Of all the races I have lumbered round, since I started fellrunning at the age of 12, the ones that got me the giddiest were the ones that I might not finish, where there was a distinct possibility of not getting round!
The El Misti Sky Race (MSR) was a very good example.
14 years ago, I first arrived in Peru. My preparation/research had been haphazard at best. I had left a good job, sold all my worldly belongings, done a half-assed teacher training course and flown halfway around the planet, on the back of reading/seeing the epic Joes Simpson classic “Touching the Void”.
I had quite mistakenly imagined that I would land in a picturesque place surrounded by mountains, llamas and people playing panpipes. Lima is not that place! No mountains, llamas nor Pan’s People to be seen…
After 2 months volunteering in an Orphanage in Lima, I switched to my original project in the Amazon. If you ever visit Peru you will be told (many times) that Peru has three regions: the coast, the highlands and the jungle (costa, sierra y selva). Having seen the costa and the selva, there was still something missing for me, the mountains of the sierra. This was rectified with a trip to the beautiful city of Arequipa in July 2004. We flew down from Lima on a pre-dawn flight for a whistle-stop tour of bars and a football match, two football matches in fact. La Copa de America:
- Chile Vs. Paraguay. A bit like watching a heated and quite dirty Sunday league match.
- Brazil Vs. Costa Rica. One-way traffic! A case of the underdogs (not Brazil) hoping, wishing and praying for a final whistle to blow.
I don’t remember much else about the weekend apart from a strikingly symmetrical volcano in the distance called “El Misti”. In my mind I made a promise to one day come back and climb it, yeah right!
(We had flown down with an airline called “Aero Continente”, who were grounded for drug trafficking the same weekend, so when we went to check-in we were told that Aero Continente no longer existed, our flight was their last, which necessitated a 16 hour bus ride back ‘oop north back to Lima).
Fast forward to August 2018.
After a disappointing previous year (and the year before that) of races, I had only competed twice. A local 35km mountain race (mid-field obscurity) and the Lima Marathon (39th overall and 3rd V45, in 2:53). A positive run, followed immediately by an injury-respiratory illness-injury-illness cycle. I found a brilliant Physiotherapist here, a wonderful Dutch lady called Maro. For most of my running career, I shunned Physios, foolishly thinking that a week off with copious Ibuprofen would fix anything/everything. It doesn’t work these days!
Maro is the Magician that keeps the wheels on this old Ford Capri turning, (perhaps I am flattering myself there, more like a battered Fiesta, scraping through each MOT).
2018 was a year with fewer miles, less injuries and more treatments. At least I was running. As for the respiratory illness, I just filled my lungs with as much Yorkshire air as I could on a trip back home and hoped for the best!
There was an early-bird offer for the MISTI SKY RACE until August the 1st, so I paid my money and made a (loose) plan.
From Monday to Friday it is tricky to get into the hills. The School Run has become my staple diet. A 6-mile road run, interspersed with 10 million road crossings and the entire 11 million populace of Lima all battling against me in the opposite direction. With a road crossing every 100 metres, it is a stop-start affair. In essence, worthless training for El Misti.
So, I became a once-a-weekend-warrior. Getting up at 4am to trudge the local dusty hills, avoiding the wild dogs. I can get about 6000ft of climbing in on a 20-mile route on a “technical” ground, (technical meaning tricky for my uncoordinated size 13s, an infinite amount of boulders or other tripping-up obstacles that would put me flat on my face, if I averted my eyes from the ground for a second). It was climbing-in-my-legs, time-on-my-feet and miles-in-the-bank, but with the highest peak being about 1300m, for a race that would reach 5825m, I was basically training at sea level! Not worthless, but of little specific value. Would it help?
A fortnight before the race, I travelled north to see my mate Charlie, who lives up in the Andes. An 8 hour overnight bus dumped me in Yungay at dawn and Charlie beasted me over part of his own course (the LMT) on a day that could be classed as typical Lake District autumnal weather, namely cold, windy and peeing it down! After 7 hours we both agreed that it wasn’t really much fun anymore and bailed before we both succumbed to hypothermia. We got as high as 4780m and I slept a night at altitude. Would it be enough or was I kidding myself?
In August I had travelled back to Blighty for my annual jollies in Yorkshire/Cumbria and got stocked up on some new kit, specifically for MSR (Misti Sky Race).
A trip to Alpkit HQ was in order.
The new ARTLU bag came out just at the right time for me. For a shell, I used the ARRO windjacket and the PARRALAX overtrousers.
I also treated myself to a HEIKO jacket (and what a beaut bit of kit it is too!)
All was duly pushed to destruction point in training when I got back to Peru, it all passed the test. The Artlu felt like it had been tailor made for this mission!
(I also bought some walking poles, for my middle-age knackered knees/back combo and borrowed some desert gaiters, which I was told were essential).
The weeks were ticked off the calendar at an alarming rate of knots. The final week raced by and suddenly it was the day before the race, on a day when there was no electric/water in the house and finishing work at 9:30pm, a night when of course my neighbours would have an all-night party (like every weekend), so after 2 hours tossing and turning, I took a taxi to the airport and hoped for the best! (A common local tactic I use).
Arequipa is a 90 minute flight over some amazing mountainous scenery, not the actual Andes, but peaks as far as the eye could see, which all got loftier and more volcano-like as we got nearer to our destination. I was hoping for some aerial reconnaissance Intel of El Misti, but it didn’t come into view until we touched down and swung round on the runway. A HUGE peak to the north, suddenly blocking out the sunlight. A big ask.
I spent the morning faffing around in the city looking for a gas canister, procuring as many bananas and as much water as I could carry, then whiling away hours in an awesome coffee museum/café, before going for the 12:30pm bus, which left nearer to 2pm. Peru time!
The race itself was split into three distances: 10km, 26km and 42km. The 26km and 42km races both began at Aguadas Blancas, a reservoir (that cost a fortune to build and never worked), 3 hours away on the other side of the mountains. Mainly dirt/dust track, where we got properly stuck, until a passing 4x4 nudged us back on our way. Not a single sign of life bar the odd Guanaco (a small llama). We got to our Spartan barracks an hour before dusk and hurriedly prepared kit, before the dark and instant, ensuing cold arrived. I was filling myself with as much coca tea as I could keep down. This bitter substance apparently helps with the altitude (although not scientifically proven). Not to be confused with cocaine, which takes a bit more processing and costs a bit more than these diddy teabags. (The captain of the national football team, Paolo Guerrera, became embroiled in a positive drugs test scandal, following a pot of coca tea, but that is another story!)
It was interesting to see other people’s pre-race approaches. I have my own routine which I can do blindfold. All I had to do was wake up, get changed and go. One bloke stripped off to his Y-fronts and covered himself in Diclofenac cream! (A type of pain-killer/anti-inflammatory. Did he know something?) By 7pm it was pitch black, freezing cold and we were all huddled down. I had heard about the cold, so I had a decent sleeping bag and old-school-karrimat. It wasn’t a time/place to be blowing up an inflatable mattress.
As the last headtorch eventually went out, there was the unnerving sound of a man seemingly talking in tongues, his monologue interspersed frequently with the word “Señor”, this went on for about 30 minutes and tired as I was, I thought it was bad form to tell a man saying his prayers to pipe down.
As I was just about to drift into the land of nod, I suddenly, urgently needed the toilet again, too much coca tea. A brilliant moon and a million stars filled the night sky. It was as cold as it was remote as it was stunningly spectacular. A million miles away from Lima.
I think I did manage about 2 hours shuteye before somebody burst in saying “Get up, its 2:30am!”
Some rushed porridge, more coca tea, drop the drop-bag off and deliberating whether to start cold (and carry less kit later on in the heat of the day) or start comfortably warm (and carry more kit when the sun came up). I opted for the first option and jogged around to keep semi-warm. The start was put back 15 minutes (for late arrivals) but at 3:45am, we were called in to a line.
I had heard stories of “que frio”, “un frio helado” and “un frio de miercoles”, all exclamations of how cold it was at Aguada Blanca and with a 3:45am start it was going to be parky, but once on the move we would warm up surely.
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-0 and we were OFF!