Altitudes above 15,000, you say? Ok, that’s higher than Rainer or the famous 14-ers of Colorado, but we’ll just rest a little more and go a little slower, right? But agonizingly steep scree slopes of volcanic sand and rocks requiring hand over fist scrambles and perilous “butt slide” descents? The mountaineers going around us to and from the peak, with their helmets and ice axes and poles, must have found us “sky runners” quite an amusing sight!
Yes, the Sky Marathon Iztaccíhuatl proved to be much more of a challenge than I and newfound Mexico City friends Wendy and Alex (courtesy of the Ultra list) had bargained for? Six hours (plus about 25 minutes in my case) to cover 21.6K (about 13.8 miles by my Garmin)? You MUST be kidding!
I can’t remember Wendy’s exact words after the race, but it was something to the effect of, “What did you get us into?” Yes, it was *I* who had convinced them, the locals, to come along to the race when we met up on-line on the Ultra List as I posted a question about high-altitude races and heart rates a few weeks prior to my trip and Wendy replied with a direct message. Mind you, she’s a veteran of Wasatch 100 and Bear 1000, and has paced Hardrock, and Alex has done quite a few ultras up to 50 miles. And they had done another of the races in central Mexico’s “Only for Savages” (Solo para Salvjaes) race series that this race is also part of (to the top of the Nevado de Toluco west of Mexico City). And they live and train at around 7,500 feet in Mexico City, and regularly head up to 10,000-12,000 feet on weekend trail runs, and kindly introduced me to one of their favorite trails the weekend before on a training run. So, if *they* found it off-the-charts tough, imagine this flatlander!
The “woman in white,” so-called because the mountain takes the shape of reclining woman covered in snow, was looming large and beautiful as the sun rose from behind her as we drove toward the race in the early morning hours. It was a pretty thrilling scene to arrive at the alpine shelter site at about 12,500 feet that served as the race staging area, and see all the runners assembling in the valley that lies between the extinct “Izta” volcano rising to the north and the quite active Popocatepetl (“El Popo”) to the north. It was a sunny, unseasonably warm winter day, with barely a cloud in the sky, with temperatures reaching the 60s down below and probably never below the 50s up to where we were going. Izta, which rises to 17, 159 feet, still had a fairly small snowpack, mostly on her “head” and “bosom,” but not so much if any on her “feet” toward which we would be climbing.
El Popo, which reaches 17,802 feet and has been off limit to hikers and climbers for several years due to heightened volcanic activity, had a more extensive icy (glacial) covering of the upper reaches of its more classic conic dome. And as Alex pointed out, if you looked closely, you saw that some of those “clouds” by the cone were, in fact, a steady stream of smoke or vapor rising from the majestic mountain. Living up nicely to its Náhuatl name of “smoking mountain.” Cool beyond words to be close to such grandeur! Also, as I had hiked with some expat friends up to the Popo snowline back in 1985 as a visiting Fulbright student, it brought back fond memories to see the mountain up close, and to be starting from the same shelter (if memory serves) where we overnighted way back then.
This out-and-back (make that “up and down”!) race ascends roughly 3,870 feet to a little under 16,000 feet The first 7.5K, where took us up 820’, are taxing but really proved to be just a warmup. The footing was good on a wide dirt road with scattered small rocks. Though I ran slowly for a few minutes at a time up a few sections that weren‘t as steep, I quickly realized power-walking was more efficient, particularly when I would sometimes pass those who were attempting to run. I was with Wendy and Alex at times, and had them in sight.
So far, so good--I thought--the breathing seemed to be under control. At one point around two hours in it looked like I was averaging 15 minutes a mile, which is decent for a steady, slow ascent at altitude. Little did we know what awaited us above once the 15Kracers headed back down, though!
The climb--and here I use the term in the more literal sense, though rock climbing or alpinism this was not--from 7.5K up to the turnaround at about 10.6K, and then the descent back to that same point, easily took up half of the race by way of time. In that section we gained about 3,051 vertical feet (in less than 2 miles). As Wendy put it afterwards, she noticed on her Garmin they went suddenly from 15-minute to 48-minute miles! Suddenly, we were on much steeper slopes, sometimes wide but occasionally with hundreds of feet of exposure a few steps away (but nothing that activated my vertigo tendencies, I’m happy to say).
The soil was volcanic dirt, cinder, and sand, interspersed with everything from pebbles to boulders the size of small animals to every size and shape in between. In some sections rockier, in some places sandier. Two sets of flags of different colors marked the sort of outer boundaries of the ascent (whether just for us, or there generally for the mountaineers and recreational hikers, I wasn’t certain). So, without a neat little trail per se, there was a certain amount of deciding whether to just follow those ahead or to weave to one side or another to find a more accommodating “line.” But navigation or wrong turns were never an issue—when in doubt, proceed upward!
As I slowly moved higher, the strenuous grade, tenuous footing, and altitude began to move me into the “take a few steps, then stop to breathe” mode which I had read about in mountaineering books but never quite had to put into practice. In some sections, you felt as if your feet would slide back a few inches for every upward step you took, such as the beach-like quality of the terrain.
Increasingly, I was making more use of my hands to power me up certain sections. Though it remained warm and gloves weren’t really necessary for warmth, I was glad I was still carrying mine, and had put them back on by now for better grip and skin protection. I was glad, too, that I was wearing my sturdy Montrail Hardrocks with gaiters (over my lycra tights). They give good underfoot protection and as good traction as one can expect on that surface (I did manage to avoid any falls despite many close calls).
One of the Mexican runners struggling upward alongside me commented at one point to me (in Spanish) of, “now I can see why you’re wearing those boots.” I guess to someone wearing road shoes, hardcore trail shoes do look like boots! Another, noting my Camelbak and Fuelbelt, asked if “among your belongings you’re carrying any Micropore?” He was getting a hotspot, but unfortunately I wasn’t carrying any footcare aids, nor was another runner also carrying a pack nearby whom he then asked.
On that note, Wendy, Alex and --comparing notes after the race--were a little surprised by not only the minimal footware but the fact that many racers chose to carry little or no water at all, relying on the six checkpoints of which maybe four had any aid to speak. One guy after the race, who was a climber and not a racer, admired Wendy’s and my “Joe Trail Man” trailrunning gaiters and asked how he could get them.
Say what you will of ultrarunners, but we come prepared! And I needed every drop and ounce of those 2 liters of water, 2 eight-ounce bottles of Heed and Perpeteum, four gels, and one pack of Clif Shot Blocks I was carrying. And could have used more! The only thing I took the whole way from the aid stations was one small piece of energy bar and a few sips of Coke. Thanks, Wendy, for forewarning me about the wisdom of traveling self-contained and not having to worry about the origins of the water or “mixed drinks” we might be drinking! Speaking of which, they weren’t quite mixed drinks, but one self-appointed volunteer along the way who was handing out nice little galletas Maria (sweet crackers) smeared with Carnation milk was also offering shots poured right from a bottle of something or other (Tequila? brandy?). Both directions I kindly declined the shot, but did enjoy one of those tasty crackers on the way down!
As we got higher, the views behind us of El Popo, which now gave the illusion of appearing closer up, became even more jaw-dropping. And to our west loomed the more distant snowy visage of El Nevado de Orizaba, which is Mexico’s highest peak, at 18,619 feet. But despite the occasional photo break, it was hard to soak in the views, what with the more immediate challenges of propelling oneself up against gravity amidst the thinning air and all! At one point I loosened my cheststrap on the Camelbak so that my chest could heave in and out more easily as I strained to suck in more air.
Despite my advance fears (and no experimenting with Diamox I had asked a doctor about or even aspirin to thin the blood), I don’t think I experienced any altitude sickness symptom per se (e.g., no headaches, no nausea, though my stomach wasn’t always happy). Yet when I would occasionally straighten up from the mostly bent-over position I was traveling in as I leaned into the mountain, I would often experience a brief second or two of light-headedness. Conditioned as you might be, these were serious altitudes, and as you looked around at any given point in the upper reaches half the people were hands on hips or crouched over or sitting on rocks, in resting mode. This woman in white was one tough mother!
Each time we finished a section of the ascent or reached another of the race checkpoints, I looked upward hopefully toward what I hoped was our turnaround destination, only to see a string of racers still reaching upward and around the mountain. It seemed to go on and on, and at one point I despaired of ever reaching the top. Several times I saw racers who had given up and were headed down, or others who were resting on rocks and seemed to be preparing to throw in the towel. The organizers had declared a 3 ½ hour time limit for reaching the cutoff. Though clearly they couldn’t enforce it short of a helicopter rescue or some strong climbers to carry down stragglers (neither of which I saw any signs of!), I nonetheless worried a lot about making it, knowing it was important if I hoped to get back down under the (again informal) 6-hour finish “cutoff.” (Which didn’t matter, as all who completed the course got finishers’ medals.)
Finally, we could look up, and see what appeared to be the turnaround point. Racers heading down encouraged us with shouts of “Animo, you’re almost there!”. This section was by far the steepest and most difficult of the race—and I mean off-the-charts difficult like no section I’ve ever been on in any mountain ultra, to be sure. It was basically pick your poison. Either go to the right and attempt to get enough purchase on the steep volcanic sand and scree to try to hoist yourself up slowly (the more direct line). Or stay to the left and scramble up the steep rock and boulder field, which offered better handholds and traction but was a more indirect line. I chose the latter course.
On all fours, I tried to make sure of each hand and foot hold. Many of the rocks weren’t firmly in place, and on a number of occasions I or others had to shout “Roca” (Rock!) to alert others to mini-slides we inevitably created for those just below. On one occasion, on a section that wasn’t even quite as steep, a stumbling fist-sized rock hit me just above the ankle bone. Had it had any more momentum, I could have broken something quite easily. But no worse for the wear, fortunately!
I remember looking at my now dust-covered Garmin and seeing at one point I had 20 minutes to make the informal turnaround cutoff. And while the high point of the race was finally quite visible, and those coming down assured us we were almost there, those last few hundred vertical feet were like nothing else I’ve encountered in a race. The rocks had ended, and it was all uber-steep cinder, sand, and pebbles. I balled my hands up into fists to drive them into the soft stuff and propel myself up those last few minutes, as my heart felt as if it would pop out of my chest. A guy who was a few steps from the “top” was crouched over with what seemed to be dry heaves (I didn’t want to look too closely). He looked pretty much like roadkill, and I didn’t feel too much better myself!
Finally at the turnaround, somewhere around 3:35-40 into the race (and still 1,214’ from the summit, mind you!), the views of El Popo were incredible. It was a little surreal, as there wasn’t much room to stand, and racers naturally stopped to catch their breath and take photos while volunteers checked off race numbers and marked your race number or body with green ink to indicate you had it halfway. I took turns taking photos with one guy, and started down after just a few minutes. I looked up once, but the summit wasn’t visible.
That was when it dawned on me that breathless ascents make for perilous descents. Immediately, for me and most everyone around me, it was major butt slide time. Made me think of schoolboy baseball days of sliding into second base, except I never used my hands at times to brake those slides like I did now! Once we reached somewhat less steep sections, with more rocks to break the footing up (if not one’s bones!), it became more of the slalom- or surfing-like “run sidewise left for a few steps then sidewise right for a few,” in order to move downward with some semblance of control.
Maybe a half an hour or so coming down, when it had become a little more of a controlled rock-hopping and –skirting descent like I enjoy in trail ultras, I started cramping up in my adductors, as sometimes happens to me. A few extra double-doses of Endurolytes (which I took maybe 15 of in the course of the whole race) quickly did their usual trick of unlocking those muscles and enabling me to continue downward.
Unfortunately, my hypoxia-assisted thinking on the way up (“I love downs, and will make up a bunch of time on the descent”) proved to be a little too optimistic. By the time we got to downs that weren’t as steep and where you weren’t in constant fear of imminent face plant or backward fall, I didn’t feel I had the energy left to just let ‘er rip. And once we got to the final 7.5k of more gradual descent on the dirt roads, the energy for the knee lift to do more than just power-shuffle downward just wasn’t there. Progress was steady, but unspectacular, and a fair number passed me, and I couldn’t seem to summon the energy to care too much. Somehow it was a little anti-climactic those last few miles on the way down, as reaching the turnaround had really been literally and figuratively the race’s high point. Hey, I already climbed this baby, and cutoff or not I’m going to finish in one piece! The one nice thing from this section was to be able to look straight ahead and up and admire the majestic views of neighboring El Popo towering in front of us.
For a while, I was motivated by the goal of making the informal 6 hour cutoff. But my Garmin, which proved pretty close to the race specifications going up, told me I wasn’t going to make that. And the last few k, there started to be a fairly frequent stream of vehicles heading upward—some probably race support, a few ATVs, an ambulance going up to assist a racer I think, etc. Fortunately, I could cover my face with my bandanna (like a bandito), such was the amount of dust they created as they went by. My throat got pretty dry from the dust and altitude by then, and remained dry for a few hours after the race even as I re-hydrated.
It was a thrill to finish, and to share big hugs with Esperanza, who patiently waited for us the whole race (meanwhile experiencing some altitude sickness herself), and Wendy and Alex, who had come in right under 6 hours. Somehow I managed not to stop either my Garmin or my stopwatch, but it was somewhere in the 6:20-25 range. Only a few hours more than I or any of us had anticipated! I’ve never been so covered in durt and dust in a race in my life. It took several of those large camping wipes to restore some semblance of normal exposed flesh and wipe away the grime.
So, what to say of this adventure? I was easily out there as long as I might be for a faster 50K. In terms of physical difficulty, those middle 2 to 2 ½ hours were easily the most difficult single section I’ve been on in any single race. For the steepness, the technical nature, and the altitude—quite a triple whammy! It’s really fulfilling to be able to push back a new barrier and make it as high as 15,944 in one piece, and then back down. I had had 12 days prior in Mexico, but two of them at sea level in Acapulco, so I was not even well acclimatized for racing in Mexico City at 7,500 feet or so, let alone double that. While not mountaineering conditions of terrain and technicality, these were at least mountaineering-quality elevations. A pretty cool feeling to be racing up, down, and around mountaineers clad in full garb, even if we left off where their hard work only just began.
One measure of the difficulty is the fact that the finisher took 2:49—and broke the course record! Wendy aptly described his technique coming down from the top as “controlled falling.”
In my hypoxic enthusiasm, on the way up, I recall entertaining thoughts of organizing the “Izta double” for next year or some future double. It would go something like this: get together a little gringo group from among my ultra circles, convince Wendy and Alex to go back against their better judgment, do the Izta race as acclimatization, stay overnight at the shelter, and hire in advance one of the local mountain guides to accompany us on a journey to the summit the next day, or perhaps more realistically over two days. With all the requisite crampons, ice axes, other gear, prior training, etc., etc., of course. I’m not one to “wing it,” present adventure aside! Summiting Izta is said to be technical but not—on some of the easier routes—hyper-technical, as such ascents go. Many foreign guided trips use Izta as acclimatization and training for a subsequent climb up the higher and tougher Orizaba, I’ve discovered in some browsing.
Only time will tell if these were oxygen-starved, high-altitude fantasies, or something I can help turn into reality by enlisted some fellow travelers. (Please contact me if you’re interested.) In the meantime, I’m thrilled to have become an official “sky runner,” and become just another of the “savages” to make the exquisitely exhausting and demanding pilgrimage partway up the slopes of the beautiful “Woman in White.” It sort of gives the concept of “half marathon” a whole new meaning!
And I’m particularly thrilled to have made great new “partner in crime” friends in Wendy and Alex, thanks to this wild and wonderful little race and this trip. Sincere thanks for letting your arms be twisted, guys, and for introducing me to mountain running, Mexican-style! Only for savages, indeed!