Del Mar A La Cima - 42km course elevation profile
A 5am race start time due to the unfriendly (for endurance sport at least) weather conditions on South America's Caribbean coast necessitated a 2am alarm call and a 3am shuttle bus from Santa Marta to Playa Bello Horizonte, the beach venue for the start and finish. Now, Santa Marta is a somewhat ‘edgy’ town and on the weekends things can get a little boisterous. So it was that on exiting my hostal, I was informed by the proprietor that there were currently ‘mad people’ at the end of the road and I would be wise to employ a diversion to get me to the meeting point without incident.
On arrival at the meeting point I was surprised to find that the police were present and protecting a small group of waiting runners from the evening's ‘goings on’. A fresh pool of blood nearby suggested that this was a sensible call. Imagine a group of Lycra clad athletes waiting patiently behind a police protective cordon as the drunken Saturday night taxi rank wars are waged in the UK and you’re pretty much there.
Once we left the war zone that was Santa Marta bahia, the rest of the journey on the air conditioned bus was cool and comfortable. The eight or nine runners on board exchanging slightly sleepy pleasantries, the majority were Colombian with three of us representing Europe from the UK, Italy & Czech Republic.
We reached the beach that would host the event and as expected it was a low-key affair. A couple of floodlights shed minimal light on the inflatable start structures, some empty gazebos and a few grim portaloos without locks/toilet paper/sanitiser. Having been faced with this toilet nightmare on more than one occasion at races, I always make sure to bring my own. Paper & sanitiser I mean, I don’t bring my own portaloo door lock.
The atmosphere on the beach was quiet and a little nervy. All that remained were last minute preparations for the impending battle as around me, people chose their weapons against darkness, insects, sun, sweat, water, chafing and things I didn’t even know about at that stage…
As it was expected to be dark for another hour or so, a few hundred excited athletes and their head torches bunched up on the sand behind the start line and after an Icelandic thunderclap (obviously), we were plodding across the beach towards the first of an endless amount of climbs.
After around 800m, we left the beach and started to move upward, through local communities that were still enjoying a long and loud Saturday night (how anyone sleeps in Colombia at the weekends is beyond me), hurdling stray dogs that sauntered into our paths, utterly oblivious to the sea of humans pouring through their neighbourhood. The climb started to get steeper and whilst the head torch was useful, working out the terrain and feet placement was far from easy. I could hear yelps of discomfort from up ahead and behind as people came a cropper in the dark on the difficult terrain.
As the first light arrived, it became easier to see where to land your feet and the field started to even out. I arrived at the top of the first climb (up to 1400ft/~430m) just as the sun rose and it made for some incredible views of the surrounding area. As it soon became apparent, there was little time for taking in these views on the move as the terrain was permanently technical and required your full attention (not to mention the occasional barbed wire and water hazard). This was evident as we dropped back down to 100ft in the space of one mile and various runners went careering over the side of the trail as they misjudged their speed versus the obstacles in front of them. I decided it would be rude not to join in and promptly fell in a ditch. Lucky for you I had the video on at the time.
Opting for the 'shoes off' approach on one of the Del Mar a La Cima river crossings
Upon reaching the post-descent feed station and stocking up on watermelon, biscuits and bananas instead of the normal energy gels, I was feeling quite smug. I’d negotiated the first section, felt fresh, unscathed and had got away with just a few scratches. At this point, a Colombian chap who had helped me with some language difficulties at the registration the previous day helpfully informed me that that was a mere appetiser, we’d completed less than a quarter of the route and the worst was surely yet to come.
With my friend’s motivation ringing in my ears, I began the slow climb up to 3000ft. It was at this point I realised that this was to be unlike any marathon I had ever run. The uphill sections were so steep that nothing other than a slow trudge upward was possible. The constant ask on the same muscles working against the incline soon became an issue. I tried to switch between pushing with my toes to sitting back on my heels as well as copying the techniques of the locals by adopting some sort of hand pushing thigh combination but my legs had started to fatigue and I was only half way through ten miles of climbing. Motivation was becoming difficult and as both the temperature and humidity rose I was concerned about the amount of fluid I was losing. It crossed my mind more than once that whilst saying 'yes' to everything is often a good thing, I probably should have checked exactly what this race entailed before I agreed in a lovely air-conditioned Bogota shopping centre to run it on a week’s notice.
I made sure to eat enough at the well-stocked but infrequent feed stations and take on as much water as felt sensible without overdoing it. There were moments on the way up that helped, the occasional chat in broken Spanish or English with one of the many Colombian trail runners, a seriously enjoyable section along some old irrigation trenches (see video) as well as the occasional glimpse of the incredible views from the ever increasing height. Then, after an age and out of nowhere, I reached the station just before the summit, faced with brilliant views all around. It was time for the descent. And what a descent.
Within just five miles you’re carried right back down to sea level. If you look at the course map at the top of the page you’ll see just how crazy that looks. I saw a couple of the Colombian lads in front of me absolutely going for it and thought it looked like fun but soon realised their technical ability was way beyond mine. They confidently flung themselves downhill like mountain goats, assured with every step whilst I careered out of control, ricocheting off obstacles like a somersaulting grizzly. Every now and again there would be a river crossing, just to check any rhythm/pace you had generated and make sure your feet hadn’t got dry by mistake. My legs (my quads are still on strike as I write this four days later) were screaming all the way down but all I could think about was making it back to the flat and digging in for the finish.
And then I did. I’d made it! I’d made it to the flat! Yes! Just four miles of lovely… flat…
So what in my mind was to be a glorious race to the finish line became a walk/jog across and over a number of bays, edging ever closer to the playa we had started on. In one last twist of the knife, just two miles or so out, the course moved you onto a lovely, smooth block paved path above a tourist beach. Could this be a final peace offering by the sociopathic course director? No, don’t be silly. A few hundred metres later I was pushed back onto the beach, trying to decide whether to run the easier route along the flat, wet shoreline but take the occasional hit from the waves or try to stay dry and plod in the soft stuff.
And then, after what seemed like an entire day (but was actually only six hours), I saw the finish line in the distance. With renewed energy I picked up the pace and began to realise that the finishing straight was actually a busy Sunday on the beach. I ran past children building sand castles, someone selling corn-on-the-cob, an abandoned jetski, a chap in a fetching posing pouch (did he thrust it in my direction as I passed or did I imagine that?) and finally the finish line.
I had run 42km from the sea, to the summit and back. Finishing a respectable 15th out of 176 marathon competitors and 2nd in my age category.
And there you have it. Del Mar A La Cima - six hours and six minutes of the maddest fucking marathon I’ve ever done.
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Another textbook finish line gurn for the cameras
My 2017 Del Mar A La Cima 42km race highlight video