"Together we knew toil, joy and pain. My fervent wish is that the nine of us who were united in face of death should remain fraternally united through life."

- Maurice Herzog, Annapurna 1950

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

A different race

This was a very fun weekend. Joan and I have just returned from Brazil, where he participated for the second time at the Brazil 135 ultramarathon, successfully completing it. The following is my brief report on the experience of being his pacer and crew, something that was completely new for me.

We met Silvia at the Guarulhos (São Paulo) airport, she would help us to drive our rented car throughout the race. After 3 hours of driving we arrived to São João da Boa Vista on Thursday afternoon, where after making the race check-in, having a good meal and buy supplies, we went to sleep to regain strength before the early wake up on Friday.

After a relatively light sleep due to the typical pre-race stress, we woke up around 5:30 a.m. for breakfast. The atmosphere before the race felt relaxed, as if the inevitability of their mission ahead made the runners enter a state of joy and acceptance. The race began at 8 a.m., a little more than 200 runners embarked on a new adventure of 135 miles (217 km) along a segment of the legendary Caminho da Fé.

Joan ran alone for most of the morning, while we advanced to the various checkpoints to prepare supplies. The first stop was Aguas da Prata (km 19), he just had a couple of hours of running and was maintaining a moderate pace. Despite the clouds, a hot day was predicted for being walking through the mountains.

The next stop was at the base of Pico do Gaviao (km 45), the highest point along the course, right before ascending it. Joan was feeling sick, his stomach was upside down because of the Gatorade he was drinking from his water bladder. After a short rest and some salty food, he resumed the ascent, this time I went with him along the 5 km climb to the top of the mountain, encouraging him to eat a gel and take plain water. We reached the top (km 50) and Joan was feeling much better, the view was spectacular and we took advantage of this to make him eat a bit more while he changed clothes for the next leg. He made the descent alone and fully recovered.

After another brief stop back at the base of the mountain (km 55), I gave him his pack filled with more water and Silvia offered to run with him during the next leg. I went ahead in the car to the town of Andradas (km 63), where I bought more supplies, they both arrived a few hours later. Joan ate while I checked his feet and prepared his headlamp for the next leg, as night was approaching. After a change of socks he resumed his journey.

Silvia and I drove along a dirt road to reach the town of Serra dos Limas (km 77), then I prepared myself to pace Joan during the night. He arrived at 8:45 p.m. and made a longer stop to eat a plate of pasta and for me to attend a foot for signs of future blisters. He changed his shirt and we continued the journey to the next village. Silvia drove back the dirt road to meet us at the second checkpoint ahead.

After a long descent we reached the town of Barra (km 84), which we passed and continued towards Crisólia (km 99) where to should meet Silvia. The night was beautiful, with a clear sky and an almost full moon, which allowed me to progress without using my headlamp too much. Joan followed me closely, listening to my instructions about eating once in a while and drink plenty of water. We had a very good pace, without running too much, in fact we walked at a strong pace most of the time. Our conversation was always very funny, which helped to not feel the distance.

At 12:45 a.m. of Saturday we arrived to Crisólia and to our surprise Silvia was not there. After asking other crews, we learned that the signs along the highway weren’t very clear, so there was a possibility that she would be momentarily lost. Our biggest concern was if something had happened to her. We opted to have some food at a tiny restaurant while we waited for Silvia to appear. I attended Joan’s other foot while we decided that if Silvia didn’t show up shortly, we should continue to the next checkpoint that had car access. Fortunately, she arrived within a few minutes, completely mad at the race organizers due to the bad signing along the highway. We restocked quickly and disappeared from there as soon as we could.

Luckily for us, the next section of the course had very few hills, so after a couple of hours we arrived to Ouro Fino (km 106). From there we continued towards Inconfidentes (km 115), where we got to the checkpoint at 4:45 a.m. I was mentally tired because my feet were very sore due to the shoes I was wearing, which were for regular training and not for long runs. Still, I managed that Joan ate something while I checked his feet then gave him encouragement to continue the next leg on his own. Silvia and I drove to Borda da Mata (km 137), where I had the opportunity to get some sleep.

Joan met us there at 9 a.m., we helped him with a change of clothes and shoes as well as with having some food. He was feeling well, a little tired from the sleepless night, but with enough strength to move forward, so we dispatched him soon to the next checkpoint. Another dirt road took Silvia and me to Tocos do Moji (km 153), while Joan progressed along the Caminho da Fé. Once again the day promised to be really hot, this became apparent around noon, since runners were arriving like dying insects after having had so much sun exposure. Joan was very slow on this stretch, completing it around 1:40 p.m. in quite poor conditions.

After examining the situation, we decided the best thing to do was to have Joan get some sleep at a small hotel, after taking a shower to cool down. Doing this and having a good meal afterwards allowed us to let the sun go a bit over the sky and the temperature decrease towards the evening. Around 5:30 p.m., Joan resumed his journey with Silvia accompanying him while I drove back the dirt road to find the highway that would take me to Estiva (km 175).

Both arrived at 9:40 p.m., a little beaten up due to a couple of climbs along the course. After attending my feet and a change of shoes, I was ready to pace Joan during the second night of the race. Those would be the last 42 km to the finish line. Joan had a small dinner and a change clothes while I filled his backpack with more food and water. We left the place soon, this time I carried the water and food for the two of us since Joan was really tired and it was quite dark.

It took a while to reach the next checkpoint at Consolação (km 195) because, aside from Joan’s cumulative fatigue, the course had some long climbs. However, once again the night was spectacular and we still had a great time while talking nonsense from time to time. We arrived around 2:30 a.m. of Sunday and Silvia was there ready to supply us. We rested for a few minutes while we ate and I refilled the water bottles. There was some excitement in the air, because the next stop would be at the finish line, 22 km from there. I sent Joan ahead while I finished stocking up, then I caught him right after leaving the town.

The last section was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful along the course. It had quite some uphills too, but the scenery was spectacular and the feeling of having the lead against some other runners put me further into my pacing role. Not exactly in a competitive sense, more like a preservation instinct for the good progress we had achieved during the race. Despite his exhaustion, Joan followed my instructions as much as possible during the final push.

Dawn was approaching, as well as the finish line, while we reached the last summit of the course. From there it would be only 5 km downhill to reach Paraisopolis (km 217). I insisted Joan to speed up his pace, because we were in good time to finish under 48 hours, which was his second goal aside from completing the race. The first rays of sun lit us up and welcomed another beautiful day. The view was simply spectacular, something I will never forget.

Lasting 2 km we were passed by an American runner and his pacer, who ran behind us for most of the night. It didn’t matter anymore, since our goal was in sight and it would be only a matter of minutes to complete the course. Silvia found us at the town’s entrance, then came a steep descent over a rocky street where at its end it could be seen the church and plaza, the most likely place to find the finish line. After 47 hours and 28 minutes, Joan crossed the finish line with Silvia and myself at his sides. His dream was finally fulfilled after a bad experience the previous year. We exchanged the respective hugs and sat down to rest. Joan’s face said it all: pure happiness.

After several hours of deep sleep and a shower, we left the hotel to celebrate with a huge meal. At the restaurant we met an American in his 70′s who also completed the race and who exuded happiness. We had lunch with him and spent a very pleasant time. The farewell party took place in the evening, during which an unexpected and fun wedding was held. As it is expected in Brazil, everything was celebration and happiness. After a few hours of fun, we said goodnight then went back to the hotel to get some more sleep.

On Monday morning we quickly attended a breakfast with the other runners then immediately started our return to São Paulo. This time we enjoyed the beautiful views from the comfort of the car. Joan met with some relatives while Silvia took me to visit São Paulo’s downtown. In the afternoon we went to her house to have a quick shower then headed to the airport, where we met with her husband and had dinner together. Our flight to Mexico City departed at midnight, where we returned tired but really happy of the adventure we just had.

Rest of the photos are here or in the slideshow below:

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