Six-thirty a.m. rolled around way too quickly. It seemed like only ten minutes ago I had snuggled down with that itchy blanket like it was cashmere, and lost consciousness. As I forced myself to sit up, yawning and watching my fellow competitors doing the same in the lurid glow of the fluorescent lights, I wondered how long I had slept. The night before, I’d deliberately avoided all references to the hour because I didn’t want to know. Realizing how little sleep I would get was only going to make me more anxious before the third and final day, and I was already thrown off by these logistical challenges that I had not expected. I had learned by now that as physically demanding as this race was, the mental part was equally as critical.
The military barracks had showers, and though I rinsed off under the warm spray, I still had to get re-dressed in the clothes I had worn yesterday — the same running tights and race shirt in which I had run more than 45K sweating the entire time, then waded waist-deep through lake water, then dried in the campfire smoke, then wore to bed. I couldn’t stand the way I smelled. I knew I had clean running togs waiting for me back at camp, in my bag, and this made me feel a little better about my day ahead. All my fellow bunk-mates were in my exact position, so we shared a unique lack-of-sleep, lack-of-food, nasty-clothes solidarity. We filed onto the buses.
I leaned my seat back and tried to sleep, but the winding mountain roads were made of dirt and gravel, the bus didn’t exactly have advanced shock absorbers, and I bounced around like a BB shaken in a coffee can. I stretched my legs straight out into the aisle and rotated my ankles, trying to improve circulation. My feet and hands had been puffy since yesterday morning — my trainer-partner had explained this was my body’s defense against dehydration, its attempt to retain as much water as it could. Examining my skin stretched tightly across bloated hands and ankles, I considered that my body was perhaps a little too defensive.
By the time we pulled up to the border and stopped in front of the Argentine immigration office, I felt glad our race coordinator had to go talk to the officers, because I could fall asleep immediately. And did. The rattle of the idling engine gently rocked the bus.
So, I noticed right away when someone cut the engine. Through my haze of waking up in the abrupt quiet, I knew this was not a good sign. My fellow passengers were conferring, spinning around in their seats to consult each other, and drifting off the bus to ask what was happening. I figured there was nothing I could do to contribute to the situation, and fell back to sleep.
I don’t know how long it lasted, but what woke me up this time was the sound of crying. Specifically, by the woman across the aisle from me, sobbing, and being comforted by two other racers. I sat up, suddenly alert, and eavesdropped. As rapidly as they were speaking in Spanish, I understood that we could not return across the border and enter Chile — not without our documents. Whatever arrangements the race organizers had made with the border officers the night before were moot. We couldn’t get back to camp. And we probably wouldn’t be finishing the race today.
I jumped up and ran off the bus. Maria Kournikova was standing with several other runners, in a circle around the race coordinator. I asked my partner if what I’d heard was true and she confirmed that yes, this was the scenario. She was upset, but staying calm, unlike some of the others who were shouting all at once at the race coordinator.
The coordinator, who had been all no-nonsense, large-and-in-charge the night before, was clearly flustered now. She put her hands up and yelled above the din. No, she said, they would not let us across the border without our passports — but the race directors at camp had been notified. They were sending our bags here, so we’d be able to get back to the starting line. We’d be starting late, yes — we’d be the last teams to leave — but it was better than not running at all.
A truck pulled up not long after, and a race staffer jumped out, went around to the trailer, and started unloading suitcases and backpacks. We called our team numbers to him, and he’d rifle through the pile and hold a bag out to eager hands. Several people were now scattered around the lawn of the border office, digging through their luggage, unpacking new running clothes and tearing open packets of food. My stomach groaned and I thought about the trail mix bars in my bag. It wouldn’t be the ideal breakfast, but better than nothing. I hadn’t eaten much dinner, and the lone mini-Snickers I’d had yesterday in my Camelbak was long gone, having been stress-eaten on the bus the night before.
I pressed through the others and looked into the trailer. Only about seven or eight bags remained in there. None of them were mine.
Maria Kournikova had gotten her backpack, and was now offering me some cookies she’d unpacked. “Where’s yours?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It’s not there.”
She stopped chewing. “It’s not there?”
“It’s not there.” I wasn’t alone. Several other racers had not received their bags, either. Some of them were snapping at the race staffer in the truck, and he hollered that it wasn’t his fault and jumped into the cab and peeled out.
Which left the female race coordinator. People were livid and hollering at her, and she was trying to write down the names and team numbers of those who had not received their bags, and they kept yelling, and then she burst into tears. Some of the women racers snapped right from shouting to trying to hug her, which made her shriek, “Don’t touch me!” and jump away like she’d been scalded. Pandemonium.
Very few of the teams now had both runners with proper documents — the rest were missing one or both passports, so we still couldn’t return. It was by now late morning and the first runners would be crossing the border any minute now. People were suggesting to the race coordinator that we be allowed to start from here, and run to the finish line. It wouldn’t be ideal, but at least we could finish the race.
The race coordinator went in to talk to the border officers, and came out a few minutes later looking desperately unhappy. They weren’t letting us go anywhere, she said. We had no documents — our passports had not been stamped last night, coming from Chile — and we weren’t even supposed to be in Argentina. We would have to wait until all our passports had arrived before we could go anywhere. And that could be a very … long … time.
We wouldn’t be finishing the race.
Pandemonium. More shouting. More crying. And then, in the middle of it all, a flash of blue race shirts and blur of Camelbaks — a team of two men had jumped up and started sprinting up the road, toward the finish line. Runners screamed at them to come back. Border guards yelled for them to stop. Border guard dogs barked. An immigration officer jumped onto an ATV and zoomed down the road, after the absconding team. The race coordinator dropped to the ground and started wailing. Pandemonium.
In the middle of it all, I burst out laughing. I wasn’t happy — far from it — but this situation had gone from absurd to surreal. Other runners glared at me as I laughed until I was exhausted, wiping tears from my eyes, a residual giggle escaping now and then.
The first racers had started coming through the border, getting their passports stamped and waving them triumphantly at us as they darted up the road. My bunk-mates all plopped down in front of the border office and watched glumly as a flood of blue shirts came running through. Some of them knew the racers and shouted encouragement. There was no sign of the team that had fled to the finish line, nor the officer on the ATV. I assumed they had ducked him until they could blend in with the other racers, now crowding the dirt road. I was glad they got away. At least they get to finish, I thought. I didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
I was thirsty, and wandered inside the border office to find a drinking fountain. I asked a cleaning lady and she told me it was in the bathroom. She meant the sink.
I was going to be here for a long time. I filled my Camelbak water bag, hoping the treated drinking water down here in the valley was as clean as the mountain streams far above. I went back outside. The border guards had set up passport-stamping tables by now, and masses of racers jostled to get their documents validated and keep running.
One of the border guards stood by the door holding a leash attached to a gigantic yellow Labrador in a police K-9 vest. I asked the guy if I could pet the dog, and he said yes — it would not even have occurred to me to ask this from a U.S. customs officer with a working dog. I scratched the Lab behind his ears and he flopped down onto the ground, flipping over so I could rub his belly. Petting a dog is supposed to relieve stress, and I didn’t know what else to do. Watching all the racers running toward the finish line was just too depressing.
I sat there for a few minutes with the dog until I saw the race coordinator on the grass talking intently to a bunch of the other stranded racers, including Maria Kournikova. I watched, frowning, and then suddenly all the runners sprang into action, strapping on Camelbaks, pulling on shoes and taking off down the road, mingling in with the rest of the runners. My partner flew over to me. “¡Eileen! ¡Podemos correr! ¡Vamos, vamos!”
For whatever reason, they were letting us finish, and by the way everyone was beating it out of there and by Maria Kournikova’s sense of urgency, I understood this was a decision that could be reversed at any time. I jumped up (startling the lolling “working” Lab at my side), grabbed my pack, and latched it onto me while jogging after my partner.
I had no idea how far along the course we were, but huffing up the dirt road, I prepared mentally for another full day of running. It was daunting. I was not starting from a good place. I’d had five cookies for breakfast, no other food in me or with me, and a Camelbak half filled with restroom sink water. I had planned to switch to more supportive shoes today; I’d planned to put on a different type of running bra, since the one I’d been wearing for over 24 hours had chafed its metal clasps into my back. I couldn’t do either of those. And I was filled with doubt, more so than the other two days. I’m uncomfortable. I’m unprepared. I don’t have what I need. What happens when I run out of energy and have no way to replenish? What if I’m in pain and my last two Tylenol don’t cut it?
The doubts turned into dire predictions. This is going to be terrible. I’m going to be hurting, slow, tired, and I’m never going to make it. I can’t run like this! I’m never going to finish. At the same time I realized what was happening: I was defeating myself. The inner argument started all over again as I ran slowly down the dirt road, which had moved from the open sunshine of midday into the cooler, tree-shaded forest.
I can’t dwell on what is wrong with this situation. I have to stay positive. It is shady. It is not hot. I have water. I can take it easy and concentrate on finishing.
The cumulative hours of running today and yesterday, nearly 90K combined, had rubbed raw patches across my back where my Camelbak fastened. I can’t run like this, whined the defeatist inner voice. I’m going to have to stop.
So we fix it. We figure it out, the other voice responded. We are not stopping.
Why is one of them an “I” and the other one “we”? I pondered as I flipped my Camelbak around to hang in front of me. I ran like that for a while, but it didn’t feel natural and slowed me down. Forget it. I’ll never be able to finish with this thing dangling in front of me. It’s no use. …
… We are too gonna finish. We are gonna stop and get comfortable and we are going to finish.
I slowed down and called for Maria Kournikova, running easily in front of me, to wait. In my bag was an extra tank top, and I stripped off my race shirt, yanked my race buff in between my bra and my back for extra padding, and changed into the tank top. The different material helped. I adjusted the straps on my Camelbak so that it hung lower, low enough to avoid rubbing against the chafed areas on my back. Better.
Now, we run and we finish.
The road stayed on the path through the trees, along rolling slopes, with gentle uphills and slightly steeper downhills: a nice, pleasant course. We can handle this. For another hour or so, I did handle it. We all did. Me and the voices in my head.
Then, the doubt: it’s been over an hour and I am supposed to be eating. This course is gonna be 26K, longer if they screw with the distances like they have been doing all along, which they probably will. I’m going to run out of gas. I’m not going to make it.
And the refutation: Give me a break. You can’t spell ASSET without ASS! We have plenty of energy! Fat stores … engage!
And just as the voice of reason was winning, the road wound down, down, down and a man in a Cruce staff shirt stood at a crook in the road, pointing to his right and cheering. “Faltan uno! ¡Solo uno mas!”
Wait, what? We’d been running slightly less than two hours; I was preparing for at least twice that and likely more. I had become so conditioned to ignore the distances stated by the race people along the road that I disregarded what he said.
We turned onto a beach along a different lake; the sand was mushy and wet, and we ran through deep streams of cold water that flowed from the woods into the lake. Aw man, now we have to run in wet socks and shoes? I wondered how long that would last, and defeat started its annoying prattle. Oh great. Now we’re gonna get blisters. Now we’re gonna …
Shut up. Would you just shut up already?
Miraculously, on this day, the guy in the street had not been messing with us after all. He was right. There had been only one kilometer to go … to twin boats ferrying racers across a short but deep river, to the other side where coordinators were helping them disembark. Runners waiting on the shore were clapping, cheering, hugging, congratulating those just arriving, including a very confused me. “What? We’re done? We’re done?”
We were done! … well, almost. The race organizers had shortened today’s course from 26K to 21K, apparently in response to complaints that the previous days’ distances were longer than advertised. We were supposed to cover 100K in three days; we’d covered nearly 90K in two. And the border office was located more than halfway along today’s course.
The finish line was just up the road. The hard part was over. But strangely — especially after today’s nasty dialogue between the competing voices in my head — I felt cheated. I knew logically that I had run as much of the course as I could, that I had not done anything to shorten it, that I would have run the entire thing if I could — and, more importantly, I could have run it. I had done as much as race logistics and circumstances would allow. I had finished honorably and fairly.
But I still felt cheated — and worse, felt like I had cheated — when our Aussie and American friends, Janno and Melissa, came running up, having started from camp that morning. “Eileen! Maria! You’re here!” Hugs. “We were so worried when you didn’t come back! We had no idea what happened to you!”
We gave them a brief account of what we’d gone through from last night to now. “You finished! You got to run after all!” they crowed.
“Well, not the whole thing,” I amended. “We ran from the border — remember? We didn’t really finish.”
Janno waved that off. “Stop it. You did finish. You did it! We did it!”
Hugs. High fives. Photos.
As I climbed out of the canoe and stepped onto the shore, I thought about the asterisk I was mentally attaching to my finishing time. Yes, I had completed the race … according to official race regulations … but not really, that inner voice whispered. I didn’t want to finish with an asterisk, but it was how I would finish, nonetheless. Other people had run farther than I had. Fact.
I thought about why I felt disappointed. Even though I had run more than two marathons back-to-back and had covered just under the 100K the race had demanded, I wondered if I could really say I had accomplished what I had set out to do.
I had entered El Cruce because I wanted to know if I could rise to the formidable challenge it posed. I knew that I could handle stress, having lived through unavoidable challenges that life had thrown my way. I had survived them … but mostly because, during those times, I had no choice. This race was a chance to find out whether I had it in me to survive stresses that I did not have to endure. I put myself in this situation, and I could walk away if it got too bad.
I thought about the volcano, the uphill climbs, the driving cold wind, the mushy snow. The painful feet. The exhaustion. The sunburn, the chapped lips, the raw skin, the swollen extremities. The wet. The cold. The hunger. The uncertainties I hadn’t planned for — frustration, no bags, limited sleep, unexpected travel, a roller-coaster of emotion as I prepared to run, then not run, then run, then not run, then run.
Lots of people had dropped out of the race, most of them after the fiasco with the bags. But I didn’t. I could have, and no one in the world would have blamed me. As we rounded the corner and saw the big blue inflatable arch at the end, it occurred to me that not only didn’t I quit, amid all the difficulties — but that I had never considered it. Not even once. Technicalities aside, distance be damned: I had my answer.
I grabbed Maria’s hand for the third time that weekend and we ran as fast as we could through the finish line.