“Do not step over Sea-lions”
"The marathon run will start at a high point in the mountain, and keep rolling down. There will be a net descent of 808 meters, after accounting for 234 meters uphill rises in between. After the 40th kilometer, you will run on plain ground, and the last kilometer will be along the beach sands of San Cristobal”, ‘Rick’ Richard Schleicher, race director of Galapagos Marathon, was briefing us. Rick then lowered his mellifluous pitch a couple of decibels and added semi-apologetically, “Please ensure you do not step upon sea-lions basking in the sun on the beach run.” I stared deep into Rick’s eyes to detect a mischievous glint. But he wasn’t kidding. His albino eye-lids weren’t fluttering. Rick was serious.
Strange encounters: when one runs in a strange place called Galapagos. Giant tortoises will leisurely cross the path. Iguanas by the hundreds will cut one’s route at ‘Iguana Crossings,’ on their way to rock props where they lie down and lazily bask in the sun. Darwin’s finches will accompany runners all the way. Sea-lions will freely loiter the sandy beaches, with marathoners lithely dodging them. Once in a while a yellow snake will dart across.
Galapagos is an archipelago or a group of islands off the coast of Ecuador in S America. The islands straddle the Equator. San Cristobal is the administrative headquarters, where the marathon is held. In 1835, when Charles Darwin landed on these islands, he found huge, very huge tortoises, five times larger than their mainland cousins moving around everywhere on the islands. The Galapagos islands, lying around 1000 km away from the south American continent, were not a break-away from the mainland. Instead they were formed in-situ through volcanic eruptions. With easy migration of mainland flora and fauna rendered arduous, what is the story of the giant tortoises on Galapagos islands? That’s the secret behind the islands, popularly known as Darwin’s Zoo.
Borneo to Galapagos
For many ‘Seven Continents’ aspirants, the marathons on S America and Antarctic continents get done almost together. As the Seven Continents concept was popularised by Marathon Tours, many of its clients run the Antarctic marathon on King George island and on return to the mainland, run the Ushuaia marathon in Argentina’s south most tip. Thus the last two continents will be filled. The other popular S American marathons are Rio-de-Janeiro and Buenos Aires. But by 2011, the Fin Del Mundo marathon in Ushuaia was no longer being held and I wasn’t keen on running in the capital cities. So Googling for a suitable run in an exotic locale in S America, I chanced upon the Galapagos marathon.
Galapagos! The island where Charles Darwin postulated the Evolution of Species. The first ever marathon on this island had been held in 2010 and the second was due on Sunday, the 15th May, 2011. I had run in Borneo, that breath-taking island inches to the north of Equator in the eastern hemisphere on 1st May 2011, and was off to Galapagos straddling the Equator diametrically opposite in the western hemisphere, just fifteen days later. Flights to Galapagos islands can be had only from the south American country of Equador. On the 8th of May, I landed in Guayaquil, and Equadorian city and checked into Hotel Sheraton. My roommate at Gyayaquil turned out to be old friend Hans Schmid, with whom I had stayed during the Safaricom marathon in Africa.
Next morning, we flew into San Cristobal.
Treasure trove on the Equator
We were met by race director ‘Rick’ Richard Schleicher at the Galapagos airport and taken to our respective bed & breakfast hostels, as this place didn’t seem to be having hotels.
At 5 am on marathon day morning, we took a bus up a 680 meters high hill. The morning was foggy and cold and we had our windbreakers on. We were stationed right under three large windmills, whose fast-revolving blades were eerily rendered invisible by the thick cloudy fog enveloping us.
Though the Galapagos straddle the Equator, the
weather here is a far call from the hot and humid Equatorial conditions. This place is kept cold and pleasant by the Hamboldt current. A treasure hunt along the equator will net the financially prosperous man-made Singapore on the East. And diagonally opposite on the globe, lies nature’s own treasure chest, the Islands of Galapagos.
We were told that the temperature at the start of the race would be around 60*F (16*C), rising to 70*F ( 21*C), by finish time. There were twenty-six expats partaking in the marathon that was jointly organized by Rick’s ‘Come to Galapagos’ company and the Galapagos Navy. At 6 am sharp, twenty-six runners thundered down the gradual slope, which would descend for the first two kilometers and then rise up for the next three.
The evolutionary conundrum
What was so unique about Galapagos for Darwin to theorize the human evolutionary enigma in this place? Popping up as a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, a thousand kilometers away from the nearest land mass, Galapagos remained largely untouched by human civilisation. As none of the mainland predators lurked around, and as food was plenty, the reptiles and birds in Galapagos flourished and developed unhindered. How do life forms evolve in a land of plenty and protection? Galapagos was the perfect laboratory. And this evolutionary parable caught Darwin’s keen eyes.
I had turned left and was running up a 3 km asphalt road. On a busy day, there are few cars in this place. On a Sunday, there were much fewer, and we ran on the roads unhindered.
Unhindered had the tortoises flourished in Galapagos. Growing upto a meter long, the giant land tortoise reaches middle age by ninety, and can live up to 170. But with the advent of civilisation and introduction of predators like cats, dogs and snakes into the islands, the tortoise eggs are in danger.
At the Km 5 point, the marathon took a U-turn. It was still foggy and cold. At this point, there was a fallen a bamboo shoot which served as a natural water station. I could sip clear, delicious water from the shoot with a bamboo straw! In a wondrous place like Galapagos, nature improvises receptacles even for marathon runners. I found a difference in the regular water stations too, which were placed every 2.5K. Instead of cups, in Galapagos we found water and Gatorade packed in 250 ml plastic bags. Bite into the bags, suck and discard the plastic in the middle of the road, not the bushes. ‘Whomsoever patiently filled liquids in these packets and laboriously knotted them up,’ I thought while accepting the packets of water and energy drinks helpfully handed out by the naval cadets.
Apparently there are a number of patient guys out here. Like the Galapagos National Park wardens who go out long distances and painstakingly collect giant tortoise eggs to breed them safely. In the breeding centre, the eggs are kept in incubators. Did you know that depending on the temperature of the incubator, the egg could hatch into a male or a female?
I passed the Km 7.5 water station. Remembering Rick’s instruction that we can drop off our windbreakers at any station up to the 4th, I took off my jacket. But the chill hit me hard. I decided to keep my jacket on and run.
Oh, temperature for sex-determination. If incubated below 28*C, female babies hatch. Raise it above 28*, out plops a bonny boy! Did someone say only males are hot? Maybe one reason why tortoises are determined lovers. How many times have you attempted sex with a bullet-proof armour enveloping your body? Still tortoises can perform and procreate life-long. No Viagra. One hundred years old and still going strong in bed. Wow! I remembered the giant pandas in Beijing. These fellows following a one-child-only policy, will benefit with a lesson or two from the Galapagos tortoises.
Five vegetation zones
By now the fog was lifting, unfolding the bewitching panorama all around. One doesn’t often get to run a marathon spanning 5 different vegetation zones: Miconia, Scalesia, Transitional, Arid & Coastal. Ferns found at the start were giving way to guava plantations, littering our route with ripe yellow fruits. For a first timer, so much guava will be mouth-watering. But in Galapagos, guavas are a scourge. Fruits like papaya, banana, mango and guava were introduced into Galapagos from the mainland. Strangely enough, there was an ethnic explosion amongst the guava. These fruits are a delicacy for birds, and their droppings spread the seed far and wide. Prodded on by an encouraging climate, fields were swamped with unwelcome guavas, first nudging, then pushing out all other farm crops. Farmers just abandoned their guava – infested fields in despair. Even today, authorities are fighting a losing battle.
Km 12.5 water station. On my left the vegetation was taking yet different stripes. Tall, dark green trees formed a neat row. Some banana plantations were visible in the distance. In front, the road took an abrupt dip of about 40 feet. I stopped at the water station, refilling my ration. Then I took off my jacket and handed it over to the cadet. “Will you ensure this reaches the finish point?” I asked. He nodded his head and replied smilingly in Spanish.
All along the marathon route, Darwin’s finches afforded me company. Darwin’s famous ‘Origin of Species’ is based on the abundant varieties of finches in Galapagos. Thousands of years ago, one species of finch established itself here. Over a period, thirteen different species evolved out of the initial parents, developing varied shapes of beaks, used for multitudes of purposes. Darwin saw evolutionary perfection in such beaks.
After the Km 16 sign board, a 4K loop to the right started. If someone says Ga
pagos marathon is downhill from the start point on, take it with a spoonful of salt. Because tucked inside the
all ‘downhill,’ lie very many ‘mini-uphills.’ The 4K loop had at least three mini-hills. Even as I started trudgin
g up, many others were returning. Lucky fellows.
It was ironic that I came all the way to the wonderful island of
Galapagos, and volunteered for a tortuous run. For many other earlier immigrants, the story was the opposite. They just stopped moving about. Cormorants are huge birds and great fliers. When some of them arrived at the Galapagos, they found plenty of food within easy reach. Belly-loads of fish was just a short dive away. Then why strain needlessly? Gradually these cormorants stopped flying and today, their strong wings lie whittled. The Galapagos Cormorant is the only flightless cormorant in the world. In the story of evolution, this is a chapter on regression. While the beaks of finches evolved, the cormorants lost their flight.
Turnaround point. Finally I had reached the flag point, where a cadet noted down my bib number. Though I had a chip on, turnarounds are usually manual in Galapagos. Wherever I had happily run down while coming, I was miserably climbing up on return. But these loops do hide a learning curve. The return is always faster than the advent. After the 4K loop, there was a 3K run on a dirt road which had thick green foliage on left. As it was rather easy here, I was running lost in thoughts. Involuntarily I jumped and took a couple of steps backwards. A thin, dark green snake with yellow spots was crossing my path at great speed. I had been told that three species of land snakes had been introduced into the Galapagos, which are all non-poisonous. I had no intention to check the veracity. In fact, over the next half an hour, my speed improved.
I then smiled to myself at my fright in a land of fearless creatures.
Bobo & Dodo
In general ‘fear’ is not a much vaunted commodity in Galapagos. The Blue Footed Booby or ‘Bobo’ which is found in the cliffs and sea rocks has become so fearless of humans that one can just go and catch him with bare hands. This is because no one harms wild life in Galapagos. But unlike its Mauritian counterpart Dodo, the Bobo doesn’t eat stones. That seems to have saved it from extinction. Because sailors trapped Dodos and paraded them as stone-eating wonders in distant islands, where the Dodos could not acclimatise and died.
When the dirt road met the main road, the run was a loop to the left. After the 24K mark, I reached a roundabout. I ascended some steps and reached the stadium. No timekeepers here. It was a cul-de-sac. Soul-stirring odours wafted from a wayside kitchen. Suddenly I felt ravenously hungry. I still had almost half the marathon left to run. Hungry in Galapagos. How ironic!
No one goes hungry in the Galapagos. Traditionally, these isles had served as food stock-up points for all types of buccaneers and pirates. They had come here, and stacked on ample giant tortoises to satiate their hunger on long journeys. These tortoises can live without food and water for almost a year, giving year-long meat for the pirates. When I thought of it, my hunger vanished. I continued running.
After Km 26, the road took a steep dip towards the coast. The shore line was visible, and the entire township of San Cristobal was spread before my eyes. It was thereafter a monotonous run along an asphalt road up to Km 30. I found to my dismay several warblers crushed by vehicles on the road. As I was running, the official race ambulance showed up. After ascertaining I was in fit condition to continue running, the vehicle kept following me. The lead car precedes the first; ambulance trails the last. Some recognition, ha, ha.
A large frigate bird swooped low and flew away cackling. These are birds with long wings, tails and bills and the males have a red gular pouch that is inflated during the breeding season to attract a mate. They are called frigate or pirate birds as they snatch other’s lunch boxes. This large bird swoops down on boobies and other birds, hits them with its wings, forcing them to regurgitate their food, which it then gobbles.
Just before I turned towards the coal mine loop at Km 30, Rick caught up with me in his ATV, and replenished my fluid resources. Thereafter I was serviced only by Rick’s mobile water station, as regular water stations had folded up. When I reached the pier at 39K, Rick was waiting, and I had the honour of being ‘walked up the steps’ by the race director.
Turning back from 39K, with my legs begging for mercy, I fervently hoped for an end to the travails. Galapagos had presented one of the toughest ‘downhill’ runs. There were so many mini-hills all along the way, finally leaving me confused as to if I had done a net downhill or uphill. Well, the final 2K should be a flat run along the beaches, I thought and looked up hopefully. Hope came, indeed!
“Anand, this is the last hill,” Rick was helpfully pointing ahead. A near vertical 90 feet rise in the paved road lay in front of me. “After that, you have a breeze.”
I blessed him and started clambering up Heartbreak.
When I finally staggered into the finish stadium, there was no cheer leader in sight to pace me the last 200 meters. Even the usual applause heralding the last of the survivors was absent. Everyone was intent on the ongoing award ceremonies and Mary from Rhode Island, who had stood second amongst women in the half marathon, was being felicitated on stage. But the biggest surprise was in store when I reached the finish line. The electronic carpet had also retired for the day!
The timing chip on my left foot mocked at me, “To cash in on my services, dear, you have to finish within the cut-off. Else have the carpet pulled out from under you”
Damn you, chip. I was genuinely intrigued. I had specifically checked it out with Rick that there wasn’t any cut off. I had travelled a long way from home to finish a run on the south American Continent, the penultimate run before I hit the Marathon Grand Slam on Antarctica in November. Looking around frantically, I met our tour coordinator Victoria.
“Victoria, I have arrived. But where is the carpet? Who will time my finish?”
Sweet girl Victoria was equally surprised to find a bare finish line. Then she shot a look at her wrist. “Anand, you have finished at 6:28:10. You can collect your finisher’s kit now”. Wow, all along the Galapagos marathon, you encounter the manual avatar of the champion chip. Evolution, my dear Watson.
Slowly I removed the chip from my lace. It was my turn to smile. “You still have ample value left in you, Mr. Chip. I will barter you for my Medal and Tee!”
As I was smoothing out the finisher Tee over my shoulders, Rick slapped my back. “I lost track of you in the last kilometer, Anand.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “You have a square deal, Rick. Your carpet did the Houdini on me.”
But that’s not the last vanishing trick I met in Galapagos. Even four days after the race, my jacket that I had entrusted to the volunteer at Km 12.5 did not turn up. Intrigued, I asked my friend Hans Schmid.
“Hans, why do you think the lad reneged on his promise to reach out my windbreaker to the finish line?”
Hans’ eyes narrowed when I repeated the cadet’s words to the best of my ability and memory. Then he had a hearty laugh.
“’Gracias’ in Spanish doesn’t mean ‘Of Course.’ It stands for ‘Thank You!’ Consider your jacket as a donation to the people of Galapagos, Anand.”