Far Away from 'Normal'
December 2017 Edition
Kiwi Trail Runner (NZ / Austrailia Trail Runner (Aust)
Trail running comes with risks. Beginner and experienced trail runners alike talk to me about the difficulties of isolation, navigation, a variable environment and the infamous ‘wriggly sticks’ as factors that keep them to relatively familiar areas, trails and races.
Until recently I was also one of those people. I do most of my trail running solo and to manage the risks I remain within known trails. I think over time this has also subconsciously fed my selection of races. I tend to go with familiar options; places I have travelled before or at least the terrain is comparable to areas where I have a lot of experience.
During late 2016 I had been developing my training plan for my 1300km / 19 day run across NSW and the primary focus of that plan was to work on my mindset; to challenge my mental boundaries, to extend them and reshape them. This became the catalyst for seeking out and eventually participating in the Andes Challenge, Peru.
The Andes Challenge combines glacier climbing, trail running and mountain biking over a 180km course. It starts at 4500m above sea level and finishes when your feet touch the water at Huamey on the Peruvian coastline. It is the only race of its sort in the world. I had recently returned from a holiday in Peru and wanted to head back to do some racing. Googling uncovered a short list of potentials but the Andes Challenge won out because it would push me on every possible level – the altitude, distance, climbing, mountain biking – all unfamiliar modalities in a region of which I had little knowledge.
Committing to the Andes Challenge not only drove my training to new levels (nothing like a bit of panic to help get you out of bed in the morning) but also has ultimately delivered a richness to my life far beyond what I expected through connection, the fear and satisfaction of completing a challenge far away from the ‘normal’.
Why is it the greatest friendships start over food? If I had known how much of an impact my next meal was going to have on my life I would have taken a photo, a tweet or a snapchat even – to commemorate the moment, to capture it for eternity. Instead that picture will only exist in my mind, to be savoured and nurtured in future years when my heart and legs grow weary.
Two other competitors and I had decided to go for lunch before we headed up into the mountains for the start of the Andes Challenge. We poured out of the briefing room onto the streets of Huaraz. A town nestled at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negro – two mountain ranges in the Ancash region of northern Peru. The bustle and rhythm of Huaraz is mesmerising, once in its trance you have no choice but to go with its flow.
We meandered along the narrow footpath which was barely one-person wide, yet an entire community seemed to thrive within its confines. Fruit carts brimmed with produce grown in the mountains around us. In the coming days we would be racing through those same territories. We ate as we walked, side-stepping dogs in the street and smiling at the children threading their way through a forest of legs. My senses were flooded with the colour and happiness of life, of cultural tradition and sunshine reflecting off snow-capped peaks. My new Peruvian friends guided me off the street and up a narrow stairway. Instantly our world transformed into quiet café and we collapsed onto a comfortable lounge. It was in that moment that magic made itself known. I looked to my two companions. Emerson is an elite trail runner, a locally-born sporting icon. Silvia is a Lima resident and recent convert to trail running who has quickly found her place on the podium in the women’s category, and me an Aussie mid-packer who on arriving in the region gasped when coming to the sudden realisation I had never actually seen a proper mountain before.
We barely shared a moment in life or language between us, but the bond was undeniable. It is the inexplicable bond that exists between trail runners created in the instant that a shared passion is recognised. I’ve never experienced this to the same degree in any other sport. It doesn’t matter whether you are a fast or slow runner, elite or beginner when an authentic passion for trails exists it becomes a gossamer thread that binds people the moment our eyes meet. There was no more an explicit example of this then the scene that was unfolding.
I looked to Emerson and Silvia as they carried on a conversation with some locals. I was so happy to know them. So glad I made the decision and had the determination to step away from the normal. That’s when the magic happens.
Fear and Satisfaction
The Andes Challenge is a new event and only 15 competitors would be participating. Most in relay teams. There were five male solo competitors and I was the only female solo competitor.
Due to floods and road damage in the preceding weeks, the 2017 race format was changed on short notice. Approximately 50km of the trail running sections had converted to bike and the event would take place over 2 days. The climb of the Mount Vallunaraju glacier would occur on Day 1 and and the 180km run/cycle leg completed on Day 2.
That afternoon Silvia and I headed up to the Refugio Llaca (4500m asl) which would be our base for the next 48 hours. We were out of our beds well before dawn to begin scaling Vallunaraju. Our target was a ridgeline at 5300m asl. It would take several hours to cover the few short kilometres. Every step required a moment’s pause for the lungs to catch up. I had been in the mountain region already for 2 weeks to acclimatise and train, yet I was still finding each breath difficult. As we started our world was cloaked in darkness, headlamps showed the place for my next foot fall which I gingerly made in snow boots which that felt poorly designed for the task. Slowly we ascended, the sun rising with us.
As we reached the snowline, ropes and harnesses were donned and our guide took us through the safety steps. Our target ridgeline was only metres away, easily within view yet those last few metres were among the most dangerous of the climb. We reached the ridge without incident but the altitude proved too much for one of our party who needed to head back down straight away as the impact of altitude sickness set in.
Lifting our heads to look around us revealed exhilarating views in one of the most spectacular mountain regions in the world.
The next morning we were lined up on our mountain bikes with all of the other competitors. The sun was yet to make itself known and I really wanted to go somewhere and hide with it. It was this moment that I felt most out of my depth. I’m a trail runner! Changes to the race format in the preceding week now meant very little of the race would involve running, instead I would be on a mountain bike for 160km. My previous longest distance was 70km and my training environment had been nothing like the road conditions we face now. My focus was survival and my brain had to quickly adapt to the idea that I was going to be in last place for most, if not all, of the day.
The other riders, who were predominantly locals, disappeared into the darkness and soon I was on my own with the sweep vehicle hovering close behind, its headlights proving both a blessing and a curse. My headtorch was poor and my rented bike felt unfamiliar. Anxiety and panic started to swell in my stomach.
The magnitude of the task started to get the better of me so I stopped. Took a few deep breaths and focused my effort on getting through to dawn in one piece. Things would get easier with daylight.
Once daylight arrived I started to move better on the bike and descended into the town of Huaraz. A hill climb on the other side of town was a settling experience – the slow grind, the smiling faces of locals, a feeling of progress. At the top of the hill we transitioned to the run stage and my usual confidence returned. It was a spectacular run up through a village and onto the Cordillera Negro which provided viewpoints of our origin and the glacier we had climbed the previous day.
The trail was marked with flour and easy to navigate as long as I kept my brain in gear. The challenge was not getting too distracted by the views, the villages and the friendly locals who were keen for a chat. I found myself off track a couple of times but retracing my steps I quickly returned to the trail.
It seemed that I wasn’t the only one to get distracted. I caught three of the other competitors! It was such a relief to see them, they too had fallen victim to the views and wandered off trail temporarily.
Soon we would transition to the bike and they would be off again.
The final bike leg was around 120km and descended from 4000m asl to the ocean. It was as spectacular as it was difficult. While it was a downhill course the roads were often steep and rough. My arms were soon completely pumped from holding the bike, no doubt gripping too tight, and every bump pain shot through my forearms. But for all the struggle it is a ride that will stay with me forever. The route took us through remote villages and towns where people were enjoying their Sunday. Dogs chased my wheels and kids played in the streams as I crossed. Check points with refreshments were set up out the front of people’s homes and on street corners. I felt compelled to stop for the children who had been patiently attending the table awaiting the arrival of competitors. I was the last rider through so I was also their last chance to put to good use those outstanding service skills they had developed.
On I rode possibly taking the Slowest Known Time to navigate the treacherous bends and steep rocky dirt roads. Eventually the elevation gave way to the tropical valley floor and after hours of riding, I reached the first flat section of road. Around 60km remained before I reached the ocean. The road linked one village with another, trimmed for its full expanse with crops and tropical plants. Blink and I could have been in Far North Queensland. I could start to sense the finish line but exhaustion had a firm grip on me so I counted down those final kilometres one at a time.
There is no greater reward in life than achieving what personally feels impossible and that feeling of achievement unlocked itself as I reached the edge of the town of Huarmey. It was a relief to be among the population again after so many hours on my own. My destination was the port on the other side of town and I will never forget when I first spied seagulls in the sky. They were small specks in the distance but they beckoned me to the finish line. The noise that came from me was a weird mix of crying, laughing, and whooping.
Finishing was a bit of blur. The people, the finish line, the sand, and running into the water in the late afternoon. The smile of the race director’s face. Both of us knew just had far I had been out of my depth when taking this race on and now it was done.