Men of the Mountain
I am often asked what a typical week of training looks like for me. Of course there is a considerable amount of running, but if someone digs deeper; if they ask how I have developed the ability to run for long hours in the mountains, they are usually surprised with my response: “Hiking. On a treadmill. A lot.” Come back with me to a tiny, remote village nestled among steep terraced coffee plantations in the high attitude volcanic mountains of Central America. It was there, several years ago, that I accidentally discovered a secret that was kept among some of the world’s most incredible endurance athletes; men so revered, that the neighboring jungle dwelling indigenous populations, who were rarely seen, and even more seldom heard, referred to them affectionately with the respected title, “Men of the mountain”.
In our first year of marriage, my wife 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….(sigh)… 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, which essentially consisted of hiking up a very steep trail, for hours at a time. 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, being careful to start and begin in the exact same place as the starting line had been on that overgrown futbol field in the center of the village. Now, after countless moonlit trips up and down that mountain I was no longer the same person. The mountain had changed me. I seemed to fly up the steep trail that by then I knew so well, and after reaching the top some two hours later, I charged resolutely 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 imaginary finish line at the bottom, careful not to run into a local cow grazing in the field’s tall grass, 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 hiking up and running down the mountain every night.
Years later, I still think back on what I learned during my time on that incredible mountain among very wise men, who happened to be some of the greatest endurance athletes the world has never seen. That experience changed my whole view on what I consider the best way to develop fitness and how to become unbeatable in the mountains. Life is different now. It’s more complicated. I’m enrolled in a full time doctorate program at the university. My wife Steph and I have two little girls and another on the way. I work. She works. The one thing that has remained the same since we left Central America is that I still train incredibly hard, and a lot of it consists of hiking uphill.
Of course I would love to be able to be back in those warm misty mountains, climbing those steep trails under the rising moon, but right now that’s not possible. Instead, several times a week, I set the incline on my treadmill to as steep as I can handle (usually not up the 40% potential max of the Incline Trainer -made my Nordic Track, but maybe someday). I love that I can use Google Maps to access almost anywhere in the world and explore new mountains and trails on the HD screen right in front of me. I increase the speed until I am at a challenging but sustainable rhythm, and I climb for as long as I have available – allowing my mind to drift back to that high altitude rain forest.
Not only does it calm me and help me reflect upon all of the important lessons I learned in those mountains in Central America, but it also gives me confidence in my fitness, knowing that even if I can’t physically be there, I can still train my body in the same exact way as I did when I lived among the Men of the Mountain.