The Misti Sky Race is a unique event, it is potentially the highest sky race in the World, right up to the very top at 58225m (19,119ft) and it is a simple up-and-down race, unlike most trail races in Peru. Not exactly a straight up-and-down as runners start on the far side of the volcano from Aguadas Blanca and finishes in the village of Chiguata. A choice of 3 distances available, 10km (which doesn’t actually visit the summit), 21km and 42km. As I had simply not got the miles (or climbing) in, I plumped for the middle distance 21km, although the vertical climbing amount was the same as the long race.
I had my mate Charlie down for the weekend. He lives up in the mountains ‘oop north at an altitude of 10,000ft so he is always acclimatised. A 3am start on Sunday morning is a strange time to be ready for, in theory it gives you heaps of time to get ready, but you do need to squeeze some shuteye in beforehand and finish all the faffing around, packing and repacking in time for a midnight bus.
It is a strange race to plan for. The start is always brass monkey temperature and by 10am it is red hot, but there can also be an icy breeze sweeping in off the Altiplano, then dropping off the far side the wind drops completely and it is as dry as a dead dingo in the desert, (as it is practically desert!) Therefore the kit list is pretty extensive.
I started running as a fellrunner in the 80’s when you would invariably wear a smelly Hansen polypropylene top (as that was all that there was available) with skimpy shorts (it was the 80’s) and you could carry all your kit in a bumbag (a jacket, map, compass, whistle and a bar of Kendal Mint Cake). Simpler times maybe but I lean way too much on nostalgia at times. Kit has improved beyond imagination over the years.
Talking of kit I packed my brilliantly versatile Alpkit Heiko jacket, Arro windproof jacket, Parallax pants and other necessities carried in my Artlu pack, just enough space for everything you need and no temptation to take stuff you don’t!
My knees are knackered so I opted for poles. After my recce fiasco two weeks earlier I had 2 litres of water and a litre of magic sports drink.
My main worry was my feet as they were still battered from their previous skinning and I simply couldn’t get my hands on the right sticky plasters to bind them up. Blisters can be a showstopper and starting a race with trashed feet is never a good idea but I had little alternative.
I had eaten plenty through the daytime on Saturday but faffed around so much that I only had an hour to force a late siesta. The neighbours were having their usual Saturday-afternoon-to-Sunday-morning fiesta so I just closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, of course dropping into the deepest of deep slumbers 5 minutes before my alarm went off.
I am a complete caffeine addict but usually avoid coffee before a race. Waking up I automatically brewed up, this would bite my backside soon after. Time flies at a rate of knots when you have to catch a bus so it was rush-rush-rush, then a taxi into the centre, looking inconspicuous in our race kit compared to Saturday night revellers. In Peru time is only a loose indication so the midnight bus didn’t leave until nearer half twelve, whilst waiting for latecomers and stragglers. As soon as the bus set off everybody seemed to fall asleep and I was immediately desperate for the toilet. Every speedbump and pothole made it worse, it must be my age. We climbed out of town and were soon on the dirt track hairpins making up a mini convoy of headlights swaying wildly left, then right, then left, then right into the inky blackness. The full moon was completely obscured by cloud. At the top of the pass a 4x4 in front stopped and as it was a singletrack we had to stop, so I begged the driver for a loo stop which was refused but then he got off so I seized my chance. Having left Arequipa on a typically cold, dry night it was now mild and wet, raining in fact.
It never rains in November, not in these parts, that could be a real gamechanger in the going and gear stakes. We chugged over the pass and then stopped at the reservoir gates, with about 2 hours to kill. Most folk slept but I was too agitated to sleep and was keen not to fall into a slumber again so I mooched around checking my watch obsessively until we were called into line at 2:50am.
3am is a strange time to start running. Having worked nightshifts for 7 years I know it is the natural low time of the body, but after an extended countdown we were off into the inky blackness and pretty soon a line of headtorches were strung out like the washing, some punters set off at breakneck speed, others walking. My mate Charlie works on a fatburning method so he goes steady at the start and I stuck with him, with my intense lack of climbing in my legs it went for a get-me-round approach rather than trying to win it!
One good thing about striding into the dark is that you can’t see the big 5825m lump ahead that is still a remarkably long way away, then you hit the sand, going from a decent hard packed trail to icing sugar stuff just as the incline starts. The first checkpoint was manned by two extremely hardy souls. Marshals are the salt of the earth in races and it was a bleak time and place to be stood for hours. We said hello, goodbye then carried on upwards, amazed by how far the leaders were in front and how dramatically others were starting to fade on the climb. We became a mini group of four: a young Aussie lad in skateboard shoes, a Peruvian called Luis, Charlie and myself. Apart from Charlie, we all went through low patches and helped each other through them, especially when Luis crashed and sat down saying “That’s it! I’m going down”. We filled him full of energy drink and he perked up and plodded on.
By now the sun was getting higher but an icy wind blew on our backs and it felt pretty nippy. From about 5000m the big iron cross is visible and looks deceptively close, but don’t fall for that trick, it isn’t! More walking wounded and lost souls were passed at the steep/loose bits. Thousand yard stares. This is no-man’s land. Abandoning here is a long way either way, up or down, and there is no broom wagon at 20,000ft.
I knew from the previous year that when you hit the main zig-zags you are getting close. Crazily loose powder sand and air with very little oxygen in it.
Zig-zag-zig-zag-zig-zag and THE SUMMIT!
It is a really special place is the summit of El Misti. The view suddenly opens up and an amazing panorama over the crater to the distant lofty neighbours, Chachani (6057m) and Picchu Picchu (5665m). Arequipa city looks miles away.
It wasn’t a day for loitering nor lingering and it was a relief to drop down into the stinky, but warm crater for the descent. I stumbled here and gave myself a wake-up slap to pick my feet up, a fall here would not be wise. There is a gap in the crater’s defences on it’s southern cone and from here it is a BIG scree run down to the next checkpoint. Steep and loose rock which somehow doesn’t slide off the mountain, rocks defying gravity completely. Some bigger boulders are rooted in there which keep you on your toes. With thighs like Mr. Jelly after 20 minutes I was down to the next checkpoint and pleased I had chosen the shorter race, as I felt half-goosed. The route now just headed almost due south and down, down, down, but I was aware that I had seen no other runners since the summit. It got hot, I had drunk too little (an innate fear of running out of fluid after my disastrous recce) and my feet felt in a very bad way. Hobbling downwards, stumbling like a drunk but glad I wasn’t going up the way I had tumbled down, like the heavily overladen backpackers on their 2-day outing coming in the opposite direction. The path got really sketchy after crossing and recrossing a dry river bed. This was one patch I didn’t know and hadn’t studied beforehand. After the previous year when a 26 mile route was actually 30 miles+, by this point I had run over the advertised 13 miles and was nowhere near any signs of a finish, again I just took it as value for money miles!
At the trailhead I still couldn’t see any tracks, nor sign of the finish. Had I screwed up somewhere?
My feet were properly trashed , I had to find the finish!
A flapping yellow gazebo in the shimmering distance looked promising and after half and hour more hobbling, I was done (in)!
Finished and a seed had been planted…