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. 


ultrarunnergirl said...

What beautiful photos! I could never finish this race, I'd be clicking away.
Congrats on another win!

Olga said...

That was an awesome race in an amazing place, thanks for sharing! Loved the matching shirts, yes, indeed, first grade on a field trip, made me smile:) Congrats, and hope all is well with you and will hold on for the trip to Brazil in 2015! You are for sure lucky to do all that, especially since it is exactly how you want it. Living the dream...

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