28 Aug

Survival In The Mountains

Paul Craig

Scottish ex-pat Paul Craig reports on a gruelling Q50 80k ultra in Oaxaca, southern Mexico.

I've been living and running in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico for over three years now. It hasn't always been easy to find longer distance races, so I was delighted to see a notice for a Q50 80km ultra marathon in Barro Jaguar, a nature reservation close to the state capital of Oaxaca de Juarez.

I'd already run two 50k ultras in the US and one of these had a pretty serious gradient, but I knew that the climate and altitude would make the Oaxaca Q50 an entirely different proposition. I wasn't wrong.

We set off early at 6:30am and the first 3k of the race was rather pleasant, with the hundred or so runners lighting up a single track gently undulating in and out of the woods. This was followed by about five kilometres of quite severe intermittent climbing opening out onto a more solid wider track. But really, this was nothing compared to what was to come. At around the 10k mark the mountain appeared, towering above us with nothing less than a 750 metre climb over five kilometres. This was an incredibly physically demanding part of the course, including hand-over-hand rock climbing around spiny maguey plants and thick scrub. Thankfully the summit was the highest point of the day but overall we would end up going up and down more than 4,000 metres.

At the end of this climb we skirted the rim of the mountain on shaky legs over an uneven path with a terrifying drop on our right hand side. The view here, and for much of the race was absolutely fantastic, but the terrain continued to be tricky. The way down the mountain was a steep descent over loose stony ground and concentration was required to avoid tripping and suffering a nasty fall. Fortunately, I managed to survive this part with nothing more than blooded knees. Another runner suffered a nasty fall and broke some ribs. As we re-joined the flat on the way into the picturesque town of San Baltazar I took the opportunity to speak with some of the other runners. Everyone agreed that this was a hell of a tough course. Eventually about five or six of us made it back downhill to the half-way point. It was already half past two in the afternoon.

After the half-way point, a return to solid track gave me a boost but after leaving the road and returning to a downhill single track, the cloud broke and my legs started to hurt in the heat. At this stage I could only stumble downhill and jog along a bit on the flat. Eventually cramp struck, but another runner heard me struggling and stopped to give me some heat rub. This was a really nice gesture and the rub seemed to work well enough to get me going again. Then it started to rain. This was a glorious relief from the heat. I even managed to catch another few runners after the track turned back into road.

When we finally reached the last aid station what remained was a 500 metre climb over 3k followed by a further 3k of rough undulating single track. So, it was a brisk march up the winding path of the hill that never seemed to end and a run on empty legs to the finish. In the panic and jubilation of having the end in sight I even managed a last sprint to finish in just under 14 hours. The fastest runners completed the course in just over 11 hours but there were still guys running well into the night.

While a few people were unhappy about the difficulty of the race, the majority of the runners gave positive feedback and if they didn't finish they still wanted to return again to try and 'beat the mountain'. I certainly enjoyed myself and would run it again. However, if you ever plan to do a race like this I would strongly recommend putting in some serious time training running in the hills if that isn't already your type of thing.

For more running stories from Mexico you can visit Paul's blog.