Picture Perfect Middle Earth
Originally Published: Trail Runner New Zealand and Australia December 2018
The memory came flooding back to me, and again stopped me in my tracks.
It was twelve months ago, yet the impression of the scene remains fresh. Memories of perfection will do that; linger far beyond their time and just beyond the reach of the words to describe them. I will try, however.
It was like watching the most extraordinary ballerina in full flight, her stage the Andean mountains, back-dropped with the white snow caps of the Cordillera Blanca, Peru.
I was first struck by the energy that emitted from her, the perfect union of strength and gracefulness. She moved across the landscape with a freedom that suggested these massive peaks had been created purely for this moment.
There was knowledge, confidence and rightness in the way she moved. Centuries of running bloodline, the power of the ancient Incas coursed through her veins calling her to this place, her heritage, her home.
It had been first time I had seen an indigenous Andean woman running at altitude and a year later I found myself reliving the joy of that moment as I climbed a trail in the same region, this time participating in the Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca.
I had been climbing and walking at altitude for the past three weeks, my body was tired and had not recovered as I guessed it would.
I was ascending the first big climb up to Laguna Churup, 4450m above sea level, with the plan of completing the 50km race that day. To add an extra challenge, the race had a tough 4-hour cut-off at the 18km mark, and that was looking under threat.
As the altitude pinched, I raised my head to suck in a deeper breath and became mesmerised by the scene around me.
The lead runners from the shorter race distances had caught me and were sailing past. On another trail not far from where I stood, faster runners were already descending from the Laguna. There was a scattering of local women throughout the pack and the sight of them moving so comfortably and freely, compared to my own lumbering effort, brought back the memory of my lone Andean runner.
My pace proved too slow that day and I was diverted into the 25km finish, yet I felt more elated than almost any race I have ever completed.
I had spent hours in an intensely happy place, feeling the energy of the mountains, sharing the joy of the trail with new-found friends and being gobsmacked by the beauty of the Cordillera Blanca.
Andean runner – Valeria Vanessa Guanangui (Vane)
In the evening after the event, in a café packed full of runners, I got talking with Vane – an Ecuadorian runner who podiumed in the 50km race.
Ecuador is a stunningly beautiful country enriched by people who have a generosity of heart born only of those who have seen the worst of life and now value simple graces.
Vane’s earliest memories are of movement and restlessness, growing up in time of severe economic difficulty in Ecuador.
Now 28 years old, Vane shared with me how she first became aware of her spiritual connection to the mountains, and how that led her to become a trail runner.
“My passions, from five years old, were ballet and gymnastics but the difficult economic times meant I had to abandon my dreams.
I followed my parents as they travelled for work to places like Ambato, Riobamba, Guayaquil and Imbabura. We travelled by bus at night and I stayed awake all night, peering out the window, just to see the scenery, to see the mountains.
I anticipated what was coming as we went around every bend. The sun would set and rise again, the cold and then the heat, all the time I was looking at what this extraordinary land could offer me.
When I was nine I saw the eruption of Guagua Pichincha, the emerging earth and the majestic manifestation of its destructiveness. I was drawn to that hidden power. Those feelings, and my dreams and desire for the mountains has never left me.
I started running when I was 15. There was nothing formal about it or consistent. We were living in Quito and I would go out for a run at night, always accompanied by my German Shepard who protected me against the dangers.
Then college, work, it changes you, but the feelings were always present. During the 2014 eruption of Tungurahua Mama, I got to feel the full devastating force of nature and it filled me with tears. However, in me also rose a strange feeling, that we must love what we fear. Fear instils respect and we must always remember that, in every serious step, we give ourselves to the mountains. My fear has become respect and love and a desire to play with the indomitable beast that rests delicately. To be with its wind, sun and rain, my beloved Andes mountains.
It was when I joined military school that my running and passion for the mountains combined. Three years ago, we were training in altitudes around 4000 metres above sea level, running along paths for 25km then 50km between Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. These times and circumstances were extraordinary for me. We were reaching 90-100km crossing borders.
The trails have now led me to meeting people, real people, breaking my fears, crossing borders, making decisions. I have learned to smile, to train and to be led by my heartbeat. It is a feeling that is often inexplicable.
After my first year racing I achieved good results at a national level and I looked for a race to take me closer to the Cordillera Blanca where rests the sleeping, white-capped legends of the Huascaran, Pisco, Alpamayo, and Huandoy mountains. The Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca presented that opportunity.
The UTCB gives the chance to run at altitudes above 4000m, admire the white blanket covering the peaks and to feel the curiosity of what it must be like to access the summits. You get to know the environment, not by car or 4WD, the only way is your feet, your back, your trust and your ambition that you give to the mountains. Are you willing to take the risk and face the seductive beauty? It is a challenge.
Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca
In 2014 Race Director Andres Olivera created the UTCB to offer runners the opportunity to have a close encounter with the most emblematic and impressive peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. The route of the UTCB is changed each year to give runners a unique and unforgettable experience. The Cordillera Blanca is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on Earth, to have the opportunity to run through it should be at the top of every trail-runner’s list of dreams.
There are 12km, 25km and 50km options available. However, don’t be fooled – while the distances are shorter than what we traditionally expect from an Ultra Trail event down under, this race is difficult. Altitude reaches in excess 4500m above sea level, there are short sections scaled on ropes (no safety ladders like UTA!), the trail gets very technical and the climate changes rapidly. You must be fit to take on this race. As an indication, I can comfortably complete the UTA 50km in six hours but I didn’t make the 18km cut-off in the UTCB 50km within the four-hour requirement.
It is strongly recommended that you arrive at altitude, above 3000m, at least one week before the race and undertake day walks/runs to gradually build your tolerance to above 4000m.
The town of Huaraz, where the race is based, is referred to as “Switzerland in Peru”. One of my favourite ways to relax when in town is to take coffee outside at Trivio café, bask in the sun, looking up to the white peaks that surround the town.
While they say you can hire or buy anything in Huaraz, which generally is true, the brands and quality can be different to what we get at home, so I strongly recommend bringing all your race gear and other requirements with you.
If you are interested in competing in the UTCB feel free to contact the Race Director Andres (Spanish/English speaker, email: email@example.com)