The Cordillera Blanca Marathon

A view from a high mountain road of Huascaran, Peru's Highest

A view from a high mountain road of Huascaran, Peru's Highest

Why walk, when you can run?  That has been my motto in the last few years when it comes to exploring mountain trails, and despite going from the best shape of my life to my absolute worst in just eight months, I was doing my best to stick to it.  Thus when I heard that the Santa Cruz trek, one of the most scenic traverses through the mountains of Peru, was 26 miles, the same distance as a marathon, a trigger went off in my brain.  I was going to run it.  Despite my condition, the dizzying altitude, impending weather, and complicated logistics, there was no way I was not going to miss this opportunity.  I dubbed it “The Cordillera Blanca Marathon,” and unlike other marathons I’ve run, there wouldn’t be any other runners, fans, or aid stations along the way, just a few local ranchers, burros, and tourists on their all-inclusive 3-day trek.
What I love about trail running is the freedom, the need for nothing except a pair of lightweight runners, a water bottle, and a little bit of food.  Having spent too many years instructing backpacking trips and hauling gear up alpine climbs, my body has said enough already.  Let it go.  Drop the pack and run.
And so I bused four hours to the remote town of Colcabamba (population 80), just one kilometer from the start of the Santa Cruz trek, without a pack, just a lightweight rain jacket tied around my waist, a 12-ounce water bottle, and some cash.  I was aware that there probably wouldn’t be any accommodations in this rural town, but from other experiences in towns of this size, I was confident that the friendly mountain folk would take me in.  My first stop was the local elementary school, where the cutest children came to greet me.  Their excitement revealed that few if any foreigners had come to visit their community.  They asked me to take several photos of them, I happily obliged, and they showed their appreciation by dumping a pile of sawdust on my head.  After they were called in to class and subsequently yelled at by their teacher, I walked on to explore the rest of their community.
Why walk, when you can run?  That has been my motto in the last few years when it comes to exploring mountain trails, and despite going from the best shape of my life to my absolute worst in just eight months, I was doing my best to stick to it.  Thus when I heard that the Santa Cruz trek, one of the most scenic traverses through the mountains of Peru, was 26 miles, the same distance as a marathon, a trigger went off in my brain.  I was going to run it.  Despite my condition, the dizzying altitude, impending weather, and complicated logistics, there was no way I was not going to miss this opportunity.  I dubbed it “The Cordillera Blanca Marathon,” and unlike other marathons I’ve run, there wouldn’t be any other runners, fans, or aid stations along the way, just a few local ranchers, burros, and tourists on their all-inclusive 3-day trek.
What I love about trail running is the freedom, the need for nothing except a pair of lightweight runners, a water bottle, and a little bit of food.  Having spent too many years instructing backpacking trips and hauling gear up alpine climbs, my body has said enough already.  Let it go.  Drop the pack and run.
And so I bused four hours to the remote town of Colcabamba (population 80), just one kilometer from the start of the Santa Cruz trek, without a pack, just a lightweight rain jacket tied around my waist, a 12-ounce water bottle, and some cash.  I was aware that there probably wouldn’t be any accommodations in this rural town, but from other experiences in towns of this size, I was confident that the friendly mountain folk would take me in.  My first stop was the local elementary school, where the cutest children came to greet me.  Their excitement revealed that few if any foreigners had come to visit their community.  They asked me to take several photos of them, I happily obliged, and they showed their appreciation by dumping a pile of sawdust on my head.  After they were called in to class and subsequently yelled at by their teacher, I walked on to explore the rest of their community.
Kids at recess LOVE to have their photos taken

Kids at recess LOVE to have their photos taken

I soon met Linfa, a lovely young women, who invited me in for soup with her family.  When they heard my story, I had an invitation to spend the night in their modest home.  While Linfa went off to help her father with his animals in the surrounding hills, I was adopted by the children, who gave me the tour of the town, and a wrestling match on the local soccer field.  Hours passed and before I knew it, and I found myself stranded at a friends house in the darkness, in a town without electricity.  An eleven-year-old guided me to Linfa’s, and in the absence of light, I was set to hit the bed by eight.  I asked Linfa’s brother where the bathroom was.  “His response…everything is natural in this town.  We go outside.  But we will be building an outhouse soon.”  Natural huh?  I figured I’d hold it until the run the next morning.

Families from Colcabamba took me in and fed me for the day

Families from Colcabamba took me in and fed me for the day

I awoke at 6:30 am, had some boiled water (I was taking some serious water treatment precautions after realizing their methods of waste disposal), and was ready to go.  I was greeted by my friends, who were concerned about my departure and the fact that I was heading out alone without a pack.  They didn’t think it was possible for a “foreigner” to do it in day.  I promised I would call their community phone when I arrived to the next town that evening; otherwise they would send the horses out for me.  I was touch by their concern for a person they knew for just one day.

I started the uphill jog, at a snail pace.  Climbing at altitude is challenging, but running in the thin air is just another level.  I had climbed a big peak just two days before, and hoped that would help with acclimatization.  But it didn’t help with muscle fatigue and I soon worried that I’d be cramped up by mile 15.  I passed a few small villages and was enlivened by the cheers coming from houses and the children who ran alongside me.  I needed this.  Soon I would leave civilization for the rest of my run, and I was about to confront at a 3000 foot climb to a 16,000 foot pass.

I didn’t even bother trying to run the pass.  I had not the energy nor the notion that running it would help my overall day.  Instead, I settled in behind an arriero (burro driver), who was transporting food and gear for trekkers, who distracted me with condor viewings and jokes about how slow foreigners are.  I crested the pass and sat down for a candy bar, some 3 hours and only 12 miles into my run.  If this were a regular marathon, it would be over by now.  I jogged down to the mountain valley below, and although low clouds obscured my views of my longtime summit aspiration – Alpamayo, I was inspired just to know that it was looking over me.  The running became a bit technical, and although my movements felt fast, the rock hopping pace couldn’t have been faster than 15 minutes per mile.  This was going to be a long day.

Looking out at mile 11, 15,000 feet

Looking out at mile 11, 15,000 feet

I set small goals for myself.  I would run for 45 minute intervals and then take a 10-minute walking break to take photos, and rehydrate.  After 3 of these intervals I knew I had to be within five miles of the finish, but I was never exactly sure because I didn’t have a map.  I encountered a native couple, and asked how far we were from the trail’s finish in Cashapampa.  “Four-and-a-half hours walking” was their reply.  I was crushed.  Four and a half hours walking for them was going to be at least another two hours of jogging for me.  My legs said no way, and I resorted to walking once more.

As I walked down valley, I felt like a failure.  My blood sugar was really low, the altitude was killing me, and I was wondering if I would even make it out before nightfall.  But within minutes, I was welcomed by an unimaginable oasis.  A store!  What a dream.  I chugged a 3 dollar bottle of Gatorade and fell asleep on a grassy knoll.  I slowly awoke to the view of a sign for Cashapampa in the distance.  It read just 6 miles and 3000 feet of descent to go.  I overcame my wall and ran into town some 90 minutes later.  I jogged around a bit get an extra .2 miles in (runners you understand right?), and stopped my stopwatch at 7 hours and 13 minutes.  Wow.  That’s a marathon time some 3.5 times slower than the world record, and three hours longer than that run by Oprah Winfrey fifteen years ago.   I felt so proud.

I was not in shape for this!

I was not in shape for this!

I’m sure this was one of the most beautiful and most challenging marathons in the world, but more important than the run was the discovery of how to travel by running.  I have dreamed of the idea of running across South America, but was grounded by the logistics and the terrible notion of running with a pack.  However, once in a beautiful place, a runner can ditch her pack in a hostel for a few days, and head out with just a water bottle, purification tablets, and the clothes she’s wearing.  Run a 20k mountain run on ancient Inca trails by morning, and arrive in a remote Andean town to play with the children and arrange a homestay by evening. And then repeat.  Now that’s a way to travel.

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2 responses to “The Cordillera Blanca Marathon

  1. Jeff- what a run! LTD!

  2. Jeff, I like your style! 🙂

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