I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.
– Haruki Murakami, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’
San Pedro de Casta lies about 80 kilometres from Lima. The road climbs some three kilometres up along a narrow mountain roller coaster to the little village that is home to 500 people, donkeys and cows. It is an access point to an ancient site Marcahuasi, which is famous for eroded rocks mystically shaped into people and animals – inspiring generations of archeologists and UFO believers.
This was the route of last Saturday’s training run. One that I never completed. Which is not to say I didn’t see all kinds of mystical things. I started suffering from a bad ‘soroche’, altitude sickness, less than a kilometre from leaving San Pedro de Casta. Even writing about it gives me a headache.
Of course I’d heard of soroche, but I tend to take a lot of confidence in having generous reserves of physical strength supplemented by mental stubbornness and, if everything fails, a pain threshold far, far higher than the threshold for higher tax rate. And the six years spent as a management consultant on the 9th floor in London – how’s that for altitude?
So I equipped myself with a coca-toffee sweet – coca leaves being an Andean folk remedy for altitude sickness – and was pretty much as battle prepared as I was seven years ago when I confidently waddled to a labour ward with a pill of ibuprofen.
Now I just smile and nod when soon to be mothers tell about their plans for natural birth. And now, I also know that people warning me about altitude weren’t necessarily lambasting my physical condition. Nothing to do with my resting heart rate. Apparently even Olympic athletes get altitude sickness. What happens is that your body isn’t used to the reduced levels oxygen that is available at heights of 2,500 metres and above. In some cases fluid builds up in the brain or lungs, which can even be fatal. Soroche has been described to feel like “flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a hangover”. Pretty to the point, I’d say, although my preferred choice of conjugation would be ‘and’.
As I rapidly fell behind the group, in between taking photos, I used the voice recorder in my phone, because that is how much I care about this blog. On retrospect, Felipe, who later tried to call me, had a point in questioning the foresight in leaving my other phone that had network (but no Spotify) in his car. Yet on the other hand, I bet Haruki Murakami wished he had thought like me.
Here is what I thought, as transcribed from the ‘black box’:
“3500 metres… never felt like this before. Is this the point where you turn back? Or maybe there are rewards for stupidity? Probably the oxygen is not going to my head… Oh my god, those cows – I should ask how do they do it? Absolute hell. Oh dear. Ouch. These fucking insects are going to eat me alive.
Why can’t I just go to Virgin Active, like normal people? I can’t see properly. I see everything like it was a filtered Instagram picture where the saturation and contrast are just off… There are people up there, I can hear them. Are these insects getting bigger and bigger? Is that a man in an orange coat or is it just a rock? Oh God… next time I want challenge, I’ll just wrap a plastic bag in my head and run up and down the stairs to Malecón.
The lethargy I felt was worse than in all of the last year’s team meetings combined. There is a four minute clip about wanting a sausage with proper mustard, or alternatively a Peruvian ‘sanguiche’ with ‘salsa criollo’. No eternal light. No Heaven or Angels. Just a sausage with mustard for me, please.
I found a rock to lie on and slept for a bit, until someone told me to get up. Sleeping could lead to unconsciousness.
…Ok so, I’ve moved 5.3km. That’s 300 metres progress in the past hour. I feel so ill… There were two girls returning, they said they couldn’t find the group anymore. They said the best thing to do was to turn back to the base, and that’s what I’m doing right now, and I already feel better. My legs are fine, my heart is absolutely fine, my breathing is fine, but it’s just this bloody head! I’m not even sweating, and why would I? I haven’t been able to run apart from the 20 metres for the photographer…
I thought it would feel like shortness of breath, but no, it doesn’t feel like that all. You feel like you need to vomit, only if your brain didn’t explode first. There’s a shortage of oxygen in my brain. A shortage of reason as well. I have to go down, find the bus… it’s a bit of a defeat, you have to return, but I have no desire to go much higher and then get lost anyway. I’m not running. I’m not sure I can ever become an ultra marathoner. I’ll be happy to run on the asphalt. Bring on the traffic lights, dog shit, congestion, people on your way!
…Then again, I’d never have this view again, and I’ve never in my life seen anything like this. There’s something depressing about the remote beauty of these mountains. I feel like Ninny, the invisible child, in the Moomins, who wept at the enormousness of the sea.
Beautiful but so big. I’m thinking about love and my relationship and these mountains. Impressive… make me feel so small and lonely. Part of me wants to carry on, but part of me tells me that I haven’t prepared. I don’t know if I could have. But now I’m so sorry I didn’t make it. We didn’t make it. About leaving in the past a future that never got the chance to be the present.
Some obstacles are external, some are internal. I find the latter harder to bear. It took me glorious four hours and four minutes to complete 10k – two weeks earlier I had run 42k faster. Turning back implies failure and, for a moment at least, a lesson learned is a bitter consolation prize. Yet I don’t know if the winner feels any sweeter than the surviver, who returns to the base to the relieved applaud of her worried companions. Those are your friends. But if your attitude to life is ‘better to be sore than sorry’, you also deserve some background noise from people who kept their wanderlust in check and were just more capable of controlling their carnal incontinence.
I wish I never climbed that mountain. I wish I never fell in love with that person.
That next mountain training is just over a week away. I wonder what the view will be like from there? (Any tips on how to cope with altitude, please comment.) There are those who say life is not a sprint but a marathon. I’m starting to think life is a trail run.