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Dazed, disorientated and dishevelled, I landed at Bogota International Airport. The local time was 3 am. A thick layer of long-haul travel was clouding my consciousness. After a strong Colombian airport coffee, a SIM card purchase, and a realisation that an iPad had been lost, we made our way to our Airbnb. The objective for the trip was a Trails & Roots trail running camp that would take place in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the north of the country. Before then we would spend a few days dodging people, being harassed by street vendors to buy bracelets, baseball bats and everything in between, in the bustling city of Bogota and the seaside town of Santa Marta.
After 4 days, which felt like 4 weeks, the camp began. Awkward introductions with the eleven other like-minded runners, coach, and guide were followed by an easy shakeout run up to a viewpoint. Mirador was less than 2 kilometres from Mundo Nueva, the eco-lodge that would be home for the next few nights. It was evident from the first few moments of this run that the heat would play a significant role in the trip. An easy 3-kilometre jog/hike served as the best way to begin connecting with fellow “campers”.
Bright-eyed and ready for adventure we assembled for breakfast in the dining “room”, if you can call something with no walls a room, for our first pre-run breakfast. Coming from an Irish winter, the idea of getting up before the sun and eating breakfast outdoors in a t-shirt and shorts was totally alien to me, but it felt great. “The coffee is over there,” our trail running guide Kara Folkerts reassured me as she gestured to a small table with two large dispensers on it. I must have looked more tired than I felt. Kara is a professional trail running guide who works for a number of different companies as well as Trails & Roots. Kara lives a totally nomadic lifestyle, and as I am writing this, a week after the Colombia camp has concluded, she is already wrapping up a proceeding trip in Morocco.
I poured myself a coffee and walked to a table that overlooked the valley. Sipping away on this hot cup of “awake juice” I noticed an information board. It read; “Between December and February, we harvest 4 hectares of coffee that you see walking in the forest. It is then cleaned on the spot, dried on the terrace of the lodge and processed at our neighbours.” This meant that the contents of my cup have travelled less than 3 kilometres to arrive there. A staggeringly short journey for a cup of coffee in the 21st century. I pondered for a moment if this made the cup taste better.
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of our breakfast and a debrief of the day’s run from Kara. “It’s gonna be very hot to make sure you have plenty of water, a hat and are wearing suncream,” she said with her smooth Canadian accent.
The run to Passo del Mango was about 22 kilometres round trip with just over 1,200m of climbing. Numbers that would signify a solid day out in Wicklow but when paired with rough jungle trails, high temperatures and sun exposure this made for a challenging route to kick off the camp. The pace was leisurely, and within a few minutes, we separated into a few self-selected groups. I found myself at the front with a chatty French woman named Diane. We shared trails and tales for the entirety of the camp as our easy paces were most similar. During the almost 8 hours we spent together over the course of the week we shared conversations about inconsequential things, worries, past experiences and our views of the world.
One thing that became clear to me over the course of this camp was; the outdoors serves as the ultimate catalyst for connection. By the end of the camp, the dinner table felt like a totally different place from the first night. Strangers morphed into friends, small talk evolved into deeper conversations, and connections were forged out of shared time on the trails.
One of the aspects of the Trails & Roots camp that appealed to me was the holistic ethos. The runs did not dominate the camp, they were of course the main focus but food, connection, conversation and relaxation were given just as much priority. Every day on the camp we took part in either a running workshop led by resident running coach Zandy Mangold, or a yoga session to complement recovery led by our multitalented guide Kara. Zandy is an accomplished ultra-runner and running coach. He provided a wealth of knowledge regarding training, nutrition, recovery and all things running throughout the duration of the camp.
One of the key aspects of Trails & Roots camps is the food we were fueled with. We ate was 100% plants. Given that this is how I eat the majority of the time, and definitely my preference while travelling due to contamination concerns, I did not feel that I had to adapt my diet. However, it came as a surprise to me to learn that the majority of the attendees of the Trails & Roots Colombia Camp were not vegan. Most of them, as runners often do, liked to think about what they put in their bodies and attending a “plant-powered” trail running camp was simply a way of doing just that.
My alarm clock didn’t get a chance to wake me the next day. Going into this trip we had been warned about the quality, or rather lack thereof, of the drinking water in the area. I had come equipped with purification tablets and had refined my ability to say, “sin hielo” meaning “no ice” as you can’t be sure of the cleanliness of the water that was frozen to create the ice. It was better to be safe than sorry I thought.
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One of the campers, in a state of dehydration, took a risk that backfired. Much like the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. “When he saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, he took some and ate it.” The juice quenched his thirst and helped him return to the eco-lodge that afternoon but unfortunately, the prophesy played out, and he was very ill that night. The lesson? Don’t drink the juice in Passo del Mango.
Luckily I managed to avoid any stomach bugs for the duration of the camp. However the same cannot be said for all types of bugs. I’m unsure if bugs are more attracted to the pale Irish skin, or if we were unlucky but some kind of bugs ravaged both Conor and me in spite of applying a cocktail of 3 different bug sprays, including one we saw locals applying. The mosaic of red bites on my legs served as an excellent conversation starter with campers or even with complete strangers on the trails who loved to comment on how bad they looked. Admittedly I definitely agreed with them.
I often get lost in a training block and forget why I began running. I have realized over the past 2 years that factoring in a recentering week such as this camp is an important inclusion in a training block. The Trails & Roots Colombia Camp was exactly what I needed. I stayed connected with fitness, with my body and my “athlete self” but I also got to reconnect with the outdoor-loving, experience-seeking and human-being side of me. The child that would dance in the rain in spring, roll down grassy hills in summer, kick his way through leaves in autumn and break icy puddles in winter.
So often we think of ourselves as serious beings, fighting our way through life. This camp has reminded me that health is a lifelong pursuit, as a human I am part of nature, and it is healthy and necessary to disconnect from time to time. Disconnection doesn’t necessarily mean travel either. In fact, I have found that I am embracing micro-mindful moments a lot more since returning from Colombia. Putting my phone down and reading a book, taking off my headphones and listening to the world, and eating my day-to-day meals with the same curiosity and awe I drank the coffee in Mundo Nueva.
The days following the camp were spent revisiting trails I enjoyed as well as finding a few new ones As well as soaking in the last of the heat before returning to an Ireland that was still fighting off the cold grasp of winter.
As I write this there is snow falling outside and my Colombian adventure feels like a dream.
Explore the upcoming camps trailsandroots.com
By Matthew McConnell
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