Updated: Dec 7, 2019
This wasn’t a trail race. It was a mountain race, an adventure race, an experience that tested you in so many different ways. It was, for 60km or more, without trails like you know, on terrain you had to make the right choices every step… more so than in any other race I have done or know about. It took us to parts of Patagonia you simply would not see. Through private lands of dense, ancient, other-worldly forests, marshes and stunning grasslands along sparsely marked route. There was no one else, anywhere.
The race for us, Nats & I, has been a success, less so for me - DNF. I withdrew at 40 something k. A marathon no less but only around half the distance. It was fantastic for both of us. There were only 29 people signed up to start so it was always going to be an intimate yet lonely race and the prospect of a podium pretty good! This I don’t really care about but if I did would be ace! Nats however gets way too excited about the prospect of a medal let alone a podium. She finished and was 1st in her category, imagine how stoked she is with this and quite rightly too.
Up horridly early for the bus at 03:45hrs from the centre of Puerto Natales to the start line at Villa Cerro Castillo for 06:00hrs start.
Coffee, fiddling with kit, clothes, shoes, bibs, timing tags and lots of photographers snapping away the mood was good with a sense of isolation. There was no posturing I have witnessed at other races, everyone was in their own little world of anticipation. It was pitch black outside, cold and the briefing the night before had spoken of expanses of little to no actual trail, where there is a trail its animal tracks and lots of wet marshland and river crossings. No wonder there was a sense of anticipation, more than of my previous races. Added to which I had contracted the rare Mylodon ‘flu’ a few days before. This ‘flu’ the ladies out there would call ‘man-flu’ or a simple cold. To us guys and our little brains it is a fate worse than death when its going on! Picture the Mylodon (a massive bear-like extinct creature) with a sore head. That’s what it felt like! My head thumping, that runny clear snot dribbling across my top lip and any light was too much for my eyes and head to take. I was still unsure whether to start…
The start was a relief, for my head, as it was dark and the various drugs I had taken I knew would kick-in soon. A fast (ish) pace was set, more to do with the cold and warming up than for position. It was clear there were two distinct groups – the racers and then the rest of us. Within the first 3km these two groups were formed for the entirety of the race.
The first climb was mostly on land rover tracks. At around 4km this led to no track and the trail markers, which were cut up blue water pipe with fluorescent tape on the tops, guided the way. This was to be the case for the next 20km or so while we had no trail to follow. Nats headlamp was rubbish. Exactly the same as mine but has some fault and the beam could hardly light the ground so we swapped. I am pretty comfortable with the ambient light of others lamps and dawn was starting to come and I was feeling strong, the excitement and darkness suppressed my ‘death-head’ but every step shook my brain in my scull which wasn’t pleasant.
That aside, it was the mountain running that I love. Alone, no particular path to follow, variable terrain making you think about every step and which route to take. How to avoid the monstrously spiky, seemingly harmless, small bushes that shredded our legs, the eroded clumps of grass, the loose rocky descents and then the water. Oh my god, the water. Freezing… and this wasn’t even the glacial melt that would be encountered later.
The meandering of the blue markers, the guessing where the next one was, the ducking and jumping over ancient fallen woodland, those spiky beasts were also in the dam trees too! The ups and downs and every turn gave stunning views as the sun rose. But, it got colder! I had pulled away from Nats and the others and was mostly alone in-between the two groups. It was awesome.
The descent to the first aid station was, well, monstrously steep. I’d probably ski it, probably but not for sure, and it slowed me down to a combination of slips, tumbles and slow controlled steps to the aid station. Here I waited for longer than I needed or perhaps should have. I was concerned about Nats. It was now light but the two descents I had done I knew would be tough for her. A few runners came and went and I got a glimpse of her at the top of the down and knew it would be a while before she made it. I was freezing, my head thumping and my snot going more yellow than clear. I had to move for warmth and in the hope it would take my mind off the rest. Nats would catch me up on this flat section to the next and only really big climb of the race.
I made it across the flats, more drugs… the first lot didn’t make a difference so onto more pokey ones and I slowly started the climb which was steep, loose in sections and rock covered in the slippyest stones you can imagine. About 800m of positive gain in 3km, pathless. I was not happy. The relative brightness was killing my eyes, the sun came out with mixed blessings for me but at least the slow pace stopped the ball-baring of my brain rattling in my head so much. I waited a couple of times during the climb until Nats caught me up. She seemed Okay and as always in good spirits. She has amazing, constant energy…(except for right now as I write this the day after in a little café in PN. I’ve never known her so quiet and still!).
The last 200m of vertical we did together with a little bit of scrambling to top out, at around 25km in. We were greeted with one of the best views of the entire race. Sun and cloud atop of the Torres del Paine was, well, spectacular. No words to do that sight justice. Despite this all I wanted to do was close my eyes to lessen the thumping in my head. I’ve decided drugs don’t work! Not in this case. I should have been rattling with them but the only rattling was my head with every step… step, thump, step, thump, step, thump. It was getting more than tedious.
The next 15-20km or so were a lovely mixture of soft runnable terrain over ‘fluffy’ dirt (good for the head!) and grass before descending to the fields and land rover tracks of farmland (not so good for the head). Finally it was warm, not too much, and the legs were in good shape, feeling strong and Nats was happily plodding along. It was simply idyllic. Passing over lush pastures, heards of horses and cattle looking up watching our every step while we were in their proximity and on to the flats.
At the next aid station I had had enough. I wanted to just cry and close my eyes. I was now completely fed-up with my head and nose. The 1000mg of paracetamol, 600mg of ibuprophen and 3 solpidine had done sweet FA. Between us and the aid station crew I was persuaded to carried on. What was going to be a short 6km was actually a long 9km to the next aid station… where I withdrew. Frustrated because the only other niggle I had was ITB stuff, otherwise I was rocking - legs and energy wise.
Nats continued. We were both sad to part and I was worried. She is hugely capable but… But this is remote. #thisispatagonia There are little to no opt-out points, no comms, no live tracking. In fact no one. The field had spread out so much we had not seen any other runners for at least 20km. I was also worried about her making the 19:00 cut off 15k or so from the finish. It was now 13:00 and she really needed to pick up the pace to make up for the slowness of the darkness from the start and the tricky descents. It was now faster terrain but who knew how complex it would be. Even with the light, being alone going into the unknown and under pressure to get somewhere was not a good combination.
I was delivered to the finish line to wait. It was a strange experience. I am comfortable with my DNF (it means I have to come back, not that I need any more incentive) but strange because it took me back 25 years or more. Not at races but when waiting for friends who were out in the mountains having said ‘Oh, well be back by 18h but don’t worry it may be 22h.’ In some cases you would be waiting for days waiting back then. I was in limbo. Note to self… always take your wallet or money in a drop bag. I had not because in the morning figured once I finish we won’t be hanging around very long! You’d think I’d know given the amount of hanging about at races I do. Well, lesson learnt.
The finish line was as amazing as every other day here in #Patagonia. It was busy. In addition to the 80km race there were three others. A 50, 35 and 14km. All staggered starts so at the finish at Hotel Rio Serrano the hub-bub was loud and with 25 nationalities represented a myriad of languages. I, however, felt on the edge of it all. Still a sore head and now throat I found a corner to sleep. Having no money and just wanting coffee was annoying. I know I could have asked but just didn’t feel right. Was I ashamed for being there and not finishing? I had run over a marathon with Mylodon Flu no less. It turns out I’m the only one, of post-extinction, that knows what this is like ;-)
So, wait, wait, wait, then at around 19:30 I hear Nats has made it through the cut-off in good time. WOOHOO, kinda. If she hadn’t we could be drinking beer back at our hotel by 21h! Yet I was so energised by this news, now shitting myself for her as it was dark, I’d heard of the convoluted trail through the woods and many river-crossings in freezing water. Will she be okay? Nats being very small (4ft 9!) river crossings are a big issue and some of these we knew would be knee deep…for the average height of a ultra-runner! Thank goodness she was running with Ricardo, a Brazilian runner-guru who waited at every crossing for her. This is what the Ultra community is all about. Selflessness. We are so fortunate to be part of this community.
Tick-tock, tick-tock…new friends finished and telling me the woes of the last half, which I had not seen. Apparently I timed my withdrawal perfectly in terms of landscape and interesting terrain to run. Then more headlamp came into the finish area…no wasn’t her…then, finally at 21:07 her and the fantastic Ricardo, who I too had also run with earlier, crossed the line. Phew! Tears (from us both but Nats didn’t realise I was also crying, why should she. She’d just completely tamed an unknown beast of a race, ran further that she had before through some of the most beautiful brutal terrain she will ever run through. AND she was 1st in her category.
We will be back. The organisation and people of #UltraPaine #UltraPaine2019 and #thisispatagonia are some of the nicest, best people I have met. Thank you. I am honoured to be a guest in your country.