Saturday, May 07, 2016

A few words

This is not a race report. I'm not quite sure what it is, or rather what it will become. I don't really feel a strong desire to "resurrect" this blog, but I do want to write some words about my time in Patagonia. However, given the focus of most of my recent writing, I cannot promise it won't devolve into self-indulgent navel-gazing.

Caveat lector.

I'll try to include some of the few photos I took. So there's something.

It's been over 10 years since I first visited Patagonia and I've always wanted a reason to return, especially to Puerto Natales and the region around Torres del Paine. The Ultra Fiord race offered an attractive excuse. It was billed as wild, rugged and sparsely supported. Right up my alley especially since I've been feeling less and less inspired by races closer to home. Also, my friend Harry had never been to the area so we (Harry, Martina and I) decided to make a vacation of it. Harry and I planned to tackle the 100 miler while Martina would do the 70K.

Aside from the race and plans for some hiking/sightseeing the timing of the event coincided with an unhappy personal anniversary so I was also hoping for a bit of a diversion. This fact, more than any pre-race concerns probably explained my edginess during the early part of the trip (it certainly explains spending Wednesday afternoon in my room shedding tears). But, inevitably, as race day rolled around all concerns narrowed to just that one.

These days I tend to feel pretty calm once start time finally rolls around. It's not that I've become blasé about it, or think I've got it all "figured out". On the contrary, my experience has taught me to be keenly aware of all that can go wrong. It's more a feeling that the time for worry is past since all the preparation has (or has not) been done and things are going to play out as they will. My only job (over the next 30 hours or so) is to take care of those few things that are within my control: eating, drinking, staying warm and metering out my energy at a rate sufficient to keep me moving forward over the miles ahead.

Overall, the event went well enough for me. Anyone who has read about the event knows that a runner died of hypothermia during the event and I really don't have much to add of substance to all that has been written. I felt "relatively" comfortable given my experience in remote regions and extreme conditions. I had the gear I felt necessary to manage the conditions as best possible. The only thing I can say is that while it is always easy to second-guess what might have been different after the fact, it is true that the race organization did leave itself open to much of the criticism that it has received. Though they did shorten the races, all went over the high pass in severe weather conditions, there was no checking of mandatory gear, checkpoints were minimal or even non-existent, and there didn't seem to be emergency personnel or contingency evacuation plans which seem prudent given the type of event it was.

However, during the race, we were not overly aware of all these issues. Harry and I have both done some pretty extreme and minimally-supported events. We did what we knew how to do. We started at the back with maybe 4-5 people behind us as everyone took off at a pace that seemed way to fast for 100 (or even 88) miles. We came into the first aid station after a short bit of course confusion even further back and then started passing people. We hooked up with fellow American Kate Woodard and came into the 50K aid station around 54th place (out of around 90 starters) and would eventually finish in 31st (out of 67 finishers). The course was tough and technical with lots of overgrowth, rocks, roots and steep climbs. The conditions were severe with high winds, snow, sleet and frozen rain over the high pass followed by miles of unavoidable mud  and ankle turning peat bogs. Support was minimal especially after the first 30 miles and even more than advertized. But, it was–as promised–remote and amazingly beautiful.

With all that, probably the toughest part was the midnight start. We ran through the night, slogged through the day and then trudged and stumbled through the second night to the finish. Harry and I stuck together for almost the entire event which always makes it seem less like a race and more like a shared experience. However, after the last real aid station, the final 24 miles were easy dirt road, but mentally as brutal going as anything in the race. The second night without sleep is always unseemingly tough.

There was a missing aid station and the "sleep monster" had me by the throat. Harry was moving well and seemed motivated to get to the finish as he was very worried about Martina, this being a significantly tougher course than anything she had ever attempted. I finally couldn't take it so I dropped back, put on all my extra clothing and sat by the trail to take a 10 minute nap. When the crazed images had finished running through my mind, I forced myself up and stumbled on. I was still falling asleep on my feet, but apparently moving faster. I started to pass people. That finally woke me out of my zombie-like stupor. I moved even faster and even started to jog. Everytime I saw a light ahead of me I thought it might be Harry, but when it wasn't I reasoned that he had kept moving along due to his concerns and the fact that there was no real shelter from the 30-mph winds and near-freezing temperatures.

After stopping very briefly at the last aid station (basically a table with water and a couple of cookie packages), I was motivated to just get this thing done. I alternated running and walking for the final 12 miles. I probably passed 7 other runners all in various states of the infamous ultramarathon "death march'. The final miles were especially tough as you could see the lights of Puerto Natales from a long way off–too long a way off. I tried to run the whole way, but just couldn't manage it, mentally more than physically. Eventually I made it into town, wandered my way to the finish area and found the one person there recording times before heading back to our place.

I thought Harry was there at the gate as I approached, but it was some other random person outside at 6:30am. When I made it to our cabin, I opened the door to see Martina who was freshly showered. My brain wasn't working right in terms of realizing that she would have had plenty of time to finish and get back to town via boat/bus so I first asked if she finished. Then I immediately asked "where's Harry?"

Martina was certain I was joking and replied, "very funny, where is he? outside?"

I then looked at her concerned, "No! He should have finished at least 20 minutes ago."

Concern then worry set in, but I had already let my mental guard down giving my body permission to slipping into recovery mode. I was in no condition to go wandering around town. I showered while Martina went to figure out what had happened. Eventually, she returned with Harry in tow.

Apparently, he had actually tried to wait for me. He was probably even at the vicinity of the final aid station trying to find a sheltered place to sit when I (quickly) went through. True friend that he was, he must have sat waiting and worrying about both me and Martina even while we were both safe and warm in the cabin. It's especially unfortunate because Harry is generally a much faster runner than me, but I do tend to out last him in the really long stuff (i.e. 100+ miles). However, this is one where I thought he had–and he rightfully should have–finished before me.

In the end, as I said before, all went well in this race for me...and my friends.

OK, so this was already many more words than I had intended to post and I suppose there is actually something resembling a race report in there. So, as promised,  here are some pictures from our time before, during and after the race down at the bottom of the civilized world.

Very cool forest on the hike up to Mirador Cerro Derrota a few days before the race.

Martina coming out of the woods during Cerro Derrota hike.

View from Mirador Cerro Derrota

Harry and Martina at the top

View from town looking out onto the water
Out the window of a coffee shop in Puerto Natales

...and some other things around town:

"Real Jeep"
Martina's "place"

Kitty in the pet food aisle

H & M being cute!

Here's what I have from the race it isn't much due to the midnight start, the weather, the technical trail and the amount of time spent in the woods:

Start picture from the race organization

Lots of fall colors on the trees

Approaching the high point as it starts to snow

Beautiful view up top just before heading into the storm

"Trail" looking back

"Trail" looking forward

Not sure if this is the glacier we were supposed to come over or not

It's not obvious, but the wind was blowing around 30 mph here at times

Finally into the descent which was basically a mud-slide not shown here

Cold, but pretty...

...but, cold!

Harry just coming off the pass and into the woods which amounted to about 15 miles of mud
When there wasn't mud, there were these peat bogs that look innocent, but definitely were not. 

Mostly, though, there was!!!

After the race, and a day of recovery, we headed out to Torres del Paine for a couple days. We stayed in a cool hotel on Lago Pehoé and then did the 12 mile classic hike up to the towers.

Salto Grande near our hotel
We did a short 4-mile hike, but the weather and views weren't great

Wet and cloudy during our short hike to view Los Cuernos

Our hotel on an island the next morning in better weather and a great view

Lago Pehoé

Making the hike up to Los Torres
Through the woods...

...past the falls...

...and through meadows with the first hint of the towers.

Martina and Harry in front of Lago Torres

Classic pic in the classic local

Similar spot, 10 years earlier


Lambie said...

It seems like you had a good trip. It looks like you were wearing leggings in one of your pictures, but I'm guessing it was mud, lots of mud.

Alto grande & Lago Torres look impressive.

Thank you for sharing, I live vicariously through you <3

Olga King said...

Thank you for the "many more words than intended" and absolutely stunning pictures. My heart is out for you in your anniversary. And what a friendship you have...Gosh, so many beautiful places, so little time.