It is safe to say I knew what I was getting myself into. The week leading up to the race my stomach was so full of butterflies I didn’t even have an appetite. I knew I wanted to take on the challenge, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the monster uphill that awaited me.
If you know us (by us I mean my fiance Eduardo and me), you know that we love being outdoors. If there is a chance to travel or adventure to the mountains, we’re in. If there is a crazy hike, sign us up. When Eduardo saw that Ecuador’s international Petzl race had a 50k option, he was 99% sure he was in. When I saw the 10k and 20k options were sold out, I threw myself into supporting his training regimen and ensuring he was as prepared as he could be to take on his greatest challenge yet.
One week before the race we went to pick up his race packet in town, and it turned out that a Cuenca participant wasn’t going to make the 20k race. His spot was for sale, pending permission from the race organizers, Petzl Ecuador.
You see, I’ve run three half marathons at this point. I’ve run two trails races – one 10k and one 15k. While I knew I could physically run 20k, what I didn’t know was if I could I could make it up the 2,140m change in elevation. Keep in mind the most uphill I had done in a race was Hielero’s mere 490m. Four times the uphill? I wasn’t so sure. Thanks to Eduardo’s encouragement and the great sales skills of the gal on duty for the race packets, I decided to throw myself into the fire.
I was not as prepared as I like to be. While I had a great routine going at the gym with plenty of leg days, my endurance for long distance running was not what I wanted it to be.
Cue race weekend. We travelled from Cuenca to Ambato via bus (7 hours), to then take a local bus from Ambato to Banos (1 hour). Little did we know, there was a huge religious procession to honor the transfer of a beloved religious “Virgen de Banos,” where thousands of locals would walk from Ambato to Banos from 6pm to the middle of the night. The roads were to close! Thankfully, we caught a taxi just in time and made it into town before the roads shut down.
This year, Petzl Trail Plus (the official name of the race) hosted 5 race options: the “Vertical Kilometer” (a 5k race that treks up 1,000m), the 10k “de las Antenas,” the 20k “Trail de la Virgen,” the 50k “Casa de Arbol,” and the 80k “Trail del Volcan.” All of them are designed to challenge their participants.
My race set off at 4pm (in four rounds dividing up boys/girls and ages) and had a maximum run time of 6 hours. 19.8 kilometers, 2,140m change in elevation. Let’s do this. My ascents were divided into two: from kilometer 1-5 I would go up about 1,000 m, with a flat/downhill break to return to downtown Banos from kilometer 6-10, then to go up another 1,000+m between kilometer 11-15. Once I hit kilometer 15 I would be at the Casa de Arbol, which is a famous treehouse with a swing that overlooks the active Tungarhua volcano. What I also knew was that kilometer 16-20 was downhill. If I made it to Casa de Arbol, I knew I would make it. If I had to pull out of the race, my chance would be at the 10k marker when the race passed through downtown.
If you’re into sports or physical challenges, you know that the mental game is everything. Physically I didn’t feel 100%. With a thyroid autoimmune disorder and adrenal fatigue that won’t quit, my energies are rarely at 100%. The mental game was everything. I knew I was strong, capable, motivated, and proud of myself for putting the challenge at my feet.
To my surprise, I found myself smiling the majority of the race. My cheeks began to hurt. The first 2k had quite a bit of trail traffic with routes so narrow and tough to maneuver that runners were clumped together. At that point, the golden hour began to fall and the sun’s fire lit up the mountains so beautifully that I was squealing. I am certain that my fellow runners thought I was a little nuts (hey, aren’t we all?).
Once I reached 5k I knew I was in for physical relief. The downhill was coming. To be fair, calling this “trail running” is relative to each athlete. I am not at a point where I literally run up volcanoes. I rigorously hike, setting a rhythm to ensure a speedy ascent, but I, along with most trail runners, am not running the entire time. In fact, Eduardo’s new walking sticks saved my butt. I really don’t think I would have made it without them.
The joy. The pure joy that comes from a hard-earned accomplishment. I wasn’t close to done or “accomplishing” anything from the typical standard. But, deep inside myself I knew I was freaking doing this, and I wasn’t feeling terrible. It’s the whole journey versus end result mind game. I was on my own journey. I felt alone in the golden-green mountains of Ecuador and it was simply incredible. My power was greater than I knew, stronger than I had defined for myself. I was a warrior; I am a warrior.
To be fair, it wasn’t all fun and games. In my head, I thought the second hydration point was at 11.5k. After going back uphill for another one+ hour(s), I saw a sign for 12k. That was a brief moment of panic. In my head, I was 1.5k max from reaching the top point. Nope. I was in it for the long haul. I had passed the famous “La Virgen” statue with a sprint of stairs and was back in the forest of the mountain. At this point it had been dark for at least an hour. My headlamp showed me the way, yet only gave me a glimpse of the uphills that stood ahead. I promised myself to keep it section by section. I saw a reflector in the distance, I would make it there. Another reflector came into sight even higher; I would make it there, too.
I have to give props to the race organizers, Petzl Ecuador. Aside from their hospitality and top-notch organizational efforts, they had ensured that the routes were ready for the 1,100 runners in town to take them on. Not once did I feel lost or unsafe. When you throw yourself into the middle of a mountain, at night, that is really, really important. Thank you for making this experience one to remember.
In time, I made it to Casa de Arbol. I’ve been to this iconic site several times, enjoying the swings that go out over a cliff (ha, quite literally!) with a view of the Tungarahua volcano. This time, I was there in the pitch black. I knew I was close when I saw the volcano’s outline painted in the darkest of blue skies. I tried to capture it with photo/video, but this was something that only the eye had the pleasure of experiencing. These 5 kilometers were the hardest I’ve experienced in life yet. A simple yet tough 5k for your avid hiker, but trying to speed through that mid-race was a challenge for the books. Meanwhile I was also thinking about Eduardo, who would be tackling the same uphill feat many hours later, after running 40 kilometers. Oh man. I knew I could do it, and that he could too. I’m so, so happy to report that we both did.
Eduardo’s experience, along with his fellow 50k and 80k runners was a world of its own. Known as Ecuador’s hardest trail race, Eduardo would face the challenge of a 50 kilometer trek starting at 1am with 4,930m of uphill advances spread throughout six mountains. I took him to the start line then head back to bed, lying awake wishing I could see how he was doing. In the middle of the night. In the mountains. Taking on his biggest challenge yet. (His second biggest challenge was the Chimborazo volcano 40k Ruta del Hielero trail race, which he considers a walk in the park now comparing its drastically lower change in elevation.)
I’m ecstatic to share that we both made it to the finish line. I ran down the final curvy roads with a passion for life. When I saw the town’s old stone roads start to pass under my feet, I knew I had made it. I had freaking done it. 200m from the finish line, I saw my love Eduardo standing on the curb cheering me on. I had never been so happy to see him (until 15 hours later when I saw him alive coming towards his finish line). I screamed “mi vidaaaaa….” (a term of endearment translating to my life), “I did it!!!!”
While finishing the race on my own was a huge accomplishment that filled me up emotionally and spiritually, being able to share this experience with Eduardo was something so intimate and special. I was there for him, and he was there for me — as any relationship should be. I am so grateful that he encouraged me to take the risk. He knew better than I that I was capable of this. Sometimes in life we need that push to lead us to something greater. So, this one’s for you, vida. My life’s great love, my hero, my partner in adventures and mundanity alike. I love you till the end of this earth and beyond.
For those of you still reading this, I hope you reach for that next goal — failure or success. At least you’ll know that you tried. For those of you into running, I hope you get into the mountains asap. That stuff his hard as crap, but its power to move you, challenge you, and in doing so, change you, is unreal.
Thank you PETZL Trail Plus, you’ve left your mark on us, forever.