By Ashley Vander Meeden
At just before 10 am in the morning (I am not a morning person) I laced up my Merrell shoes for a quick mile run on day number 310 of my run streak. My husband Zach and I would be traveling all day and there would be no time for a run later in the day. We dropped off the girls, Sierra, age 6, and Isabel, age 3, with my parents in Fort Collins, Colorado. This also involved unloading so much stuff … the bags of clothes, book bags, soccer gear, bikes, and everything else we thought they’d need for watching the girls while we were out of the country. We tried to contain our emotions as we lingered over long hugs with the girls and thought about two weeks without them.
For a seemingly individualistic sport, I’m constantly surprised by the way running brings people together and allows space for conversations (though sometimes between sucking air). From high school cross country sleep overs and team dinners, to long training run conversations with friends, running is more than just act of rapidly moving on foot.
As a working adult, running has become something of a substitute for the past trend of golf course networking (though don’t get me wrong, I personally love to play golf as well). I’ve built deep and meaningful friendships with coworkers turned friends over miles together on the trail and the road.
This two week trip to Ecuador would prove to be no different, connecting the 14 of us (plus our stellar and steady bus driver Edison) over endless views, good conversations, and of course miles of trail running. The Crew: Zach, Anna Frost (Frosty), Ron Braselton (Braz), Alex, Andrew, Joel, Kim, Audrey, Nicole, Ruben, Ásdís, Veronica Rojas Paurell, and Jonas Paurell. The trip was led by Anna and Braz and their guiding company, Trail Run Adventures. In Ecuador, they partnered with Veronica and Jonas from Vagabond Trails.
Day 0 – We bounced from Denver, to Atlanta, to Ecuador, rolling in to Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito at nearly 11 pm. As the wheels hit the tarmac, Zach logged country number 23 in his international travels (and number 22 for me). We slowly emerged from customs and scanned the crowd of people for Braz and the “Trail Run Adventures” sign. After a short taxi ride, we were dropped off at the Rukka Lodge, a gorgeous combination of modern lines, vivid textiles, warm exposed wood, and striking gardens.
Day 1 – “Five deep belly breaths” Breathe … Breathe … Breathe … Breathe … Breathe. Good morning. Quito is at 2800m (9,350′) and even our wanderings around the city started the acclimatization process that would be so important to our time in Ecuador. Zach and I, and the other Coloradoans on the trip (Andrew, Kim, and Audrey), figured our mile high home would give us a leg up on the process. No doubt it helped, but I still struggled to breath as we walked hilly cobblestone streets in old town Quito (and that was walking, not running, eek). City Highlights: Plaza Grande, La Compania de Jesus (church completely covered in gold), Basilica del Voto Nacional towers, Calle de la Ronda, and street performers.
Once everyone had arrived throughout the day (and some of us the previous day) we met up for the reason we are all here, to run! We ran 4 miles together along the famous El Chaquiñán path, keenly feeling the lack of oxygen. The path is a popular and safe destination for walkers, runners, and bikers.
Dinner the first night was at one of the hotel’s restaurant, Okeaan Sushi & Seafood, and it set a pattern for the trip that we rarely strayed from – soup, entrée, and dessert! “Buen Provecho!” We dug into food and conversation. The first soup was an unbelievable fish ceviche that was perfectly seasoned with cilantro and lime juice.
Soup rant. Over the trip we would have many soups including: chard soup, celery soup, cevichocho with popcorn (a traditional bean ceviche), quinoa soup, onion soup, veggie pasta soup, and Locro de papa (an Ecuadorian potato and cheese soup with avocado). The majority of lunches and dinners included a soup and it warmed us to the bone and no doubt boosted our daily battle of staying hydrated. Throughout the two weeks, we were served heaping piles of delicious food at every meal.
“Five deep belly breaths” Breathe … Breathe … Breathe … Breathe … Breathe. Good night.
Day 2 – We loaded our bags onto the bus, found spots that we’d quickly become attached to, and started the three-hour bus ride into La Sierra or “the highlands” to the town of Sigchos. Our driver, Edison and our bus would be along with us for the entire two-week journey. We loaded our running vests with our rain jackets, trekking poles, water, and snacks to begin the day’s 7 mile run. As we acclimatized, we breathed in hard for more oxygen and our noses filled with the minty sweet smell of eucalyptus trees and the harsh lingering smell of smoke from black patches of earth. With no rain since August, local farmers had been lighting fires the previous weeks in the highlands to ritualistically call for rain. The rain came and the mountains perked up with checkered green squares of farming all across the landscape. The light rain baptized our first long run as we arrived at the town of Isinlivi and the Llu Llu Llama Hostel. Post run we relaxed in the sauna and hot tub, unwound with yoga and enjoyed local cervezas such as the Red Llama Ale from the Quito brewery, Camino Del Sol. Zach and I drifted off to sleep at an unusually early bed time to the crackling fire in the corner of our room.
Day 3 – Our run today was another point to point from Isinlivi to the town of Chugchilán. The 8 miles of trail took us through the Toachi canyon and along the river. The views continued of the highlands and the spectrum of greens for as far as our eyes could see. Along many of our runs we experienced animals of every shape and color – llamas, dogs, cats, pigs, donkeys, horses, sheep, alpacas, and rabbits. On this day, as we ran down a dirt road with steep walls rising up on our right and our left, a pack of dogs on both sides loomed over us and barked angrily. Scenes of the hyenas in Lion King flashed in my mind. Many animals we experienced during the trip wanted to immediately make their presence known, but quickly faded into the distance, but this particular group of dogs meant business. As we continued on, the dogs ran around to cut off our path and viciously defend a horse that was tied up nearby. We yelled and threw rocks. We brandished sticks and trekking poles turned defense weapons, as the dogs continued to defend their territory and their horse. Thankfully we were able to reroute ourselves to a safe distance from the dogs and connect later with the original trail. Much like the day before, Day 3 ended with a soaking rain as we ran in to town and the Black Sheep Inn.
Day 4 – The beginning of our 8.5 mile run funnels us through a discouraging flow of trash. The contrast of the debris and the mountainous views was startling. In the early morning, we flew through a field of chocho beans. The waist high plants are a species of lupin and bloomed deep purple. One after another we raced downhill. Wet from the early morning our shoes and pants soaked up the moisture and the seeds rattled rhythmically in their pods. After reaching the valley below, we began to march upward along the edge of the mountainside. Slow and steady, breathing heavy we earned the ridge of El Quilotoa Lagoon. We were rewarded with a breathtaking run around the rim looking down to the water filled crater below. The single-track path is framed by glowing golden grasses that lightly slapped at our feet. I couldn’t help but stop over and over again to snap photos as the changing perspective altered with the reflection of ridge and clouds in the vast lagoon. The landscape was dotted by orange highlights of native Chuquiragua flowers. The flower is known as the “national flower of mountain climbers” and “the flower of true love.” It has been used as traditional medicines and the Ecuadorian hillstar hummingbird relies on it heavily for food. We rendezvoused with our bus at the crater and headed to El Cotopaxi National Park.
Day 5 – So far on the trip I’d had the usual tummy issues that a daily popping of Imodium seemed to keep under control. This morning I woke up to a nauseous feeling that nagged at me all morning. Directly outside the enormous window at the foot of our bed was a direct view of Cotopaxi volcano (19,347′), but I spent the majority of the day napping in bed. The mountain was covered with clouds so at least I wasn’t missing much. This day had been a planned rest day with no run on the schedule so it worked out conveniently to not feel amazing. With no headache or other indications of altitude sickness, I chalked up the nausea to something I ate and vowed to be ready for the next day’s big trek. A few other people of our group hung out at the hotel that day, the Tambopaxi Lodge, while the rest of them donned ponchos and helmets and saddled up for a 3-hour horseback ride throughout the national park. They described the ride as surreal, wandering like cowboys in the vast landscape. Around lunch time I forced myself to eat two servings of Clif Shot Blocks. I went back to sleep for a bit and when I woke up I rolled out of bed to do a slow 1 mile run. Day number 315 of my run streak was a success. After my run, I went to the restaurant to force myself to eat a big bowl of celery soup. I knew if I was going to be ready for the next day I needed calories!
Day 6 – All our days at altitude had been building us up for the climb up El Rumiñahui, an extinct volcano at over 15,000′!! We got an early start to the day and took the bus a short drive to the Laguna Limpiopungo. On the drive over, the clouds cleared in front of Cotopaxi and we stopped to snap photos of the second highest summit in Ecuador. We hiked through the páramo ecosystem, as the sea of golden grasses brushed against our legs. The sun beat down on us and Cotopaxi loomed behind us. Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times and the landscape is peppered with boulders from past eruptions. The gentle upward slope began to get steeper and steeper. As we neared the center summit, we scrambled over rocks big and small. We all huddled on the tiny summit, our first 15er, surrounded by clouds and 360 degree epic views. We descended the top rocky portion, and then bombed down a stretch of sand. Like kids, we ran bounding downhill with giant strides that landed in soft, deep sand. After dumping out shoefuls of sand, we let loose and ran all the way back to the lake where we started. The run was fast and gorgeous through sweeping grasses, the sun was shining and the view was majestic. After showers and lunch, we jumped on the bus to head The Northern Andes and Casa Mojanda.
Day 7 – After a hefty up and down route the day before, day 7 entailed a loop trail around Laguna Cuicocha, which translates as “guinea pig lake.” This roughly 8-mile run was all about the views! This was my favorite run of the trip. We ran counterclockwise and the huge crater lagoon was always on our left with two islands plopped in the middle. The trail around the rim of this lake was dotted with flowers and we ran rolling hills along the loop. Towering above in the distance were the massive volcanoes of Imbabura and Cayambe. After our run, we enjoyed lunch and tested our adventurous palates with a local Ecuadorian specialty, guinea pig! (Think gamey chicken.) We cooled down from the run as we wandered through Cotacachi, an area famous for leatherwork. We picked up small leather purses for our daughters.