Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cruce de Los Andes

“Tomorrow is going to be as hard as today was,” the Race Director said to open the 11pm race briefing. Groans sound the same in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and the 500+ teams surrounding us-some of whom are just eating dinner at 11pm-have no idea what the next day will hold. “Make sure you take enough meat with you,” Sebastian Tagle continues. My husband and I exchange a look in the generator-powered flood lights. “Did he just say take meat with us,” my husband asks as he’s having a hard time with the Argentine accent. Yep. Only in Argentina do the race directors suggest we take leftover freshly grilled steak, sausage, or chicken in our waistpacks. We, along with over 500 other teams, have just finished Day 2 of the 3 day stage race. Hosted by the Buenos Aires-based Club de Corredores, the 10th Annual Cruce de Los Andes runs from Argentina into Chile, and changes routes every year. This year promised to be the toughest year yet, and was just what my husband and I were looking for.

After two flights, lots of taxis, and a 5-hour charter bus ride, we arrived to San Martin de Los Andes, a picturesque town in the heart of the Argentinean Lakes District. Check-in entails turning in ergonometric results, receiving a wrist band with a scanable code, collection of emergency radios, and customs and immigration forms. I never thought forgetting a passport would be a reason for not finishing a race, and as in this one, on Day 3, you cross into Chile on foot, made sure they were zip-locked and packed first. Large containers are given to each team to include tents, sleeping bags, and whatever one considers necessary for a three day stage race in the Patagonian summer. Zip-tying it shut, we enjoy a few last ‘cerveza artesenales’-microbrews made from the local spring water- and catch what will be the last good night’s sleep for a few days.

Thursday afternoon, nearly 1100 racers and hundreds of support staff take off for the first campsite. Rolling along the dirt roads that connect the small towns in the Lakes District, our driver shifts the car up a small hill and a sickening sound emerges as we screech to a halt. All twelve of us get out and push the car off to the side, and are lucky to get a standing stop on another bus for another hour and a half to the race start, all the while hoping this is the worst thing that happens. The first leg starts in a remote region outside of Lanin National Park. Home to the Mapuche community, the race organizers hired the community to help with food preparation and renting out their cattle to help deliver containers to campers. A lonely goat uses the containers as a stepladder to stretch to an out-of-reach branch, as we wait in line for supper. Every day and evening, the race provides copious amounts of pasta, steak, chicken, sausage, fruit, and refreshments.

A slight change in plans has everybody walking the first 3km to the official race
start the next morning. National park officials guard the access to the forest, as they don’t want 1100 people using the Araucana trees as toilets. Our first start is delayed by about half and hour as we wait for the port o potties to be delivered from the campsite to the race start. Music is blaring, sun is shining, and a nervous excitement is abound. We eventually take off and it takes several miles for the group to slightly spread out. Water bottles are coated in thin layers of dust as so many runners on the dirt roads kicks us a lot of dust. Everybody avoids the first water crossings, not knowing that we will later lose track of how many stream crossings we trudge through.

Day 1 was the “easy” day, rolling dirt roads through a spectacular valley for about 12km. Once the 350 meter climb began, though, teams began to spread out. The climb felt easier than we thought-especially when a race official told us “20 more minutes of climbing and then two fields before the downhill.” When we arrived there in 10, we were both elated at our progress. Matt’s weak ankle and my persnickety knee kept us pretty conservative on the downhill, but for two Colorado transplants living in Peru, any chance we can get on singletrack is pretty darn good. You can see the finish line several kilometers away, as we emerge from the forest along Lake Norquihue. Crossing the finish line in an easy 3:20, we headed right to dip our legs in the mountain-fed lake waters to try to keep our legs as fresh as possible for the big climbing days ahead. A huge screen blasts music and video from Live Aid-a fundraising concert from the 1980s, giving the post-race scene a surreal feel. Surrounded by Patagonian flora and fauna, our Argentine and Brazilian co-racers relaxed by playing some serious air guitar.

Day two has us leave in groups of 100 runners as the serious climbing this day-nearly 3000 feet in about four miles-is expected to slow even the front runners down. After a too-short warm up, the hiking sticks are whipped out of packs, those without grab tree branches to take some of the pressure off quads and knees. The flora changes as we inch our way uphill for several hours, eventually breaking out of treeline to 360 views of snowcapped volcanoes in every direction. This kind of climbing plays mind games on distance calculations; after three hours of ‘running’ and power hiking, a race staff member says “way to go-you’re halfway there!” I hate when people say “almost there” at the end of the race, so this took a little wind out of my sails. But we were getting low on water-having each carried two 16-ounce water bottles and 1.5 liters in camelbacks, so we trudged on to the upcoming water point. Patagonia is one of the few places on earth where you can still drink out of streams without worrying what might be in there, so when we finally reached the spring, we took some time to fill up. The downhill transitioned from thick, cushiony scree, to slippery roots as we re-entered treeline. Roots gave way to a buttery, gentle downhill and we cruised the last 10km into Lake Moquehue. Lots of egos were shattered this day as teams rolled in after five, six, nine, twelve hours.

We left for day three with no meat in our packs, but happy that we had moved into the top 100 teams. An alternative course had been set up for racers who were beat from the second day, allowing them to still explore the area, but not on a ‘meat-needed’ trail. Another change in plans had us all leaving together again, as the National Park didn’t want people on the early section of the trail for too long as it disturbed the local fauna. We were able to run on trails that are not normally open to the public, and as the day before, began climbing pretty soon. Not nearly as sustained as the second day, there were several sections that required scrambling and even a roped descent. Day three was classic ridge running and absolutely stunning. Once we crested the high point, we cruised along gentle climbs and descents for the majority of the run, before descending steeply through a dense forest. Coming out of the forest, the “Welcome to Chile” sign meant we only had three kilometers to go. A fast downhill road in the hot late morning sun brought us past the immigration check point (I still don’t know how the race organizers got the authorities to let us come into Chile first, then go through the formalities) and cruising into the finish line. Viva Chile-we were done!

More information on the Cruce de Los Andes can be found at

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