As soon as we arrived in Argentina I signed up for Patagonia Run 2019, a marathon in the near San Martín de Las Andes in Lanín National Park. Some of the most glorious moments of my life have been spent running in semi-wilderness, so it appealed to me as a good way to see some South American nature. Admittedly, running in a competition is not exactly the same as running alone in the wilderness, but the scenery promises to be so spectacular that even a few hundred other people won’t make too much of a difference.
When last Saturday came, however, I realized I only had one week to go and didn’t yet have a medical certificate or any gear except for running shoes and a hat. To add to this embarrassing situation, John and I realized that the town where our plane was due to land was 400 kilometres away from the race. And then the following email fluttered into my inbox:
Dear Patagonia Run competitors.
We would like to make the following recommendation due to predictions of very strong winds, intense cold and rain that we have gathered from several different forecasts for the days of the race.
Bring appropriate technical clothing and gear to cope withstand gusts of approximately 60 km per hour and very low temperatures of -5/ -10 degrees Celsius.
Best wishes and see you very soon
It’s funny how anxiety episodes can sneak up on one. I thought I was completely fine and in control of the situation. Then I realized John was looking at me and edging away as one might in the presence of a dangerous lunatic. We had gone to a local outlet mall to get cold-weather gear when I had an emergency insight.
“No we can’t go to the shop after all because I forgot the passports,” I threw my hands up in the air, “Which means I can’t use the credit card so we have to find a bank and I don’t know where one is but you can’t come, you have to stay here because your knee is bad right now!” I blurted, practically frothing at the mouth.
“Uh…you seem a little wound up,” John said. “Take a couple of deep breaths.”
“I need coffee!” I sputtered. “Quiero café!”
“OK,OK, here’s a place. Just take it easy!”
After imbibing the tonic, I managed to go into a sporting goods store and ask for a ‘mochilla de running’ (running backpack) and ‘un silbato’ (a whistle). After much good-natured hilarity about me mangling the Spanish language, the saleswoman agreed to sell me a backpack and thermal gloves, but there was no whistle on offer. This caused more strife when I returned to where John was flapping his hat at a trespassing pigeon.
“If I don’t get a whistle I won’t be able to run!” I wailed.
“They said that everyone needs a whistle for emergencies and if you don’t have a whistle you won’t be allowed to start the race so I need a whistle and it can’t be a toy whistle either, but I don’t know where to get one!”
“OK, don’t hyperventilate. I’m sure if they have any sense they’ll sell them there.”
“What if they don’t? What then?”
“Well we’ll have a nice mountain holiday.”
Somewhat placated, I shelved the whistle crisis and turned my attention to the question of the medical certificate. Naturally, event organizers don’t want too many runners to die on the trail because that would be bad publicity, so they require a doctor to sign a medical form, effectively a waiver.
The big private hospital next door to our apartment, which is generally a useful place to go for quick, reasonably priced service. The assistant at the door, who spoke perfect English, explained that I’d need an appointment to see a general practitioner and that they were booked up months in advance. So that was out.
Then I remembered that when I joined the local gym I’d had to do an ‘apto-fisico’ test at a specialized medical clinic. A very solemn cardiologist had given me a stress echocardiogram, sticking a bunch of sensors all over my torso to measure how my heart reacted to me cycling on a stationary bicycle for twenty minutes. She was very solemn throughout and had kept piling weights on the front of the bike to increase the resistance. Even though I knew there wouldn’t be a problem (there wasn’t), it was a nerve-wracking experience and I didn’t really want to go through it again.
Now it occurred to me I could just go back to that same clinic and get a doctor there to look at the apto-fisico certificate and sign the form saying I was unlikely to keel over during the marathon. John and I hopped into the nearest taxi and sped off, as much as you can speed in rush-hour traffic in Buenos Aires.
It turned out not to be as simple as foreseen. We got to the reception area and the friendly woman at the desk explained (to John, the Spanish speaker) that no other doctor could sign the certificate except the one who’d done the initial echocardiogram. Fortunately, she was there and could see me again. Unfortunately, I would have to have a different kind of echocardiogram to check that I was OK to exercise in the mountains.
We looked at the art. John flipped through a boat magazine. I tried to concentrate on an extremely dry account of the Justinian plague. Just over our heads a TV was blaring some talk show in which a female host was busy jollying and flattering a male celebrity. Occasionally she would actually jump out of her chair and scream with excitement. When the doctor finally called me into her lair, I was actually relieved. This procedure was a ‘transthoracic echocardiogram’. The website ‘www.webmd.com’ describes the procedure thus:
This is the standard echocardiogram. It is a painless test similar to X-ray, but without the radiation. The procedure uses the same technology used to evaluate a baby’s health before birth. A hand-held device called a transducer is placed on the chest and transmits high frequency sound waves (ultrasound). These sound waves bounce off the heart structures, producing images and sounds that can be used by the doctor to detect heart damage and disease.
I had to remove my blouse and lie on my left side on the bed with my left hand under my head. The doctor then took the ‘transducer’, which is about the size and shape of a stick of roll-on deodorant, all lubed-up with cold goo, and poked it into the rib near my heart. I would respectfully invite the webmd copywriter who claims it is ‘a painless test’ to have a cold deodorant roller poked into your boob and see how you like it. It might not be 9-out-of-10 on the pain scale, but it’s no picnic.
When she turned the sound on, it suddenly got even less comfortable. The room was suddenly filled with the sound of a large drunk man walking slowly through a muddy swamp in the dark. He seemed to be wearing boots and to be at risk of being sucked into the viscous muck with every step.
Splurge, spludge splush, plurghsh, gludge, splursh
John was pretending to read his Kindle on the other side of the room but I could tell by the tensing of the muscles behind his ears that he was horrified. It was very loud and very squelchy.
This went on a long time. The doctor apparently needed readings from several different angles, which involved more cold poking. My eye wandered to the screen, where the reading was displayed, looking a lot like an ultrasound. I thought about making a joke something along the lines of, ‘Oh look! A bouncing baby aorta!” but (a) my Spanish was inadequate and (b) the doctor was just as grim as usual and wouldn’t have seen the joke. I suppose you could add (c) not funny, but that would not be enough to stop me.
Finally, the exam was over.
“Everything is OK,” she said. She smiled, but the smile was not reassuring. It was the smile of a necromancer who has just performed a diabolical trick.
John leapt to the door, eager to make an escape. The door was locked. Probably for privacy reasons but possibly because she wanted to keep us there in the aortic echo-chamber listening to that interminable squelch until the end of time.
The doctor smiled and wagged a finger at him. He had to stay until I’d wiped the goo off, put my shirt back on and until the doctor (very slowly) signed the medical form. Only then did she press a button on her desk that released the door.
“I will bring the certificate soon, please wait in the lobby.”
We did so. The certificate appeared and we duly fled.
In the taxi ride home, I felt a sense of liberty and relief. Thanks to the cardiologist, the mounting panic had suddenly subsided. After all, compared to listening to that grim interior trudge, running up a mountain in the freezing is bound to be a joyful, carefree experience!