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Three ultra-marathons of 50 km (31 miles) in a little over a week took me to three Peruvian cities. The first run started on a treeless, dirt road on a hill overlooking a squatter settlement of plywood, corrugated metal, sheets of plastic, and cardboard boxes. The second run had us starting at 9,000 ft near an orphanage with a grandiose view of Misti, a 19,000+ seasonally snow-capped volcanoe, located in Southern Peru. The final run in Northern Peru with a tropical climate where temperatures reach over the 40 °C (104 F) in the summer months.
The event was organized by Health Bridges International a Portland based non-profit organization serving marginalized communities focusing on improving the healthcare of Peruvians. “Bridging the Divide”, as the runs were called, involved a support van, a police escort, and the five of us. We were also joined by local running clubs, university students, mothers and children, and many others. Even a local state senator, the president of a medical school, and a lady in high heels ran a couple of miles with us.
It takes us a few hours to run 50 km from the shanty suburbs on the outskirts of Lima, Arequipa, and Piura to the wealthier neighborhoods, however, it takes Peruvians a lifetime, if ever, to find a better existence outside of these settlements. As we meander our way in and out of poorer districts and into richer neighborhoods I felt involved in something bigger than just running.
The traffic, the heat, did not prove to be too much. I just kept running. We stayed together most of the time, running continuously through the city of Lima with the Police escort blocking traffic so we cross the intersections in one continuous run all the way to our destination at Plaza de Armas. As Peru develops there are many who do not benefit from the changes that bring about economic prosperity. We were running for those left behind, raising money, and bringing public awareness to the disparity of this Peruvian community.
Following each run we had to board a plane to the next city. Shortness of breath would distinguish the second run from the first one. Arequipa is surrounded by towering mountains nearly twice as high as Mount Hood. The air is thin and we had to contend with sore muscles from the 31 miles we had done just 2 days before in Lima. Father Alex, the priest from Malta with whom we were staying in Arequipa had done extraordinary things. He is part of a Catholic order called the Missionary Society of St. Paul (MSSP) who take on a vow of poverty.
Initially when he founded the Parish up in the mountains 17 years ago to serve peasants fleeing terrorist attacks from the communist lead Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso the needs of the community grew. When Father Alex settled in the outskirts of Arequipa years ago there was nothing for the people living in the invasion settlement of Alto Cayma - no electricity, no running water, no medical care, etc. As the communities grew he established medical clinics, orphanages, free legal aid, financial aid, soup kitchens (currently feeding 800 Peruvians once a day), primary and secondary schools, family counseling, social and spiritual services, driving people for emergency care, etc.
Along the way we visit an orphanage and we stop for the scheduled photo opportunity at various communities. As we move away from the squatter settlements we near the city and traffic gets heavier. Contending with lack of oxygen at higher elevation was now met with pollution from more vehicles. I am only used to running around Lake Oswego after midnight where the air is clean and don’t have to dodge traffic. A dog bites one runner, two others need to get their toenails punctured later by pre-heating a paper clip with a lighter in order to relieve pressure from inflammation beneath the nail bed. I had been recovering from a knee injury from doing a 50 miler a month before. One runner had to temporarily stop due to heat exhaustion, another due to cramping. My quads were sore, but I had not gotten to the point of collapse yet.
Health Bridges International had attracted press coverage in each city since starting the run. The goal was to draw attention to the growing disparity between rich and poor and be a bridge of hope. Our team arrived followed by the usual press interview then saying good-bye to our police escort and support team. Subsequently we headed off to the military compound where we had spent 2 nights barely sleeping due to heat and mosquitos.
I decided to set out into the furnace again though to run 7 more miles. My pace though soon slowed down and I was running low on fluid. The support van was no longer there to feed me supplies, bananas, water, or my trusted dates. The others had found comfort in a cool shower. My ambitious goal of doing 100 miles in just over a week ended at the 98-mile mark. I was incapable of continuing. I had reached exhaustion point 2 miles short but with an extreme sense of accomplishment.