MAY 1996
Running Times
Thin Air and a Witch's Curse: the Marathon of the Andes is not an affair for the faint at heart

Only a few kilometers from the finish line of the 11th Marathon of the Andes is a short dirt road through a eucalyptus grove, where I met Flora Quispe, who runs a tiny farm by day and works as a bruja -- a witch -- by night.

On the evening before the event last fall, my determination to cover every angle of the race led me to a tiny, poorly lit adobe hut on Flora’s farm property. The small, weathered woman, wearing layers of cotton and alpaca-wool clothing, seemed intrigued by my visit. I sat across from her at an uneven wooden table as she lit two small candles.

I said I wanted to know about the next morning’s race, a full-length marathon between the cities of Jauja and Huancayo, more than two miles above sea level in the Andes. She closed her eyes, and the room feel silent as she considered the question carefully.

“You say they run all the way from Jauja?” she asked finally, eyes still closed. I said they did.

“On foot?”

I told her that was correct.

“Are you very sure?” She opened her eyes and looked at me accusingly; I eagerly nodded. She stood up and walked to the door. Before leaving, she turned to me and said quietly, “Then this is serious.”

Flora returned with a small, cloth bag filled with coca leaves and some hand-rolled cigarettes. I unfolded a list I had prepared of the 12 favorites in the men’s race, and she spread the leaves over it. There were names from as far away as Kenya, Belgium, and Mexico. One of Flora’s hands hovered over the leaves as the other spread the smoke from her lit cigarette over the table. I stifled a cough as she studied the swirls of smoke and the leaves beneath them. Some time passed, and she slowly cleared away the leaves from part of the list and pointed to one name. “This one,” she said. “This one is not sleeping well tonight.”

one of the top runners seemed too concerned about the altitude. “It slows you down, but it’s just another factor, like hills or the weather,” chirped a diminutive Belgian Eddy Hellebuyck, who had finished 40 races, including eight marathons, in the ten months prior to this effort. He said the course -- a mostly flat, point-to-point route through the Montero Valley -- would have sub-2:10 potential at sea level. As it was, despite the altitude, he predicted that to win it could take a sub-2:20, well under the course record of just under 2:26.

“They’ve never had this kind of field here before,” he explained. That was true enough. Race directors went far beyond any previous efforts to bring in top international athletes. At least half a dozen athletes had previously represented their countries in the Olympics or will do so in Atlanta, and 14 foreign countries were represented, compared with four the year before. At a public meeting with the top runners two days before the race, local kids surrounded the invitees well beyond the allotted time, seeking autographs, handshakes, or words of encouragement.

This town of about 200,000 is the running capital of Peru -- it’s the only city in the country where the municipal stadium is set up with an eight-lane, 400m tartan track as the centerpiece, instead of a soccer field--and it’s easy to see why.

“These kids, the grow up looking at the runners as role models,” said school teacher Florinda Camayo, a Huancayo native and one of the leading favorites in the women’s race. “The best athletes grow up wanting to be runners.”

It shows. The local track record is just under 30:00 for 10,000 meters and just over 14:00 for 5,000 meters, despite being situated at precisely 10,911 feet. (Only a dozen U.S. states have mountain peaks that high; none have major track meets.) Some of the elite runners training a few days before the race reported groups of young kids following along, mimicking their running styles.

Little wonder, then, that Flora’s coca leaves the night before the start gravitated toward the names of some local runners. Before I left the hut, she had made three predictions, though she shied away from an outright selection of a winner. She singled out someone who would do better than expected, someone who would do worse, and, of course, someone who was sleeping fitfully in his bed as she and I spoke.

Confirmation of the last prophecy came first, amid the buzz at the starting line.

Looking for the unlucky runner Flora had picked, I noticed a young man on the side of the road, with a typical multicolored mountain stocking cap, poncho, and backpack, who hopped up and down and tried to look serious. A few meters away, a heavy-set man in street shoes was assuring his crying wife that he could run all the way to Huancayo without hurting himself. Several porters, in their shin-length pants and tire tread sandals, did lunging exercises fitting of a boxer’s pre-fight routine. In this carnival atmosphere, the elite runners were easy to pick out, with the matching shorts and singlets and their long, smooth strides.

Some stuck out for other reasons. Four Kenyan runners attracted immediate attention because their dark skin was so foreign in the remote Andes; one in particular, Richard Rono, was a hit because of the way he was captivated by the town’s goodwill. He received several small gifts from the locals, and only with great effort the evening before the race was he able to break away from the crowds to rest.

“Tell them I love them all,” he said to one English speaker before heading back to his hotel. “Tell them that when I run the race, I will run it for them.” That’s why I felt sad when Flora told me it was Rono who was having sleeping problems. At the start, I saw him jogging about, and I interrupted him for a moment to ask how he felt. “OK, I guess, “ he said. “Developed a little cough, and I had a hard time sleeping, but I feel fine now.” It was a moment before I was able to smile weakly and tell him he would be fine.

When he was out of sight, I immediately started looking for local runner Silviano Simeon, who Flora had predicted would do unexpectedly well. He seemed like a good choice, even though it was his first marathon. He looked confident during pre-race strides, and he had run 1:04 for a hilly half marathon at sea level a month before. Then I sought out Mexican Moises Requena, who was fourth the year before, despite arriving at altitude less than 24 hours before the start. He, too, looked strong, and with ten days in Huancayo for preparation this time, he seemed like a good bet to finish near the top. Yet Flora had predicted he wouldn’t run up to expectations.

All three were among the leaders at the halfway point, as the pack dwindled to about a dozen. Requena was the first of the three to lose contact, after dropping back several times and struggling to rejoin the pack. It was a futile effort, and he finished a disappointing 16th in 2:46:56, almost 20 minutes slower than the year before when he had just a fraction of the preparation. He told me later that he just had an inexplicably bad day. But his performance made Flora two for two.

Her perfect record was spoiled around the 30-kilometer point when Simeon lost contact and later dropped out. Rono also dropped out just past the 30-kilometer mark, as the pace quickened and he developed breathing problems related to the cough that had kept him awake the night before.

Almost all of the favorites did much worse than expected, so Flora’s prediction about Requena was less impressive in retrospect. Five of the 12 runners on my list dropped out, and many of the finishers ran their slowest races ever. Mexican Ignacio Sanchez was fifth in 2:32:57, his slowest marathon by 10 minutes. Columbian Oscar Rodriguez ran his slowest by 11 minutes when he finished 11th in 2:40:22, and 1988 Olympic 10,000 meters bronze medalist Kip Kimeli of Kenya, ran 2:42:53 for 14th, his slowest marathon by more than 17 minutes.

Emerging from all the dashed plans was unheralded Policarpio Calizaya from La Paz, Bolivia, a two-time runner-up in Huancayo, who ran 2:25:26, a course record by just 9 seconds. Edgar Rodriguez and Gilberto Torres, both from high in the Andes, took second and third, ahead of Hellebuyck, who broke the pack up with a surge at 35 kilometers and held on to finish fourth in 2:31:46.

Hellebuyck was an anomaly -- the only finisher in the top 23 who didn’t grow up at a high altitude. In his first-ever race in Peru, the three runners who beat him had run the race 14 times combined, with a total of six top-three finishes, and Rodriguez and Torres had each won it once previously.

The women’s race was equally dominated by high-altitude runners, who took the top 25 slots. Camayo won her fourth title in what was most likely the most impressive performance of the day, smashing her course record by more than 7 minutes in 2:53:20, more than 10 minutes ahead of local rival Marilu Salazar. Bolivian Justina Calizaya, Policarpio’s sister, was third, and Mary Carmen Perez was the top first-time women’s runner in fourth, traveling from her high-altitude home in Mexico City.

The evidence clearly favored altitude-trained runners, but that didn’t stop many sea-level athletes from promising to return and improve on their performances the following year. Even Flora Quispe, the bruja who had confidently hit the target on two of her three predictions, in her own way, cautioned against pretending to understand the marathon, especially in Huancayo.

“I must tell you this,” she said in a solemn tone as I left her adobe hut the night before the race, “I must admit I could be wrong about everything.”

Eric J. Lyman is a freelance writer based in Peru and a former university-level distance runner. He completed the Marathon of the Andes in 3:14:41, good for 40th place overall.



1. Policarpio Calizaya (BOL) 2:25:26
2. Edgar Rodriguez (PER) 2:28:07
3. Gilberto Torres (PER) 2:28:43
4. Eddie Hellebuyck (BEL) 2:31:46
5. Ignacio Sanchez (MEX) 2:32:57

1. Florinda Camayo (PER) 2:53:20
2. Marilu Salazar (PER) 3:03:37
3. Justina Calizaya (BOL) 3:13:12
4. Mary Carmen Perez (MEX) 3:14:27
5. Norma Saavedra (MEX) 3:15:59

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