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01 October 2008, 7am

“Route of the churches” is Ecuador’s first nocturnal race

Shining through a crisp Andean night

by Nina Solah

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was founded in 1534 as “San Francisco de Quito”. Long before that an Inca leader fell in love with the location and made what is now Quito the second Inca capital.

It is no wonder that this city gained such an honourable role. Surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and with its stunning blue sky, Quito is located 2,850m above sea level, making it the second highest capital in the world. Quito is only 24.14km from the equator and this, combined with the high altitude, gives the city a mild temperate climate all year round.

The colonial center of the city boasts a series of 16th and 17th century churches, most of which have been standing since the Spaniards colonised the city. These churches, both incredibly beautiful: and rich in history, are one of the reasons that Quito was the first city ever to be named a World Heritage Site.

The “Ruta de las Iglesias” or “Church Trail”, is a race which is both challenging and enjoyable. It is a comfortable mix of hills and flats along its 10km length. The challenge is mostly found in the altitude of the city, which will test even the most experienced of runners. The first edition in 2005 was the first nocturnal race in Ecuador. It was admired by both its participants and its spectators as the best of its kind in the country. This year, the fourth of the series so far, was even more magnificent than its predecessors.

The few available entries (4,500) are filled earlier and earlier each year as the reputation of the race grows. People have quickly begun to appreciate the race as an exclusive and exhilarating trail, unlike any other, rekindling itself each year. Astonishing testimony to this is the fact that 80% of runners who participated in previous editions sign up again. It is one of the few regrets of the organizers that they can’t allow more runners into the race. Limiting numbers is the only way that runners can be comfortably accommodated in the narrow streets of Quito’s colonial centre.

Taking place in the majestic yet humble country of Ecuador, the Ruta de las Iglesias is a non-profit event which delivers 33% of its funds to a selected charity. In previous years this donation has been made to the Ecuadorian Society for the fight against cancer. This year, it is going to the Special Olympics Society in Ecuador.

As a special thank you, the Special Olympics choir sang the Quito anthem to all the athletes. The intonation of this anthem to Quito touched both residents and visitors in the same way that ‘New York, New York’ stirs the emotions of local New York City runners before their Marathon.

Tears of anticipation filled many runners’ eyes as they waited for the gunshot. Confetti filled the air as runners passed through the starting gantry, and to complete the star studded sky, fireworks broke above and lit the way as runners started off on their scenic adventure.

In the Ruta de las Iglesias you get to run past 11 of Quito’s beautiful churches: Basílica del Voto Nacional, La Merced, San Francisco, La Compañía, El Sagrario, La Catedral, La Concepción, San Agustín, Santo Domingo, Sta. Catalina, and San Blas. At night is the perfect time for this race to take place. Each of the churches is uniquely illuminated so that even the smallest details of their architecture stand out against the shadows of the night. Bands playing thematic Ecuadorian tunes lined the streets. It was not unusual to see a runner or two slow down to admire the beauty of the churches or run to the beat of the music.

Within the first two kilometres you are faced with two short but steep hills. These hills are mitigated by admirable views – first of the gothic Basilica Church, and then of the 16th Century church of La Merced. In the third kilometre you run past the spectacular San Francisco church finished in 1580 and situated in the large cobblestone plaza of the same name. In between these landmarks, and all along the streets, the citizens of Quito line up to cheer the runners on. Everyone is enthusiastically encouraged by the considerate volunteers who are ever ready and willing to assist. This year we had over 3000 volunteers, and each one of them put their heart and soul into making this race a success.

The warmth and enthusiasm that everyone contributed in every small detail shone through. From the volunteers eager to hand water to a thirsty runner to the ever-smiling band member who played from well before the gunshot until well after the race had finished, they all left their mark.

After the first 3km the race is mostly flat. The runners go out of the colonial centre of Quito into the modern part of the city. There is a change of mood. Bands offering different Ecuadorian musical styles place themselves along the entire route. The race is a celebration. In the last few kilometres of the race you can see fireworks decorating the night sky. They are both inspiring and reassuring; the finish line is near.

As you cross the finish line a wave of emotion comes upon you. You have finished a unique race. It could only happen in South America, but it happens to be in Ecuador. In Quito, and against the night sky. Joyful accomplishment is mixed with contented lamentation that the fun is over (or so you think). As you cross the finish line you exchange your timing chip for a stunning medal, a bag of goodies and a thermal blanket to soothe the night’s chill. The buses are on site to return the bags containing runners’ personal belongings. The reunion area at the finish line is capacious and comfortable. The
vibrant mood of celebration persists as runners are reunited with their friends and loved ones. The joy of having finished this atmospheric race warms everybody in Quito’s crisp Andean night.


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