Would you run an ul­tra­ma­rathon around a smok­ing Chilean vol­cano?

Trail Running (UK) - - Challenge Yourself - Words and Pho­tos Matt Maynard

Ev­ery trail run­ner wants cer­tain in­for­ma­tion from the or­gan­iser be­fore head­ing to an event. You know the stuff… How much el­e­va­tion gain? What will the weather will be like? Num­ber of aid sta­tions? Will there be pick­led onion Mon­ster Munch? Is the vol­cano likely to ex­plode?

Races in South Amer­ica, par­tic­u­larly in Chile – in the south­ern Arau­canía re­gion to be pre­cise – have a whole dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive when it comes to the chal­lenges faced on the route. The Nim­bus Out­doors team be­hind the Pucón Trail Run 50k doesn’t just tempt you around the snowy flanks of any or­di­nary vol­cano. No, they choose an ac­tive one.

Vol­cán Vil­lar­rica last ex­ploded in March 2015. Lava foun­tained 1000m into the night sky. Molten boul­ders tum­bled down the il­lu­mi­nated glacier. Res­i­dents of nearby towns watched fear­fully as the sur­round­ing forests caught fire. Indige­nous Ma­puche leg­end

tells how Pil­lán, the God of Thun­der, is re­spon­si­ble for th­ese cat­a­strophic events. The Ma­puche name for the vol­cano, Ru­capil­lán, ac­tu­ally means Pil­lán’s house. And so as the race brief­ing un­folded, two things were made clear. One: Pil­lán doesn’t re­ally like peo­ple go­ing round his house. Two: there wouldn’t be any Mon­ster Munch.

Valley trail

I’ve run Vil­lar­rica’s trails be­fore as a com­peti­tor, but to­day I’m work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher. The or­gan­siers send me in by pick-up. At 4am we turn off the Tar­mac to­wards the back­side of the vol­cano. Gravel turns to soil. Over­grown branches thwack from the dark­ness against the pas­sen­ger win­dow. In two hours’ time the run­ners will be driven here. But for now it’s just me, the river and the low-ly­ing trees. Oh, and the pumas that the driver glee­fully as­sures me stalk this for­est.

The route, which boasts 2500m of ver­ti­cal as­cent, sneaks be­tween long-limbed de­cid­u­ous raulí trees and stouter, moon­light-block­ing coihues. By night, the only sound is glacier melt­wa­ter, gur­gling un­der­foot through an­cient leaf mulch. But as day­light breaks through the canopy, a pneu­matic kind of ham­mer­ing be­gins. Some­where be­neath the steadily ris­ing trail, the tod­dler-size Mag­el­lanic wood­pecker is bang­ing out break­fast bugs.

Noth­ing in this for­est is quite as it seems. Ropes of sca­ley, green mon­key puz­zle arch down like um­brel­las with­out their fab­ric. Shad­ows here move through­out the day in mir­ror im­age to their north­ern hemi­sphere coun­ter­parts. And as the trail mark­ers lead up to the snow­line the trees soon shrink to bon­sai size, be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing al­to­gether. From here a rocky ridge of vol­canic lava rock now be­gins to snake its way up the slopes. At this point slower-mov­ing run­ners will have to don jack­ets to pro­tect them­selves from the wind.

At the front of the pack the fastest com­peti­tors are soon in sight. The front run­ners have some­thing of an es­caped­con­vict look about them. Ar­gen­tini­ans, Gus­tavo Reyes and his nephew Franco Pare­des, are no dif­fer­ent. Skid­ding through frigid lava-scree and snow, they are mo­men­tar­ily sil­hou­et­ted against the frosted but­tress of neigh­bour­ing Vol­cano Quetrupil­lán. Pump­ing their hands on their knees on a short climb through rocks, the Ar­gen­tini­ans spy Chilean Luis Bre­vis over their shoul­der. Bre­vis is a den­tist by day. But they eye­ball him like he’s John McClane.

More run­ners come pour­ing across the ridge, their bright clothes bob­bing like colour­ful kites over the sur­round­ing mon­key-puz­zle ocean. Some, af­ter

‘For now it’s just me, the river and the trees. And the pumas that stalk this for­est’

clam­ber­ing through rocks and bash­ing a few re­main­ing bushes out the way, just stand and stare when con­fronted with the white enor­mity of Vol­cán Vil­lar­rica. Oth­ers stop to take self­ies, strug­gling to frame both them­selves and the gi­ant smok­ing cone in the shot.

A few of the slower run­ners carry wooden sticks to sup­port them­selves, col­lected from the for­est be­low. The first 10km of the race has al­ready seemed to wizen th­ese weary Gan­dalfs to the ex­act size of the chal­lenge they have un­der­taken. Their faces seem lost in thought about whether they will ac­tu­ally make it to the fin­ish.

Chorizo hot­dogs and beer

The Pucón Trail Run 50k is a full­blooded moun­tain run­ning race. From the ridge the run­ners must now dive be­tween bul­bous lumps of magma and through stunted mon­key puz­zles. Th­ese trees be­come taller with ev­ery me­tre de­scended into the tem­per­ate valley be­low. There’s a pause at the 15km aid sta­tion and a mo­men­tary respite of wel­come easy dirt-track run­ning. Com­peti­tors are then jet­ti­soned once more on to a faint trail of snow, ice, scree and bil­low­ing or­ange trail mark­ings that wind around Vil­lar­rica’s pre­cip­i­tous skirt to the fin­ish line.

Not so much a pic­ture post­card race, this is more like some­thing from the pages of Na­tional Ge­o­graphic. For a British trail run­ner it’s like jour­ney­ing through a ge­og­ra­phy text­book come-to­life. Yet while fan­tas­ti­cal for us, th­ese moun­tains are the back­drop to do­mes­tic life. Chilean chil­drens’ draw­ings of home be­gin with a thick jagged line for the An­des. Earth tremors – which we would call earth­quakes if they hap­pened in the UK – barely raise an eye­brow. Words such as fu­marola, de­scrib­ing vol­ca­noemit­ted smoke (there’s no such word in English), are learnt in pri­mary school.

It is those smokey clouds that are bil­low­ing above the fin­ish line at the Pucón ski re­sort. Pare­des beats his un­cle by al­most half an hour, win­ning the men’s 50k race in 5hr 4min. The Chilean den­tist rounds the vol­cano in fourth. Com­pa­triot Cindy Ramírez is the first woman home in 6hr 48min. It’s an­other five hours be­fore the fi­nal com­peti­tor crosses the line. All but two of the start­ing 51 reach the fin­ish.

Re­gard­less of speed, the com­peti­tors re­ceive a chorizo hot­dog. They cheer the re­main­ing run­ners in with lo­cal beer. On the doorstep of the thun­der god, there’s now a party in full swing. Luck­ily for ev­ery­one, Pil­lán de­cides to have a quiet night in.

In Chile you’re never far from a smok­ing vol­cano

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