Tag Archives: Trail running

Heart Says Yes, Head Says No

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’
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“Don’t stop until you get there.”

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.

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…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.

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San Pedro de Casta seen from above

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.

Yeah. Whatever.

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.

Hey, you think this is Chicken Run?

“I have nothing to do with her running metaphors.”

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Jack (or Jill) of All Trails

Having ran the 42k last week, got a diarrhoea for the following two days and then my period, I thought I had a fairly good reason to put my feet up. I mean, really up: about 2,500 meters above the sea level, and  join a group of experienced trail runners for a 3 hour vertical jog.

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Picture by the SRT, although I failed to get the name of the photographer and will stand the risk of being sued.

I’m more of an asphalt person even if all “long-distance” (over 1500 metres) running in my childhood took place in the Finnish forests. Still, back then nobody with any self respect or healthy concern for their social status would self identify as a cross-country runner.

But now cross-country is back – with a vengeance. Trail running (or fell running in the UK) where backpacking meets running usually happens on a mountainous or at least hilly terrain with a lot of mud/snow/scree. As my very last challenge in Peru, I’ve signed up for a 50k ultra-marathon in Cordillera Blanca, the Andes. Yeah, I know. Never been in altitude. I thought I could start with having the right kind of shoes. Although I’m someone who reads a lot of running magazines and blogs (Google ads think I’m a 65+ multilingual female), the technical language and the expected level of knowledge of shoe anatomy left me bewildered. Besides, in a few months I’ll be worrying about snow and rain, instead of jungle undergrowth, and then I won’t be able to afford (yet) another pair. I email the training organiser for a recommendation and get a pair of Salomon Speed Cross 3.

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A custard apple a day…

I meet the Salomon Trail Runners (hence the recommendation), who I found on Facebook, at 5.30am on Saturday and introduce myself. Having spent my life in Finland and England, language barriers have meant that I’ve not had to endure a life time of jokes about my name – just some phonetic abuse. This has changed in Peru. “Dulce?” they say and “On a good day,” I respond. Having also satisfactorily responded to some questioning about my vital numbers and running CV, I feel socially approved. “No – it’s just that yesterday there was someone emailing me who didn’t even know what kind of shoes to wear!”

Just imagine the ignorance of some people!

We head out of Lima, and two hours away hides a little village called Callahuanca, which is Quechua, and means ‘divided rock’. It is also known as the land of ‘chirimoya’, my absolute favourite fruit in the whole world that I didn’t know existed before I came to Peru! Mark Twain apparently called it the most delicious fruit known to men and quite rightly. I love it for its bubble gummy flavour as well as for its texture. (Daughter thinks it’s completely embarrassing I buy the same fruit from the fruit vendor every single day.) It satisfies my sweet tooth, fills me up and is apparently one of the healthiest fruits out there. On top of this, because training in high altitude increases the production of harmful free radicals in the muscles, what a better idea than supporting local farmers and taking home a few kilos of these green antioxidant powerhouses. How many super foods can just one country grow?

Apparently I’ll be ok, as ASDA sells these as ‘custard apples’, but I can’t imagine they compare to the ones in Callahuanca. I may need to take some seeds home with me in any case.

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Callahuanca is popular among trekkers and mountain bikers.

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My gym last Saturday.

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There was some undulation…

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…and even a pool with ice cold water waiting for us after 9km. 

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Amazing Race

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Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

Chullachaqui is a legendary devil of the Amazonian jungle. He has the ability to take the physical appearance of a family member or loved one of his victim, to lure you deep into the rainforest where he then leaves you, lost forever.

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Picture by Carina Ramos. On ARF Facebook page.

My loving boyfriend told me this at the starting line of the Amazon Race Forest half marathon that took place last Sunday in the village of San Roque de Cumbaza in San Martin, Peru. I had looked forward to the race so much, that if on my laptop you type ‘Amazon’ in the google bar, the retail company will appear only on the page three of the search results. We had signed up for 21 kilometres in the blazing sun, but there were also people doing the full marathon distance, and a shorter 10k trail run. I looked around and saw mostly lean bodies doing warm ups and wearing the latest running gear that a few months ago I didn’t even know existed. This was definitely no McDonald’s charity run.

If one were to miss the orange signposts, and wasn’t wearing the event sponsor Suunto’s GPS watches (which, by the way, is a Finnish brand. Just saying.), the way to recognise Chullachaqui is, apparently, by looking at his feet. ‘Chulla’ means dissimilar and ‘chaqui’ means foot. If you notice that your loved one has a foot peculiarly bigger than the other, then probably you are being tricked by the devil.

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I imagined Chullachaqui to look similar to Gollum.

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An artist’s impression of Chullachaqui at http://www.amaruspirit.org

In hindsight, my boyfriend might have chosen to share another legend after what became three hours of him limbing in the forest with blue toe nails and a twisted swollen ankle. But according to the race directors, and to their credit, no-one went AWOL. Even if the most experienced trail runners among us were surprised by the difficulty of the route.

To give an idea, the winner of the men, Stalin Carrasco, ‘el caballero de trail’, finished the route in two hours. On a normal road race the winner’s time would be around half of that. Maria Delgado Salmon who came third  in women’s marathon distance, was heard saying that the previous eight hours it took her to finish the course were tougher than the famous 100km desert crossing in Paracas on the south coast of Peru.

But at 7am, tropical butterflies in my stomach, I knew nothing of this. If you really need any further indicators of my naivety, then what better than the fact that I decided to have a french pedicure at the Lima airport while waiting for our departure to the city of Tarapoto, the ‘city of palms’. (Some ultra runners have their toe nails removed, because the acid-based procedure is a less painful one than losing them on the track) Also, blame my map reading (I can read a map, but only in 2D!), I didn’t realise how relatively little running there would be along the course! For the rest of the time I was doing what I usually tell my dear daughter off for: climbing, jumping, crawling, sliding down, falling head first, swearing,  and heaving myself up gripping a low branch or a fellow runner’s hand, as we crossed mountains and rivers, and no, Motown was not playing in my head. There were four points with local people offering water and I couldn’t tell from their expressions whether our little adventure left them anything but bemused. The oncoming traffic consisted of a man with a horse, and a woman carrying a baby in a sling wrapped around her body. I had no idea where they came from, or where they were going, but mostly HOW on earth they’d managed to get there.

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The route. I shall never overlook elevation diagrams again. Source: Amazon Race Forest.

I’m sure waking up before 5 am to train with Miraflores Runners and practicing power yoga almost daily in the past months paid off, however. Weekly repeated hill runs and interval training meant that while my calves were throbbing (and three days later still are), my heart was happy, and not just literally. Speeding downhill I felt transcended back into the little girl running in my childhood’s Finnish forests (often to an outdoors toilet) in the middle of the summer. Ecstatically overtaking many military-fit looking men after ten kilometres of uphill, I remembered that for a considerable time of my youth I had entertained the idea of becoming the first black female in the Finnish army (I wonder if that would have been a better choice than the hours of leadership skill workshops at a management consultancy. Not least because I’d soon be retiring.) At one point, the slight young Peruvian woman in front of me, who probably didn’t weigh more than 50kg and didn’t exactly fit the description, said she felt like Rambo. This is why I guess they say running is like a drug. We were on the same trip.

The beauty of the place was (Ujjayi) breath taking. I’d bathed in insect repellent, which knocked out the wildlife within a five mile radius, but I still saw butterflies as big as birds and birds as small as butterflies. (Luckily, I missed the big eggs that my boyfriend saw.) After the first hour, I ditched my headphones as the pounding of David Guetta started to reach levels of irreverence, just like the plastic pollution left on the path by some of the runners*. Those things belonged to the city; here I wanted to be able to hear the sounds of the nature, which I’d usually pay an entrance for, and leave through a gift shop.

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Until recently, the Chirikyaku population in San Roque mainly cultivated cocaine. This has been replaced by coco beans. Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

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*I don’t know how much extra effort it would have been for the runners to pick up their own rubbish.The route was cleaned by locals afterwards. Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

The sight of the finish line took me by surprise too. I’d long stopped relying on my Garmin watch. Not because the satellites weren’t working, but because distance became a completely useless indicator. One kilometre could mean anything between five or twenty minutes depending on what the path in front turned out to be. (Did I just come up with a running and life metaphor for Pinterest? No? Perhaps if I paste it in a big font over some instagrammed abs?)

It took me 3 hours 45 minutes. I feel this was a decent achievement but in trail running the position (which are yet to be published by the ARF organising team) matters more than the finishing time. Nearly two hours after I’d taken advantage of the onsite ‘facilities’ and catering – bathed in the river Rio Cumbaza and sucked my teeth in five oranges – people were still reaching the finish line. (Of course some had run the full marathon.)

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Rio Cumbaza. Needless to say, the sight of the river beat reaching the best located hydration point in a city race. Picture by Maria Viloria Ortin published on ARF Facebook page.

For visitors, the Amazon Race Forest is nothing less than bucket list material. For the locals – who rightly took home much of the bling – I hope well organised events like this bring more benefits than the Olympics did for London. I don’t have such data, but I believe this is the case. For one, runners eat a lot (I have a new  Peruvian love affair: ‘juane con cecina’ which is rolled plantain with marinated bacon-like cured pork. Try. It.). They go to bed earlier than the average eight-year-old, and don’t leave beer cans around. Bar some portaloos, they don’t need additional infrastructure – the route has probably been chosen for its inaccessibility. Their adrenaline addiction feeds on the natural environment, so possibly their presence increases the awareness of the region’s fight against the expansion of gas and oil companies in the Amazon.

Perhaps that’s why Chullachaqui didn’t appear. Believed to be a member of ancient species that lived in the jungle long before humans, he started his mischief to take revenge on people who had little respect for the forest or those that lived there first. Which naturally earned him the devil status. With the gas and oil companies, the indigenous people seem to find themselves in the same predicament.

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My half way victory smile. Pinched from the ARF Facebook page.

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