Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Little Run on Easter Island

Growing up in Northwest Pennsylvania, I was not without the things I needed. My family, however, had some limitations when it came to finances. These limitations should have probably kept me from dreaming with largesse. Yet, one of the things of which I am most proud is how my mother tells me I ignored those limitations. I acted as if, and still do, that what I shouldn’t be able to do is doable.

I loved mystery and intrigue then and now. The Loch Ness Monster, Jack the Ripper, Stonehenge and anything that dealt with the unknown intrigued me. One of the places which has always called my name was the remote, odd and utterly befuddling Easter Island.

So, when Crystal Cruises asked me to be a part of their Southern Seas Soliloquy which would stop at Easter Island, you can imagine how quickly I said yes. In fact, the vast majority of people on this cruise were there because of the chance to set foot on this wonderful oddity.

When you sail for four straight days without stop from the shores of Chile and still need another half of a day to reach this speck of land in the middle of Pacific, you truly understand what the “middle of nowhere” really means. We had been warned that there was a decent chance we might not actually be able to get on the island itself given the swells which were hitting the shores. As we prepared to disembark on the western side of the island, it soon became clear this wouldn’t be possible. Our cruise ship then only had one more chance to get us ashore at Rapa Nui: the northern shore.

We heard that about 65% of the time ships cannot send their tenders (or smaller ships) safely to shore at this tiny pier. Fortunately, we were in this small 35% window. I cannot tell you the relief I felt knowing we would not be so close yet so far away.

By the time I had boarded the tender to head to land, most of the passengers on the boat knew me as the “runner” or “the jogger”  or “that guy.” (That's what you get for setting the Fastest Known Time for a Marathon on a cruise ship.) Heading to shore in a pair of Karhu running shoes, short shorts and a handheld water bottle would confirm anyone’s suspicion if they weren’t sure. You see, while most people were taking pre-arranged tours of some nature, me and my best friend Shannon were going to be running on the island.

Originally, there had been plans to run the Easter Island Marathon course. However, even on the best of schedules with everything going right, this would have been a very tight fit. Planning to leave the cruise ship at 8 a.m., we would have gotten onto Easter Island no earlier than 9 a.m. With a return at 4:00 p.m., you can see how little time we had to play with. In addition, communication with the organizers of the race was spotty at best. Emails I sent took so long to get replies I thought I might have a better chance of sending real mail.

Given all of this, I scrapped those plans and decided on different ones. Those were in turn changed when we didn’t land in our originally intended place. Now we had to think fast to see how we could see as much of the island as possible, on foot and not get left behind and become part of the folklore!  Finally, we figured out we could get off on Anakena Beach, the only beach on the entire island, run 6.5 miles inland to the stone quarry and the Tongariki and return in time.  Now all we had to do was do it.

Starting this run just two days after running 26.2 miles left me with very tired legs. Throw in the fact that the humidity, whose lack of I usual love, was at just 3% and you have a very parched Dane. Finally, if you have not experienced sun in the South Pacific, you do not know what a soul sucking orb it can be. It mean, it really bakes you even in January.

Shannon and I landed, took some quick pictures of the moai around the beach and did not even dip our toes in the ocean. We figured we would be back in plenty of time to enjoy this tiny spit of sand. Right now, however, we had an island to run.

Past the vendors and taxis which had convened at the landing was our first order of business. Ships like ours are few and far between so when our landing was moved, apparently all those with wares to sell quickly moved to where we would be. We knew we would be helping to line their pockets later but not now with many miles to run.

The plan was to follow a rough rudimentary map we had which showed we could follow what seemed to be one of the only roads on the island and hug the coast. With our limited time on the island, and my tired legs from the marathon run two days prior, I knew we wouldn’t get to see nearly as much as we wanted to.  But we would see it like few others would.

Down a loosely packed red dirt road we ran until we came to what I am guessing is the only fork in the road on this side of the island. A paved road went off into the distance and I knew this lead to the main town on the island, Hanga Roa. We, however, were not going that way. Our path veered left and toward the ocean again.

After about 2 miles of running, we got misted with a soft shower. It was rather refreshing. While the temperature was not that high (only around 75) the sun was relentless. But just as quickly as it came upon us, the rain was gone. We later learned that this small shower had been part of a system that had stirred up some waves and delayed further tenders from leaving the cruise ship. We had been extremely fortunate to get on one of the first boats ashore.

By now a few taxis and tour buses began to pass us. We recognized some faces from the cruise ship and more than a few flashbulbs went off in our direction. I’d like to say they were taken pictures of the statues but none were around. It was quite clear we were more of an oddity than mysterious stone faces.

The vehicles snaking off into the distance allowed up to see where the well-hidden road would take us.  We estimated that to make it to the quarry it would be easily 6.5 miles. We could also see from the vehicles climbing that we had a nice hill to get up and over in those 6.5 miles. Earlier in the day someone who had actually been on the island previously mentioned that our proposed route would be flat. I asked them if they had run it or driven it knowing full well in advance it was the latter. When they confirmed it was driving, I knew not to trust what their idea of “flat” was. Coincidentally, as we huffed and puffed up this hill, they passed us in a vehicle. I wonder if they still thought it was flat.

Cresting the hill, we could see off in the distance the line of statues numbering 15 with scores of vehicles surrounding them. In addition, one lone house was off in the distance. When out running like this, you get a chance to think about things like “Does any one person actually own any of this land?”  It seemed one person owned at least a portion of it.

A nice downhill section meant only that we would have to climb it on the return. I was also out of water in the one handheld bottle I brought. No bother. I have been thirstier than this before. Now I was just thirsty for the sight of these magnificent statues.

While today’s internet age puts everything we want right in front of us at the touch of a button, there are still sights which can leave you mystified. These statues can be counted as one of them. I sat down to look at them and then turned to look at the vast ocean behind them. How did anyone ever find this place? Why did they stay when they knew how remote it was? And seriously, what in the heck is the deal with the statues?!

This was the only time of the run that I had wished we had taken a car tour or at least had many more hours to explore. We knew we would not be able to make it up to the quarry. Well, actually we knew we could and we knew we could make it back but without water it would be a tough day. I wanted to explore every inch of the island. Learn more about its people and their day-to-day, non-selling-things-to-me lives. Perhaps be the intrepid discoverer of some unknown tidbit that unlocks the secrets of these statues. Also, I want to validate my reading of MAD magazine 25 years ago. More or less, I just wanted more time. But we were out of it.

So we had to head back to the ship.

Back up the hill we went and it felt like the ambient air had climbed ten degrees. In fact, again, while it was warm it was not all that hot. But stopping to take pictures had done nothing to cool our cores and here we were again exerting ourselves in a sapping sun.

As each car passed up and kicked up dust which seemed to then become a permanent part of our skin, we got drier and drier. After what seemed like forever, we crested this hill and could see the long slope in front of us with the deep dark Pacific behind it. Trees were so sparse we named them individually. (Hello, Eduardo!) Shade was only available if you dug a hole and climbed into it. Virtually everyone we encountered spoke of their sunburns and tanlines in incredulous ways. How can one get a burn sitting in the middle seat of a van all day?

At the bottom of the hill, I knew we had one climb left and then if memory served me we were mostly rolling downhill the rest of the way. Memory did NOT serve me.  I remembered essentially none of the downhill parts on the way out but they were making their presence known here as uphills on the way back.

We plodded along and a large herd of horses, which had been numerous smaller herds on our way out,
appeared in front of us. Skittish in a way only a half ton animal can be, they were continually eying us and moving forward in a straight line on the road in front of us. We would trot and they would trot. If we happened to kick a stone or shuffle our feet in the dirt, one of the foals would skip ahead even quicker. If at any time they had simply move to the left or the right about ten yards we could have passed by them completely with no bother. But they continued forward on the road which was hardly any more smooth than the field beside us. Finally, the Einstein of the group crabwalked a few feet askew and realized we weren’t chasing them.  In fact, unless there were sloths on Easter Island, we weren’t “chasing” anything.

At this point we could see the cruise ship around the bend. Too bad around the bend was still three miles away.

The remoteness of everything about this island really hits home when the only signs of human life you see, if you see it, is the human life you brought with you. As the occasional van or bus ferried cruise ship people back to Anakena Beach, we realized if we were not here, there was little to no reason for anyone else to be here. No rivers or streams, virtually no trees, brush vegetation at best; this is an inhospitable place to be.
Runners pride themselves on being able to tackle some of the harshest and remote terrains out there.
However, that is often for maybe a dozen hours at most after which they pamper themselves back in the luxury of air conditioning, plentiful food and drink and an interstate highway system to drive to where they need be. Even as tough and remote as, say the Badwater race is, competitors know they can stop and be back to relative humanity within a few hours. Here, everywhere you look is ocean and the land you are standing on offers very little in the way of solace.

It gives you great pause to think about how fortunate many of us have it. The simple pleasure of amenities like running water are lost on many. I read accounts by athletes who claim to be so hardy as they go off gallivanting with their tech t-shirts and hydration systems, filled to the brim with the concoctions they either purchased at the grocery store or created from the luxury of having endless supplies of whatever powders and solutions they need. Then, after an air conditioned ride to the local trailhead, they endure physical activities for a few hours before returning to their comfy homes and down pillows to talk about how hard their day was on social media.

This is not me and not because I think I am a man who lives off the land. I know I am not. I like creature comforts. I just know how lucky I am to return to them after some exercise and don’t pretend otherwise. Here, laid bare to the elements, you have no choice but to become closer to yourself. Yes, I was just a few miles from being back on a freaking cruise ship and getting 7 star-treatment, but knowing that even that cruise ship was thousands of miles away from what I was normally comfortable with really put it all into perspective.

One final up hill put us at the top of a climb that allowed us to see our cruise ship in the water and then a whole bunch of Pacific Ocean behind it.  The people who found this island hundreds of years ago probably weren’t aware of how amazing they were.  I only hope that my own endeavors will be a smidgen as awe-inspiring after I have completed them.

The run was a hair over/under thirteen miles. But it was thirteen of the most eye-opening miles I have ever run.


susette said...

So very very cool!!

eleanor beason said...

What a wonderful journey and how lucky you were to be on it!!