Crossing the Andes: A Trail Running Experience in Patagonia

trail running pucon

Every year since 2002, a challenging adventure race takes place in the Andes Mountains. ‘El Cruce Columbia’ traverses 100 kilometers in 3 days among spectacular landscapes in Chile and Argentina, and has become one the most legendary trail running competitions in South America, gathering more than 4,000 racers from 35 countries on its last edition in December 2018.

The itinerary of El Cruce is different every year. This time, the date was in Pucon, a major hub for outdoor adventures in the Chilean Patagonia and the gateway to some of the Andes most stunning volcanoes.

Nicolás, co-founder of Explore-Share, and his wife Pilar, had the chance of sharing this experience as a team, running more than 30 kilometers each day in a truly one-of-a-kind experience. To prepare for this demanding undertaking, they trained for almost a year with Elvira, a Physical Education teacher from Buenos Aires, who specializes in training runners for multi-day trail races.

Training in the City to Run in the Mountains

 

 

trail running Andes mountains
Nicolas & Pilar during El Cruce Columbia. Photo: courtesy of Nicolas Vandepaer.

Nicolás enjoys outdoor activities ever since he was a child living at his home country, Belgium. He has practiced ski touring, horseback riding and went on many demanding treks in the mountains with Gauthier ―his partner at Explore-Share― and other friends. Pilar, on the other hand, had previous experience in carriage driving competitions.  

‘We started running without having this competition in mind’ ―says Nicolas. ‘But our coach Elvira, who participates in many adventure races (including this one), proposed us to train for El Cruce. It’s amazing how enthusiastic and positive she is! I think a good coach is the one that makes you feel capable of doing anything.

With that challenge ahead, Elvira designed a 6-month training program for them. Nicolás and Pilar are parents of two kids, so it wasn’t easy for them to find time to train between their routine and responsibilities.

‘I believe that a successful training must be realistic, and adapted to the available time and daily life of the participants, in order to keep them motivated’, Elvira explains.

First, their training was focused on improving the muscles strength and flexibility: ‘we did circuit training to build strength and stamina, alternating with series of between 2 to 10 minutes of running. I find this type of workout to be very effective to train for mountain competitions’.

As their physical condition improved, they started running and adding kilometers progressively. Under the professional supervision of their coach, they paid attention to body discomforts and even took some time to recover when it was necessary. A nutritionist, a traumatologist and a kinesiologist were also part of the training team.

‘They worked really hard! A month and a half before the competition, they were so focused on optimizing their performance that they made a quantum leap! They have reached an optimal weight, they were running light and all the discomforts have disappeared’, she explains.

One month before El Cruce they did a simulation of the race, running long distances during three days in a row: 39 km on the first day; 27.5 km on the second day; and 37.5 km on the third day. ‘We run, walked, we used trekking poles, we crossed slopes and stairs…and we enjoyed the beautiful Buenos Aires’,  Elvira says.  

 

The Competition: Running Across the Andean Volcanoes

 

trail running Andes mountains
Running on black volcanic soil, one of the many landscapes they traversed in Pucon. Photo: courtesy of Nicolas Vandepaer.

El Cruce is a 3-stage competition with three different categories: professional runners, amateurs and teams of 2. All of them run 100 kilometers in 3 days, among mountains, volcanoes, lakes, valleys, forests and rocky paths.

‘I hadn’t traveled too many times to the mountains before, so I was excited about the landscapes. It was surreal! I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really there’, says Pilar.

The first day, the itinerary took them to Quetrupillan Volcano (2,690 m). Then, they continue running around the iconic Villarrica (2,847 m), a perfect conical-shaped and smoking volcano which makes a majestic backdrop to Pucon.

‘The terrain was so varied and beautiful that you could never be bored. The race started at the valley, went through some stunning Patagonian forests and kept going up, little by little, until we reached 1,500 m. There was supposed to be a higher section, but the organizers had to close it due to bad weather conditions, so we missed the actual border crossing to Argentina’, says Nicolas.

Organizing such a major event requires a lot of logistics. More than 800 volunteers were supporting El Cruce and giving their best to provide an excellent experience, even in the small details, like cheering up the runners in the last section of a steep ascent!

 

trail running Andes mountains
Huge campsite at El Cruce Columbia. Photo: courtesy of Nicolas Vandepaer.

‘I think the hardest part of the entire competition is to control the mind, to convince yourself that you can do it’, says Pilar.

For her, the solidarity among the other participants (who were always making sure that everyone was ok), the jokes and good vibes of the organizers, and the support of her partner were key to the experience.  

‘I really loved sharing this experience with Nicolás. It seems to me that it is not enough to live it alone, it’s necessary to share it. From the small things, like taking a picture together or sharing our impressions about a good descent…those things help a lot, because the race is really hard and it’s important to have someone to support you and also be the support of someone else’.  

Running as a team implies knowing each other, complementing and trusting each other. ‘You need to find a sort of cruising speed where both can run comfortably’, explains Pilar. ‘Being well trained allowed us to enjoy a lot!’’, adds Nicolás.

For him, the descents on the mountains were some of the most enjoyable parts of the race:

‘We went down the mountain running very fast, avoiding obstacles and using the trekking poles to find balance…The feeling reminded me of skiing in the forest!’

 

trail running Andes mountains
Nicolas and Pilar, on a trail in the Patagonic forest. Photo: courtesy of Nicolas Vandepaer.

Each stage finished around midday, so they all had time during the rest of the day to enjoy the campsite, take a nap, chat with other racers or lie on the beach drinking mate and resting their foot on the icy waters of the lake.

‘Proving myself that I could do this was incredible for me’ ―says Pilar. ‘It was a huge achievement at all levels: physically, mentally and spiritually’.

‘Despite the fact that we ran a lot and were exhausted, this competition helped us connect as a couple from a different side. We helped each other, we were supportive and we cheered each other up’, she says.

For Nicolas, ‘it was a great experience. We wanted to enjoy a moment together and discover what this race was about. We didn’t intend to win, we just wanted to finish it. If we go again in the future, we would be more competitive! Also, it was spectacular to have an objective to train for’.

 

trail running Andes mountains
Crossing the finish line. Photo: courtesy of Nicolas Vandepaer.

 

Chile, a Land Full of Mountain Adventures

 

Thanks to its combination of spectacular landscapes, mountain trails for all levels and easy access from major cities, Chile has a huge potential to become one of the world’s major destinations for trail running.

You can find incredible locations for trail running from the Atacama desert in the north of the country, to Torres del Paine in the south. And even if you only stay around Santiago, the capital, you can easily reach the mountains for a trail running experience in pure nature!

 

trail running Andes mountains
The beauty of the Chilean volcanoes and its surroundings. Photo: courtesy of Nicolas Vandepaer.

‘I think this kind of adventure races are an excellent opportunity to discover the mountains. They open up a new world and make people confident about doing other activities with a private guide in the future’, says Nicolás.

For those used to train in urban locations, the discovery is even more exciting: ‘the mountains allow you to enjoy different sceneries: forest, snow, volcanic terrain, it’s really entertaining! The vertical drop is the main difference with training in the city; despite that, it’s not technical at all: you only need a good pair of trail running shoes’, he explains.  

Lying at 850 kilometers from Santiago, the scenic city of Pucon is the best starting point to travel the Chilean region of the Araucania. From there, there are plenty of options to hire a guide and go hiking, rock climbing or climbing some of the majestic volcanoes.

 

Start training today!

 

‘With desire, confidence, commitment and constant training, every person can achieve a goal like running El Cruce’, says Elvira.

If you are in Buenos Aires, you can join her and start training right now! She offers group running programs and individual running lessons in different natural settings of the city. 

 

running in Buenos Aires
One of Elvira’s group training lessons in Buenos Aires. Photo: courtesy of Elvira Encina.

For those who have a clear objective in mind and want to start a training, these are her recommendations:

1| Find a coach that inspires you, someone that you can trust.

2| Surround yourself with people who support you in the adventure, who encourage you and understand you.

3| Choose each health professional according to your principles, values and needs (which are unique).  

Set an objective in the mountains for this year and start a personalized training right away!

 

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trail running Andes mountains
Photo: courtesy of Nicolas Vandepaer.

 

Keep reading: find out which are the 10 best spots in the world for trail running, where to practice this fast-growing sport in Chamonix-Mont Blanc and the 3 best places for trail running in Morocco.

 

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