Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Ecuador: The Physiological Impact of Non-interplanetary Running

Okay, I've been 60 years old long enough to choose senseless titles without providing an explanation, even if the title and first paragraph are an obvious attempt to develop a segue for this blog post...

Being 60 and attempting to run at altitude generate some surprising results.  I'm guessing that any research involving older runners will indicate that the cardiovascular is impaired.  I.e. one reason that older runners slow down is because they have less efficient oxygen delivery to the legs.  This is likely compounded by all sorts of other reasons, such as scar tissue in various body parts and possibly carrying extra weight.

I also question if the will to run fast is compromised.  Don't get me wrong.  Every run I fervently hope that my speed increases, the sun shines and I ride a wave of euphoria in an effortless 4 hour workout.  However, the opposite is true, especially during the "warm-up" portion of the run.  I feel sluggish and uninspired for the first 40 minutes of every run.  For those in your twenties, please note the duration of the warm-up.  I recall warming up for a 5K race when I was a youngster.  It involved 5 minutes of gentle running (which was much faster than my current race pace...), then 5 minutes of increasing my pace, until I was at or near race pace.  10 minutes!  It now takes more than 30 minutes for my obstinate legs to even acknowledge that I am out for a run.

At altitude, running takes on a whole new meaning.  For fun, let's talk max VO2.  Once warmed up, my sustainable pace in Ontario is slightly better than a 6 minute kilometer.  I can run at 12 KPH, but not for very long.  While in Cuenca (altitude 2560 meters) any attempt to run even a slight uphill resulted in walking.  I am above my max VO2 at ANY running pace!

However Ecuador is a beautiful country with perfect temperatures and wonderful hikes.  The Cajas National park is a one hour bus ride from Cuenca and boasts several hiking trails and unique terrain.  Some are multi-day hikes and a guide is recommended.  It snows in Cajas.  Every year people get lost and die from exposure.  Part of the problem is that Cajas is on the equator.  It should be hot!  The fact that it is above 4,000 meters doesn't really mean much to the unprepared hiker.  There are also several day hikes for which you don't need a guide.  Some are well marked, but most people lose their way at some point, so you need to keep an eye out for the markers.

Cuenca is a city of 400,000 people and 500,000 taxis and buses, with European charm.  I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but in the middle of South America, Cuenca boasts a plethora of Spanish influenced 18th century architecture.  We stayed at Pepe's Hostal, a recently renovated hotel with incredible ambience.  Pepe is a cat that strolls the inner courtyard and there is no misunderstanding as to who really owns the place.  The inner courtyard is covered with glass and is an ideal spot to lounge, read, eat, have a black Russian, or simply pass the time.  I was forced to spend a few days at Pepe's with an annoying cough.  Although feeling the cold symptoms, reading in the courtyard was pleasant.  Our room was large and well appointed, but could have used a window for ventilation.  Pepe's also has 2 dormitories, where you can spend the night and have breakfast for $11.  If you decide to spend time in Cuenca, I would recommend Pepe's.

After 2 weeks in Cuenca, we made our way to Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador.  If the name seems a bit familiar, Vilcabamba is one of a few spots in the world that claim to have a high percentage of centenarians.  This claim is questionable, but the underlying reasons are not.  Vilcabamba boasts "late Spring" weather year round.  The water supply is mineral rich and life's pace is relaxed and peaceful.

We stayed in Izhcayluma (no one can pronounce it, so don't bother trying), a resort that was 2K out of town.  The resort was very close to being perfect.  Spread out along a mountain slope are 25 rooms (typically 2 to a building), a restaurant, bar, yoga studio and massage parlor.  Hikes abound in the area and varied from a 30 minute stroll along quiet trails to 9 hour hikes through rugged mountain terrain.  The menu includes almost everything, so if you had an urge for pizza, it was incredibly good.  Other options are Italian, Ecuadorian, typical North American fare and the specialty, German.  Mains were priced around $8, so there was little point in going to town just to save money on supper!  We did go to town to eat a couple of times, simply to experience the local scene.  At one point in our stay, I mentioned to Lee Anne that Izhcayluma was possibly the nicest resort in which we have ever stayed.

The town of Vilcabama (about 2,000 people) was typical of Ecuador and we found shopping bargains in some of the stores.  While travelling, we prefer to spend our money in the local economy.  This can be tricky as we also enjoy good accommodations and meals.  Not that I only stay at 5 star resorts, but it has been 30 years since I slept in a tent.  For example, Izhcayluma is owned by 2 German brothers, so the preponderance of our accommodation budget while in Vilcabamba was not directly spent in a local establishment.

One issue I have with Vilcabamba is that there is a large presence of young and old hippies.  Unlike expats (foreigners who live in Ecuador and spend money supporting the local economy) and tourists, the hippies (American, Canadian, Venezuelan, etc.) are vying directly with the locals for the tourist dollars.  According to my perverse ethical stance, this isn't fair.  There is no harm in foreigners spending money in Ecuador, as it supports the local economy and ultimately will help the Ecuadorians, but foreigners selling product and competing with the locals for the tourist dollars is not.  The reason for the hippy influx is that living in Vilcabamba is almost ideal.  You can easily sleep with just a roof over your head.  Food is ridiculously cheap.

Enough ranting - on to important matters.  Registration for the Spring Warm-up is quite healthy, with 21 people already signed up.  I recognize quite a few of the names, but wonder how many sign up, thinking the Fun Run is actually a Fun Run?  I.e. they have not heard the horror stories of mud, drifting snow and freezing cold temperatures that have graced the Spring Warm-up in years past.  Are they expecting a smooth flat paved surface, instead of the technical bits on the Bruce Trail, long hills on dirt roads and the odd cliff?  I can't wait to see their reactions!

It should come as no surprise that Pick Your Poison (April 27), the first event in the OUTRace series, is sold out.  If you are looking for a race this Spring, you might want to sign up for the Seaton Soaker (May 11) as registration is starting to creep up towards the cap.