The gun sounds and we are off. The motley crew of helmet clad runners shoots past us fumbling foreigners, leaving us to follow their grass stomped path down to the gravel road. The gravel road quickly diminishes to a gravel path, then, after about 500 m, we are on a single-track trail that is more rock than dirt. Jack looks over his shoulder, checking to see if Miguel or I have passed out yet, and slows down to ask, “How are you guys doing?”.
It is less than 1 km into the run and I’m disoriented, puffing hard, and trying not to become the next pub story about the face planting American girl. Keeping one weary eye trained on the ankle twisting rocks, I answer, “Good, all good. Don’t wait though, I’ll see you at the finish line.”
“Sure thing. Have fun.”
And with that the former cross country champion from California is gone, leaving Miguel, a first-time runner, and I to survive this race at our own, much slower pace. I have no idea where I am, why the other runners are wearing helmets, and if anyone will find my body should I lose the pack.
When Miguel showed up at our Wednesday afternoon running group with the grand idea of running a race in Argentina I was all in, but due to my less than perfect Spanish I had let him make all the arrangements. Naïvely, I had thought that my weekend warrior style of training would get me through any 10k, even this adventure trail race up the rocky side of an Argentine mountain somewhere in Uspallata. As we plunge down into the waist deep river, I think, that’s why the race bibs are plastic.
Miguel is looking rough, and I am sure I do not look much better, but with my shoes squishing and sliding along the river bottom rocks all I can think about is how if I go faster I will be done sooner. So, with a look, a nod, and a wave I attempt to regain my race pace. We have emerged from the river now and things are looking up, or at least things are looking drier. Then we come to a barbed wire fence. Deftly, the spry Argentine runner ahead of me ducks his head, clears the bloody reach of the wire snags, and continues down the trail. Shit. If I lose him I’ll be wandering these shrubs covered hills for eternity so I gather my courage, repress the images of horses caught in barbed wire in my mind, and duck. Surprising myself, I come out on the other side no worse for wear. I take a deep breath and keep going, muddy foot in front of muddy foot.
As we leave the river bed, about half way through the race, things go from worrisome to worse. The air is thickening with that pre-thunderstorm humidity and the clouds are looking ominous. Dark angry balls of weather rage are forming on the horizon; I glace to my feet and what should I spot, but a horse skull, complete with old bits of hair still clinging to this shadow of life. Holding back my traitorous stomach, I start up the mountain. The wind whips sharply across this steep Andean plane, tugging my body sideways with every gust. The incline is something that, coming from the flat farmland of central California, I would describe as purgatorial punishment. How could that friendly Aussie at the start have said this course was flatter than usual? Oh yes, he had said last time they had to use their hands. At least this hasn’t entered rock climbing territory.
By the time I crest the mountain and begin my descent towards some post-race wine, my watch is reading 1:00:00. One hour to run less than 10 km. Depressed, I turn the offending thing off and head for home.
Jack is there to cheer me on when I stumble muddy and bloodied across the finish line. I hadn’t even noticed the sharp scratching across my calves, but the Andes have lived up their reputation as harsh beauties and my calves bear the long red marks of thorny caresses. A few minutes later, Miguel appears at the bottom of the path, triumphant and exhausted. I am amazed at my friend’s determination, he has conquered his first race in a place many veteran runners would avoid like the plague, the rugged Andes at 2039 m high.
My running decision making has not improved much since my time in Argentina. I am still susceptible to the whims of fancy that had me bleeding, covered in mud, and attempting to run at a 45 degree angle up a mountain in the Andes. These days I have swapped out the mountain runs with my Argentine running group for cane toad hopping night runs in the north of Australia with my put upon boyfriend. In the four years that separate that first foray into running abroad I have run on four more continents, completed a handful of half marathons, and finally decided to try my hand at 26.2 miles.
I recently wrote about how training for a marathon, or attempting any new fitness feat, while traveling was probably a bad idea and it turns out I am terrible at following my own advice. Apparently, I do not think things through. Anyway, I am now signed up for the Portland Marathon this October and I just did the math to see when I will need to start race training and, drum roll please, it is the day Kane and I leave for our road trip around Australia.
Yes, my brilliant self has decided to train for my first ever marathon while driving a four-wheel drive around the Australian outback. While the scenery for my long runs promises to be awe-inspiring, I’ll have a whole host of new things to worry about. It will be less, I can’t run alone at night because someone might mug me, and more, I hope that stick in the road isn’t a snake. There will be hydration to think of, the north of Australia can have punishing heat and humidity, but we are going in the dry season so with proper planning I should be okay. Kane has already decided that for my long runs he’ll play ground crew, aka he’ll set up camp with a beer for him and some water for me and wait for me to loop back every 5 miles so he can cheer me on from the shade.
I know it sounds crazy to say I’m excited about the journey ahead, what with the uncertainty of training on the road and the challenging location I have chosen to train in, but to me that’s half the joy of running. I think all runners are a little masochistic, that we enjoy suffering for our sport, but there is nothing more satisfying that knowing you pushed your body a little further today, that you are a little stronger, a little faster, a little better. Sore muscles are a sign of a body that can move, being out of breath is a sign of lungs that have worked, and working out is a practice of being alive.
I suffered on that ill advised adventure trail race in Argentina, but it was one of the best moments of my life, the wind whipping through my sweat drench hair, breathing life into my wild soul. I was built for the outdoors. I do not stand a life spent indoors, the walls of a concrete jungle weighing heavy on my heart. That is why I run, to be alive, to be wild, and to be free.
Jack won the race that day. We didn’t even know until his name was called over the microphone at the awards ceremony. He was too busy congratulating us for simply finishing that any thought of his own accomplishment was gone. The Argentinians were all quite surprised that the Yankee, as they called him, had won and that Yankee, my dear friend, was too good of a person to even mention it.