The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hands of man.
To describe Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonian, Chile is like trying to explain, I imagine, the details of heaven to someone who has never been to the afterlife. It is impossible to capture its beauty and its vastness in a single blog–or even an entire novel. But to write nothing at all would be to reject the gift that has been given to us over the last four days.
In this time, we covered a mere 75 miles—just a fraction of the park’s trails and acreage. I hope I never forget the exact hue of aquamarine that saturates the mountain lakes; the sound of avalanches booming and crackling high above us; the feel of the crystal-clear stream water rushing down off of the massive, jagged peaks and over my blistered, cramping toes; or the smell of the herd of horses napping in an enchanted valley grove. Not until visiting Patagonia did I realize how small my imagination has been, how limited my scale of beauty was. It’s as if the creator of the universe lay down to sleep, had the most vivid technicolor dream possible and woke to paint it on the Earth in Southern Chile.
Before our departure, while researching trail running in Torres, I was surprised to find almost no blogs, maps or routes for ultra-running in or around the park. I couldn’t imagine why this was the case in such a picturesque part of the planet. Upon arriving at the bus station in Puerto Natales, we found an information kiosk and questioned the park guide sitting sleepily inside the booth.
¿Que pasara a una persona si llega a ésta campamiento sin reservaciones después de todo el día corriendo? What would happen if we got to this camp (pointing to the map) without reservations after running all day? (Prior to our arrival we couldn’t find reservations for camping or refugios –shared cabins– for our first night.)
! No, esta ruta en un día … es imposible! No, doing this route in one day … is impossible.
And now I understand completely why that is. First, running in the park is not allowed (whoops). With seven miles left in our ultra, Chris was pulled aside and scolded by a park ranger near one of the camps. “Don’t you know the rules of the park? Running is prohibited.”
We never got a clear answer on why, but we can imagine the risk of injury in the middle of nowhere is too great. We also believe it could be due to environmental concerns. There is no rule signage that we could find in the park, alluding to anything other than staying on the trail, not setting fires, and bringing toilet paper out of the park with you.
Having experienced the park now, we would hazard to make this parallel – just because someone likes Jazzercise AND they like the Sistine Chapel, doesn’t mean the Sistine Chapel is a good place to do Jazzercise. Such exquisite natural beauty puts the Sistine Chapel to shame. And perhaps running in Torres del Paine is similar to Jazzercising on the altar. Why would anyone desecrate the sanctity and beauty by rushing through it?
The other possibility is that running just isn’t possible in many areas of the park because the terrain is just too technical, too narrow, and too crowded at a few of the more popular “W” sections. To do anything more than carefully tip-toe over the miles and miles of football-sized stones, shin-deep creek crossings and mangled roots is impossible. But it certainly didn’t stop us from trying.
Twenty-three miles and about nine hours into our ultra-day, Chris and I gleefully chuckled and fist-bumped that it had been our easiest, most enjoyable and, by far, most beautiful ultra-marathon ever. As the words left our mouths, we could just feel that we were speaking too soon. We still had twelve or so miles to go. “Maybe we should shut-up until it’s done,” Chris remarked. He couldn’t have been more right. Those next twelve miles would take us four and a half hours, and test the edges of our marriage.
As the miles passed frustratingly slow, we bickered about Chris running off on his own to grab “a few more miles” and to view the scene at the next camp. I groaned about my increasingly achy body, and the mental exhaustion of a day spent eating only sugar. My body held up relatively well, considering I’d been hiking and running all day with thirty extra pounds tightly strapped to my back, up and down the steep, scree-covered inclines. But, my feet were feeling the weight–coupled with the fact that I was out of dry socks and we continued to pass through stream after stream, without a proper breakfast, without a proper lunch, and without a proper dinner. Mostly packets of Cliff gels and candy bars all day – the kind of dense calories that fit snuggly into a small back pack and that can technically fuel a person for three days in the wild. Sure, it’s possible. But is it humane?
I knew I needed to change the mood. We were at the very end of an all-around amazing day amidst beauty that felt special and temporal. Would we ever see such beauty again in our whole lives? This fast pace felt like a sacrilege but we were on a tight deadline to reach the next checkpoint by the time that section of the trail closed. We also knew we had our first warm meal awaiting us at Domo Frances (our refugio for the night). But neither of those elements drove us to push through the physical and mental challenge more than thinking about all of our people at home. I asked Chris to call out the names of those who were cheering us on at home–the many people who had loved and supported us and helped us get to the bottom of the planet. (We were wearing a special lululemon shirt that we had printed with all of the names of the people who have sponsored/ helped us.) As each name filled my ears I could feel my heart swell and my energy rising. The love of so many back home helped me feel as if I was soaring, not dragging, to the finish line of ultra-marathon number one!
Friday, February 3rd
- Arrived by bus (3 hours) from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park
- Spent the night at the one and only hotel within 50 miles of the park—Hotel Los Torres. Thank you, Mom, for the amazing Christmas gift!
- Divided our gear and stuffed into the two packs we’d be carrying for the next three days ~25 lbs. each The picture below is what I alone carried. Chris was a martyr and carried the tent and many of the shared supplies like medicine, first aid, etc. Luckily our hydration bladders within the pack weren’t filled completely as that would have added more weight. We were saved by using a Grayl water bottle which has a filtration system that allows you to drink water from anywhere instantly. We simply stuck the bottle under a flowing mountain stream and we were good to go. I have no idea how we would’ve completed this ultra otherwise without a water supply.
- Practice setting up the tent and Chris proceeding to break, then fix it—repairing it with the sticky-tape portion of my Charmin butt wipes and the real metal horseshoe that was our room’s key chain for the night. Was that a good luck omen or a bad luck omen?
Saturday, February 4th
- Slept as late as we could and then grabbed the buffet breakfast of cheeses, bread with pear-cake, cornflakes with thick yogurt on top, and café con leche (coffee with milk). This would be our last meal for a day and a half.
- Hit the trail hiking north on the ‘”O” loop. Very few people do this version of the trail as it takes about 7 days to hike the whole loop. We decided to do an out-and-back section to experience a different part of the park.
- Arrived at Campamiento Serón around 3:30PM after 11 miles of hiking and set up camp
- Chris set out alone to run another ~5 miles
- Hung out, napped and envisioned the next day until dark ~10:30pm
Sunday, February 5th
- Woke up shortly after sunrise 6:40AM, packed up our camp and were on the trail by 8AM
- Hiked/Ran 20 miles to Domo Frances
- Checked in, dropped most of our supplies and immediately got back on the trail
- Ran from Domo Frances to Paine Grande ~7 miles
- Turned around and ran back to Domo Frances, barely missing the cut-off for one of the trail sections. (They won’t let you out on the trail after a certain hour depending on where you’ve passed. Each section of trail has it’s own unique and seemingly random curfew).
- Showered and ate our first meal since Saturday morning and passed out. We craved mashed potatoes and they gave us mashed potatoes.
Monday, February 6th
- Left Domo Frances ~10AM and hiked to home base camp Torres Norte ~13 miles
- Spent the night at refugio Torre Norte (bunk bed room with four other guys)
Tuesday, February 7th
- Woke up at 6:30AM for early breakfast
- Hiked straight up hill, a portion of Torres route ~6 miles
- Chris ran ahead to Chileno and circled back to get me ~5 miles
- Got on the bus for Puerto Natales at 2:30PM (3 hours)