Let me paint a picture for you, it’s not much of a picture because it’s pitch dark outside but we’re headed down a steep dirt road in a stark landscape that could just as easily be Mars as it could a mountain peak high up in the Andes of Central Chile. I can see nothing other than what is lit by our headlights to the front and dimly to the sides. With no moon there is nothing further out in front and nothing to the sides but I know from traveling this road during the day before that at times there is a drop off on one side and the mountain side that we’re on is spider webbed with roads with no discernable difference and no markings. If you didn’t know exactly where you were going by knowing the mountain better than your own mother, you (I) would be lost in a maze of familiar rust colored roads and barren mountains. And that’s where Sebastian comes in.
Arriving in Santiago, Chile I’d only met Sebastian a couple of times in passing in the US while we both attended Mtn Hardwear sales meetings but I immediately recognized him at the airport. He would be my host and graciously offered to be my transportation for a new race called Dasafio Cumbres (Summit Challenge) happening high in the Central Andes in a few short days. The race was sponsored by Mountain Hardwear and I was asked a few months prior to come to the race as part of the Mountain Hardwear athlete team. I love South America and thought this would be a perfect opportunity to see more of Chile and spend a few days in the high mountains. I’d never been to this part of Chile and while the race was definitely a bit out of my league in terms of altitude and elevation gain this is exactly the type of race that I probably most enjoy doing and always ends up being a great challenge precisely because it doesn’t suit my strengths.
Throughout the first two days Sebastian spent way more time with me than he probably had time for since I found out he was also the co-race director and I know that the week leading up to a race you barely have time for your own family let alone some foreign athlete that doesn’t have any friends in town to hang out with. We visited the two Santiago Mtn Hardwear stores, one in a mall that definitely could have been in the US, but the other was in MallSport, a mall yes, but a sports oriented mall will all sports shops, a central atrium with a climbing wall, kids cycling track, suspended ropes course and a wave pool and skate park outdoors. It was awesome. I think I could hang out there all the time.
But even with the awesomeness of the MallSport I couldn’t wait to get up to the mountains, after all it was still the city. Then, disaster struck at 5:21am Friday morning. I woke up with that feeling in the pit of your stomach that something just isn’t right and it’s a feeling that you never forget no matter how infrequent it happens. FOOD POISONING! No, not now! But it’s just a matter of time before it becomes oh so real and you’re visiting the bathroom on a regular schedule you could set your watch by. This is where I refrain from going into detail and ya’ll thank me for it. In a few short hours I would be checking out of the hotel and headed up to the mountains. By that time I had certainly gotten everything out of my system and was feeling a bit better. I knew, or at least I was hoping, from past experience this would be a 24hr thing and I would feel better by the 10am race start the next day but mostly I was worried about being so dehydrated at high altitude that I would pass out on a high barren mountain slope and lay dying while other racers charged past me. (ok, that might be a bit dramatic) I knew I would be dehydrated and not at my best anyway. Through lunch with Sebastians wife and 18mo old daughter that actually looks very much like my Hazel, I’m calling her Hazel’s Chilean twin, I had some broth and ginger ale to get some fluids back in.
Turns out though that my rehydrating was a little premature. From Santiago to the race start is an elevation change of about 7000ft over about 80min of driving. Translated, that means a lot of elevation change over a short distance. How do you build a road up a steep mountain? With lots and lots of hairpin turns, 60 of them to be exact. That does not include any corners less than 90 deg mind you. Oh God, you can’t be serious. Of all the days to have stomach distress. We reached Valle Navados, the ski resort at the top, I jumped, no I hobbled out of the truck and into the bathroom and again “dehydrated” myself. On the plus side I felt much better after that. We drove on the rest of the way up to the top of the ski resort where the race start base camp was located.
The Central Andes are a stark and barren place with only small patches of green moss like ground cover. It’s very surreal and like I would imagine a mountainous region of Mars might look like. Base Camp could have passed for a space station with several Mountain Hardwear Domes set up as race HQ and a few satellite tents pitched around in a little valley at the very top of the ski resort at about 11,000ft. It was kind of weird to go from a 5-star hotel on the treed streets of Santiago to camping on top of a mountain.
The race would start from here and only go up from there, up to 16,000ft (5,000m). An elevation I’d never been to before, let alone raced at. I was getting winded walking up the small hill back to the truck to retrieve my bags. I wasn’t sure how I was going to actually race up four peaks and 16,000ft. And I felt miserable. It was cold, I huddled into a sleeping bag, propped myself on a bean bag inside one of the domes and slept a while until the sun was going down. I really didn’t want to just waste this whole experience sitting inside a tent so I crawled out of the dome to an amazing sunset and the last bit of alpenglow on the high peaks rising over camp. It was like all the photos you’ve ever seen of the Andes. It soon turned dark, I nibbled a bit of pasta and went to bed, hopeful that the morning would bring an end to the knots in my guts.
I did manage to sleep well and with a 10am start time slept in until 8. The day dawned with blue skies and low wind. It was warming up fast and felt good, I felt good. Knowing I was still dehydrated I tried to drink as much as was reasonable and prepare my gear for the day ahead. Knowing I’d be walking most or all of the uphill I had my Black Diamond Ultradistance Poles.
I carried 1.5L of water in my Mtn Hardwear Race Vest, some Gus, and a light jacket. I picked the Rogue Racer for a still lightweight midsole but little more durable upper. The race route would leave base camp and we would get a punch on our “passport” at each of 6 checkpoints. Each was set up so you could see the next flag from the one you were at. The course started off with one of the steepest climbs up to La Parva Falsa at about 12,000ft, the first of four peaks we would tag, then on to La Parva at 13,000ft, El Pintor at 14,000ft, and finally the longest and furthest Lionera at 16,000ft, the highest point I have ever been to on Earth. The accent, while physically debilitating from the lack of O2, was really quite easy. There were a few small technical pitches but for the most part it was an easily followed trail. Pretty quickly off the first peak a group of five broke away from the pack and would race all the way to El Pintor together. On the climb up Lionera a Spaniard would take a good lead and two other guys would get a decent gap on me. It wasn’t until right at the top of Lionera where I would miraculously reel back in 2nd and 3rd.
The decent was another matter, it was not easy. Off Lionera we began a cross country route about 3k long over some not very nice terrain. It felt good to be going downhill but it was rough going. Some really bad scree that is just that perfectly wrong size of rock that slides but then nails you right in the ankle as it slides past, some ice that had me flat on my back at one point, and some rough little technical up and downs that unless walked would have you flat on your face. By this time, the Spaniard was gone. I couldn’t seem him. How do those Catalonians move through the mountains so fast? But I had a good lead on the chasers. Just had to hang on now.
It was a smooth run into the finish…except for those three small bumps. Still at 12,000ft these three small bumps were crushing. It was the very last one up to the finish that was the final kick in the nuts and would do me in. We had been moving with good speed and I knew the record of 4:29 from last year was going down, but by how much. Some guys in camp talked about the 4hr barrier so that’s what I wanted and so I pushed up the last hill as much as I could. It was a nice little victory to cross the line in 3:55 even if the Spaniard had crossed at 3:41 (holy cow, 3:41!).
The rest of the day was spent laying around on the rocks like at so many other trail races anywhere in the world and even though I couldn’t speak the language (very well) sitting around the campfire with total strangers just 5hrs before, listening to them talk I didn’t have to know what they were saying to know that everything was right in the world.
I met some great people on this trip as I do every trip, like Sebastian and his family and Max Keith. Max was one of the racers as well and would lead to confusion on more than one occasion. Max King…Max Keith. You can imagine. He’s like my Chilean counterpart, even if he is a bit more hip than I am.
I’d like to think Sebastian and I have a lot in common. He works too much at a job that he loves and takes him away from his family more than he would like. His wife tolerates it like mine does and loves seeing him do what he loves. I asked her what she was going to do this weekend since it was a holiday and she said jokingly “I’ll be sitting at home lonesome and crying.” And he can drive and multitask like no other on the harsh mountain roads. Cell phone, radio, no problem. Now I don’t see what the big deal is when I drive with my knee, eat breakfast and talk on the phone.
And they certainly don’t drive like sissies in Chile. It’s not for the timid, or if you are, you get passed on a single lane road on the right side with maybe an inch to spare. And 70mph down a city street, not a problem, everybody does it.
And so I managed to keep everything down that I ate, even with the 60 switchback curves back down the dark desolate mountains. Before my 9pm flight out on Sunday I managed to get another 2000ft and 15 beautiful miles in that took me high above the city right from my hotel in Santiago. It reminded me a lot of Salt Lake City with a big bustling metropolis and a wealth of huge running routes right from town.
Black Diamond Ultradistance Poles
Montrail Rogue Racers
MHW Efusion Tights
MHW Way2Cool Singlet
MHW Running Gaiters
MHW Cooler Running Hat
MHW Race Vest
Rudy Project Ekynox Shades
MHW Running Gloves
Lots of Roctane GU