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- What? Ultra-X Mexico
- When? November 4-8, 2019
- How far? 160 miles total over 5 stages
- Where? Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico
- Website: https://ultra-x.co/
I pulled a book out from the shelf. It was heavier than it looked; perhaps the wealth of wisdom contained within had gravity all of its own. I brushed some dust aside with my thumb and squinted to read the title across the top. ‘Faster Road Racing’. I had sworn to never again worship at the dark altar of Uncle Pete, but now I felt I had no choice. Having signed up for a 5-day stage race in the high Sierras of Mexico - to run with the legendary Rarámura tribes – I hadn’t the luxury of choosing where I drew on power.
I flicked through it, ancient and forgotten words flashing past in the torrent of pages. Nutrition. Tapering for performance. I went deeper. Training plans. 10K. Excellent.
This would provide a base from which to build. To prepare for the wilderness, however, there was only one man to whom I could turn. I felt a twinge in the old scar streaking across my elbow. chrispyb
. He was a dangerous man to turn to for council, but his shit-eating wildman experience would be invaluable. He showed me terrible things on a Presi traverse
in New Hampshire, a miserable bushwacking expedition on some nasty old trails
, and actually a surprisingly nice fall foliage-run
I also did a trail 50K
tune-up, which I blew up epically in. Up until that point, my mother had been positive to my grand ambitions of running in Mexico. After seeing me laid out at the finish line, she wasn’t so much, anymore. ‘Don’t you have to do 5 of those in a row’, she asked. I chuckled to myself; my sweet naïve mother. Any one stage in Mexico would be far worse than what I just did.
I caught a 7AM flight out of Boston on Saturday morning, hauling my insanely heavy suitcase. The logistics of a 5-day, self-sufficient stage race was challenging to me. I had a 12kg weight limit on my drop bag, so things would need to be planned out carefully. Naturally, they were not. I had found a brand of emergency ration bars that I could stomach, and at 3800kcals a pop, they would be instrumental for actually getting enough nutrition in for all 5 days in the wilderness. I also brought the tried and true gels and trail mix for the actual running.
Arriving at the airport, I found my suitcase was solidly overweight, and had to stuff the brick-like ration bars into my carry-on. As I did that in a panic, my carefully composed suitcase was now a perfect rendition of my general fitness and level of preparedness. It was an awful mess.
I landed in Chihuahua, Mexico, late at night and caught an Uber to the race hotel. There, I roomed with an awesome Polish dude, Andrzej, and got some solid sleep before the 9AM pre-race briefing. Following this, our drop bags were weighed, and we boarded the buses that would take us to the city of Creel, at the mouth of Barrancas del Cobre – the Copper Canyons. I couldn’t see them yet, but I felt them looming. Somewhere, in the great expanse.
We had a great dinner, and I met a lot of my fellow runners. Many of them have since become my friends. Returning to camp, I saw the Rarámuri for the first time. Immensely stoic, standing around a fireplace wearing puffy jackets, loin cloth-looking shorts, and their famous sandals, which they were barefoot in despite the cold. As a curtain of mist rolled in from the lake, I snuck into my tent, crawled under my blanket, and hugged my drop bag for comfort. Sleep took me.
Waking up, I lazily dug my face deeper into my drop bag. It felt so warm and comforting. ‘What a good purchase’, I thought to myself, pleased. Then it moved. It was no longer my drop bag, but a member of the Rarámuri tribe, the legendary Miguel Luna, which – having arrived in the middle of the night – had jumped into the first available tent to sleep. He was flat on his back, eyes open, breathing slowly. I pulled my trembling gringo hands away from him and wiped some drool from my chin. ‘S-sorry’, I stammered. He said nothing, quickly got up, collected his things, and disappeared out into the dark.
Well, shit. I prepped my running vest, got my poles out, and shuffled over to the start. The mist was thick in the air, and the runners around me appeared to be little more than ghostly shapes in the grey.
The start went off, and my journey began. We were still quite far from the canyons, and the first stage would take us through outlying towns and villages on the way towards them. The scenery was beautiful already here, and I couldn’t wait to see more of it.
During one such contemplation on the beauty of my surroundings, having emerged from a rocky trail unto a nice gravel road, I faceplanted and landed straight on my hand. Looking back across my flailing legs to see what had tripped me, I found nothing was there. I stared at my now balloon-sized hand in disbelief. Did I just break my hand walking down an actual road? I almost laughed at the absurdity of me being in a race like this. My new balloon animal-companion made crawling under the many barbed-wire fences an utter joy.
Towards the end of the race, my hand was hurting bad, and I felt exhausted – likely due to the race starting near 2800m above sea level. I had taken it very easy, knowing that there were 4 more days to go, but somehow that had made little difference.
I crossed the finish line to the cheers of the lovely crew and numerous faster runners already in camp, and I gave a little balloon-wave. Deep down, however, I feared this might have been a bad idea. 48.6km | 1371m up | 1080m down |7:40:08
Fortunately, the excellent in-camp doctors told me my hand was not broken nor sprained, just severely bruised. A few painkillers took care of that, and off I went again. This leg of the race provided us with the first glimpses of the Barrancas, and they were glorious
Overwhelmed by the awesome beauty of this vast and largely unexplored wilderness, I rolled the hell out of my ankle. My balloon-animal now had a friend. I leaned on a rock, once again overcome with self-pity. The pain was lightning, and I could feel every heartbeat in my joint. I didn’t even know what it would mean to DNF in this situation – there was nothing out here. How would I ever get back to civilization. Fortunately, the pain subsided, and I carried on. At the next checkpoint, the crew taped my ankle up tight and somehow forced the shoe back on my swollen foot. It didn’t hurt me any more after that, as I lumbered down towards the next trail head.
I caught up with my friend David, and we jumped unto the next winding descent down into the green. There, my desperation had summoned an animal familiar to guide me to the next check point, in the form of a little Mexican mountain dog
(picture courtesy of my mate Dave). He ended up running all 30km to the finish with us, at which point he looked back, nodded his little dog head, and disappeared back into the wilderness from which he had come. 41.19km | 1615m up | 1386m down | 8:12:45
Day 3 We camped out at 2800m
, overlooking a vast network of deep, overgrown gorges. From where we were, we couldn’t make out the bottom – each seeming plateau rolling on down to the next. We started out at daybreak, and the air was cool and dry. As the crew donkey didn’t make it more than 6km down the route, the distance between water stops 1 and 2 became 13 hard km of rugged terrain. At some point we ended up on a solitary dirt road worming its way through rolling hills and scattered farms. Suddenly, a small convenience store appeared on the right. The nice lady I’d been running with offered to buy me a Coke, and the carbonated icy deliciousness was like elixir of the Gods on my parched lips. We blasted down a range of strange, porous volcanic rock and into a lush valley when I felt I had overdone it. I abandoned any attempt at keeping up with my companion, and acquired in her place a growing headache, dizziness, and odd lapses in focus and energy. Scrambling down to a stream I dunked my whole head in, which provided a temporary respite, but within a few minutes on the open road I once again felt like I was going to faint. My tent-buddies, Jose and David, caught up to me, and I did my best to follow them into what I did not yet know would be the most absurd place I’d ever try to run.
Gradually, the terrain warped from lush valley and open dirt road, to gradually denser vegetation and overgrown trails
, which – aided by what I can only describe as drops in the frame-rate of my perception – seemed ever more discontinuous in their appearing. Before I knew it, I was alone again, but now it seemed like the densest rainforest. Up ahead, I heard David call out to ‘take it easy on this part, it seems dangerous’. I come out into a clearing, and find Jose flat against a gigantic boulder, covered in a gently trickling stream. He appeared to be holding on to nothing, as the sleek rock – overgrown with moss - provided no obvious foot- or handholds from where I was standing. Suddenly, his foot slips, and Jose starts sliding. ‘Jose! No!’. I throw myself forwards, grasping for my companion’s arm, but it’s too late, and he goes over the ledge – over which I cannot see – and is swallow up by the trees.
This jolts me out of my stupor, and as adrenaline surges through my body I peer over the ledge to find him emerging from the undergrowth: not only alive, but seemingly absolutely fine after the roughly 2 meter fall. ‘I can’t explain it, but… I’m fine’. I can’t argue with that, but I still feel I would be stone dead tumbling down there considering I got 8 stitches slipping on a rock, and then almost broke my hand walking down a dirt road. For once, I have an athletic advantage due to my bouldering cross-training, and I make short work of the traverse. Our final tent-mate, a 60-odd year British man name Neil, catches up to us, and becomes pale as a sheet when faced with the horrific boulder slab. Using my motivational speaker skills, I coach Neil – foothold by foothold – to make his way to the center of the slab, from which I can lean out, held firmly in place by another runner, Takashi, who had come back due to the commotion, and I yank Neil unto firm ground.
After this, we all get somewhat separated as the terrain grows steeper and steeper, and after a while it is only Jose and I still running together. I can now start to make out what we are running down: it’s an absolutely massive canyon the likes of which I had never seen. The sheer scale of the walls – and the undefinable depth - made for an impossible-looking visual
. As I ready myself to traverse down a completely overgrown switchback, a member of the Japanese film crew documenting the race bursts out of a bush holding a massive steady-cam and gives chase. Experiencing a slight panic attack due to his sudden appearance combined with my growing delirium, I begin a desperate scramble down the canyon wall, rolling and sliding as the steady cam-holding documentary maker somehow has perfect footing. I grab a tree to swing around the stem, but it’s not a tree, it’s some sort of strange cactus-tree. Deep needles pierce my glove and settle in the palm of my hand, and I squeal pathetically. Why does nature hate me so, I ponder, as I trip over a root and look back to find only Jose – the camera operator having started his climb back up to ambush other unwitting runners.
The jungle temporarily gives way to a sheer rock wall on the left hand side, and a seemingly endless, vertical drop on the right. Between the two, we have roughly half a meter to move, making it even too narrow to use the poles, as one would invariably go straight off the ledge. In losing the vegetation, we also lost shade, and the sun is absolutely baking me as I traverse the cliff face. Ducking into a small cave, I almost step on what looks very much like a human femur bone. My blood shot Norwegian eyes follow the trail of bones to a neatly ordered pile of human skulls resting against the back of the cave wall
(picture courtesy of my mate Dave). No, this is ridiculous. I’m not Indiana Jones, I’m just a postdoc. I have to get the hell down from this mountain. The rest of the journey is a blur, as I’m now bonking to an absolutely legendary degree.
With the help of my friend Jose, I somehow make it back to the dirt road leading back to the village we’d be camping in for the night. I’m in a sad state, but somehow manage to will my legs into doing a shuffle jog of sorts. My sad, loopy visage drew the attention of the Japanese film crew, which immediately dispatched a runner with a handheld camera to follow me the entire way in through the village. ‘You’re running again! Great! We thought you wouldn’t!’. Me too, buddy. He asked me other questions too, but now I’m deep in the pain cave. The scattered houses become more numerous as I make my way closer to the village center, but everything is a discontinuous blur. I see the finish line, and – eyes fixed on the blue finishing chute – I hammer down with everything I have left in my puny legs. Later on I realized pro runner Jason Schlarb tried to high five me, but it didn’t register at all so I just waddled straight past him, giving him the cold shoulder. Absolutely disgraceful showing, and I later apologized for it.
Crossing the finish line my mental strings were cut and I fell to the ground in a pile of doughy skeleton
(picture courtesy of Ultra X). The camera was quickly back in my face as I lay there. ‘How will you finish tomorrow’, they demanded. ‘It’s a much harder stage!’. I told them I didn’t know. Likely, I wouldn’t. Dragging myself to an available tent was a massive chore, and I rolled inside in the fetal position, nibbling on my disgusting rations. The local Rarámuri put on a very cool traditional dancing show for us later on, and a very nice local lady gave me a huge pile of tortillas through her kitchen window. I believe this gave me the strength to survive the coming day.
Later on, I found out that one of the Rarámuri runners had partied all night that day, falling asleep in a beach chair among a pile of beer bottles, with the race directors waking him up rougly 30min before the start of the next leg. He’d go on to beat me by close to 4 hours. 56.24km | 2038m up | 3026m down | 11:12:08
I woke up just before 3AM, and spent a few minutes breathing raggedly, looking up into the roof the tent, quietly hoping that nobody else would wake on time, and that the race would just get cancelled. My body was in bits. My swollen ankle throbbed angrily at me, and my hips felt like those of a 90-year old grandma. As people began to stir, I rolled myself out of the tent and limped down to get some hot water for my disgusting breakfeast. Food in hand, I shuffled down to the riverside. Though I couldn’t make it out through the darkness, I could hear the rush of the water, and this brought me comfort too; like an old friend you haven’t spoken to for a while, but you know if you did, it’d feel as good as it did way back when. Another runner was sitting there too, and we ate in silence until it was broken by his gentle sobbing. Not knowing what to do – nor having the energy required to do anything had I known – I sat there, looking at the blind river, chewing long on freeze-dried meat while the horizon turned crimson.
The start went, and I positioned myself towards the rear. Legs felt like lead, every step was misery. The first portion was a loop around the same mountain we’d run past yesterday, before we started an endless, upwards grind on a dirt road climbing back to 2200m. Somehow, I got my second wind on that mountain. Whatever ancient deities lived there had found my sacrifice sufficient and bestowed upon me powers I had no business wielding. I started passing people, people I hadn’t seen lick of all week as they were always hours in front of me. I came back off the mountain in record time, to the cheers and adulations of the support crew. Before I knew it (it was literally hours later, however), I was at the foot of the hill I knew would require every depth of my Scando psyche to surmount.
The Japanese crew couldn’t get enough of the unfolding human drama, and they would drive past me on an RV, set up the camera and get a long, grinding shot of me scaling whatever hill, and then jump off and run next to me. ‘You haven’t quit…. Why?’. ‘I don’t know I just have to get up there, I have to’. ‘What’s up there?’. There was nothing up there. And everything was up there.
Hours and hours of this. I was counting rocks, looking at shapes of rock, comparing them to other rocks I knew. Lifting my head was exhausting, and I also didn’t want to know how far was left to the summit. Intermittently, I would be probed with questions from the crew. Wanting to take a piss, I turned to investigate a buzzing sound behind me only to find a camera drone hovering right over my shoulder. Fine, full bladder it is. Only the hill exists, nothing else is real. The sun starting to set, I summited and started rolling back down the other side, hearing sounds in the distance. The camp, I made it. Crossing the finish line, I stumbled through the cheering runners and crew, brain too fried to really celebrate with them. Slumped against a ditch, the camera returned. ‘How did you manage that’, they inquired. No idea. 62.87km | 4094m up | 1893m down | 12:31:20
Thought I didn’t get much sleep that night due to the immense soreness in my hips, which – being laid out pretty much straight on the rock-hard sleeping mat – complained relentlessly, I woke up feeling much more confident on Friday. I’d made it through the two hardest stages, and nothing could stop me now. The last day was the victory lap, another descent back down into the valley and the ultimate finish line.
I started off conservatively, but confidently. As long as my quads could take the endless downhill, I knew I’d be fine. Nature, hating me, couldn’t let that slide and immediately blew away all cloud cover, leaving me to absolutely bake like a Norwegian potato coming down the whole descent.
The heat got to the other runners too, and one particularly impressive 56-year old Japanese lady that had been solidly crushing me all week was struggling bad. She lumbered in zombie-like behind me at each check-point, and I was sure every time would be the end for her. I’d start again, my heart going out to her for her courage, contemplating how bad it must be for her to drop out this close to the finish, only to hear a rustle behind me and find her right back on my heels. Jesus. Getting chased down started giving me a bit of anxiety, and I hammered it down the mountainside as hard as my quads would allow me.
Reaching the valley, I started onwards to Ulrique, the Rarámuri village where we’d have our final finish line, and was making up good time along the riverbed. Passing a small hut, I had a strange feeling that the man sweeping the front entrance looked familiar to me. It was one of the Rarámuri runners, having already finished the race he was back to his daily routine and catching up on his chores. My gringo mind reeled at this realization, and I began an epic sprint towards the buildings in the distance, only to get passed by a bunch of schoolkids racing me on their way home from school. I couldn’t beat them, but I knew, had I come back tapered with a bit of muscle tension from strides and hill work I would have blown them out of the water. Even though they laughed and pointed at me, I knew they knew, as well.
I figured the finish line was far away still, but suddenly I rounded a corner and there it was. Just 100m more meters. Couldn’t believe I pulled that off. I crossed the finish line and dropped to my knees, kissing the lovely, paved road. The journey of Dod was finally at an end. 43.45km | 1764m up | 1969m down | 6:19:37
The post-race party in Ulrique was absurd, a bunch of shit faced gringos dancing around in the town square with even more shit faced Rarámuri locals, all under the watch of machine-gun armed Federales. Absurdly awesome. I got pretty hammered on their home-cooked rice-beer and tequila, and at some point I had to rile the hammered race doctor from his dancing to patch my blisters so I could go on. Rolling into the tent for a final night of less than great-sleep, I realized the clock tower of the village had malfunctioned, and the bells would now ring every 15 minutes. I was sleeping right beneath them.
This was by far the most fun I’ve ever had, even though I did feel like I had bitten over more than I could chew at times. I really cherished meeting everyone, and hanging out with the famed Rarámura I’d read so much about was epic. The pro runners, Gedeminas Grinius and Jason Schlarb were also incredibly nice people. I’d recommend anyone to do this race. I’ll definitely do more of them, if nothing else to meet up with the friends I made again, and to make new ones.
Rolling out of the village, I saw the race director giving the Rarámura their payments for entering. They’d requested an 18kg bag of grain each. This post was generated using the new race-reportr, powered by coachview, for making organized, easy-to-read, and beautiful race reports.