Racing in another country is always an adventure on its own. In if you race in Ecuador… well, go on reading, some things you would not think of. Because the race course was almost constantly attacking 4000-meter mark of altitude, we arrived at Ecuador week prior to the race to have some proper acclimatization. Biking up to 4000, two nights there, one hike to 4700 in between, and the rest took place in Quito at almost 3000, more details in previous here.
I always wanted to go racing to Ecuador, this year I finally made it. We had a new team – (Vašek Král, Zuzka Weissová, Tomáš Matera and me), we have never raced before in this line-up, it was Vašek’s first AR ever, one more for Tom, couple more for Zuzka. We were to race in a country where none of us had been before and altitude can always change the game – our acclimatization we went well and I had a good feeling about the team. Everything went smoothly and we believed in a good result.
Strong field was against us – US team Yogaslackers, French AGDE Raid and plethora of local teams lead by Movistar (3rd at ARWC 2014) and Aventura Finalín. Local teams were reinforced with experienced foreign leaders – Nick Gracie to Movistar, Urtzi Igesias to another Ecuadorian team.
We weren’t moved by this and stayed in the front pack. I estimated that the first stage would be the hardest one and so it was. It was even harder than everyone had expected. We went right up to the mountains at 4000 and there we stayed for quite a time. Wind, fog, rain and above all, cold. The route looked trivial on the map – the only trail on the only ridge aroun. Well, waist-deep mountain grass where the trail was hardly visible, a cactus here and there (at 4000!). Later we descended down to 3500 where it was cold anyway, and hit pretty dense jungle. Sliding down in thick mud, continuous rain and imminent risk of flood. It’s been a tough stage.
From navigation point of view, we did great job. In the first part we have made a good decision and were even leading the race for some time, in the second part we were not so successful and lost some half an hour. Cold has taken in its toll (from everyone). We were cold to the bone, but regrouped and recovered, only Vašek was suffering from bronchitis more and more. (Later at Galapagos we realized that he had been making the same sound as… wait for it… a sea lion!). On 62km trek we spent a day and night – cold to the bone, but utterly determined, after 22 hours, placed 6th, we reached TA1.
We assembled our bikes and after short 20km ride set out on another trekking. This was a typical Ecuadorian one – straight up through the jungle, spend some time on a ridge at 4000 and steep descend. 20 km, 2800m to climb. We were making our way through the field, after another 10km on bike we hit the kayaks on a 5th place. This was already in the dark, second night was upon us and it was clear that the next hours you have to go hard or go home.
15 km of kayaking on a lake – I have never paddled at 3000m before. Well, in fact the only thing we could use for navigation was our compass. After three and half hours, once again cold to the bone, we finished this section. We warmed ourselves quickly and had an hour of sleep. 43 hours into the race it was just about the right time. Sleep has done us very good, we started very fresh and what is more – despite several minor mistakes at the kayaking section we have moved to 3rd place – right behind the French and leading Ecuadorians from team Finalín.
Due to bad weather, the last trekking was cancelled, so two already long cycling stages were joined into one 140km mammoth stage with almost 6000m of elevation gain and going over two mountain passes at 3900. Our estimates were 20-24 hours, still a long way to go. After some 40 km on shitty maps we were passed by an Ecuadorian team Life Systems. We wanted to chase them, but all in vain. We had enough troubles ourselves (the Ecuadorians eventually passed the French as well). Everyone was breathing as if had swallowed a cell phone. We went for new ones, but Vašek likes it school – probably swallowed a vintage Alcatel with its “pneumatic drill” mode.
Climbing the second mountain pass was more or less hike-a-bike – we could feel the altitude. Otherwise it was a typical last racing night. Everyone was doing his best, on the verge of collapse – someone was pushing two bikes, someone two backpacks, we were towing each other, but all of us kept going. And all of us were coughing, breathing heavily and falling asleep.
Finally we hit the last pass – just 1700 meters of downhill. At least we though so. On the third night the most important thing is – not to fall asleep. In the end the descend turned to be surprisingly mild and easy, but it someone put some climbs in there. What the hell! One of the few things that could be read from the map, were contour lines. But only the main ones – 200m interval. And in between 200m contour lines a quite a big bumps can go unseen. During third night – any bump is annoying, however small. At 4:25 AM, after 69 hours and 25 minutes, we hit the finish line on 4th place. Totally wasted, but happy.
In this nasty hour we were awaited by… no one. That did not spoil the joy of finally reaching the finish line. Finish photo, finish beer, then came Santiago (main organizer) and we enjoyed all the joy once again. Then only the mundane things you do when you finish a race – shower, eat, sleep – repeat and dose in any combination and amount.
I have done longer races, this was “just” 69 hours, but what a ride! Demanding navigation, which we mostly handled well, at higher altitudes unforgiving thin air, in lower altitudes (i.e. 3500 m.) there was an impenetrable jungle. And omnipresent cough. Vasek’s bronchi will definitely not thank him, and in the end none of our bronchi would thank us. But we have to thank him and ourselves, because we fought a hell of a race, relentlessly, as a team, till the end. It was a hard race. Locals asserted, that this Huairasinchi was like no other edition. In some of the past editions the race the course hit higher altitudes, but dropped down immediately. We were hitting 4000 mark almost constantly – with just 3 more hours to go, we were still at 3800 mts.
One sad case is connected with this particular race – first doping case in AR. A local racer, Gonzalo Calisto of Life Systems team (which took 2nd place), had been tested positive on EPO in 2015 right after finishing UTMB. He was disqualified, suspended for two years (until March 2018), but started the Huairasinchi 2017. Well, AR has not its federation established, so no procedures are set, as who has to sanction this (ARWS, race organizers?).
So I raised a question what ARWS was going to do with this. I got a great support and it seemed that things got moving. Well, not really. Gonzalo and the team were disqualified, ranking updated (French team took 2nd place, we got third and so on), but that’s it. Otherwise, nothing has changed. So we will raise another round of questions. We cannot be satisfied with this, it is just a matter of time until something similar happens again and in fact we would be back where we had been. No sport is spared, sooner or later it had to happen, now it is up to all of us to face this and keep the sport clean.
But Ecuador is not to blame for this. During the three weeks I spent in this country, it has won my heart.