Succeeding While Not Winning: Post-Huairasinchi
Huairasinchi 2017 Race Report - Team Bend Racing/YogaSlackers
Our squad of four [myself (Jason), Daniel, Mel, and Stephen] arrived in Quito, Ecuador with high expectations. Not only were we expecting to spend a tremendous amount of the race between the altitude of 10,000 and 14,000 ft, but we were fully poised for a top finish.
The race was part of the Adventure Racing World Series - which means it not only drew top teams from Ecuador, but also had world ranked teams from France, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Argentina, Columbia, and the USA.
Huairasinchi is notorious on the world circuit for being very difficult for foreign teams because traditionally most of the course takes place at elevations where even the best athletes struggle from altitude sickness unless they are acclimatized. And since AR is team sport, if only one of the 4 members falls sick, the whole team must slow.
Mel and I became first-time parents in the past 6 months (Mel with 6-month-old Brynne and me with 3-month-old Max), so neither of us had the option to get to Ecuador with enough time to properly acclimatize. We made up for it with intense hill workouts in the month before the event. Stephen also had the whole team drinking “SporTea” on their long flights over.
Excitement built during pre-race, as we met with the other teams, checked mandatory gear and passed our navigation and first aid tests. The weather forecast was foreboding-- calling for a continuation of the heavy rains and colder temps that had been hammering the Ecuadorian mountains all year.
The maps were handed out 12 hours before the race start so that teams could waterproof them. At 1:50,000 scale and 200m contour intervals, the maps left a lot to the imagination. They apparently had 40m contour lines but the print quality was so poor they were invisible. Navigation would be difficult.
A 3 AM bus ride took competitors up into the mountains where we watched the sunrise before the race start. We were in a valley surrounded by steep mountains. The only way to go was up. Cobblestone streets became farm two-tracks, and then those devolved into muddy trails. Higher and higher we climbed, as the rain and wind whipped.
I started getting sick before we even left the cobblestones, unable to eat and fighting for breath with nausea, a splitting headache, and fluid in my lungs. Stephen put me on tow and literally pulled me up the mountains for the first 5 hours. I started recovering as the day wore on, and the team found themselves toward the back of the lead pack. Darkness fell and we picked up speed-- determined to move forward in the ranks.
Instead of moving forward, we made a critical mistake at checkpoint 8 that set us back all the way into last place. We were looking for a “high voltage tower” that was a “virtual checkpoint.” A new style of checkpoint in the sport, these checkpoints have no race markings at all, and simply require teams to take a photo at the point that clearly shows three members and the structure in question. Usually this works OK if the point is 100% unique - for example a sign that says “AMI Regulardo Official.” But in this case it proved problematic.
In the darkness, we had navigated off the broad ridge early while trying to put distance on an Ecuadorian team that seemed to be simply following us instead of navigating themselves. Realizing this mistake, we dropped to the appropriate elevation for the tower and began traversing the side hill. It was slow and rough going, with fog limiting the visibility to about 30 ft, but eventually a huge tower loomed. A photo was taken in the mist, and we prepared to descend a trail that dropped 1500’ down the ridge to the next checkpoint in a small village.
The faint trail we found soon disappeared into thick jungle and a web of steep cliffs. Earlier on the trek, parts of the trail had also vanished into sections of twisted bush, so we pressed onward, often descending sheer drops by down climbing hanging vines while our feet dangled in the air. The mist and darkness amplified the sound of the river making it seem so close, when in fact it was still over 1000’ below.
At 4 AM, we hit a decision point. The terrain was becoming increasingly dangerous, and we'd already descended sections that we were not sure that we could reverse - if we could even find them again. It was like a vertical maze with gravity pulling us ever downwards, coaxing us to make decisions with its assistance - decisions that would be paid for tenfold if we had to go back up.
“Ok, let’s stop for a moment and think,” someone said with the slightly slurred speech that indicates heady cocktail of sleep deprivation mixed with exhaustion and shot of altitude. “Would other teams actually survive this descent?” Silence. And then booming clarity. “NO”.
“But the tower…,” someone said. “And we can see the light of the village. This has got to be the right ridge”.
“Ummm, only if by ‘ridge’ you mean ‘cliff.'" We are in the wrong place.
Dawn arrived us as we climbed back up to our tower. With the light, our error was painfully obvious. Turns out there was a string of power towers. And the one on the ridge proper was a mere 250 meters (800’) from the one we’d found but was invisible in the fog and night. It took less than 5 minutes to traverse from the wrong tower to the right one. They were identical in structure and elevation. Identical, with one exception-- this new tower had a well-worn trail leading down a broad ridge.
Arriving in the nearly empty transition area (all the other teams had come and gone) was perhaps the hardest moment of the race. But the sun was shining for the first time in 30 hours, and I had recovered well during the night. We reached out, pushed the metaphorical “reset” button, and decided to see just how much ground we could make up.
The next 2 days passed in a sleep-deprived haze as we the traversed the mountains of Ecuador, never seeing another team until the final bike stage. Each racer struggled with the altitude in turn, but there was always part of the team that felt strong and aware, picking up the slack and steering them in the right direction. By the time we got our first 30 minutes of sleep, it had been 50 hours since the race start.
Stephen used his rudimentary Spanish to ask directions from locals at every opportunity in order to supplement the information on the vague maps. We never stopped moving.
Unbeknownst to us, the course, weather and altitude was slowing some teams, and we passed others in the night on the trek and long bike. Dawn broke as we started the penultimate 5000’ climb on our bikes. We passed a Columbian team and then an Ecuadorian team, who doggedly gave chase up the never-ending grade.
The Columbian Team SETI shadowed us all the way to the finish line, just minutes behind and always visible. Although stressful to be that close, it lit a welcome fire under our team's collective asses that spurred us ever upwards.
Cresting the pass, we looked forward to a long descent to the finish... but Ecuador had one more surprise. Hidden in the invisible contour lines of the maps were three more climbs of 1300’, 800’, and 400’. The stunning scenery juxtaposed our trashed bodies.
After being the strongest for almost the entire race, Daniel fell apart on the last two climbs, losing the ability the breathe as fluid filled his lungs at an alarming rate. Worse yet, SETI was always visible over our shoulder, sometimes closing to within talking distance.
Mel was the first to awaken her sleeping hero. Putting Dan on tow by attaching a small bungee cord from her bike to his, she pulled him up those last hills at a pace that Stephen and I struggled to match.
80 hours after running into the Ecuadorian highlands, we crossed the finish line in 5th place. Daniel was immediately sent to the medical tent to receive oxygen and treatment for pulmonary edema, while the rest of us celebrated with a cold Sabai (Ecuador’s first IPA) beer because according to the actual medics at the finish line, “Good beer is an essential part of recovery.”
Don’t underestimate the need to acclimatize. Much of our fitness was useless once we started to struggle with altitude and it is an all or nothing game. The whole team needs to be as prepared for high elevation as they can be.
Navigate simply. We forced a route for way too long. We forced the map (because it was vague) to match our reality, instead of allowing our reality to inform us that we were not where we thought on the map. But we are proud of the fact that despite our high level of unnecessary suffering and being lost, we stayed unified as a team and did not get angry at one and other. This allowed us to recover and continue racing after putting our mistake behind us.
We were one of only 3 foreign teams to finish the full course. We have huge respect to the French and Czech Republic teams as well as the Ecuadorian teams that finished 1st and 2nd. This was a tough race full of super steep terrain and challenging conditions.
Cobblestone roads - enough said.
The race organization was world class-- professional and way above and beyond what we have experienced in some other international races. Bravo.
All in all, we think of this as two races- before and after PC8. Before PC 8 we made many mistakes that are a bit embarrassing for a team of our experience. After PC 8, we fought through our disappointment to race connected to each other and committed to our goal, and this was a huge success.