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Daring Deeds - real stories, expeditions, road trips and adventure

To the Montañas…

By Johnny Parsons
03, Oct, 2016

Discovering my lost love of running out in the heat and altitude of the high mountains around Lima

I love running, I have run since I was a lad (mainly because I was appallingly bad at most/all other sports), but like most passionate relationships there have been rocky patches, where I have fallen out of love with the sport I love…

I love the open spaces, the hills, fells, moors and mountains. Off-road is much more preferable to the road for me. Although most of my running life has been about racing, as I have got older/slower I much prefer long training runs outside of a race situation. However my races/fitness levels looked like a very erratic ECG reading with some unpredictable highs and a lot of low lows. After the Nipper was born in 2015, running took a back seat, with working long shifts/crazy hours it went from the back seat into the boot and with a transcontinental move from Blighty to Peru, it frazzled out completely.

One of the things that I love about running is that you can do it almost anywhere, anytime, with not a lot of (fancy/expensive) equipment. A pair of trainers and you´re away (plus clothes, obviously. I am not against nor condoning naturalism!) If you train hard you get better, if you get better, you train harder. However, it´s not just about that. It is one of the few sports that you can actually compete in the same race as the best on the planet (if you run in one of the big city marathons). You couldn´t just rock up to Wimbledon, Brands Hatch, Elland Road or Headingley (Rugby League, Union and cricket) and say you fancy a game. It is something that doesn´t require a lot of technique, you just run, as fast/slow as you like/can. The incredible success of the Parkrun series is testament to this. It is a good way to get stress out of your system, get fit and get some fresh air, all in a relatively short workout.

Round about April 2015 I saw a poster for the Lima Marathon. I ran (was press ganged into) the Manchester Marathon in 2000 and had said “never again”. How selective the memory can be!

I signed up and ran every day for 6 weeks. Despite almost breaking my foot (crashing into a stack of plastic chairs on my motorbike, that had fallen off a lorry on the Panamericana Highway, this is Lima), I got to the start line in one piece and jogged round in 3hrs and 5mins. However the mean streets and crumbling pavements of the city were of zero motivation/inspiration to me after the race and I very quickly relapsed into lazy ways again. With no target nor goals I switched my energies to exploring the local trails on my dirtbike and my trainers gathered dust on my dusty balcony, (Lima is on the coast but actually in a desert, hemmed in by dusty montañas, so dust is in plentiful supply here).

A well-timed “Enter now and get a big discount” email from the organisers in April 2016 saw me signing up for the marathon again. A highly unoriginal target, but a target nonetheless. It gave me just 5 weeks to get fit this time, so I ran 6 days a week and got to the start line in one piece. Plodding round in 3hrs 10mins, I was relatively happy, but a chance discovery 2 weeks previously had changed things completely. Before lumbering round 26-and-a-bit miles of city centre tarmac mid May, my sights were fixed on new trails and mine eyes were lifted upwards to the dusty, rocky montañas that had been catching my eye ever since I first moved here…

They really were a constant source of frustration to be honest. There are lots of hills surrounding the city, but it appeared that nobody ever went there. Whenever I asked folk about “los cerros” they just looked at me as though I had asked an inappropriate question and said “Why?”

I tried sussing it out myself, but access is very different here. Almost all of the possible places that I thought I could get onto the hills were either fenced off or guarded by “Huachimen” (Security Guards) and fierce looking canines. Paradoxically, the hills are either the refuge of the very, very rich or the very, very, very poor. The two social extremes of Lima. All the land is owned (by somebody) and if fenced off and guarded it will probably be occupied by skyrising penthouse apartments very soon, if not fenced off it tends to be the location of what is known as an “Invasion”. Where people basically bum-rush the land and build there, ranging from a squat concrete block, to a few sheets of plastic, cardboard and corrugated iron. With little or no facilities/amenities, life is very tough indeed. Some of these places are simply too dangerous to be going running through (or with my trackrecord, getting lost in). Any leads I had led to dead-ends.

Until one hot, sweaty Wednesday morning, when I was dodging the menacingly huge 4x4s of an upmarket walled condominium on the edge of the local “cerros”. If I couldn´t run up the hills, at least I could run close to them, or get a glimpse of this forbidden territory. Suddenly I spotted the faintest of trails behind the razor wire and as luck would have it, there was a gap in the armour. The guard must have been elsewhere and the dogs were dozing in the sun. Curiosity would have killed the cat (if the guard, Rottweiler or razor wire didn´t), so I jumped the wire... Onto the hills! I was overwhelmed by an incredible sense of happiness, freedom and a sense of doing something that wasn´t allowed. I scurried up and over four of five local peaks and back out the same way, dodging the guard and dog. I ran home the remaining 3 miles on the tarmac with a big grin, I had found a new playground. Of course I was back there the next day, but with a different mission. If I could find a way onto the fells, I would surely find other ways off the fells, thereby opening up new routes. It felt strange to be looking down on the traffic chaos and being able to hear the anger and daily pent-up frustration of a million motorists, but to actually be away from it and above it all. Don´t get me wrong, it is no Lake District (probably closer to Lake Onondaga!) It is however, freedom, from it all.

I quickly sussed out a number of routes and potential “rounds”. The hills around the city are dusty and barren, with little life. Rocky, desertous and dessicated, but with HUGE potential.

I lumbered round the Lima marathon, 5 minutes slower than the previous year, but my heart/mind wasn´t in it. Why? Because I had new goals.

The DESAFIO HUAROCHIRI league!

Three races up in the montañas of the “Sierra de Lima”; out of the city but still within the vast area that encompasses the department of Lima. Some of it familiar territory from previous Clunk expeditions, other parts brand new to me. Excitement levels were off the scale.

Race I – Cocachacra (18.5km/1160m)

I had no expectations, nor ideas what to expect. I knew nobody who had run it, so it was to be an adventure. As fate/bad luck would have it, training was going well into the first race, but I copped for some seriously bad guts. This wasn´t just an upset stomach, this was something far more unpleasant. I´ll spare you the details but I didn´t dare venture more than 30 seconds away from a toilet for a week, so was a tad worried on race day. Leaving the dank, grey cloak of Lima to burst into brilliant, blue skies and a blazing sun just 2 hours away from my house was bliss. I´d taken a bus laid-on by the organisers, but due to tardiness of some folk, we arrived with 10mins to “The Off”. It was going to be close. Everybody has their pre-race routine, but my only priority was finding a bathroom. The infamous scene from “Trainspotting” came to mind when I did find it, but I was past caring. Changed into race gear and then OFF. Up into the hills, starting at 4600ft rising skywards to 8300ft and plunging back to where we all started. I´m used to fell races and navigation, but this was different. It was well marked and marshalled, it even had a drinks station! The higher we got, the more breathtaking the view (and exertion) was. It had a bit of everything, including a technical singletrack bit. At the top we were directed down a wide trail, more like a road and I presumed it was all the way to the finish. A trail I had Clunked down many times. I was just daydreaming how tricky it could have been “in reverse”. Always be careful what you wish for!

Around a sweeping bend, with incredible view west over soaring peaks (that one day I will venture on to), we were suddenly diverted down a tiny, tiny trail which felt like it had been covered in ball-bearings. Despite my new grippy-as-glue shoes, I felt like I was wearing roller skates, and the gaping drop to the left was not something you would want to tumble down. Sometimes on descents you just need to “let go” as tensing up makes it worse! I got back into my stride and was enjoying it immensely. The finish was in sight, but it was like looking down at it from an aeroplane! There was still a l-o-n-g way to go. As I´d been holding back (partly because of my stomach and partly because I simply didn´t want to blow-up, up there) I had a fair bit left and started to overtake tail-enders in the shorter race. Into the grandstand to booming music and a very, very enthusiastic race commentator, I´d done it. Race I in the bag.

Result: 19th/4th V40.

Race II – Matucana. 21km/1280m

Another hour-&-a-bit up the Carretera Central lies the town of Matucana, lodged in the bottom of a steep valley at an altitude of 7800ft. Training had been ok and my guts had finally stopped rumbling/grumbling/exploding. The bus arrived with a good 30mins to spare and it was the most beautiful day imaginable. It had been an early start. Up at 4am having had to endure the over-volume style music that is prevalent in Lima, (especially in my “Barrio”, and especially when I have to get up early). As I walked across the Panamericana Highway the fiesta was still in full-swing, at 5am!

Back up in the hills, this was a different beast of a course. Much more my cup of tea. A long, steep climb out of the valley to the isolated tinpot, one donkey villages in the clouds, where you reflect on just how different life must be. A freefalling drop, then the sting in the tail. A second climb and then a brilliant sliver of a trail contouring around the slopes. It was running-in-the-mountains bliss.

I had been dropped by the leading pack, but was ahead of the “peloton”, in no-man´s land, but accompanied by 3 dogs who were content just to jog along behind me for this stretch. One final checkpoint/water station, where I allowed myself to stop for a second to drink in the view. I never carry a camera in a race, but I wish I´d had one at that moment. A sense of being high in the hills, but also being dwarfed by much bigger montañas across the valley. Humbling, inspiring and mesmerizing in equal doses. No time for loitering though, I had a race on my hands…

I´d started to pass stragglers in the shorter race, but sensed one of my fellow “Chaskis” (name for traditional Inka message runners) breathing down my neck. It was a steep and loose run-in to the finish and the track got narrower, as the stragglers became more numerous and it all became increasingly trickier.

I took a big fall years back on a steep descent off Causey Pike, in the Lakes. I hurt my back and dented my confidence in a big way. I lost my bottle on descents, which is bad news in fellrunning! I don´t know where it came from but I suddenly went from Cowardly Lion to a demon downhiller. (I am perhaps exaggerating, but it was an alarming reaction for me). I was determined to hold off my challenger, but there was a lot of “traffic” to pass and a slip here would mean game over. Somehow I got my second wind and ran in for a top 10 spot. I was positively buzzing. I´d not raced like that in years. I´d met a handful of people in the first race and found myself talking to loads of people. It was a high and despite waiting 4hrs just for the bus to take me on another 4hr journey home, it was a brilliant day out. Matucana, I love you! I´d move there in a heartbeat, (but a 4hr commute to work each day might dampen my enthusiasm!) Result: 9th/4th V40

Race III – San Andres de Tupicocha. 25km/1040m

I did a recce a week prior to the race. A group of us had got up at crazy AM and done the 4hr drive there. It felt reassuring to know the route and although we had sauntered round, stopping to take photos, it was a huge boost to discover that my body hadn´t just exploded/imploded from the altitude. This was a different race again, longer and starting much higher up at 11830ft above bath water. It was a long, long runnable loop with two climbs. Not a place to do your boots in!

Altitude is a strange thing to race in. It can affect your breathing, give you a blinder of a headache and also cause chaos with your digestion. On the recce I was alright-ish. I´d done a bit more training at altitude, but was treating it with respect. (On top of which I got badly sunburnt, due to my own stupidity, won´t make that mistake again!)

The third and final race was to be the decider, but the organisers; Ruth and Ricardo, had been saving their best card until last. The climbs were not as high, but we were already high and went up to almost 13,000ft at the highpoint. The fact that it was a fast course made me even more cautious to hold back at the start…

Race day dawned even earlier than the last, with an abrupt alarm buzzing at 3:15am. Another party (in fact two nights of parties) had deprived me of the few hours kip that I really needed. I´d even been round “for a word” with the noisy neighbour but it is a very different culture here and my “vecino” was offended that I had disrupted the dreadful singer duo she had hired. I was told that it was “Only until 3am” as the door was slammed in my face. I think I managed about 20mins shuteye at some point, but was desperately tired and relied on getting some kip on the bus (which never happened). Again the bus left late and made slow progress, so we got to the start with 10mins to go. Running around like a lunatic trying to get ready wasn´t a good start, but others had misjudged the travel time and kick-off was put back 15 minutes. Time to calm down.

Route knowledge is a massive psychological boost, not just for the whippets up front, but for any racer. You know the tricky, steep, technical, fast and hard bits up front. I felt like I was treading water from the off, and was struggling with an overwhelming feeling of bloatedness, but after an hour I started to get into it. Until the second climb that is.

I´d been drinking plenty and eating too, but suddenly went from running low, to reserve, to empty. More food and gel did nothing and I was backpedalling (with a coaster brake, so I was going nowhere, not so fast!) I was showing the classic and instantly recognizable signs of a “bonk”, but couldn´t puzzle out why. Head-down and get on with it.

I reckoned I had an hour of running left, so necked my emergency gel. “Maca & Coca” flavor. Coca is not cocaine, but it does have properties that help the body at altitude. Maca is a “superfood” root plant native to Peru, which is known as an “adaptogen” and also an aphrodisiac! No need for that right now, but it is known to boost endorphin levels and whether it was luck, coincidence or just belief, it hit the spot and I started to turn my head round/get back in the game.

I knew that after the last climb it was an easy run-in on good tracks, until the very last descent. There were some suffering stragglers on the shorter race and I got into a bit of a battle with a fellow “Chaski”, who seemed to be in a similar state to me (ie, knackered).

The recce had showed me there was a wall to scale a mile from the finish. I jumped it knowing that I wouldn´t die in the process and legged it to the finish. Done!

I managed to scrounge a lift home with some friends, instead of waiting 4hrs for the bus, but then we got a puncture and had a bit of an epic “dropping off the jack” moment high in the hills. Our merry team got bigger and bigger, until there were about 20 people helping/watching.

A slow ride down the Carretera Central, a slap-up tea on the way and home just before dark. (I write my weekly Superclunk.com blog on a Sunday night, so that had to be patched together and then, 20hrs after getting up, it was finally bedtime, and thankfully no local parties going off!

Result: 19th/3rd V40 Overall result: 9th/3rd V40

As a race series this was one of the best I have ever run. Well organized, not too expensive (an important factor, being the Northern skinflint that I am) and really friendly competitors. At a time when I had fallen out of love with a sport that I have done since I was a nipper and something that is a big part of my life, the Desafio Huarochiri rekindled the flame! If you're in the area then be sure to join in. Photo's of the races from Francisco Palomino V

Like Arnie said, “I´ll be back…”

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