Running on fire.
[A five minute read]
Before you read about my journey running up a volcano, check out PART ONE here.
THE START LINE.
Soundtrack: Cheap Thrills.
We checked in to Athletes Village where we saw the volcanic landscape up close for the first time. Lots of loose, large pebbles. Perfect running conditions. Not.
We complete a quick check of shoelaces, water and bandaids, then in an instant, the sun comes up and we set off. WE ARE ACTUALLY RUNNING A MARATHON.
1KM – 10KM. NAIVETY AND STEROIDS.
Soundtrack: Hearts On Fire.
I struggled to breathe from the beginning. Probably part altitude, part heat and part terror about the task ahead. The first few kilometres winding up dirt roads were tough. At the first aid station, the medics helped me use the asthma puffer I’d bought for emergencies. 3km in, and I was whipping it out already.
Suddenly I was back on form and felt like I was flying. I climbed the near vertical volcano for the first time, somehow catching Alex and Aiden on the forest trails along the way. No idea how, when everyone left me in the dust at the start line. Thank you asthma steroids.
The 1000m climb to the top was relentless.
Narrow trails, often hard to spot, with a route so steep if you stopped you’d likely fall backwards. Once we emerged from the forest, we had loose pebbly volcanic rocks underfoot to contend with before we reached the top. Imagine running up sand dunes but instead of sinking into sand, you sink into rocks. It was impossibly tough but exhilarating to run up a completely foreign landscape.
The views from the top were surreal – black rocky volcanoes in every direction. I was so proud to reach the top and happy to share the experience with the A team: Alex and Aiden. The way down involved skating down more volcanic rocks – a totally new running technique which proved to be “very sinky” as the delusional version of Grace was quoted on video.
When we arrived back at Athletes Village, we had completed our first 10km. It took around 95 minutes.
10KM – 21KM. SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT.
Soundtrack: Let Me Touch Your Fire.
We set off for round two of the same loop, and it was a LOT harder knowing what was ahead.
At one point, I was halfway up a goat trail running along shanty communities. Suddenly Joe ran towards me, yelling to turn back. He’d run 30 mins off course after a local sent us the wrong way, and was met with a few shady-ish men at the top. I wondered what would have happened if it were me that had arrived at the top alone. Not a situation I’d encountered in my Sydney training.
We doubled back then ascended Pacaya for the second time. With more heat, exhaustion and pride, we made it back to Athlete’s village and hit the 21km mark.
We’d just completed a half marathon by running up a volcano. Twice.
Alex took a few minutes to rest in the medic tent. I took a bathroom stop, which turned out to be my only one all day. I couldn’t be bothered running into the bushes off the course. Too hard basket.
I emerged from the bathrooms and saw a local being wrapped in a space blanket by medics and put on a drip. It really shook me to see a local runner being so affected by the hot conditions. I was grateful all my training took place in the Australian Summer. The rest of the global team had trained in northern hemisphere winters so this heat was even tougher for them.
By this stage, it was early lunchtime and fast becoming the hottest day Guatemala had in 10 years. Lucky us.
I realised the conditions were serious and my Event Producer safety brain kicked in. Any element of racing evaporated and Alex, Aiden and I promised to stick together until the end.
21-30KM. ITS LIKE RUNNING INTO A VOLCANIC LAVA FIELD.
Soundtrack: When A Fire Starts To Burn.
With that, we set off for part two: a 21km out and back course, with the turning point being a live lava field.
It was mostly flat on the way out with very little tree cover, so we knew the return would be gruelling. At this point it was about staying safe, enjoying the experience and finishing.
As we finally approached the lava field at the 30km mark, we started to pass our friends on their way back. The grit was written on each face – some teary, all struggling. And these were fit people, some ultra-runners. We shared water from Camelbaks, provided hugs and support then carried on with apprehension towards the lava field.
By this stage it was around 2pm and bloody hot.
30KM – 40KM. CHASING SUNSET.
Soundtrack: Runnin’ [Lose It All].
Running in a lava field is like a moonscape. Baron, with the occasional tuft of grass. The heat radiates from the earth as well as the sun. After an eternity running solo through this moonscape, I arrived at the turning point and sucked down some lollies and water before heading back to meet Aiden at the aid tent.
When Alex emerged with Jacqs from IMS, he looked absolutely shattered and his legs had decided to pull out. It was an epic effort for him to make it this far – I was so proud of the friend who spontaneously decided to join us on this adventure.
So Aiden and I left Alex at the aid station and set off for the last stretch home. The sting of the sun was starting to fade, though it was still around 30″. Our new focus was getting home before the sun set.
We shared encouragement, support, occasional jokes and silence as we ran through the farms of Pacaya. Eventually we recognised the last final ascent which had grown substantially on the climb back. Abby from IMS was waiting for us at the top and her familiar face was the final push we needed to round the corner back to Athletes village.
THE FINISH LINE. SWEATY EMOTIONS.
Soundtrack: Aint No Mountain High Enough.
Beyond the final crest, the most incredible scene awaited. The crew were standing by the finish line, yelling words of encouragement and cheering us on. We sprinted those last hundred metres together and crossed the finish line into one massive sweaty, emotional group embrace.
My Garmin clocked 46.5km and 10 hours of endurance – we’d run from sunrise to sunset.
As the adrenaline wore off, I crashed. We’d left the park promptly and it was already completely dark. Then Pacaya erupted with natures celebratory fireworks as we drove off. All of the emotions sunk in as I realised Aiden and I were nearly running in the dark, alone and a long way from home. I became pretty spaced out and realised I’d only drunk around 4L of water and eaten 1.5 bananas and a few jellybeans all day.
Back at Earth Lodge, Joe and the crew helped me back to the main lodge where I laid down and hazily watched everyone else celebrate. After a visit from the medic and a few hours sipping hydration meds, my head hit the pillow.
HOME [BITTER] SWEET HOME.
The next morning, I woke feeling better but still raw, fragile and emotional. Alex and I were due to head home but there was no way I was up to 30 hours of flying, so we stayed another day to rest. It was sad farewelling such an incredible group of souls and knowing the week was over.
We spent the day chilling in Antigua as I tried to rebook flights, finally successful just in time for dinner with some of the crew. I was keen for an early night, but then the Alex influence reminded me this was our last night in Guatemala, so I let go of the exhaustion and embraced tacos and the Antigua nightlife. Much later, Alex and I said our goodbyes, took a late night Uber to our airport hotel in Guatemala City and finally crashed. The silver lining in our flight changes was my business class upgrade request was approved. Hello flat beds, massage chairs and late night tea with Alex in the BC lounge.
My Qantas amenity kit was branded with the words: “I love the people. I love the places. I love sleep.”
The perfect way to summarise the trip and capture the essence of the most incredible, raw, inspiring, challenging, rewarding week of my life – one where the emotional highs and lows followed the elevation of our marathon course.
The bar had been set and I asked myself “how do I continue to create experiences of this calibre in my life?” I don’t have the answers but I’m working on it… step by step.
Thank you to my dear friend Joe, for convincing me to do that first half marathon back in 2013. Then inspiring me to join you in Guatemala for my first marathon. I really like the part where you skipped over the bit about running up a volcano. Thank you for your friendship, adventurous heart, influence and positive energy. And thank you to introducing me to so many wonderful Canadians.
Thank you to Alex for saying yes to this crazy voyage, for your inappropriate jokes, your fun energy, your life lessons and for always patching me up. And sometimes making me cry.
Thank you to Aiden for being my running buddy for this little fun run. Your positivity, humour and support got me across that finish line and it’s an adventure I’ll never forget – thanks for sharing it with me.
Thank you to our 2018 Guatemala crew – what an honour to share this week with you and develop new friendships. These memories are with me for life.
Thank you to Nick and the IMS crew who orchestrated this incredible week and spent months planning the perfect week of impact and adventure. Thank you for your warmth, hospitality, inspiration and leadership. What a life changing experience, one I will treasure forever. And more importantly, one where this little group of runners helped make the world a better place.
To join the next Impact Marathon, jump on their website.