El Cruce: What it’s like running Patagonia’s 100km mountain ultramarathon

A three-day endurance feat of snowy mountainsides, chest-high rivers — and an accordion?

El Cruce Patagonia Ultra running

A mountain of green divided two enormous turquoise lakes deep below on my right. To my left, a steep snow-topped ridge gave way to barren rocky terrain that made me feel like I was running on the moon.

Instinctively, I reached for my phone to take a photo, but thought better of it. I forced myself to keep my gaze on the trail, concentrating on the cliff edge. 

The best views, I decided, I’d keep for myself. They were my reward for continuing to put one foot in front of the other. It was my second day running Argentina’s most daunting endurance run, and every part of my body was aching in protest.

For over two decades, runners have headed to Patagonia to compete in a 100 kilometer, three-day race known as El Cruce (the crossing), so called because participants used to run over the Andes from Argentina to Chile. 

The route changes each year, but is thigh-achingly intense: expect snow, steep mountainsides, and chest-high rivers. This year, the race began at Cerro Catedral in Bariloche, winding through the backwoods before looping back to the starting point on day three. 

I prepared for and ran El Cruce with 13 runners from Palermo Adventure Team. Training started in June, with three runs and two strength training sessions per week. Preparation ramped up significantly, incorporating longer distances and hill training — which meant hours running up the only two hills in Buenos Aires.

Danielle embarks on El Cruce. Photo: Provided by El Cruce

Know before you go

Prices vary depending on whether you’re resident in Argentina and which days you run the race. Like all prices in Argentina, they vary, but in 2023 it was between US$650-780 for foreigners and the peso equivalent of US$317-462 for locals. 

To sign up, you need to provide a fitness certificate from a doctor within the past year — there’s a suggested template on the website.

The race requires a lot of gear: expect to buy everything from trekking poles to a headlamp and snow sunglasses. The weather can change dramatically, so you’ll need to carry gear for all eventualities.

The organizers require you to carry essentials including a survival blanket, rain jacket, and drinking water backpack. You can rent sleeping bags, bivy bags, and inflatable mattresses from the organization.

Running is often labeled an individual sport, but I wouldn’t even have made it to the start line if I’d tried it solo. My running group gave me hundreds of tips, from trivial suggestions about the least disgusting energy gels to the essential wisdom of staying above hunger and thirst at all times. Somebody lent me walking sticks, another lent me winter clothes, and a third, their foam roller.

This was a group effort, including everyone from the physical therapist who squeezed me in last-minute because she herself was a runner to the teammates who fixed my CamelBak less than an hour before the starting gun because, true to form, I still hadn’t figured out how to use it.

Day 1

Distance: 30km

Ascent: 1,394m

Photo: Provided by Danielle Ames

The trail kicked off with five kilometers of solid uphill, including snow and ice for good measure. On the second and third days, I would look back at this with longing, remembering how it felt to have fresh, springy muscles and blister-free feet.

About two weeks out, I strained my upper left thigh from overtraining and doubted whether I’d be able to finish. However, I’m stubborn enough to prefer being helicoptered out over not trying at all.

I limped the first 15 kilometers, watching as every other runner seemed to pass me. I was both hot and cold, and felt the overwhelming need to throw up. By the time I arrived at the second refreshment stop (optimistically named an “oasis”) my hands were shaking so much that I needed help refilling my water.

Gradually, the pain in my thigh eased, and I could run almost normally. I sped up and started passing others, but the trail got more complicated. Steep ledges and tight paths couldn’t accommodate two runners abreast. I found myself caught in lines, some to cross waterfalls and fallen trees, others to pass slower runners ahead. Where possible, I apologized and overtook, earning a few comments about pushiness for my efforts.

The day wore on. I spent half an hour being mad at an imaginary pain in my collar bone just to pass the time. At one point, I came across a man playing accordion by the path in the middle of nowhere. I wondered if I was making him up. 

“This is like in the Titanic, when the ship is sinking,” the runner beside me said of the mystery musician. It was comforting to know I wasn’t hallucinating woodland musicians — and that the suffering was mutual.

El Cruce organizers take care of setting up tents, cooking, and transporting bags between campsites. It allegedly has some of the most complicated race logistics in the world, employing about 1,000 people including mountain rescuers and medical personnel. The fleet has trucks, rescue boats, and even a couple of helicopters.

When I reached camp seven hours and 13 minutes of running later, I wasn’t sure whether to eat, jump in the lake, or collapse. I opted for the lake. There are no showers and soap isn’t allowed for environmental reasons, but the ice water not only felt incredible, it was essential to soothe my inflamed muscles.

The relief of finally reaching camp was short-lived. I needed to set about eating, bandaging my feet, and restocking my backpack. When I climbed into my tent and set my alarm, it was daunting to know that the next day, I’d be running for longer than I’d be sleeping.

Day 2

Distance: 26km

Ascent: 1,437m

Photo: Provided by El Cruce

Second day start times were based on the first day’s results. As the camp emptied and I sat with the last remaining runners, it felt like waiting to be chosen for dodgeball teams.

I didn’t have to worry about missing the party for long. I would soon find everyone in line on the mountainside, the queue barely moving as the sun grew hotter and the day warmer. 

Almost everybody was visibly annoyed. Some were shouting, others grumbling among themselves. It felt like an organizational pitfall to have so many people crowd a mountain that the flow of runners ground to an hour-long standstill with the race clock ticking.

That said, while all three days were undeniably gorgeous, day two astonished me the most. The trail cut through thick woods, snowy mountain peaks, and rocky plains, with wide blue lakes a near-constant backdrop. 

Collapsing into camp, I repeated my routine: lake, food, first-aid booth, repack, bed, in time for about six hours of bad sleep.

Day 3

Distance: 35km

Ascent: 1,596m

Photo: Provided by El Cruce

Waking at 5:20 a.m., I was both ready for it to be over, and unsure how I would ever get there.

I began day three with a runner from my team who had sat out the first two days due to an injury, but wanted to complete the final day. It was nice to have company, but I underestimated the freshness of his energy.

He skipped along, chatting with everyone he passed. I clambered behind, reapplying sunscreen over the dirt caked onto my skin, and noticing each new blister as it formed.

On the first day, the oases had been welcome havens of fresh fruit, sugary snacks, and cumbia music. Come day three, those things were still there — but they had also become a refuge for runners to share common brokenness, swapping ibuprofen and spare bandages.

I knew I was near the finish line when my watch’s low battery alarm beeped. I’d gotten used to this — for the past two days the notification blinked as I approached the last few kilometers. I’d tell my watch to hang in there for a little bit longer, and remind myself to do the same.

Have you ever been on a run and felt so proud of how fast you were going, so certain that everyone watching must be talking about how speedy you are? Then reality hits, and you realize that onlookers probably think you’re just out for a brisk walk.

That was my sprint to the finish, but boy did I feel fast.

It was my last sprint for a while. It was the last of anything I did for a while, besides sleep and drink things that weren’t gel packs.

I’ve taken enough showers that I no longer turn the water brown, and while putting my body back together has been a slow process, I remain hopeful. One week and three massages later, I could finally look at stairs without wincing.

Saucony El Cruce is in early December each year. 2024 dates are yet to be confirmed. For more information and booking, visit www.elcruce.com.ar 


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