March 19, 2014 by Dakota Jones · 13 Comments
[Editor's Note: Dakota Jones took a two-month-long break from writing for iRunFar because he traveled to Chile and Argentina and–get this–didn't bring a computer. He's back and has penned his race report from his win of the Cuatro Refugios race in Argentina.]
If you’re wondering how to judge the ‘extremeness’ of an activity, gear is a good place to start. Especially in outdoor sports, the amount and type of gear can often indicate how difficult and/or dangerous something is, based on the general assumption that more gear equals more intensity. Thus, you don’t need a whole lot of gear to run a road marathon, but you need a hell of a lot of gear to climb El Cap. That’s because if you take an unprotected fall while running down the road you’ll just be pissed; but if you take an unprotected fall while climbing El Cap, you’ll just be dead. By that logic, more gear is akin to more safety. But there’s a threshold too, beyond which more gear means more time doing the activity, which equates to greater exposure to danger. Thus, lightweight alpine-style climbing is often safer than being fully protected because it allows climbers to save time.
This is, of course, a rough generality that overlooks certain exceptions, like how difficult 10-foot-tall boulders can be, or how unnecessary power meters are for anyone but professional cyclists. But if you’re willing to look at sports this way, then Cuatro Refugios–the race I ran in Argentina in early March–fell right about in the middle. It was a running race, sure, but one that required all participants to wear a helmet to avoid rockfall. And yeah, it was fast and intense, but I had to carry–and use!–a climbing harness, personal anchor, and two carabiners. But that wasn’t everything. In addition to the climbing gear, I also carried with me such choice items as two jackets, a lighter, sunglasses, and a first-aid kit stocked better than some ambulances, including two needles, various wraps and bandages, blister care, and a real ampoule of adrenalin. All of this and more was required of participants, and it barely fit into my vest pack. Thus I’d say that, gear-wise, Cuatro Refugios landed about midway between road run and aid climb.
But race-wise, it landed about midway between super hard and impossible. This was a race that spent more time off trail than on, that went down hillsides I’d be reluctant to ski down, and that didn’t really need to mark the course because the route so often followed obvious ridgelines. Cuatro Refugios followed a route that traversed the most magnificent mountains (save one) above Bariloche, Argentina, itself one of the most sought-after destinations in the country. The route is simple on paper: connect the four alpine huts in the range in a single circuit. But actually accomplishing such a feat is Herculean. Indeed, this was the first year out of nine total that the race organizers decided to actually subject runners to the route in a single day. All other versions of the event had broken up the loop into two days. So, obviously, when I found out about all of this, I had to do it.
The crux of the race came in its preparation. First of all, every map in South America is worthless, meaning first-time navigation is fraught with wrong turns and much confused scanning of the horizon. Second, I had already been in the area running mountains for seven weeks, meaning the two pairs of shoes I had brought with me were trashed. No matter how tough your shoes are, volcanic rock is tougher. Third, the required gear list was like a shitty scavenger hunt where I had to slouch through the city bowed over with lists and shopping bags and trying to find the Spanish word for things like headlamp (linterna frontal). Hardest of all was asking the pharmacy for things like hypodermic needles and gauze wrappers. I didn’t even know what half of the stuff was–what the hell is loperamida? And after all of that, I had to figure out how to tetris everything into a six-liter running pack. I honestly was afraid of the start line because I didn’t think I’d have everything prepared in time.
Fortunately, Columbia hooked me up with some shoes, and I spent enough time on the course to know the first and final quarters of the race. Of course, the middle half was still a total mystery, but I figured that if I couldn’t discover the course via map, neither could anyone else. And in fact, judging by the nonexistent navigational skills I had witnessed several times amongst my Argentinian friends, I thought I’d have an advantage. I ran the last few runs before the race with my full pack, and I was reminded with every step of how glad I am to be a long-distance runner and not a backpacker.
Now let’s talk about my Spanish for a second. It’s a joke. It’s the kind of Spanish that you hear an American speaking in the airport and you think, He’s going to have a rough time. In other words, I don’t need a phrasebook because I memorized all the phrases, but I don’t understand any of the answers those phrases elicit. Now, this can have some consequences in a race setting. Like, it’s hard to know what’s going on when all of the information is in Spanish. And, once again, I don’t speak Spanish. I did have an interpreter named Mauri Pagliacci helping me, but since his attention span is shorter than his name, I entered the race with only a cursory knowledge of the quirks involved.
Quirks, you ask? Let me explain. From today’s standpoint–that is, after the race–I know that I was going to be required to prove at aid stations that I was carrying certain pieces of gear, that we would have two ‘dead times,’ and that during one of these I would have to actually put on my climbing harness and ascend a fixed line. But before the race I just knew that something was going to happen. So I figured I’d deal with it as it came along, because that’s what you do when you have no idea what is going on.
The race started at 4:30 a.m, which meant that we had to run for two and a half hours in the dark. If you’re wondering how we could possibly have so much light in early March, keep in mind that we were in the Southern Hemisphere and that science is different there. That part of the race went well, if a little fast, and I quickly broke away with my main competitor of the day, Sergio Trecaman, from Esquel, Argentina. He’s a strong runner–in fact, he beat me at the last race we had run together three weeks before in Chile–and he had run Cuatro Refugios at least twice before. So I let him lead out and tried to stay close.
By the time daylight arrived, we had climbed and descended two major mountain passes and were well on our way up the third. No other runners could be seen behind us. Treca and I were all alone in an alpine cirque, ascending a broken ridge far above a hanging lake. I hiked a little ahead of him, enjoying the brief views of alpenglow on the surrounding peaks while scrambling up large glacier-scoured boulders, when I came around a corner and face to face with a course official.
“Tiempo muerto,” she said. She then looked at the time, wrote the time exactly 30 minutes from then on my bib, and told me to pass. I looked at her in confusion and then continued running. One minute later I came to a steep cliff with a man standing at the base. He fortunately spoke English and told me to put on my harness. I first told him that I do this a lot and didn’t need a rope, to which he responded that it was required. So I scrambled to put on my harness. As I was doing this he told me to relax.
“It’s dead time,” He said. “You have 30 minutes to do this.”
I looked up at him. “Yeah,” I responded, “but I don’t have to wait, right? I can just keep going?”
“No,” he said sternly, “you have to wait.”
“What?” I said in disbelief. “I have to just stand there?”
“It’s the rule.”
“But I’m in the nonstop race!” I started getting angry here. “Not the two-stop race!”
He got angry as well. “Look, I’m not going to argue with you.”
As he said that I had realized that I was being a total dick. Those were the rules and I had signed up for the race. Besides, everyone else had to follow the same rules. So I quickly apologized profusely and then relaxed. Thirty-minute rest!
The climbing section took five minutes to navigate, and at the top I just had to stand there until 30 minutes had passed. So I took some pictures, talked with Treca, ate some food, did everything you would do if you could take a half-hour timeout from an intense race. When I was finally given the go-ahead to leave I was stiff and uncomfortable for about five minutes before loosening up. But soon enough the race resumed with a vengeance. From that dead time to the next hut, the course wound along the very spine of the mountain range, with stunning views of the massive 80-km-long lake to the right and the even more massive and imposing 3,500-meter tall Tronador to the left. Tronador is easily the greatest mountain between Aconcagua and Fitzroy, and its massive cliffs and glaciers are both terrifying and strangely alluring to behold.
But then the course went down, down, down into the thickets of forest far below. This descent was probably the worst thing that happened all day. It began with a wide slope of loose sand that largely transferred into my shoes, and then continued into 2,000 feet of steep smooth rock, with a creek in the middle and hundreds of ball-bearing pebbles strewn across. Navigating that without breaking a wrist was hard enough, but after tip-toeing all the way to bottom, I stepped up into a meadow and… sunk straight into mud up to my knees. This gave way to a dense forest with no trail save for random flags tied to trees, which I had to dance around while trying not to fall and to see where to go next. A few miles of this and I was ready to just give up entirely. But then the trail went up again. Finally! The climb! However, my gratitude soon vanished when I realized that this was the steepest, dirtiest, gnarliest chinscraper climb I had ever seen. It was like class-four scrambling in the trees. I got to the top sweating, exhausted, dehydrated, and pissed off. This was mountain running at its finest.
But I still had two major passes to navigate. So I put to use the first and most-important lesson ultrarunning ever taught me: just keep going. I mean, yeah, I’m tired beyond belief. But the only way to the finish line is forward. So even if you’re walking, or crawling, just keep moving–simple as that. And tough though it was, I climbed those last two passes, and I even enjoyed the views along the way. By the base of the last climb, I had pulled far enough ahead of Treca to stop worrying, and I took my time going up, which was smart since it was the most heinously steep and loose scree field I had ever seen. When I reached the top, all I had to do was run the last six miles and 4,000 vertical feet down to the finish. But first– another dead time. The descent from the top of the pass to the hut 1,000 feet below was technical enough that the organizers didn’t want runners feeling rushed and reckless. So they gave us 40 minutes to navigate what ultimately took me 15 minutes. And this time, instead of being angry about it, I took advantage of the rest.
I took some pictures, emptied out my shoes, ate some food, spoke some bad Spanish with the course marshals, and rearranged my backpack. And then I just enjoyed the views. Bariloche is truly an incredible place, and up to that point I had been so focused on racing well–on training right, on getting the right gear, on eating and resting enough–that I hadn’t been able to truly take in the surroundings. So when I looked out at the lakes and the mountains and valleys all around me, I was overcome with gratitude. The view around me, the utter beauty and perfection before me, was incomprehensible. I felt incomparably lucky to be there, but overwhelmingly sad too, to know that it was too much, too beautiful, too wonderful to fully take in or understand. I could look at that view every day for years and only scratch the surface, and I only had a few minutes. It wasn’t the first time I have felt that torment, and it won’t be the last. The possibility of the horizon is one of the best things about a life in the mountains. But it’s like a drug–it’s never enough.
I couldn’t stay there forever. Spectacular though the view may be, my home lay far below. And, more superficially, I had a race to finish. So I ran down, down down again, all the way to the lakeside and the finish line and my friends. But my heart stayed up high. And it’s still there now, moving quietly among the high rocks above Bariloche, just as it’s also still on the high slopes of Mont Blanc and the crest of the Mooses Tooth in Alaska. All of these places and experiences and people have stayed with me while I’ve moved from place to place. I always regret leaving while at the same time becoming immeasurably thrilled to see what is next. It’s a balance that tips dramatically in opposing directions. And at it’s root, it’s what drives me to be my best.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you ever run a nonstop race with ‘dead time’ like what Dakota describes, where you get some race-imposed rest?
- Are there places around the world where, like Dakota, you’ve left a little bit of your heart because of the way mountains move you? If so, where are those places for you?