Friday, July 17, 2015

Panama 166

Woah.  This expedition had everything: pain, beauty, danger, heat, joy, fame, comedy, blood and lots and lots of chaffing.  There were many, many times when it looked like things were going to end in disaster, and yet the ending was fairy-tale worthy.  It was so amazing and surreal I don't even know where to start, so I guess I should start at the beginning...

A few months ago Chuck Schultz, Melissa Pizarro, Loli and I were having drinks after dinner at our place when the subject of what our next challenge should be came up.  There was much debate during the run regarding who's "stupid idea" this was (I think it was Chuck's), but someone brought up the idea of running across Panama.  On the map it looked like it was about 150-200 miles from Panama City to Loli's hometown of Los Santos, so we started formulating a plan..

After a year and tons of hours of planning and training later we had a fully formed expedition team and plan put together.  We had a team of four runners including Loli, Chuck, myself and the very accomplished Ramses Cano.  We had two crew cars being manned by Melissa, Marlene Pizarro, Delfino Cordova and Henry Herrera.  The concept: run basically non-stop 160 (eventually 166) miles from Panama City to Los Santos, leaving July 8th at 4:00pm hopefully finishing around 48 hours.  Also, the elementary school in Los Santos had recently received $90,000 to build a new cafeteria.  Either by lack of funds, inefficiency, graft, or ineffective use of funds, a cafeteria was technically built, but it was falling apart, didn't have the proper equipment and 4 years after being built had never served a meal.  So we planned to use the run as a fundraiser to fix and equip the cafeteria, and importantly, get some media visibility to shine light on the issue.

We were unsure if we would get much media attention, but with the help of Ramses, who works in television production, and Loli's cousin, Alex Arosemena, who worked at Impresa Media, our little expedition eventually became quite the phenomenon.  We got a small story in the sports section of Panama City's largest newspaper a couple days before we started, then on the day we started running we got an invitation to go on the country's largest live morning TV show and things really started taking off:
Live TV is scary.

Rocking the Western States 100 shirt.
Here is a part of the segment.  I have no idea what anyone is saying:

Now that we were all famous, it was time to get down to business.  We were starting at the national soccer stadium and were having some difficulty finding the right exit so Loli asked a cop if he could give us directions.  Fortunately, he was cool enough to give us a police escort to the stadium and even called ahead to his buddies so we wouldn't have any troubles with police on our run.  Very cool!
We started our run at 4:00pm on July 8.  A short distance after the start we crossed the "Bridge of the Americas", which goes over the Panama Canal.  It was quite a sight, it's truly amazing what humans are capable of when we put our minds and backs into it.  And a picture of us crossing the bridge made the front page the following morning:
Looking Fresh
By midnight on the first night, we already had signs of trouble.  We started in the evening so we could take advantage of the relatively cool night air while we were still fresh.  For the first night we planned to stay together, but eventually we expected to spread out as people inevitably would feel good or run into bad spots at different times, especially once the sun came up.  However, those bad spots started to show up earlier than expected.  Chuck was experiencing some trouble with the heat, which was understandable as it was almost 80 degrees at night, but worrisome because it was only going to get hotter.  Ramses was also not feeling great, he was getting a lot of sleepiness and also some foot troubles.  Not good at all considering we planned to go without sleep the first night and then only get a couple of quick catnaps the rest of the run.

Then, one of my main fears on this run showed up, and almost cause a horrific disaster.  This was in no way a safe run and we knew that going in.  The pure distance combined with heat and lack of sleep were dangerous enough, but I was also very concerned about cars, dogs, and creepy crawlies.

There is only one road that goes all the way across Panama, the Pan-American Highway.  It is a modern highway with lots of traffic, including plenty of trucks and tractor-trailers moving at over 50 miles an hour.  We ran mostly on the side of the road and sometimes on uneven sidewalks, most of the road had a healthy burm, but some areas had little or none.  You would never, ever normally go on foot on a road like this but because it is the only road, a lot of people didn't have much choice.  So we figured if the locals could do it, so could we.

Fortunately, no one was hit by a car, but we still had to deal with the other fear factors.  Some time in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday, Loli and I were running along when suddenly a very ferocious Rottweiler and another dog ran through an open gate right at us.  I thought we were in deep trouble, but we starting screaming and yelling at the dogs and they quit charging.  I was running backwards on the sidewalk because I didn't want to turn my back to the dogs when I almost fell.  I stumbled badly but was able to keep my feet.  When I looked back I realized that I had almost fell into the sewer, there was a missing cover about 2 feet by 3 feet.  It was a long way down, if I had fallen in I almost certainly would have broken bones and been trapped at the bottom.  Loli and I were a bit rattled by all this, fortunately our crew was not far and they ran to help Chuck get past the dogs as he was a few minutes back.  Whew.

By the time the sun was rising, we had gone 50-60 miles, ahead of 48 hour pace, but not as far as I would have liked given the hardest part was still very much ahead of us.  Loli and I were several minutes ahead of Chuck and Ramses and I told Loli that I should probably pick up the pace and separate from the group if anyone had a chance of getting close to 48 hours.  I decided to get ready to run in the daylight hours and that's when I made a mistake that almost ended my run: I changed clothes.

I was starting to get some minor chaffing in a few sensitive areas, so I thought it best to do a complete change of dry shorts, underwear, shirt and shoes.  It turns out, that was probably the worst thing I could do.  As I was running along by myself, finally going my own pace instead of the groups, the chaffing got bad, and it got bad really fast.  I think the main problem was the fact that I had cooled off a little, and therefore dried a bit as I changed clothes and then the dry clothes on sticky wet skin only compounded the problem.  I desperately needed a lubricant, but I had run ahead of the group and the support vehicles were busy helping the others.  I took off my underwear and walked/ran like the most bow-legged cowboy ever, but by then it was too late. Because of swelling now the problem wasn't chaffing with my clothes, it was chaffing of myself with myself.  Everything was bloody, raw, and very, very painful.  I finally made it to the support vehicle and got some Vaseline, but I could tell this was going to be a serious problem going forward.  Regardless, I gritted my teeth and struck out into the growing daylight and heat.

A few hours later it was late morning and getting very hot, and the chaffing was a violent, searing pain, hardly letting me think of anything else.  Despite this, I was going at a pretty good place and thought I was probably separating from the group when, unexpectedly, Loli came up from behind.  She was doing great!  We stopped at Henry's car together and discovered that Ramses was in the car already, his bad foot and exhaustion had forced him to stop.  Ramses decided he would run some and help out the team the rest of the time.  There was no ice so we were waiting for our other support vehicle to show up.  After some time we found out that Chuck had fallen ill and they pulled him off the road vomiting and dehydrated.  Suddenly it was only Loli and myself.  We decided we couldn't wait for ice any longer so we got ready to head out.  I tried to go out first but by the time I was 100 yards away I was literally in tears from the chaffing.  I decided I couldn't take it anymore, it was just too much.  I have had every kind of challenge imaginable in my running career and I never once thought I would quit because of something I always considered annoying but manageable but there I was.

I struggled back to the car where Henry, Loli and Ramses were and had a straight up breakdown and crying fit.  I think it went something like this: "My fucking balls!  Oh my god, my fucking balls hurt so fucking bad!!  You don't understand, this is the worst thing I have ever felt in my life!!  Fucking shit there is fire on my junk!  They've swollen to the size of ostrich eggs!  I have ostrich juevos!"  If I was looking for sympathy, I had gone to the wrong place.  The team was dying of laughter, great peels of riotous laughter.  Sometime during my rant Loli started recording video.  My response: "This isn't funny!!! Ok, well it will be funny later, but it's not funny now!!  Come on guys, I'm being serious!!"  Eventually, most of Panama had heard about my "personal problems".  Hell of a way to go viral.

I put street clothes on and resigned myself to ignominy.  Loli continued to prepare to go on by herself.  Eventually, the truck with Chuck and the rest of the crew showed up.  He looked bad, like "Night of the Living Dead" bad.  So it was midday on the first day, somewhere around 100k in and Loli was looking at doing another 160k+ and the longest she had ever gone was just over 100k.  I couldn't let her do that alone.  I grabbed a jar of Vaseline, applied a massive handful and told her to go ahead, I would be right behind her.  My mission was no longer to finish under 48 hours, now my only goal was to help Loli get home.  Less than 20 hours in, and Loli was our only hope.

A little while later, Loli reached a milestone, 110 Kilometers.  Her touching video has since been seen by thousands of people.  I don't even know what she is saying and it makes me want to cry.

On we trekked through the midday heat.  Loli kept a consistent pace. Every few miles I would need to stop to put on a huge gob of Vaseline, then catch back up to her.  In the middle of the afternoon it was so hot and we were so tired we decided to take a 30 minute nap right in the side ditch.  Road side ditches in Panama are a lot like ditches in the United States except there are a LOT more creepy crawlies.  We were too tired and hot to care.

Bottom left corner you can see the jar of Vaseline, my new constant companion.
  Chuck had not been able to keep any fluids down all day even though he had been off the road and in the air conditioning.  He also looked like this:
Severe dehydration can cause kidney failure and death.  Kidney failure is even more likely with ultrarunners because the kidneys have to flush the damaged muscle cells that come from the constant pounding.  Chuck needed to go to the hospital.  The team went in search of a hospital in our main crew vehicle while Loli and I continued running with Henry and Ramses for support.

Eventually, mercifully, the Sun finally set on day 1.  Even though my "personal problems" were causing me to grit my teeth and run a bit funny and Loli was now well past the longest distance she had ever run, we were making pretty good time.  By late evening we were nearing the 100 mile mark, looking good to make it in under 30 hours.  It was another major milestone and Loli was looking forward to it.  Then, rather suddenly, Loli lost her friggin mind.  Having done a few multi-day events before, I knew that eventually, no matter what: constant running + heat + lack of sleep = crazy time.

It was close to midnight and we were on a particularly dangerous long, slow curve.  I was wanting to move quickly to get us out of there as fast as possible.  Loli however, decided she needed to sleep.  Right now.  Right here.  On the side of the road, inches away from speeding traffic.  I told her there was no way she could sleep on the of the road, we shouldn't even be running here.  We had to make it one kilometer to where the car was.  There was crying and a lot of arguing but we finally made it to the car.  Then, she refused to get in the car.  She was afraid the car was going to move forward and therefore cheat and now she suddenly HAD to make it to 100 miles right away, which was about another 2-3 miles.  She started to run again.  Less than half a mile later, she was half crying, half sleepwalking.  Then she screamed and started running again, rambling on in variety of languages that I didn't understand.  She repeated this process a few times.

It was a mess, but one I knew had to happen sometime.  We both needed sleep, badly.  There wasn't room in the car because of all our stuff so we tried to sleep at a bus shelter.  We tried for 30 minutes but we were both cramping so bad and the traffic was so loud just a few feet away we couldn't make it work.  After some cajoling, I finally convince Loli that we should cram into the car and try to go back and find a hotel.  They could bring us back to the bus shelter after we rested.  After calling around a bit, we found what turned out to be the perfect place: a "love hotel" that charged $17 for 3 hours.
Probably the first time anyone actually slept at this hotel.
I had to beg Loli to please shower before getting into the bed, she just wanted to sleep in her sweaty clothes on top of the bed.  After some struggle (and one very painful shower for me), we finally laid down and closed our eyes for 2 glorious hours.

We woke up very stiff, but the light was back in Loli's eyes.  The madness had passed.  It was 2:00-3:00 in the morning and we had a very long day ahead of us, but were back in business, running steady.
100 Miles and still moving.
Sometime after sunrise we made it to the town with the hospital they had taken Chuck.  After an IV and some tests, they release him and he looked like a whole new person.  Back to the world of the living!

The second day was rough, really rough.  Everything hurt.  We had run too far and had too far to go.  It hurt to run, it hurt to walk, it hurt to sit.  The Sun was unbearable.  We were roasting in our misery.  But, no one ever talked about quitting (at least out loud), and we kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Around lunchtime we stopped under the shade of another bus shelter and ate some pizza Loli's brother brought us.  It was a 20 minute stop or so and we decided this would be our last significant stop before the end.  We still had a long way to go, but we were starting to get to a place where our brains could process the fact that this would indeed end.  We were also getting more support.  Loli's sister Irma started running with us and her brothers Popocho and Richy joined the small caravan.
Mmm.  Pizza.
Mid-afternoon we made it to another significant milestone: the junction to Los Santos off the Pan-Am highway with about 25 miles to go.  We also picked up an interesting follower: An ambulance.  I guess the local officials wanted to make sure we were ok.  I just hoped we wouldn't need it.  They followed us for the next 6 hours.

We also started picking up more people in our caravan.  A few runners joined us, then a couple of cars playing music and honking, then some bicyclists joined.  Slowly more and more people joined until we have a huge rolling/running party, taking up the whole road.  It was thrilling!

As we picked up more people, we also started picking up the pace.  It was absolutely inspiring and amazing at how hard Loli was able to push after 2 days of running.  Everyone was cheering for her by name as we got closer.  There was a lot of high fives, seeing people that she had not seen in months or years, and smiles all around, even though we were in a ton of pain and still had hours to go.  Loli even found time to do an interview for the evening news.

It was crazy how many people were following our little run.  The whole town showed up to bring us in, it seemed like every car that went by beeped and shouted encouragement, we were on the radio, TV, newspapers, social media, there is even drone footage.   Here is a video when we were just a few miles outside of Los Santos.

We arrived in Los Santos with fireworks and a huge throng of people and honking cars!  160 miles!

And then, we kept going.  I don't know whose idea it was, but we did a tour of the streets of Los Santos.  I had no idea where we were going, I thought we were done so I had quit eating and drinking and applying Vaseline.  My "personal problems" were reaching critical mass.  I asked Loli where we were going, she just said "home".  I decided I could grit it out.

We wound through town, Loli kept seeing people she knew from years ago.  She introduced me to tons of people.  I didn't find out till later, but people knew about my "personal problems".  My hands were also covered in Vaseline, so whenever I would shake someones hand, they would inevitably figure out exactly why I was so slippery.  Ha!!!

Finally, we ended in the town square.  We were surrounded by a massive throng of people, there were tons of flashing cameras and shouts of congratulations.  Eventually we were given chairs and the local officials gave all of the participants certificates of thanks.  It was surreal, like nothing I have ever experienced before.

After 54 hours and 166 miles we had made it!  It was an epic adventure in every possible way.  It was a huge endeavor that required tons of people.  Runners, crew, donors, and pretty much all of Panama.  I especially want to thank Loli's immediate family for all of their support and Loli's mom, Denis, for putting us up for the night, we really needed the rest!
A few days later we were able to go visit the elementary school we are working to improve.  We got to see the cafeteria and it's serious needs, and Loli met with the teachers and talked with the kids.  It was really touching.  Again.  This trip had a lot of goosebumps and happy tears.  As of this writing we are still raising money and getting quotes for equipment and repairs.  The town is now aware of the problem and I think we will get it fixed soon.
Gracias La Villa de Los Santos!

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