Friday, August 29, 2014

A quick visit to Copacabana (Part 1)

While the Skyrace was fun, getting to it was a bit of an adventure in itself.

The necessity to get on a plane and travel to La Paz for the race begged the rather obvious question:  If you're going to do all of this travelling for a race, why not explore a new place a bit as well?  My initial thoughts were trending toward staying in and around La Paz, but just a week or so before the race it occurred to me to ask how far Copacabana was and how difficult it would be to get there.  Copacabana sits right on the shore of Lake Titicaca and is a very popular destination for tourists; it turned out to be a fantastically easy trip from Santa Cruz.

A couple of days before I left, I went out to the airport here in Santa Cruz and bought my plane ticket, having finally committed to doing the race in the first place.  I was on an 8am flight with BOA, and the round trip cost to La Paz was something less than $200.  I had reserved a room at a hotel in Copacabana, La Cupula, which by all rights looked quite nice both on their website and on Trip Advisor.  They were also pretty darn reasonable, I had a single room for $15 per night, and I didn't even notice that I was sharing a bath with another room... 

I get ahead of myself somewhat,... I flew out on time and arrived in La Paz (el Alto in actuality - about which I have nothing good to say) at about 9am on Thursday before the race.  Getting my bag and out of the airport would have taken no time at all, but I needed to eat something so I got a sandwich and sat at the airport for a while.

Soon enough I was fueled up and out to a waiting taxi where (as advised by the hotel) I asked to be taken to the main cemetery where the buses for Copacabana parade.  The driver said that there was another stand closer but otherwise equivalent in all respects and asked if I wanted to go there instead.  Yup...

After what seemed like 3 minutes, we arrived at the "station" where there was a waiting van ready to head out.  In reality, the station is just some place where vans just sit, waiting at the side of the road waiting until they have sufficient passengers to head out. That means a ride in one of these vans is a bit like getting a ride in a sardine can, but it's inexpensive - 30 Bs to get the 4 hours to Copacabana.

Copacabana is only 140 kilometers from La Paz, if 4 hours seems a bit extraordinary, it does to me too.  Traffic in El Alto is ridiculous, it was the better part of an hour just getting to open road 20 kms away, and then there is the small matter of crossing the Strait of Tiquina.  I got to ride in a boat!

Not the boat I rode in on...
I can imagine the crossing to be pretty hairy in heavy wind, but fortunately the weather was absolutely spectacular.  I am sure these boats wouldn't pass US Coast Guard inspection, but we made it across just fine.  The van had to cross on another ferry/barge thing, and that took a while - only 2 vehicles at a time can cross per barge and there are a limited number of barges...

Once across the strait I was within spitting distance of Peru.  Heck, if I were drawing the map, Copacabana would be in Peru, but I didn't so...

Until across the strait, I hadn't really noticed any ruins, but as I was looking out the van's window it became apparent just how extensive they were - entire hillsides terraced, for miles.  It is truly astonishing the scope of the labor, and impossible to appreciate without seeing it.

At any rate, the van finally arrived in Copacabana around one o'clock in the afternoon and I zen navigated my way over to the hotel, not knowing for sure where it was. Before I had to ask someone for directions, I found a sign and figured out where the office was.  I got checked in and asked at the desk for a bit of information about how to kill a couple of hours before I ate dinner.  It was suggested I visit the Horca del Inca and the 16 Stations of the Cross.  Okay, sounded good so, off I went.

Now, I think I perhaps should have worn my GPS for these little climbs; they were quite remarkable.  Precipitous, to say the least.

Could have focused a touch better on the plant in the foreground, but...

I first went to Horca del Inca.  More zen navigation: Walk straight out that street until you go past the market, turn right, you'll eventually find it on your left.  It worked out pretty much like that, I wasn't sure when I was past the market, but I turned right and eventually found the trail on the left...

Horca apparently means gallows and one can see if you click that link above why the Spanish may have named it that, but rather than a great pile of bones, it is a pre-Incan astronometrical station; every winter solstice at sun rise, a beam of light gets projected through a man made hole in a rock and shines on a horizontal slab of rock, indicating the beginning of the New Year.  Cool.

I didn't actually take a picture of it.  I was more interested in getting to the top of the pile of rock upon whose flank the Horca perched...The views of the Lake and Copacabana were spectacular.

Rock fins near the top of Horca del Inca hill.
Copacabana from Horca del Inca hill.
Once I had mucked about up top for a while I decided to go see what the 16 stations of the cross were all about.  In the picture above, they are on the hill at the far side of town.

I should note that there was some sort of festival going on when I arrived and this place may not always be as I describe, but after walking across town, past the hotel and to the foot of the stations, I was greeted by an informal marketplace.  People were selling toys, candles, firecrackers, alcohol, beer...figurines made from molten metal...I found it to be quite strange, foreign and rather unpleasant.  To my (rather New England/Puritan influenced) perspective it felt a bit like allowing the money changers back into the temple.  Couple that with the fact that I felt my temple (outdoors in a beautiful setting) was essentially vandalized by the plastic trash strewn around.  Not my deal at all...

Despite the rather scathing review, there were some
spectacular vistas to be had if you could get away from the people.

After climbing around on the hill for a while, I headed back down and to my hotel room for a little rest, and picture review before I ate dinner at 7.  The next day was going to be long, and rainy and cold, so I went to bed early and slept well.

Thanks for reading, I'll write up the hike and return to La Paz in my next post.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Skyrace Bolivia 2014


One of the great frustrations I've had about living here in Bolivia has been the lack of advanced notice one receives pertaining to races.  It's out there, but you have to know where to look, and Google isn't much help; it's best to know somebody who knows stuff.

Fortunately during the run up to the Superbowl a motivated chap from New Zealand got a group of expats together to watch a playoff game and I met another runner (who knows stuff) who pointed me in the direction of something called the Bolivia Adventure Series.  This past Sunday was the third race (of 5) in the series, the SkyRace.

As near as I can tell, this was the third running of this event, the first having gone off in 2012.  What makes the event unique is that it climbs up the World's Most Dangerous Road.

Photo taken from the window of the bus as we headed back to La Paz.
Now I should note that the moniker "Worlds Most Dangerous" seems rather hyperbolic.  It certainly wasn't dangerous for those of us who were traveling on 2 feet, and I'd be perfectly comfortable bombing down it on a fully suspended well maintained mountain bike, but you'd have to drag me kicking and screaming into a large bus or material transport vehicle...

Race Morning

My alarm went off promptly at 3:15 am.  A rather beastly time for an alarm, but given how I was waking every hour on the hour, not too bad.  I had a hotel room (very nice, which will get a follow up post) in La Paz about a mile away from where a bus would be waiting for us at 4 am to drive us the 3 hours to the race start.  The concierge was kind enough to be waiting for me and had already called me a cab when I came down the stairs at 3:45.  

Once on the bus, I got settled into a seat next to a French chef and owner (I think) of a restaurant in La Paz called Chez Moustache.  We talked a bit in Spanish at first, but switched to English when it became apparent I was still learning...How do you think you'll run, what do you do, etc., then quiet.  

To me it became apparent we were traveling through some rather dramatic country, but because it was so dark, I found it better just to close my eyes and meditate.  

The view from La Senda Verde's footbridge.
Eventually we arrived at La Senda Verde, which provided the race headquarters near the start.  I had to sign a liability release and pick up my race kit, then get changed and stash my clothes on the bus.  I also needed to eat something, as the 3 am wake up call does all kinds of weird stuff to my desire to consume solids, but eventually all ducks were aligned and we walked off to the start.

The long slog

Once at the start, many people were running around warming up.  I don't mean to be too critical, but I don't really get the point of warming up for a race that's going to last multiple hours.  I can understand a "system check", but to crack a sweat even before the race starts just seems silly to me.  Take the first half hour or 15 minutes of the race as your warm up and call it good.  
The race start - Herbalife is everywhere in Bolivia it seems...
Turn number 1.  Right out of the gate.
Something seemed to be up with the chip timing (as in: we were supposed to have it, but nope) of the race as we were delayed until the clock struck 8:45.  During this time I was able to talk to a couple of other racers including the guy that eventually finished 2nd overall...nice guy from Denmark, who lives in Santa Cruz.  Beat me by an hour and 45 minutes.  I expect that the race between him and the winner was solid too, as they were separated by less than 2 minutes at the finish.

At some point along the bus ride I had decided that I was going to shoot for a sub 4 hour time, even though I thought 5 more realistic because I've been fantastically inconsistent with my training this year.  Visits from the homeland, rain, and other things have conspired to keep me from developing any kind of routine with regard to my training.  Had I participated in this race last year, my goal time would have been closer to 3:15, but this year fun was the only objective.  And that was achieved.
Someone by the name of Patricio Crooker got this picture of me having a good time. Thanks for the hat mom.

Anyway, the "gun" went off at precisely 8:45 and I was quickly at the back of the pack, not wanting to go out too fast.  I was "running" consistent 11-12 minute miles and taking a gel every 25 minutes.  

The race was pretty well supported, with aid at 6km, 12km, and then every 3 km thereafter.  However these aid stations only provided water or Gatorade, no food.  I'm positive I picked up a bunch of places in the second half of the race because I was fueling and others were suffering severe bonk issues.  In future editions of this race, the organizers really should provide food.  It's a necessity for any race that can be reasonably expected to go over 1.5 hours.
Coming out of an aid station about 1/2 way into the race.
Death Road? This doesn't look so bad...
I kept up my early pace until about mile 9, with only a bit of hiking sprinkled in.  However, something switched at that point and I barely ran 1 more step after that .  Even so, I was hiking fast enough that I passed many people who were "running".  Around mile 12, my lack of fitness really started to show up and I started cramping, but I was able to manage it by taking an extra gel and fluid.  I could still hike quite quickly however and only got passed by 1 person (who I had been going back and forth with for several miles) in the last 5 miles.  Had I been able to stay with her, I would have caught up to my friend from the bus who finished just 3 minutes in front of me.
Race profile - relentless.
Near the finish, a few competitors who are just a bit too far away.
Coming into the finish.

After the race

The finish line was quite crowded.  Several mountain bike tour operators were staging for their adrenaline rush, and lots of racers were milling around.  I recovered my bag, and found some food (post race bar-b-que with beer was missing - presumably it went to some ultramarathon in the US).

I felt really quite good at the finish.  The surrounding vistas were quite spectacular:
I must get back to La Paz and explore the mountains.
I had several good chats with other competitors as we waited for the awards ceremony to play out.  One of the conversations resulted in my (immediately upon returning to my hotel room) signing up for a marathon in Uyuni in October.

After the awards, it was on to the buses and back to La Paz.  As I had suspected in the morning, the countryside was dramatic.  Quite possibly the most beautiful scenery I've ever driven through, but I've got to go for a run so I'll leave it there.

Thanks for reading,
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