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.