Well Done Mauri!
A small intimate group is a nice way to spend a couple days high in the Andes. I’ll take it over a big group of very familiar faces anytime. The last couple of days have been well spent, getting to know athletes from around the world with different cultures (awkward at times) and languages (also awkward). Needless to say there were definitely a few awkward moments, and there inevitalbly always is, when you spend time out of your comfort zone. You know you’re out of any kind of comfort zone, when the time spent running feels like the only comfortable thing you’ve done over the last couple of days.
For someone that isn’t used to my bubble being invaded, having to touch cheeks with strangers in another country as the standard form of greeting certainly isn’t something you get used to in just a week. Hence the waiting faces of puckered lips hovering over me as I’m introduced to new people. Awkward! I do love the “man” shake that has replaced the standard “hand” shake though.
So, with no other Americans (that I knew) heading for Chile to El Cruce de los Andes, I knew it would be a good chance to get to know some other athletes from around the world like Iker Karrera, Francois D’haene, Anna Frost, Emma Roca, Gustavo Reyes, and Oihana Kortazar. These were the selected few that I would get to hang out with, travel with, try to use hand gestures to converse with and eat copious amounts of meat with over five days in Chile and Argentina.
You would think that I would be a little better at preparing for travel to another country by now but I think I’m actually regressing. Yes, as an “elite” I do have quite a few things taken care of for me on a trip like this. When the organization invites you and takes care of everything you tend to get really lax and start forgetting that you still need to think for yourself sometimes. As I’m landing in Temuco, Chile I’m just hoping and praying that there’s one of those guys with a sign that has my name on it.
Phew! There was. Ok, so far so good, I can at least get to Pucon, it can’t be that big and he knows where I’m going right. Errrr, “what hotel?” he asks. Oh crap, I think I remember something about Gran and I’m going to Pucon, so I say “Gran Pucon?” and he nods and says “ok, Gran Hotel Pucon.” Ahh, another disaster averted. I have got to start printing out this info before I leave. You don’t realize how much you rely on that stupid phone for this kind of stuff until you can’t use it.
Arriving at the hotel I knew this was going to be a good week. A sun drenched beach out the hotel back door, an aerobics session with dancers on the back patio, and banners for El Cruce clued me in that this wasn’t some rinky dink organization sending us out into the mountains and jungles to die. Mauricio Pagliacci would be our organizer, interpreter, and right hand man for the few days we were here and he was indispensible. As we said our good byes, I told him we couldn’t have done it without him and it was with 100% conviction that I told him that.
I eased into day one (day before the race start) with a 1hr jog with the other runners, a little time spent on the beach, then a day lounging with not much to do but relax before the race. Not bad. There was a little lost in translation and a mild kerfluffle as us athletes that were gunning for the win and trying not to get disqualified tried to sort out the required gear list. There were no less than four different lists floating around and no one could actually tell us the official list. So we floundered with that for a while, had Mauri stressed out trying to figure it out, and 6 athletes worried about being disqualified at the end of stage one. As it turned out, with over 2000 athletes running the last thing on the organizers minds was what gear we were actually carrying and they never did check what we had.
I honestly did not know what do expect of the course, the competitors or the organization of everything so the first day I just stood back and let others take the lead. Transfer to the start line was right on time, so far so good. All the invited runners lined up on the start line for some photos (see Facebook) then with some confusion (and me following) we took off in groups up over a ramp and down over the chip mats and we were off.
Gustavo and others leading, Francois, Iker, and I following close behind. We ran a rolling rocky and sandy trail that took us around the Villarica Volcano on trails very similar to some of my summer running routes up in the Cascades. In fact, much of what we ran over the course of 3 days, aside from different plants, looked and felt very much like what I would run on a summer weekend up in the mountains around Bend. It felt like home with towering volcanoes with cinders underfoot, sandy flats, and forested trails as we came down to treeline.
After a while on the trail I was feeling pretty confident that eventually I would be able to take the lead and not get lost. Course markings were great with flags every 100-200m. At just before 12km to go on a flat section of cinder wash I pushed past the group of five and before Francois realized it, I had broken away. He was in hot pursuit, but now that I had a break and it was a flat section of an 18 mile run, well, he didn’t really have a chance at that point. The rest of the course raced across the plateau of the volcano with crunching cinders underfoot before dropping 2000ft or so through deep jungle to the finish line. Much of the course seemed freshly cut through the forest and wound up, down, and around massive trees and rock outcroppings. We hit a quickly descending 4km double track to the finish and stage 1 was complete. 3 minutes on Francois, 4 on Gustavo, and 5 on Iker. With a good lead going into Stage 2 I could relax and make sure that all I really had to do was stay with them and not let them get away on the longer stage.
Part of the difficulty with El Cruce is the transfers. Imagine trying to coordinate getting 1000 racers from the finish line, to camp, then back to the start line in the morning. It’s a lot of work when access into the mountains is by small winding dirt roads and travel is slow. All week, Anna Frost and I would compare this race to Transrockies since that’s what we knew of stage racing and we’d both been there and enjoyed racing in the stage-racing format. We realized that these are two very different but similar events and that comparing them to each other isn’t really fair or relevant but none-the-less, we still did, and what I found was that we couldn’t conclude that one was any better than the other. Transfers here were a pain and the run-in/run-out format that Transrockies has is definitely preferred. El Cruce though changes courses each year, which is pretty cool that if I went back next year I would experience a completely different part of Chile/Argentina. This doesn’t really lend itself to always having the luxury of run-in/run-out at each camp. The camps are where you can make it work.
The people at both are incredible even if knowing a bit more Spanish would make El Cruce easier to figure out. What I’ve found is that whether you’re in France, Chile, or the good old USA, a trail runner is a trail runner and probably a pretty good person. Something about the suffering that everyone goes through during the day breaks down a few barriers and brings everyone a little closer in the evening. Even with a significant language barrier (I have got to learn Spanish) I had great conversations with folks from Brazil, Argentina, Columbia, Spain, etc. The same interesting and amazing stories of overcoming I hear from people at Transrockies every summer too. El Cruce camps were isolated in the wilderness which was definitely pretty cool to be completely surrounded by mountains, Transrockies has a good mix of both wilderness and city parks. Organization and trail marking, both of utmost importance is great in both events which makes both of them also bucket list events if you’re a trail runner. The only thing I wished for at El Cruce were the lounge chairs we kick back in every afternoon at Transrockies, man those are nice.
Day 2 started with a bit of confusion. With the logistics of getting everyone to the start line being what it is, at El Cruce it’s not so much a race (except when you’re and invited athlete and racer) as it is a journey, therefore, you can start whenever you want. Yup, when ever you want. With chip timing that makes it easy. If you’re trying to race, not so much. I’m off in the bushes taking care of business when Iker and most of the field take off from the start line. When I pop out Francois is there waiting for me telling me we have to get going, that everyone already started. Ok, no big deal since if we catch up to them then we’ve already got a little lead anyway, but dang, I’m not ready and so I spend two miles warming up and trying to take off a jacket and base layer and tie my shoes while not falling too far behind. I’ve got my pack in one hand while trying to take off my race jersey and my base layer with the other. Eventually I made it up to the front pack of 3 and I joined them to make it four. We ran through old growth forest with crazy trees, plants, and bamboo groves. Over streams and through alpine meadows just like at home.
We popped out of the trees and into the volcanic wasteland after climbing about 2000ft with still another 3000ft to go for the day. We continued to climb up cinder slopes and across lava fields with clouds shrouding the Quetrupillan volcano. Now down to Francois, Iker and me we traveled together up to the top pass. From there it became flatter and gradually I began pulling away again. Now down, down down we went. Back through swamps, forest, across mountain streams with waterfalls, Francois chasing me and never seeing another person except for the few race volunteers out on the course. Another 3 minutes on Francois today. With 5000ft of decent I was spent. Quads shaken, hammies tight, feet soggy, muddy and sore I had a comfortable 6 minute lead going into the last stage of 18 miles.
Camp 2 was set between two towering ridgelines with rock spires reminiscent of the Ande’s to the south. Even after 25 grueling miles I was still looking for a way across the river and up to the peak. While I could very well have started up I realized that the down would be the hard part and I resigned myself to staring up at them and taking photos. Had it been the last day, I seriously probably would have tried climbing them.
This being Chile with an Argentinian crew, we of course had a Barasa (huge BBQ) each day and ate copious amounts of meat for both lunch and dinner. They would cook meat continuously throughout the day for the stream of people finishing. With a huge open fire pit going strong, the guys would rack meat between two grates and stand the racks up right next to the fire to let them cook. Interesting way of doing a large amount of meat. Take note.
Here we are, the final day. An 18 mile stage with a gradual 2500ft climb up, gradual descent, across the Argentinian border to the finish. What could go wrong? Well, Iker was about 1 min behind Gustavo at this point so these two would duke it out for third place today. Right out of the gate they began their fight to the finish. It was a road and I couldn’t keep up. After a couple miles of warming up I eventually caught back up right before the pitch turned steep and we gradually lost Gustavo to the climb. Up through the forest we climbed to tree line again. Today we got our first taste of some mountain weather as temperatures dropped and the wind howled over the barren lava fields at the top of the pass. We couldn’t see the Lanin Volcano looming to the right just over the
Argentine border but we knew it was there. Mountain peaks were shrouded in clouds but off through the distance we had great views of the valleys below. With a nice cushion I could cruise, take some photos, and trip over some rocks. The last few miles became a road race and I gradually pulled away and ran it in to the finish.
Just over the Argentinian border we finished with the huge El Cruce Columbia banner overhead and the largest support/media crowd we had seen for days.
This was quite an amazing trip and one I will not forget. A South American race has been on my list for quite some time and this will not be the last. I was glad to have the support of the great race organization to help with logistics as my very limited Spanish would not have been adequate to get all the information I needed in order to have a stress-free trip. Mauri was awesome to have around and the phrase of the week became “Well done, Mauri!” Yes, it’s an inside joke but now anytime anything goes smoothly a fist goes up and “WELL DONE, MAURI!” is sung aloud.
My thanks goes out to Mauri, the race organizers that brought us together for a more than just a race against competitors as we’re now all great friends, and of course my wife that let me out of the country with a two month old at home.
On the bus ride back through the Argentine country side toward Chile as the sun set over the mountains, the river flowed down the valley, and silence in the rattle trap bus left me alone to think I was filled with a great peace and feeling of gratitude that I was there and am fortunate enough to be able to experience the places around the world in a way that connects me to them like only running through and over them can do.
I have to hand it to sponsors like Mountain Hardwear, Montrail, Swiftwick, and others that help make these experiences possible for me. Yeah, it’s a lot of hard work to get here but it wouldn’t be possible without some help. Gear that works makes it easy to focus on the race and experience without having to worry about what’s working and what’s not. The MHW Fluid Race Pack, Montrail shoes (of which I cannot speak), Swiftwick socks, MHW shorts, and Rudy eyewear are exceptional pieces that make it a bit easier to work on pushing harder.
MHW Fluid Race Pack
MHW Ultrarefuel Short
Rudy Project Rydon II glasses
Montrail “secret” shoes
Swiftwick Aspire socks
MHW Ghost Whisperer jacket
MHW Butterman ½ Zip
MHW Butter Beanie
Hammer Nutrition Huckleberry Gel
Hammer Nutrition Bars
Reco-Fit Compression Leg Sleeves