Johnny Bravo’s El Misti Sky Race 2018 Adventure
P&B have members all over the globe, often strange types who live somewhere remote. One such mythical character is Johnny Parsons, AKA Johnny Bravo, who has been trapped in darkest Peru for some time…
He sent me this great race report ages ago but then lost the accompanying photos… and then found them again… and then I forgot to post it…! It’s a good read, though, so regardless of time taken to publish, it’s still worth a share. Enjoy.” – Editor
Just to prove I am still alive (and just about kicking). I dropped off social media, so I feel like I am back in 1995, 1995 here in Peru is like 1955, so in effect I have gone back to the time of the great Alf Tupper…
2015 was a bad year, injuries and incidents aplenty, inevitably followed by an even worse 2016 and inexorably even more crocked time and clumsiness in 2017. It was always the same, start the year with a calendar shoehorned full of races, entering 20 and usually running about 2 (normally crap ones at that).
2018 started with the customary Lima curtain raiser in March, Desafio Ruricancho: 20 miles of barren, dusty, boulder-strewn switchbacks over the montañas surrounding San Juan de Lurigancho, one of the poorest areas in the city and the most populous (1 million punters battling for space in an 80 square mile plat of incessant traffic jams and noise, hemmed in on 3 sides by rocky hills and shantytowns). I love the race itself. Low-key (cheap), good weather (middle of summer, absolutely bloody scorchio) and impossible to get lost (sponsored by a paint company, they just paint the rocks out here. I did once get my compass out and everyone thought I was Scott of the Antarctic or Harry Potter!)
However, with my uncoordinated size 13s it is way too technical for me to do any good, so I just plod round and hopefully get up the last climb to the finish atop the diminutive Cerro San Cristobal. An uphill finish with a slap-up meal of chicken and rice.
Then, I jeffed my knee and couldn´t do any climbing. I moved house too (to the coast, far from the hills) so I ran the Lima Marathon in May, which was like any road marathon anywhere else. Got 3rd V45, so that was something and I beat 2 Kenyans (one was in an ambulance and the other was walking). 3000 punters all wanting to be at the front of the start line made me want to get back to the hills as soon as physically possible.
This was followed by 3 months of coughing my guts up, picking up some kind of lung infection (probably from training in a city with 20 zillion old bangers all spewing out fumes at all hours). By August I had done very little and was desperate to do something so I entered the Misti Sky Race!
Which sounds like I was entering the Charnwood Hills race (no disrespect to the Charnwood Hills race), but the main difference is that the Misti Sky Race starts at an altitude of 10000ft and goes up the side of a volcano to 19100ft, then drops 5000ft and ambles around in the desert for another 20 miles! I wouldn´t say I entered on a whim, but I hadn´t done much thinking about the practicalities.
I live in Lima and with all respect it is a complete $h!thole, so any excuse to escape the city is welcomed! Arequipa is the second biggest city in Peru, but has 10 million punters less.
I did go to the distant (16hrs by bus or 90mins on the plane) city of Arequipa in 2004 and whilst sitting outside the boozer, I was transfixed by a perfectly symmetrical volcano (actually a “symmetrical andesitic stratovolcano”) in the near distance; El Misti (“the Gentleman”), all 5825m of it. In an “Arequipeño” beer happy hour induced state I thought to myself, “One day…”
Back to August 2018, I kidded myself that if I had paid my hard-earned bra$$ entry fee, I would then pull my finger out and get some training done. It left me 3 months to get fit.
From Monday to Friday it is tricky to get into the hills. The School Run had become my staple diet. 6miles on the road, interspersed with 10 million road crossings and the entire 11 million populace of Lima all battling against me in the opposite direction. With a road crossing every 100 metres, it is a stop-start affair. In essence, completely worthless training for El Misti.
I did manage one or two outings into the hills on a weekend, dodging the wild dogs and dehydration, as Lima despite being on the coast is actually in a desert and the hills are drier than a dead dingo´s undercarriage.
Getting fit was one thing, getting acclimatized was another!
I live in Lima, which is at sea level. The hills I train on go up to about 4000ft.
Although I was woefully short of miles, I got some climbing in. A mate of mine called Charlie (not Charlie Mac) lives up in the Andes at 10000ft, so when he mentioned a training weekend, I bit his hand off. Leave work at 9:30pm, get the overnight bus at 10:30pm, 8hr ride up north, run, sleep, come back. Foolproof plan!
(It appears that there are only two English runners out here. Charlie and myself. Until MSR we had never actually met in a race and a local journalist has got us confused to the point where it is now too late to actually correct him. It will be awkward if the three of us ever meet…)
I didn´t get any kip on the way up to Yunghay, not a good start. The weather was unseasonly crap. The wet season had started early and that meant a long, cold, wet day (Lakes late autumn-ish). The views were obscured but what becamingly glaringly clear was my hopelessness at altitude (I had dropped out of a race here 2 years back, one of three lifetime DNFs and one of them was the old Chew Valley Skyline “O” event, best if I say no more about my feckless navigation).
Altitude is funny, but not in a hahaha way. It is a personal thing, some folk are fine and other suffer like sickly dogs. Up to about 10000ft I am normally ok, but above that I get bubbling guts, 80-a-day Senior Service wheeziness and a splitting right-in-the-middle-of-your-forehead Stella headache. Very hard to ignore especially if the person you are running with is looks like they are on a Sunday stroll. A good day out but a worrying run with just 3 weeks to go!
Time ticked and suddenly it was 2am on the Saturday morning. Time to escape Lima, and escaping the racket of my neighbour´s weekly dusk-til-dawn fiesta for a taxi to the airport. A sensible option would have been to arrive a week early and acclimatize, I opted for a 36hr smash-&-grab attempt. I arrived at Arequipa by 7am and then killed time until the noon bus (which being Peru-time didn´t leave until 3pm) and we bumped our way over the pass to the far side of the mountains, only getting stuck once in the finest sand imaginable.
We dossed down for a few hours in an old concrete barracks-style building and pretended to sleep until the 3am start. One bloke stripped off to his y-fronts and smeared himself in Diclofenac cream, whilst talking in tongues. I thought I´d entered some kind of Mola Ram-Kali Ma cult, so I just ignored him best I could. Obviously I ndded to take a leak as soon as I went to sleep and was rewarded by a night sky full of stars (which you never see in Lima due to air pollution and artificial light), it was a full moon too, bonus!
The local punters swear by a drink called “Mate de Coca” (tea made from coca leaves) which is said to help with altitude. I bought a tub in concentrated powder form, which was like drinking green horse pi$$, but I was willing to try anything.
All too soon it was 3am, the full moon had disappeared and it was pitch black and a bit parky too. This was only the 3rd running of the event and the previous two years a lot of people had dropped out within the last 100m to the summit.
The start was delayed until 3:45am (Peru-time) then we were off.
All immediately strung out like the washing. It was about -5°c, but folk were dressed up like Michelin men with puffa jackets and balaclavas. Maybe just out of the vest-only temperature zone but positively tropical compared to say, the Mickleden Straddle or the Beast!
Headtorches lighting the way through the desert with El Misti brooding ahead. My only plan was to get to the top, no plan in effect, but I´d come too far to not reach the summit. The top was only a fraction of the race itself…
It was blowing an icy gale from the north, a land of distant volcanoes and unnamed peaks, proper bandit country. Passing the first checkpoint at around dawn (5am), up what was starting to feel like the world´s biggest sand dune. Despite being encouraged/heckled by my mate Charlie and a loose plan to stick with him, he was gone before long. (He had been sleeping in his car at 13000ft all week, top acclimatisation tip).
I don’t like fancy kit (principally as I am perpetually skint/a tightwad), “When I were a lad it was just Walshes, a smelly-hansen, some skimpy shorts (not through choice, “long” shorts didn’t exist then) and a bum-bag”.
Race-vests, fancy arm-warmers, compression socks…
Where did it all go wrong?
Anyway, I had been told that I would definitely need the following:
- A watch with an altimeter.
- Desert gaiters (and get them stitched to your shoes, I was told).
A watch, fair enough. Poles, bloody pricey for two walking sticks. Desert gaiters!? And stitch them to my brand new clodhoppers, before the race.
I could now see why people had turned around so close to the top, as you can see the top from blooming miles below and it never gets any closer, but by the powers of modern technology, I could see that I was ever-so-slowly getting closer to 5825m (19,111ft in old money).
The walking poles were ace! I was sold immediately.
I had borrowed some desert gaiters but thought I´d glue on some Velcro and stick them to that. That was part of my nemesis. (The strongest and stinkiest glue I could find, apparently Terokal is a favourite with local sniffers, was simply not sticky enough).
Higher and higher, an expanding view northwards across desert and scrub, no sign of any life at all, bar a bloke in a yellow top upfront and a Brazilian lad in a white top behind. We all plodded upwards in our own little worlds.
Sand is great to fly down but not good to climb, especially that really fine icing sugar stuff. One step forward-three steps back. Zig-zag-zig-zag, with the massive summit iron cross not getting much closer, until, about 300ft from the top, you can see it is the top.
I’ve not been as relieved to reach a top as much as that in a while. The view wasn’t quite as good as Stoodley Pike on a clear day, but I was happy to get there! The problem was that I´d only done about a quarter of the distance and I´d pretty much done my boots in. Dropping down to lower altitudes would help, surely?
After shivering my Jacobs off all the way up to the top, dropping down into the crater was a massive contrast. El Misti last “blew” in 1985, it was a bit unnerving to descend into the stinking sulphur clouds, but worth it for the descent off the other side. A scree run dropping about 5000ft in 2 miles. Not entirely runnable and with a few hefty blocks to keep you on your toes/face/ar$e. It was here that my reluctance and lack of foresight to stitch the gaiters onto my shoes, caught me unstuck, literally. You don´t want to stop on a descent, especially when the lad behind hadn’t heard of the word “below” as he kicked dinosaur-egg sized boulders at me, but when your shoes are full of razor-sharp rocks, needs must. In my haste to get down, I overshot a turning and a tumbling freefall suddenly became a lung-imploding, soul-destroying slip/slide upwards. “Where did you go?” they asked at the checkpoint. The air was still too thin for me to launch into a lengthy explanation.
The bloke behind had disappeared and I was now on my own for a long, traversing dog-leg, away from the finish. The course was flagged, but I am colourblind, so I don´t always see the markers (my excuse and I am sticking to it!) It was a pathless contour through sloping sand dunes and spiky grass. The wind had dropped, I was sunburnt to a crisp and felt sick. I´d stopped eating and was going through a “what am I doing here?” period. My gaiters wouldn’t stick and I couldn´t be bothered to empty my shoes (again), but you get to a point where the powder sand builds up and builds up under your toes until you have to give in.
I did catch the lad in front, a Brazilian ultrarunner from the jungle, whose highest local peak was 120m above sea level! His Spanish was even worse than mine, he didn’t speak English, nor I Portuguese, so it was a quiet plod with some miming and mumbling.
I was doing sums in my head for cut-offs and flight times! Due to starting late, I was under pressure to get a wriggle on and when the next checkpoint bloke said 12 miles to go and I´d already done 19 (the course was 26 miles apparently), I couldn’t see where I had gone wrong. A promising looking long descent would have been dream material if I´d had anything left in my legs, but it was a parody of a jog/hobble. A young lass caught us, who stopped with the Brazilian guy, when I somehow got ahead until they steamtrained past me a mile later. El Misti rose vertiginously to my right, it looked ridiculously high and steep, had I dreamt it all?
The rest was a dusty, desertous plod through diddy tinpot villages and each checkpoint giving different distances to the finish. Until I was crossing a shallow river and heard some abuse (in English) from the other bank, from my mate Charlie.
He jogged backwards in his flip-flops (he had finished an hour before me) to the finish.
Done (in) and dusted! Mid-field obscurity, but I had got round.
Thence followed a planes-trains-&-automobiles journey back home, where I eventually got a wash and some kip before work on Monday. A busy old weekend!
– Johnny Bravo
Footnote: If anybody did fancy the 2019 Misti Sky Race in November, I am hoping to move to Arequipa in July, so you can doss down at my place. All are welcome!