Where Am I and Why Is Everyone Wearing a Helmet? My story of La Misión – South America’s only 100 mile Ultramarathon
In 2005, South America’s only 100 miler, La Misión, was born. Set in the Lakes District of Patagonia in Argentina, the race is more of an adventure race/survival trek/helmeted death-march spectacle, than a traditional American or European style 100 miler. To understand the many unusual aspects of this race, you have to understand that adventure races are extremely popular in South America. They are much more popular than ultramarathons. Since the founders of the race and many of the competitors are primarily adventure racers, much of adventure racing’s culture, gear, and style are ingrained in the race. There are no crews or pacers allowed. There are no real aid stations, but there are two check points where a hamburger and a soda can be purchased. Runners get their water from streams and must carry all the food they need for the entire race. The course is changed every year and the exact route is announced just before the race. The host city also changes every year, so each year the course is totally new. The course is usually between 95 and 105 miles and can have anywhere from 22,000 to 30,000 feet of climbing. The first few years there were no course markers, but since then, they have gradually marked more parts of the course. Competitors have to carry a large amount of mandatory gear, including a helmet, sleeping bag, and radio. A helmet, you ask? Yes, the helmet is definitely a bizarre aspect to the race. It is made even stranger by the fact that almost all the runners wear the helmet the entire race. The cutoff is 72 hours so it is possible to do it in stages, which some people do; however, many competitors run it straight through.
The Race’s Trailer [EB – This is definitely worth a watch!]
(If you can’t see the video, click here.)
The race is characterized by not only big beautiful mountains, but very challenging, overgrown “trails”, many of which are just places where someone took a machete and made a faint path for the race, and many off-trail sections. It is also known for ferocious, unpredictable weather and the ever present Patagonian wind.
My interest in the race began last year. I was backpacking around South America and wanted to do some races while down there. The combination of being undertrained, carrying a 30+ lb. pack of heavy general purpose backpacking gear, and the desire to not ruin the next part of my trip being unable to walk, led me to drop at 100 kilometers. When I dropped this Brazilian guy mockingly said “What’s the matter USA, too hard”? While I was happy with my decision to drop, his words stuck in my head. I vowed to come back and finish the race. I scoured the Internet and found the lightest gear possible. In the end, my pack weighed a mere 9 lbs. including the helmet and water.
The 2012 edition of the race started and finished in Villa la Angostura and traversed the many mountains of the Nahuel Huapi National Park. It had 25,000 ft. of climbing and was basically one big figure eight.
The race this year had an unusual component thrown in the mix: volcanic ash. Last year the Puyehue volcano dumped several feet of ash on the town and surrounding mountains. I drove through Angostura last year, and witnessed people using snow shovels and snow plows to clear the ash. While the volcano has stopped erupting, all the trails are covered in ash, which is like really abrasive sand.
I had every intention of doing a lot of training for this race, but life got in the way so I was seriously undertrained going into the race. To make matters worse, I spent the week before the race in Rio de Janeiro partying on the beach, stuffing myself with food, and drinking way too much, plus I was sleep deprived from two overnight flights. All this combined with going from winter in the US to summer in Brazil; back to near winter in Patagonia caused me to catch a cold the day before the race.
Waking up on race morning with a full blown cold, I knew this was going to be a long couple of days, but as I stood in the rain in the starting chute, with loud dance music blaring, I was giddy with excitement for the adventure to come. At 12 pm on 12/12/12, 400 helmet clad, bright orange shirt wearing runners from 14 different countries and I set off into the cold wind and rain.
The first climb up to Cerro Bayo was very steep – about 3,000 feet in three miles. Once we got above the tree line, we were blasted with hurricane force winds, white out conditions, snow, and hail. At one point running across a long ridgeline, I was almost knocked over by the wind. The route was entirely off trail and the ash was about a foot deep so it was slow going. With my cold, I already felt terrible. From the top of the mountain, we dropped down to the Cerro Bayo Ski area and then continued on the Huella Andina path.
As I got back into the trees, the snow turned into a hard rain. The forest protected us from the wind, but much of the trail was gone due to the ash so it was mostly off trail for the next five miles. There were many cold stream crossings, down trees, and even some shoe sucking mud. I really was feeling bad at this point, which is never good 15 miles into a 100. Luckily by the time I made it up to the next pass, Col Tres Nacientes, it had stopped raining. It was still slow going, with more stream crossings and down trees, until Col Bonito, then the trail became a little more defined.
The climb up Cerro O’Conners was steep, but the spectacular views made it worth it. The course traversed the long ridge above the tree line for three miles. The wind really picked as the sun set and I quickly had to put on all the clothes I had in my pack to stay warm.
I made it to the first check point at kilometer 58 at 10:30 pm. I was sick, cold, wet, and knew that if I continued all night through the bad weather, I would likely have problems staying warm and probably make myself much sicker. I decided to sleep for four hours and then continue on, hoping that the weather would be a little better in the day.
I woke up at 3:00 am, bought a hamburger, and was greeted by clear skies and a spectacular showing of southern hemisphere stars. I felt totally refreshed and started running fast, passing many people. I had dropped to 95th place during my nap. I made great time over the next two big passes, and felt great running down the Rio Negro valley. The valley started very narrow and the river zigzagged back and forth so the course crossed the river many, many times and was up to waist deep. The water was freezing so I am very glad I didn’t try and do it in the middle of the night. Now there was only one big climb until the second checkpoint at km 112 the small village of Villa Traful.
As I descended into the village, there was a class of young kids walking up the road. When they saw me, they spontaneously began cheering and running with me! It was such an unexpected and genuine joy after hours and hours alone on the trail, that it really uplifted my mood. At the checkpoint, I ate another hamburger, had some coffee, and changed socks. I was back up to 38th place.
The next section was one of the easier parts of the course: 8 km on a dirt road, followed by a short but steep climb, then a longer gradual climb up to Col Tres Nacientes. I found a nice stick that I used a trekking pole in this section and it made a big difference. I passed a few folks I had run on the first day so I got a big boost from that and made great time up to the Col.
I crossed back over the Col, and headed towards the final challenge of the race. It was a 50% pitch for 800 feet up an ash clogged avalanche chute, at mile 95. The wind was howling, sand blasting me with ash and pebbles, and there were three runners about half way up the climb, knocking down more ash and small rocks. Until this point, my helmet had stayed in my pack, but as I looked up at the scramble, I put it on.
I slowly climbed, looking up every few steps to watch for falling rocks. At the top, it steepened even more and there was a fixed rope to help us get up it. At the top, I sat behind a little rock wall and caught my breath. “Wow that was crazy. I’m glad it’s all downhill from here!” I happily bounded down the hill, trying to stay upright in the wind. I felt great until I looked over at the adjacent mountain and noticed some runners hiking up it. “Crap! One more climb.” I should have studied that elevation profile a little more. There was one more scramble up a ridge to the real summit of Cerro Buol. The blowing ash was just unbelievable along the ridge– I had a Buff covering my face, but it still filled my nose, eyes, mouth, and ears. Finally, I crested the summit and dropped down to a saddle, where the course steeply dropped back down below the tree line. My spirits were lifted again, but the constant ups and downs, more stream crossings, down trees, and pointless meandering of the trail really got me down. This part of the course eventually T’d into the first few miles of the course. I kept hoping it was just around the next bend, but I had gotten to the point where time seemed to stand still and every bend looked exactly the same.
After what seemed like forever, I came to the intersection. From here, there was another two miles of trail, followed by about one mile of road into town. I was hoping to finish in day light, but I had to turn my headlamp on at this point. The trail here was very steep downhill and I made a last ditch effort to run strong. After about 100 yards, I completely wiped out – my water bottles went flying and head lamp flew off my head. Luckily there was no damage, but I decided to just walk down the rest of the trail.
Finally, the trail ended and I made the turn onto the road into town! A few snowflakes started falling, and I tried my best to run into town, but my legs were so fried that I mostly walked. After what seemed like forever, I rounded the bend and saw the finish line! I finished in 33:58, good enough for 27th place out of 260 finishers.
The winner of the race, Gonzalo Calisto from Ecuador, destroyed to race’s record by four hours, to finish in 22:43. Yanet Guzman, from Argentina, was the first female in 33:02. There were two other finishers from the USA, who currently live in South America: John Tidd was 2nd overall, and Patrick Thurber was 5th overall in his first 100 mile race.
La Misión is really a unique and spectacular event, despite the weird helmets. The course was absolutely beautiful and it was very well directed. I found it refreshing to participate in a very different style of race than the typical US-style race. I think many runners do the same races or the same type of races, year in and year out. Break out! Do something different, something outside of your comfort zone, or international. You’ll be surprised how rewarding and fun it is.
Check out this great video of the 2012 race.
(If you can’t see the video, click here.)
– Jim Breyfogle