A Mountain Marathon in Patagonia That’s Way Above Average

This week’s post is by Morgan, who’s recounting his experience running the Salomon K42 Adventure Marathon in Villa La Angostura, Argentina. We were so inspired by last week’s event that we both wrote race reports (mine’s on my running blog). Morgan said half-jokingly, “This may be the only thing I ever write, so if you want me to contribute to the blog, you better run this!” I hope this is the first of more posts from him to come. – Sarah

Sarah and I in the crowd waiting for the start of the 42k Salomon Marathon

Sarah and me in the crowd waiting for the start of the K42 Salomon Adventure Marathon.

I’ve now been running just over half my life.  Well, that’s if you count as running the two laps I would jog around Curtis Park in Sacramento with my sweet, now deceased Labrador in the early 1990s.  Although my running has increased from this early start, I can honestly say that I’ve never contemplated writing a race report. It seems somewhat absurd, given my running abilities, to subject others to stories of how many power gels I consumed along the race course or what my mile splits were. However, I realized while running the Salomon K42 Adventure Marathon in Patagonia, there’s a first time for everthing and I should write about why this race was so great, and since I haven’t written a blog post yet, I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.

To give away the ending, I did not win the race, which was done by some guy who never runs mountains and did this insane course is 3:07.  But I am happy to say that I was just about average.  Before this race began, in a fit of inner geek escaping out, I took last year’s race results, imported them to Excel and determined the average finish time of all runners together was about 5:15.  Therefore, I am close to average — not really the stuff of a great race report.

But as you can probably tell, my placing in this race had nothing to do with why I wanted to make this my first race report, and first blog post.  What made this race great was that I enjoyed it more than any other marathon I have ever done.  I’ve now done six marathons since my first in 2005, and all have been different, with some more difficult than others.  I remember being so dehydrated and lacking electrolytes in Vermont that I was not sure I could finish the last 500 feet of the race.

Tired runner cartoonBut this marathon gave me a number of firsts: (1) I have never done a marathon, or any run in my life, that had over 10,000 feet in vertical gain and loss (or “an accumulated unevenness of 3,100m,” as the Babelfish translation of the Salomon race FAQ page states); and (2) I have never been on my feet for a single run lasting almost five and a half hours; and (3) this run was the first real trail run that I have done since breaking my big toe in August.

Beyond the statistics of running more elevation and for longer on my feet than I ever have, this race really reminded me of why I love running: being able to run though some of the most beautiful places on earth, with other people who share the same passion, energy and excitement about the event and the feeling of tremendous personal accomplishment for finishing the race.

Pano of race

The view of the start line and Lake Espejo, which is one of seven lakes in the region (click to enlarge).

This event, in particular, removed any competitive aspect very early on and allowed me to purely enjoy the personal aspects of it.  It began with us all huddled in the cold morning air by Lago Espejo (“Mirror Lake”) waiting for the start. The lake is about three miles from the little ski resort town of Villa La Angostura. It’s off a street called Siete Lagos because there are seven lakes, this being the lake district in the Andes foothills, and the border to Chile is just 26 miles east. Sarah and I moved up as close as we could to the starting line, but there was still about fifty feet packed with runners in front of us. Sarah commented that it would be a slow start, and she was right.

Starting off on a tight dirt road, the 1200 marathoners and the 800 15K runners were forced like water into a funnel. There was little or no running on this road, only moving the same jumpy-walk/jog with the crowd. The conditions only got more compacted as the road gave way to a small dirt trail where the runners further compressed and slowed. I quickly realized that large sections of this race would be run at whatever pace everyone else was going, since passing anyone on these narrow trails was not possible.

Runners funnelling onto the dirt road right after the start.

Runners funnelling onto the dirt road right after the start (photo courtesy of the race website).

After the first mile of running, mostly up a pretty steep single-track hill, the course did mercifully open up to more of a wide trail where two could run alongside each other, and it felt a bit less claustrophobic.  At this early stage I still had some vague idea that maybe I could do this course in the 4:30 that I ran the Catalina Island Marathon in a few years ago.  After all, they both have what looks like two major uphill climbs, the biggest being about 2000 feet from bottom to top. I quickly realized that the elevation chart on the website was quite misleading, in that it only showed the big highs and lows.

Charting showing what appears to be smooth course with two major hills

The elevation profile shows what appears to be a smooth course with two major hills.

What it failed to indicate is that almost no single stretch of this course was flat.  Unlike Catalina, or any other race I have ever done, this course was always either going uphill or downhill, rolling hills, straight up, or straight down the sides of mountains. With the combination of realizing that I was on the hilliest course I have ever seen, including more single track where you can’t pass, I soon gave up any real care about time.

After realizing that I would finish at precisely the moment that I finished (whenever that would be), I started taking in the scenery and taking pictures. The other thing I could concentrate on was the wonderful crowd that came to watch and cheer the runners.  Much of the early part of this race was along rolling dirt roads with picturesque houses where the owners, their kids and their big dogs would sit in the front cheering.  Knowing almost no Spanish, I don’t really know if they were cheering me or telling me that my pants were on fire.  However, I did keep hearing the word “chica,” so they might have been telling me that I run like a girl.

Early in the race with Lake Nehuel Huapi in the background

Early in the race with Lake Nahuel Huapi in the background.

Of course the most amazing aspect of this race is the location, which was confirmed at almost every turn.  Other than a 100-yard stretch along the highway that leads to town, this course was along dirt roads with views of the snow-capped mountains and beautiful Lake Nahuel Huapi. The single track and trails were through dense forested regions, with mountain streams that were luminescent blue from glacial runoff.  All the trees were heavy with green moss from the constant rain and snow that blanket this area for most of the year.  This area has the feeling of Alaska with the wild undeveloped rainforests that are simply stunning.

Forest surrounding first major uphill section of the course

The forest surrounding a major uphill section of the course.

One of the big features of this race that concerned both Sarah and me greatly in light of the cold weather and snow leading up to the race was the riving crossing at Mile 8.  We had visions of waist-deep glacial water and stepping on a rolling submerged rock, only to float down the river and arrive at Lake Nahuel Huapi days later.  The anticipation of this moment was only heightened by the fact that we ran near the river for quite some time and could hear the sound of the rushing water, while climbing a steep hill before the crossing.  I also heard shouts up ahead of me, and had visions of people taking the aforementioned headfirst accidental plunge into the unforgiving spring runoff river.  Of course, the shouts were in Spanish so I have no idea what they were saying.  Perhaps, “Oh for God’s sake help me,” or maybe “I’m being swept away.”

River crossing

Runners behind me crossing the river.

As I turned the corner on the trail, I saw a line of people, some splashing through and some tip-toeing, through an ankle-deep stream.  It was not exactly the terrify-me-to-my-core river crossing I feared and kinda hoped for.  Nonetheless, it was fun to jump into the river and feel some measure of being an Adventure Sports person.

After that river crossing we started our first major hill, where the 15K runners split off toward town and their finish.  The entire hill was basically un-runnable single track that just went up and up through a dense forest of primarily straight pine like trees with no sun breaking through the canopy.  It was quite fun to get to the top and do a nice downhill all the way back toward town, although some of the runners around me insisted on doing crazy-man-losing-total-control running on the downhills, with arms flying in all directions and legs pumping into the air.  I named one guy “The Bombadier” since he would always bomb down the hills like crazy, only for me to repeatedly pass him on the uphills.

After running above town on trails, we hit the main highway for about 100 yards and then quickly turned off onto a dirt road that started up the ski mountain Cerro Bayo.

"runners" ahead of me climbing mud and snow covered ground

"Runners" ahead of me climbing mud- and snow-covered ground.

We hit a section that was steeper and muddier than the famed connector at the fire trails above UC Berkeley.  Many sections required holding onto plant life to climb up the unstable, muddy trail.  However, numerous more macho men than myself were determined to get up these sections without using the brush and would attack the hills like trying to climb a vertical slippery slide, only to turn all those around them into bowling pins as they inevitably slid back into the others.

Picture of mud on the steep climb up Cerro Bayo

Mud on the steep climb up Cerro Bayo.

Early on the climb up this hill I searched for a walking stick to help with the straight-up march. I wanted one that was really light and small, and I was lucky to find one just the right size, and as this climb intensified, I was so happy to have my little stick that I started having thoughts of wanting to keep it forever.  “I could pack it in my suitcase and bring it home,” I thought.

View from the top (almost) of Cerro Bayo

View from the top (almost) of Cerro Bayo.

As we approached the top I was extremely excited to emerge from the trail onto a runnable dirt road that looked like a Cat track for the ski area, until I immediately realized we still had a long trek up through the mud and snow before we could come down again.  When we finally reached the top of Cerro Bayo, I really was attached to my little stick and did not want to discard it, but I started having visions of Tom Hanks in Cast Away with his soccer ball that he named and would talk to.  I decided the little stick made it all the way to the top of Cerro Bayo from the bottom and that it should rest there, so I sadly discarded it.

Soon after I let go of my stick, we started on the downhill, which consisted of running down a ski run on loose-pack, large-grain sand and rock. I heard a guy shout “SHIT,” and hearing English, I asked what happened.  He said as soon as he started down and hit this loose sand, both his shoes entirely filled with the pebbles and sand, and he could not run.

The ski "run" down Cerro Bayo.

The ski "run" down Cerro Bayo.

(I later learned that this also repeatedly happened to Sarah.)  I took to surfing down the sand as best I could, while “Bombadier” flew by me.

The run down was silly and fun, and a really nice break from the monotony of the climb up Cerro Bay.

I’ve never run down a ski run before (another first). After reaching the bottom of the Cerro Bayo trail, we were dropped right back on the highway, which was the only miserable part of run (and luckily it only lasted a few hundred yards). It was bright, dusty from cars flying by, and exhaust filled the air.  Mercifully, this stretch was over quickly, and we went back to a beautiful dirt road and then a trail above town.  I could hear the blare of the loudspeakers at the finish line in town and was very happy to see the 40K marker, which meant I only had a little over a mile to go.

The final half mile was on the main street of the little town of Villa La Angostura, which we have made home for the last week.  The crowd was wonderful and still relatively excited and cheerful even though the elite runners had finished over two hours before.  Little kids loved to stand in the street so they could get “low fives” as you ran by to their extreme pleasure and giggles.  I got lots of cheers, and as I ran down the chute to grab my 5:20 finishing time, I heard my name being shouted. I was so happy to see Sarah right past the finish line, who was calling my name and smiling.

Me finishing the race with a big smile

Me finishing the race with a big smile.

I told her I enjoyed this race more than any I have ever done, and she was just so happy to see I had not bonked, quit or died on that difficult course.  We both talked about how we really wildly underestimated the course and the need for calories (I had four “GUs” with 100 calories each, and she had five, to put in some obligatory race report information).

Although Sarah had a difficult race, with about eight stops along the way to fix shoe and sock problems, she still managed to pull off a win in her age division and tenth female overall.  She found this fact out by hearing her name repeatedly shouted over the loudspeaker while waiting and worrying about me.  She said it sounded like “Saaarrraaaaah Smeeeeeeeth,” “Saaarrraaaaah Smeeeeeeeth!”  I’m sure that in her catastrophizing she assumed she was being summoned to be informed that I had careened off the side of a hill or worse, but she was happily surprised to find out the insistent calling was to get her to the awards podium. With that, the race was over.

Well, I didn’t win my division (I was 70th out of 171 in the men’s 40 – 44 group), but this moment in Patagonia is one that I will always remember and cherish for how lucky I am to be able to run a course like that (at all), and to be in a place as beautiful and different as here. Events and times like these are what I dearly hoped my year-away trip would provide, and this, so far, was one of the best.  This event really put us into the life of this small town, and we were surrounded by people from Argentina and across South America (I think there were only two or three other Americans total). Even though I can’t really speak to the Latin Americans and don’t understand what they say, I have a much better understanding of this part of the world than I did before.  Mostly, I am comfortable here even with the language barrier, and events like the 42K just deepen that level of comfort and the realization that although there are major differences between different parts of the word, there are even more similarities.

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