Daring Deeds - real stories, expeditions, road trips and adventure
We were underway... read all about the lead up to the race here <<
My mate Charlie lives up in the Andes at 3500m and had trained specifically for this event (including sleeping/acclimatising for 2 nights at 4000m+), so my loose plan was to hang on to his coattails for as long as I could. I knew that I wouldn´t last the entire race with him but if I could manage the bulk of the climb with him, I might just make it. It was good to have somebody to chat with too. Although we set off steadily, there was soon a l-o-n-g line of headtorches all the way back down the trail. It was going to be a long day for all.
Minor disaster struck early on. My water had frozen! Schoolboy error. It was only -5 °C, but I would have to wait for the dawn defrost. In addition to this setback I suffer from an irritating condition called “Raynaud´s Syndrome” which means that blood vessels in the extremities (in my case, my fingers) overreact to cold and reduce blood flow, resulting in fingers going numb and looking like they are white, waxy, dead digits! This makes fiddly little manual tasks a veritable nightmare. I unpeeled a banana (with my teeth) and dug in.
The first checkpoint soon popped up, two hardy officials who had camped overnight. Dawn was breaking and it looked like a scorchio day was in prospect, but there was an icy wind blowing volcanic black sand everywhere. Things were going ok at this point, but the summit slopes looked miles and miles away and above.
Altitude does different things to different people.
Acclimatisation is key. So for this idiot from sea level arriving the day before, in a “smash-&-grab” style attempt, it was something that I had skipped.
Some people are fine at altitude and others suffer like dogs, (I am one of the latter).
It is not connected to fitness, it is something else. You have it or you don´t, but you can get it with time, ideally days or better, weeks of time at altitude beforehand.
The 3 common suffering points are a headache, being short of breath and nausea.
My head was still surprisingly ok, I was gasping a bit, but so was everybody.
My guts had been bad in Lima and had turned to treacle upon arrival to Arequipa. This in turn had killed my appetite, even for fluids. So I was forcing things down. Even early on I was sick of sweet stuff and I didn´t have many savoury goodies to scoff.
In a nutshell, “soroche” as it is called, is a bit like having the worst hangover imaginable whilst wheezing like an 80-a-day asthmatic! Not ideal for running up and down a 19,000ft+ volcano.
Running, especially ultra/trail running has become a much more complicated sport these days…
“When I were a lad” we would just use a smelly-Helly-Hansen top, short shorts and a bum bag, usually just carrying a cag and some Kendal Mint Cake or Dextrose tablets, drinking out of becks…
Oh, those were the days, however there were not many becks to be found on this vertical desert.
One piece of kit I was grateful for was my walking poles. I was reluctant to get a pair. Firstly, they are ridiculously expensive (for a pair of walking sticks) and secondly, in the melee of a mass start, it is like going into battle with a pair of oversized knitting needles. Fortunately, the field was not that big and it was soon strung out like the washing anyway.
By 5000m (a personal height record), I was still feeling ok and my water had defrosted. There were a number of false summits, but I had an altimeter on my watch, so I was slowly counting down the vertical metres. At 5200m, it felt like somebody had pulled out my batteries, at 5300m my heart was going like the clappers and at 5400m, it felt like my lungs had been removed.
Charlie was still moving strongly and he shouted encouragement/abuse at me, until I could no longer see nor hear him. The guy in front (white jacket) and the guy behind (yellow jacket) seemed to be playing mind games with me by sitting down for rests, but I never quite caught them/got caught. Sitting down would be the start of the end for me personally. Take a breather on the poles, then push on, to the next big rock, the next zig, the next zag, ever upwards…
The summit houses a huge iron cross, which was visible from a long, long way below.
One step forward and two back on loose, black sand. I could feel the sun burning my legs, but the icy wind had rendered my hands useless by now. Suncream would have to wait. I had bought a bag of contraband Jelly Babies on my UK trip, so I treated myself with one every time I didn´t stop. I had seen video footage of last year´s winner jogging up this slope, not me. Not today.
I was suffering, but so was everybody else around. “When you´re going through hell, keep going!”
Plodding skywards, alone in a muddle of mixed thoughts…
At 5785m the incline declined and I could actually see the foot of the HUGE iron cross. A marshal was snapping pics at the top, so I put in a pathetically poor parody of a jog and then, suddenly, there was no more up.
5825m or 19,110ft in old money. I had been imagining this moment for over 14 years.
I took a quick photo of the jaw dropping panorama, but it was not a day for dawdling so I then dropped out of the freezing wind, straight down into the crater itself, which was bliss, as my frozen fingers came back to life immediately and I felt warm for the first time all day. An overpowering smell of sulphur and towering walls of crumbling crags led to the next checkpoint, which I just wasn´t ready for. The lip of the cauldron and a vertical 2-mile scree run dropping almost 1500m. It was like Ben Nevis, but half as short and twice as steep.
I checked my kit before I launched myself (an overdramatic description if ever there was one!) This was not a descent one would ever want to reverse, ever. Probably the longest scree run I have ever been down being from Scafell (not Scafell Pike) down to Wasdale. This was a different beast altogether. Black scree, dusty as anything and the odd bigger (fixed) boulder to keep you on your toes, literally.
I had been told that desert gaiters were essential, and how I should glue on the Velcro to my shoes, then stitch it on. Now that was beyond my needlework skills and I couldn´t find a willing Cobbler/Seamstress in time, so I just double-glued it with the stickiest, stinkiest glue (Terokal) that exists in Peru and hoped for the best. Sadly the glue-sniffer´s favourite was not good enough and the Velcro departed company from my shoes halfway down, this would bite my backside later! After what seemed like hours of freefall, I realised I had overshot the exit and had to climb back up to the next checkpoint, bugger! Down is easy enough, but any inclines remind you instantly that you are still above 4000m.
This is not a race that you can just “get round”, you have to fully commit yourself to the initial climb, which I had done, but I had given the remaining 20 miles no thought at all, and was a tad clueless about the intricacies of the route ahead. I knew there was a long run out NE and then a dog-leg hanging due South, but I had no idea of the terrain. It is desert basically, so sand, sand and more sand. Thence followed a l-o-n-g traverse over soft sand, through spikey pampa grass, following orange ribbons, harder sand, a bolder field where you would not want to turn an ankle, before more sand. I am colourblind and struggle with orange on green, so when I suddenly couldn´t see orange ribbons upfront or behind, I panicked! Nothing else to do but backtrack, relieved to spot orange again, I was back on track, but still at 3500m, it wasn´t suddenly easy. At least there was a tailwind. A Brazilian lad caught me up and we ran together briefly. He came from the middle of the Amazon and his highest nearby mountain was 100ft high! He was moving a bit better than me and when I stopped to empty my shoes of sand (for the Nth time) he was gone. A checkpoint in the middle of the middle of nowhere at 30km told me that there were still 20km to go! I thought it was just 42km. Surely they must be mistaken. Or was I?
Doubling back on ourselves we were now into a headwind. Sand gets everywhere. I once went on a weekend into the desert 4hrs south of Lima with a crazy guide, who kept saying “Sand, I hate sand!” (That is another story). It is not a friendly material!
I started running sums through my tired, dehydrated brain. I was on my own again. Trying to work out splits, cut-offs, bus times and ultimately my flight time back to Lima! It was tight. Nothing like a bit of time pressure to spur one on. The route was all downhill. It would have been good running if my feet hadn´t been trashed. Both heels and both big toes were complaining (moral of the story: Empty your shoes more often if your desert gaiters don´t stick).
El Misti to my right looked HUGE. It seemed inconceivable that we had all been atop just hours earlier. At some point I must have somehow passed the Brazilian and then he overtook me with a lass, who then both disappeared into the distance. My appetite had gone completely and I wasn´t drinking enough fluids. My shins were a sweaty, bloody mess of cuts, suncream and volcanic dust. I had used the worst suncream in the World and could feel my legs, neck, hands and ears burning in the relentless desert wind.
Running gives you time to think.
On shorter runs or pleasant runs, this can be a good thing. You can puzzle out problems.
On runs like this, especially if you are on your own and not going great guns, it can be a tough time. You do go through some dark patches in your mind, places best not visited…
There was absolutely no sign of human life at all, until I stumbled across Ricardo, the organizer, I stopped for a brief chat, he was a bit more coherent than I was.
A routine of Run-jog-walk-empty-shoes and repeat was developing.
Flags led up a dusty track to a tiny village, was this the finish? My watch said 40km.
My optimism was misplaced. “No, no, no. FALTA, pero todo esta bajando” (No, no, no. You´ve got LOADS left yet, but it is all downhill).
I force-fed myself bananas and kept doing mental arithmetic in my head, getting different answers each time. I didn´t even know the final cut-off time, nor what day it was by now.
It had been some time since I had seen a single person, or even a sign of a person, apart from a farmer who I suspect had been drinking, as he heckled me unintelligibly. The orange ribbons kept coming and going and I was descending in the right direction, El Misti was on my right and the miles were clicking, past 42km as it happened. My toes were battered but I was ok, I wasn´t on my last legs. Another checkpoint, “Keep going, keep going...”
As I shuffled through a boulder-filled dry streambed I heard my mate Charlie “COME ON YOU USELESS (DELETED EXPLETIVE)!!!”
The end was in sight and despite being outrun by a man, jogging backwards, wearing flip-flops, with luck on my side the finish line was downhill. To a giant inflatable hoop in the impeccable “Plaza de Armas” of the picturesque town of Chiguata.
The Finish Line. It was all over!
Medals don´t usually mean much, a bit of tin and a ribbon, but this was one I would keep.
It would have been amazing to sit back and chill with a beer (a local brewery was one of the sponsors), but time was still my enemy, so I rapidly got changed, had a half-cooked emergency Wayfayrer portion (ex-2012 Mongol Rally rations, keeps well does that gear. Stew and dumplings too, my favourite!)
Thenceforth began a Planes, Trains and Automobiles operation:
- Bus to Arequipa.
- Taxi to airport with a friendly taxista from Puno.
- Swift cuppa in airport (first caffeine fix in 36hrs), onto plane, apologies to the girl in seat 5B. I smelt like a horse. Filthy, stinking dirtbag that I am, did have a good reason though and there wasn´t time for a shower, nor were there any showers.
- Flight to Lima. Back to the city of chaos.
- Taxi to Salamanca. Back through traffic chaos.
- Home, shower, bed…
In all the races I have run over the last 35 years, this is already forged into my memory!
The altitude was the big thing (literally) and with an ever-present, very distinct possibility of a DNF, but I did it.
Big thanks to Ricardo and Ruth (Vertigo Peru) and to Charlie for cajoling me up to 5200m, and at the finish.
Would I do it again?
Ask me this time next year!
(Just don’t ask me what’s next, not yet!)
Onwards and upwards
Share your thoughts about this article.
Well done Johnny! Congratulations.
Sounds like a real challenge, ably overcome.Hope you are now recovered.
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