In April 2011, I had the opportunity to combine two of my passions: travel and trail running. San Martín de Los Andes, a small mountain town (population 24,000) in Argentine Patagonia, played host to the annual Patagonia Run, with options to run 10K, 21K, 42K (marathon), or a monster 84K. Me: I’m no wimp and I’m not scared of mountains. My last race prior to this one was a 50K in Yosemite. But in the months leading up to the race, I was living and training in Buenos Aires, a city with a conspicuous lack of mountains, so I played conservatively and chose to tackle the 21K.
It’s a 2 hour flight to get from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, a small city at the foot of the Andes which has the region’s largest and most accessible airport. From Bariloche, we rented a car to drive to San Martín de los Andes, 190 kilometers distant. For travel in Argentina between these 2 places, I recommend taking this road trip simply for the opportunity to see the dazzling Patagonian landscape along the way.
Picturesque is an understatement; Patagonia is more like breathtakingly beautiful. A blanket of forest covers the mountains and snow may be found year-round atop the highest peaks. The dark blue color of the lake water hints at its icy cold temperature, which even in hottest summer months peaks at 14°C (57°F). This April, the Patagonian fall was in full force, beginning to dovetail toward winter, and cold winds, harsh but invigorating, whipped through the trees and coaxed the lake waters into gentle waves. Taken as a whole, the glacier-carved landscape is exquisite.
Heading north on the well-paved Route 231, the enormous Nahuel Huapi Lake served as our continuous boundary to the east. We stopped for lunch in the quaint town of Villa La Angostura (population 11,000), which boasts excellent local craft brews and deer stew. From there, we continued along Route 234, also known as “La ruta de los siete lagos” (or 7 Lakes Road), named after the 7 lakes that you pass along the way. There was one length of road which was under repair at the time, and we tossed and tumbled over pebbled, rain-soaked roads for about an hour, but this was the only rough spot before the final smooth entry into San Martín de los Andes. In total, we traversed 190 kilometers (118 miles) in about 4 hours, including the stop for lunch, as well as the washing machine simulacrum on Route 234. (On the way back we took the less lovely, but better maintained, Route 40 back to Bariloche and made the 260 kilometer-trip, or 160 miles, in about 3 hours.)
San Martín de los Andes presented its best face on race day: scattered cirrus clouds, temperatures in the single Celsius digits (low 40s Fahrenheit) early in the morning, warming up to ‘teens (low 60s Fahrenheit) later in the day. My Argentine co-competitors in the 21K were absolutely friendly, there were aid stations every 6 kilometers for refueling and hydration, the race course was sufficiently beautiful to distract one from its challenging bits, and I really couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
In the past, I’ve found that plotting a creative finish is an energizing distraction from the doubts and recriminations (such as: why did I do this to myself, can’t I just walk this part, this kind of hurts, I should’ve trained better, etc.) that creep into my brain in those agonizing moments of a race before the end is in sight. Anticipation thus replaces self-reproach.
Final kilometer: I pass a distressed multitude of variously limping, walking, suffering Argentines, while the cheers of spectators at the finish grow audibly.
50 meters: I dig deep (suppressing as best as possible my limp, desire to walk, and suffering). Quick check behind me to make sure I’m clear.
Mere centimeters: Full stop. Hands on the ground, balance weight on knees, head to the ground, engage core strength (thank you, yoga), extend legs into a full headstand, and lacking further strength, falling/rolling onto my back, landing on my buttocks. My race photographer snapped the prep and the landing, but unfortunately did not catch the actual headstand!
Nonetheless, it was pretty awesome. The ideal race conditions, the beautiful Patagonian setting, and my respectable ranking (30th in my group) combined to make this Argentina vacation an experience I’ll never forget. Throughout, I was reminded of why I love to run on mountains and why I love to travel.