When I spotted the finish line, way across the vast span of blue lake (which sparkled almost obscenely cheerfully in the late-afternoon sun) I let myself bask in undiluted, full-body rage for maybe 10 seconds — 15? — but not much longer, because Maria Kournikova had gotten far ahead of me, runners were coming up behind — and if they were as pissed off as I was over this long, precarious technical portion sprung on us after more than 40 kilometers of hiking and running, they were not showing it. I had to suck it up. There was no other choice.
I retrieved an energy gel packet and downed its contents. I already knew what awaited me: no more running, thank the gods, but strength and dexterity challenges that could mean serious injury with one misstep. This was actually a course I would enjoy under other circumstances, but why couldn’t they have us do it earlier? Why now, when we were depleted? And why, why, why didn’t they tell us it was coming?
As much as I wanted to wallow in self-pity, I did not have that luxury. Big fallen trees crisscrossed my path and I ducked down under them, pulled myself over them, sloshed deeper into the water until they were low enough to step over. I had stopped following my partner’s steps, because Maria Kournikova was so much taller than me that her most logical path was not necessarily mine. This course became ours to traverse in whatever way worked for us. Trees gave way to pointed, slippery boulders along the shore, waves splashing onto them. We had to either find natural hand- and foot-holds and pick our way across, half in and half out of the lake, or climb up over the rocks. At the trickiest obstacles, a race staffer would be perched on a rock or branch above, shouting instructions. I glared at one who looked comfortable, sitting with his thermos of warm maté. “Well I hope you’re enjoying your tea.”
Maybe I could allow myself a little bitchiness.
I was by now soaked to the waist, and shivered as I followed fellow racers emerging from the water and climbing up onto rocks too smooth to “boulder” across. The rocks were wet from natural spray, and from all the waterlogged shoes that had walked over them. I needed both hands to steady myself stepping up and down, skidding on loose stones, testing the strength of branches before using them to pull me up or support me as I descended. There was little to no passing one another here; not many paths to take, and an errant leg or hiking pole jostling into another racer’s space could be disastrous. Another team had stalled ahead of us, one of them standing there considering her options, and Maria Kournikova shrieked, “Vamos!” The woman lunged forth. It was the first time I saw my partner acting unsettled during this race and I felt a little better. Maybe she’s not totally bionic.
Another section of logs. Then more rocks. About an hour later, this gave way to long stretches of sand covered by stones the size of grapefruits. Ankles rolled alarmingly at times on them, and I thought of my original race partner, Holly, who had fractured her ankle doing that. This was easier than climbing, but no place to get lazy. The stones began to get smaller and smaller and easier to run on, in paths through the deep sand and toward the finish line: finally, thank God, the finish line. We held hands and ran through again. Seven hours, 40 minutes: we would’ve blown away our time yesterday if not for the damnable 90 minutes at the end … But, whatever. Done with Day Two.
I walked toward the campsite, located on the grassy area behind the lake, the blue tents already set up in rows and music pumping over the speakers. Again, other racers hailed us, some holding out their hands for high-fives as we trudged into camp. “Felicitaciones!” I felt great, though tired and wet and cold, and mentally reviewed my course of action. Dry clothes. Stretch. Eat. Massage. The race organizers had arranged for masseurs to come to our camp with massage tables and oils, and last night I had signed myself up for two back-to-back sessions. Tonight is all about recovery. Comfort. It is gonna be faaaabulous.
At the edge of camp a few bags and suitcases lay scattered, having been transported from yesterday’s campsite. I hurried over, eager to retrieve mine and get out of my wet clothes and shoes. Standing around were Juan, Guillermo and Paolo, my friends from last night. “Lena!” they greeted me (the name Eileen confounding many non-English speakers). “Como hiciste hoy? ¿Cuantas horas la tomaste?” (The competitive bullshit might be absent from camp camaraderie, but everyone wanted to know how long it took you to finish.) Kiss-kiss and we stood around chatting. The guys had been equally surprised and annoyed at the lakeside portion at the end. Good, I thought, it wasn’t just me.
“I have bad news for you,” Juan said then, wincing a bit in sympathy as he relayed the news — many of our bags had not yet arrived at the camp.
“Oh, God, no.” I looked at the sparse scattering of backpacks and suitcases on the ground, realizing that of course, these could not represent even a fraction of the teams competing. “When are they coming? I’m freezing!” I regretted it immediately: these guys were still in their wet racing clothes, too, and they’d gotten here before me. I hated to sound like a princess.
“They’re not saying,” Jose responded. “We have no idea.”
That meant no dry clothes or shoes … no sleeping bags … no towel … no medical kit where Tylenol and Advil awaited my throbbing feet. No cups or dishes, so I couldn’t eat. My stomach clenched and growled as if to send me a message: unacceptable. I went back to the tent I shared with my partner.
Maria Kournikova was sitting inside, rubbing eucalyptus balm into her feet. We had a quick chat about the situation. She’d heard our luggage wouldn’t be arriving until midnight, at least. Ohhh nooooo. She knew many of the race insiders, so she was probably right. I did a quick inventory of my Camelbak. I had my rain jacket, and an extra tank top and socks I’d stuffed in there, in case it rained and I wanted to change during the run. Miraculously, they hadn’t gotten wet in the lake. I had two more Tylenol, a mini Snickers bar, lip balm, sunblock, and some water. I changed into all the dry clothes I could, shuddered as I jammed dry-sock-clad feet into wet shoes, and left our tent.
The kitchen was setting rows of little sandwiches out, by now realizing many people were hungry and without plates or utensils, and my stomach sent up a louder and more insistent bark. I grabbed a couple of mini chorizo sandwiches and considered that I could wait for my luggage from the comfort of my scheduled massage.
Then I started to whimper. My wallet was in my absent bag. I could not pay for the massage until it got here.
Some staff members had built a campfire, and several people surrounded it. Shoes, socks, and wet clothes were being spread out on the ground next to the embers. Racers had abandoned any sense of modesty and were pulling off all but the most intimate layers of clothing, shoving various and equally intimate body parts toward the flames. Some people put their socks on hiking poles and held them over the popping, crackling flames like marshmallows. The crowd around the fire grew denser and larger as racers kept arriving from the course, shivering and wet, learning their bags were not there. Staff members came running with armfuls of wood and extended the fire, creating a long wall of flames.
Finally, some announcements about the situation: the transport boat had broken and many of the bags would not be expected for several hours. The race officials had arranged for people without their luggage to travel by bus across the border to San Martin de los Andes, Argentina, where they could sleep in military barracks and then be returned to camp tomorrow morning, to be reunited with their bags and start the race. Though no one would have their passports, this wouldn’t be a problem, the announcer assured us. “We strongly advise that those racers without their bags get on a bus and go to San Martin de los Andes. We have made arrangements with the border offices. The lack of documents will not be a problem.”
I considered the situation. Sleeping in a real bed sounded tempting, certainly better than shivering in the cold here without my sleeping bag. But I didn’t like the idea of being separated from my luggage for longer than it was necessary.
Besides, I was having fun. Many of the English-speaking racers had gathered by the fire and, though strangers yesterday, we were now super close in every way it was possible to be close — huddling together for warmth; giggling; joking; passing around cans of beer and communal bowls of spaghetti, with everyone using the one available fork — hey, we’re family now, we reasoned. Melissa and Janno, from the U.S. and Australia, had received their bags and they shared their dry clothes with us. We were all right. Not ideal, but all right. We had some dry clothes, and some food, and some warmth as we all flipped in unison, from one side to the other, rotating in front of the fire like a row of rotisserie chickens.
But Maria Kournikova came to find me. She was most decidedly not fine. She’d heard from her race insider friends that our bags wouldn’t be here until three in the morning at the earliest. “We should go to San Martin,” she urged. “We need sleep before tomorrow, and it is getting colder and colder. We don’t want to get sick. We should go.” I could tell she was not gonna budge, and I decided to abandon the warmth-survival-party by the fire and stay with my partner. We gathered up what few possessions we had with us and got on one of the buses going to San Martin de los Andes.
It took a couple hours to get there — there were three border checkpoints from Chile to Argentina, and we stopped for a long time at each one — but finally our bus came to a shuddering halt outside a military building. As we stopped, a race coordinator stood up and asked who was still planning to run tomorrow. My hand shot up, along with about two-thirds of the others. We were told to get out; those dropping out of the race would be taken elsewhere. As I got out of the bus, I stole a look at the people who were quitting. Yes, the bag situation was bad, but I couldn’t imagine dropping out now.
We flooded into the barracks. Our accommodations were sparse — bunk-cots in a giant room with thin mattresses, pillow, and a thick itchy wool blanket — but even with the bright fluorescent lights still glaring down on me, I fell immediately into a deep, dreamless, grateful sleep.
Photos Copyright 2012 El Cruce Columbia