The end of my 2015 ultra running season was originally scheduled to happen in the Marin Headlands with The North Face 50-Mile Championships, as it did last year. The course’s extensive butter-smooth jeep roads and trails aren’t my top choice, but the event is excellently managed and it attracts the sport’s top talent.
But instead, I jumped on a last-minute opportunity to fly to Chile and race the Vulcano Ultra Trail 100k, offered to me by Merrell, the race sponsor. I didn’t know it at the time, but this race was much better suited for me — it’s an adventurous course with extensive technical terrain, slow running surfaces, and an even more aggressive vertical profile. Partially as a result, my season ended with another podium finish, third place in 13:24, rather than with an also-ran experience in California (full results).
My main ultrarunning focus this year had been Run Rabbit Run 100. Since my third-place performance there was more than satisfactory, I debated whether I should just end my season early and start cranking on the backlog of work projects that I’d put aside while running 20-25 hours per week all summer. Amanda told me to suck it up and finish out the season, and as I’ve learned to do, I listened.
After two big-volume weeks in late-October and early-November (100+ miles with 20k+ climbing per week), I decreased my mileage and refocused on my speed, which is a must for a peak performance at TNF. My final workouts included a 7-mile tempo at 5:58/mile pace and a 5 x 1-mile track workout (with 400m recovery jog) averaging 5:26, both run a mile above sea level. For more training details, find me on Strava.
Even though I was a few pounds lighter for RRR, I couldn’t have touched these splits then. In hindsight, I was not fresh and did not peak for mid-September. Consider that 15 days before RRR, I thru-hiked the Wind River Range High Route and then yo-yo’d back to my car (totals: 8 days, 200 miles with 110 miles off-trail, and 65k vertical feet of gain); and 10 days before RRR I scouted the course with a 6-hour, 38-mile outing. Even for an exceptionally fit 34-year-old endurance athlete, it takes more time for the legs to fully come around.
Once it was finally confirmed that I’d be racing in Chile instead of California, the importance of the race seemed to diminish. I became preoccupied with the logistics of getting there, and being there once I arrived. And with no first-hand knowledge of the course, no first-hand context to interpret what I had heard from Chilean ultra runners, and no familiarity with the competition, it was difficult to emotionally prepare for the race.
To help readers better follow the race report, I’ve created this course map. View it in a larger window.
Into the darkness
At RRR I was credited with running a “smart” race by starting conservatively and better maintaining my pace in the later miles. But I still thought I went out too hard, with a heart rate in the low- and mid-150’s for the first hour. The racing strategy of most ultra runners continues to mystify me: the race will be longer and harder than any individual training run, yet most start off at an effort that they cannot sustain for more than 30 minutes.
When the field of 150 runners was sent through the starting gates at midnight, I intentionally started off even slower than I had at RRR. My heart rate was low-150’s for the first 10 minutes, then mid-140’s until the top of the first climb, which I reached at 1:40. Beyond the first aid station just after the 2-hour mark, my HR remained consistently in the mid-130’s to the finish; overall, I averaged 132 bpm, which includes precipitous drops in HR for aid stations, shoe dumps, and course navigation.
A more consistent effort may lead to peak performance (at least I think so), but unfortunately it immediately takes me out of the race, since the leaders go out harder and never come back to me. After the start, I never again saw Joe Grant and Cristofer Clemente, who ran together for most of the race and finished 1-2. In the darkness, it was difficult to discern the number of other runners ahead who I could hunt down.
The first ten miles of the 100k course are its craziest. By the first aid station at the bottom of the first descent I had enough first-experience to interpret the adjectives that had been used to describe the course, like “sandy,” “technical,” and “hard.”
The first 3,000-foot climb and descent was consistently smothered in volcanic ash that had been deposited by Volcan Calbuco, which is located nearby and which erupted in April 2015. The beach sand-like ash saps push-off power and fills shoes during descents. There were no established trails; instead, we ran cross-country through ankle-grabbing brush, up a water-polished basalt slab gully, across hard 25-degree slopes covered in ball bearing-like sand, down a narrow creek bed filled with basketball-sized rocks and Jurassic Park-like leaves, and up and down Utah-like washes filled with sand, gravel, and boulders. This course would never be allowed in a US national park.
At the bottom of the first descent, I had so much sand in my Merrell Mix Master Move shoes that there was barely any more room for my feet. So I stopped and emptied them, the first of nine times. If there is a footwear system that would effectively keep out the sand, I wasn’t wearing it. At least I had brought my new Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles, however: they were really helpful when climbing loose, sandy slopes.
After the first aid, there was a welcome section of road-running. But too quickly the course left the road to follow a rabbit trail through a narrow strip of jungle sandwiched between the the road and Rio Petrohue. The routing seemed contrived, and I wondered what would have been so bad about following the road for another few kilometers to the base of the second climb. When I saw the river after the race, the rationale was more obvious, since many runners in the 100k and 73k would do this section with more daylight:
There are three major climbs on the course, with the second being the biggest: about 4,000 vertical feet over 15 miles. Halfway up, I was decidedly over the sand, which was costing me time (with regular shoe-dumps) and preventing me from opening my stride. But I tried not to fight it– it was not something I could control, and every racer was having to endure it.
Shortly before I reached Tesky, a ski area on the flanks of Vulcan Osorno, there was enough ambient light to turn off my Coast HL27 headlamp. It was a memorable daybreak: towering above me, the ice-capped summit of Osorno; below to the west, Lago Llanquihue, and further west the Pacific Ocean; to my north and south, an endless horizon of peaks and volcanos with immense vertical relief. There was not a cloud in the sky.
At the Tesky aid station, I learned that I was about 45 minutes back from the leaders. This confirmed how I felt: that I was in No Man’s Land, floating solo between the leaders way ahead of me and the next group of runners way behind me. I hadn’t seen anyone in nearly 15 miles. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would continue to run alone for another 35.
Leaving Tesky, I was happy to nearly be done with the second climb and was optimistic that the course would soon become less sandy, at least if pre-race rumors were accurate. It felt like the emotional halfway point, even though I was only 40 percent done with the race.
The course continued to climb beyond Tesky, then side-hilled for a full mile across loose sand and multiple ravines before finally beginning the descent. A few minutes after reaching a primitive farm road at the base of an off-trail descent down a sandy gully, I stopped again to empty my shoes, which I wouldn’t have to do for another 6 hours. I was thankful to have packed an extra pair of DeFeet Wooleator socks — my original pair, which date back to my Alaska-Yukon Expedition in 2010, was embedded with sand and had started to look like Swiss cheese.
Las Cascadas is the most accessible aid station on the course, making it the obvious location for drop bags and for dropping out. Reinvigorated by clean feet, fast farm roads, and the surprising discovery that I was in fourth place, I carried on.
The north side
From Las Cascadas, the course is a network of farm roads, farm tracks, open pastures, and cattle trails; in the few places where there is no obvious pathway, the course bushwhacks through light South American jungle. The footing is generally good and the slopes are relative mellow, making this a very run-able section for those not too beat up by the first 30 miles (50 km).
At the Hacienda aid station, I received the most definitive information yet about the whereabouts of the leaders. Joe and Cristofer had passed through nearly an hour earlier, but third place had only an 8-minute head-start.
Smelling blood in the water, I picked up my pace and became convinced that I’d have another podium finish. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter I lost the course in a jungle section and wasted 10 minutes trying to re-find it. When I reached the next aid station, Picada, I was encouraged to learn that I hadn’t lost much time, if any.
Prior to reaching the Rio Blanco valley at 10:30 AM, I had been mostly shielded from the cloudless sky and unseasonal heat by mild morning air, a fog bank in Las Cascadas, and by the thick jungle canopy. Beyond Picada, however, there was no protection from the sun or warming temperatures; it felt increasingly furnace-like.
For 5 miles the course gently climbed on a rough jeep road, and towards the top I finally caught a glimpse of the third-place runner, Sebastian Valen Millaneri. I tried to staulk undetected, but he seemed to quicken his pace so I suspect he must have seen me. Even so, by the top of the final climb, Cima Desolacion, I had pulled within 15 seconds and he was running scared.
From the pass, the finish feels closer than it really is: it’s nearly visible, but getting there involves a 3,000-foot descent and 10 miles of ankle-deep sand, with just one more aid station. And it was hot and exposed, and we’d already run 50+ miles. Exercising patience was still prudent, I thought.
Sebastian must have felt differently. He made the bold decision to bypass the Desolacion aid station, whereas I stopped for 15 seconds to top off my water bottle, and then he bombed the descent at a pace that I could not match. I reigned it back in and continued to run my race: either he was too strong today, or he would come back to me.
Just before the final aid station, the latter scenario proved true when I easily passed Sebastian, who looked overworked and overheated. As a final throat-slitting tactic, I entered the aid station quickly, frantically filled my bottle, and sprinted off. When I looked back just before I was out of view, I saw Sebastian shin-deep in the lake sucking down a Powerade. In the final 3.5 miles to the finish, I put 13 minutes on him.
The final miles were uneventful, and my goal was simply to keep it together in the deep sand and heat. When I hit the homestretch beach, I was greeted by a sight of the finish line, beating techno music, and a Spanish-speaking announcer who pronounced my last name better than most telemarketers.
I hit the tape in 13:24, 52 minutes behind Cristofer and Joe, almost all of which I ceded in the first 40k. It was a satisfactory end to my best ultra running season ever, and to my best year in the outdoors since 2010. For the next few weeks, my focus will be on rest and ice cream, but it’s my intention to keep up this momentum into 2016.