Hours after we had finished Day 1— up, around and down the volcano — it started raining while most of us were eating dinner. The rains dropped fast and sudden, compelling people to gather up plates and cups and hurry off the rolling grass and under big communal tents set up in the middle of camp. Packed together like that became an opportunity to meet people in an already congenial environment, and I found myself in a group of sociable Argentine guys: Juan, Guillermo, Paolo. Their friends kept squeezing into our circle, joining us, greeting me with the customary kiss-kiss: an overly intimate introduction for Manhattan but strictly how they roll in Buenos Aires.
Before long, several fit and very friendly guys surrounded me, a not-unwelcome scenario by any stretch. One of them kept sighing that he loved the American accent, making me wonder exactly what my butchered Spanish sounded like to them. They wanted to know if I was single. “Que pasa en la montaña …” Juan began, and his friends finished the sentence with a shout: … “queda en la montaña!” What happens on the mountain, stays on the mountain. It was a little rain-party I could’ve enjoyed for hours under different circumstances — but the night grew darker by the minute, I had force-fed myself as much pasta and bananas as I could (my body, oddly, wanted no food after 40K up and down the volcano) — and I was growing tired. Very tired. And nervous about Day 2. Very nervous.
The rain didn’t let up for hours, drumming against my tent, which is generally ideal sleeping weather but I kept waking during the night, anxiety twisting and roiling in my gut. I considered the prospect of running 40K in the rain tomorrow, wet and cold, on trails that were surely being turned to deep mud slicks at that very moment. After today’s slog through mushy snow, could I repeat it? I snuggled deep into my sleeping bag, talking myself down. I’m warm now, I’m dry now, I am comfortable right now and the best thing I can do is rest and not think about tomorrow until it gets here.
When I woke up for real the rain had stopped, though deep puddles everywhere (including pooled in tent folds) ensured we got wet anyway. But I was so glad not to have to get ready in the rain that I felt good. Optimistic. And, despite my sleepless night, rested. I packed my rain jacket in my Camelbak, though bands of bright blue sky expanded more and more above us as the clouds dissolved, and it looked like the beginning of another beautiful day in Patagonia. The post-rainstorm morning air blew over us, cold and clean, smelling like wet green grass and damp bark. For the second time we walked down the road to the suspension bridge. The real race would start there, again, though on a different route today. The green river had risen a bit higher, its currents frothing a bit faster, but you could still see every branch, every stone, clear to the bottom.
Today’s trail peeled away on a straight path through the jungle, departing from yesterday’s route that had led us up, up, always up. I had known intellectually that the Day 2 course would be more forgiving, flatter than the rumbo al volcán of Day 1, but still felt pleasantly surprised at how easy this seemed. It also felt far less crowded from the get-go, probably because most people could start running right away and not have to walk up every slope. This course had uphills, but not as steep or long — or both — as yesterday’s. And, miraculously: very little mud. With many of the trails covered by rocks, or by a mat of long grasses flattened out by the runners ahead of me, traction didn’t pose a problem. The sun filtered through the treetops, providing warmth but not heat.
Those body parts that had been aching yesterday — legs, butt, feet, abdomen, upper back where my Camelbak fastened — all felt warm, loose, and strong, a twinge of tightness here and there: but this served as a reminder of muscles working as they should, not a source of discomfort. My breath came in long, deep inspirations, my lungs seemingly limitless. I felt alive, powerful, superhuman. What was this? Was I getting the “runner’s high” I’d earned yesterday, hours after having stopped? I cautioned myself not to get too confident, not to feel too good, because I had a long day ahead — then common sense prevailed. Yes! You have a long day ahead. If you can feel good now, then for Chrissake, let yourself. My inner dialogue had taken on a running tug-of-war between positive and negative, reason and despair, comfort and punishment.
I leaped over fallen logs and darted zigzag downhill, passing other runners left, right, and center, keeping up with Maria Kournikova, trees flying by me in a blur. I felt like I was in a scene from LOST, where someone is always sprinting through the jungle. I am Kate. I am Sawyer. I am the Smoke Monster.
The course led off the narrow trails and onto a wide-open dirt road where we didn’t have to worry anymore about the logistics of passing each other: no grunting “A la izquierda,” or “Medio!” as we tried not to bang into other runners in our path; no scrunching out of the way when someone faster came flying past. We spread out, occasionally having to move when a vehicle came bumping down the rutted road, but mostly we had it all to ourselves. The sun was by now blasting dry heat into every corner of the landscape, the clouds few and far between, and Maria Kournikova chided me on occasion to stay on the left side of the road, where rows of trees provided the occasional burst of shade. She had a point. I might feel invincible now, but that sun was merciless, and we still had hours to go. I asked her how far we’d come. “Diez kilómetros.” One-fourth of the distance behind me, one-fourth of my day feeling, not merely “bien,” but great. This was luck I had not counted on.
From the road we turned back onto trails, with steep hills upward reminiscent of yesterday’s. I had been able to move at my own rhythm today, much more so than I had yesterday, and the transitions from running to walking were easier. I was conscious of my muscle groups changing roles as I shifted from downhill to flat to uphill. Quads, core, shoulders. Calves, hamstrings, lower back. Glutes glutes glutes glutes glutes. It all seemed so easy now, after yesterday’s constant struggle just to continue putting one foot in front of the other.
But then, disaster. After we had climbed a fairly tough set of uphills and were back on flat ground: pain. Dull pain and lots of it, in my feet. I have a foot condition called plantar fasciitis, and with orthotic arch supports in my shoes am usually pain free. But now, my feet were protesting with a sharp zing every time I stepped down. Oh why, why, why this now? We were only halfway through and in all other respects, I felt fine. I stopped and walked a bit, then started to run again. Stopped and started, stopped and started. Maria Kournikova had gotten way ahead and now turned to find me limping along. Runners we had passed were overtaking us. “Vamos, Eileen!”
“Hang on. Espere.” I stopped, the sweat trickling down my back now having more to do with my feet than with the sun that was, by now, high overhead and baking last night’s rains out of the landscape. “Mis pies me duelen mucho,” I called to her. “Espere, momentito.” I dove for my pill bottle, extracting two Advil and two Tylenol. I knew this was probably overkill, and not necessarily smart. But at that moment in my inner dialogue, desperation shouted down reason. Something worked, because 15 minutes later I was able to jog again, the pain having subsided to a dull ache that I could live with and, more importantly, run on. All during my training I had certainly never intended to win this race, or even care much about my standings — but now that I was in it, I did care. I was running well today and wanted to make up some of the time I had racked up yesterday, slogging through the snow.
A few more kilometers of flat road and gradual uphills, and I started to crash — my fatigue, I figured, due mostly to the abrupt halt in momentum that my foot pain had caused. But at the top of a high green mountaintop, the path changed: all downhill, fabulous downhill, a wide dirt-and-grass path that switchbacked down, down, down, looking out over a deep green valley ringed with a postcard mountainscape that rippled and folded and spiked up into a cobalt sky. With gravity on my side and the dramatic vista of the Andes unspooling all around me, running became easy again. One of the documentary helicopters roared around the mountain, dropping down to just above our heads, its rotors whipping fresh air and leaves all around as the videographer hung partly out of the door, aiming his camera down at us.
The last quarter of the 40K went like that: downhill, then through jungle again, the late sun having burned off its midday strength and filtering gently between the branches overhead, suffusing all the greenery around us with a bronze glow. I stopped to refill my Camelbak at an impossibly picturesque bubbling stream, the water as pure and cold as I’d ever tasted. My feet had started to protest again but we were nearing the end, and there was no way I was going to stop and walk now. Maria Kournikova confirmed the distance on her watch. “Faltamos siete kilómetros.” I was by now legitimately tired and hurting, but the inner cheerleader kicked in. Okay. Seven kilometers. At this pace and even slower, that is another hour of running and I can do this for another hour. It is a beautiful day, it is not hot anymore, most of this is downhill and I can do this for another hour.
Halfway into my hour, we came upon three race coordinators along a crossroads in the path, and they pointed us toward the correct route. Maria Kournikova asked how much longer, and they responded, “Siete kilómetros!”
“Whaaaat!” It was seven half an hour ago. Are you kidding me? Doubt started to creep in. What was this? Last night at camp, everyone had been complaining about the discrepancy in that day’s route, how we had run several kilometers more than what we’d been told originally, how the people at the end had underestimated our remaining distances. It had been a frustrating situation for which nobody was prepared. Was it happening again?
It was. We ended up going at least six kilometers past what we’d expected, maybe more. By that time, I had stopped asking about the remaining distance, because the responses had become meaningless. My feet were sending up jabs of pain again; I was exhausted and angry over not knowing how much longer we had to go, or how much more energy I would have to expend. Every step I took sent waves of fury from my feet up through my body. I pictured my rage blasting out of my ears, in black plumes of smoke like a locomotive, one puff with each step.
A grown man and two boys stood at the end of the road. “Allí, allí!” they called as we approached, pointing down a path that led into a grove, across ground that looked more sandy than what we’d been running on. Race flags fluttered from tree branches. “El fin! Medio kilómetro!”
My rage disappeared, replaced now by gratitude. In that instant I went from hating the race coordinators to loving them; the adventure-race version of Stockholm Syndrome. We entered the grove and my eyes adjusted to the shade: yes, there was a lake shore at the end of this path, the shimmering blue water beckoning us. “¡Por fin! ¡Vamonos!” My legs churned, numb to any sensation except anticipation. Fast, fast, fast down that path, and at the end I saw two more race coordinators waving their arms. Feet crunched onto sand and pebbles.
I stopped before banging right into the race staffers, and looked around for the blue arch. This shore was quite narrow, with just a few feet of sand before the water lapped the edge, and tons of fallen trees extended from the thick surrounding forest into the water. Where was it? I looked at one of the race people quizzically. “¿Donde está …?” He pointed off toward the shoreline before I had finished my thought, and said something, but I couldn’t even hear him, because a flood of disbelief had rushed into my head. There were no runners sprinting thankfully under a blue inflatable arch. Instead I saw El Cruce flags tied to branches that jutted out of the water, and people ahead of me in racing shirts wading knee deep, thigh deep: climbing over fallen logs, ducking under them, inching across a natural obstacle course that lay all along the shoreline.
“En serio?” I demanded. The race people nodded. After more than a marathon’s worth of walking and running through the Andes we were depleted, our limbs rubbery, expecting to finish … and now, we had to navigate this forest of fallen trees in the water. Up, down, over, under, hopping down off of big tree trunks into cold water up to the ankles or knees. I started climbing, hauling myself over mossy wet logs. Over each one I expected to see the shoreline open up, the big blue inflatable archway appear like a benediction before us. But when the trees did thin out, all I saw was a line of racers ahead of me like blue ants marching all around the undulating shoreline, over trees, over rocks and boulders jutting out from the water’s edge. They got smaller and smaller as they circled the water, with no end in sight.
I looked across the giant sparkling lake and there I saw it. A tiny blue dot. And I wouldn’t have believed it, except that this was a shade of blue that generally didn’t occur in nature, not around here anyway, and it was par for the course that just when I thought I was finished, when I had spent every last bit of energy in the vault, I would realize that I would now have to go into overdraft.
We were not done.