El Desafio de Lava: On Running a 1/2 Marathon up a Volcano
The Saturday before the half-marathon up Volcano Pacaya we were doing the tourist thing of roasting marshmallows on the side of the volcano. I told the guide we should get a group to run up the Volcano instead of our leisurely pace. He told me, in Spanish, that a marathon would be on the volcano in two weeks.
I visited the RunGuate Facebook page learning that there was a ½ marathon, but it wasn’t in two weeks. It was in 6 days. That’s not much time for training.
I messaged Cesar, a friend from Guatemala City, and went out the door running.
After a lukewarm shower and a Guatemalan style dinner of bread, eggs, and beans, I went online and saw that Cesar had replied with enthusiasm! He was already planning on running and offered to go to the mall to sign me up and to pay the Q125 ($15) entrance fee!
The next day I was signed up, and there was no turning back. This is becoming some kind of life philosophy for me. I can’t just get into something gradually or slowly. Instead I leap in like I’m jumping off of a diving board, and then ask how to swim.
This race I was determined to feel less like omg-I-just-ran-way-too-long-without-a-break-and-now-I-want-to-pass-out and more like omg-I-just-ran-way-too-long-and-feel-good. Saturday I drank lots and lots of water, as well as an intense carrot juiced drink. I wasn’t able to sleep the night after the last marathon. Google says bananas work well as muscle relaxers so have a good race went to sleep early and ate lots of bananas.
Last week I went on a long run in Antigua up to the hill of the cross. The next day I did sprints. Sprints are supposed to help build up your lung capacity to be able to supply more oxygen to your muscles and are much more exhausting than long runs. During one of these sprints, a petite Guatemalan woman with a large German shepherd asked, “Are you winning?”
The day of the race I ate more than 8 bananas. I counted. Carlos, owner of Porque No Café, made me some Jamaica juice (pronounced huh-my-kuh, not juh-may-kuh) to drink before the race which he swore was a miracle juice.
I was so excited about the race that I forgot to set my alarm. I was to meet Cesar at Parque Central at 6AM but instead woke up at 6:10. I left quickly, taking coffee, Jamaica juice, bananas, chocolate muffins, water, a change of clothes, and my phone. No camera besides my iPhone this time, since my camera broke back in Panajachel.
On the way to the race Cesar and I listened to some of our favorite hits including The Killers, Antonio Banderes, and a lot of European techno. We also listened to What a Wonderful World, Cesar singing along with a Guatemalan accent, and me trying to sing with a low and guttural voice. I told him if he wants to sing like Louis Armstrong than he needs to smoke a LOT of cigarros, and he laughed at me. It’s surprising how much pop culture can be a tying bond between Guatemalans and me. I mean, here we were, driving out of Antigua Guatemala to go climb a volcano and singing along the classic hit from Toy Story. I’d also decided not to listen to music during the race, instead pumping myself up with music beforehand.
We park at the small town at the bottom of Pacaya and suit up. I wear a red and white shirt from the last ½ marathon and my black shorts from this summer. I have with me my bicycle gloves, a red bandana, my Guatemalan cell phone, a piece of paper with Paul’s phone number reading “EN CASO DE EMERGENCIA”, and the equivalent of about $4.
There’s a countdown of 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 in Spanish, and we’re off.
The beginning is downhill but not for long. We head through the town and are quickly off the road and away from houses, people, dogs, and chicken buses. The path turns from concrete to a dirt road to a wide dirt path to a very skinny path going through the Guatemalan jungle.
I am amazed at the Guatemalan’s dexterity as they run down steep and narrow trails covered with rocks and sand. Throughout the race they go much faster than I downhill but we all walk up the hills the same speed.
Once we go around the lake we enter into a small village where they have the first station providing water in 500ml plastic bags, oranges, and a thin green colored rubberband to prove we didn’t take shortcuts.
From here we go up. And up. And up. For 3,000 feet. This chart has the elevation marked out well.
This is walking, and takes almost two hours to reach the top of this climb.
At one point I get lost with about 6 other people in a group and we end up walking through corn fields planted in volcanic rock and sand, following the voice of a Guatemalan yelling “Ahii! Ahii!” “There! Over there!!” We get high enough and see a trail to the right with other “runners” walking up the Volcano and head over to join them, crawling under a barbed wire fence to enter the narrow path up.
For wide is the path that the tourists take up Pacaya, but narrow is the path for the ½ marathon runners.
The summit is absolutely beautiful. Everyone takes a short pause at the top to look around at the different Volcanoes in the distance, the cows grazing inside the inactive volcano’s grass-covered cone, the other runners, and the path ahead. It was breathtaking both because of the beauty and because we had just finished climbing 3,000 feet.
I share an “Increible, eh vos?” or “Incredible, eh guy?” with another runner and then am back to the path, watching my step. We’re running along the top edge of an inactive volcano cone, and while the view is incredible you might roll down several hundred feet if you miss a step.
There is a unique feeling in races of togetherness. Everyone’s bodies are being challenged and beaten, but everyone is in it together. From the beginning to the end there is a unity with the other runners. Everyone is family, encouraging each other and rejoicing in the completion of the run. I can see how this can get addicting real fast but believe it or not, I’m still experimenting with this whole running thing.
I’ve jumped off the diving board and into the water, but after climbing up the ladder and out of the pool I’m trying to decide if I should do it again. Maybe it’s not worth the physical intensity. Runners have a high risk of injury and I don’t want to be a statistic.
The race had its ups and downs.
At the top of the next short climb there is a little shack with more water and oranges. I bite the corner of the plastic water container, drinking and being thankful for not passing out. Up at the top, it’s cold. But nothing compared to Michigan or Illinois in the winter.
My body is used to the cold. I remember shaking and shivering as an assistant referee with a flag with snow falling at soccer games when I was 14. In Guatemala, most of the runners are sporting pants, long-sleeves, hats, and gloves. I have on shorts, a bandana, and a t-shirt.
I told several people during the race, “Si no hay nieve, no hay frio.” Or “If there’s no snow, it’s not cold”.
I call Valerie outside this little shack, but no answer. I continue descending, aware of the pain in my legs, abdomen, back, as well as the inclination of the path. It was steep. The kind of steep that’s fun to run down Michigan’s sand dunes, but only if you know it levels out at the bottom. The kind of steep that goes down for thousands of feet, so I’d better not trip.
I thought I’d taken 10 minutes of running when I arrive at the barren volcanic ash of Pacaya. There are no trees or plants here. It is picture perfect like the last scene in Lord of the Rings, climbing up Mt. Doom. Minus the lava, Gollum, and giant birds. It’s a clear day and I can see the top of the Volcano gaping, ready to spew out molten earth at any moment.
I call Valerie again. She said it had been more like 30 minutes. I say I’m on top of the world; I’m tired, but that the race is incredible. She asks how I’m feeling and I say that I had better go, I still had 3 miles to get down from the Volcano and to the finish line.
I grab a rock off the ground and stick it in my pocket, a souvenir of the experience. There are two kids on Pacaya chanting “Si se puede! Si se puede!” or “Yes you can! Yes you can!” North Face has a bright yellow tent set up for everyone to pose and have a picture taken in front of.
The descent was painful. After pretending that I’m snow skiing down the loose and sandy volcanic ash I join the party at the bottom. We clean our shoes out from the tiny volcanic rocks and we then are running on a dirt road again, at an uncomfortably fast yet uncomfortably slow downhill pace. I take a few breaks to walk, but ultimately decide to try to “embrace the beast” as described in the book Born To Run. This book is about Ultra-Runners, anyone who runs more than 50 miles at a time.
I make it down the descent and towards the town where I get to a spot where there are no runners, no spectators, and no vehicles. The road turns to concrete again, and I take a break walking for a minute. I was exhausted, and was not excited to run to the endline that was still not in sight. After about a minute of this pathetic moping I hear a runner approaching from behind. I hear him say “Vamos, Vamos!” or “Let’s go, Let’s go!” He says it again as he passes me and looks at me as if to say “C’mon, man! I’m running, and so can you!”
I run with him, slowly, towards the finish line. I’m not convinced we’re going much faster than if we were walking, but it feels a lot better to be pushing myself. When we get to the last 30 yards, we picked up the pace and ran, finishing together. This is a great attribute to the running community. Togetherness, challenge, and pain bind the community of runners into a family that, during the race, will support and challenge each other to excel. This particular runner and I even have this sweet photo together at the end of the run.
So, I completed the race. I wouldn’t really call it a run because we walked more than we ran, but the race was physically intense.
These last couple days since the race have been surreal. My body and mind are in complete shock that the run was real. It happened, it really happened.
I’ve noticed I’ve been more serene, mentally. More calm. I have prayed more in the last few days here than the rest of the semester combined. I’ve found myself being grateful for simpler things.
There’s something spiritual about just having shoes and running up a Volcano. There’s something spiritual about exploring and traveling. Running can be a spiritual act of putting mind and body together in worship.
As I finished with the other runner as a comrade, I remembered a phrase that Elder, my host father, had told me before the race.
“Correr es vivir.” “To run is to live.”
And this, I will never forget.
To view the elevation map click here.
To see a picture of us nearing the finish line, click this.
To see the money shot from the top of the Volcano, check this out.