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Vulcano Ultra Trail

When I first heard about the Vulcano Ultra Trail, I was certainly interested in traveling to Chile to participate, but unfortunately at the time I was working through a nagging injury and didn't foresee being ready to run 80K a few short months away.  After not running for two months, I resumed running about six weeks ago.  Fortunately, my aerobic base was solid because I had been cross training. When I began running again my fitness came back quickly.

By November I was running four days a week and I was able to do a couple of long runs with some friends in Flagstaff who were training for TNF Endurance Challenge in San Francisco. After a couple of technical long runs and a few more quicker long runs with my friend Chris Vargo, I felt surprisingly well so Vulcano Ultra Trail became a viable option again.

Flying out of an international airport enabled me to get to Santiago, Chile via two fairly long flights. When I arrived in Santiago I had a bit of trouble getting through customs because they wanted my tubes of Trail Butter, flasks of First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot, and the 40 pairs of Altra Running shoes I was bringing along to demo at the VUT expo.  A shipment of 300 pairs of Altra Running shoes was en route for the launching of Altra Running Chile, but the barge was slow to leave U.S. ports due to strikes and wouldn't make it in time for the expo.  Finally, after refusing homemade cookies my mother-in-law made me, customs finally let me through.  Then I took one more flight south from Santiago to Puerto Montt.

The route to southern Chile.   Screenshot of Google Map.
Despite living and traveling in Spanish speaking countries for years, I had never been further south than Panama.  I was looking forward to exploring a new place, meeting new people, trying new foods, and hoping my Central American Spanish would allow me to communicate with fellow runners and race volunteers in Chile.

Santiago to Puerto Montt, Chile.  Screenshot of Google Map.
After about 36 hours of travel, I arrived in Puerto Montt.  One of the seven race directors, Jose Luis, greeted me with un abrazo.  Puerto Montt is a port town known for its aquaculture - primarily salmon farming.  In fact, much of the salmon sold in the U.S. comes from the Lakes Region of Chile.  From Puerto Montt, Jose Luis and I drove to Puerto Varas - the site of the race expo.

A view of the Lakes Region
Puerto Varas is a small town on the shores of el Lago Llanquihue.  The town itself kinda reminded me of a smaller Bellingham, Washington.  After arriving and enjoying a bowl of Ajiaco Chilean Soup, Jose Luis brought me to the hotel to rest before paddle boarding on the lake with one of the other race directors, Horacio.  After paddle boarding and cooling off in the lake, we ate a variety of fresh, local seafood, but I was particularly fond of the salmon ceviche.

View from the lakeside around 9:00 pm.
On a clear day, one can see three snow-capped volcanoes towering over the lakeside hamlets. From my hotel, I could see the cone of Vulcan Osorno - the volcano we'd be running up and around during the race.

Las Cascadas as we approached the Volcan Osorno

I spent the next day checking out the start of the course at Lago Todos los Santos and hiking to a nearby waterfall with Ride the Andes filmmakers Antonio and Sebastian.

View of the Volcan Osorno near the start of the race at Lago Todos los Santos
The following day, as part of launching Altra Running Chile, I gave a Run Better Clinic at the Vulcano Ultra Trail expo with over 50 attendees.

Kinda awkward checking in next to a life size photo of yourself.  
Though I've been teaching the importance of correct running form to hundreds of people for more than a decade, this was the first time I'd ever taught an entire running clinic in Spanish.  While I feel comfortable speaking Spanish in most settings, this was the first time I tried to use such a high frequency of technical running vocabulary for such a long period of time - about an hour.  To be honest, I was more nervous about communicating with clinic participants than I was about running 80K in the mountains.

In addition to the  four points listed in the diagram below, I shared cues that my collegiate coach Doug Stutz taught his National Champion cross country teams.  Then I discussed race-day nutrition and answered any other questions participants had about the race the next day.

I felt relieved and quite fulfilled when race participants approached me after their races to tell me how they applied the principles discussed in the clinic to help them through their races.  Helping others succeed brings me at least as much satisfaction as any success in my own running.

In addition to the Run Better Clinic, I participated in the pre-race press conference with some of the other international athletes.

Some of the top international athletes after the VUT press conference.
The 80K of Vulcano Ultra Trail started at 3:00 AM on Saturday morning which would be the equivalent of 11:00 PM Friday night at home.  To arrive at the race start in time we loaded buses in Puerto Varas at 1:00 AM which would be the equivalent of 9:00 PM at home.  Asking for a 12:45 AM (8:45 PM) wake-up call didn't quite seem normal, but I tried to sleep as much as I could before loading the bus.

Course profile of Vulcano Ultra Trail 80K

Despite doing some run & bike commuting with a headlamp in the buildup for Vulcano, the last time I ran through the night was when I paced my friend Paul Nelson at Western States. That was a great experience, so I looked forward to what I would see and learn under the full moon at Vulcano Ultra Trail.

Start of 2014 Vulcano Ultra Trail 80K.  Photo by TrailChile
I followed the advice of my friend and fellow McMillan Running coach, Ian Torrence, and wore a headlamp on my head and one around my waste.  The leaders took the race out pretty hard, but the early miles were relatively level so I went out with them.

The first 5K was runable, but then we reached a steep incline up lava flows that required us to use our hands.  At the time there were only about four of us.  I soon realized that this was not like the previous 50 mile races I had done.  Trail and ultra running in South America are an entirely different sport than anything I've experienced in the U.S.

Line of 80K athletes ascending the first climb in the dark.
Over the next five miles we climbed over 3,000ft.  At times the full moon illuminated our way up the volcano, but during much of the first three hours the moon moved back and forth behind the fog and clouds.  Those first three hours climbing toward the snow-capped summit through the clouds and under the full moon made the long trip to Chile well worth it.  For much of the first three hours all we could see was the next reflective course marking in the distance and the shadow of the summit ahead.

Common view during the first ascent.
We spent much of the time ascending ridge lines with abrupt faces on each side.  Upon reaching the first summit - still in the moonlight - race officials punched our race passports and then we began the abrupt decent back down the mountain.  The initial descent had us cascading down hundreds of feet of fine, volcanic sand into an unlit crevice.

By the first major aid station (Puesto de Asistencia, Seguridad, Control, Abastecimiento e HidrataciĆ³n or PAS) at 30K I was hungry.  Up to that point I had been drinking First Endurance EFS Drink mixed with mineral water and eating EFS Liquid Shot, but I wanted some real food.  I had some broth, refilled my bladder and began eating Trail Butter.

The second ascent was even more challenging than the first with no particular trail other than the natural flows from lava with regular markings leading straight up the side of the mountain.  At this point in the race, given the grade and the fact that the terrain below moved underfoot, I hiked the majority of the ascent and understood why some of my fellow competitors were using trekking poles.

Climbing into the fog. Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
On the way up the second ascent, two of the early front runners dropped out.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider dropping at that point as well due to fatigue and the culture shock I was experiencing with the extreme differences in course layout and my lack of preparation for such technical terrain, but I had only seen a third of the course and despite fatigue my body was still holding up.  I wanted to take in the whole experience especially if my body was allowing me to do it.

Layering up for the colder, windier summit. Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.

Stumbling up the mountain.  Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
After being up all night, by the time I reached the top of the second summit, I was physically depleted. It took me as long to cover the first 25 miles/40 kilometers of the race as it took me to cover twice the distance at the Mt. Hood 50 in 2013. The major difference - I was able to run the whole 50 miles/80 kilometers on the Pacific Crest Trail whereas this time I only made it 5K before I had to start hiking and using my hands to climb and descend technical sections.
About five hours in and already spent.  Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
Trying to pick my up to the top.  Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
The descent of the second summit was the most challenging part of the whole race for me.  It was not only steep, but there was a lot of loose scree.  Even with reliable trail shoes, sure-footing was at a premium.  The only reprieve from the pounding and sliding came from the occasional sponge-like ground cover.  Given that there was only a marked line to follow, I tried to run on the ground cover as much as possible to decrease the impact on my feet and joints and increase the stability underfoot.

Getting ready to descend in my Altra Olympus.
When I reached the bottom of the second summit I was able to open up a bit as we ran on the service road leading to the lake.  After a bit we dropped down to a trail along the most breathtaking water I've ever seen.  Getting out from under the clouds on the volcano warmed me up.  The sun and turquoise falls inspired me to get back into a racers mind-set.  I was finally feeling good and rolling, picking people off.  Getting to runable sections and having my energy levels back reminded me how much I love to run unimpeded.

By the time I reached the second major aid station I needed to refill my hydration pack.  The Powerade on course wasn't doing it for me so I asked for 2 liters of Coke.  The Coke helped settle my stomach and gave me a boost as I made the final ascent up Vulcan Osorno.  When I reached the top I was hurting after being on my feet for so long, but I looked forward to the descent and flat, runnable sections leading to the finish.

Unfortunately, my hydration bladder burst at the top of the last climb while I was adjusting my clothing and preparing for the descent back into the sun.  This meant I had to run the next 10-12K without any fluid and it also meant I had about a liter of Coke running down my back, making the post-race dip in the lake all the more appealing.

When I reached the final aid station I asked if I could have a used water bottle from the recycling can and filled it with water.  I only had about 10K to go from that point and enjoyed running the last segment hard again alongside the falls and back to the lake.

I was pleased to join some tough, talented runners from Argentina and Brazil on the podium.  While I am typically a bit more competitive, my main goal after such a long break from running was to simply enjoy the experience and get in some quality time on my feet to prepare me for early races in 2015.

Fellow competitors and coaches, Manuel Lago (Brazil), Gustavo Reyes (Argentina), and Jacob Puzey (USA)
Photo by Jose Luis Troncoso of Trail Chile
After the race, I jumped in the lake to cool off and rinse all of the Coke and sweat off of my body. The post-race meal consisted of beef shish kabobs and Salmon ceviche.  Needless to say, I was happy I made it to the finish.

Finally finished and ready to eat.  Proud to represent Altra Running at the launch of Altra Running Chile.
When the awards assembly concluded, I got a ride back to Puerto Varas with some of the top Argentinian guys.  We met up for dinner later that night.  I was humbled when the overall winner of the 64K, 18 year old Franco Paredes (the nephew of the winner of the 80K Gustavo Reyes), revealed that the Garmin watch he won was the first watch he had ever owned.  That really put things into perspective for me, reminding me that hard work and smart, specific training trump technology.

Our conversation really made me think about the state of the sport of trail and ultra running on a global scale.  While the sport is growing exponentially around the world (and is huge in Argentina and Chile), true international championships still do not exist. Each continent hosts its own iconic races, but it is rare to find the world's best at the starting line of any particular race.  Although I don't think it is necessary for every race to host an uber-competitive field, I simply don't feel right assuming that any international ranking system is accurate when the international field are not representative of the best in the sport across the globe.  I feel fortunate, grateful, and a little guilty that I have the opportunities I have to travel and race while there are others in other parts of the world who are at least as capable.  At this point the majority of sponsorship dollars to travel tend to go to European and North American athletes.  My point is not to point to the plight of any of my comrades, but rather to highlight the fact that when the money gets to South America as it inevitably will, many North Americans, like myself, will get a taste of humble pie if they assume that they can just fly in for an easy win.

The next few days were spent eating more grass-fed beef and recovering from the race.

One of seven race directors, Horacio, hosting a post-run BBQ with family & friends.
Some of my return flights were delayed and canceled making the return trip over 48 hours of travel before finally arriving at home.  When I returned I saw the trailer for the documentary about the race produced by Ride the Andes.  I had a really good time working with them and I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product when it when it comes out in January.  Even more, I hope to return soon with my family to Chile for the next edition of Vulcano Ultra Trail.

If you are looking for adventure and the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful places on earth I encourage you to visit Chile and participate in one of the various distances offered at Vulcano Ultra Trail.

Many thanks to my family, sponsors, and the race directors of Vulcano Ultra Trail for making it possible for me to participate in such a well organized, well marked, well managed, challenging event! ¡Hasta la proxima!