I Left My Quads in the Andes: Zolkan 4 Days

Adventure Event Coverage Running By Francesca Conte

Andes_BackgroundThe imposing quality of the mountains is the same and yet so very different around the World: Chile’s mountains stand alone as some of the most awe inspiring I have ever experienced.

By “imposing quality” I mean the lightheaded, elated feeling I experience looking up at the mountain peaks and the almost overwhelming desire of reaching the top. The Alps have this quality, well represented in mountains like the Matterhorn. The Rockies have it too.

But the Andes are different, displaying their own peculiar quality and, in some ways, some of the most imposing mountains I have ever seen. This quality lies in the difference between the elevation of the valley and the summits and what lies in between.

In the Alps and in the Rockies, the mountains have many layers, gradually gaining altitude. Looking at the summit of the Matterhorn from Zermatt in the valley below, the difference is about 9,000 feet.

In Chile, Santiago is at about 1,000 feet elevation. Cerro El Plomo, visible from Santiago, is almost 18,000 feet. Looking up, the height difference is 17,000 feet. My first day in Chile, seeing the Andes from Santiago took my breath away.

I was one of the lucky few to participate in the first Zolkan 4 Days Stage Race. The unique mission of the race is to showcase Chile “from the mountains to the sea,” accomplished in four stages starting in the Andes and finishing at the Pacific Ocean. Each day was between 15 and 18 miles, with the longest being about 30 miles. Each night, runners finished at a camp provided by the race organizers, and they driven by bus to the start of the next day.

The race began on day 1 at the very top of La Parva Ski Resort at 12,000 feet. At this latitude, Chile’s mountains are extremely dry, both at lower and higher elevations; this is not the case for northern Chile or Patagonia, which are both much more humid. The flora is very similar to California, but endemic trees are non existent, even at lower altitudes. This makes Chile one of the best skiing destinations in the World: the dry and fluffy snow is the stuff of legends.

Zolkan_4Day

Day 1 was about 14 miles and all downhill, starting at 12,000 feet and ending at 2,000 feet. The altitude and sunlight about killed me, but I was too busy watching the condors to care. With a wingspan between 8 and 10 feet, these birds are just as imposing and awe inspiring as the mountains they live in. I would have been happy with spotting one in the distance, but they were everywhere, using the thermals as highways and taking my attention away from the very technical trail I was trying to navigate.

The race was all downhill, my favorite medium, but the trails were extremely steep, much steeper than I expected. I did not have the right shoes for the conditions, and I lacked the necessary grip.  These trails were unique in my experience because they were not only very steep, but gritty, which can be more slippery than mud.

Steep and rocky like Maine or Vermont is not as slippery, as long as the rocks are dry. Steep and sandy, like California, is also less slippery, since the shoes sink in the sand and grip. Steep and mossy, like the Pacific Northwest, also not as slippery, since moss and dirt are a good surface for shoes. Steep and gritty requires a very aggressive shoe, since nothing provides less grip than tiny round pebbles on steep rocks.

In addition, the quad muscles are worked differently on a very steep downhill.  The breaking motion is accentuated, and quads are quickly overloaded. I found my inability to take advantage of my downhill abilities frustrating and, because of it, pushed it too hard in the sections where I could.

On day 1, the heat was also a limiting factor. This kind of sun can only be found in high desert climates closer to the equator, where the sun is strong, the air is thin and there is no shade to protect you. This kind of sun laughs at sunscreen, which I had religiously lathered on myself. I should worn a light long sleeve for better protection. Fried, oxygen deprived and exhausted from the heat and pounding downhill, I managed day 1 and reached the finish, a beautiful campsite by a river.

Zolkan_Camp
Camp, Day 1

Making all the mistakes I could possibly make took a big toll and day 2, the longest one at about 31 miles, began with very sore quads. I knew from the beginning this was not good, but I was determined to give it a try.

If you’ve never lost your quads, you cannot understand the level of pain that goes into running downhill with sore quads, especially on steep terrain. The technical name is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. It feels like knives in your legs, at every step. The kicker is that, the steeper the terrain or the longer the effort, the more painful it becomes. This is not the kind of pain that can be helped by anti-inflammatories, or ice baths, or massage. Only time heals is.

However, I am not one to give up, and I hoped my quads would miraculously get better. They did not and only got worst, probably exacerbated by the 10,000 foot climb in the first 10 miles of the race and the 10,000 feet lost in the last 10 miles. The remaining 10 miles was all between 10,000 and 13,000 feet. I’m sure the lack of oxygen did wonders for my DOMS.

I got to the top of the climb knowing I would not be able to run any of the downhills and that, for me, the race was over. It was a somber feeling, and I shed quite a few tears over it.

The real experience came down to the place. From the ridgeline at 12,000 feet, the views of the Andean glaciers were otherworldly. I could see forever into the Andes beyond, into their remoteness and ruggedness. No houses, no huts. Just snow covered peaks.

For most of the time, I was alone. There were no roads going to the valley, no escape route, no shorter way, no ride back. The only way out was to complete the journey to the finish.  The few and far between checkpoints consisted of one guy with some water flown in and out by helicopter. Some sections were very exposed, my wobbly legs making them ever more so and, I won’t lie, I was scared at times.

Isn’t that the perfect metaphor for a life-changing mountain experience? One that leaves you humbled, more conscious of your limits, in awe of your surroundings and with new found respect.

Beyond the mountains, I found getting to know the race organizers a treasure to take back with me. Several organizations worked seamlessly to make the event possible: Trail Chile, No Limits and Zolkan. Their hospitality, enthusiasm, hard work and organization was unparalleled.

Zolkan_Crew
Trail Chile and No Limits Crew

When I go back, I will be just as excited to see them, as I will to see the Andes again.  Hasta luego!


Francesca_BioFrancesca Conte is a professional runner, race director, and co-founder of Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports. She has won numerous 50K, 50 mile and 100 mile races. Born in Italy amidst the Alps, Francesca calls the mountains home and now splits her time between Virginia and Colorado.


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Francesca Conte