going uphill. I eventually caught up to the two women in front of me, and burned too much energy passing them again. They passed me again during what felt like a never-ending climb, again, a little flat spot emerged. With the snow. The terrain turned more into what I am used to on the last pushes to summits of 14,000 feet mountains in Colorado-scrambling over boulders, crossing freezing streams, and eventually, post-holing in knee-deep snow.

The race directors had said that when you saw a Chilean flag, that was the top, and what a sweet feeling it was to see that flag. However, when I got up there, I forgot that they had told us the night before that it was a full summit. To make the full 42km, we would have to trudge across knee and thigh deep snow (for those of us shorties) and top out on another summit. By now I was freezing, and had to stop, take my icky orange shirt off, put my rain jacket on underneath that shirt, and put the shirt back on. It really wasn't a far trek-probably not even a mile, but it felt long and cold.

Now the long, steep downhill began. Having recently recovered from a badly sprained ankle at the last RTETR, I was a much more cautious downhiller than I normally am. And, I had to participate in the First (ever) Sanitation Marathon the next week in Bolivia, so I was more careful than I would have liked. One gal and a couple of guys passed me on the steep, loose 10km, where we dropped the 6,000 feet that we had climbed earlier.

Hitting that (now slightly downhill) section between the 27 and 37km aid stations was some of the most fun running I've done in months. Beautiful terrain, fast-moving, and not that steep, loose stuff! The final 5km were on the road back to the camping area, and I still covered that around 9 minute pace, which for me, was pretty good. On the home stretch, a woman struggled past me and slowed down right in front of me. If I'm one thing, it's stubborn, so I looked for some residual speed-thanks to all those Yasso's at altitude-and made sure I crossed the finish line in front of her. Good enough for 5th overall, an age group win (complete with trophy and men's medium jacket that looks pretty good on Matt), and a healthy ankle for the next weekend's toilet race in Cochabamba.

Shameless plug for the race organization: Patagonia Eventos put on one of the best races I've done in years-they run a circuit of races in South America and Europe, so if you are looking to travel to your next mountain marathon, check them out:

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