Dropped off in the middle of no where, we were pointed towards a never-ending sea of soft dune sand... on your mark, get set... 4 miles running across the Ica Sand Dunes to the small oasis town of Huacachina, Peru.
The three buses trudged their way up the single-lane highway, passing thousands of unmarked sheds, barely standing shelters leaning from the wind, built from corrugated cardboard, tin roofs, and wooden pallets. Thousands of these without access to water, most without access to food, many empty except for an exhausted body sleeping at night. We kept passing them, more and more, the mountains of the surrounding white sand contrasting sharply with the bright blue sky. For almost two hours we passed these shanty towns, until suddenly the shelters disappeared. They just ceased to exist. It was only our buses, and miles upon miles of soft, untouched dune fields.
And that's where they let us off the bus.
At that moment, slight panic set in. I knew that the course would be survivable. But looking out upon those sand dunes-- majestic in size, distance, and volume, with the intense heat of the sun already baring down on us at only 9:00am-- my heart began to race, fear evident in my eyes. "We're insane."
Only insane people would travel halfway across the globe into territories like the dune fields of Ica, Peru to go running. But there we were, 120 of us nutcases from North America and Europe preparing our water loads and sun-protective gear for the adventure facing us across four miles of all-consuming, shape-shifting sand.
Well, we didn't know it would be four miles. We were told it would be three. We wouldn't find out it was four miles until we completed the race. Many of the hardest athletes didn't bother to bring water with them-- what's three miles? No problem. But these sorts of surprises are what's to be expected on a Race2Adventure trip. Expect the unexpected. Expect some races to be shorter, others to be longer, all of them to be harder than whatever you might have expected before.
I was ready to get the race started, mostly so I could hurry up and finish it. I was starting to freak out. I am not, by any means, the strongest runner. Even though I had been training for this trip over the last year on some level, I was no where close to being prepared for four miles of sand running. In fact, I had specifically avoided it most of the last year. I have painfully tight calf muscles without due reason, no amount of foam rolling or stretching loosens them up. So I had quit my weekly runs on the sand at Manhattan Beach, instead opting for the cemented boardwalk where I could focus on distance and speed and cute running clothes, the biggest priorities of Southern California. I was a master of the ten-minute mile at best, and none of that was going to help me complete this run.
My boyfriend was more prepared for this run than anyone could be. An avid beach volleyball player, he's been running (jumping, lunging) on soft beach sand three or four days a week for the last several years. As we were retying our running shoes he informed me, "I'm going to leave you behind on this run. Sorry babe."
I almost started crying.
The countdown began, the racers took off. I knew to take tiny, toe-strong steps, lift my knees higher, and that I would hopefully sink into the sand less. But immediately I could feel yesterday's blisters on the backs of my ankles, raw and deep, cutting into my psyche with every step. They were bandaged and wrapped with tape to keep the sand out of them as best as possible. I had not invested in gaiters, and I was seriously regretting that lack of foresight. Additionally, my iPhone had mysteriously erased all of my music before coming to Peru-- a fact I discovered the day before on our first race-- so I was left alone in the desert dunes with only my fear and panic to motivate me.
One mile in, and I had found some sort of pace. I was keeping a cadence for maybe five steps at a time, then my ankle would roll a little in the sand and I would stumble and struggle for a few more steps. This kept repeating itself.
We came to the top of a dune. The valley below revealed hundreds of more dunes, taller and steeper than the one I was standing on. In the distance, like ants, were a handful of other runners ahead of me. I felt the blood drain from my head and into my feet. "Please don't pass out," I told myself, a mantra to avoid the most serious of potential issues for me. "Heat stroke is not an option."
I chose to descend the dune backwards, for my ankles' sake. My shoes still filled with cups of sand, but my ankles were spared the worst of the damage. Other runners decided to tumble down the dune, like children on grassy hills. Others ran with enormous lunging steps, causing sand-filled mouths for everyone around them.
At the bottom, we emptied our shoes, only to have them immediately fill up again with sand in a matter of a few steps. At that point, out of frustration and blister pain, I took off my shoes. I tied them to my Camelbak, and I continued. My mood lifted! I was feeling 10% lighter! My feet made less impact with each step, so my ankles rolled less. I was happy. The sand wasn't yet too hot to run in my socks, and I wanted to make the most of it. Two miles completed! Only one mile to go (or so I thought)!
At this point I looked around me and noticed who was next to me. I didn't know anyone, really. 120 strangers on a bus to the Ica Region and this was how our bonding was going to take place-- with sweat, tears, blood, whatever it required. Limited conversation was the only option-- all of us out of breath and thirsty, trying to retain all extra energy for the increasing heat of day. "How are you doing? Hanging in there?" was about all that was mustered between us. As one runner slowed to a walk, other runners would catch up, and I noticed that about one dozen of us were keeping pace with each other. We would finish the race together. Eventually.
As we entered mile three, our little group slowed to a walk. We were expecting the finish line at any moment, and we were anxious to see it. We had just enough energy to maybe complete this race strong, if we could just get our eyes on the finish line, we could do it. But we would reach the top of another dune and see nothing ahead but more expansive valleys and ranges of blinding white sand. It was getting difficult to keep the appreciation for our views. Truly, they were inspiring. The kind of landscapes that take your breath away, creating a powerful punch of perspective in the gut that we are all fragile and mortal and this arid wasteland really wasn't meant for casual 5ks. What were we doing? This is insane. Where is the finish line??
Finally, a friendly face! Sergio, one of the Race2Adventure organizers, was sitting atop a dune and clapping his hands for us. "Its just the next dune over! Keep going! You're doing great!" He was filming us as we passed him. At this point, I was beyond capable of smiling for the camera. I was extra miserable. My ankles were raw, yes, but I had a new blister forming on the bottom of my foot, caused by the cups of sand that rolled through my sock. I was too afraid to take my sock off, in case I revealed a bloodied foot. So I just kept going, trying to run, but still feeling on the verge of passing out. The sun was intense. We climbed the next dune, again expecting to behold the finish line, but instead we found another valley of sand and more runners, again like ants in the distance, running ahead with no finish in sight.
Our little group started getting grumpy.
We were truly maxed out. Runners were out of water. Hopelessness was setting in. Once you reach a certain level of fatigue, the mental struggle to keep going becomes harder than the actual physical struggle of taking another step. Even though this was only a few miles, our bodies require 1.6x more energy with every step in the soft, unruly sand. We were all fit and healthy people who had increased our workouts over the last year to train for this adventure. There were several on this trip who were not physically capable of completing these races at all. It was at this time that my little group started to express concern for them, as we were almost convinced that we ourselves could not complete this race.
Finally, we rounded the bend of a dune and saw the palm trees! Recognizable faces were jogging up to us, cheering us on, "you're almost there! Its an oasis!" A small pond was revealed, and an even smaller town with hotels, restaurants, shops! Just before I reached pavement, my boyfriend met me with a kiss and a bowl of watermelon and pineapple in his hands for me. "Great job babe!" I was so relieved to see him, and eternally grateful for the fruit and his encouragement. I was also reminding myself not to be mad at him for leaving me on what was agreed among the racers as the hardest race they have ever encountered in eight years with Race2Adventure. His time? Forty-five minutes, finishing with the top ten racers. Because I allowed him to run without me, his credibility as a true contender amongst the best racers was preserved.
My time? One hour and twenty-five minutes to have logged four and one-third miles. I hobbled onto the sidewalk, holding back tears. What the hell had we just done? Was this truly an accomplishment, or just insanity? I was flooded with emotion as I came to grips with the fact that the race was over, I had finished it, I was still alive.
As I crossed into Huacachina, cherishing every inch of pineapple and heading into a shower at one of the town's hostels, another realization struck me-- this was only Race 2. We had two more competitive races to go (plus a non-competitive hike up to Machu Picchu) with a five hour bus ride, three hour plane ride, and two hour train ride before our next race near Cusco.
It took a few days and for my blisters to heal in order for me to properly reflect back on that day and appreciate it for what it was-- a crude and painful challenge to our physical and psychological selves. A testament to our mortality and mental strength. A reminder that we have privileged comforts each and every day. I think back onto those shanty towns without water, food or sewage, no method of transportation beyond a few scattered mopeds and crowded buses to take the residents to local farms or power plants. In the first world, our suffering is so trite that we fly halfway across the globe to run miles in the parched desert dune fields of Ica, Peru. We are insane.
Race2Adventure is not for the weak bodied, or soul. But it is for those who enjoy these types of challenges. Its for those who seek adventure out of each and every day of our lives. Race2Adventure provided one of the best vacations of my life, if you could call it a vacation. It was an entire week packed to the brim of tough running trails, altitude, 3rd world stomach bugs, and lots of travel time, as well as the most incredible, humbling views of our planet, the friendliest and most down to earth fellow racers, and amazing local cuisine. Merritt Hopper, the lead organizer of Race2Adventure, has really created an epic tour of South America by forming this group. The challenge is addictive, as is evident from the repeat racers year after year.
I will be one of those repeat racers. I have every intention of joining the next Race2Adventure, wherever it might be. I know now that I am capable of completing even the toughest of courses, and as long as I continue to train I will be prepared for the trials that await. Volcanoes, slick mud, sandy wastelands, rushing rivers, you can expect it all with Race2Adventure. Expect discomfort. Expect pain and frustration. Expect relief and party nights and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment at the end of it all. Every blister is worth the adventure. I'll try to remember that next time I'm facing a trail that makes my stomach drop.
Want to read about another experience with Race2Adventure?
Check out Zip-Lining Over the Inca Trail in the Sacred Valley with Natura Vive and Race2Adventure, and read about another Peruvian adventure!