Running the Ruta del Hielero Trail Race at the Chimborazo Volcano

I recently had the  opportunity to run my first ever trail race, and I can confidently say it wasn’t just any old trail race! It was the Ruta del Hielero, a new trail race that is taking Ecuador by storm. In just its second year, the Ruta del Hielero became the largest trail race in the country. If you didn’t already know, Ecuador has a huge running culture between city runs, marathons, triathlons, iron mans, and trail runs (aka running out in nature, up mountains, etc). This race embraces Ecuador’s history in taking the “ruta del hielero” – the route of the ice merchant – which treks the Chimborazo volcano.

This race is for the brave at heart. The runners looking for a challenge. We are the crazy ones that wake up at 5am to train. The ones that thrive off of the mud and dirt. The ones that know going uphill for hours is worth it all. The ones who enjoy a nice hike, but like to take it a notch up. The ones that find peace in the combination of nature and madness. The ones that make it to the finish line with a smile (amidst the misery) on their faces.

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What’s the Hielero Story? What makes this race unique?

You may have heard of this man, the famous hielero/ice man/ice merchant, who climbed up Chimborazo every day for over 50 years to chip fresh ice off the volcano, and bring it back down to sell in the city of Riobamba. Historically, there used to be many hieleros who took up this ice gathering as a profession, but over time the numbers dwindled and dwindled until just a man named Baltazar Ushca remained. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend this short documentary, The Last Ice Merchant,  featured by the New York Times about his story. The documentary follows Baltazar Ushca’s life, the cultural changes of society, and the tradition of fresh volcano-harvested ice from Chimborazo. After running this race, I would say these ice men are some of the strongest in the world. 

The coolest part about this race for me is where it is. The Chimborazo Volcano. Just a 15 minute ride from the city of Riobamba, the race starts from a small town situated at the base of Chimborazo, and goes up from there. Due to visibility, there are so many times you can’t see the volcano, but this year it was clear and absolutely stunning. You would be running and slightly miserable but then look to your right and bam. Absolutely gorgeous beauty that melts your heart and inspires you to keep going. The climate is cold given the altitude, but the views are breathtaking. I’ve never felt such at peace with my hearbeat that high. Fun fact, Chimborazo is the tallest point on our planet when measured from the Earth’s core (as opposed to being measured from sea level). Want to get the closest you can to space while standing on ground? Come to Ecuador. Crazy and confusing, I know, but also true. There’s a reason they say #AllYouNeedIsEcuador.

In its second year, the Ruta del Hielero race featured four distances: 6k, 15k, 23k, and 42k. In its first year, 2016, the race only had two distances: 10k and 20k. I took on the 15k (about 9 miles), while Eduardo tackled the 42k (a full marathon, 26.2 miles). His race started at 5am (eek)and he finished in about 7 hours. Absolutely crazy. He and his limited number of fellow runners are beasts. Not all finished the race, for good reason! From there the 23k started at 7am, the 15k at 8am, and the 6k at 9am. To give you a frame of mind, I finished the 15k in 2 hours and 20 minutes, about 40 minutes longer than my 15k time in Cuenca (which also has high elevation and lots of hills).

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What to expect

There are two major challenges in this race. One, the altitude. You start at 3,280 meters. Second, the first half of your route will be uphill, and the second half down (unless you’re doing the 42k, in which the first 10k is up, and the remainder fluctuates between uphill and downhill). While my race only went up to 3,640 meters, if you’re doing the 23k or 42k (which go all the way up the traditional ice man route), you’re going up to 4,500 meters. While my accumulated elevation was 412 meters, Eduardo’s was 1,890 meters. This is no easy feat. You may cry, but you will finish and survive.

The 15k went off at 8am. I started off with a great level of confidence. For me, so much of running is mental. It is about telling myself that I can do it, I can continue, and I will continue. I knew that if I got through the first 7k, I would have no trouble finishing, as I do really well running downhill. Given that I already live at a high altitude in Cuenca and my city is full of hills, I thought I was really prepared for the uphill portion. We had trained at Turi (the overlook point of the city that offers hundreds of steps to run up and down) and Cajas National Park (which is situated at a very high altitude with lots of hills). Despite the training, after 30 minutes or so, everyone was walking. I kept telling myself, come on girl! You can run this! But no. There are parts where you really do need to walk, and I accepted that, as will you.

Another challenge faced was the mud. It rains a lot in Ecuador, and the week prior to the race was no exception. The trail was so muddy, that for much of the race we all had to walk or take creative steps to stay safe. Even then, I found myself falling time after time. Even though I would get on my hands and go down sections crab style when needed, I still had some serious wipe outs. Three in fact. One on the bum. One on the hip. And one face first. All of these falls were in the second half of the race, running downhill. If you know me you know this comes as no surprise. Every one of my running leggings has a small hole in the knee from some fall or another. All I could do was laugh. What else is there to do? Even better was where the dirt got stuck in my body. As I came in along the finish line and took a few pictures with friends, one friend said hey what’s in your teeth? Yep, it was mud.

Another part of the race I loved was the sense of community. Due to the mud, there were some parts that were dangerous to trek solo. Runners patiently waited so that we could help each other go up small rock climbing portions one by one. We took each others hand and kept each other safe. That is totally awesome. Eduardo’s 42k had an even stronger level of solidarity as they trekked out when it was pitch black, and supported each other physically, mentally, and emotionally for the duration of the race.

I fell in love with this race. I’ve never been dirtier. I’ve never been so tired. I’ve never wiped out so many times. I’ve never felt so strong. This race pushed me to my limits, and I am so proud to call myself a Hielera.

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what i learned + what i wish i knew

If you’re looking to run the race next year, you should definitely keep some things in mind. The race is organized by NAFTA EC out of Riobamba, so be sure to check that page for registration updates. You should also be able to find information about the race on the Revista Aventura page.

  • If you think you’re training enough, you should probably train more. Start at least three months beforehand taking your training routine seriously. Long distance runs are important, but what will make the difference is repetition of stairs, sprints and hills as much as possible throughout the week.
  • Leg day at the gym. Given the uphill portion of the race, you are going to need to strengthen your leg muscles regularly. Whether doing a leg circuit at the gym or a variety of squats at home, definitely incorporate it into your routine.
  • Get the right shoes. One of the reasons I probably fell more than your average person is that I was wearing normal running shoes as opposed to trail shoes. I only had hiking boots which obviously can’t work, but I will be investing in more appropriate trail running shoes in the near future.
  • Train at high altitude. It was very clear who was coming from sea level to run the race. They had a really hard time between the difficulty of the race plus the added elevation factor. Get as high as you can beforehand.
  • Train on trails. You can find a challenge in city runs, but if you aren’t used to trail running like me, it is really important to learn how to run in the mud and rocks.
  • Get used to running with a camelback or water bottle. Ruta del Hielero is an eco-friendly race and does not serve water in cups or plastic bags. You’ll need to bring your own water and have something to refill along the way.
  • And of course, as always, take your nutrition seriously. Carbs, proteins, healthy fats, and hydration are important throughout your training and the weeks before the race. I made the mistake of not drinking enough during the race (since it was cold and rainy) and definitely paid for it later in the day.
  • The race will take place the second Sunday of March. Most races in Ecuador are on Sundays, which gives folks and opportunity to travel to the race site and rest the afternoon before. It is best to stay in the town of Riobamba and get a taxi or drive your personal car to Chimborazo the morning of the race. We usually take the bus from Cuenca which is about a 5-6 hour ride.

I am so happy to share my Ruta del Hielero experience, and would be happy to discuss the race further with any prospective runners or anyone that is curious! I highly recommend the race, or a trip to Chimborazo, to all!! My door is always open for any questions.

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

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