March 2, 2011
The Way We Ran
Two sore days into the 100k Cruce de los Andes, my partner and I hit the tent. By headlamp, Anne trimmed the parts of her feet that would soon fall off anyway. With dirt-streaked, inflamed ankles and knees, I was more discarded Cabbage Patch doll than adventure athlete, despite a recent wet wipe sponge bath. Was my head actually resting over a dried cowpie? After 8 hours on the course, all prime camping spots had been taken.
A bullhorn shook the campgrounds, "Mandatory racers briefing on the beach! Tomorrow's route has changed..." Were they kidding? It was 11pm.
Welcome to Argentina, where even in an athletic event, the day doesn't end until it's the next. Another sure sign we were there--the race director would soon urge us to pocket meat from the grill to fuel the following day's grueling summit run. In his pep talk (which was sounding more and more like a concession speech) he said that the final day would rival the one we had just faced. The crowd groaned. The day we had just finished included five river crossings, some skittish scree descents and an elevation gain of 2000meters.
But he had good news! Those teams who just weren't up for it could take an 'alternative route'--which turned out to be the main road for cars over Icalma pass into Chile.
Did we come this far to run a road? Broken as we were, we thought not.
That second day, we had soldiered on but run less and less. A pain in my right knee made running downhill excruciating--so we hiked. And I can say that the most difficult aspect of this long-distance race was watching myself perform at a rate I knew I could exceed. But part of the challenge lies in reconciling high adrenaline with an injury. I had to go for it without going for it. A muscle relaxant passed on by an anonymous racer and the searing views of the high Andes helped.
One aspect of the race we hadn't expected--bottlenecks. These happened when the trail narrowed and a tall rock outcrop or ultra-steep descent made for lines a hundred runners strong. On the final day, we had reached the ridgetop with fanfare-- we were technically in Chile!
The path was narrow, the views were big. Pain? Face to face with giant, snow-covered volcanoes, we started running out of sheer joy.
That wasn't destined to last. Ten minutes on we hit a bank line. Hundreds of runners were stopped before a steep section with a rope and race monitors. In an hour, the line had barely budged. Runners were weary, antsy, spent. But in this situation, there was little to do.
A pair of condors swept toward us, gliding, spiraling over the human spectacle (and smells). Everyone looked up. In a moment to remember, we weren't busy trying to beat ourselves. We were just alive in the Andes.
Much later, we would cross the finish line just in time for Chilean customs to stamp our passport before they closed. Almost everything was broken, but you had to be pretty happy about the almost part.