|Van Ticket: Cabañas to Race Start.|
The van was scheduled to arrive at 3:15am to take me and four or five other runners (all from Guadalajara) to the start. Pentamontaña is a remote and logistically complicated race, and the race organizers have a system in place to get all runners transported to the race start. I had purchased the van ticket online back in December after I made my reservation at Cabañas Montorios. The van, a 15 passenger Toyota Hiace, arrived a few minutes late and I was the first to board among the group of runners that were staying at our cabañas. The front of the van was full, but the back was empty. The solo seat above the passenger side rear wheel was empty so I took that so I would have some space to stretch my legs. I was hoping to sleep a bit on the ride, and closed my eyes as the other runners boarded. I don’t recall putting on my seatbelt, but at some point, I later realized, I must have done so.
We drove in a caravan, as there were cars (and another van) in front of us. I couldn’t sleep so I just mentally reviewed my nutrition plan and prepared myself for what was going to be a 30 hour effort. While I was secretly hoping for sub-30, more realistic projections were for a 31-34 hour finish. While “only” a 120 kilometer race, I knew from reviewing the previous times of other runners that with nearly 7,000 meters of climbing 5 mountains that are all well over 3,000 meters, covering those 120k would require a 100 mile (160k) effort.
Pentamontaña is a race in the northern part of Mexico in the Sierra Arteaga in the southern part of the Coahuila. The race appeared on my radar in 2015. The timing of the race is a bit difficult for me, as I usually take a long rest after UTMX 100k, a race that I have run for the past three years. October and November are months of light jogging and little volume. And then I start ramping up in December. I’m never really fit until the summer months. However, this year I committed to continue my training following a short two-week break following UTMX. I signed up for Pentamontaña the day they opened for registration. It would be the first of my big races in 2017, followed by the 30th annual Angeles Crest 100 mile in August, Trail Run Hidalgo’s new 120k stage race in September, and UTMX 100k in October.
The other runners emerged from their cabin and we were moving up COAH 112 towards 57. Before reaching the highway we turned right onto a dirt road, we went through at least one small pueblo (Tunal, I believe) and later I remember that we were climbing up a paved road. However, most of the trip was just a black tunnel as my eyes were closed and it was not yet four in the morning of Good Friday/Viernes Santo.
And then we were descending a switchbacked “empedrado” or old road made of rocks that had been rounded and smoothed over time. The race start loomed closer. Later I would find out we were about 5 kilometers from the start line.
My eyes were closed, my body was at rest. Physically and mentally, I was ready.
Pentamontaña was finally here.
Out of this silence there was yelling and commotion from the front of the van. I opened my eyes and we were driving off the side of road into the forest. I recall no panic, even as we were falling over on the passenger side. Again, for reasons I can’t understand, I remained calm despite the shattering of windows as the van began to tumble. We rolled again and seemed to hit with more force and the spinning picked up speed. I had one clear thought: “Is this how it ends?” Again we rolled and finally my side of the van came to rest against the ground. In that instant the mysterious calm that I had felt was replaced by a vicious panic and I wanted nothing more than to get out of the van. I fought a bit with the seat belt, unbuckled myself and climbed up out of the broken side windows. The shattered glass around the edges cut my wrists, and I later thought it would have been a very simple thing to ask for a coat or blanket to put over the glass, but in that moment nothing mattered except getting away from the van. A male staff member wearing a blue Pentamontaña jacket was helping me out of the window. I still had my Ultimate Direction handheld bottle in my hand. I dropped it on the road and clumsily climbed out, rushing as I was afraid of an explosion or fire. I cut my right wrist in few different places, and another Pentamontaña staff member put a tape on my wrist to stop the bleeding. I saw the van resting on it’s side and I could see that we had tumbled down the hill and come to rest just along the road below.
There was movement everywhere: cars and a large white truck were stopped above us, and other cars and the Vertimania Humvee were stopped below us. My memory of this time is fractured and distorted. I wandered up and down the switchbacks aimlessly. I had my puffy coat on and I had opted to wear my pajama bottoms over my shorts to keep warm before the start. A fellow runner later described me as “pale, incoherent and disoriented.”
At some point it came to my attention that there was still someone in the van. Several people were trying to push the van up, calling first for rocks, and then for “gatos” (car jacks) and spare tires: anything that could be used to prop up the van. There was a woman who was trapped and unconcious under the van. I took one glance and had to look away. I was asked to go to the hospital, but I did not want to go, as my only thought was to get back to my cabaña and see my family before they woke up. I was sat inside a car for a while, and the woman in front was complaining of pain in her neck and back and begging to go to the hospital. I was too restless to sit and left the car before staff members drove her to the hospital.
I went back to the van and the rear doors had been opened. Without entering the van I was able to grab some runners’ packs, poles, and a floppy hat that I recalled the runner in the back seat wearing, and organized them along the opposite side of the road. I searched in vain for my Nathan Pack, hat and headlamp, and then felt ashamed for being concerned about such things when there was a person under the van.
We were in a remote area with no cell signal. I kept waiting for the police or an ambulance to arrive. They never did. Finally, a group of volunteers and runners were able to push the van up enough to pull out the volunteer who we would all find out later was Ana Vanessa Ortiz. I estimate this took an hour, but I don’t trust my own estimations of time during this event. She was put onto a white plastic table and covered with blankets, and then put into a car and taken to the hospital. Shortly after she was finally removed from under the van, another Pentamontaña staff member drove me down to the race start in a white Nissan X-trail.
At the race start, the scene was unreal, as I was surrounded by people who had no real concept of what had happened. They were sitting around chatting, having coffee, and waiting for the race to start. I was certain the race had been cancelled, but no announcement had been made. An eager volunteer started to check me in and I didn’t realize she was checking me into the race until she asked to take my bag of clothes which runners would pick up at the finish (the race is point to point).
I walked around aimlessly asking for a ride back to the cabañas. I was told to wait and there would be transportation. Again I was asked if I wanted to go to the hospital and I declined. The runners were called together and the race was officially cancelled. I continued to wander and I saw a couple walking to their car and I asked them if they were going any where near Cabañas Montorios. They had no idea where that was but they were heading back to their hotel at Monterreal, which I knew was only a few kilometers past Cabañas Montorios. Jacobo and Suzy drove me back. To my relief, instead of going back up past the accident we took a longer route out to the highway 57 that we would take south to COAH 112 which would take us to our cabañas.
Natalia and the girls were still asleep and were as shocked to see me as I was relieved to see them.
After telling my family what happened we drove the short ten minute drive into the pueblo, San Antonio Alazanas, where the race would have ended. We encountered some Pentamontaña staff members along returning drop bags. I asked about the runner who had been trapped under the van and they told me that she had passed away at the hospital in Saltillo. Stunned by this, and not knowing what to say or how to react, I gave the car keys to Natalia and just stood for a moment on the side of the road in silence with the Pentamontaña staff. Finally, we headed into Saltillo to go to the hospital. The next morning we drove 9 hours south and returned to our apartment in Mexico City.
We all know the relative dangers of long runs in the mountains, but we tend to brush aside the risks of the statistically much more dangerous cars, vans and busses we travel in every day. There is also some irony that this tragedy happened at Pentamontaña, a meticulously organized race, and that can’t be said for many of the new mountain races that seem to pop up every month. I believe the Hunzas should continue to hold Pentamontaña, but I hope it will be renamed and held as an annual memorial to Ana Vanessa Ortiz, a runner and lover of the outdoors who drove three hours from her home in Reynosa to volunteer her Easter weekend helping others and being with her friends in the mountains. Rest in Peace.
|Ana Vanessa Ortiz 1976-2017|