Yesterdays 'Ultramaraton de los Andes' 50 miler in Santiago, Chile has to be one of my most fun races of the year, which is really saying quite a lot given how much fun I have had this year. But with this being my prize from winning the Canadian Death Race in 2010, it being a real destination race and one to wrap up the racing year with, there was a lot less pressure than at most other races. It was great to be in Santiago with quite a few of the North American North Face athletes (TNF are the race organizers/ sponsors) but really with most of the field being Chilean or some other South American nationality there was not the usual expectation of who might win, who might beat who etc.
North Face did a great job of adopting me as the lone Montrail/ Mountain Hardwear athlete for the weekend so there were fun times even before the race with team meals, a group run with the local TNF store runners and they even picked me up from the swish W hotel at 3am to take me to the race start, just a 20-min drive from central Santiago.
Having spent most of the summer training for World 100km and then having followed that up with Run for the Toad (trails, but flat trails) I knew that I was unprepared for the over 4100m of climbing (plus same of descent) that this race would encompass, but hey ho - I'd done a few Sulphur hikes, a scramble up Rundle and a slow slog up Edith/ Cory pass in Banff in the few weeks prior to at least warn my quads that they were in for a beating.
With the race starting at 4am we had a good 2.5hrs in darkness. Just like at Western States I used both a headlamp and a handheld flashlight and was glad to have both. It's always amazing how dark it is out on the trails even with fellow runners all with flashlights around. We had about 5km of flattish trail to start and then the first of the major climbs started with avengance. It was hands on the quads, try to look up, and keep on going. I was in a small group of men and knew I was lead female but was just focusing on the climb. It as actually over pretty soon, we crested the top and began a steep 'a la Canadian Death Race' descent. Sometimes it was definitely a case of just going for it and hoping you stayed upright on the shrubby grass and loose soil.
The maple leaf flag on my hydration pack (code - 'I'm Canadian - please speak to me in English if you can!') soon paid off as I struck up a conversation with John Tidd, an Argentinian/ American runner (who ended up placing 2nd male). I was soon surprised that Ian Sharman joined in the conversation in the inky darkness of our descent, Ian had come into the race tired and was already resolving to make the smart decision to drop. He played along for a while though and ran with me, which was good to have some conversation and company.
However despite this early company by about 22km I somehow ended up totally on my own. It was cool for a while, I was soaking up the fact that I was running through the Andes in the darkness all on my own and could just about pick out the silhouetted mountains. I don't think I have ever focused on course flagging so much, the trail was not really much of a trail and often sent us randomly up or down scrubby grass slopes in a slightly haphazard fashion, it was certainly not a case of just follow a well marked trail. As Tim (Twitmeier) would say after, 'what was the deal with the cow pat field?!' and indeed, I saw a few cows (including one dead one!), a few stray dogs and I learned the lesson for not speaking the native tongue when some marshals called out to me something I didn't understand in Spanish, before I promptly ran into a muddy/ cow pat filled ditch. Awesome!
After some time of running alone I just hoped I was still going in the right direction. Yes - I was following the flagging but I also remembered that we would intersect with the 50km course and hoped that I somehow hadn't gone astray and onto that course. But no, I soon came across a course marshall sitting all alone seemingly randomly in the middle of a cow pat field. In the dark. Well, it seemed like a slightly odd marshalling point, but at least I was comforted that I was heading in the right direction. It was good also to have to get a little 'passport' clipped at 12 points along the course to ensure that no one cheated, but it also reassured me that I was always on course.
It was surprisingly chilly, I had taken off my gloves but as we descended a bit the moist air had got trapped in the troughs of the landscape and I popped my gloves back on and kept my jacket on til after 8am. There was even frost on the ground in sections. However as soon as the sun came up the temperatures began to climb along with the terrain and I began to ensure that I was taking on enough liquids and gels/ shot bloks/ salt. As well as the 'passport' check points there were aid stations en route which were well stocked and well manned and I soon fell into my routine conversation of 'Hola!' 'Gracias!' 'No hablo espanol!', which was either greeted with some helpful English and a smile, or some weird look of 'Who's this foreign woman running around like an idiot?' (there were definitely far more men in the race than women, and I would guess that a good chunk of the marshals were not runners, and certainly not ultra runners).
As the terrain climbed the views became more and more spectacular, the muddy cow patch section (which had resulted in feeling like you were running in platform shoes of mud at times) was long forgotten and it was a case of hike, hike, hike. As someone who tends to do more runnable courses I felt like I was moving so slowly (I was) even on some of the flatter sections (which were traverses of grassy hillsides with no real level trail as such). I was convinced that runners would be catching me but no one did and at that point in time I wouldn't have cared if they had. I was running in the Andes, I was looking down over the shiny skyscrapers of Santiago and across to the snow covered mountains on the horizon, there were cacti on the trail (note to self, do not use Andean foliage to hold onto - it will hurt). It was quite simply stunning.
It was around the 50km mark that I began to catch the slower of the 50km runners. Having been on my own really since I left Ian (about km 22) it was nice to see other people out enjoying their day on the trail. The aid stations also began to seem closer together (they had been quite far apart in the first half of the race) which was great as I was trying to drink from those and not have to waste time in refilling my Nathan pack (and just use it for sips between the stations).
By 60km I was definitely beginning to feel my legs a little but I thought the majority of the climbing was done and now I should have a relatively flat and untechnical (now we were getting onto the more urban trails of Santiago) 20km to get to the finish. Oh how wrong
I was! I hit a gravel road climb and up and up I went. Hmm, should have looked at that course profile map in more detail! Fortunately it was around this time that I happened upon Marcello from TNF Brazil. Despite not being able to communicate much we both realized that the other was tired and began to death march up the road together side by side, once in a while exchanging a few words or I would show him my garmin so he could see what km we were at. With the gravel road climb over I again I thought that maybe the climbs were over but I can honestly say that they never were until right at the finish. Up and down and round and about the trail would twist and turn as we occasionally crossed roads or went through urban parks with bemused Santiagians out walking there dogs and enjoying a leisurely Saturday. However at least in hitting this more urban section, we were buoyed along by crossing paths with some of the 10km and 21km runners, as well as aid stations getting even closer together (great as it was now turning into a sunny Santiago spring day).
With the course marshals having been efficient but relatively unenthusiastic most of the day it was a welcome change to see one who started shouting at my in crazy Spanish. I just about made out that I was first female (ok - I know that and I am trying to hang on, convinced that I must be getting caught at the slow pace I am going) and also that I was third overall. He was clearly excited by this and it gave me a little buzz to keep pushing for the final 5km or so. By this point my garmin had died so I couldn't check how close I was getting to the finish line, but it seemed a very long 20km from the 60km mark when my garmin had still been working. Ok I was tired, ok I had lost Marcello by this point (and had briefly caught a glimpse of John Tidd who powered ahead as soon as he saw me behind him!) but even so..... the kms seemed long (and indeed they possibly were as someones garmin read 85km at the end).
But soon I saw a '2km to go' sign and well under a km later I saw the '1km to go' sign - no complaints about those short markings! I pushed to the finish despite the legs feeling the climbing of the day in them, and crossed over the finish line in 9:42:18. Somehow (maybe I've not done as many ultras as I think) this is my 3rd longest (in time) race to date!
All in all a HUGE thank you to the awesome TNF race hosts who welcomed me to Chile and ensured I had a super stay and amazing race experience. And once again a big shout out to my favourite shoe company around, in yet another race my Montrail Fairhavens saw me from start to finish without a hint of pain or a blister.
For more info on the race click here.