My First Multistage Desert Ultramarathon: HMDS Peru 2019
Trailrunning. In the desert. In South America. More than 100k. Sure.
What did I pack? How did I get there? How is it like? Can anybody do it?
How much does it cost? This is not your average race report.
I packed all the pure organizational information into another blogpost for those seeking information about the race.
To be honest, I did not prepare long-term for this as I only signed up about three weeks before race day. My overall fitness seemed okay-ish after 3 ultramarathons this summer and countless other marathons and races. However, I focussed on stair climbing with extra weights on my back and a strong core.
Now, after crossing the finish line I have to admit that there was definitely some space for improvement. I struggled mainly with back issues due to the weight of my backpack. As there were not many options to reduce that weight, I would strongly recommend a proper fitness training for strengthening core and back muscles several months before the event.
Also, long runs - possibly in sand - with that backpack are strongly recommended. Expose yourself to different types of sand (I swear, there are so many variations) and midday heat. Practice running in the dark and other uncomfortable situations to improve mental strength as well. For more insights into that, I can recommend Michele Ufers book about mental toughness for runners.
Starting from Europe, Peru is really far away. Luckily, I found a 17 hour flight connection, stopping over in Columbia that would fit the schedule. Peru does not require any paperwork in advance regarding visa issues for EU citizens.
When exiting the customs at the airport in Lima, we quickly decide for a 20 dollar shuttle to Miraflores - one of the best spots in the city where we have our hostel - for a 45 minute drive.
In general, I did not exchange any money and had no issues paying everything with credit card or US dollars. After checking in at the hostel, we start to explore Lima. To be 100% honest, I did not totally fall for the city in general, but it definitely has some sweet spots.
Miraflores has some shopping streets and malls, offering Peruvian accessories, chocolates and alpaca wool. Also, there are some stunning ocean-side restaurants in the cliff with an incredible view over the coastline.
Another must-do is definitely to taste the local cuisine like Ceviche and have some Pisco sours. Regarding hotels, I can recommend the Radisson at Miraflores with its nice location, great service and rooftop bar.
Day 1: Getting to the desert
Hundreds of runners are gathering together at the central bus station in their ultra-backpacks and travel luggage, waiting for the busses to arrive.
Even though there is not much talking or info involved, everything works nice and smooth and we get on a very luxurious overnight bus within half an hour and are even equipped with a small midnight snack and water.
The night is spent with much sleep and rest and some nervous giggles. Most of the people on our bus a French, but speak decent english. The drive takes about 8 hours until we are being dropped of somewhere in the desert in order to change into a military bus.
The second drive is about an hour and involves a decent load of sand and dirt - it is a true sand dunes riding experience and you better hold on tight to the car in order not to break a leg even before getting there.
Everybody is stunned when arriving at the campsite. The organizers set up a massive village with all facilities for about 600 runners and 100 volunteers who live here for the next week.
Firstly, the spare luggage is collected (very German, with numbers and a real structured system - so impressed!) before heading to the technical checks.
The next station is for signing the waivers before being handed out the roadbook and a quick gear check (also - do not forget your medical certificate and passport).
At the camp, the first 5 liters of water are being handed out and camp numbers are assigned: 6 tents build a small community and Michelle, my race buddy, and I move in together with some fun Italian guys. The rest of the day is well spent getting to know the other runners, having an amazing massive lunch and dinner together and getting used to sun and sand.
Day 2: First stage (31k)
Call time 7.30 while we are being woken up at 5.30. Seriously? 2 hours for packing a few things and walking 100 meters to the start? Yes. And you will need them. Michelle and I were even late and needed the help of some competitors to make it on time.
Packing nicely takes three time as long as you would expect it, while making/cooking breakfast and getting dressed, applying sunscreen and so on.
Shortly after reaching the start line (crazy mood, nice loud music), there is a quick briefing about todays course and we run off.
Loose sand. So much loose sand. This heavy backpack on my shoulders. MORE LOOSE SAND. Michelles water bottles keep falling off and we start walking uphill. W T F. Running? Ha no. We are happy to be able to crawl the first meters until getting used to the loose ground.
The heat hits quickly and the first 10k follow the cliffs and beachside, while I really struggle to move forward. After 10k, we reach the „big dune“ and can spot other competitors like small ants, climbing up the deep and soft sand. 25 minutes later, we reach the top of this monster - I totally confuse the roadmap and am very convinced, that this was the whole vert for today.
Not so much.
After 700 Meters vert and 10 kilometers later, we reach the downhill stretch and fight along with the others. One thing I really like? It is not only top elite athletes in this race. We are surrounded by equally struggling runners at the same pace the whole time. Three aid stations, many liters of sweat and countless chocolate bars later, we reach the finish after 31k, being very sunburned and very exhausted.
"WTF" sums up the first day pretty accurately.
Day 3: The long stage
To be honest, I am not completely confident regarding this day. Yesterday was super rough and fighting almost double the distance causes pure nausea and panic in my tummy.
Start time is 5 AM and we start to get ready by 3.30 AM. Lessons learned - today is way more chill and I have enough time for a yummy breakfast. We start this stage the other way round with another very long and exhausting uphill climb. Without any wind of course, because why run at a comfortable temperature for once. It feels super humid and hot in the fog while we fight our way up.
Stunning views and endless sand dunes reward our effort instantly and make us speechless for a moment. There is a massive downhill coming up in loose sand and we really take the time to enjoy ourselves and take countless pictures. This is how we roll!
Ultramarathon is not a linear line of endless fun and the heat gets tougher and tougher. We reach the second stage where we find our tent neighbor dropping out. HOW? Jacobo seemed so much stronger than us! We try to get him back to the race and after a decent water break, we keep on fighting the heat.
12 kilometers on a challenging plateau where the heat is so intense that you can literally see how air is burning on the ground. Somehow, after countless uphill stretches and more and more dunes, we arrive at the next aid station where we have a quick cold lunch (cold crunchy pasta, yummy. Not. We could not light a fire due to heavy winds).
The last 21k are not much easier, but include a downhill stretch at the big dune. SO MUCH FUN. I try to slide down on my ass and roll down this baby being full of joy. And sand. After the last aid station, we have another tough 10k at the beach in loose sand coming up.
We both get more tired and annoyed, but somehow survive to finish after about 13 hours while the sun is going down. The finish line is a massive party of previous finishers and volunteers while everyone waits patiently for the last runner to arrive after 18.5 hours - being welcome by people running along and a fair amount of hugs and dancing.
I skip dinner due to my sick tummy and try to fall sleep. But I can’t. My freaking tent makes me totally freak out - I am tired and annoyed, but sand is everywhere and bugging me a lot.
Multiple layers of sunscreen, sand and dirt cover my whole body and I just feel heated up and gross. Not a single centimeter of my mattress is clean. I even have sand in my mouth due to the water bottles, crunching between my teeth. Somehow, I manage to get my shit together and fall asleep being dead annoyed.
Day 4: Rest day
REST DAY! SO DAMN EARNED. Why not get up at 5 AM and see the sunrise. I use my refueled energy to clean up all the shit in my tent (tough task, without real cleaning supplies or paper) and schedule a little spa day: cleaning my whole body, applying perfume and dry shampoo and wash my clothes.
Again, the organizer did such an amazing job today: There are yoga classes, meditation groups and massages. I join a blister treatment class by a doctor (GROSS. Not the doctor. All those feet) and then we are all surprised with the nicest gift:
ICE COLD COCA COLA. So good.
So yummy - I am so tired by all this still, warm water the last days and enjoy every single sip so much.
Later, we cook early dinner (I have some potato beef shit - purely disgusting) and go to bed without really touching it. Not the first meal I skipped the past days.
Day 5: Final stage (21k)
Everyone is super happy and partying, I am not. My tummy is still bugging me and I have built up a massive calorie deficit over the past days. We also have to build down our tents before we leave.
Todays stage is the easiest by far: Nice bearing sand, not too much elevation gain and crazy views. However, I do not manage to catch the mood and feel super tired and exhausted from the lack of sleep and food. Michelle somehow drags me along the 22k until we reach the finish line.
BIG HUGS. Many pictures, a very well-earned medal and huge smiles before we jump on that bus.
The ride is about 3 hours to get to Paracas into the most stunning hotel by the sea (Hilton Toubletree - amazing choice). Massive pool area, incredible dinner venue and alllll the people. It is fairly hard to recognize folks without their „ultra uniform“ but we have such a nice time. Pisco sours, more ceviche and a hot shower are first things first before the ceremony and gala dinner start.
HMDS also created a very incredible and beautiful video about the past days - with the help of many great photographers - which is revealed now. Dinner then consists of a buffet with various local food options. We are having nice chats and eat a fair amount of dessert before the real party starts. The craziest party I have seen in a while: People dance and party like there is no tomorrow - old and young shake booties and jump along to south American dance tunes. I have several Pisco sours (really, so yummy) and can feel my inner Shakira coming out. Shake that (sore) bootie !!!
Many many hours, drinks and happy dances later, I manage so squeeze in a two hour nap before packing everything at 5 AM. My shuttle back to the airport leaves at 7AM. What an epic week. I have absolutely no words for this and still cannot realized what I have been through, much weeping and complaining involved haha. Pure goosebumps and so much proud along with some sadness that this chapter is already over. For this year.
Who can do it?
Literally all sorts of people were at the campsite. Any nationality, any age (20ish to 82), any fitness. Experienced MDS finishers, first time ultramarathoners, „normal“ marathoners or half marathoners, hikers and, well, no runners at all.
Due to the generous cut-offs, anybody who can walk a speed of 3.5k/hour will manage it. As it gets really hot and steep at some points, long breaks will then not be possible anymore, but I would say it is definitely possible for any runner/hike with some race experience, a decent regular training schedule and some preparation time.
For instance, the fastest guys took around 6 hours for the long stage, while I was out there for 13 hours (hiking big parts) with a cutoff of 19.5 hours. The conditions (heavy backpack, loose sand, elevation gain heat) can make it tough to actually run much, but that is not an issue.
In addition, some camping experience doesn’t hurt for sure. Know and practice how to pack your gear, how to use your stove and definitely test the food in advance (definitely not kidding about this one - I hated 80% of what I brought).
Major struggles I had
Temperature: I was mainly cold and hot at the same time. Whenever you leave the shade, the sun gets really hot and also heats up the sand so much that walking on it is almost impossible. When sitting in the shade, it really gets cold super quick, which is why we even brought sleeping bags for naps in the community area
Back pain: A 8kg backpack (including water) is a different story for a 50kg girl than for a trained and tall guy. We would even take it off during the breaks for a couple of minutes and never really got used to it. Luckily, it lost a couple of pounds every day due to food consumption.
Low / no rest: I think this is the hardest part about the whole thing. No rest - no fluffy bed and room service burgers before falling asleep. The camp is always buzzy, the mattress way too small and the tummy very hungry. I didn't sleep great (also, there was an earthquake during the last night), food isn't great and down time is not very relaxing for first timers. Eventually you get used to it one day?
It is really not the cheapest event ever, considering the travels and signup cost, but I can totally understand where this cost comes from and therefore, I think it is fairly well priced for what you get.
Flights: Munich to Lima (round trip) was about 600 Euros for Economy class using Star Alliance with Avianca. Not the most amazing flight experience, but solid. Business Class upgrade was 650 Euros per leg.
Sign up: 1350 Euros including transfers, the additional hotel night (Hilton Paracas in my case and it was beautiful), Gala dinner, water and campsite (classic package). There are also options to include other sights in Peru like the Machu Pichu.
Gear: Depending on what you already have of course. Biggest investments are the backpack (around 200 Euros), a decent sleeping bag (100-200 Euros) and expedition food (around 100 Euros). I bought a lot of (not „super high end“) stuff from Amazon and local stores for a decent price - check my blogpost next week on details about that.
Absolutely worth it. The country. The volunteers. The security level. The nice orga with so many thoughtful details. The community and the love for running. The strong minds who fight to leave their comfort zones. People who share their stories - Every single one had a reason to be there. Others, taking away your trash and sharing their food without asking for anything in return. Peru and HMDS, you have a very special place in my heart.
Thanks to WAA, (#whatanadventure), Ferdinand and HMDS for letting me be part of this epic story.
Thanks to my dude Michelle for being such a great buddy, being by my side during every hour of the day, always helping out with a Dutch waffle when needed. From the mandatory „Good morning, I’ll have a piss“ until late at night. Patiently analyzing every single moment of my life while killing time. Along every single one of those 120.000 steps across the freaking desert.
Thanks to every single soul for giving me hugs, helping me out when I didn’t even know how to put fire into a stove. For closing my tent-house windows when I already cleaned my feet from sand. Thanks for every (ermunternd) smile along the path.
Thanks to all those amazing volunteers and meds. For cleaning and curing my wounds and sunburns. For waiting in the sun for so many hours only to pour water onto my head while being the most positive and humble minds. For dancing and laughing, cheering and believing in me. (You could hear them scream „PRINCESSSSS“ even three dunes away!)
Ultramarathon family, you are truly a very decent pack of people with such a big heart and strong mind, I am grateful to be part of it. You inspire me everyday.
(Picture credit HMDS Media Team, Alexis Berg, Benjamin Soto Ferraris, David Gonthier, Diego Constantini, Johanna Arthos)