Alone and not alone. I smell wood fires and hear dogs barking fiercely in the distance while navigating the steep slopes deeper into the valley. No light, except for my head torch dancing from left to right, and from my feet back to the endless darkness in front of me. Small reflective ribbons light up along the track. I guess you can call it at track, though at times it is more like an obstacle course. Been going on for hours since I left CP2 at 3AM in the morning. Damn! I almost stumbled into the deep dark abyss to the right of me. This is not the moment to fall asleep. The terrain is much more technical than I anticipated. Adrenaline kicks in, clear awake again. Hoping to reach the bottom of the canyon at first daylight, so I can fill up and tackle the longest climb of the race. Been too optimistic, the first daylight comes and I am still above 1200 m.
Only hours later, it becomes clear that I am on the final descent towards the suspension bridge at the bottom of the canyon. The track notes mention that the path leading down is steep, and so it is. I follow the sandal footprints with the familiar Michelin car tyre pattern while trying not to go down flat on my face. The Indian runners must have been here yesterday afternoon. I wonder how they would have tackled this descent. Jumping? Sliding? Shuffling? Ouch, a thumb full of thorns as I grab a giant cactus while sliding down. Finally, I reach the suspension bridge. A couple of exciting moments later, I am at the bottom of the canyon.
Thirsty as hell, I take out my LifeStraw and drink from the river. Ice cold water cleans and soothes my dusty feet. Hard to tell, but think I just knocked down something like two liters.
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Suddenly, I feel like being watched. From the corner of my eye I see a yellow skirt disappearing behind a rock. And somewhat later the little face from an Indian kid comes peeping from behind the bridgehead. I smile. I knew there must be some settlements around here, remote as it may seem. I close my eyes and lean back in the sand. When I open my eyes again, I see Bertrand descending towards the bridge. Shortly followed by Catherine. Cautiously they proceed. Time to move on. Both pass me by and I know I will be alone again for a long time.
One long climb towards CP3 awaits. Probably for the greater part of the day. Steep, but so far so good. In a couple of hours, it will be hot. Very hot. My backpack feels too heavy and my shoulders burn. But I have no choice to finish the race with this one. No drop bags along the way. I am carrying everything, including nearly 4 litres of water at all times.
Deep below I spot the suspension bridge again. Climbing onto an exposed ridge, I feel the sun burning relentlessly. And yet no sweat. The air is thin and dry, only the ever growing circles of white salt on my woolen shirt reveal the amount of fluids lost. Time to drink again and take some more salt tablets.
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At one point the track gets confusing. Some kids must have been playing with the markings. The sandal footprints are gone, too much rock. No choice but to take both the alternative paths and return in my footsteps when there are no more markings or confetti -yes this course is marked with confetti at times- to be found anymore. A sigh of relief, this time I am on the right track again.
Another waterhole, a last climb and there’s CP3. A small farm on the plateau.
Alejandra is running the place. I ask for hot water to prepare a trekking meal. And sleep for 20 minutes in the shed. I am lucky Tiphaine, one of the two young physical therapists, is there too. She loosens up my overworked calves before I head out, after Bertrand and Catherine have left. Mid afternoon.
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This section is supposed to be runable. But barely for me. I will arrive at CP 4 after midnight. Slowly but surely the track leads us back to the civilized world. As it becomes broader and less rough, the number of empty beer cans per kilometer increases exponentially. This is narco country it seems. But at night these dirt highways are desolate. And apparently they don’t mind some runners.
While I enter CP4, I meet Catherine on her way out. Jacques, her father, is manning the CP together with a Mexican young man. I prepare another of my trekking meals. Finally my backpack will be lightening up. And… oh miracle… I score a beer before putting on my down jacket and falling asleep for 90 minutes.
Have to pull myself together to leave. Middle of the night. The route leads down into a village. From here on there’s a stretch of bitumen. My sleepy head gets confused and I cannot seem to locate the El Churro road sign mentioned in the track notes. After a long search I decide to call Romain. What? 15 km along a bitumen road? Must have been sleeping during the briefing. Decision is quickly made. I will run this part as fast as I can, so I can enter the mountains at first daylight. Step by step… I accelerate and find myself at a sustainable pace at 8 kmph. Sometimes a truck, but most of the time I hear the sound of my own feet. Small steps uphill, larger ones downhill. Put music on. My mind drifts away on the beats of Arcade Fire’s “Normal Person”. “I’ve never really ever met a normal person. Like you. How do you do?” Are we normal persons? I guess so… Anyway, I know what to do for the next two hours. My mind drifts off… and I think about how I got here.
Three days ago, we arrived at Divisadero by train. The magical El Chepe, groaning its way up from sea level to the highlands at 2500m. A scenic route, but nothing can prepare you for the stunning view on the Copper Canyon when you leave the tiny station. So we stood there in awe. Thinking about the improbable 190 km awaiting us. Down there.
Next day, an encounter to remember. Hanging around in Divisadero in search of coffee and a Wifi connection, we bump into the legendary Arnulfo Quimare and a young fellow runner. No coincidence, about 15 Tarahumara flock together in the area to join the race. Quickly Christelle, Emily, Mehedy and myself upload our pictures via the local hotel Wifi. Excited like kids we head back to Cabanas Lolita, 5 km down the road. A pretty remote place. The Indians will stay in the lodge and join us for dinner and the final race briefing. Eight Europeans and fourteen Raramuri. One just ran 100 km to check out the race and participate. In the mean time, I realise my back hurts like hell. So bad, I cannot sit upright or touch my feet anymore. Made a wrong move this morning. Desperately, I turn to Tiphaine and Charlotte. They confirm they will have a go at it. An improvised chiropractic session later, some things seem to have popped back into place. I hope the upcoming sleep will relax the muscles, so I can start tomorrow.
At first daylight I feel better, but I realise I chose the wrong type of back pack for the load I will carry. Four liters of water, food for 3 days and a down jacket for the cold nights. All weight in the back, no real front pockets. Too late to change now, there we go.
After a handful of kilometers we dive into the marvellous world of the canyon. Take it easy for my back. After a while I join forces with Mehidy, frontrunner who got lost. I look forward to finish the trace with him. Brilliant humour, loads of wisdom. If I can keep up with the guy.
Enjoying the beautiful landscape, we approach CP1. But Mehidy does not feel well at all. Health problem. Slowing down, he decides it is safer to quit. Leaving CP1. Almost 36 km in the pocket. From here on I wil be alone. For the rest of the race. A demanding race. The descent to the river is impressive. But the water is welcome and soothing. Here comes the first night. And a steep climb to CP2 where sleep awaits…
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Back to where we left, almost 48 hours later. Along the asphalt road. I wonder if how my tracker does. And if somebody would be watching it over there in Europe. From the references in the road book I notice my normally very accurate Suunto watch lost 15 km at the bottom of the ravines.
Daylight breaks. And heavy trucks appear, time to wake up and live in the present. Don’t want to be crushed under one of those. Keep on pushing.
Yay!!! The El Churro road sign! Finally off that winding road and back on the tracks. I gained a lot of time, but now I pay the price. My knee hurts in a strange way. Damn, this could mean the end of the race. Upon closer inspection, I find it is caused by a cramped muscle in my left lower leg. Try to loosen it up by rolling it with my pole by the side of the track. Never had this before. By the time I get to CP5, my speed has dropped to an all time low. Cool check-point, in the nicely shaded garden of a church. Staffed by a young Raramuri. I decide to take it easy from here on.
The next section becomes one of the hardest ones if ever did in my life. At some point my left lower leg does not function anymore. Uphill works reasonably, downhill simply hurts like hell. Thank god for those sturdy Leki trekking poles. The last checkpoint is less than 10 km away at it looks it will take me more than 3 hours to get there. Suffering in beautiful landscapes. I put Arcade Fire’s Reflector on repeat. Try to shuffle forward to the beat. Must be a crazy sight. “Take me to the resurrector”… Again and again. I pray Tiphaine or Charlotte will be there. The muscles are becoming steel cables pulling my knee apart. The evening approaches. I approach km 166.
Finally I reach CP6. High on the mountain. An ambulance, a couple of tents and a fire. And Tiphaine is there. Yes!! She spends half an hour working those calves. If I continue now, I will break eventually. Three hours of sleep later, blood flow is restored and I can walk again. The ground was hard and cold, but I slept like a baby in my Montane down jacket.
Midnight. Another painful deep tissue massage and I set off in the night. The last 24 km. Endless and tough, back in the wild country. Finally I see the wooden cross. Push on! Whatever happens, you will get there, buddy.
At first daylight, I cross the finish line. They were waiting for me for hours. I feel happy. Spent 71 hours on sandals in this crazy adventure. Drank tens of litres of water without visibly sweating. Cursed and enjoyed the terrain. Made some mistakes and avoided many. Following the footsteps of those legendary natural born runners. The first one arrived after 26 hours. Some of them gave up. I did not.
On the journalist’s question if I didn’t feel lonely running this long race all alone, I blurt out something like “I was never lonely, I was with myself all the time”. In some kind of French. So tired.
I empty the one litre beer can in one go at breakfast 6 AM in the morning. And make my last decisions for the day. First, I would run this race again, anytime. And second, I will join Jean-François’ next race. Wherever it will be. Now sleep.
Looking back, I can only say it has been a fantastic journey. Not only the race itself. But also the travel from Los Mochis to Divisadero, having breakfast on the magical El Chepe train. The stay at the Cabanas Lolita, having beers with the guys, acclimatising and resting. And the travel back to Chihuahua. All with a bunch of cool people. One has to invest some time and some money, but it is worth it. A well kept secret. Well… not anymore I guess. The M6 documentary about this adventure was aired some weeks ago…
Click on the picture slideshow below for some random impressions.