Men of the Mountain

chirripo with Harp

Costa Rica

In our first year of marriage, Steph was accepted into a Master’s program at “La Universidad Para La Paz” – a United Nations University in Costa Rica that focuses on conflict studies. The same week she received her letter of acceptance, we found out she was pregnant. I was in the middle of my undergraduate studies and was on a running scholarship. We decided the opportunity for her to study her passion- media and conflict -at a university like this would not come again, so she enrolled. I took a year off of school and a red shirt year from collegiate running.  With Steph 6 months pregnant, we moved from the jungles of Hawaii to the jungles of Costa Rica. After our little daughter was born, I played “stay at home dad” while Steph attended classes.

Any time that I wasn’t at home with our daughter, I spent running through the jungle trails of the mountains that surrounded our home on all sides. Leaving Hawaii, I traded mongoose for spider monkeys, and egrets for toucans. I still hungered to race and quickly became involved in Costa Rica’s highly organized running community. I traveled around much of the little country competing on the road and in the mountains. On the road I was competitive – I seemed to hold my own against almost anybody in the country, but when it came to the mountain races, or what the Ticos called “campo traviessa”, I got destroyed. I became intrigued. I knew the other competitors weren’t training harder than me – that’s all I did. I began to investigate what they were doing that gave them such great power in the mountains.

Part of my Univeristy studies were in anthropology so naturally, I looked at the mountain racing scene through an ethnographic lens. I began to analyze everything I saw and write about it.

There is a particular race in the southern mountains of the country known as La Carrera International de Chirripo. In the eyes of the mountain running Tico’s, this is the only race that matters.  It is like the Boston Marathon of Costa Rica. This 20 mile race up and back down the tallest mountain in the country is all anybody ever talks about. I trained specifically for 6 months with this race in mind, thinking that I could compete with the country’s best and write about it from the perspective of the front pack.

Race day arrived in the beautiful little pueblito of San Gerardo de Rivas. I lined up with several hundred other athletes. I was easy to pick out- I was the only gringo, and my long beard quickly earned me the nickname “Barba Roja”. The gun fired and we were off. I quickly joined the front pack as we ran through the dirt streets of the little town and then sharply turned uphill and began to switchback up the mountain. I immediately felt the effects of the fast pace at high altitude. I didn’t last a single kilometer. The lead pack quickly disappeared around a sharp turn as they seemed to glide effortlessly up the steep trail.  I was in survival mode before the race had even started.

I finished close to four hours later in 24th place, 45 minutes behind the winner. I was crushed. I didn’t know whether I wanted to train like a mad man, or just give up. I had been training my whole life and had trained specifically for this race for 6 months. All of that preparation and I didn’t even come close.

I quickly changed roles from runner to anthropologist. Armed with a pen and a small pad of paper, I walked around the finishing area, hunting down every single runner who had beaten me. I asked about their diet, their lifestyle, their strategy going into the race. When I finally asked about training most of them looked at me with bewilderment in their eyes. “Training?” they asked back. “We don’t train”. They said.

I thought they must not have understood. “Entrenamiento,” I repeated, confident that my Spanish was correct. “What do you do for training?” They each responded, “We don’t train”.  This time I was the one who was confused. In a combination of bewilderment and frustration I thought, “If you don’t train, then explain yourself.  See, all I do is train. How is it that you just beat me by 45 minutes in a 20 mile race when you don’t even train?” Of course my question was stated more like, “Well, if you don’t train, how do you run so fast?” They each responded in their own way, saying, “We don’t have time to train. There is too much work to do.”  Within my next question lay the answer to this bizarre mystery. “What do you do for work then?” I asked one of the runners.

“I am a portero.

“Porter?” I thought. “What is a portero?” I asked.

Por-te-ro” he repeated, slowly this time, a bit louder and with more enunciation, as if maybe then I would understand.

“We climb the mountain,” he said, motioning with his head toward the mountain that had just destroyed me. “We carry the gear for the tourists who are going to climb it each day. We climb during the night so that it is there waiting for them when they make it to the top. Then we run back down.”

“We?” I asked.

“All of us.” He responded, motioning to most of the men in the finish area who I had just been beaten by.

“You climb the mountain every night?” I thought to myself in disbelief. “Then what?” I asked.

“Then we work of course”. He replied.

“Work?” I asked, as if climbing 6000 vertical feet over 10 miles with someone else’s luggage and then running back down all before 8 am wasn’t work enough.

“Café” He responded, motioning with his head toward the coffee farms that rose up the steeply terraced mountains all around us.

“Coffee.” I replied, more to myself than to anyone else.“Then you work in the coffee. Of course you do.”

When I left San Gerardo, I could think of little else. My wife finished classes in early spring. After a little convincing, the two of us and our baby girl moved to the tiny village of San Gerardo. I spent the first couple of weeks going from house to house and offering my services for whatever anybody needed help with. I worked on the farms and in the gardens. It didn’t take long to become familiar with residents – there were only a couple hundred of them. In the evenings our little family would walk down the hill to the town center and watch pick-up soccer games. On Sunday mornings, we would attend mass. I had soon become friends with many of the porters who had destroyed me when we raced up and down the mountain several months before. When it was determined that I had good intentions, I was welcomed into the tight-knit group of porters and began to help port tourist’s luggage up the mountain each night and then run back down as the sun was coming up.

The time in those mountains, accompanied by many strong, wise men, had a lasting effect on me. We would leave at 2:00 am and hike, mostly in silence for the first couple of hours, by the light of the moon. The porters were strong and quick on their feet. Their gait was fast and their rhythm consistent. Throughout the journey we would talk and joke. I mainly just tried to catch my breath. My lungs, legs and back burned as we climbed up above 12,000ft. I could hear my heartbeat- it sounded like a drum in my ears. It was torturous, but I loved every agonizing minute of it. The porters couldn’t understand why someone would do this voluntarily. I couldn’t understand how anyone would prefer a desk job if this was an option. Over the weeks I gradually grew stronger, but my legs ached almost all the time.  One night I asked one of the older porters if the legs ever stopped hurting. He thought for a moment, and then wisely replied with complete sincerity, “Yes, eventually they stop hurting – usually after a year or so”.

I ported through the summer. I knew that I would need to resume my role as leader of our Cross Country team back at the university in a few short weeks, but during those months on the mountain  I had stopped any kind of organized training. All I did was port. I was lean and strong, but I had put on a lot of muscle weight in my legs and back. I didn’t know how all of it would affect my running. On the day before we had to leave San Gerardo, I did a time trial over the same exact course as I had run several months before. I was a different person. The mountain had changed me. I charged up the steep trail that by then I knew so well, and after reaching the top, glided back down. The same climbs that had crippled me just a few months earlier were now a part of me. They had strengthened my blood, expanded my lungs and hardened my muscles.  When I crossed the finish line at the bottom I looked at my watch. I covered the same course 30 minutes faster than I had when I first came to San Gerardo to race. I had replaced my specially designed training regimen for a life that consisted only of porting up and down the mountain every night. The experience changed my whole view on what was considered fitness and on how to become unbeatable in the mountains. Most importantly it taught me to love and respect that space.

I addition, I learned that there is not only one right way to do things. My strength in the mountains came as a result of porting, not from sticking to a specific training program. The porters that I worked with never even considered their work to be training. It was a matter of perspective. I noticed that the rigors of their daily lives, although physically draining, did not seem to drain them emotionally. They eliminated the stress that comes from the element of choice.  They didn’t question whether they were going to work or not. It was just part of their life. They didn’t analyze how they had done – they just did it. There was no value system based on effort or exertion or how long they had “embraced the burn”. They didn’t reflect on how they had pushed their bodies into new levels of agony, or analyze how high they had gotten their heart rate before they had reached their breaking point. To them it was simple – they either completed the task, or they didn’t. The pack either made it to the top of the mountain in time for the tourists to arrive, or it didn’t. If they completed the job they got paid. If not, they didn’t. If they doddled on the way back down, the day would be spent by the time they made it to the bottom. If they ran, they would have a full day to work in the coffee.  The porters enjoyed the camaraderie that existed among them.  They viewed the task not as punishment, but rather, as an opportunity to work to provide for their families. For that reason they looked at the mountain with gratitude for what it gave them, rather than with disdain for what it required from them.

I have tried to apply these same concepts to my training and my life in general. Rather than thinking quantitatively, I think rather about having the opportunity to play in the forest, or climb a mountain. I don’t look at a watch, I just climb until I get to the top and then enjoy the view and the satisfaction that comes from making it there. I try to avoid training situations that deplete my emotional energy. I work hard, but I don’t get down on myself if a workout didn’t go great. I am flexible and adapt my training to make that work.  If I have a hard tempo run planned and I wake up to cold wind and rain and I can feel that it will take a lot of emotional energy to get out the door and finish the workout, I don’t do it. I still get in the workout, but I adjust my training and do it on a different day that will give me an enjoyable, positive experience.  When it comes time to race, physiologically it will have made any difference one way or the other, but I will have reserved the emotional energy necessary to really suffer.

It is my belief that Endurance athletes tend to complicate the process too much. They typically waste 99% of their emotional energy focusing on things that will make 1% of a difference on race day. To me it’s not that complicated. Put in the time. Train hard. Rest often. Eat clean. Love the process. Race when you’re ready and then fight like hell.

 

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