Monday, June 26, 2017

Making Excuses: My Failure at the Taxco Skyrunning 60k

Taxco, Guerrero.             (stolen from the internet)

I was all set to sign up for Trail Run Hidalgo's 50k in the barranca de Metzitlan and then I saw the date: 9 July. I wouldn't be in Mexico at this date, and I really wanted a longer effort about a month before the Angeles Crest 100 on August 5. There were a few options: Villa del Carbon, Chico Night Race, Corral de Piedra and Taxco Skyrunning. Such is the state of trail running in Mexico right now. Too many races. 
 I chose Taxco because it looked to be a tough and beautiful course organized by Total Running. I don't really trust Total Running as a trail race organizer, as they seem focused on things like Color Runs and something called "Soul Pose" which I take to be some sort of Yoga in Neon Clothes Experience. However, Karina Karsolio had designed the course and she runs (and wins) many of the Trail Run Hidalgo races that are so well done. I trusted her to put together a tough route with lots of single track. Also, I hadn't been in Taxco  in a decade, so why not go and run some new trails. 

  Arrived at the hotel, which had Juan Gorman Mosaic by the pool, and it was a pretty spectacular place. At 8:00pm I went to the race meeting (which was packed!) and was ready to go. 
  At 5:00 the next morning I arrived in the small center in front of the famous church in Taxco only to find out the race had been postponed for 30 minutes. 

  There was also to be a gear check, and this was fine as I had everything: liter of water, whistle, emergency blanket, phone. Because of the phone requirement, I had to wear the Jurek Essential Waist belt as I haven't found a comfortable way to run with a phone stuffed in the pockets of my Patagonia Trail Shorts. 

  I said hello to some fellow runners at the start, and I couldn't help but notice that every single runner was wearing a pack. 

Even Fernando Ortega was wearing a pack. Uh oh. Usually he runs (and wins) with no shirt and a small bottle of water straight from whatever OXXO is closest to the start line.

Had I made a mistake? Did I not read the required gear list correctly? Was I underestimating the race? And then I heard the announcement being repeated that it was not acceptable to run with a handheld bottle, a pack was needed. This pissed me off, as 10 minutes before the race seemed a poor time to make this announcement. Also, I was carrying everything the race asked me to carry. I had a liter of water in my hands. Is that so different than having a liter of water on one's chest?  Or having a liter of water in a bladder on one's back? Is the difference important? Do I have to wear neon if I want to be a part of Soul Pose?
 Another announcement was made that runners who didn't have the required gear would still be able to run but would be disqualified. I was running to get a long run in to train for Angeles Crest 100, so disqualification wasn't really a concern as long as I wouldn't be pulled from the race.

  I entered the start area and passed the gear check using my Obi Wan Kenobi "these aren't the droids you are looking for" Jedi mind trick.


 And then the race was off, straight up hill. Steps were so steep at one point that a ladder would have been more efficient. We arrived at the Jesus Statue and were finally on trail. 

Christ the Redeemer. (Though this one is in Rio, not Taxco)
At some point the hill leveled out and suddenly there were no flags. Crap, I'd missed a turn. Retraced my steps with a group of runners and we saw where the course had made a 90 degree right turn. And then suddenly we were heading down. This downhill section was very well marked, but it didn't make sense to me, as I couldn't see on the course profile where the course went down before reaching the antennas. I could see the antennas up above in the distance and thought the course should be going up, not down. But we kept going down. I stopped with another runner who had the course on her phone and it showed we were off course, but we kept going down and finally the trail turned to the left towards the antennas. Relieved to know that I was on the correct trail, I began searching for a hidden area to relieve another pressing issue: my bowels. 
 With that business done, I was really ready to get this race started. There were some crazy sections on that first climb, including one climbing section that even had ropes. I made it up this "wall" and then finally to the first aid station and then looked at my watch:

  Damn: I was only 10 minutes before the cut off. 

  I sort of forgot this next section, but I remember clearly that I arrived at a very crowded aid station with runners in line, jostling for position to get water. 

  Here is a video another runner took at the aid station:


 And then I looked at my watch. 

 Shockingly, I was right at the cut off time. How could that be?? However, I wasn't too concerned as the aid station "workers" were standing around with their arms crossed watching people crowd around the water jugs. I figured if they couldn't get it together enough to get runners their water, they wouldn't be enforcing cut offs. I went around the table and found a mostly empty garafon and put that water in one of my bottles. The other bottle I filled with coca cola. I took a couple chips of watermelon out of a giant bowl and was off. I was determined to make up some time on the cut offs.

 And then I was running up a hill and saw a bunch of runners who were wearing 60k bibs coming down.... Which was weird because the hill was clearly marked. Maybe it was marked for another race? We went down together and found the turn we had missed. 

And then we were off! 

And back out on a road with no trail marks. 

At this point, Erik Aguilar, who was running the 30k said hello. It was great to see Erik out on the trail, but was sorry to see that he was also lost. I spotted an orange mark on a tree and then another on a stone, but then there was nothing else. We returned and someone was yelling something about a flag. We had found the trail again and we were off!

  Somewhere in there was a long, technical descent with an awesome view of a waterfall. I wanted to dig out my camera but had the nagging feeling that snapping photos while chasing cut offs was not an optimal plan. The descent ended on a road, and I was feeling good having passed some folks on the descent. 

I was ready to roll...

I crossed the road and there was a gate that was closed leading to a dirt road. There was no aid station, but there was an ambulance and a woman standing in front of the gate. She told me it was after 11:30 and I could not continue.

Somewhere in the Mountains of Taxco        Foto Credit: Martin Forstmann,

 I was in shock. It was 11:33. I felt fantastic. How could my race be over. I explained --politely-- about the time I had been lost. I asked if I could speak to the race director. I tried the Jedi Mind Trick.

The Jedi Mind trick failed me. 

Obi Wan, Why hast thou forsaken me? 

A handful of other runners showed up at this point. Finally, she said we could continue without our numbers "under our own risk." This phrase seemed ridiculous to me, as we always run under our own risk: number or no number, race or no race. I ripped off my number and handed it to her, as did another runner. We made an unspoken agreement to run together. And that's what we did, until we came to a fork in the road...with no marks in either direction. Again, really? Did I blow by another turn. Would I ever learn? 

"Obviously, you're not a golfer"

So I headed back down the road, retracing my steps to the last mark we saw. I found the mark. We hadn't missed a turn. The marks just ended. And then I looked up and four runners were heading my way. Perhaps they had decided to continue "under their own risk." Yet they all had their numbers on. I asked them how they kept their numbers, and didn't quite catch the answer. I told them there were no marks, and one of the guys said he had the course on his phone. I followed. The next section of course was unmarked, but fortunately as we were passing a campesino's field, one of the campesinos called us back and told us to go down a singletrack. And sure enough there was one ribbon marking this turn. At this point the course was marked again, so we ran together. My watch was marking 34 kilometers so I started to worry about where the hell the 31 kilometer aid station was. My coca cola was gone and I was low on water. Would there be an aid station?

 At 35k, we crossed another road, tore into the aid station and were promptly told we were twenty minutes after the cut off. Karina was there, along with the aid station workers. I really didn't understand the cut off. I had run the first half conservatively and was ready to roll. I had 8 hours to finish, there was time. Again, I was told I could continue "abajo mi propio riesgo" but I was concerned about the course marking and told they would begin taking flags down. 

I threw in the towel and got a ride back to Taxco. 
One runner in our group decided to continue unofficially. 
I hope he made it. 

Selfie I took of myself after getting cut off at kilometer 35. 

I've been reading some commentary about the race this morning and it's very tempting to blame my DNF on the race. That's a dangerous temptation to succumb to, however. If I start blaming external circumstances instead of focusing on what I could change, I lose sight of the most important factor in finishing a race: what I can control. Ultramarathons present thousands of excuses not to finish. The trick is ignore these. I failed to ignore those excuses, but I can learn from them.

Here's what I needed to do:

At the top of the first climb, when I realized how close I was shaving the cut offs, I should have readjusted my race strategy, and picked up the pace. Yeah, it's important to go slow in the first half of a long ultra, but not if it means missing the cutoffs. Also, I can't assume the cut offs won't be enforced. That was stupid. A mistake I won't make again.

  After missing two turns (turns that were marked....I didn't see the marks) I should have run more carefully. I did do a bit of this, as I was able to redirect two runners who were heading off course back onto course. I need to run more aware, especially trails I don't know.

  Lots of runners DNF'd this race, but more importantly, many finished. Congrats to everyone who toughed it out, didn't make excuses...and got it done. Like this guy:

No Excuses: Paulino getting it done in style. (Everything you need to know about finishing a tough race is in this photo).  Photo: stolen from Facebook


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Good Friday/Viernes Santo

Van Ticket: Cabañas to Race Start.
    The alarm went off at 2:45 in the morning. I hadn’t really slept, just reclined in the darkness with closed eyes while nervous energy combined with the excitement of a big race kept me tossing and turning and looking repeatedly at the clock: 11:30...1:15...2:10.

The van was scheduled to arrive at 3:15am to take me and four or five other runners (all from Guadalajara) to the start. Pentamontaña is a remote and logistically complicated race, and the race organizers have a system in place to get all runners transported to the race start. I had purchased the van ticket online back in December after I made my reservation at Cabañas Montorios. The van, a 15 passenger Toyota Hiace, arrived a few minutes late and I was the first to board among the group of runners that were staying at our cabañas. The front of the van was full, but the back was empty. The solo seat above the passenger side rear wheel was empty so I took that so I would have some space to stretch my legs. I was hoping to sleep a bit on the ride, and closed my eyes as the other runners boarded. I don’t recall putting on my seatbelt, but at some point, I later realized, I must have done so.

 We drove in a caravan, as there were cars (and another van) in front of us. I couldn’t sleep so I just mentally reviewed my nutrition plan and prepared myself for what was going to be a 30 hour effort. While I was secretly hoping for sub-30, more realistic projections were for a 31-34 hour finish. While “only” a 120 kilometer race, I knew from reviewing the previous times of other runners that with nearly 7,000 meters of climbing 5 mountains that are all well over 3,000 meters, covering those 120k would require a 100 mile (160k) effort.

 Pentamontaña is a race in the northern part of Mexico in the Sierra Arteaga in the southern part of the Coahuila. The race appeared on my radar in 2015. The timing of the race is a bit difficult for me, as I usually take a long rest after UTMX 100k, a race that I have run for the past three years. October and November are months of light jogging and little volume. And then I start ramping up in December. I’m never really fit until the summer months. However, this year I committed to continue my training following a short two-week break following UTMX. I signed up for Pentamontaña the day they opened for registration. It would be the first of my big races in 2017, followed by the 30th annual Angeles Crest 100 mile in August, Trail Run Hidalgo’s new 120k stage race in September, and UTMX 100k in October.

 The other runners emerged from their cabin and we were moving up COAH 112 towards 57. Before reaching the highway we turned right onto a dirt road, we went through at least one small pueblo (Tunal, I believe) and later I remember that we were climbing up a paved road. However, most of the trip was just a black tunnel as my eyes were closed and it was not yet four in the morning of Good Friday/Viernes Santo.

 And then we were descending a switchbacked “empedrado” or old road made of rocks that had been rounded and smoothed over time. The race start loomed closer. Later I would find out we were about 5 kilometers from the start line.

My eyes were closed, my body was at rest. Physically and mentally, I was ready.

Pentamontaña was finally here.

 Out of this silence there was yelling and commotion from the front of the van. I opened my eyes and we were driving off the side of road into the forest. I recall no panic, even as we were falling over on the passenger side. Again, for reasons I can’t understand, I remained calm despite the shattering of windows as the van began to tumble. We rolled again and seemed to hit with more force and the spinning picked up speed. I had one clear thought: “Is this how it ends?” Again we rolled and finally my side of the van came to rest against the ground. In that instant the mysterious calm that I had felt was replaced by a vicious panic and I wanted nothing more than to get out of the van. I fought a bit with the seat belt, unbuckled myself and climbed up out of the broken side windows. The shattered glass around the edges cut my wrists, and I later thought it would have been a very simple thing to ask for a coat or blanket to put over the glass, but in that moment nothing mattered except getting away from the van. A male staff member wearing a blue Pentamontaña jacket was helping me out of the window. I still had my Ultimate Direction handheld bottle in my hand. I dropped it on the road and clumsily climbed out, rushing as I was afraid of an explosion or fire. I cut my right wrist in few different places, and another Pentamontaña staff member put a tape on my wrist to stop the bleeding. I saw the van resting on it’s side and I could see that we had tumbled down the hill and come to rest just along the road below.

 There was movement everywhere: cars and a large white truck were stopped above us, and other cars and the Vertimania Humvee were stopped below us. My memory of this time is fractured and distorted. I wandered up and down the switchbacks aimlessly. I had my puffy coat on and I had opted to wear my pajama bottoms over my shorts to keep warm before the start. A fellow runner later described me as “pale, incoherent and disoriented.”

 At some point it came to my attention that there was still someone in the van. Several people were trying to push the van up, calling first for rocks, and then for “gatos” (car jacks) and spare tires: anything that could be used to prop up the van. There was a woman who was trapped and unconcious under the van. I took one glance and had to look away. I was asked to go to the hospital, but I did not want to go, as my only thought was to get back to my cabaña and see my family before they woke up. I was sat inside a car for a while, and the woman in front was complaining of pain in her neck and back and begging to go to the hospital. I was too restless to sit and left the car before staff members drove her to the hospital.

 I went back to the van and the rear doors had been opened. Without entering the van I was able to grab some runners’ packs, poles, and a floppy hat that I recalled the runner in the back seat wearing, and organized them along the opposite side of the road. I searched in vain for my Nathan Pack, hat and headlamp, and then felt ashamed for being concerned about such things when there was a person under the van.

 We were in a remote area with no cell signal. I kept waiting for the police or an ambulance to arrive. They never did. Finally, a group of volunteers and runners were able to push the van up enough to pull out the volunteer who we would all find out later was Ana Vanessa Ortiz. I estimate this took an hour, but I don’t trust my own estimations of time during this event. She was put onto a white plastic table and covered with blankets, and then put into a car and taken to the hospital. Shortly after she was finally removed from under the van, another Pentamontaña staff member drove me down to the race start in a white Nissan X-trail.

 At the race start, the scene was unreal, as I was surrounded by people who had no real concept of what had happened. They were sitting around chatting, having coffee, and waiting for the race to start. I was certain the race had been cancelled, but no announcement had been made. An eager volunteer started to check me in and I didn’t realize she was checking me into the race until she asked to take my bag of clothes which runners would pick up at the finish (the race is point to point).

 I walked around aimlessly asking for a ride back to the cabañas. I was told to wait and there would be transportation. Again I was asked if I wanted to go to the hospital and I declined. The runners were called together and the race was officially cancelled. I continued to wander and I saw a couple walking to their car and I asked them if they were going any where near Cabañas Montorios. They had no idea where that was but they were heading back to their hotel at Monterreal, which I knew was only a few kilometers past Cabañas Montorios. Jacobo and Suzy drove me back. To my relief, instead of going back up past the accident we took a longer route out to the highway 57 that we would take south to COAH 112 which would take us to our cabañas.

 Natalia and the girls were still asleep and were as shocked to see me as I was relieved to see them.

 After telling my family what happened we drove the short ten minute drive into the pueblo, San Antonio Alazanas, where the race would have ended. We encountered some Pentamontaña staff members along returning drop bags. I asked about the runner who had been trapped under the van and they told me that she had passed away at the hospital in Saltillo. Stunned by this, and not knowing what to say or how to react, I gave the car keys to Natalia and just stood for a moment on the side of the road in silence with the Pentamontaña staff. Finally, we headed into Saltillo to go to the hospital. The next morning we drove 9 hours south and returned to our apartment in Mexico City.


We all know the relative dangers of long runs in the mountains, but we tend to brush aside the risks of  the statistically much more dangerous cars, vans and busses we travel in every day. There is also some irony that this tragedy happened at Pentamontaña, a meticulously organized race, and that can’t be said for many of the new mountain races that seem to pop up every month. I believe the Hunzas should continue to hold Pentamontaña, but I hope it will be renamed and held as an annual memorial to Ana Vanessa Ortiz, a runner and lover of the outdoors who drove three hours from her home in Reynosa to volunteer her Easter weekend helping others and being with her friends in the mountains. Rest in Peace.

Ana Vanessa Ortiz    1976-2017