Good morning folks
I trust you are in mighty fine form.
This week is pretty much entirely and unashamedly dedicated to the race I ran last weekend.
Other things have happened here in Limaland. My neighbours are still a pain in the a### and the city drives me completely nuts, but I will forget all that for this week.
So, here is the weekly Monday morning Superclunk.com blog for your perusal…
Arequipa, Arequipa, Arequipa…
Arequipa: “The Yorkshire of Peru” it has been called.
Arequipa: “the White City” on account of its buildings being built from ”silla” rock.
Arequipa: The place I am hoping/dreaming that we may possibly be moving to next year, if work does open up a new branch there and if they do, I will crawl naked over broken glass to get there!
I had only been there once before, on a boozy football weekend. “La Copa de America”, a month after I first arrived here in 2004. Our flights down there were to be the last for the infamous/notorious/ill-fated “Aero Continente”. (When we came to check-in on the way home, TV cameras were outside the airport and we were told that Aero Continente had been grounded for narco-traficking. “Get the bus home”, we were told. A mere 16hr plod back oop north to Lima!)
Back in the good old days when £1 was 6 Soles or a whopping $2, we went to watch two games for the bargain sum of 2 quid.
Chile Vs. Paraguay (a bit like a dirty Sunday league match) and Brazil Vs. Costa Rica (one-way traffic for the Brasileros. Don’t mention the midweek friendly result here this week!)
It was an eye-opener, flares, till rolls, toilet rolls and a no-seats/standing stadium!
Apart from the “Ariquipeña” cerveza and my first/last/only serving of “Cuy” (Guinea Pig), the one thing that made its impression on me was the perfect-shaped, snow-capped volcano that filled the horizon called “El Misti”. If you asked a small kid (or somebody with very limited artistic skills, such as me) to draw a mountain, they would draw El Misti.
“One day, I will climb that bugger” I mused.
The El Misti Sky Race (MSR) 2018.
So, on August the 1st this year, the day before jetting off back to Blighty, I entered the 42km race. It was a desperate attempt to salvage something from yet another disappointing running season, this year totalling 2 races:
Desafio Ruricancho (mid-field obscurity) and the Lima marathon (not a bad race in all, but followed immediately by a spiralling-out-of-control (respiratory) illness-injury-illness-injury cycle, pretty much until I got a bit of Yorkshire air back in my lungs. MSR was the last race in the season and I had 3 months to get fit, surely not a problem???
So, in 2018 I did less mileage and less climbing than the previous 2 years, but at least I was running fairly constantly. Obviously I was kidding myself. The MSR has…
- 42km off-road (26 miles in old school money) at altitude.
- Climbing up to 5285m (19,110ft-ish).
- A temperature range from minus 5 to +35°C (Lima life has made me soft).
The distance I could train for. The cold I could wrap up against. The heat I am used to nowadays, BUT the altitude would be a BIG problem.
Lima is at sea level. My local “cerros” stomping ground only goes up to about 1300m (4250ft). I had seen punters jogging round the local “El Pentagonito” course wearing “gimp masks” a gadget that apparently limits oxygen into your mouth/nose, simulating altitude, (or you could just put a clothes peg on your nose, or do it the Emil Zatopek way, by simply holding your breath until you pass out!)
I would have to get up to altitude for some training/miracles.
I plucked some dates out of the air to go into the higher hills, but something always happened or jinxed me. Time was ticking…
Then, out of the blue, my mate Charlie, who lives up at a lofty 3500m, running a hotel in the Andes and also the epic Llangunuco Mountain Lodge race, invited me up to Yungay for a training weekend (details HERE). It was a washout, but good training and a stark realisation for me that I really did have problems!
I have never been that great at altitude, it is a funny old thing.
- Bad guts (I can imagine this as I have them constantly. So that wouldn’t be too difficult).
- A headache like your worst ever Stella Artois hangover (I had been caning it a bit too much of late, so this was easily imaginable).
- Shortness of breath. Like having your lungs filled with Playdo, (not advisable). The thin air is not great when you are panting your way uphill and your ticker is going like the clappers trying to pump blood (containing very little oxygen) around your knackered body!
It is nothing to do with fitness, it is something inside. You have it, or you don’t, an ability to suck oxygen out of thin air. I spent a lot of time in Bolivia in 2004 (basically a landlocked country of “Altiplano” with the World’s highest everything) and on one extended trip I was up high and suddenly realised that my headache had disappeared, I could actually breathe and I could wander more than 6ft away from the khazi without fear of an accident! It did take about a fortnight for all of this to kick in though.
PLUS, I had never been above 5000m before…
My plan was to fly into Arequipa on Saturday morning, race Sunday morning and fly back Sunday teatime. An ambitious ram-raid/smash-&-grab approach? I was doubtful that Misti would be kind enough to let this happen. However, work is what pays the bills and my last class is always 9:15pm, so after a 2hr power nap (in between neighbour’s party racket) at 3am I was airportbound. It was going to be a l-o-n-g weekend.
Arequipa is a 90-minute flight south over impressive mountainous scenery, which gets increasingly impressive the closer to Arequipa one gets. Volcanoes fill the horizon, not all of them dormant.
I negotiated a bargain taxi into the city, which was negated completely by the taxista’s “lack of change” (that old chestnut) then hunted for a gas canister, lugging round a ridiculous weight of gear for one race. I found an amazing café, where the owner knew more about coffee than the inventors of coffee. If you are ever in Arequipa, check out NACION CAFÉ. I then bought as many bananas and water as I could carry/afford and waited at the pick-up point. 12:30pm departure.
This is Peru of course, so 12:30pm came and went. People arriving at 1:30pm then went shopping, so it was nearer 2pm by the time we left the city. The passenger in front immediately reclined their seat right back. How I wish I wasn’t 6ft 4 at times! A bumpy 3hr ride over the col between El Misti and Chachani (Misti´s 6000m neighbour), where we got stuck in the finest sand I have ever seen (not as in the best, more like it was similar to the texture of icing sugar). As soon as I went to help out, the headache struck. Dashing around at 3000m is not a good idea, when you are woefully unacclimatised. Fortunately for us, a 4×4 nudged us out after all our rocks/Pampa-grass-under-wheels attempts failed and by 5pm we arrived at our temporary digs. An outhouse in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Although we were only 3hrs out of Arequipa, there was no sign of any life whatsoever, bar the odd Guanaco.
I cooked up some Supernoodles (I will give this crap up one day) and got my kit ready. I had been told about the plummeting temperatures that would chill us as soon as the sun dropped out of the sky. We were treated to some chicken soup too, and along with as much “mate de coca” (not a drug, just a bitter tea that supposedly helps with altitude) as I could stomach.
With 20-odd punters sharing a room, it was never going to be a quiet night. It was pretty much brass-monkey temperature, so I was glad I had a decent sleeping bag. As soon as I bedded down, I needed the toilet and after deliberating, braved the cold to be treated to a brilliant moon illuminating everything and a zillion stars, (no stars in Lima due to artificial light/smog).
As I seem to attract them, it wasn’t a surprise for a wild dog to try and eat me whilst I answered the call of nature. The local reservoir (which silted up rendering it unusable, a complete disaster) is manned by one-huachiman-&-his-dog year-round. Then to sleep…
For what seemed about 10 minutes.
“Get up, it’s 2:30am”
Porridge, coca tea, dressed and ready by 3am!
Start was scheduled for 3:30am, but people were late (surprise), so we were given an extra 15 minutes. The brilliant moon had disappeared and although it was cold, it wasn’t that cold.
- Start warm (and carry more gear throughout the heat of the day).
- Start cold (and shiver yourself silly until the sun came up, then carry less weight later on).
Option 2 it was then.
My mate Charlie lives at 3500m and had slept 2 nights at 4000m+ (sleeping also counts as acclimatisation), so I just planned to keep with him as long as possible. Immediately I discovered that my water had frozen (schoolboy error). We jogged and walked into the night, which became dawn, and by 4:30am it was light, but with a biting wind. Misti is the mountain of false summits. Best not to look upwards too much.
I have said it before that running used to be such an uncluttered, simplistic activity. A pair of shorts, a top, a bumbag (fanny pack for US readers), a pair of Walshes and some emergency Kendal Mint Cake. That was what drew me to the sport, but those times have-a-gone…
Three things I used for the first time in a race and I was grateful for them!
1) An altimeter - The numerous false summits have deterred the valiant efforts of many-a-MSR runner in the past. Keep digging into until the watch says 5825m and there is no more up!
2) Desert Gaiters - These sexy little socks enclose your shoes completely. They look ridiculous, but do the job, especially on sandy/desert courses, like this. They do reply on the Velcro you painstakingly stuck to your shoes previously, staying stuck- Otherwise, you’re in bother!
3) Sticks/poles - These look like ski sticks. Superlight carbon fibre staffs to steady weary legs uphill and down-dale. (Also to fend off errant, rabid pooches). One good friend called me a “Nordic Wa#ker” when I got these out to go up Helvellyn, he had a point. I wouldn’t ever use these in a shorter race, but they were worth their weight in “Mate de Coca” over this course.
So, up past the first checkpoint, where two hardy marshals had spent the night. A cup of tea without a teabag (some lukewarm water) spurred us on and way down below, a long line of intrepid runners stretched back down as far as the eye could see.
My water started to defrost and I treated myself to a contraband Jelly Baby every time I didn’t’ stop!
Charlie encouraged/heckled me along, but as I am partly deaf in one ear and it was blowing an icy gale, conversation was monosyllabic on my part.
I crossed the 5000m threshold without exploding/imploding, but it wasn’t getting any easier. By 5200m my mate was ahead and soon out of sight.
I read a lot of climbing books and used to be startled that mountaineers could turn back from the summit of 8000m peaks with just 100m to go, or of climbers taking 2 hours to cover 100 yards. I had also heard stories of the previous MSR when runners got to within 200m of the top and couldn’t go on, turning back on themselves and dropping back to the start. I could see why now, although retreat was never on my agenda, I had made a bet with myself to get to the top come-what-may, even if I had to crawl, but it was getting harder and harder. I was stooped over my sticks, desperately trying to get some air inside my lungs.
Suddenly the climb started levelling out. The giant iron cross, visible from way below, was now fully visible in all its enormity and grandeur.
Two marshals, one taking photos of my gurning parody of a jog, the other shouting encouragement.
5825m – The top, no more up!!!
Apart from a brief, cursory glance at the route beforehand, I had little idea of what lay ahead. Obviously a BIG drop off was imminent.
The orange flags directed us ominously down into the crater, (I had had a dream that I tripped, fell and rolled into the bubbling lava, bursting into flames instantly!)
All the way up the climb, my hands had been numb, despite the sun being high in the sky now it was still rather parky. Dropping down into the crater was ace in that respect, apart from the wreak of sulphur, it was warm and dodging flaming lava pits, I made it across to the lip of the crater and looked at a descent the likes of which I had never ever seen before.
The Ben Nevis race is unique in the UK, going from almost sea level to 4409ft in just over 4 miles. The descent is a complete one-off. “Brain-out-brakes-off”, as they say.
The MSR freefall was something else! Dropping 4000ft in 2 miles!!!
In the giddiness of thawing my fingers out and being able to move and breathe, I missed a flag and had to climb back up the slope for a few hundred metres, reminding me that I was still above 4000m (sorry for excessively mixing up metric and imperial).
Pre-route knowledge is priceless, but I was clueless.
There was a really long traverse through sand dunes and spiky grass, I lost the flags a few times, but was going in the right direction, with a handy tailwind.
It had been some time since I had seen a single person, or even a sign of a person. 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…”
Running is a sport that gives you time to think, especially longer distances. Although you obviously have to watch the ground/terrain like a hawk, you do have time:
a) On a good day, to mull things over and maybe even find solutions to some of life’s greater problems.
b) On a bad day, to trawl through the darkest recesses of your mind! Places you wouldn’t normally (choose to) go…
I remember on my Bob Graham Round in 2009, I went through a very bleak spot physically and mentally on leg 3. (Rossett Pike to Great End, if you know it).
The night had been long, but we had survived. We’d run for 12hrs+ and were (hopefully/potentially) on-schedule and halfway round. I’d come off nightshifts earlier in the week and my body was still in nightshift mode. That is why the night had gone ok, but now the inky Lakeland blackness had been slowly diffused into a grey Lakeland dawn, my body and mind was saying, “Alright then, breakfast then bed please!” You withdraw into yourself. I had sold all my running gear in my head on eBay and was certainly not planning anything like a BGR ever again, in my mind, at that time, but you somehow bring yourself back round into a semi-positive state of mentalness and dig in (or your mate gives you a good talking to, which is even better!)
Back to MSR. Somewhere between halfway and the finish.
Life, work, relationships, illogical/irrational thoughts all blend together and start doing bumpy cartwheels round your head.
I was just thinking, “Why do this?”
I trained for the Lima marathon for 7 (whole!) weeks and ran a half-respectable time, coming in the top 40 (hit parade!).
Why fly halfway across a country, sleep less than 5hrs in 2 days, spend a small fortune on specific gear and trash yourself, just to finish nearer the back of the field, than the front?
Training at altitude is impossible in Lima. If I was younger, single and superpsyched, maybe I would head to the higher hills every weekend, maybe I would be more competitive and maybe I would even arrive at a race acclimatised….
(If you read the brilliant “Eight out of ten climbers” by Dave MacLeod, you would know the answer to these maybes would actually be a solid “no”).
Anyway, with no idea of the cut-off times, I blundered on downhill, with only the occasional Guanaco for company.
I clicked past 42km on my watch and wondered if I had gone wrong? Another checkpoint, at least going in the right direction.
A drunken farmer shouted some encouragement/abuse (it was impossible to tell, so I told myself it was the former). A cold beer on a hot day seemed a better idea than what I was doing!
Down, down, down and then a shout “C’mon Johnny you useless (deleted expletive)”
It was Charlie, so the end must be close. He ran me in, outpacing me, running backwards, in his flip-flops!
There was the Finish.
All over, done and not cut-off. Not first, not last and still standing (maybe hobbling).
Shoes off, blisters pulsating, but no more running.
The bus was due to leave so it was a quick emergency rations surplus Mongol Rally Wayfayrer’s meal, half-heated, the packet had bumped from the UK to Mongolia and back again over 6 years ago, so the label had rubbed off. Beef Stew & Dumplings! Get in, result. Things were looking up already
Thence followed a mad dash on a bus and a taxi to the airport, where I realised I had lost my ticket.
“No problem” said Peruvian Airlines. “We will print another one for you”
All the people in Arequipa airport were mega-friendly, even the Customs lady, all wishing me “Feliz Viaje” (happy travels).
I would like to publicly apologise to the lady in seat 5b, I must have smelled like a smelly guanaco.
I had run up and down a volcano though!
Back to Lima, taxi to Salamanca and after emergency prohibition hot-dogs, I was in the land of zeds, too knackered to even dream…
I would like to thank my good mate Charlie for dragging me up to 5200m, Ruth and Ricardo for an amazingly unique race and SuperMaro for getting me to the Start Line.
One week on, I came out of it biomechanically sound-ish, no future plan is a good plan, as yet!
Life goes on, I mentioned the race to one or two people who asked, but it is a similar reaction to what I got when I once explained how the KIMM (not the OMM) worked to a colleague, which is too long-a-story for here, but after a weekend of beasting myself up in the Scottish Borders one late October weekend, my workmate asked me “How did your sponsored walk go?” Like I had done half a lap of Roundhay Park!
A really good mate and our original Mongol Rally guru, Matthew P, came to Lima this week and we met up for a good old chinwag. The saviour that he is brought me not one, but two boxes of YORKSHIRE TEA!!! The Milky Bars are on me next weekend mate.
Time for the YORKSHIRE TEA SONG!
That’s all for now folks.
Have a mighty fine weekend.
Johnny, Lina and the Nipper