In the native Ecuadorian tongue of Kichwa, Huairasinchi means strength of the wind, and the organizers of this amazingly beautiful race could not have picked a more suitable name for their flagship event.
Ecuador is a land of extremes: enormous mountains, wildly complex terrain, and an incomparably friendly people make the Ecuadorian adventure racing experience one we won’t ever forget. Of course, the giant raindrops and feeling of near-constant oxygen-depletion will help create lasting memories as well, and we would have had many more, had our race not suddenly taken a turn for the worst a mere 31 hours after the starting gun went off…
All of our pre-race ramblings went off without a hitch. We were confident that our new team configuration (which now included Canadian Liza Pye) was going to be a contender for a top 10 position this year and our race plan seemed dialed as we rode the bumpy bus to the starting line at the foot of the 5500m Antisana volcano. The sky was bluebird and the hulking mass of Antisana’s glaciers were sparkling in the morning light. It was a perfect day to start an expedition race.
As expected, the race started high and continued higher, until it reached an oxygen deprived 4400 meters. Since most of us live a speed bump above sea level, getting enough oxygen to satisfy the lungs was a challenge. We pushed and pulled each other along as we all took turns feeling like our lungs might explode. Things eventually got easier after we descended through the sharp spikey alpine grasses and shrubs, and after five hours on our feet we came into the first TA in a respectable 11th place.
Quickly transitioning to bikes, we continued by descending a screaming 1000-meter downhill on a smooth, paved highway. The twists and turns of the pavement were pure pleasure to descend as we played cat and mouse with another couple teams. We were too scared to look down at our speedometers, but judging by the bugs in our teeth, we must have been topping out at 45-50 miles per hour. Eventually, the highway turned to gravel, and gravel became trail, which ultimately became a long forgotten path that was at times shin-deep in mud. We plodded along as our memories hinted back to last year’s challenges in the first stages of Costa Rica, but thanked the Ecuadorian gods that we were at least moving forward with relative ease. After abusing our bikes by pushing, pulling and dragging them through the muck, we escaped the high jungle trail for the smooth dirt that would lead us to TA 2. Soon after, we conveniently found a local Ecuadorian who was busy power washing his car by the side of the road, and with some quick work of Jason’s Spanish, we were soon rolling into the TA with shiny clean bikes, ready to tackle the next trek.
Again, we made a quick transition at TA2 where we were treated to delicious sandwiches, baked goods, and fresh fruit, which were supplied by the local community before we headed out on a 40km trek. We left with Yogaslackers and chatted briefly as we made our way up the road before it crossed a bridge and became another jungle path. It had been a couple of hours of running and trekking and was dark when we hit the first ropes section. This long-abandoned bridge, due to its rotting condition, required us to rope up and cross with the use of a safety line. We shuffled along while avoiding the most rotted bits, but at one point Liza’s foot went right through and she found her leg dangling in mid-air. Thank goodness for the ropes! Once safely across, we had another 2+ hours of route finding, as the over-grown jungle trail would lead us down to the river, disappear, and then pick up again some time later. We waded through shallow eddies and scrambled up and down the steeply vegetated banks as we made our way westward along the riverbank. While the map showed this section as roughly 7 kms and a gradual uphill, in reality it was much more, due to the switchbacks, misdirection, and steep ups and downs that has us sometimes using all fours to negotiate our way forward. At last, we made it to the second dilapidated bridge, this one in much worse shape as many of the treads had long rotted away leaving only the rails and a rickety fence as our passage. We made our way across aided by a safety line and once on the other side, resumed the ugly path.
Then it began raining.
The drops came slowly at first, and the tree canopy caught most of it before reaching our weary bodies. But it continued, and then it became heavy. Dime-sized drops were soon pelting us from above, and aided by the caress of wet leaves, ferns and plants that adorned the way, we were quickly getting soaked. In only shorts and long sleeved shirts due to the earlier heat, we were soon drenched, and in retrospect, slow to put on our protective rain gear. We spent the next five hours sliding and slipping and the trail got progressively worse, until most of our progress was hard fought. It's really hard to describe the amount of suffering that this effort has on the body and soul. Midnight, cold, wet, and bathed in tropical mud. We’ve done it many times before, but these are dark moments.
During the last part of this trek, Jason began losing body heat. Despite him wearing three layers of clothes, having his space blanket wrapped around his torso, and even donning a moldy yellow rubber raincoat discarded by a farmer who’d left it on a fence post, he was unable to retain any energy and started to show serious symptoms of hypothermia. We tried to up his calorie intake, had him eat more salts, more water, even run a bit, get rid of his pack, make him carry more weight, and put him on tow. All these efforts were to no avail. It was still raining hard, and stopping was not an option. Fifteen hours after starting this leg, we finally arrived at TA3 resolved to get some sleep and recover a bit before heading off to the next long bike leg.
After a two-hour sleep, we packed and saddled up. Jason was still having a hard time staying warm, but we figured by going slow he would be able to recover. The bike section began with a 900-meter climb up to a 3500-meter summit before descending. Despite wearing multiple layers of clothing, Jason could still not stay warm on the climb that had the rest of the team feeling hot in shorts and short sleeves. Near the peak, having lost fluids, body heat, and all energy, the decision was to surrender to the course. Jason had been suffering for over 15 hours at this point, and it wasn’t getting any better. Reluctantly, the team decided to turn around back to TA3.
In hindsight, our biggest mistake was probably trekking too long before putting on our rain gear, and it proved fatal to our chances of finishing. For a team with as much experience as we have, it is disappointing that we let the excitement of the race get the better of our race intelligence so early and made such a short-sighted mistake in not taking care of ourselves early.