Wednesday, March 28, 2012

First Race in the Mountains: Real De Catorce

Our Hotel

Day 1: 26 Kilometers.  2:30pm

    Lots of firsts: My first trail race, my first mountain race, my first race over 25 kilometers, my first time racing two days in a row…. and all in one of the most incredible locations in Mexico: Real De Catorce.  A tiny town located far from nowhere high up in the mountains looking down on the altiplano (high desert) below.  Surrounded by the ruins of the town's silver mining heritage, Real is known for it’s incredible beauty and perhaps most famously for Wirikuta, the sacred site of the Huicholes, and for the peyote that grows down in the desert.  Real de Catorce attracts a diverse crowd: intrepid European tourists, well-heeled families from Monterrey and lots of seekers who come in search of visions in the desert.

The trail down to the desert

 Tania and I arrived Friday morning, so there was time to wander the town and we managed to spot a few course markings.  The town would soon fill up with racers, as just about every hotel room was booked.  It doesn’t take much to fill all the hotels of Real: about 250 people.
  The first day of the race started at 2:30, which made for a long, jittery morning and I fretted about what to eat.  I skipped my usual chilaquiles breakfast and opted for hot cakes at the Meson De Abundancia.  Later I ate some bread and a banana.  Much later I realized my error.  But first, the race start.
  About 200 racers lined up near the small zocalo.  I had forgotten my hydration pack in my car at school so I had bought a Guatemalan style fanny pack in the local market.  Aside from the fun of saying I was racing with a fanny pack, there was the practical angle of having a place to put some money and Tania’s camera.  In my hand I carried a 600 liter Gatorade bottle filled with water.  The course had two aid stations: one back at the zocalo at 11.5 kilometers after an out and back and than another at tha bottom of our run, at 18.5 kilometers.  Also, the race instructions warned that the aid at kilometer 18.5 would be available "if God permits."  Therefore, it was essential to carry what one needed.  Not the race to forget my Nathan pack.  
  The one bright spot, ironically, was the day was cloudy and overcast  Usually the sun is brutal during this time of day, making hydration even more crucial.

Pedro Fletes Omaña, organizer of this race and many, many others through his group "Solo Para Salvajes." If you want to know about trail running, mountain running and/or skyracing in Mexico, this is your guy.  Check out the site:

  Because I’d never run a race in the mountains or on a trail (nor run uphill for nearly 8 kilometers) I started conservatively.  Our run headed out to the mountains, past Rincon Magico and the cemetery, for those who know the town.  We cut left and were running on rolling hills, lots of little ups and downs.  I ran the flats, blasted the downhills and powerhiked the ups.  I knew the race would really start at 18.5 Kilometers and the long run/hike back up to Real.  I needed to save some energy for that climb.
  I was feeling fantastic 11.5 kilometers after this first out and back, and ate half a banana and chugged some Gatorade with Tania at the aid station.  And then a short jaunt before the runners turned off the road and were directed down the “zigzag” single track that would take us down to the main canyon road that is primarily used for horses and the 4x4 Jeeps they call “Willy’s” here.

These are vintage jeeps are somehow still running and serve as the primary mode of transportation to bring people down to the desert and back up to town.  Click this link to see a Willy:
  I realized quickly I was moving more quickly than the other runners on the downhills.  The zigzag, as they called it, was a lot of loose rock and dirt, steep drop-offs and cactus-lined, but I flew, passing more people in this section than I passed all race.  At one point in a moment of exuberance I jumped up on a rock to pass a racer and descended past him.
  That rock would play a very different role for me two hours later….

Tania and I returned to the scene after the race: the beginning of the "zigzag"

  Too soon (this part was fun) I hit the two-track road that winds down the valley and I slowed my pace a bit as it was going to be a long, quad-pounding downhill for the next 6 kilometers or so, with only a couple short flat sections and one or two short up hills to change up the pace. 
  I reached the turnaround where there were a handful of simple dwellings,  and local kids came running up with Gatorade, coke and water.  I took a shot of coke, drank some Gatorade, refilled my water bottle, and started heading up.  I was excited and I felt good. Most of the running was done, it was just a 7.5 kilometer power hike back up to town.  I had trained for this, walking as fast as I can on the treadmill cranked up to 15.  Also, because the section was out and back I knew exactly who was in front of me and who was behind me, and I didn’t think there could have been more than 25 people in front of me.  I felt I had a decent chance of having a good race.  And if I had something left to run the final kilometers, even better.
  The hike started great.  Two runners that I had passed on the switchback downhill  --“The bumblebee couple” I dubbed them because they were wearing matching black and yellow outfits--  did pass me, but I kept them in site about 80 meters ahead.  I thought I would keep them there, pace off them and see what I had left to pass them during the last part of the climb.
  Another guy I passed on the downhill, the tall man with the yellow hat, also passed me, but I was able to reel him in.  He was doing this weird shuffle run and seemed to be working very, very hard to move very, very slowly.  I passed him hiking.  Thirty seconds later I heard him retching pretty hard.  But he kept moving.  I didn’t think I would see him again.
  I ran the one downhill and flat that this section has going back up to Real, but then my stomach started knotting up.  My pace slowed.  Suddenly I wasn’t having fun, but I was moving.  I should have stopped for a snack or a coke, but I kept going and I passed the last of the little tiendas where one could buy a snack or something to drink. 
  This all happened at about 23 kilometers.  I thought I would hike through it and start to feel better, but I was cramping bad, and worse, my energy was fleeing.  My pace slowed some more.  A few people passed me.  I gave up on reeling in the bumblebee couple.  But I kept moving, slowly.  Things got worse.  I was desperate for a coke, thought I needed salt.  Shuffling.  One foot in front of the other, just keep moving.
  Eventually, the tall man with the big yellow hat passed me.  He could see I was hurting and told me that I should ask a passing “willy” for a coke.  I thanked him and shortly thereafter a “willy” did come by and in what probably sounded like desperation I asked them if they had “algo con sodik?”  They had little plastic bags filled with coke and Gatorade.  I don’t know why I just took the coke.  I thanked them profusely for the baggy of warm, flat coke, and tried to drink it.  My stomach didn’t want to take in anything, but I knew I had to force it down.  I sipped from it as I shuffled, more slowly now. 
  Thoughts about placing and a good time were replaced by a desire to just finish.  And than for the first time I stopped, and kneeled down, staring at the dirt in front of me. I didn’t sit.  Yet.
  I made it to the zigzag where the climb became much steeper.  I sat down for the first time.  Head in hands, not sure what I should do.  I had seen a guy earlier stretched out on a rock, trying to sleep.  I checked to see if he was ok, if he needed anything. His symptoms seemed the same as mine: knotted stomach, no energy.  I wanted to lie down, but thought if I did I would never get up.  I kept shuffling.  The sleeping guy would later pass me. 
 I slipped into a mode of walking 20 meters and then sitting down.  All the people I had passed began to float by.  At one point I perched upon the very rock I had soared of off while descending.  I was down, but I kept it positive, and even when sitting gave each person who passed by a little cheer. 
  The other runners could see I was hurting and soon people started offering help.  A woman gave me a couple red electrolyte beans with some sugar.  I chewed those, even though I didn’t want to, and walked a few more meters.  An older gentleman came by –the eventual winner of the 60-65 category, to give you an idea of where my time was heading—and gave me a capsule with electrolytes, “the same as Gatorade, he said.”  I walked a bit more.  One of the top finishers came down the hill to scout for his friends and help others out and he gave me a few swigs of coca cola.  He wanted me to walk with him and his friends, but I couldn’t.  Too dizzy, too weak.  I thanked them, told them I was ok, sat down and watched them go.  My Garmin wasn’t even reading a pace at this point.  Runners that I hadn’t seen since long after the turnaround began to catch me, runners that hadn’t been near me all race. 
  And then I could see the town.  I could see the Rincon Magico.  I could see the house I rented with some friends one weekend a couple years ago.  I started to feel a bit better.  Still wanted to vomit but couldn’t.  I shuffled up the trail and onto the road, finally.  One small climb and then a downhill to the finish.  Less than 300 meters.  I couldn’t walk it all without stopping.  I didn’t sit, but stood in the road with my hands on my knees.  Couldn’t even give the token run at the finish, which was downhill.  There was Tania.  She had Gatorade.  I had finished in 4:02. Kilometer 24 took me 22 minutes. 
  Kilometer 25?  Forty-four minutes.  And then 18 minutes to walk the last 400 meters.
I drank the Gatorade and started to feel ok again.  I had finished the first day of the race.  Now I needed to recover and find the will to run the 16 kilometer race on Sunday which would take us up over the mountain behind the town.
  After a dinner which consisted of a coke, a beer, a salad, lasagna and the entire basket of bread (I think Tania had one piece) I felt tired and sore, but great.  I realized my mistake of not eating enough before and during the race.  I really don’t think I burned myself out on the downhills but just flat ran out of fuel.  Tomorrow would tell.  The second stage of the race would start 13.5 hours after I finished the first one.

After day one, contemplating the "bonk."

Day 2: 16 Kilometers. 8:00am

  I opted out of the fanny pack, so no camera for this race.  I carried two bottles: one was half water and half electrolyte (what they give dehydrated babies) and the other was Gatorade.  I had a chunk of bread in my back pocket.  This was overkill, I knew, but I wasn’t taking any chances after yesterday’s bonk in the final kilometers of the race.  The second leg of the race begins with a climb up the mountain behind Real, flattens out for a bit of ridge running, and then climbs a bit higher to the high point of the race: 3,000 meters.  After that it heads downhill until we hit the 2.5 kilometer tunnel that is the entrance to the town.  We would run out of the tunnel, back through and then back to the start. 
   I started climbing conservatively, powerhiking, not running, but when I looked up and saw the single line of climbers I tried to pass as many runners as I could before it would become difficult to pass on the singletrack up the mountain.  We hiked up to the ridge and then ran about a kilometer out and back before heading the other way on the ridge.  The view from this point made me wish I’d brought tha camera: misty mountains as far as the eye could see.  The ridge began to climb and we passed under the antennas that one can see from the town.  I talked briefly with a woman about her experience at the Rocky Racoon 100 in Texas, and then she passed me on the flat ridge.  A guy asked me for a swig of Gatorade, and he informed me it was all down hill from here until the tunnel.  So I hit it.  We ran down past the two “puebla fantasmas,” the remaining ruins of the silver mining glory days of Real, and continued down the road which, like most of the roads in Real consist of stones polished from centuries of use.  Not great to run on, and crushing on the down hills.  I didn’t care, and passed by the woman I had been talking with along with many others.  Again I was surprised at how slowly people took the downhills.  I did not want to be passed by them when I hit the tunnel, which was a 5k: 2.5k out to the entrance, 2.5k back into town and then a little less than a kilometer into town.  Running back through the tunnel I saw lots of the faces that passed me yesterday on the hill, and I didn’t want to let that happen again.  There had been nothing but some token flat running all race until this point.  I kept at it in the tunnel and forced myself not to look back and concentrated on turnover.  When I emerged from the tunnel, I pitched my last bottle and gave it all I had left.  The market was filling up with people and we ran right on through, folks stepping out of our way.  I finally looked back: no one in sight.  One last little climb to the zocalo and I was done.  1:52. 
   In retrospect, I believe I could have climbed more aggressively and still finished as strong, but considering what happened on the first day, I was satisfied with my race.

Last little hill and then into the finish

Epilogue:  Tania and I stayed in town Sunday night, which meant we were basically the only tourists in town.  We had the hotel to ourselves.  After a rest, we walked back to the zigzag singletrack from the first day of the race and hiked down a bit.  I pointed out all the rocks I sat on, and we enjoyed the spectacular views of Real de Catorce as the sun went down. 

Next Race: Nevado de Toluca Skyrace.  26K, April 16  A run up into the old crater of a volcano...and then all the way back down. 15,000 feet up!

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