Friday, November 21, 2014

Hasetsune Cup 2014 (and 2013)

I understand why I don't blog with any frequency. Blog posts don't need to be books, but alas, here's another chapter:

About two miles into Hasetsune, I was worried as I looked up at the first vertical wall of a climb. From last year, I remembered that Hasetsune was really tough, but I’ve never run a race two years in a row where I remembered so little about the course.  Shortly before the start of the race, I turned to Max and told him that the hardest part of the course was from kilometers 30-55, and that the first 30K was” runnable.”  The first statement is likely true, although it’s hard to differentiate between the first 30K and the section from 30 – 55, or from 55 – 71.5. The first kilometer downhill through town is fast, but this quickly transitions into a climb for a couple of kilometers, and then, abruptly, to the first of many steep climbs—hands-on-knees steep. I looked up the first one, about 2 miles in, and at the long line of racers in front of me hiking, and my first thought was, “Max is going to kick my ass.” This first ascent still wasn't enough to jog my recollection of the climbs to come. In the first "runnable" 30K the climbs were relentless. Last year must have been so painful that I simply blocked out the memory of it, as this year it was like running the first half of the course for the very first time.  At every hill I thought to myself, “You've got to be kidding me.” Followed closely by, “Max is going to kick my ass.”
See just how mad Max was? 
While races without aid are not unheard of in the US (Plain 100, as an example), the set-up of Hasetsune is. Whereas Plain 100 has no aid, it also has little support on course, and no crowds of supporters, some dressed up in Mini Mouse costumes, shouting encouragement along the way. Hasetsune, in its 22nd year, is a big event in Japan; the 2,500 spots fill almost instantly online. The logistical support is high—in that there are many volunteers involved and a good amount of fan support along the way. It’s not like you see people the entire way, as you're usually enveloped in dense forest, but you do pass a handful of checkpoints where folks are out cheering, and also spots on the trail with volunteers taking down numbers. The course is impeccably marked with white signs (all in Japanese), and red arrows. Last year I did get slightly off course when I followed an errant sign to a shrine, but this year, I used common sense and followed all signs of the same size, color, and not made of wood (the permanent trail/tourist signs). Once it gets dark there are red blinking lights (like the kind you’d use as a rear light on a bike), that were spaced frequently enough to rarely doubt whether you're on course. Aid is minimal, in that they allow you just 1.5 L of fluid (water or sports drink) at the 2nd of 3 major check points. 

A wee exaggeration but if all the other signs are on laminated white paper, following a random wooden sign 60 Km in is a bad idea. 
Studying the course profile of Hasetsune is deceptive. It looks like an undulating gradual climb up to a couple of peaks, and then a gradual descent to the finish. This isn't what the course feels like or is actually like. While there are peaks, the continual short steep ups and downs make it hard to know which are the peaks and which are just part of the incessant zig-zagging up and down. Most climbs aren't super long, but it's almost all up and down. Over the 71.5 Km course, there's over 30,000 feet of ascent and descent, which equates to almost 700 feet/mile. 
Team Montrail/Mountain Hardwear Japan-U.S. in a rainbow of colors at the start. Photo by Sho Fujimaki.
Last year’s race was a challenge for me for different reasons than this year’s. I was fitter last year, after racing well at Western States and training for hills through the summer for UTMB. Despite a disappointing UTMB, my DNF wasn't for lack of fitness. I’d done a lot of hill work. However, a work training I was co-facilitating the week before Hasetsune made it so that I couldn't arrive until Friday late afternoon, and I didn’t sleep well Friday or Saturday nights before the Sunday start. The technical nature of the course dictates that a lot of concentration is required to stay upright, and for me, the combination of jet lag, poor sleep, and tired eyes made for a very sleepy Amy once the sun went down. The race starts at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon (Monday is a holiday), so that everyone gets the nighttime running experience. It gets dark around 5:30, which means that for all but the fastest, at least half of the race will be run in the dark. So, for the last 40 Km, I struggled to stay awake. It was also a bit warmer last year, and I ran out of fluids long before Checkpoint 2 (43 Km), where they allow you 1.5 liters of water or sports drink.  Last year I led through about half-way, to be passed by 4 women, but rallied late to finish third in 9:44. I felt like I disappointed the Montrail/MHW hosts, and myself, but it wasn't a complete train wreck, just not quite what I'd hoped due to some very sleepy miles. After last year I wanted to come back, focus on more specific hill training, and stay awake the entire race.

However, the injury that turned Comrades into a long hike kept me out for almost 2 months this summer. Having suffering a fairly significant (1.8 cm) tear to my semimembranous tendon attachment (one of the hamstrings), I only began running again around August 1. I worked diligently all summer doing physical therapy, without feeling like it was healing, but a PRP (platelet rich plasma) injection the end of July really seemed to be the thing that helped it turn the corner. Trying to be smart, I eased back into running keeping my mileage quite low through August, and into September only got up above 50 miles once or twice going into Hasetsune on Oct 12. I was definitely not where I wanted to be, but I’d committed to the race months before, and the carrot out there of a Japan race in October had given my start back into training a goal on which to focus. And despite being polar opposites, I wanted to race prior to the World 100K Championships and this seemed like a good distance option, as it would also build confidence as a long run, and (hopefully) more time on my feet than will be required at the 100K.

Running near Yaya Village up in the hills above Addis. Really interesting glimpse into some aspects of how/where Ethiopians train.
In addition to injury, sometimes life gets in the way, and besides the injury, work and life has been hectic.  I decided to move to Bend, OR at some point over the summer and found a house to buy in early September. Between September 11 and Hasetsune on Oct 12, I had a 3-week work trip to Ethiopia, 5 days back home to close on the Bend house, a couple of days at work back in Portland, and then turn around and leave for Japan. I can't complain though, because Ethiopia is one of my favorite places to go for work. Addis Ababa is set at 7500 feet, and work permitted me stay at a high altitude training center, Yaya Athletes Village, so I was able to enjoy early morning runs up around 9000 feet in the peaceful hills above Addis, “long” runs on the weekends (my long runs were never as long as I intended—I topped out at 17 miles, but 17 miles at 9,000 feet felt like a lot more to me), and had the luxury of a decent gym, which is not always the case in the places work takes me. So, I had a decent 3-weeks of training in Ethiopia. And, Ethiopia is just a cool place to visit. I also got to spend a few days in Jijiga, and surrounding communities, near the Somalian border (couldn't run there), but a cool experience, regardless, and a good reminder of why I love my real job.

Cute little goat herder we came across while out on the run. 
During my few days back in Portland, I had one particularly good run with the Tuesday night group, that left me feeling oddly confident. It wasn't anything special, we just ran up Leif the way we always run up Leif, and I even bailed when they jumped on the trail to head back and cut the run short, but I felt strong and fluid, like I hadn't felt in months, and felt like I was really running again. Perhaps that one run was enough to convince myself that I was strong enough to tackle Hasetsune. The missing links were long runs (since June 1, I’d done one 20+ mile run in the Enchantments in August, a 26 mile run in Bend in September, and then one 17 mile run in Ethiopia. 3 long runs in 4 months), decent weekly mileage, and any steep hill training, but it’s all I had. I focused on believing that running is 90% mental.

Max and I arrived in Japan on Thursday, and spent Friday doing interviews at the Tokyo Columbia/MHW/Montrail office for Japan trail running magazines and websites.  The trail scene in Japan is a vibrant one, and growing, probably similar to the growth seen here in the US in recent years. I’ve had the chance to meet the MHW/Montrail team on 3 visits to Japan in the past 2 years, and they are fabulous hosts. Montrail is the number one trail brand in Japan, with the Bajada being the number one seller, so an interesting difference from the market here in the states.
One of the websites, DogsorCaravan, prides itself on being a Japanese version of iRunfar, down to the style of pre-race interview.

Max was happy to come across so many cats in Japan, this during some interviews in the Columbia office.
My pre-race plan was to start out a bit slower than last year in hopes of a stronger middle section. Time-wise, my training had been nowhere near where it had been last year, so I was hoping for a similar time if I had a good day, taking into account last year’s struggles. I tried to remind myself that muscle memory is a grand thing, and that ultra-distance races are as much mental as physical. The last thing I’d done before I’d gone to bed Saturday night was to check my splits from 2013, so I’d know roughly where I wanted to be.

The start. Note the creative and colorful use of KT tape. Very popular in Japan.
I felt like I started out controlled, but came into the first major check point at 3:00, 3 minutes faster than 2013. Likewise, I hit the next major check point (and water stop) at 42'ishK about 5 minutes faster than my 2013 split, and without running quite as dry as I had in 2013. The weather was warm at the start, but cooler than 2013, which also helped on the hydration piece, which is one of the challenges at Hasetsune—carrying enough to make it more than half-way without a chance to refill (each person is allotted 1.5L of water or sports drink), on a course that is going to take 9+ hours to finish.

A typhoon was on the way, and heavy rain was expected starting on Monday morning, but held off for many of us. Hasetsune has a 24 hour cutoff (yes, for just 71.5 Km, but this course is tough and many finish close to the cutoffs). The 2014 edition was much foggier than 2013, and visibility up top was a challenge at times once the sun went down, about 4.5 hours in. I used my Petzl Tikka RXP, which has the reactive lighting technology, and then a one AA hand-held Fenix. I love the Tikka, but in fog, no headlight is ideal, and the handheld was key in filling in the light from below.

Somewhere early on. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
So, while I assumed I would be slower than last year based on fitness, I guess it goes to show you that muscle memory is a great thing, and that ultra races are, indeed, often as much about your mental place as your physical. I went into the race with somewhat lowered expectations, but ready to accept what the day gave me, and that I shouldn't count myself out at the start. I surprised myself and felt relatively good for much of the race. It was hard, but my quads didn't die, and I was able to run faster than 2013 even in the earlier sections. I often feel that ultra runners, as a bunch are often over-raced or over-trained, so perhaps there's something to be said for years of experience and the benefit of a couple of months off (usually forced by injury, but injuries may be the key to mentally recharging us) to refresh and re-energize.
Supporters cheering at Checkpoint 1. 
Like last year, and as I mentioned to Max, for me the hardest part of this course does come after the water stop, namely on the last big steep descent following the last steep climb that includes some chains. I kept waiting for the chain section, but each chain-less climb helped indicate that there was a least one steep final climb to go (the chains are attached for hikers to hang on to). It's a super rocky section, that I would struggle to hike down without falling, and I always pussy-foot my way down it, and watch at least a few guys scamper past. I'm not sure how much I could improve on this section, as it's just not my cup of tea. Where I do think I could improve is in just ascending faster, as this is a section that one can train specifically for, and for which I hadn't trained. Despite my lack of steep hill training (both up and down), I didn't struggle on the downs, except in the super-technical sections, and that wasn't a quad issue, but a fear and agility issue.

Relieved, I finally passed the natural spring (another place on the course to get water, but being in the last section of the race, is nice, but not entirely helpful if you're already dehydrated by that point. It does indicate that you're approaching the 3rd major checkpoint, and from there is the "easiest" part of Hasetsune, which is mainly downhill, but also with some flat and steep ups, that remind you that you are still at Hasetsune, a race that keeps on giving.
In the final 10K or so, you do pass through a couple of small communities as you head back to finish from where you started. Single loop courses have always had a strong appeal to me. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Throughout the race I had no idea how far behind me the 2nd place woman was. I'd seen a couple of women in the first mile of the race, which might have spurred my faster-than-intended start. There was a lot of chatter in aid stations, but being all in Japanese, I had no idea what was being said. The last section seemed not as gloriously downhill as last year, but I remembered more of this part from last year than previous, and while it does seem to go on forever, there is comfort in knowing that your'e eventually going to be spit out in town and a couple of blocks from the finish. I did finally find the finish, in 9:31:18, faster than my 9:44:47 from last year. After struggling all summer with injury, and sub-optimal training in August and September, I was thrilled with my finish. Second place (福田 由香理) was not far behind in 9:35:50, and 3rd (江田 良子) in 9:49:29. Full results are here.

First female and thrilled to be back racing. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Happy to be done and to be greeted by friends at the finish. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Max's first comment to me after the race was along the lines of "WTF?", but Max has not, in fact, attempted to kick my ass. We did laugh about it afterwards (I was laughing....he was sort of laughing).

On the men’s side, Ruy Ueda crushed the course record from last year ( 7:19), almost getting in under 7:00 at 7:01. I met Ruy briefly at the Shibamata 100K in June of last year. His first ultra, he came in behind Meghan and me by a ways. I believe he met the Montrail/MHW folks who had come out to watch me at that race, and was on the team by last year’s Hasetsune where he was 6th. Still in his first year and a half of ultras, Ruy is 21 and has a super bright future in front of him. Like Max, he likes to mix things up, and is as likely to jump on the track for a 10K as run a technical mountain race. He’s definitely one to watch on the ultra circuit in the coming years. Setting the Hasetsune course record is a huge deal in Japan, probably much like setting a record at Western States in the US. Ruy wants to come race in the US in the spring, and I can’t wait to see how he lines up against a competitive US field. Another Montrail/MHW team member, Shuko, was 3rd, and Max was 8th, which was good for a team win.
Team Montrail won all 3 Hasetsune Cups. Men's, Women's and Team. Photo by Sho Fujimaki.
Top 5 women. I'm big in the U.S., but I'm a giant in Japan. Photo from my iPhone.
I would like to do this race again, and like I said last year, to train more specifically, namely include some steep hands-on-knees hiking, and just more vertical. I’d like to break 9 hours on this course, or at get in the vicinity. After the race I looked up past times, just to see who holds the course record. The women’s course record is 8:54, set by one of Japan’s top ultrarunners, Norimi Sakurai, who has won Hasetsune 5 times (in addition to the 2007 IAU 100K world championships in 7:00, and holds track world records in both the 100K and 6-hour). Definitely not an "easy" record to go after, but one I would merely like to get closer to, and see if I'm capable of getting close to the 9-hour mark. 

As always, thanks to my sponsors, and especially Montrail and Mountain Hardwear. The Montrail/Mountain Hardwear staff and team in Japan have been wonderful hosts to me on my visits to Japan. I can't thank them enough. And to Clif Bar, Injinji, Flora and Nuun for their continued support. To all of the Japan Montrail/MHW teammates, but also to Max King who was an awesome travel companion. Max has a lot of fans out there and for good reason--he's a really nice guy. I'm a fan, too, despite his comments about cats. On a gear note, I wore the Spring 2015 Bajadas for this race and I love these shoes. They improve on the current Bajada, and have some significant improvements (tongue, upper, foam) that make them a shoe I would wear in any trail race.

The Spring 2015 Montrail Bajada. Love it!
And a few more photos from the trip:
Somewhere famous....A shrine near the hotel.
The view from our hotel in Tokyo.
Barrels of sake.
Food is always an adventure in Japan. We had some amazing meals (luckily this was not part of one). 
The last night in Tokyo. With Tomo, me, Max, and Daigo.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Patagonia Run 2014: A Sparkling Argentinian Hellgate

In an interview recently, someone asked me what my 2014 highlight was to date, and Patagonia Run 100K was definitely it. Injury and lots of life stresses have taken control over the last few months, but before I head out of the country again (3 weeks in Ethiopia for work), close on a house in Bend, OR, head out of the country again (Japan for a race), move to Bend, and then head out of the country again (Doha for the World 100K) all before Thanksgiving, here's my race report on the Patagonia Run 100K.

I was signed up to run Lake Sonoma in April, but then was invited to run the Patagonia Run 100K near San Martin de los Andes, Argentina on April 12. California or Patagonia? I couldn't pass up an opportunity to return to a region of the world I love. If you've followed my blog or actually know me, you might know that I have a soft spot in my heart for South America, especially what is considered to be the southern cone (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay). So, when this invite came to return to Patagonia, even though I'd just been down there in February to race El Cruce near Puerto Varas, Chile, I jumped at the chance. Like Puerto Varas, I had also visited San Martin de los Andes back in 2003 while traveling home to the US after 3+ years in Paraguay. Being back there further reinforced just how much I love that part of the world, and how very lucky I am to have these opportunities to do what I love: travel to amazing places and explore those places on foot. Plus I'd run Lake Sonoma the year prior, and with Comrades and Western States on the horizon, didn't necessarily need another high profile race to freak out about.

With over 2000 racers divided among 6 race distances (10K, 21K, 42K, 63K, 83K, 100K), the Patagonia Run offers something for everyone. The races start near and finish in San Martin de los Andes, a town in the Patagonian lake district; a 2-hour flight and 3-hour drive from Buenos Aires.  I was surprised to see how many people had actually flown in from Buenos Aires just to race a 10K, although San Martin is a tourism destination, and I might do the same in the US to spend a lovely fall weekend away. I had been invited to run the 100K (actually 103K or 64 miles), which had about 400 entrants and started at midnight on Friday, much like one of my favorite races, the Hellgate 100K++, held each December in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Like is often the case at Hellgate, the Patagonia Run was shaping up to be a cold one, with temps around freezing, the potential for precipitation, and plenty of river crossings to keep the feet frozen. Conditions I sort of look forward to.
View out the bus window on the drive from Bariloche to San Martin de los Andes. Photo: me.
Getting to San Martin from Portland was fairly painless, or as painless as a 30-hour trip can be. I lucked into an empty middle row on the long Atlanta - Buenos Aires leg, which made the entire journey that much more pleasant and allowed me to stretch out and sleep, so after 3 flights, and a 3-hour drive from Bariloche, I arrived in San Martin on Wednesday evening feeling pretty rested. After a shake-out run and dinner, I slept hard. Thursday was filled with registration, a radio appearance, interviews, and a group run, and wasn't the day of lounging around that I had envisioned. The group run took us up to a look-out over Lake Lacar--the large lake upon which San Martin sits. While on the run, I quickly recognized it was a run I had done 11 years before when I'd stayed in San Martin while traveling home after Peace Corps. Talk about deja vu. Being in San Martin brought back a flood of memories from that trip that I'd all but forgotten. I'd been traveling with an Israeli guy I'd met on a barge in Chile, and as different as we were (he'd grown up on a kibbutz in Israel and worked as a horse therapist), we spent a fun few weeks traveling together. The post-PC trip through Patagonia and beyond was a great 2 month trip, that I easily could have extended into years, and love to continue building upon, even if years later.

Group run to a view point looking out over Lake Lacar. Photo: my phone.
I failed miserably in my bad self portrait series last year, so am working hard this year in order to catch up in time to put out the worst selfies of the year summary at the end of the year. Although seriously, I was taking selfies long before it was mainstream. This is a good one though, and I've got some other winners hidden away. Mauri, pictured here, took good care of us in Chile, and it was fun to connect with him again. Photo: me.
The same view, just without the group blocking it. Amazing how standing in a spot you've known before, but forgotten, can bring back so many memories. Photo: me.
Thursday and Friday went by too quickly, and the planned nap time and relaxation seemed to be consumed by registration, pre-race organizational details (drop bags, etc.), interviews, radio programs, group lunches, finishing up a write-up from El Cruce (I like to tie up one race before beginning another, and writing about them seems to do that in my mind, although I've failed in this case), and, in general, not much down time. Midnight starts are hard, in that it's not like an early morning start where you get a shortened night's sleep the night prior; you can hope for a nap during the day, but at some point during the race, the up-all-night feeling is bound to set in. That said, I've done one midnight start prior at Hellgate in 2011, had a great race there and loved the midnight start. Several times in the days leading up to the race I was asked about my thoughts about the start, and each time I talked about it being my favorite race format, because after running for so long in the dark, the sunrise fills you with energy and a renewed sense of purpose. I was hoping this would be true the second time around.
Pre-race interview and mate drinking session with Factor Running, a radio show from Buenos Aires. Photo:
I did several interviews in Spanish, and like to think that people can understand me, but there was the one guy, who after hearing me speak, asked to conduct the interview in Spanish but that I should answer in English saying it would be better for all of us. Confidence shattered! Alas, most people humored me, and let me babble along in Spanish and seemed to understand what I was trying to say.

I usually reserve this pose for Hal, but it's hard to resist a double selfie.  Photo: me. :)
Doing my best to make sense during an interview. I love trying to communicate in Spanish, even if what I say may not completely convey what I think I'm saying. Photo by Alee Bazan.
I got a solid 8 hours of sleep both Wednesday and Thursday, but wasn't able to nap. I attempted to nap several times on Friday between 6 - 10 p.m., without actually falling asleep. I'm generally pretty good at napping, especially when kittens are involved, but I'm not good at forced naps when I feel like I should be sleeping, and the more I pleaded with myself to fall asleep, the less chance there was. So, I finally jumped out of bed at 10 p.m. hoping I wasn't screwed. Memories of Hasetsune Cup in Japan last October came to mind, where I start nodding off as soon as the sun went down, after a similar mid-week travel schedule. I already felt sleepy, and I was destined to be up for another day, so I made a quick decision to go with Nuun Energy in my bladder for an added caffeine boost. I had yet to try Nuun Energy, but my stomach typically handles caffeine without issue, and figured it couldn't hurt to try. Falling asleep on the run is no fun.
I may not have gotten any sleep, but I did find gnocchi for my pre-race lunch. Gnocchi is one of 3 pre-race superstitions that I try not to go without. Photo: me.
For El Cruce (the stage race I'd done in February in Chile) there had been a long mandatory gear list, which included an emergency bivy sack and blanket, among several other items. Despite being much longer, colder, and run in the dark, Patagonia Run had a pleasantly short mandatory list, which included the race shirt, an emergency whistle, and a headlamp, which had to be on until 8 a.m. (I tried to turn it off in one aid station to avoid blinding the aid station volunteers, but was immediately reprimanded to keep my light on, so just kept blinding people the full 8 required hours). I wore one headlamp, and opted to place a second in a drop bag at Km 33, and then had my favorite small handheld for an emergency/second light. 8 hours is a long time to run in the dark, so opted for a switch to keep my light source super bright, which would also help keep me awake. I started with a Petzl Myo RXP and then switched to my new Petzl Tikka+.  Even though they told us the sun would rise at 8, I had slept in both mornings, and hadn't witnessed it for myself. I still had my doubts, as that seemed really late, but there was truly not enough light to switch lights off until right after 8 a.m. Thus, two thirds of my race was run in the dark. I've got to give a shout out to Petzl and the new Tikka+. I'm sometimes amazed by how good lights have gotten, and this one is both bright, and the reactive lighting works.

Most races have a race shirt, but in the US you usually just receive it in your shwag bag, or get it as a finishing prize, whereas in South America you're often actually required to race in it. In this case it was a long-sleeve tech tee. Luckily the temps were at freezing or below, so it was never uncomfortable. Kind of reminds me of school field trips where the teacher decides to dress everyone the same so as not to lose anyone and to be able to identify who's part of the group.

The course map and elevation profile. Basically two big climbs with some runnable middle and end sections thrown in. It was dark for me until just before the aid station indicated in red on the map, so any photos are from the climb up and top of that pointy peak after that. 
The rain cleared in the hours just preceding the midnight start and we lucked into a starry and frozen night. The rain in the days prior, followed by freezing temps resulted in a frost-covered wonderland. For the first eight hours, it was though we were running in a world covered in glitter. It was gorgeous. A few inches of snow up on the ridges, led to an overall bright and beautiful night. Every blade of grass was covered in frost, and it made for a memorable and super sparkly run. 

Photos at the start. Note, how warmly everyone is dressed and the matching shirts. Photos: de Adventura.
The race started out briefly on road, winding on to dirt paths and back onto a wide dirt road, which gave some space to get around people, and spread out a bit. Sadly, I followed my new buddy, Enrique from Ecuador, and with a group of four or so of us, we all blew by a left-hand turn up onto single track. The course was impeccably marked throughout, but I'd argue this early intersection could have benefited from a volunteer indicating the way, or flagging to block off the road and clearly indicate the turn. We dead-ended at a gate, and quickly turned around and headed back in the other direction. This was about 10 minutes in, and although we probably only ran a quarter mile past the turn, it resulted in another several dozen people making the turn in front of us. We saw the now obvious turn onto the trail as many had followed us, and when they saw us heading back, turned back before us, and a queue formed when both groups merged onto the trail. This resulted in a few miles of frustration, as the pace was not what we wanted, so we tried to dart out and around people, but the trail was a narrow cut with banks and vegetation on either edge, and I’d estimate that the half mile detour resulted in losing a good 20 minutes plus in wasted energy trying to get around a major bottleneck of runners on the trail.

The cluster cleared, and I was eventually again running with a small group of guys, and seemed to have passed back any women that had gotten ahead in the misdirection. I felt good, but then as we started to run up the road, suddenly felt deflated, maybe from the wind sprints in trying to pass in the section before. So, I meandered along on my own. I'd heard from many that the course was not technical, and for the most part this was true, but the trails were also not that fast, in that they meandered almost like one would expect a curvy mountain bike or game trail to meander, so between the running around obstacles and jumping over downed logs, it was hard to get in much of a rhythm. I found this true for much of the course. Hard to describe except that the trails almost never went straight. This isn't a complaint, more an observation, and it probably helped to keep me awake at night, as I felt like I needed to consistently pay attention to where I was going.

Mid-way up the first climb, all of the energy spent trying to catch up and pass people after getting off trail, hit me and I experienced the biggest bonk of the race for me. My legs didn’t have much pep, and I let the group of guys I’d been running with go.  The first 27Km of the race is leading you up to the summit of Colorado. Before the final push to the summit there’s a long windy section where you’re still going up gradually, but the trail is winding through the woods, around downed trees, and generally just not very direct in nature. I’d argue that not much of the course is technical, but it’s a course that can be hard to get into a rhythm because you’re either skirting a downed tree, or taking a cow path that winds in a way that clearly demonstrates the non-hurried lives of cows. An inch or two of snow covered this outer portion, but the path was clear, and the world was glittery with the fresh snow and a headlamp. Eventually you get up above the trees, and the summit becomes evident. Cresting the summit it was cold and windy. Some dedicated volunteers were up on top; throughout the race there were volunteers in pairs or alone posted, seemingly, in the middle of nowhere. It was an impressive feat standing out there in sub-freezing temps. Immediately chilled on top, and despite the peaceful beauty of the frosty summit, I opted to get down quickly. The descent, was steep and a bit tricky, and I caught up to Mauri here, who was struggling.

It was just after the Colorado 1 aid station that I hooked up with Mario, who when he started to tell me his story (school teacher from Chile), he reminded me that we’d run together during one of the stages of El Cruce. He was very nice, but I tend to like to be on my own, so hoped that he’d either drop back or surge ahead, but he was hard to lose. He’d climb faster than me, and I’d descend faster than him. Through this rolling section, I wasn't able to gracefully get away from him (nor him from I). At some point, we started running together for the most part, and then his light started to die. From that point, he really was stuck with me, as I also didn't want to strand him in the dark. We came into the big barn aid station (Quilaniahue 1) where he found a replacement light. We were no longer bound together, but by this point, we were sort of a team. Leaving that station, we really started to roll, and I felt better than I had all night. We flew by several guys in this section, and I’ve never worked with someone like that in a race, where he’d pull me on the ups, I’d pull him on the downs, and together we were moving faster than we would have moved apart. It was fun, and I felt great. We came into PAS Quechuquina, now just out of the top 5 overall, and left motivated to pick off more.

This next section was also cruisable with rolling wide trail where you could get into a rhythm, until you’re dumped onto the shores of Lake Lacar, where the course takes you along the shore. It was still dark at this point, without much of a hint that the sun would eventually rise. This section took a bit of the wind out of my sails, as it was again, hard to get into a rhythm, with some loose rocks along the shore, sand, logs to jump, and navigation was mildly more difficult. In general, besides that first turn myself and a few others had missed at the beginning, the course was impeccably marked. There were little reflective markers posted frequently, and you could almost always see the next one and know which direction to head. We only once almost mistook the eye shine of a horse for a marker, but I quickly noted to Mario that the course marking was large and moving, and realized that it wasn’t the correct way to go.

Starting to come down off of the high, we hit the Quechuquina Hydration point (Km 63), which is right before you start to ascend gradually for several miles leading to the last big ascent. Mauri was there (who had dropped after the descent I’d pass him on earlier) and for the first time, I asked about other women, and he told me not to worry, that they were far behind. After the aid station, there is a long section of climbing, which includes a a long gradual ascent along with some rolling, to an aid station (Coihue, 72 Km), after which you begin the steeper ascent up the last big climb. The first part is along a thin winding trail that has waist-high bamboo. Also hidden in this section are a ton of downed logs of about 12” diameter. What this means is that the trail is apparent—you can see where the path leads through the bamboo, but you can’t quite see the ground through the bamboo. It was like running through a mine field (except instead of getting blown up, you trip and face plant over hidden logs). It didn't seem to matter if I was leading or in the back; Mario struggled to see the logs more than I did. We’d be running along, and I’d see him face plant ahead of me, or I’d be running along in front and hear him face plant from behind. I also managed a couple of face plants, but paled in comparison to Mario's numbers. I’d guess were both pretty psyched to come to the end of the bamboo section. 

The sun was finally coming up through this section, although it wasn't quite light.  At the Coihue aid station (~72 Km), right before you climb up Cumbre Quilaniahue, I finally turned off my light. I was ready to leave the aid station sooner than Mario, so I left, assuming he’d catch up to me quickly on the climb. Climbing up, he didn't catch me, and I almost felt guilty for leaving him, but then had to remind myself that we weren't actually a team. The climb up was tough, but one of the highlights of the race, as the sun had just risen, and for the first time I could see in daylight the beauty of where we’d been running all night. With a dusting of snow up top and on the surrounding peaks, the view from the top was breathtaking and daybreak did provide that rejuvenating feeling I had remembered from Hellgate. After 8 hours of running through the dark, I was ready to stop focusing my eyes so intently on the trail. I did notice that my vision was slightly blurry, which had been hard to tell in the dark. Once again, there were some hearty, and likely cold, volunteers up top, along with a photographer capturing the spectacular backdrop.

Heading up the last big climb. The course was super well-marked with yellow ribbons (seen on the right here) or during the night with reflective dots. Photo: me.
Gorgeous views up above. I didn't take many pictures along the way, but couldn't resist stopping to take a few a shots. Photo: me. 

Race photo. Despite the freezing temps I stayed warm all night in shorts, the race T and my ghost whisperer.
The descent from the top was tricky and slow, for me, with a lot of loose rock and dirt, things to trip over, generally just pretty steep, and I couldn’t see very clearly. Luckily, the blurriness continued to improve, so I’m going to have to guess it was caused by fatigue from 8 hours of intense use under low-light and sub-zero temps. I had a case of Hellgate eyes.

The descent dumps you into the Quilaniahue aid station (80Km) for a second time, and you retrace your steps back to the Colorado aid station (87Km), once again along some winding cow trails that aren't technical, but annoyingly curvy with lots of turns and stops and starts so getting into a rhythm wasn't easy. Mario did catch back up to me during this section and we ran together and yo-yoed back to Colorado.  This section was easily my least favorite of the route. Once leaving Colorado, there’s a generally mild section, with straighter lines, and gently downhill to the last aid station (Bayos, 96Km). From here to the finish, it’s downhill, but the course is now packed with runners, as all of the 10K and other distances are also now on the same route. 

On the way home in the repeat section from 80 to 87. Photo: GuiaKmZero. I think that is Mario in the background, about to be reunited again.
The trail finally dumps you onto road, where it’s easier to pass, and it’s a screaming downhill into a town, and a finish in the center of town. Two guys I’d seen a few times since the start passed me on the trail section, and I caught back up to one of them on the road. I told him I wanted to get in under 13 hours (my goal had been loosely between 12 and 13, not knowing the course, and based off past times, and mid-race I set a goal of top 5 overall), so we pushed and he soon dropped me for a second time. I finished in 7th overall/1st chick in 12:55, 2 minutes out of 5th and  ahead of 2nd and 3rd place women who came in together in 14:03.  Sadly, I later learned that my friend Mario, had to pull out at Colorado 2 with an injury. No wonder he never caught me those last 
Happy to be done. 
The awards ceremony was a pleasant surprise; I'd seen there would be a cash prize for the 100K, but they hadn't listed the amount, so I was pleasantly surprised to win 10,000 pesos, and also an entry and travel expenses paid to a 100K race in Costa Esmeralda, Brazil in May of 2015. Again, hard to pass up a trip to the beaches in southern Brazil, so I will likely find myself down there again in a year, if not before.
Adriana Vargas, me, and Laura Lucero. 10,000 pesos and a trip to Brasil!  
I also won a gift certificate to a local store, and scored these sweet ski goggles, which I plan use a lot this winter in Bend (!!). Photo: me.
It's been several months since the race at this point, and some of this was written recently and other parts long ago, but looking back Patagonia Run has been one of the year's highlights. The race organization was excellent, the ultra running community down there is a newer one, but a fun and inviting one, the scenery was amazing, the course challenging and fun, and overall it was just a really well-run event and one I'd return to in a heartbeat. I love Patagonia! It really was like running through a glittery wonderland for hours on end. My visual memories of this race are awesome.

Thanks to Mountain Hardwear Argentina for the invite, and thanks to my sponsors, Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Injinji, ClifBar, Flora and Nuun. Also Petzl provided me with the new Tikka+. It's a great light--check it out!

Shoes: Montrail Bajada--my feet were unscathed after almost 13 hours in wet shoes and socks.
Socks: Injinji Run 2.0 Mini Crew--zero blisters!
Nutrition: Clif Shot Gels, Clif Recovery drink, and some gummies
Lights: Petzl Tikka+, Petzl MyoRXP, and Fenix E12 (single AA handheld light--also great!)
Shorts: Mountain Hardwear CoolRunner shorts (I live in these things--love them)
Jacket: MHW Ghost Whisperer
Gloves: MHW wool blend. Love these. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Comrades 2014

I've recently gloated that I almost never get sick, so I guess I was due this. I’m currently en route from Atlanta to Portland after the 16-hour Jo-burg-Atlanta direct flight, which ranks as one of the worst flights in my life (and longest flight in the world), and I've had some doozies. A hacking cough and stuffiness has turned me into that person you glare at on airplanes—the one that you’re convinced is going to get you sick. I think I glared at a similar person en route to Durban on Thursday.

The day after a disappointing race is always a bit of a downer. Although I went into Comrades knowing some recent issues I've been having with my left hamstring/glutes/piriformis would either numb themselves into submission during the race which would serve as a last long run before Western States, or help me come to the decision that I'm injured and need some time off to get healthy again. My training the past few weeks has not been ideal, as tightness in my butt and hamstring has caused workouts to be painful, and easy runs to not be completely enjoyable either. So, I hoped that a good 2-week taper into Comrades would get me to the start line healthy, and a decent race would leave me confident about running Western States with time for a rest week before putting in a couple of weeks of final preparation for WS.

Niggles are common among runners, and I feel like I always have something floating around. But usually the niggle lasts a day or two and then moves on and a different niggle pops up. When an issue sticks around for more than a few days, I get worried, and this has had me worried for the last month, as it started as an issue back in early May and just hung on, getting progressively worse. It’s not a new niggle, but one in the past has floated around, and not been consistently an issue. One of the problems is I can't quite tell what the issue is--hamstring, glute, piriformis, It's painful in a few spots, and a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly. Some days in the pool seemed to help, but running hard would seemingly negate those recovery days, and have me back where I started. Training has not been ideal the past month, although I managed to stick sort of on schedule, with fewer hard sessions and long runs than I had hoped. I foam rolled a lot, stretched, did glute/hamstring exercises, saw my graston guy and massage guy, etc. I've had issues heading into other races, forcing rest and PT, hoping for a race miracle, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. 

Adding to my pre-race worries, I started getting a sore throat on Friday night. I woke up Saturday not feeling hot and needing to swallow constantly, but there was nothing I could do, besides suck on zinc lozenges. Race morning, Sunday, I woke up feeling not horrible, so was hopeful that maybe I'd still kick it. Now on my way home, I’m fully sick, and as sick as I’ve been in a few years. I feel badly for the dudes sitting next to me, who will be lucky to avoid this thing, as I’ve coughed, and sniffled the entire way home. The guy en route from Jo-burg was apologetic after I was apologetic, and the guy en route to Portland gifted me an entire bag of cough drops. I avoided colds all winter when my roommate or work colleagues were seemingly always sick, so the timing of my first cold in a couple of years is just another frustration on a frustrating day. Alas, this is a bit of a pity party so far. Time for some positives….

For those unfamiliar with Comrades, the race is a point to point that switches direction each year. The race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg is a net uphill so called an "up" run, and the other direction, which we ran this year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban is a "down" run. The terms don't necessarily completely describe the course because either direction has a lot of up and down (down run has around 4700 feet of up and 6700 feet of down). Many folks say the down run is harder, as it leaves you battered after a good chunk of the downhill comes in the last third of the race.

Race morning was lovely. Often the start can be quite chilly, as Pietermaritzburg sits up at 2,000 feet, but with lows only around 60F the night prior, it was a warm start. The start of Comrades has an energy that must be experienced to truly appreciate it. Running for the Nedbank elite team, we got a position right up front on the start line, which was a little intimidating, as the sprint off the front is something to behold. Everyone slows down in a race from the initial pace, although I have to suspect the Comrades slow down for most is even more dramatic, as the lure of the TV cameras off the front, and energy in the air, make it look like some are racing the mile. The entire race is televised, up to the 12-hour cut-off.  Right before the gun they play Shosholoza, a South African folk song, and Chariots of Fire. The excitement builds, the start line grows more and more cramped as people push forward, and at 5:30 a.m. the gun goes off. Fearful of getting trampled, I braced myself for the push, and breathed a sigh of relief after the first block. Ian Sharmin came by and we chatted for a bit before he headed off. The first mile was 6:30, so knowing that the pace was a bit fast, I aimed to ease back into a more sustainable pace. Despite the quick start, I felt good, and my butt felt good and loose, and the next few miles clicked by under 7:00 pace.

It was dark the first few miles and when the sun finally did come up it was gorgeous. At this point, you're running through rolling farm country and the sun rises over large rolling hills to the east, off to the left hand side, showing off a landscape of big rolling green hills with brilliant pinks and oranges highlighting a few lone trees on the horizon line. I had a few Nedbank guys around me who seemed to be forming a little group around me, and at some point reminded them that they couldn't run near me, as pacing isn't allowed; it looks especially suspicious if a Nedbank woman is surrounded by a group of green Nedbank men. They disappeared, but when running with that many people (17,000 starters), you’re bound to be near someone.

There are steady ups and downs throughout the first 20K, and I felt good and was climbing well. The pace stayed comfortable and we averaged about 7:10 pace through about 18 miles. I was aiming for an overall average of around 7:30 pace, so while this was a bit quick, it felt good; 7:35 average pace was what I needed to go to get in under 7 hours, but I hoped to be a bit under that.  Somewhere after mile 10 I made the first of what turned into 6 bathroom stops in the first 40 miles. A sore throat, the poops, and my hammies/butt had quickly tightened up after the initial loose first few miles. Speed is what typically doesn't feel good on my butt, and it was tight. Tight asses are not always a good thing.

Even though it was just yesterday, the middle miles are all kind of a blur. I was frustrated in that I seemingly constantly needed to pull over, despite taking one Imodium before the start, and another about 15 miles in when things started to feel rough tummy-wise. I was eating and drinking, but doing so caused me to need to use the bathroom. We had handlers that were there to give us bottles roughly every 10K following the 20K mark, but there was also a ton of aid along the way. Comrades is one of the best-aided races I've run, with water/energy drink stops every 2 or 3K. The beverages are in little sachets which make drinking or holding them for later very easy.

I was in around 6th for the first 18 miles, but several bathroom stops in a row allowed for several women to pass, many of whom I must not have seen while in the port-a-potty right before half-way point, where I must have come in around 8th or 9th.  I never saw Jo pass me, but did spot a few others from the bushes. I passed half-way in about 3:25/6, but that was after my longest bathroom break, so in hindsight, was happy with my pace through the first half, which was on-target for my goal of sub-7 and a gold medal, which the top 10 receive.

Zola Budd passed me somewhere in this middle section, running for Hooters. It was pretty amazing to be running in a race around Zola Budd, but she motored on, while I struggled. We finally came to the start of the downhill section. Often in an ultra, pre-race niggles will just kind of melt away with the miles, I think related to endorphins, or some aspect of body chemistry, but the miles were only adding to the discomfort, and my upper hamstring/piriformis was pissed. The two women who finished in 9th and 10th were running just in front of me, and I had passed them back on the downhill, and felt like I was getting back into a groove and that the Imodium seemed to have stopped the frequent stops. I was averaging 7:27 pace overall at this point but getting faster as we started to descend, so with the upcoming net downhill and fewer stops, was hopeful to stay under 7:35 pace which was the pace to get in just under 7 hours. Right around 23K to go, I felt a sharp pain in my left hamstring which altered my step. I kind of jerked to a stop and tried to start running again, but was obviously limping. I started to walk, quickly deciding that my race was over and accepting the fact that it was going to be a long walk. But, I had several hours to get to the finish, and I could walk, so I might as well finish.

This was right after 23K to go, and I don’t think I fully comprehended what walking in would be like. While the entire Comrades course is spotted with people, there are a ton of people in the final 23K, most of whom were encouraging me to start running again. “Come on lady, you can do it!” “Run lady, run!” “Don’t give up, lady!” “Run Amy!” In addition to the crowds, several runners paused to encourage me along, and several walked with me for long bits, but all eventually powered on running. While I appreciated their enthusiasm, this was hard to hear, as I couldn't really run. I tried to start running a few steps several times, but gave up quickly, as I couldn't run without pain.

A common Comrades tradition is to party with a braai or barbecue along the side, often handing out aid in the form of water, fruit or candy, in addition to the official race aid stations. One guy offered me a cup of water, and I asked whether he could spare a beer, which he was happy to do. This made me quite popular with the fans, and tasted damn good. Plus, fewer people shouted at me to run with a beer in hand. A few miles later I scored a second, and probably would have looked for a third and fourth, but I had to pee and was stick of stopping to use the bathroom after so many stops in the first half. I was also hoping to see a friend who hoped to finish around 9 hours on course and didn’t want to miss her with a stop.

It was a long walk, and while I tried to soak in and enjoy the energy around me, I was really ready to be done. The bathroom issues were over, but the sore throat and overall bleh were becoming more apparent. With about 10K to go I calculated that I could finish in under 9 hours if I kept my pace under 15 min/mile. Not that I cared about which finishers medal I got at this point, but with 8 miles walked, and 6 miles left to walk, I needed a goal. I picked up the pace and kept up a decent clip, feeling a weird bit of competitive walking come upon me, getting a few miles in around 13:40. The Km signs couldn't come fast enough, but I passed the 3 Km, 2 Km and 1 Km signs and finally entered the stadium, still walking and 2 hours later than hoped. By this time tears were streaming down my face. I was just so glad to be done and desperately wanted off of the course. It had been a long and disappointing day. I finished in 8:52 (?), 2 hours slower than my goal. While I felt deflated, at the same time, it was encouraging because while I’d worried before the race that top 10 was out of my reach, being there on that day, I realized that on a good day top 10 is well within my reach, and even top 5. Sometimes everything comes together on race day, and sometimes the cards just seem stacked against you. On race day, I didn't feel out of my league to reach my goal, I just felt like crap, both with some pre-race niggles that could have gone either way, and with a bug that has now taken over completely. At this point, I can’t wait for the plane to land and to make a bee-line for home and my bed and a long-overdue nap with my sweet kittens.

Once again, back to the positives….I feel fortunate to call Ellie both a teammate and friend, and I was thrilled to hear about her day once I’d finished. I was almost afraid to ask, as we’d both confessed our pre-race concerns to each other on Saturday afternoon, and she had some reasons for concern. But in true Ellie fighting spirit, she had what she called a bad race up to the point where she laid it all on the line and went for it. She reeled the twins (who have dominated the past several years) in in what (according to the Twitterverse) was the fastest closing split over the final 7 Km for either men or women. Incredible! Watching her finish replayed on the jumbo-tron afterwards with Ian following her in from behind, was awe-inspiring.

I do plan to be back at Comrades, if not next year, then at a minimum for the following year for the next down run. Seeing the race unfold, and feeling comfortable in the pace that it takes to run for gold, I’m confident that on a good day, or even a slightly less bad day, I can run in contention for a solid top 10 finish. Many thanks to Nedbank for allowing me to race for them and for providing logistical support in country—I know that they had high expectations for all of us, and I feel badly about the outcome.

Despite the race not going as planned, I had a great trip. I arrived in Cape Town on the Monday prior for a few days of rest and relaxation, and loved exploring the area around the Cape. I'll add some pictures once I'm back in the real non-airplane world.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sedona, Brazil and El Cruce Columbia 2014

As I write this I’m in the air traveling back to Patagonia for another race, and I like to finish up one race before starting the next. So, for those of you who responded to my last blog to keep writing, here goes. I need to be less wordy in order to write more frequently. I've failed on that front here.

January and February were filled with big adventures and a lot of air travel. A birthday trip to Sedona, a postponed work trip to Brazil, and a stage race in Patagonia, all managed to converge upon the same 3-week period, and required some tight scheduling and ridiculous amounts of air travel.

First up was a long weekend in Sedona, an early 40th birthday celebration, which was awesome. Good friends Katherine, Susan and I enjoyed a lovely weekend at a friend's condo in Sedona. Long runs in the red rocks, delicious meals, wine tasting, hot tub soaking, and a side trip to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon to see more friends for more fun times on trail, were all part of the 4-day relaxation before the South American tour began.

Running down into the Grand Canyon.
From Arizona I flew directly to Belem, Brazil for a work trip. Belem is in the north of Brazil at the mouth of the Amazon, but getting there (via a US carrier) means being routed through Brasilia or Sao Paolo, which are in located in southern Brazil. All that means is that any flight to Belem requires roughly an extra 10 hours of air time, because you have to fly an additional 5 hours south to turn around and fly 5 hours north. When you're a frequent flyer mileage whore, this isn't a problem. I used to be a mileage whore, but I’ve had enough problems at 10,000 feet, plus I fly sufficiently so as to not crave circuitous routings to rack up miles. Work in Brazil went well. Belem is not on the top of my list as a running destination (flat and hot), but it is an interesting place to visit. I managed to stay on my training schedule, although that did include many treadmill runs, including a 20+ mile hilly run, as Belem is pretty flat.  I enjoyed my time in Brazil, had a productive work trip with very nice hosts, but was happy to be heading home in order to begin the vacation part of my Sofuth American trip--a stage race in Chilean Patagonia, El Cruce Columbia.

El Cruce Columbia is a 3-day stage race set in Chilean Patagonia (some years crossing into Argentina, hence the name). The course and location change every year, and this year was staged near Puerto Varas, Chile, skirting some volcanoes, and ending up just at/over the Argentinian border. The planned distance was for just over a 100K of racing with the longest stage the first day (approximately 25 miles) followed by 2 shorter days (18-22 miles).

My only pre-race woes were my travel schedule. Unfortunately, because of the way that the tickets were purchased--the work trip was a Delta ticket purchased originally for a December date that was postponed, and the Chile trip was an American ticket, purchased for me by the race--there was no "easy" way to combine the two trips without me paying out of pocket significantly. I couldn't change the origin on the Chile trip to be anything other than a US city and couldn't jump on that ticket mid-way without forfeiting the ticket--you have to start a trip in order to finish it. Basically, I needed to be back in Portland on Saturday, January 31 to fly to Chile, or I would have to pay my way from Belem or Sao Paulo to Chile and all the way home, so in the end, just accepted the fact that I was going to depart Belem on a flight south to Sao Paulo, heading back north to connect through Atlanta, on to Portland, repack, and depart again less than 24 hours later, knowing that when I was in Sao Paolo, I was a 4-hour direct flight from Santiago, Chile. But instead of that 4-hour hop, I got to enjoy a 10-hour flight to Atlanta, 5-hour flight to Portland, and then the next day turn around and do another 4-hour leg to Dallas, followed by a 10-hour flight down to Santiago, and then 2 more hours to my final destination, Puerto Montt, Chile. The routing I got to experience earns you WAY more frequent flyer miles--I earned close to 50,000 for the entire journey, but it’s a bit more tiring. 

So, I arrived in Puerto Montt on Sunday, February 2 feeling sort of like I'd been hit by a bus, but less so than I expected, and very excited to be back in an area of the world that I love and one that I hadn't seen in over a decade. I’d celebrated my 29th birthday on Isla Chiloe, not far from Puerto Montt.

When I was invited to the race several months back, I accepted the invitation without hesitation. I spent 3+ years living in Paraguay and then a couple of months traveling through Argentina, Chile and Peru on my way home after my Peace Corps service ended, and then traveling to Latin America for work on a frequent basis for several years, so I feel very comfortable traveling in South America. It feels very familiar yet foreign at the same time. Plus, I was turning 40 a couple of days before the race. What better way to celebrate a milestone birthday than by running through Patagonia?

Because it was my birthday week, and leaving on Saturday meant little difference vacation-day-wise at work as leaving Tuesday, I had arranged to arrive a few days early to hang out in and around Puerto Varas, and enjoy a few days of true vacation. Emma Roca was scheduled to arrive the same day as I, and we ran into each other at lunch the first day, and would spend the better part of a week together, without much time apart. This was a good thing, because we hit it off. Luckily, we got along super well, because the race organization housed Emma and me together before the race, and then we had tents side-by-side in camp, and ended up racing within minutes of each other each day.

Patagonia had been in a drought all summer, so the locals were thrilled with the rain that was present for most of the trip, and the pre-race weather was an indicator of what was to come during the race, especially for the team competition. The days leading up to the race were spent hanging out in Puerto Varas, going for short runs around town, and on my birthday, we rented a car and drove out to a hot spring outside of town, and invited Marco de Gasperi and Miguele along for the adventure. Miguele didn’t get the memo that we were going to a “rustic” hot spring, and was a bit shocked when he figured out we weren’t going to a fancy spa, but survived the trip, and it was fun to at least get out of Puerto Varas for the day. Meeting and spending time with Marco was another highlight of the trip; he’s a super nice guy, and super tranquilo. I knew he was famous in the sky running world, but his low key nature hardly even allowed me to be star struck.
The boat that delivered us to the hot springs. Looked like a great fly-fishing spot. Photo: my iPhone.
El Cruce has two separate races going on—the 2-person team race and the individual race. Both races utilize the same course and camps, the only difference being that the teams start a day earlier than the individuals. This year the individual race definitely got the long end of the stick, as the weather was kind of sucky the first day for us, but sounds like it was mainly sucky every day for the teams. This year’s field was around 750 teams and 1300 individual runners, for a total of 2800 runners. The logistics of pulling this all off were definitely complicated, and more so because of rain and cold temps that created some additional challenges. I’ve never been to TransRockies, but I would guess the tent village at El Cruce is on a different scale, with at least 750 matching blue Columbia tents set up in a field, a circus-sized dining tent, a long line of porta-potties and longer line of users, and a barbeque pit set up to grill enough beef, chick and chorizo to feed 1500 hungry runners twice a day. Suffice it to say, it’s the only race I’ve done where a “cuchillo para carne” (steak knife) was on the packing list. If I were a vegetarian or vegan going to the race, I’d definitely pack an alternative protein source.
No shortage of meat. The twice-a-day asado scene. Photo: my iPhone.
The first day we were bussed early in the morning to the shores of a lake, for the start. They start each day in mini waves, and the elite field started it off. The teams had had hard rain and wind for much of their first day the day prior, but we lucked into a cloudy day, with intermittent rain. The first couple of miles were along the shore of the lake, running in thick black sand/rocks. I didn’t love this part. It was pretty, but definitely not my favorite running surface. 
Day 1: The elite start. Photo: El Cruce.
We turned up off the beach to start climbing, and were still running through thick black volcanic sand which eventually became more solid and more to my liking. On the climb I could see Emma in front of me, and passed her somewhere near the pass. It was cold going over the pass, and I pulled on my ghost whisperer for that part, but otherwise, the weather wasn’t bad. The pass is where there would have been gorgeous views of surrounding volcanoes on a sunny day, but it was pretty socked in. If you took a moment and turned around during the climb, there were some very pretty views of the lake, with hints of sun shining through the clouds. Coming over the pass we ended up on a gravel road, which we would take downhill for about 10K. It was a relatively straight shot down a long gravel road. It was on this road where Emma passed me back, as I went slightly off course for a few meters when the course made a turn for a short detour onto a trail that I missed. She flew by me, and on the correct trail, and that would become a common theme throughout the three days; me trailing, not by much, but trailing. I kept her in view for the descent, until we got to a turn-off onto a trail around 20K.
Caked in mud coming into the finish. Photo: El Cruce.
This was about the half-way point, give or take a couple miles, and we had seen what the finishing times had been for the lead teams from the day before, so I was a little surprised how quickly we’d completed the first half of the course. Of course, I didn’t realize what was about to come.  We turned off the gravel road, and entered the mud zone, which would last for a good 12Km or so. 1500 runners had been through this section the day prior in pouring rain, and at times there was shin-deep mud that was several feet wide with no way around it. The most efficient way seemed to be to plow straight through the middle. It was almost comical, but also frustrating, as it was hard to stay upright, and slipping and sliding is fun to a point, but requires some coordination in order not to impale yourself on vegetation. The mud zone seemed never-ending, and it reminded me of what I expect a Tough Mudder to be like, except that I would never sign up for a Tough Mudder. I felt like I was crawling, but kept passing guys, I guess who were even more uncomfortable than me in the slop. At some point during this section we came to a creek which had a very steep drop-off down to it and that had volunteers posted with a fixed rope to “rappel” down to the creek. I came to this section alone, so quickly descended and ascended, but this section would become a bottleneck for most of the field, and there were stories of runners waiting upwards of 2 hours in the major conga line that formed waiting to descend the rope. It wasn’t cold for the front runners, but for those that stood around for hours on the trail it got a bit uncomfortable. This was one of many times that I thought that if I were not running as an invited runner and at the front, I’d likely be a much less happy camper.

Emma had quickly moved out of sight as soon as we got into the mud, and I have to say that her history as a world champion adventure racer was quickly evident and served her well here. She vanished the minute we hit the trail. I didn't get passed except for maybe early on once or twice, and passed several guys, especially as the mud section dragged on, but I definitely lost a competitive drive for long portions, as I concentrated on staying upright. At some point after what seemed like hours of slogging, I passed a guy (Martin Fiz) who reminded me there was one woman ahead of me and to go after her. It’s as if I had forgotten that I was racing and was just slogging to get out of the mud, but that sparked something and I started working hard again. I had no idea how far ahead Emma was, but it was a reminder that this was a stage race, and the less ground I could lose over the next 5 or so miles to the finish, the better. I’d had a few butt slides up to this point, but hadn't managed a good face plant, but in what was probably the last big stretch of a foot-deep “lake” of mud I did a full superman face plant into the slop. Covered head to toe, I could only laugh, and push on. The mud section had been generally rolling and then climbing, but it finally plateaued and I could see the lake off in the distance. The last 5 miles or so were fast and downhill, finishing just beside the lake at Camp 1. Happy to be running again, I pushed to the finish and finally got there in 4:11:01, trailing Emma by 5 minutes (4:05:45) with the third woman 49 minutes behind me.

Happy to be done. Wet, muddy, and ready for a soak. Photo: El Cruce.
Life at camp was fun: nice people, beer, mate (yerba mate not mating), soaking in the lake, lounging by the lake, massage, and lots of asado (grilled meat). With the sun, things were looking up for the next two days, and being able to complete the route as planned. We didn’t actually know what was going on, though, as the reality was that the teams were struggling through day 2 with some additional weather-related issues, including a bridge that was out, and a flooded camp 2 that awaited their arrival after another cold, wet and long stage for them (stage 2 involved a bus ride to the start, and while the sun shone upon us, it apparently wasn’t shining on them during their stage or on their arrival to Camp 2).
Drinking mate with some new Argentinian (and Spanish) friends. Photo: my iPhone.

Enjoying a post-run soak in the lake. Photo: El Cruce.
Day 2 started with some confusing messaging, which in the end was roughly, stay in bed, don’t pack our things, and to chill because we weren’t going anywhere. Our Camp 1 was to become our Camp 2, in part because stage 2 was impassable because of the bridge issues, and so we’d be doing a revised stage from camp. The organizers, planned a new stage for us on the fly, which would start at an undetermined time and the distance would be revealed to us. We sat around, not really knowing what was happening, and eventually they announced the stage, which would be an out-and back from camp: approximately 6 miles up a dirt road/trail, and then back down the same route, which would start sometime around mid-day. The communication of the start time was vague, and once the start looked probable, the lack of information made it such that no one wanted to be left behind, so a mob of runners gathered around the start/finish area where we then stood around in the sun for an hour or so before the start.

Once we finally started, the course wasn’t bad for what it was. It was a gradual to steady climb, through fields of grass and flowers, which consisted of mainly dirt road with some single track. I had to pee so badly by the time it started, and had been afraid to move far from the start line for fear of missing the start, that I made it only a couple of miles with Emma before I had to pull off and make a pit stop. I felt better, but I lost time and contact, and a bit of motivation. The turn-around came soon enough, and I estimated Emma was only a minute or so up on me, so it wasn’t so bad. I let it fly on the downhill, but never did see her. She can definitely descend. Emma finished in 1:26:29 and I finished in 1:28:16, another 1:47 behind, which put me just about 7 minutes behind heading into what would be a shortened stage 3.
Descending during the short stage. Short, but pretty stage. Photo: El Cruce.

Commiserating after the 12 mile sprint. Photo: El Cruce.
We spent a lot of time posing for group pictures. This one after the day 2 stage. Photo: El Cruce.
After the stage, more of the same…another bath in the lake, another beer, more asado, more hanging out with new friends, and lots of posing for pictures. The sunset on night 2 was photo-worthy and the volcano was out in full view. We weren’t sure what was happening the next day, except that it would be a shortened stage again, because of either weather or the fact that the late start time would require an earlier start to ensure that everyone finished before dark because we had to be bussed from Camp 1 to Camp 2 to start stage 3.
The tent village at dusk. Photo: my iPhone.
The volcano that looked over the Camp. We finally got a full view the end of day 2. Photo: my iPhone.

The final morning, we packed up and were bussed to Camp 2, where we would start stage 3. There was little information on the course, and all I remember is Mauri telling me right before we started, “It’s all downhill; they’ve taken out the big climb. Well, you’ll climb a little at the start, but then it’s all downhill.”  I’m still trying to figure this one out. We immediately started to climb gradually, and then more steeply and continued to grind upwards for what was at least 10 km. Mauri and I might have a very different definition of what “all downhill” means, as this course seemed to be pretty evenly half uphill, and then half downhill. Regardless, the third day was my favorite route, and the first section was beautiful, all on black volcanic soil/sand/rocks with views of volcanoes in all directions. I stayed with Emma for the first few miles, but then she continued to grind upwards as I took a walk break, and she quickly dropped me. We finally reached the "all downhill" section, which was steep and exposed at first, on black volcanic scree, but then we entered the forest onto a fun trail that involved a lot of log hopping and some patches of mud, that after the first day seemed didn’t seem so bad. I face planted once early on the downhill and hit my right knee pretty hard, which caused me to hobble for a couple of minutes, but no major damage besides another scar to add to the collection. For the rest of the downhill, I felt like I was pushing, but again, Emma was out of sight and finished just a few minutes out of reach, again about 5 minutes behind in 2:32:42. The three-day tally was Emma finishing 16th overall in 7:59:23 and I was 17th overall in 8:11:59. 
Descending on day 3. Views were not too shabby. Photo: El Cruce.
New friends (and old). Photo: my iPhone.
El podio femenino. Photo: my iPhone.
Overall, I had a great time. I was given the opportunity to spend a week in a beautiful spot, meet some great people who I'll stay in contact with, run on some beautiful trails and take in some beautiful vistas. The race had its difficulties, but overall, I was impressed with the logistics of it all--putting up and breaking down a tent city for two groups of 1500 tired, cold, wet, and hungry runners is not an easy feat, and some amount of waiting in lines is unavoidable. The weather was out of the control of the organization, but there were definitely some elements (like the bottleneck the first day that caused people to stand in one spot on the trail for up to 2 hours), that were unfortunate. Those of us towards the front didn't have any issues, but only heard the tales after the fact. The race has grown over the years, and with growth an event can lose a bit of a personal feel. Most impressive are those events that even with growth can maintain the same level of support and attention to detail to all runners. Overall, I loved the experience and am very thankful to Columbia, Mountain Hardwear and Montrail for giving me the opportunity to participate.