Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Skyrace: 26K. 15,000 Feet Up

The group “Solo para Salvajes,” run by Pedro Fletes Omaña puts on a series of annual mountain races in Mexico.  They run at least two races every month.  Three weeks ago I ran the Reto Del Real de Catorce, which, in its fourth year, is a new run for the group, and it’s also the farthest away: 8 hours north of Mexico City, making it a small race of about 140 people.
  In contrast, the Nevado de Toluca Skyrace or “Mexiquense” is in it’s 16th year.  This year nearly 700 runners lined up at the start.  For the Mexican mountain running community, it’s a classic.
  The original name of the volcano in Nahuatl is Xinantecatl and its elevation of 15,354 feet (4,680 meters) makes it the fourth highest peak in Mexico.  No longer active, Xinantecatl last erupted in 1350 BC.
 So there was one thing I didn’t have to worry about.   
  Located about an hour and a half (on a weekend morning with no traffic) outside of Mexico City, Xinantecatl provides a great opportunity to train, as even in January one can run in and around the crater of the volcano with running tights and a few basic layers.
   I thought I knew what to expect in this race.  The distance was familiar: I had just run 26 k in the first leg of the Reto Real De Catorce three weeks ago.  And the course was familiar as well: I’ve hiked Nevado de Toluca a couple times and I was here in January with the RunMX crew for a training run.  That run in January was when I knew I wanted to start racing in the mountains.
  In that training run in January, we logged only 11k and ran and hiked around the crater.  The long winding dirt road to the top we drove.  So I had an introduction to the course and I knew how sluggish it could be running at 14,000+ feet.

Course map with altitude

   After my bonk in the final kilometer in Real, I was ready this time with water and plenty of GU.  I wouldn’t have the heat to contend with, but there was more climbing in this race.
  The real unknown was the altitude and my lack of training at this altitude other than that run back in January.  It’s not that I train in the flatlands: Mexico City and the surrounding areas where I run range from 7,000-9,000 feet, but things get weird after 13,000.  The Nevado de Toluca Skyrace, or “Mexiquense,” starts at over 12,000 feet,  the same altitude that was the high point of the race in Real de Catorce.  The climb on the back side of the crater tops out at over 15,000 feet.  Also, there would be almost no flat sections except for the short jaunts around the two lakes inside the crater of the volcano.  The course climbed up a two track dirt road for about 8 kilometers before it climbed at a more steeper grade to the lip of the crater.  At that point it descended into the crater, around the lake of the moon and then a slow, brutal trudge (at best) up to the Pico de Fraile (friar’s peak), the high point of the race .  The trail then went straight down to the crater.  No switch backs: just sliding down loose stones for 1,000 feet, which absorbed the blow of the descent but made stopping difficult.

Straight down into the crater.

   My plan was to take it easy but steady on the first part of the course which was a runnable dirt road that steadily climbed up to the pass to the crater.  At that point I knew it would be hiking up into the crater, running down and around lake of the moon, and then the long slow hike up to the peak.  I believed that after that ascent I would fly down into the crater, run around the bigger lake of the sun, one last hike out of the crater and then blast it down the hill at around 10 k pace.  Solid plan except for that last part about 10k pace.

El lago del Sol

 I learned that downhills aren’t for free.  My plan worked like magic for a while.  Running up the road I ran for a while with Martin, a runner I had met briefly in Real.  I would continue to see him until I summited the pico de fraile. I arrived at the top of the run at exactly 2 hours, just as I estimated.  My mistake was thinking that the rest of the race at that point was just a formality.
   I negotiated the skiing section of this course down into the crater with only one fall.  However, that fall scared me and slowed me down.  Once down in the crater I sat down with all the other runners who didn’t have gaiters and removed the rocks from my shoes.  Then a slow run around the lake at 13,800 feet.  There were guys taking a dip here.  Nuts.  I wasn’t expecting to make time here, as I knew how difficult it was to run fast at this altitude even though it’s flat.  I just wanted to keep running.  At least I would make better time than the swimmers.  I ran to the hike out of the crater, down the pass and hit the aid station at the road.  A cup of Gatorade and then began the run.  There was a reason the road seemed so runnable coming up: it’s not that steep.  I was running, but couldn’t get any speed going.  I was haunted a bit by the end of my last 26K, which took such a sudden turn for the worse that I didn’t want to repeat that, so I just plodded along.  I had been eating a GU every 45 minutes, and I felt ok, just sluggish.  I maintained a slow jog, trying to enjoy the scenery, reminding myself  not to stop, but it didn’t get any easier.  Even when I dipped below the tree line and the downhills were a bit steeper, I couldn’t pick up the pace.  I was alone for much of this time, but quite a few runners caught me and passed me .  I was miserable enough that I didn’t pick up the chase, though I kept trying to push it.  How was it possible the road seemed longer going down than going up?  Finally, I could see cars lining the road and hear cheering.  I knew I was close.  The guy shuffling behind me picked up the pace and I found myself in what I felt was a silly sprint to the finish. 3:53.
  Aside from a disappointing last part of the race, the experience was incredible.  Driving out to the volcano in the morning made me realize it’s really not that far from Mexico City, and I need to get out here more frequently.  I would like to return to hike/run around the rim of the volcano, which is more appealing for me than running up 9 kilometers of dirt road.  The running and hiking around the crater is incredible. 
    If you like to run mountains and find yourself in or around Mexico City, the trip to Xinantecatl can’t be missed.

The road to the crater

Next Race:  May 6, Tras Las Huellas de Quetzalcoatl in Tepoztlan.  16K.  A run up into the cliffs surrounding Tepoztlan and then back down. Short and steep.

Note about photos: Except for the photo of my race bib, all the photos were found online in the public domain.  If you recognize your photo, drop me a note and I'll credit the photographer.

No comments:

Post a Comment