On Saturday December 9th, I ran my first ultra-marathon. It was a 48km race around Volcano Osorno in the South of Chile, with elevation gain of 7000ft. The race, called Vulcano UltraTrail, was run by Merrell.
If you ask me to describe this race in one word, and one word only, I would not hesitate.
Buckets and buckets of sand. I dream, I have nightmares now about that sand. It was a great race, don’t get me wrong, with amazing views, hard climbs and a very rewarding end, but the sand is what is going to stick in my head forever.
On the website, they warned the runners about the thick, sand-like volcanic ash that had settled from the eruption of a neighbouring volcano in 2015. However, they were at pains to point out that this only covered a small part of the course, and this was echoed in the pre-race briefing when we were told that the first 1.5k was through volcanic ash, but then we would be clear until we started the first ascent at kilometre 12.
What they didn’t mention was that underneath all the volcanic ash was the normal ground, which was plain old sand – just like you’d find decorating the dunes and the beaches. Perhaps it’s because this race tends to draw a local crowd, so they assumed that everyone already knew what the trails would be like. However, I went in expecting compact trails, like you’d normally find in a national park, and was met with something completely different.
The first warning should have registered before we even started the race when I lost my headphones for 5 minutes because I’d put them down outside the loo and they got buried. IN SAND. But, I was not in the know and hadn’t prepared myself mentally for such a challenge.
And, I’ve got to admit, it really threw me off. I ran the first 10km with some walking when everyone else walked up the steep sandy dunes, but I ran and ran expecting that the hellish sand would soon end… until I realised it never would. That was a low point, as I had already wasted so much energy through those first sandy kilometres and I could feel that my legs were already tired from the effort of pushing two steps forward, and then sliding back almost to the start point.
I pushed on though, alternating walking with running whenever I felt the ground was firm enough. Because I was no longer concentrating on pushing through with my running, I was able to appreciate the scenery much more, and it was a huge relief to find myself at the top of the first 2500ft climb. Running down never felt so good – at least the sand was low-impact!
Through another rest station, and off towards the next climb. This one started with an hour of climbing (literally) up a dried-up river bed strewn with boulders smoothed by time and water. Although this was the first part without any sand, there was no way to run – it was hard enough just picking a route through the treacherous rocks and hauling myself up overhangs.
The final part of that climb was long and drawn-out, but not particularly steep. I put my head down, and marched along with my poles, catching-up and over-taking many of those I had been passed by when I was walking. At the top, there was another rest station, a little downhill and then the final climb of the day – finishing the 7000ft elevation gain. This last climb was only 3km to the top, and again I just pushed through, up to beautiful views and a great sense of accomplishment.
30km passed, and I knew I had the hardest part out of the way. It was theoretically all downhill for the final 18km, but that’s when I had to make a decision which affected both my finishing time and my overall enjoyment of the race. You see, up until that point, I had been running and hiking completely by myself. I would overtake people on uphills, then they would run past me during the descent, so there were familiar faces by this point but I had not talked to anyone and I had stuck listening to my podcasts.
And, honestly, I felt a bit lonely. I’d had such a low during the first part, and my legs had started cramping. I knew I could push on for the remaining 18km, but if I ran off downhill, I would be running alone and maybe have to face the wall alone. The field was fairly spread-out by this point, so I was really unsure whether I would see anyone at all – let alone be able to pass the time of day with them.
It was during a stop to empty my shoes of sand (oh yes, I had to do this 5 times during the race), when I started talking to another woman who was on her own and also running her first 48km. She was Argentinian and loved trail running but this was her first ultra. I decided to stick with her for a bit as I was enjoying the company – and that “bit” turned into the rest of the race.
She was lovely, but she had no poles and found descending difficult because of that. She was also tired and was slower than me generally. By the final 10km, we were barely running at all, just marching on and on and on through the sand-filled forest. I knew that if I left her, I could finish the race strongly and with a much better time.
But I didn’t, we stuck together and pushed through. I liked the company, the chatter, the warning of sticking-out branches and loose rocks. I like chatting about trail running to a friend, in Spanish, and I like laughing about how slow we were being. I liked how we ran the final 1km, me slowing down so we could jog together down the sandy lake-front, and how we crossed the finish line hand-in-hand.
For me, trail running is not about getting the best time, or about pushing and pushing so hard alone simply for the mental punishment. For me, trail running is about taking the time to enjoy the race, the surrounding, its participants. And so, whilst my end time was over an hour slower than I could have done on my own, I don’t mind in the slightest that I decided to run with Monica.
And, anyway, since it was my first 48km…. It was still a PB!
This was my last weekend in Chile, and this challenge was my way of saying goodbye to the country I’ve been living in and working in during the past 4 months. I have been through a lot with my running during this time, including racing a half-marathon on 4 days notice (and equalling my PB even though I didn’t taper and was in the middle of marathon training!) and joining a running group for the first time. It’s also been here where I’ve fallen in love with trail running and decided to continue to develop that in the coming months. It was a great end to Chile, and also to 2017.
Have you ever done a trail race? What are the main differences for you with racing on roads vs. racing on trails? Have you ever been completely side-lined by an unexpected part of the race (e.g. ALL THAT DAMN SAND)?