This year was the tenth edition of Patagonia Run and since I was in Argentina and interested in running somewhere beautiful, I decided to try it. With six different races to choose from (from 100 miles to 10 kilometres), I went with the marathon since that’s the distance I’ve been training for for the last few years. Also, I’d done a little bit of solitary trail running before and liked the prospect of seeing what a competition would be like.
The event, now in its tenth year, is quite challenging thanks to the steepness of the slopes and the weather conditions, which can get pretty extreme thanks to the high altitude. In terms of altitude, the course looks like this:
In terms of view, it looks more like this:
And there, in two images, you have both the pros and cons!
The race is based in San Martín de Las Andes in the province of Neuquén near the border with Chile. The town sits on the edge of Lake Lacar and is designed to look like an Alpine town in Europe. The streets are lined with trees and rose bushes. Although it has recently become known as a kind of sporting playground, it’s a pleasant place to go no matter what you like to do.
At six thirty Saturday morning I joined a group of nervous runners collected on the sidewalk waiting to board minivans that would take us to the starting line. It was a cold, windy morning and I was wearing a thermal top, windbreaker, woolen cap and gloves.
The first stop was a military base on the Plaza de Armas of the 4th Cavalry Regiment ‘Coraceros General Lavalle’ (General Lavalle’s Cuirassiers). It was still dark and cold outside so we poured out of the bus and into a bright, warm hall where there was a huge spread of snack food to welcome us. There was familiar stuff like bananas and crackers but there were also squares of membrillo (quince jam) and cheese. Friendly army personel served coffee, tea, maté, Powerade and water. The ceiling was festooned with bright ribbons and lit up with bright lights to create a party atmosphere. Nearby, behind some trees, was an orderly row of Port-a-potties. Everyone chatted, adjusted their gear, stretched and gulped down liquids.
At about 7.45, I followed the crowd without knowing quite what was happening. We all moved in a slow line and one by one stepped over a line that seemed to have a sensor in it causing a machine to beep. I believe this had something to do with activating our timing chips, but it might just have been some strange Patagonian ritual.
By this time, music was booming out of a loudspeaker and a couple of enthusiastic people were jollying us along with a microphone. We all smushed up into the starters’ corral. A drone flew overhead and we were instructed to jump, wave and cheer. A digital clock counted down to zero and suddenly we were off, to the sound of a raptor skreeking overhead.
- The Sheep Crush (1-7 km)
The first seven kilometres were probably the most difficult of the race because they were unlike what I expected. The first 100 meters or so was a joyful sprint, but it halted as soon as it began. The trail narrowed to a bottleneck, forcing us to walk. A few obstacles such as fallen logs and streams slowed the proceeding even more, as did the fairly steep grade. I was confused by the traffic jam but everyone else was patient, so I decided to forget about pushing ahead for the moment. After all, the best policy in a marathon is usually to start slowly.
After a kilometer, though, the trail did not get much wider and nor did the runners go faster. In fact, many of them weren’t running at all! They were walking, and a large number of them were brandishing alpine walking sticks. I have it on good authority that these are very useful tools when negotiating slopes, but in a congested-goat-trail situation they have the disadvantage of taking up a lot of room. Indeed, I suspected some people of deliberately splaying them across the path to trip anyone who intended to pass. Abandoning patience, I started passing these menaces whenever I could.
Eventually the bottleneck eased up, the path widened and there was slightly more room between people. The landscape was very pretty—deciduous trees with pretty bronze and copper leaves, lichen, white tree trunks. Now and then I caught the shy peep of some small forest wren. I started to think this was not going to be quite so much like a rush-hour escalator after all.
By the time I reached the first aid station, ‘Rosales’, I’d accepted that I was not going to get a great time but at least I still felt pretty fresh. Entering the tent, I found a scene of cheery hospitality—a powerful portable heater, tables laden with snacks and drinks and runners chatting happily. One of them seemed to have settled in for the day, calling it quits already and warming himself next to the heater. I gulped some water, chewed a eucalyptus candy and set off on the next seven kilometres.
Stage Two: Rage vs. Gravity (7-14km)
The path continued and the only way was up. The higher we got, though, the more annoyed I got. I noticed that my nose was running and that my breathing was becoming distinctly Darth-Vadery. I sounded creepy even to myself—I couldn’t imagine how disturbing it was for the person immediately in front of me.
Social anxiety combined with unexpected breathlessness was sending me into a quiet rage. The woman in front of me was advancing so slowly up the hill in front of me, with such maddening serenity, that I seriously considered grabbing her alpine sticks and throwing them like javelins off the cliffside. Instead, I crashed past her, huffing and puffing, at the first opportunity. The problem was, though, that the path was so steep that I couldn’t quite get up enough steam to skip into the sunset. Indeed, when we reached the next descent, I was still gasping and reeling with my effort as she trotted past me as fresh as a daisy.
A few volunteers were stationed at various junctures and on one hillside a woman and man had lit a little campfire that glowed cheeringly. We started emerging from the thick forest and caught tantalizing glimpses of distant lakes and mountains.
The path widened a little and there started to be some downs as well as ups when we reached a grassy rise and approached Portezuelo Station at 1400 metres above sea level. A man dressed as a bee greeted us—I’m not sure why a bee; my guess is that Patagonia is famous for honey? At the table I grabbed a banana, took off my windbreaker and switched my race number to my pant leg so I wouldn’t have to re-pin it if I needed the windbreaker again.
- Mars and Back (14-26 km)
Soon after leaving Portezuelo aid station, I met a family of cows curious about all the hubbub. The dad had big horns and disapproved of my whistling, though he didn’t seem in a mood to charge.
There was some nice gentle inclination for a short while until it was time to resist gravity some more. The path abruptly narrowed to a vertical dirt line beside a fence. We all made our way up slowly, puffing dreadfully. When we emerged at the top, the trees thinned out and the landscape changed into some kind of vast Japanese rock garden. I stepped past low-lying plants that looked like giant caterpillars and flattened shrubs.
Coming up to the top of a rise, the wind shoved me back and I dug into the backpack for the windbreaker. The wind was whipping grit into the air and my lips were stinging with cold so I pulled my stretchy headband over my face. Squinting ahead, I saw a couple of guys making their way along a path marked with white ribbons.
Convinced that this was the summit of Colorado hill, I felt a sense of exhilaration and stopped to take some pictures. But then we turned a corner and I saw the cone.
I couldn’t help admiring the deranged sense of humor of the course’s architect. Following a line of people who looked as shell-shocked as I felt, I started trudging up the Martian hill, whipped by hail and grit. At the top, a photographer crouched behind the inadequate shelter of a cairn, and I decided he had the worst job of the whole event.
I paused briefly at the top, but soon decided to get the hell off. Looking over the side, it seemed pretty steep but at least it wasn’t up. I started stumbling down the mountainside, almost pushed right back up by the wind’s force. Just a few minutes into my descent I caught my toe on a rock and fell seemingly in slow-motion, my knee hitting a rock and my face resting in some soft, ash-like dirt.
“I’m OK!” I declared to no one in particular and resumed the hurtling. The ashy dirt was very slippery and I kept wondering idly why no one seemed to have gotten injured. Thankfully, this landscape soon turned into sparse forest and packed earth, where it was easier to find a solid footfall. I liked this part a lot—it was warm and sheltered among the trees and the dry pine needles gave off a warm, sharp smell. Not only that, but there weren’t so many people on the path any more and it was possible to really sprint down the path as fast as you wanted to.
Down the bottom of the hill the forest turned into swamp and there was even a real peat bog. A man in front of me slipped into it and roared with rage, an emotion I could well understand. However, with some smug satisfaction, I clomped through it and got my feet filthy. Soon afterwards, I reached Colorado aid station, the 26-kilometre point.
- La Pampa (26-35km)
Colorado station was the first place where we had anything like an audience. After that harrowing trip through Nature’s Nightmare, it was gratifying to hear cheers, claps, honks and ‘Dali Chicos!’ (‘Come on guys!’). A little group of supporters had gathered near a creek. One of them had a snare drum that he was playing very handily. There is something uniquely uplifting about hearing drumming when running—somehow it lends you external strength, like a bonus heartbeat.
We were off the mountain now and the grassland was a refreshing change after the cloistering trees and the austere specter of the summit. Here, you could see for miles and it was all nice greens, browns and yellows. At the bottom of the hills there must have been a creek or river, as there was a line of willows and poplars. The plants at our feet were hedgehog-like shrubs. In spite of the impression we were on a plain, there was actually a pretty narrow trail because if you veered from the dirt track, you risked landing on a thorny or scratchy plant.
I’d just got into a nice rhythm of running mindlessly straight ahead, planting one foot in front of the other when I noticed with a sinking feeling at the path was heading back up and back into a forested area. For a couple of kilometers we ran through land that was up-and-down, bosky and boggy.
This path led to beautiful farmland and a clearing covered with the yellow confetti of poplar trees. It was here that Bayos aid station appeared, a splendid white marquee. Feeling very grateful, I grabbed a jammy pastry and considered sharing it with a couple of dogs tied up in the shed but decided against it because I’d have to get in the way of more hangry runners zooming for the tent.
Somewhat guiltily, I ate the whole thing and steeled myself for the final ten kilometres.
A Very Stretchy Final Stretch
The path from Bayos station lifted us up a gentle rise then dunked us down into an icy creek. A soldier acting as sentry grinned as we gasped at the cold and clambered up the muddy bank onto a gravel road. From now on we were definitely in human territory and I felt more at home—this was the sort of terrain I was used to; quiet country roads.
The road was wide enough for everyone here and flat enough that you didn’t have to think carefully every moment where you should put your feet—you could let your mind wander. A black dog with a tan spot on each cheek appeared suddenly, wagging its tail and joining in with the run. My hand brushed its ear as it floated past and it felt as warm as if it had been lying in the sun for hours. It ran so easily and was already past the woman ahead of me.
Two guys pointed us up an asphalt road that kept rising and rising. Other racers had reverted to walking with their sticks, but I stubbornly kept jogging thinking that it would somehow bring the end sooner, even though my jog was only marginally faster than a walk. Far below, I could hear the reverberating loudspeaker announcements and music, and I could see the roofs of San Martin de Las Andes. It wouldn’t be long now.
Somehow, though, the last few kilometres are always stretchy and it seemed another year before the path started to point downwards. Emerging from a shady path, I crossed a little bridge and realized with delight that it was next to our hotel, which meant there was only a few blocks to go and I knew them all.
Sure enough, it was only a few minutes until I emerged on a street filled with noisy humans and kids with their hands out waiting to give someone a high-five.
I couldn’t manage a final burst of speed but just focused on the big black inflatable gate at the end.
Clomp, clomp, clomp, beep.
I staggered up to the smiling woman giving out the medals and waited for her to hang it around my neck.
“Estas bien?” she asked.
“Si, muy bien!“