Pushing Through The Paine (PIM 63k Race Report) + Post-Race Patagonian Adventures

Part I - Pushing Through the Paine

For a moment, I forget where I am.  All focus is on the task at hand: monitoring my breathing, scanning the gravel road below to quickly determine the best footstrike, slicing as efficiently as possible through the northerly headwind.  This is a race, and I am hurting with yet 20 miles to run—the price for an aggressive early pace.  Am I taking in enough calories?  Fluids?  What is my cushion on record pace?  Will I be able to hold on?  How much time can I afford to give up on the long climb to come?  My mind bounces rapidly between these things, calculating splits and average pace per mile.

Then I look up, and the thoughts melt away; all of them.  My body is still moving—still running—but my mind is quiet, silenced in awe of the natural beauty in front of me.  The horizon is dominated by the mountains of Chilean Patagonia, in particular the Paine Massif of Torres del Paine National Park, impossibly close.  From this vantage, south of the range along Lago Pehoé, the Cuernos (horns) del Paine impose front and center.  These mountains of granite are lined with snow and capped by a much darker sedimentary layer of rock on the upper thousand feet or so.  The highest reaches of the range top out at over 9,000 feet.  From my position just above sea level, this creates a vertical rise of surreal quality when compared to my mountain experiences in the U.S.  Couple this with the substantial bodies of water on all sides, and I am in a dreamscape.
Los Cuernos
This is a special place.  I regroup, try to forget about the mid-race minutiae, and appreciate the beauty around me.  I take it in, draw inspiration from it.  That is not to say I’m not still in pain.  I am.  But I try to let that pain and the intensity of racing amplify my appreciation of my natural surroundings.  The lens through which I see the mountains in this moment is different than if I was on a leisurely hike.  There is a poignancy that makes it all more salient, easier to recall in my mind’s eye weeks later.

With this renewed vision for my race experience, I keep pushing.  I came to the Patagonian International Marathon (PIM) with a singular goal in mind: to break South African Ryan Sandes’ course record for the 63 kilometer ultra marathon race.  Sandes set this mark in the 2013 edition with a winning time of 4:24:28 (6:45 per mile).  The race features close to 5,000 feet of vertical gain, and with the uneven gravel road surface, I am finding it tougher than anticipated.  I try not to think too much about the more challenging back half of the course.  Instead, I begin to notice what is going on around me. 

A heard of horses—not wild horses, but seemingly so due to the raw landscape and the lack of fences—trot up to the road to watch me pass.  I hope that they will run alongside me, but instead they simply watch me go by before turning around and galloping away.  Soon after, a large guanaco, the parent species of the domesticated llama, takes notice of my approach before running ahead to cross the road in front of me.  Several miles later, I come around a corner and spook a baby guanaco, which shoots up and across a steep side slope with incredible speed.  I follow yet another bend in the road to find a small lake of a much darker blue than the aquamarine of Lago Pehoé.  I skirt its pebbled beach and make my way up a short but steep climb, remarkably entirely sheltered from the strong winds that have persisted most of the day. 
A Guanaco perched on a rock above the road. 
Soon I approach the 21 kilometer race staging area, where around five hundred competitors are getting ready to run.  (The 63k, 42k, and 21k races all finish at the same location, so the two shorter races start along the route of the 63k.  The 10k starting location is on a different road, but it merges and finishes with the 63k route as well.)  I’ve been running alone and in silence for so long that I can’t help but experience a shot of adrenaline as I climb by this group of nearly 500 runners from around the world (31 countries in all).  My pace quickens for a mile, but the adrenaline fades while the climbs keep coming. 

Finally, near mile 32 I reach the course’s apex.  I can see the finish line festival a thousand feet below in the lawn of Hotel Las Torres, but I have seven more miles to get there.  My legs are shot, but I am running downhill, so little effort is required.  Even still, my aching quads prevent me from making as much use of gravity as I would like.  All I can manage is a few miles in the 6:30s before the descent is complete and I am able to stop at an aid station.

“Fruta? Agua?” the volunteer asks.  “Sí, sí” is my weary but emphatic response.  As I take down half a banana and some water, I take a look at my time and the distance to go.  I should have the record in hand.  But as I begin another three hundred foot climb, my hamstrings begin to cramp, and I wonder if it will slip through my fingers.  The last four miles I have to stop to power hike anything steeper than five percent grade.  I am moving in slow motion through a sea of 10k runners, hoping that I can manage this cramping issue just a little longer.

Mercifully, the last two miles follow a gradual descent.  I put together a final mile of 6:45 to claim the victory and the course record, breaking Sandes’ mark by just over five minutes.  My final time for the 63 kilometers is 4:19:17 (6:37 per mile), including 4,529 feet of vertical gain according to my Suunto GPS watch.  I spend the next twenty minutes in a blend of agony and relief, mostly lying on the ground, exchanging the occasional congratulations—felicitaciones—with finishers of the 10k.  Eventually I recover enough to join the forty-lamb roast that is taking place over a nearby open fire.  Another uniquely Patagonian experience.

The food nourishes me back to coherence, and I gradually make my way to the bar at the hotel.  Here I share liberally in both Austral lager and racing war stories with my new friends and fellow runners from Chile, Brazil, Australia, Italy, Germany, Canada, France, etc.  My legs ache, and I am extremely tired.  If I was at home or pretty much anywhere else, I would prioritize sleep and recovery.  But I’m in Patagonia, and more adventures await...
Comically large winner's medal

Part II - Post-Race Adventures

Mirador las Torres

The hike to Mirador las Torres—the viewing point of the massive granite spires which give Torres del Paine National Park its name—was to begin around 9 a.m.  This being my fifth day in Chile and the day after my race, I slept in until 8:50.  I was banking on what some fellow runners and I were calling “Chilean time.”  True to form, I had ample time to eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant and to repack my bags before we took off, despite my intentionally late start.  I started the trek with a group of four other runner-journalists from Canada, Italy, South Africa, and Australia.  Fellow Americans Yassine Diboun and Willie McBride had yet to arrive from their hotel, but I assumed I would see them up at the Mirador.

The hike was relaxed.  We were lucky, as the sky was cloudless, the air crisp and refreshing.  Though we gained a few thousand feet over several miles, we eased our way to the Mirador gradually.  Along the way, I met several other people who had also run one of the weekend’s races.  Late September in Patagonia is off-season, as the southern hemisphere is just coming out of winter.  Thus, it seemed almost everyone in the park was a runner.

The trail to the Mirador terminates at a small lake beneath the towers, which rise several thousand feet from the lake’s surface.  Hikers snapped photos and selfies giddily while several massive condors circled far overhead.  After a short lunch break, our group started down one by one.  I paused to take a few moments of appreciation in solitude before beginning my descent, a ways behind my group.  By chance, I caught sight of Mauricio, a Chilean runner whom I had met in the previous days.  He was still ascending, but about to head off trail.  When I asked where he was going, he pointed up a steep snow-covered scree slope to a group of six.  The group was led by PIM race director Stjepan Pavicic and included my friends Yassine and Willie.  I considered for a moment, weighing the cost/benefit of joining them on dead legs.  “Benefit” won the day.  Up I went.

Stjepan lives in Patagonia, so these are his home mountains.  Having him as a guide to lead us off trail was a boon.  As we moved higher, the snow became deep and packed enough that we no longer had to worry about punching through the crusted surface—sometimes a dicey prospect with a mess of jagged rocks waiting underneath.  We ascended maybe a thousand vertical feet above the lake I had just left, ultimately finding a massive boulder that suited well for a lunch break (second lunch for me). 

We were at the base of the Torres, much closer than the viewpoint I had already visited.  The imposing spires were especially surreal from this close, our moods obvious from our oversized, stupefied smiles.  But the fun was just beginning, as we now had the opportunity to descend the snow bank we climbed.  We bootskiied and ran down the narrow valley, carving ‘s’ shapes like skiers, whooping out of sheer joy, tired quads burning from more eccentric loading, but not caring at all. 

Once we were back on the trail, our group ran and quickly hiked the rest of the descent to Hotel Las Torres.  Daylight was fading, and a few members of our group were catching busses back to Puerto Natales to begin their trip home.  But not Yassine, Willie, and I.  On the hike, we had hatched a plan to head to one of the park’s refugios for a couple nights: Refugio Los Cuernos, ideally positioned in the middle of the ‘W’ trekking route.  Our friend Anne-Marie, an American journalist who has lived in France for the last 28 years, would join us.  We spent a relaxed evening at the Hotel Las Torres before beginning our next adventure the following morning.

Fastpacking the ‘W’

One of the two major trekking routes in Torres del Paine is known as the ‘W’ due to its shape—essentially a horizontal trail running east-west across the south end of the park, with three fingers heading north.  The other prominent route is known as the ‘O’.  It consists of a full circumnavigation of the Paine massif—the mountain range contained within the park—covering all of the ‘W’ route but for the middle leg and linking the ends across the north end of the park.  Yassine and Willie initially planned to hike the ‘O,’ but it was not passable due to early season snow conditions.  Thus our decision to tackle some of the W together.

Our trek to Refugio Los Cuernos was thankfully relaxed after an unplanned seven hours in the mountains the day before.  We got a late start, took extra time to appreciate the beautiful views on the 11km trek, and arrived at the refugio a bit before dinner.  We decided to splurge on small cabins instead of the cheaper dorm rooms.  The upgrade also afforded access to a wood-fired hot tub.  Unfortunately, it was too hot most of the times that we wanted to use it (temperature regulation apparently being more difficult to accomplish with a wood stove than with a thermostat dial).  Yassine did manage to sneak a soak our last morning at the refugio.

The first evening in Los Cuernos, we enjoyed a pre-dinner bottle of wine in the small common room.  I tinkered on a guitar that was hanging on the wall while Yassine and Willie looked over our map in anticipation of the next day.  Since we were staying at Los Cuernos a second night, we could leave our large backpacks behind and travel light.  Traveling with only a light pack with minimal water and food, the plan was to cover at least enough ground to get to Refugio Lago Grey at the northwest tip of the ‘W.’  We retired early that evening, still recovering from our race efforts.  I knew that traveling an ultra marathon distance the next day would be a bit challenging on race-tired legs, but the prospect of missing out on an epic fastpacking adventure seemed worse.

After an early breakfast the next morning, we took to the trail, splitting running and hiking in a roughly 50/50 ratio.  We traveled quickly, but not with excess haste.  We made sure to take enough time for reflection on the park’s natural beauty, a few photos and videos, and the occasional beverage or snack at a refugio.  The refugios are well positioned as stopping points along the route.  They provide an excellent lodging and food option that make trekking in Torres del Paine luxuriously simple.

It was a wonderful thing to share the trail with Yassine and Willie.  I had known both runners casually before coming to Patagonia, but this opportunity allowed me to get to know them both much better.  Fastpacking the ‘W,’ we were all in our element.  We swapped stories, shared for the landscape, and talked about our struggles and triumphs in running and life.  There is no substitute for the camaraderie of shared miles on a trail.  The more miles shared, the closer the runners become—whether many short runs that teammates and training partners log together or bigger all-day efforts like this one.

By mid-day we were approaching Refugio Grey.  For miles as we headed north, the long Lago Grey that is the refugio’s namesake came in and out of view on our left.  The lake was flecked with dots of white: chunks of glacier broken from Glacier Grey and gradually floating to the lake’s southern end.  Finally, we crested a ridge and Glacier Grey itself came into view.  Glaciers are an increasingly rare sight, and the size of this one made it even more impressive.  Where water turned to ice, the glacier abutted a crescent-shaped island and extended north out of view.  We didn’t have time on this trip, but one can rent kayaks from Refugio Grey and paddle out to the edge of the glacier.
Lago Grey
After a relaxing lunch at Refugio Grey, we began retracing our steps, often stopping to chat with hikers passing the other way.  As we ultimately neared our lodgings, we decided we needed to head up at least a portion of the middle leg of the ‘W.’  Unlike the leg to Refugio Grey, this leg climbs quite a bit in the first few miles.  We gained well over a thousand feet as we ascended a ridgeline to the east of the twin Cuernos peaks.  Eventually, the backside of Las Torres came into view.  We climbed high enough to appreciate some incredible views of these peaks at sunset, but I can’t help but wonder what the last few miles of that leg of the ‘W’ look like.  Terminating at Refugio Britanico, its isolation and position deep in the Paine massif must make for an incredible setting.

Running out of daylight, our ragged crew arrived back at Refugio Los Cuernos well into the dinner hour.  We were nicknamed the Three Musketeers by Anne-Marie, who had spent a relaxed day hiking and writing.  Naturally, I was dubbed D’Artagnan, due to my handlebar mustache.  Having covered 35.5 miles with 7,000 feet of elevation gain, we were ravenous.  We devoured our dinners, and Willie and I indulged in quite a few beers and a bottle of wine.  We eventually made our way up to Anne-Marie’s and my cabin for a nightcap and to talk about the day’s adventures.  Anne-Marie, in true journalistic form, pried beyond the surface, asking us all why we run trails and ultra marathons.

Wood-fired hot tub at the refugio.
In the common room at the refugio. Photo: Anne-Marie Dunhill
I spoke about how I’m drawn to the simplicity of running, especially on the trails, in perhaps its most natural form.  In a complicated world, it is honest and true.  There are no shortcuts, no unearned victories (whether mental or physical).  Willie talked about how cathartic running can be in dealing with a world that is so often filled with pain and prejudice.  Exhausted, I passed out before I heard Yassine’s answer, though I knew from our time on the trails together that ultra running was instrumental to Yassine overcoming addiction issues.  (Fortunately, Anne-Marie chronicled the evening in a piece, here.)

The four of us had flights back to our homes on different days, so the next morning it was only me and Yassine who left.  After the short hike back to Hotel Las Torres, we took busses to Puerto Natales, and I traveled on to Punta Arenas by myself.  I would stay the night there before flying back to the U.S. the next day via Santiago. 

Reflecting on the trip, there are so many reasons that the experience was a great one.  The ultra community is a special group, but this trip was different than most others I’ve taken.  Something about the remoteness of the place and the absolutely stunning scenery was surely part of it.  People came from all over the world to this famous region in order to race, combining the things we love: travel, adventure, running.  We were like kids at the coolest summer camp imaginable, giddy just to be there.

In Patagonia, I made many great connections with runners from all over the world.  In addition to the standing invitation to visit Willie and Yassine in Portland, I have invitations to visit new friends abroad as well.  And as fate and luck would have it, I have already reunited with our fourth trekking partner, Anne-Marie, at her home in France.  I raced Les Templiers, a 73 kilometer event in south-central France, a month after the Patagonian International Marathon.  Staying in France for a week after the race, my girlfriend and I visited Anne-Marie in her tiny village of Bournos, near Pau for several nights.  She graciously hosted us in the old farmhouse she is renovating, sharing her home, community, and friends with us, and even some of her precious stores of homemade foie gras and duck confit.  Only in this wonderful community of runners would such a wild conclusion be possible.  I am grateful to count myself part of the group.