A few things I have learned this last week:
- Santiago, the capital of Chile, sits in a valley at the base of the Andes, the longest mountain range in the world.
- These mountains are remarkably accessible to the bustling city’s 6 million or so inhabitants.
- Due to this, Santiago has a surprisingly large and active trail running community, which appears to be in the midst of steady growth.
- Chileans are a warm and welcoming people who are VERY excited to share their country and its traditions with you.
- Waking up in a cold yurt in Montana on a crisp fall morning and ending your day in the southern hemisphere with the smell of spring in the air is a surreal experience.
Moving on. I first heard of The North Face Endurance Challenge Chile 50 Miler outside of Santiago a few months ago when I was fortunate enough to be invited by the event’s organizers. With the allure of high peaks and the chance to practice my extremely rusty Spanish, this seemed like an opportunity not to be passed up. And so with very little expectations and an open mind I got on a jet plane last week, along with fellow TNF athlete Ashley Arnold, to experience South America’s burgeoning trail running scene.
Upon our arrival to Santiago on Thursday night we were immediately adopted into the TNF Chile family alongside athletes from all over Central and South America. Our hosts were so accommodating, hospitable and organized. And with only one day between our arrival and the race start, we crammed in a short run, too much good food, and very little sleep before the alarm went off early Saturday morning.
With the gun scheduled to go off at 4 a.m., we groggily boarded the shuttle around 2:30 and were delivered to a quaint little resort nestled in the hills outside of the glowing city. A couple hundred racers huddled around a handful of bonfires staying warm and biding their time before shedding layers and toeing the start line. Somewhere in the haze on the lingering jet lag I remember leaving the warmth and heat, turning on my headlamp, a count down in Spanish, and a proper amount of hooting and hollering as the race began. “Time to run in the Andes,” I thought to myself smiling.
After the normal jockeying and swerving and trying-not-to-trip moments that accommodate most race starts, I was cruising along a dusty doubletrack road with a group of South American men representing Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. Only the faint silhouettes of 15,000 foot peaks could be made out against the blue-black sky and our headlamps bobbed quietly along through the predawn morning. After some time the silence was broken and the group began discussing heatedly an age-old question amongst all Latin American men: which South American country produces the best-looking women. As if it were some sort of unspoken ceasefire agreement, the pace slowed significantly for a few minutes in order to regroup and hash out this very pressing question. As this is a situation I haven’t found myself in often over the years, I was quite content to settle in and cruise with this front pack listening along. Although my footing in the Spanish language is about as good as the footing was on the loose cobblestone road, I was able to deduce that this specific group believed Argentina produced the cream of the crop!
With the early start and the hot topics of discussion only bringing us through the first 10K, I stayed settled in with this front pack of five or so guys as we paraded through another hour and a half of darkness. With the pace feeling comfortable, I focused on practicing my Spanish and sharing the trail with some new friends in this new place.
And this is how it went for the first 30K or so of the race. We switched leads, ran past herds of cows, descended grassy slopes without trails and worked together to keep each other on course. We avoided the spines of the surprisingly abundant cacti, ascended ridges and contoured through drainages. After a bit of time, the group thinned to myself, a Chilean, Isreal Escudero, and an Ecuadorian, Ganzalo Calisto.
The three of us entered into the third aid station shortly after sunrise and the course began a large climb where I began to slowly pull away. Shortly after gaining the lead I managed to get myself properly lost for a solid twenty minutes before getting back on course at the base of a 20K climb up an abandoned mining road. Bit by bit, I was able to reel in both Gonzalo and Isreal along the impressively long ascent.
I spent the rest of the day alone and in awe of the scenery around me. Though at the high point of the race near 10,000 feet in altitude I felt as if I were in some legit mountain terrain, I was still in the mere foothills of the much larger Andean peaks in the distance. I continued on and, as is a familiar story to most, for the last few hours along the trail I felt good, and then I felt great, and then I felt bad, and then I felt worse, and then I felt ok again. I ate gels until I didn’t want to eat at all, but I kept eating anyways. I felt like I was crawling on some of the ascents and tried hard to let the gravity pull me back downhill. During a particularly low point I questioned what I was even doing in Chile running. And then as I approached the finish I thought how there was no place in the world I would rather be. As an added bonus, on this particular day, I managed to be the first to reach the finish.
After crossing the line, there were cameras and handshakes and an even interview where I used the poor judgment to attempt my Spanish publicly. The highlight of the finish though occurred when one proud father, without a word, handed me his baby girl and stepped away to let his wife take photos. This is when you have made it to the big time in Chile: When a couple of strangers want to take photos of their kid being held by the speedy, tired, dusty, smelly, sweaty American wearing short shorts!
Not far behind, Ashley Arnold also represented, winning the women’s race way ahead of second place, and completed the U.S. sweep of the 50-mile distance. Although I missed the show, I heard she did some great dance moves across the finish!
I came to Chile with few expectations and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality organization of this race and the terrain that was covered by the 50-mile course. With over 12,000 feet of climbing and a high point near 10,000 feet in altitude, the route snaked along the foothills of the Andes, offering racers a little bit of everything. Steep doubletrack road, buffed out singletrack, loose rocky ascents and descents, a cow pasture here and there, and well-stocked and -staffed aid stations. Simply, it was a proper mountain run.
The excitement is high for trail running in South America right now and I feel so lucky to witness our sport getting people outdoors exploring the open spaces on yet another continent. Along with other parts of the world the sport is growing quickly, though it feels a bit more young and fresh. There is an air of innocent enthusiasm and excitement, which I love. Both this event and ultrarunning seem to have a bright future and I can’t wait to come back and see the progression. My new Chilean friend Tomas, who hosted me during my stay, told me it was his goal to show me all that he could of his country. He wanted me to witness the mountains, the sea and everything in between. As was the character of most Chileans, he told me he wanted me to fall for his country so that I would return. Well he succeeded. I have fallen for Chile and I cannot wait to come back.
[All photos courtesy of The North Face Chile.]