Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Great Mexican Ultramarathon: The UTMX 100k Adventure (So Much More Than a Medal!)


They came from all corners of Mexico: from the exhaust-choked urban sprawl of Mexico City, from Puebla, from Monterrey. From Oaxaca, Guadalajara, Zacatecas.  From deep in the Canyons of Chihuahua. The anticipation and nerves were palpable in the air as nearly 900 runners packed in front of the stage for the pre-race meeting.

Anticipation can kill an experience. Set your hopes too high, and the reality that can’t quite live up to our imaginations can be a real ball kicker.

Barranca de Metztitlan. Beware: no photo does this place justice.

Going into the UTMX 100k in Huasca de Ocampo, my hopes were sky high. The area is a spectacular place to run, and Marcos Ferro’s races are well organized. As I stood with 900 other runners listening to some final instructions and a few small changes to the route, I was nervous.  I had made my decision to stick with the 100k race that I had signed up for in May, but that small, sensible voice in the back of my head was quietly suggesting a change to the 42k. Normal pre-race jitters or was I making a dangerous mistake?

What I (and the mountain running community in Mexico) found out that this was more than a well-organized ultra in a beautiful place. UTMX was an adventure: there were trails that ran along precipitous cliffs; there was a final river crossing –in the dark for back-of-the-packers like me-- at the bottom of a small canyon, and there were rocks, endless rocks.

This was not your Abuelo’s “wide-dirt-road/smooth trail” 100k.

That fact was driven home about 2k into the race, with the first river crossing. Even in the early miles, there were technical downhill rock formations that were dangerously slick. I was running with Marcos Truyols and he slipped early, and while he wasn’t seriously hurt, it was obvious that it could have happened differently and been a race-ender before the sun came up. So caution was the order for the day.

There was no spoken agreement between Truyols and I, but there seemed to be an unspoken one: let’s take these early hours easy and see what the day will bring.  Marcos was nursing a knee injury and trying to avoid that ending his race. I was concerned about the distance. I was 100% in for the finish, but I was a bit wary of my previous two months of training.

After the first aid station I made a classic mistake and followed a group a runners down a road before noting we had not seen a trail marker. We went back up the road, and sure enough, we had missed a well-marked turn.  It was an important lesson for the day: don’t follow people, don’t blindly follow the “obvious” path: follow the trail markers.

   Scenes from the first 42k of the race.                                                                                     Photo: me

I was also carrying a copy of the course directions.

Marcos and I hiked and ran conservatively until the high point of the race. We snapped a quick photo and then began the run that was mostly downhill until the 42 kilometer mark.

Marcos Truyols and I at the top of the course. Mental note for next year: ask someone else to snap this photo. Where's Martin Forstmann when you need him!                                          Photo credit: super nice guy who takes shitty photos

  This section featured single track that begged to be ripped down,  and we picked up the pace, passing some groups on uphills to avoid being slowed down on the coming descents. I wanted to use the momentum of the downhills without getting carried away and destroying my legs too early in the race.

Top of a giant rock climb.                                                      Photo: me

At the 42k I had my drop bag. I had agonized about whether to put my drop bag at 42 or 71k, and in the end I opted for 42k to make sure I would have my rain jacket and “mayas” (running tights), which were required equipment after 5:00pm.  I also did something I’ve never done in a race before: changed my shoes. After running for nearly 7 hours with wet feet, dry feet just felt too damn good. I gambled and put on my road shoes, the trusty Ride 6 Sauconys that I used to run my 100miler in August.

Wild flowers and Maguey                                                        Photo: me

And then five minutes out of the 42k aid station was another river crossing. And then another, and a third. Through a series of ballet moves and lucky jumps, I was able to keep my shoes dry, but I knew that I was flirting with injury and wasting time and energy trying to keep my feet dry, but in a stroke of luck, the river crossings ended there…

We were out on a dirt road, and then a bit of pavement. It was hot. The first 44k of this race is a technical marathon with a fair bit of climbing. There were a few smoother, runnable sections, but much of it was very slow going. I tried to pick up the pace on the road. I knew the next 12 kilometers until we went down into the Peña del Aire were rolling and runnable. Time to move.

At the halfway point I encountered Pedro Fletes and many other Salvajes manning the Solo Para Salvajes 51k aid station. It put me in great spirits to see these guys. I also knew the canyon was coming, a portion of the course I had anticipated for months. Would it live up to my expectations?

Leaving the Salvajes aid station, Marcos Truyols pulled away and I wondered if I would see him again. I tried to push hard, but on this flat section more people passed me than on any other section of the course.

At the Peña del Aire (61k) was a huge aid station. This was one section of the course that was accessible by car, and Milly came out to cheer me on. I downed some soup and then headed down into the Barranca de Metzitlan. I had been waiting for this section all day, and it did not disappoint.

Peña del Aire aid  Photo: Milly
I’ve been fortunate to run on some incredible trails in beautiful places: the Pemigewasset loop in the White Mountians in New Hampshire on a clear day with views from all 9 peaks; The Highline trail in Arizona during a freak April snowstorm; up, over and down Mt. Baden-Powell on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. And now, the Barranca de Metztitlan in Hidalgo, Mexico.

Whatever fatigue I felt in my legs at this point basically faded away as I charged down to the Canyon bottom.  I had promised myself no more photos, now it was time to race, but the views kept forcing me to break that promise.  I was feeling fantastic and began to pass some of the runners who had passed me on the flats. But Truyols was nowhere to be seen. I kept pushing. I could smell blood, I felt he was close.

Finally, just as I thought I was going to finish this race with dry shoes (they had been dry since the change at 42k), the course followed the river at the bottom of the canyon. It didn’t cross the river; the trail was the river. One kilometer later and I was in the 71k aid station. It was 5:13pm. I second guessed my decision to leave my drop bag at 42k, looked enviously at the runner next to me changing into dry shoes, wrung out my socks like a sponge, and got the hell out of there to chase down Truyols. 

All the photos below were taken by me (except the good one: that was taken by Martin Forstmann) in the Barranca de Metztitlan

Marcos "negative split" Truyols                Photo: Martin Forstmann

As much as I love remote, people-less places, one thing I enjoy about Mexican races is that they sometimes go through tiny pueblos that I would otherwise never see. San Sebastian, a God-forsaken little town at the bottom of the canyon was one of these places. I greeted a few locals and then began the cruel trudge up the dirt road. 7 K of climbing up out of the canyon. I cursed the name of Marcos Ferro, the race director, on this climb, having an imaginary argument with him in my head about finding a single track trail that could take us to the top.

But there was nothing to do but march.

And march.

Finally, it leveled out and there was the Mirador aid station.

And holy shit, there was Truyols, about to leave.  I felt good, I was ready to run, I felt like the crux of the race was over, as I was certain we were done with major climbing.

I should have looked more carefully at the course map.

Truyols was out of there, and I quickly followed.

Damn, he was moving fast. I couldn’t believe it. Soon he was out of site. I was alone again, trying to keep him in site. I made a short detour off the road and followed some markers that went off to the right, but then a young villager on a horse told me that the route was on the dirt road. Shit, he was right: Ferro had explained this change at the meeting the night before.

And then at the 81k mark I arrived at Ahuacatitla, and I realized I had made a dreadful mistake: the climbing was not over. It was black now and I headed straight down: so steep it was unrunnable on my jellied legs.

Down, down. And then finally, when it no longer seemed possible that it could keep going down, a technical downhill so steep I had to hang on to trees to get to the bottom to avoid falling.

And here at the bottom was the Mother of all river crossings.  Raging. Dangerous. Loud.

It was pitch black, but there was a rope and volunteers on both sides of the rivers. I hung on to the rope with everything I had, and carefully made my way across.

Somewhere in the middle of that crossing I realized there was probably no place I would rather be in this world than at the bottom of that chasm, scared shitless, hanging on to a rope to avoid being swept down the river with 50 miles on my legs and miles to go before I sleep…

At least now I have an answer when someone asks me: 100K? Why?  I’ll tell them about that river.

Once I crossed, I thanked the volunteer, tried to find words that could express how much I loved the race and headed up in the black.

This was a serpentine climb that I would love to see in the daylight. At night, with my weak headlamp, it was like being in a lightless labyrinth, searching for little squares of white light (reflector tape) to find my way. For a time I stayed with another group, as they had better lights, but they were dying on the climb, and I knew I’d never catch Truyols if I hung back with them.  

So I forged ahead, one tiny square of light at a time.

It was awesome. In my head, I forgave Ferro for the seven kilometer climb on the fire road out of the canyon.  

And then I was out on the flats again. My time goal of 16 hours had been out the window for hours, but I didn’t care. I was alone, I had the directions in my back pocket, and between the map and the reflector tape I made my way to the 89k aid station. It was 9:10. My hoped-for finish time. I laughed about that. Drank half a Red Bull, got some good advice, cheer and directions from the volunteers, thanked them, and headed out.

I crossed the wooden hanging bridge over the  Prismas Balsaticos.

Followed the dark wet trail around the reservoir.

And then I was on the road, so close. Ran right by the cabañas we were staying at.

I ran hard, or at least it felt like I was running hard. I caught some walkers in the final kilometers. But no Truyols.

The final mental blow was when I was on the road to Huasca centro, which I knew was no more than 1k away. But then I had to turn right, through some back alleys, and then finally past the hotel were 900 of us were packed in with anticipation 25 hours earlier listening to Ferro describe the course (flawlessly, from memory), as we followed along with our maps.

The final stretch. I “sprinted” in, Milly and my friends were there. Ferro gave me un abrazo, put a medal crafted from the local obsidian rock on my neck. 17:33 minutes later, I had finished.

Truyols was nowhere in sight. I found out later he finished in 16:58. He didn’t run the fastest race that day, but he may have run the smartest. He ran the second half of the race faster than the first 51k. Who negative splits a 100k? Hats off to Marcos.

finished                 Photo: Milly


 We all think we want adventure, but adventures carry risk. Without risk it’s just a thrill:  like bungee jumping or Space Mountain. In Huasca there was risk of getting lost climbing up out of the canyon after crossing the river. There was the risk of breaking an ankle and being forced to hobble back up to the top of the canyon. There was the very real risk of rain and hypothermic conditions.

  Which is not to say the race organizers were reckless. To the contrary: they worked like hell to provide a controlled event that was as safe as one could possibly make this sort of event. The course was marked with reflective tape, chalk and ribbon.  There were course marshals at many points along the course. The course map was published months ago on the day sign-ups started. Every runner was given a map and a blow-by-blow/turn-by-turn description of the course. The night before the race, the race director went over the route and announced a couple last minute changes (some river crossings were eliminated because of high waters and one section of single track was diverted to a two-track, which the boy on the horse would later remind me about). And even with all of this, there was no guarantee. If there are guarantees, it’s not an adventure. I got lost a few times out there. I marched back to the last flag; I consulted my map; I tried to remember not to rely on the runners in front of me.

  Also, there was a required equipment list. Predictably, there was a bit of pissing and moaning about this. Mountain runners don’t like be told what we need to bring. I certainly didn’t want to carry running tights. Or a thermic blanket. Or a whistle.  But these were the rules, so I did it, and I still didn’t need to wear a pack. I stuffed everything into a zip lock baggie that fit inside my Jurek Essential waist pack and tied my rain jacket around my waist.  One could still travel light The list was not excessive. And the rules were clear (and they were published months ago) that the penalty for not having required equipment was disqualification.  So of course everyone complied and carried their shit. Especially the front runners, because who in the hell would want to chance losing a 10,000 pesos first prize to save a few grams and the minor hassle of carrying a whistle or a 10 gram thermic blanket?

  The Future of the Race?

Every ultrarunner in Mexico is now holding their breath. Will the race happen again? It could become a classic, THE Mexican Ultramarathon. Of course the Caballo Blanco race gets more international love, but this race –only a couple hours from the Mexico City Airport—makes this a much more travel-friendly location. But the amount of work that goes into the race make it tough for anyone to devote their year to putting the race together and not really make any money. Maybe a big sponsor (North Face? Patagonia?) could step in and lend some financial assistance to Marcos Ferro and the crew that brought us this race?

Marcos Ferro, RD

But until then….

  Thank you to all the volunteers out there who made this race possible. Even if it never happens again, it’s an experience I will never forget. And race or no race, I’ll be back up in those mountains, back down in the canyons.

World-class event; world-class trails.

The day after, back out at Peña del Aire.                     Photo: 7th place 42k finisher Torrey Hannas (her first run over 21k. Ever. Watch out.)



  1. Hey Guy! Nice reading you! Hope to see you soon!

  2. A pleasure to see you again during some kilometers, like in the others races, thanks for your words!

    1. Juan Pablo, gracias! Nos vemos en el proximo reto.

  3. Un gusto haber compartido kilómetros contigo en Peña del Aire y la bajada de la Barranca de Metztitlan, saludos

  4. "Pequeño": Igual! Saludos y nos vemos en el proximo.

  5. Great stuff, Guy! (yeah, bit late here, haha)