Last week we found ourselves bussing through some of the weirdest, most wonderful landscape I have ever seen. This was Nahel Huapi National Park in northern Patagonia, an area of nearly two million acres (7,050 km2) right next to the border with Chile. Argentina’s oldest national park, it includes more than 60 lakes, four lagoons, countless streams, more than 1000 plant species and about 600 species of vertebrate animals.
Everything about it is remarkable, starting with the name. In the Mapuche language ‘Nahel’ can mean ‘jaguar’ but it can also mean ‘man who has been turned into jaguar by sorcery’. ‘Huapi’ means island. Nahel Huapi was the name of the huge lake and it’s easy to see why they chose this rather than Mascardi, named for a Jesuit missionary, for the whole park.
There is clearly something magic about this lake. Even before Loch Ness reared her snakey head, an aquatic monster was sighted here, the infamous ‘Nahuelito.’ In the 1920s an American gold prospector named Martin Sheffield saw “an animal with a huge neck like a swan, and the movements made me suppose the beast to have a body like a crocodile.” The Buenos Aires Zoo tried to collect evidence of the monster, which has also been compared to a plesiosaur, but all efforts were unsuccessful. But even apart from monsters, the lake is home to birds like the Great grebe and the ashy-headed goose. In fact, even blue-eyed cormorants and kelp-gulls, otherwise only found in marine habitats, feel at home in this inland mountainous environment.
We started out from Bariloche, which is just south of the park on the southern lakeshore. It was a pretty cold morning so there was a lot of condensation on the window, which John kept urging me to wipe off so he could see the amazing view. The thing that really hits you is that this place has geology to spare. There are rocks all over the place and striations and strata and whatever else they’re called.
Apparently, this area used to be minding its own business as a shallow seabed. Marine fossils have been found at the top of Cero Otto (1,405 m), reminders of creatures that once lived 200 metres below sea level. Then volcanic activity began in the region (incidentally covering the land to the east with ash and creating petrified forests and the Patagonian steppes). About 65 million years ago the Nazca plate began to push against the South American plate from below, fracturing the earth’s crust and ‘giving rise’ to what we know now as the Andes cordillera. Long after that, only about 2.5 million years ago, a huge accumulation of snow and ice covered the area and formed glaciers in the mountain areas. Movement of these masses of ice gradually sculpted u-shaped valleys. Since then there have been fluctuations in temperature. The last great glacial advance happened about 36,000 years ago and retreated significantly about 11,000 years ago. As the glaciers disappeared they left lakes and lagoons. Now, the only remaining glaciers are found on Cerro Tronador (Thunderer—named after the crashing of falling seracs).
So, as you can see, there is a lot going on, geologically speaking. This certainly accounts for the jaw-dropping scenery—hilltops like ready-made castles, dramatically deep valleys, sandy cliffs, and deep-blue lakes everywhere you look.
The park has three distinct ecosystems: the altoandino, the andino-Patagonico and the Patagonian steppe. One of the nice things about my run last week was that I was able to see (and photograph) all three of these special environments.
The altoandino is above the treeline, so looks rather bare and is exposed to harsh weather, particularly snow and strong winds. It features rocky massifs, loose stones interspersed with sand. Vegetation is low-lying and grows mainly in hollows or sheltered places. Species you might see include Chilean myrtle, colorful lichens, and nub-leaved shrubbins. There are small isolated meadows in high mountain valleys where streams of snowmelt converge; here you can see mosses, grasses and flowers such as ‘la Estrella de las andes’ (perezia pedicularifolia).
The andino-Patagonico designates the lower slopes and consists of transitional forest. There are several kinds of beech including the lenga (Nothofagus pumilio), the Antarctic (Nothofagus antarctica) the raulí (Nothofagus alpina) and the roble (Nothofagus obliqua). The Chilean cedar (Austrocedrus chilensis). Underneath these large trees there is a lower layer which includes such shrubs and small trees as different kinds of boxleaf, barberry, Chilean bamboo (Chusquea culeou). There is also black hawthorn, orange-ball tree (buddleja globosa) and broom. In some of the foothills you can see sweet pea and the tall, yellow amancay.
Then, at the feet of these mountains there is the Patagonian steppe, the eighth largest desert in the world by area. But though it is called a desert, it is full of life. There are low-lying plants such as tuft grasses and desert shrubs. Animals living in this environment include the burrowing owl, guanaco, mara, pygmy armadillo, desert iguana and Patagonian gray fox.
Looking through the steamy window, I kept wanting to jump out and explore, and ever since we returned to the city I’ve been thinking about that great, enchanting wilderness and how much of it we didn’t manage to see.
My husband John Dolan’s memoir Pleasant Hell has just been released as an audiobook, recorded at Telescope Audio with Brendon Anderegg. In celebration, here is a typically brilliant excerpt from the fifth chapter of the book. (Warning: there are graphic–not to say lyrical–descriptions of violence and mould!)
Karate. Empty hand is right. Hands don’t get no emptier. So I joined the Empty-Hand Club. The real scripture: Make of thine empty hand a club…and thy plowshares into fists. Tuesdays and Thursdays I bore my white fighting outfit up the hill to the old gym, to kneel on the hard wood floor, waiting for Sensei. It was weird to be among people outside of school hours. All around me there were people, off-duty, in their medieval Japanese bathrobes. I prayed that they’d talk to me, and that they wouldn’t. Needn’t have worried. The class was run on the lines of an Imperial Japanese military academy circa 1939. Minimal chit-chat while waiting for Sensei, who always walked in late, like a pop star. He was Japanese, about five feet tall, perhaps a hundred pounds, and widely believed, by what I overheard in the locker room, to be made of titanium and able to kill with a glance. He ruled from the top of the room, seated on a little platform, and spoke to the multitudes through his lieutenants, two huge white guys. Very rarely he would descend to floor level and do someone the honor of miming their deaths for them, coyly brushing the edge of their windpipes with his open hand or snapping a kneecap backwards with his dainty foot. Those so honored went back to their places with a blush of pride. I was not often so honored. I didn’t perform very well in the Kata, the mystic ballet which seemed to be the focus of the club. Real, full-contact sparring was very rare. I did very well at that—an instinct for how to hurt and be hurt—but this was not noticed. Sensei usually just sat on his throne and watched us perform the mystical kicks and punches which showed our “harmony,” or some such impractical tripe. It bothered me to spend so much time on my knees. Not that I had moral objections—God no! But the Japanese formal kneeling position was extremely uncomfortable for my barrel body. Discomfort leads to heresy: I wanted to see Sensei up against a heavyweight contender, a 230-pound middling heavyweight. Not even the champion; just a very large, very quick black American who had spent his whole life hitting and being hit, rather than dancing this Zen ballet. I had my little doubts. I tended to see Sensei hitting the wall, a dainty Archeopteryx splatter of bones and blood. It was agony there on the hard wooden floor. My ankles were about to break—it was like balancing a refrigerator on a couple of wooden coat-hangers.
Each of us was trying desperately to become a warrior. There was no sense of community, though. What nerds want above all is to get the hell away from anybody who reminds them of themselves. Betray each other in a second. Not a very prepossessing lot, either: they were mostly short, skinny guys—I was a giant in that group—and high-school flinch still showed itself from time to time, along with its counter-move, the worthy nerd’s desperate courage and determination to die rather than be bullied again. That Tao of flinch and defiance was admirable in the abstract, but kind of disgusting in person, simultaneously manifested on a hundred pallid, small-boned faces. Some of them were extraordinarily graceful, sweeping about in the Kata, but somehow I didn’t see them busting up muggers, becoming the stuff of urban or even suburban legend. The longer I had to spend on my knees listening to a hundred high-strung asthmatics mystically inhaling during our “meditation” sessions, the less I believed. And worst of all, I could smell my mould. The gi, the ceremonial white fighting outfit, was the problem. Those karate sessions got very sweaty. We’d start out doing pushups on our clenched fists. This not only got us in shape, but was incredibly painful. The central notion of Sensei, this refugee from General Tojo’s staff, was that pain was good for you. Not inflicting it—which would have been fine—but enduring it, which I didn’t really need organized help with. Sensei, the Church, and the Irish martyrs of our Green Shelf were of one mind about the superiority of enduring pain to inflicting it: why do pushups on your open hands when you could crunch your knuckles on the hardwood floor? Then sit-ups and other exercises, retooled for maximum pain effect.
It got you very sweaty. Two hours of torture ballet under the gaze of Admiral Yamamoto and you were dripping. I was, anyway. I sweat like a pig, and the white fighting tunic was like a used towel by the time we were allowed to get up off our knees and shower. I understood showering but I didn’t get what you were supposed to do with the dirty clothes. My mother washed mine, I suppose. I think she did; at any rate they disappeared from the floor of my room, then reappeared, hung on the doorknob of my room like propitiatory gifts outside the ogre’s cave; and when they reappeared they bore a new non-organic smell. Presumably they had been “washed”; but I knew nothing of the actual process. I simply grabbed them and wrenched them onto my body, trying not to notice the implied waistline, before snarling farewell and heading off to BART. But the gi was different. It was secret. I couldn’t let my parents know I was taking karate. Not because they wouldn’t understand but because they would. All too well. People talked about their parents not understanding them; I feared being understood. Besides, discovery would ruin my secret war plan. An animate weapon was being built inside the tent-like quilted coat. And nobody was going to see it until it was too late for them to do anything about it. So I kept the gi zipped up in the ratty Pan Am bag in which I carried my unread textbooks and chewed-up, woad-dripping pens. After a few weeks of this routine, I made a scientific discovery: sweat on white cotton medieval Japanese tunics makes a great medium for the incubation of green smelly mildew. Especially helpful is keeping said tunic zipped up tight in a flight bag. Mould cultivated under these conditions, we have found, shows astonishing growth rates.
At first I was puzzled at these big green spots on the armpits and the back of my fighting tunic. What was going on? Dye from the bag I kept them in? Some weird chemical reaction unknown to science? It was a deep mystery, and painful to contemplate because the Pan Am bag was a souvenir from a trip to New York when I was a little kid, when we still had money. And now I was dragging it around dripping pen-ink all over it, turning it green, wrecking it. Better get an XL Coke at the student union and not think about it. After another week, the green spots merged, formed continents, and finally the bag actually began to leak spores. It was their smell which finally told me (and anybody else in the building or BART-car with me) that the the green continents were mould. If you opened up the bag, a whole season of spores rushed out to propagate their kind. The stench was pretty sickening, even to me. It was like opening up a storage shed full of old newspapers. I decided not to do anything about it. Heads began to turn, or at least flinch, when I walked by, the old days of invisibility seemed a lost Golden Age. The air of decay followed me like the Reaper all around that sunny campus. Pepe LePeu meets Charon. I was the Johnny Appleseed of Berkeley, “Johnny Moldspore.” Benefactor of future generations, selflessly spreading a harvest of mildew, a zephyr from the crypt, through the public glades of Berkeley.
It was baffling what to do about it. Short of telling my mother. Well, I wouldn’t actually have to tell her—I wasn’t much on the direct-conversation stuff at home. “Say it with a snarl,”—that was my motto. I could just sort of stomp up and hand the karate outfit to he, in a “Wash this!” kind of way…but then she’d know about karate, and understand. And I couldn’t have that. After weeks of intensive speculation, the gi had developed distinctive green continents, not unlike the shroud of Turin. Only greener. The sweatspots on my back and under my arms spread their wings, great Amazonian forests. Every day they got bigger until one night, kneeling before Sensei at the end of karate class, pretending to focus on proper breathing, I became uncomfortably aware of the intensity of the mildew smell radiating from my reeking body, and noted for the first time that no one was within twenty feet of me. It was a big room, but still…they were sort of clustered over there on the other side of the hall. I wondered dizzily, for a moment, if it was due to the antibiotic effects of mould: the whole room like an agar slide, with my penicillin mould keeping these organisms at bay. But there was a much simpler hypothesis, much more embarrassing and therefore true. I stank. No wonder Sensei had sent me down after a few clumsy moves when it was my turn to do the Kata. I had probably dishonored the Emperor with my reek. Probably making a faux pas right now by not committing ritual suicide in front of the entire karate class, the whole Empty-Hand Clan. My face instantly flushed with shame. Shame and stupid, for ever. You always have, you’re so stupid and stupid and stupid, you’re so stupid, God get me out, stupid, stupid, stupid— I looked around for somebody to share the blame—anybody who might be greener and smellier than me. (The nerd’s instinct to deflect the group’s anger toward another victim.) Even one other greenie would help…but no. None! Not a single one of the other gi’s had even a trace, a little light lime-green five-o’clock mould shadow. Green belts, yes; but no green gi’s. Pure white. A flock of small people whiter than seagulls, unsullied. And they smelled different from me, too, now that I focused on it, trying to filter out my own Van Allen Belt of aromas. Yes, their smell was—not so organic. More chemical—like when you walk past a laundromat, probably comes from the stuff like “shaving cream” and “cologne” they advertised on TV. “Ban”: that was the name of an aerosol deodorant whose commercials I vaguely remembered. But how did people know about these things? Where did they acquire them?
It seemed unfair that they managed not to support even a little mould, to even things out. It should have been more widespread. After all, I didn’t invent mould; mould was a fact! Mould occurred naturally. In forests, for example. Part of the balance of nature—breaking down dead trees. How did they override mould growth? They knew something I didn’t. Their bodies were non-stick Teflon…differently-permeable membranes: dirt and smell slid off them, yet sexual partners stuck. Once again, the terrible gulf between their advanced technology and our slipshod peasant army, the non-fun of being your own third world. It was time to run away again, time for our conscripts to throw away their defective rifles and run for the hills. I cowered on my knees, waiting for the end of the session. Oh God I swear, I swear if they let me out of this room, I will run away and never come back, just let me get out, let them not yell at me in front of everybody…Just give me a head start down to the locker room and I swear I’ll be dressed and out, out of your way, in ten seconds: run out onto the street, jump in front of a speeding truck, something quick….
Time went by, presumably, while I knelt there waiting for Sensei to release us. Everybody was looking at me in disgust. I could see them through my eyelids as I pretended to focus on my breathing. We breathed. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you panic: breathe deeply. So I breathed.
This is a particular kind of moment which I remember well: the waiting to run away. Epiphanies in stories and movies generally cut directly to the action; there’s a quick cut from, say, realizing that you’re offending everybody else in the room with your smell, to you running away. But in my experience there’s usually a long time between knowing and being allowed to leave. I had to kneel there on the parquet floor making a show of deep breathing for a long time before I could run to the dressing room, stuff the gi back in its bag and walk down the path to BART.
But I went back to the next class. In the same green gi. I couldn’t quit. Sometime, I presumed, they’d have to get past the mystical dancing stuff and tell you how to really maim people. So I kept going. And nobody mentioned the green gi or the cloud of decay which followed me about. They just gave me a corner of the room all to myself. In this way the spores turned out to be very handy: they actually lessened the social awkwardness I felt. Kept the others at bay. I practiced by myself, even on the two-person drills. “By mutual consent.” So I had learned a sort of martial art in spite of myself: a clumsy, peasant form of chemical warfare, which worked on all the wrong people.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, consider buying the audiobook here!
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.
It was time to leave Bueños Aires for the mountains and Patagonia Run 2019. After an hour-long taxi ride and a two-hour wait at the airport, we were glad to get out of the city and see some Andes.
On the plane to Bariloche, John had the pleasure of sitting in front of a young boy in high spirits. He expressed his enthusiasm by kicking John’s seat, putting the tray-table up and down and making sounds I’ve only ever heard before in cartoons. Every now and then he yelled, “OH MY GA!”
Argentina seems very flat. At first it was like an ironed patchwork quilt—squares and rectangles of farmland in different shades of green. Then it was all unfenced and brown with white splotches. After a couple of hours the land started to wrinkle up and form mounds. Just as we caught sight of Lake Nahuel Huapi, though, something happened to distract us from the view.
The plane, you see, did a zoomie. That is, it put on a sudden spurt of speed for no apparent reason. I have flown in other planes and they didn’t do that. John and I exchanged a glance. The boy yelled, “Yeehaa!”
A few moments later the pilot made a rather breathless announcement in Spanish.
“He says he had to abort the first landing because of a warning,” John translated.
“Oh,” I said.
The plane flew around for a bit longer. Everyone was subdued. The plane descended towards earth again and I couldn’t help feeling it was going a bit quickly.
“Wow!” yelled the boy as he saw the lake up close. As the plane hurtled toward the runway, our little friend was thrilled and egged it on with a hearty, “Arriba!”
There was a ‘thunk’ and the plane seemed to take a long time to slow down, but otherwise the landing seemed to have been successful. There were no flames or explosions. The passengers all burst into heartfelt applause. This stimulated the boy to whoop and clap as loudly as he could (which was very loudly).
Bariloche airport looked like somebody’s house. Not having any check-in luggage, we zipped through it and hailed a taxi. The taxi driver drove very slowly to the wrong hotel and charged three times as much as a Buenos Aires driver would for the same distance, but we got there in the end.
The town was lovely, on the edge of the big, shimmering mysterious lake. It smelled like pinesap and woodsmoke and was populated by a lot of fat stray dogs, each one of which seemed to sleep in front of its own particular shop. The town’s main specialty seemed to be chocolate and in fact it was having a chocolate festival, clearly meant to coincide with the Easter tourist rush.
We got up at seven and took a taxi to the bus station, where we had breakfast of café con leche and churros filled with dulce de leche (which is sometimes translated as ‘milk jam’).
The bus ride to San Martin de Las Andes took four hours. It was chilly outside and I had to keep wiping condensation off the window to see the view: dry hills covered with jagged rocks, funny round little tussocks, big bright blue lakes and a couple of beautiful rivers.
The onboard entertainment was En Las Estrellas (Up Among the Stars) about an alcoholic movie director and Aquaman about a muscly merman. Both were pretty watchable though I couldn’t follow the dialogue (the latter had been dubbed into Spanish).
Just when I’d lost all feeling in my legs, we arrived in San Martin de Las Andes, a pretty town nestled between hills and sitting on the shore of Lake Lagar. The shops all had log-cabin facades, doing up the ‘mountain lodge’ theme, but at the same time they were pretty expensive (we later saw a jacket for sale for 33,000 pesos, which is equivalent to US$783!!!). The streets were planted with roses having their autumn bloom, and there was a big rose dell in the park near the lake. I thought this was a good omen, because roses run in my family.
We were both exhausted and a bit grumpy but I managed to get to race HQ to collect my race pack. When I told the registration official I spoke English, she directed me to a tall, sunburnt guy named Tim. “He is Australian. He will be able to help you,” she smiled.
“Nah, I don’t speak Kiwi,” he deadpanned, which was how I knew he was Australian.
Tim apprised me of the basics. I asked him if he lived here and he said he did. He’d been backpacking around South America and while hitchhiking had been picked up by a local girl. One thing led to another and he’d been here ‘in Paradise’ for ten years.
That evening John and I had a pretty good pizza and ravioli at Bar Del Pueblo, which was packed with other customers wearing running T-shirts and carrying race packs.
I woke up at 8 to a cold, misty morning. After a quick coffee downstairs, I walked a couple of blocks to the briefing session for the marathon. When I arrived the hall was half filled–there were about two hundred people there.
Several people in the meeting had special maté mugs and were sipping the mixture through their metal straws. Every now and then they topped it up with hot water from a thermos. Maté is something Argentines really drink, which constantly surprises me. I wonder why it hasn’t caught on in other parts of the world.
The man delivering the briefing was the race organizer. He was clearly a good speaker and a charismatic person. I didn’t understand anything he said but gathered from the pictures on the slideshow that there was going to be a lot of wind and that we shouldn’t litter. The only English word of the speech came at the end: ‘Thanks’. Everyone clapped and ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ came blasting over the speakers.
Thinking about the ‘muchos vientos’, I decided I probably needed a thermal top so John and I went looking for one in town. This done, we stopped into a café called ‘Unser Traum’ and did some serious carb loading.
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.
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!