For years I secretly harbored a desire to take part in one of those insane, extreme adventure races that you see featured on the Discovery or Travel Channel and think, who in their right mind would do that? So last summer, when my friend Holly asked me to partner with her in one of them, I jumped at the chance. It was El Cruce de Los Andes, a grueling 3-day race over 100K of Patagonian mountain terrain between Chile and Argentina. This year’s edition included a 1,560-meter ascent up the volcano Mocho-Choshuenco (which has a height of 2,133 meters), and a run around its peak. ¡Rombo al Volcán! the Cruce website shrieked. How much fun does that sound? So much fun!
As months went by I gradually realized just how much time, effort, and money I would have to devote to this. I started running longer, farther and more often, exercised with a trainer, and went to Cusco, Peru, weeks before the race so I could train at altitude. My goal was merely to finish, and to find out how I held up under intense challenges and stress. I always thought I had the type of personality that could press on when I was exhausted, hurting, and wanting to stop … but one never really knows unless one is in that situation, does one?
My Cruce experience was almost over before it started: Holly fractured her ankle three weeks before the event and couldn’t compete, and this race requires teams of two. We were both so bummed. At the last minute, though, Holly’s friends from Argentina, who knew Cruce organizers, pulled in a replacement partner for me.
After a three-day blur of taxis, buses, airports, and customs from Peru through Chile, I arrived the day before the race at the Cruce campgrounds. We would be spending the first two nights in Puerto Fuy on the shores of Lago Pirehueico. There I met my new partner, Maria: a tall, striking Argentine personal trainer with impossibly long legs, waist-length blonde hair, and, I was soon to discover, the cardiac capacity of an adult cheetah. This would be her fourth Cruce. She was friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, and so daunting. I dubbed her Maria Kournikova.
That first day of camp had a festive atmosphere: music blasting, cameras clicking, boisterous reunions, cheerful introductions, barbecue grills smoking; people splashing in the lake, tanning themselves on the sand, eating and drinking; and waving at the documentary helicopters that dipped and banked over the sparkling waters and swaying treetops and rows of cobalt blue tents that rippled over the hillocks like flags. Local dogs — a scruffy black mutt, a pug mix, a fat beagle — wove in and out of the competitors, sniffing for handouts of sausage and beef. It could have been any giant camping party but for the faint air of tension that permeated the gregarious mood. Lording over the mountainscape to our southwest, the flat-topped, ice-covered Mocho-Choshuenco volcano loomed over its surrounding peaks, a silent and foreboding reminder of the trials that lay ahead. Here and there, people contorted themselves in runners’ stretches, another reminder that we were here to work, not play.
Everyone went to bed early.
The next morning, competitors started emerging from dew-soaked tents before the sun rose, and within an hour everyone was up: shivering, standing in line for breakfast, water, Gatorade, and port-a-potties; taping and lubricating feet, zipping up blue race jackets, bolstering knees and ankles with bandages and braces, pulling on compression socks, lacing trail running shoes, loading camera bags, reviewing the contents of Camelbak running packs, stretching stretching stretching. By the time 8 a.m. rolled around and we headed down the dirt road that led to the start of the course, people were removing their jackets and stuffing them into backpacks. The sun had burst forth strong and hot in a clear morning sky and we didn’t need them now, but the snow-glazed cap of Mocho-Choshuenco awaited us.
We moved en masse about 2 kilometers up the road, some people running but most walking briskly, knowing that another 33 kilometers lay ahead and that there would be plenty of running today. I couldn’t believe how fast Maria Kournikova could walk — her rapid long-legged stride carried her past joggers and walkers seemingly without effort as she chatted and joked with those she passed, many of whom she knew. My stumpy legs were no match and I jogged to keep up. Our dog companions from camp trotted along, and I wondered for how long they would stay with us.
The race organizers had given us small flags of our countries, with our names stamped on them, to attach to our Camelbaks. Most of the flags around me were the pale blue-and-white stripes of Argentina, followed in number by Chile’s navy blue, white, and red flag, and then the vivid green and yellow colors of Brazil. Other flags popped up here and there, but I was one of very few people, maybe 10 among the 1500+ in the race, who bore the Stars and Stripes on my back. Several people shouted “USA!” or “Vamos Estados Unidos!” when they saw me, as they would throughout all three days of the race. I felt giddy, as though I were in the Olympics.
We gathered at a suspension bridge that we knew would be the one bottleneck of the day, and this was really the start of today’s run. Race coordinators stood at the end of the U-shaped bridge, controlling the flow of runners onto it, ensuring we didn’t snap it and go tumbling into the cold green river below. As I waited my turn I saw the scruffy black mutt and fat beagle sitting on the bank, watching us, not taking their chances on the bouncing, swaying bridge. Smart doggies. I stepped onto the bridge, hiking poles in one hand, and grabbed its steel support cable with the other. Its wood slats smelled good, like cedar. Down a long ramp at the other end, and a wide dirt trail stretched out into the jungle. We started running when we hit the ground.
For the first couple of hours the trail was crowded with runners and mostly uphill. I found it hard to set a rhythm, since I was constantly having to pass someone, or dodging those passing me. Maria Kournikova stayed in front of me the whole time and I watched her pace: walking up the steeps, running on the flats and gradual uphills, with me never going as fast as she was but as fast as I could. She clicked into trainer mode: insisting I eat something every half hour, reminding me to drink water, coaching me on how to breathe better, asking now and then, “¿Como estas?”
“Bien,” I’d gasp, unwilling to talk much more than that, lest it get in the way of what had become very intense breathing. We were on a rather direct ascent, and I was working as hard as I could, prodded by Maria Kournikova’s relentless pace. I was red-faced, sweating, panting; she trucked along as casually and comfortably as if she did this every day. Which, for all I knew, she did. As time went on, the runners thinned out on the path, and it became easier to navigate.
The sun burned into the side of my neck and hoped I hadn’t sweated off my sunblock. The higher we got, the cooler it became, and the landscape began to change: less vegetation, more rock and open sun. Along the way I saw another American flag in a backpack with a toy monkey’s head sticking out; these belonged to Theresa from Maine, running with her partner, Olivia from Spain. I had my own stuffed companion buried in my bag: I didn’t want Maria to see Travel Bear and urge me to leave him at camp to save weight. A gift from my niece Charlotte, he has come with me to five continents and was definitely running with me.
We kept going, up through rock, flat plants and scrubby grass, the trees and bushes now far below. All around me, spectacular views of surrounding mountain peaks rising high into the sky looked surreal, like a movie set. The wind grew colder and more insistent and I stopped to pull on a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, buff around my neck, and knitted ear band under my cap. I chewed half a trail mix bar and gulped diluted Gatorade. I could see racers ahead of me, tiny in the distance, climbing a long, steep, straight-up incline toward the top. It did not look easy or —despite the splashy ¡Rombo al Volcán! marketing — fun.
Frost iced the grass as we kept going up the switchback trail, and then we rounded a curve and stepped suddenly into winter: inches of snow on the ground, coated with a thin layer of blown dirt, mushy on the path where hundreds of feet and poles had trodden. My trail runners slipped and slid, unable to gain traction, and I saw others having the same problem. Those who had worn hiking boots were faring better. Maria Kournikova had the footing of a mountain goat and kept her quick steps, stopping on occasion to wait as I moved laboriously through the snow. I felt guilty about slowing her down, but she seemed in good spirits. “Estas bien, Eileen?” She stopped to carve our names and countries into the dirty snow with her pole: MARIA ARG, EILEEN EEUU.
The path turned again and then we were on that sharp climb to the volcano’s peak, a long slow grim march that would have been far more tolerable if not for the shrieking wind bearing down on us like the wrath of God. I huffed upward, my feet sliding in all directions, glad for the hiking poles that had become necessary to keep my footing while others slipped and fell around me. I watched Maria Kournikova’s red Camelbak above me: how was she moving so fast through this? The ascent seemed never-ending, and with little else but whiteness around, I had to mark my progress by identifying stationary landmarks, mostly teams above me that had stopped for whatever reason. I couldn’t imagine stopping in this wind. In my mind resounded the voice of Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming … just keep swimming …” Near the top was a ridge of dirt-blown snow where people had scraped their names and initials. Because this was Super Bowl weekend, I took my hiking pole and wrote LET’S GO GIANTS NY USA.
Finally, the top: the trail evened out, and ahead rose the apex of the volcano, jutting high up from the rest of the mountain. Now we would have to circle it and come back down. I saw how the track veered to the left. It was a wide road through the snow, just as mushy and difficult to traverse as the one uphill. This felt like walking through deep sand, yet some people were running on it. Maria Kournikova could have run, but she slowed to match my walk; I was breathing so hard from the climb that running through snow/sand was not gonna happen. I could see runners off to my right who had completed the circuit around the volcano, lucky bastards: they were sprinting downhill and out of sight.
I wondered how long it would take to get around the volcano. The wind howled and whipped my face. My shoes were sopping, my frozen ears might as well have been uncovered, and though the cold air cut through me, my shirt was wet with sweat. Pulling my buff over my face, as many people did, only got in the way of my breathing. I needed every available bit of oxygen I could get.
The track yawned way out, and my heart sank as I saw runners ahead getting smaller and smaller in the distance before disappearing from view around the track’s circular curve. How long is this thing, anyway? I had imagined the top of the volcano to be a lot narrower, the circuit around it much shorter, but it was like a small mountain unto itself and the track around it looked more like a snow highway. The whole world turned into a blend of blinding white snow that matched the clouds, bright blue sky that matched our race jackets, and dark volcanic rock in the middle of it all that rose into the sky.
The track seemed endless. At every curve I expected to see the end of the circuit, to spot other runners just arriving at the top, but I would instead be greeted by yet another long stretch of snow road, sometimes going up a high hill; yet another vantage point of the majestic volcano peak that by now seemed to mock me. A few times, the snow would flatten out to where I could see rock under it, and I ran on that, anxious to get the hell off this volcano. The wind howled into me, from the side, then from the front, never letting up. And then, rounding one more curve — the peak shielded us from the wind at this angle, and it became blissfully still and quiet. Around the next curve, oh joy — the track angled downhill and I saw other runners on their way up the mountain, now starting the trek that I had just finished. Poor bastards.
But the slope down from the volcano proved a treacherous slippery slide down, down, down, like skiing without skis, and people were falling left and right. A couple of girls plopped down on their butts and just slid down. “Mira, Eileen!” Maria Kournikova shouted. “¡Hazlo así!” And, her left side facing downhill, she started bounding in high-stepped leaps, then would pop herself around so her right side faced down, skip skip skip, alternating left and right like her shoes had springs in them, sure-footed and fast down the hill, passing everyone else struggling to stay upright. While there was no way I could summon up the energy to jump like she was, the side-to-side method worked, and I scooted down half-sliding and half-shuffling.
At the bottom, race coordinators were helping people up onto a spiky hill of dark volcano rock and I silently thanked the gods to see solid terrain once more. My relief was short-lived: the hill was made of loose stones and pebbles over crumbly dirt, just as slippery as the snow, and we had to carefully pick our way up and down. Losing one’s footing here would mean a nasty fall onto nasty rocks below. At this point, two spikes of pain embedded into the base of my skull: I never get headaches, and the ferocity of this one surprised me. I had ibuprofen with me, but this was no place to stop. We had several rocky peaks to cross, up and down, up and down — til, thankfully, grass and bushes started to appear along the landscape and one more descent down the rocks led to a gravel road that wound downward through trees. At this point I realized how badly my legs were shaking. I also realized my headache was gone. I stopped to remove layers of clothes. My hands were shaking too. I asked Maria, with her distance watch, how much longer we had to go. “Quince kilómetros,” she answered. Fifteen more: we were more than halfway there, and the hardest part was behind us.
The gravel road turned into wide dirt trails through the jungle once more: hot, but shaded, the air carrying earthy scents of moss and wood and sun-baked leaves, with an occasional gurgle or roar of a waterfall or mountain stream bubbling over rocks. Racers stopped to fill bottles and Camelbak bladders: no fear of parasites from this cold, clear, pristine water.
I didn’t want to keep bugging Maria about the distance, but exhaustion had set in and I was starting to feel anxious. “Nueve kilómetros,” she’d say, and I’d think okay, nine more, that’s like, five and a half miles … I was mentally comparing the distance to ones I had run before, from training in various locations around the world in the past few months. That’s from Sullivan and Houston to Chelsea Piers and back. That’s from my flat, twice around Finsbury Park and back. That’s from San Blas up to Cristo Blanco and down to the plaza. Anything to give myself some precedent: I know I can do that. I have done it before. I am tired but I can do that. I had not filled my Camelbak from any of the streams, though, and now it was dry. I could not believe I had consumed three liters of liquid and still had five-and-a-half miles to go.
But when we got to a pair of race coordinators in the road, nearing the end of the nine kilometers, they handed us water and Gatorade (to my relief) and shouted, “Faltan cinco kilómetros!” (to my horror).
“Wait, what, five more?” I stopped short in disbelief. “But we’re at 33!” I repeated it in Spanish to Maria Kournikova. She confirmed it with the race people. “Yes. There are five more to go.” She must’ve seen the look on my face because she added, “Vamos Eileen. Puedes hacerlo.”
I wasn’t sure I had it in me. I felt distraught and my twin-spiked headache had come roaring back. As I rooted in my pack for my ibuprofen, another Camelbak with an American flag jogged by — this was Maria, an American running with her British teammate, two of the first people I had met at camp. “Hey hey USA!” she yelled at me. “Three more miles! Go go go!”
I washed my ibuprofen down glumly, wishing I could feel as cheerful. Within 10 minutes the Advil had kicked in and I could jog again. Slowly. But it was faster than walking, and at that point the only thing on my mind was how badly I wanted to cross that finish line, to stop, to sit, to be comfortable again. Maria Kournikova was still sprightly and looked as though she’d spent the day relaxing with a nice cup of coffee and doing crossword puzzles. I’m sure that I, on the other hand, looked as beaten out and defeated as I felt.
Five kilometers later, by Maria Kournikova’s watch: no finish line anywhere in sight. “What in the hell.” I wanted to cry. “¿Donde estaaaaaaa?” I whined to my partner. She shrugged and spoke to some runners passing us, and confirmed we had indeed come five kilometers, but apparently had more than that to go. “Vamonos.”
For the next two kilometers my mind strayed to a deep, dark, terrible place, with me making harsh judgments about myself, the race organizers, the guys in the road, fellow racers, Maria Kournikova, everyone — but especially, and most damningly, myself. I had to remind myself that I was hurting, tired, discouraged, and not thinking straight, but it was surprising to me how quickly I could become irrational and super negative when I felt physically awful. How powerful and immediate was the connection between pain or discomfort, and dangerous bad thoughts.
About two kilometers later, we came upon some locals that had been recruited by the race to give us our remaining distances. “¡200 metros!” they yelled, pointing to a path that wound through the trees. Finally, thank God. “¡Por fin!” I said to Maria Kournikova, and started to jog a little faster.
No finish line. No finish line. We turned a corner and found, instead of the big blue inflatable arch, a steep hill. I cursed and we slowed to a walk. At the top, we started to run again. A little girl was standing at the end of the lane, pointing to a gently sloping uphill trail. I huffed “Gracias,” at her as we jogged up the trail. No finish line. No finish line. “Where in the frigging hell?”
Off to our left I spotted a flight of wooden steps leading down to a street and then, at last, that big blue arch I’d been dreaming about all day. Maria Kournikova grabbed my hand and we ran full speed through it. After nine hours and one minute, I could stop.
Later, speaking to other runners, we confirmed that the course had indeed gone for six more kilometers than advertised, and the people at the end definitely had underestimated the remaining lengths. I was comforted to hear that this discrepancy had thrown other runners into the same psychological funk as me. We had traveled just over 40K that day, more than a marathon, the same distance we were expected to go the next day.
We took buses back to the camp and, walking in, people who had already arrived cheered and clapped for us. “¡Felicitaciones!” This was cool — there was none of the ultra-competitive bullshit I had been expecting and dreading; the racers were all pretty supportive of each other from elites to novices. I limped up to the area in front of the food tent, where people were sitting in clusters eating and drinking, dropped my pack and sank to the grass, stretching leg muscles that were already stiffening up. A dip in the cold lake, a change of clothes and major amounts of pasta were waiting for me and then — tomorrow, another 40K. I didn’t know how I was going to pull that off, but I couldn’t think about that now. I had to concentrate on being so incredibly grateful to pull off damp shoes, peel off two layers of wet socks, apologize to my puffy and sore feet, and finally, blessedly, rest.
Next Entry: El Cruce de Los Andes 2012 — Day 2, Part 1 >
Photo by Diego Constantini Fotografia
Photo Copyright 2012 El Cruce Columbia
El Cruce de los Andes 2012 Official Photos: Day 1, Gallery 1
El Cruce de los Andes 2012 Official Photos: Day 1, Gallery 2