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The Best Trail Race in Ecuador

Another day in Ecuador, another volcano to tackle! Just kidding, not every day is an uphill climb. If you follow the blog, however, I’m sure you’ve noticed that we are more mountain than beach folk.

This year I could not pass up the opportunity to run one of Ecuador’s most exciting trail races: La Ruta del Hielero (“The Route of the Ice Merchant”) organized by Naftaec. This was our third time going to the race (check out my 2017 experience) at the Chimborazo volcano, which just happens to be the highest volcano in the world when you measure from the Earth’s core. The Hielero race uses “mas cerca al sol” (“closer to the sun”) as a marketing catch phrase and they are not kidding!

Though you’re at the Chimborazo volcano, you can only see it on clear days. Regardless, the views are stunning!

One of the things that attracts me to the race the most is that it is tied to the history of the land. Being an ice merchant at the Chimborazo volcano was a prominent profession for centuries. Before the whole refrigerator thing came around, men from the rural towns surrounding the volcano would hike up Chimborazo on a daily basis with their mules to bring back fresh ice blocks to sell in town.

I wish I could put into words how astonishing this is to me in terms of physical capacity to trek up and down every day. See it for yourself; the documentary El Ultimo Hielero (“The Last Ice Merchant”). This mini documentary made with kickstarter tells the beautiful story of 71 year old Baltazar Ushca, who continues to make the hike every Thursday and Friday and brings back fresh ice to sell in the city of Riobamba. Baltazar reaches the snow caps of the volcano at 4,500+m elevation, chips away fresh blocks of ice, ties those blocks to the backs of mules with straw, and sells them in town, making a mere $25 per week for his efforts.

The Chimborazo volcano will take your breath away!

Baltazar is a symbol of Ecuadorian tradition which has been transformed due to more diverse and lucrative job opportunities and technology innovation (manufactured as opposed to fresh ice). If you go to the Mercado La Merced in Riobamba you can buy a juice made with this ice for $1.50 and taste the difference. If you see Dona Rosita, tell her we say hello.

The Ruta del Hielero race honors Baltazar and his prior companions by guiding hundreds of trail runners along their route. 2019 was the fourth annual year of the race, and we definitely witnessed some developments. We went in 2016 where Eduardo ran the 25k, then in 2017 where Eduardo ran 40k and I ran 15k, and unfortunately we had to miss 2018.

This year the Ruta del Hielero offered four distances: 10k, 25k, 40k, and 70k. Only the 25k+ distances run the actual route of the hielero and reach the snow caps. For anyone looking for more info on what the routes are like, you can access this year’s Ruta del Hielero 2019 guide here. Though keep in mind, next year’s distances and routes may very well change.

I decided to run the 10k race this year, knowing that 25k wasn’t in the cards. With my journey to heal from Hashimoto’s and adrenal fatigue, I couldn’t fathom putting in the training that such a race requires. Two years ago in the 15k race I was very well prepared, and while it was challenging, I was very proud of my outcome physically and competitively. Wow, I was not expecting the 10k to be as hard as it was! I went in mentally prepared to go uphill for the first 6k and then downhill for the remaining 4k, but this uphill was impossible to run for any average runner (above average runners, you can speak for yourselves!). This year it hadn’t rained all week, so it was a mix of dirt and grass terrain. Years prior the trails were pure mud goodness, which has an element of fun to it, but also encourages epic wipeouts!

The organizers NAFTEC are making this year’s medal a puzzle piece. To get the other half you have to run the organizer’s other leading trail race at the Quilotoa crater lake.

I ran the Hielero 10k in 1 hour 46 minutes with an elevation peak of 3,665m and 452m change in altitude. I think I could do better next time, but I’m proud of the outcome (I run a city 10k in Cuenca’s mildly hilly and 2,800m altitude in just about an hour).

For anyone considering running this race, I highly recommend it!! It is challenging but truly amazing to be a part of. It is amazing to see the running culture come together and honor historical traditions of the region. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the Chimborazo Volcano peak out from its clouds (despite its grand size, it doesn’t make an appearance every day).
For those of you looking to run the longer distances, more power to ya! I would recommend a few things Take your training seriously and be sure to do plenty of altitude training with trails, hills, and stairs whenever possible. Get familiar with how your body works at high elevation and with potential chilly and rainy conditions. If you’re in the Cuenca area, Cajas National Park is your best friend! Interested in more hikes in Ecuador? El Altar was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences!

Over the finish line exhausted but happy!
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