Perhaps there are races in the US like 4Refugios Nonstop (The Rut and Speedgoat 50K are probably most similar, but both are 6 miles longer with slightly less vertical), but I've certainly never done them. 4Refugios made every "technical" trail race I've ever done seem tame in comparison. The race is advertised as 42 Km (26 miles) with 3500 meters of elevation gain (11,500 feet) and 3700 meters of descent (12,100 feet). When you factor in that the first 3 and last 3 miles are relatively mild and don’t go up or down that much, it leaves most of that ascent and descent crammed within the middle 20 miles, which makes the average 15% uphill grade and 18% downhill grade even steeper. If you like to bomb wildly down steep insanely technical descents, or scramble up slippery talus slopes at 60% grade then this is the course for you. Add it to your bucket list. Or, if you’d like to be surrounded by grandeur so amazing that it makes you forget that you don’t like really steep insanely technical slopes, then this might also be the course for you. 4Refugios is tough, but so beautiful you won’t regret that face plant down the steep scree field. And, you’ll be wearing a helmet, so at least you won’t damage your head if you do fall.
|The elevation profile. The font is quite possibly to small to read (click to make larger), but I like the 61% max grade tidbit.
4Refugios is challenging not just because of the grade, but the technical nature of the trail, many parts of which are hard to distinguish as a true trail, but rather an exercise in heading in the direction of red painted dots which blaze the way over talus-covered passes. An indication of how poorly I followed this “trail” would be that my Garmin registered 29 miles for the 26 mile course. The shortest point between 2 red dots is indeed a straight line, but this was for me, easier said than done. I also spent some time off course on top of La Navidad, which probably added on a mile, and I potentially took a slightly longer route to the finish, as I passed the same person twice during the final 4 miles, flying by each time, the second time 20 minutes after I passed her the first time. So, my mileage totals were potentially wonky for more reasons than my inability to hit the tangents.
|An example of the trail. Follow the red dots.
|On course. This is up and over the first pass after Refugio Frey, and we're about to bomb down the scree field off to the left in this picture. The video below shows one guy's attempt at the descent.
2015 was the 10th year of 4 Refugios, but only the 2nd year of the version of the race that I was entered in, 4 Refugios Nonstop. 3 races happen during the weekend, 2 Refugios on Saturday, 4 Refugios Classico on Saturday and Sunday (2 Refugios each day), and then the 4 Refugios Nonstop on Sunday. A refugio is basically a mountain hut that provides lodging and meals to backpackers/climbers/skiers. The race passes by 4 scenic mountain huts, which double as aid stations. The event is capped at around 600 runners in the 3 events, somewhat equally distributed among the 3 races. Unique to this race is the requirement to wear a helmet the entire race and carry a harness and 2 locking carabiners to clip onto a fixed line during one of the 2 "tiempo muertos". The required gear includes an additional long list of items including a somewhat extensive medical kit and enough layers to keep you warm were you to get stranded/injured along the way, or survive in the case of inclement weather. The "tiempo muertos" or dead times are designed such that during zones that are particularly tricky/dangerous were you to try to race through them, you've got sufficient time to pass carefully before "racing" on. There’s one 30 minute dead time on the climb up out of the 2nd refugio (Jakob) where you’re required to clip onto a fixed line and it’s a one-at-a-time deal. Another 40 minute dead time starts the final descent, to encourage folks to not kill themselves getting down to the last refugio (Lopez) where there’s someone in charge of telling you when your 40 minutes is up and you can start running again (based on the time that was sharpied onto your race bib at the pass above).
|Hanging out at the first Tiempo Muerto with Lau Lucero and others. Lau, last year's winner, went on to finish 3rd.
Visualization can be a strong tool, those in the sports psychology world say, but when I visualize myself running down a steep rocky slope, it’s never a pretty picture. It starts out OK, but then I always catch my toe and skid to a halt on my face. Lucky for me, I only had one real fall, which cut up my hand a bit and the side of my thigh. My lack of confidence perhaps slowed me on the descents, but looking back, spending extra time on the course was not all bad, as it was unforgettably gorgeous from the minute the sun came up. I don’t regret stopping to snap a few photos, and only wish I’d captured a few more at the hard-to-describe places. But being hard to describe, they were also tricky, and I was more focused on surviving them.
|Not a bad place to slog uphill. Photo by GuiaKmZero.com.
Going in, I knew that the race would not play to my strengths--more runnable courses are my strength, but despite that, courses like 4Refugios are more intriguing to me, and by continuing to run technical mountain races I hope to continue to improve at them. The race distance was also fairly short. Time-wise, no--I've finished 100Ks faster than I "ran" these 42K, but upon finishing I felt I hadn't paced myself properly as I could have kept going for another few hours, held back more by crappy technique than fitness. Not the feeling you want to have at the end of a race. I wound up 4th in 9:47, a long ways off of the top 3 who came in fairly close together with Claudia Veronica Ramirez winning in 9:08, Sonia Boretsky in 9:11, and Lau Lucero in 9:22. Claudia won last year's Clasico version, Sonia has won the Clasico 4 times in the past, and Lau won last year's Nonstop in 9:40, which, without any other reference, was roughly the time I was shooting for, although I also hoped to be competitive. This is a race that I'd love to do again, not necessarily because I feel like I'd be any faster, but just that it was such a cool experience. The 3 local talents definitely showed the visitor who is top on these trails. I'd love to learn some descending tips from these ladies; they were fun to watch bomb downhill.
At times, such as the descent off of La Navidad, I got frustrated with how timidly I was approaching the race, but then would look up at the beauty around me, and acknowledge just how fortunate I am to have had the opportunities that I've had, and the good health to participate in events like these. Out there on course, it was easy to put myself back in a happy place by simply looking at the immense beauty surrounding me. So many highlights, including the reflection on the lake by Refugio Frey, the turquoise mountain lakes looking down from the first Tiempo Muerto, the views both arriving in and leaving Laguna Negra, the complete shock at looking up at Lopez and realizing we literally were going straight up that thing, and then the relief of coming down the other side in a tiempo muerto, and mainly on my butt.
One lesson learned if I were to do this again (and for UTMB later this year), would be to pack more carefully--I felt like I was carrying a ton of bricks, and others seemed to have better thought out the gear requirements and were carrying packs half my size. When you are doing that much climbing, a heavy load feels like a really heavy load. I was happy to finish with minimal damage: no blisters, no hot spots, all my toenails, my quads intact, and all fingers unbroken.
|The lake next to Refugio Frey, the first of the four during the race. I took this on a run earlier in the week. Refugio Frey is a hot spot for climbing with lots of granite spires surrounding it.
Bariloche was a place I visited back in 2003, and it left a lasting impression back then. During the course of the week, I'd get to a place and have one of those deja vu moments, and realize I'd been there before, like Refugio Frey. In returning to them again 12 years later I couldn't help but reflect about who I was then versus who I am now and the adventures I've had in between. Kind of like the experience of the entire 4Refugios course—you finish not quite the same person at the end as the one who began it, but overall better for the experience.
|Refugio Frey. Brought back a lot of fond memories of past travels in Patagonia.
Also, the organization that puts the race on, led by Martin "Cepi" Raffo, with a lot of assistance by Club Andino Bariloche, is top notch. Admittedly, some of the volunteer posts were downright dreamy (albeit a bit cold, windy, and exposed), as you'd run into volunteers standing in the middle of the most spectacular vistas. Many thanks to Cepi and all of the volunteers. 4Refugios is truly a unique event for its difficulty, design, and above all, for its beauty. If you have a bucket list, the desire and means to experience the beauty of Patagonia, and you like technical mountain trail scrambling, then 4Refugios should be on that list!
|After 9:47 of wet, dusty, gravel-filled shoes and socks, my feet were unscathed thanks to Montrail Bajadas and Injinji Trail 2.0s (and a little Desitin).
|Technically you pass by 5 refugios, this being the first, known as Piedritas, but what I like to refer to as Rock, Paper and Scissors in harmony.
|Wildflowers along the course.
|More wildflowers along the course. This particular section is about 2 miles in, and the race passes this part in the dark.
|Racers heading up away from Laguna Negra. At Refugio Italia, the two races merge (2nd day of the Clasico and the Nonstop, so you start to see a lot more racers).
|Continuing to head up away from Laguna Negra towards Lopez on a lot of sharp pointy rocks.
|The race takes you up and over to the left and then Lopez is in the background. We head up the talus slope in the middle of the second row of mountains pictured here.