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The Forrest Gump of Chile

To celebrate his 40th birthday, Chilean ultramarathoner Matías Anguita ran 40 marathons in 40 days. What compels a person to never stop going?

I recognized Matías Anguita from 100 yards away. He was wearing a fluorescent-green perforated running T-shirt, the kind that lets air pass between the fabric and the body, covered in the names of his sponsors: an American running-shoe company; a Japanese electronics brand; a Chilean newspaper; and Cordep, short for Corporación de Deportes de la Cámara Chilena de la Construcción, an initiative aimed at getting Chilean construction workers to be more physically active.

He was clutching a railing with both hands and, with his toes up on a small concrete curb, stretching his calves slowly. It was 8 a.m. on a Thursday in downtown Santiago, and I was meeting the best ultramarathoner in Chile for a 10-kilometer training run.

Santiago isn’t any cheaper than cities in America. The Chilean peso is a strong currency. There’s the sensation in Santiago de Chile that, as in any other world capital, everyone is always running from one place to another. But Matías Anguita is really always running.

Three weeks before we met, the 42-year-old had just finished running the length of Chile in 65 consecutive days — almost 3,100 miles in total — from the desert town of Arica, near Peru in the north, to Puerto Williams, the capital of Chile’s Antarctic province in the south. It’s an average of more than 40 miles per day. His slogan for the feat was “Correr nos une” — “Running unites us.” Long-distance runners are inevitably at odds with loneliness.

Five times over, Anguita has completed the Atacama Crossing, a self-supported, seven-day ultramarathon, which is part of the 4 Deserts Race Series, a circuit that includes races across the Gobi, the Sahara, and Antarctica. Nobody before Anguita has run the length of Chile in consecutive days. No runner before him has crossed the Atacama Desert so many times.

In 2012, Anguita ran 40 marathons in 40 consecutive days to celebrate his 40th birthday. “Limits effectively don’t exist,” he posted afterward on his website. That year he also completed L’Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc — the one-stage ultramarathon that corkscrews around the tallest mountain in the Alps for 103 miles (166 kilometers) while gaining 31,500 feet (9,600 meters) in elevation.

“I’ve always thought that people are made to run,” Anguita said in Spanish, sitting in the Parque Bicentenario near Santiago’s financial district the day before our 10K together. “Since the beginning of the world, people have run to hunt, and they’ve run just to move from one place to another, so it’s something natural. I hang on to that premise so that my body doesn’t resent me for running so much.”

Anguita reluctantly became famous in Chile after the country’s biggest newspaper, La Tercera, began covering his exploits, dubbing him “El Forrest Gump chileno.” He didn’t like the nickname at first, but he has since come to understand it as a noble caricature. “People say it with love,” he said, “and it stopped bothering me.” When he runs, sometimes people scream, “¡Viva Chile!

“It’s very strange, and I don’t think I do well with the attention because I’m a gozador” — someone who likes being around people and partying — “and so I can’t take it so seriously, this idea that I’m the face of running in Chile.” Still, he’s proud of his country. “I feel very Chilean, and I feel very proud to be Chilean,” he said. “I have a very special relationship with the Chilean flag. I love my flag and my country, and I’m very nationalist.”

The first person to run a marathon, according to legend, was Pheidippides, a young Greek day-runner, someone whose job it was to carry news between, for example, battlefields and Athens. The runner died, according to legend, 2,500 years ago when he arrived in the capital with news of a Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.

The first Chilean to win an Olympic medal was the marathoner Manuel Jesús Plaza Reyes, a 28-year-old newspaper salesman. He trained by running from his hometown of Lampa into Santiago to sell the paper every day. After quitting smoking for a week in the run-up to the games, he was good enough to win the silver medal in the 26.2-mile race at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

There’s something in long-distance running that resonates deeply with Chile, this long, slender country running along the South American coast, isolated between mountains and the sea. Here it is on the brink of the ocean, battling through one earthquake after the next — one crisis after another — fighting for respect on this cutthroat American continent.

“This country, in general, is running a marathon,” said Santiago native Hugo Infante, a photojournalist and former Sunday editor at La Tercera. His images were included in the Time magazine and New York Times photographs of the year for his work in 2010 documenting the rescue of the 33 miners (one of whom, by the way, said he was training for a marathon in the mine’s tunnels while trapped).

“You know this is the only country in Latin America that can visit your country, the United States, without a visa?” Infante continued. He was sitting over a steak on a Friday night after a demanding week covering the country’s latest devastating earthquake, which had rocked the country up north a few days before, and referring to a new policy of reciprocal openness between the United States and Chile that went into effect at the end of March. “We are running a marathon. And we don’t want to get second,” he said.

Santiago Marathon 2010

But if the marathon is an obvious symbol for Chile, Chileans have only recently become interested in running. “In 2007 there were 468 runners in the marathon. In 2014 we have over 4,500,” said Francisca Aguirre, director of the Maratón de Santiago, on April 4, two days before the race. She was sitting in the Estación Mapocho, a former rail station turned national monument and cultural center in downtown Santiago, where racers were retrieving their numbers, shopping for gear, and eating free spaghetti from one of the race’s few sponsors, a pasta company. Including the half marathon and shorter races, more than 27,000 people, including 3,500 foreigners, were signed up to run the day of the marathon.

Aguirre said everyone in Chile knows the story of Manuel Plaza. Álvaro González, the former president of the Chilean Athletics Federation, loved to bring Plaza’s story to bear in speeches and interviews. A great symbol for Chile! The working-class, disciplined marathoner putting in miles alone.

The Maratón de Santiago’s growth tracks the rise of the Chilean economy at large. In its 2013 World Investment Report, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development identified Chile as the second-largest recipient of foreign direct investment in Latin America after Brazil, good enough for 11th place worldwide.

Chile’s economy isn’t flashy, but it is stable. “The Chilean peso is strong, firm, and so inflation stays really low,” said Anguita, who worked as a financial analyst before he got into ultramarathons. “It’s a robust currency, and I think running is really robust as a discipline in Chile, really stable.”

In January, the Financial Times grouped Chile with Turkey, Brazil, and other emerging markets whose currencies would be vulnerable if the U.S. Federal Reserve slowed down its purchase of their assets. Rodrigo Vergara, the governor of Chile’s central bank, nipped the newspaper’s suggestion in the bud with a letter to the editor published under the headline “Chile is a leading global example of resilience.”

Chile is in the economic ring with the world’s biggest players, but it has a discipline and humility the others don’t. Brazil’s billions of dollars sunk into hopelessly off-track infrastructure projects come to mind, as does Argentina’s currency disaster.

“The only thing that Chileans can brag about outside their country is about their economy, about their wine, about how our country is so good that an 8.2 earthquake doesn’t destroy the whole country,” said Infante, the journalist. “That is the only thing we can brag about!”

“Chileans outside are very cocky about their country,” he continued, “but Brazilians or Argentinians will always say, ‘Yeah, well, we’re hosting or playing in the World Cup, and Chile sucks.’” Fair enough, but Chileans don’t suffer from insecurity.

Their national identity is anchored in the Mapuche, the natives who occupy the middle of the country. The Mapuche were the only natives on the continent to withstand the Spanish conquistadores. In the introduction to his book Historia del Deporte Chileno, the journalist Edgardo Marín notes that the warrior who led the Mapuche against the Spanish, Caupolicán, won the assignment by hiking for two days while holding a tree trunk above his shoulders. It’s the earliest and most famous endurance sport in Chilean history, according to Marín, and Caupolicán was the original Chilean ultramarathoner. The resistance he led is recorded in La Araucana, the country’s foundational epic.

The epic poem, even if it has been largely forgotten in Chile, is another source of pride. I found an old edition sitting in Pucón, a town in the south serving tourists who come for the mountains and white water. The introduction brags that Chile is the only country in the world established after the Middle Ages whose foundations are immortalized in an epic poem. The point is that Chile is just like Spain, France, and Germany, which also have their own famous epics — El Cantar de Mio Cid, La Chanson de Roland, and Das Nibelungenlied.

So Chileans define themselves both by their defiance of and compatibility with Europe — especially the Germans, many of whom fled to Chile after the European economic crisis in 1848. The Germans who came built infrastructure that helped create order in the center of the country; they did what the Spanish couldn’t centuries earlier. Now Chileans print the German flag on condom boxes as a symbol of security and reliability. Correlation does not imply causality, but Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and German Chancellor Angela Merkel cut the same figure.

Not that everything in the Chilean economy is beautiful. There’s a huge separation of wealth between the upper class and the enormous lower-middle class. It’s the complicated inheritance from Augusto Pinochet, who, along with a group of Chilean economists who studied in America called “the Chicago Boys,” fixed the inflation problem left by the socialist Salvador Allende. Pinochet, who knocked over the democratically elected Allende government with a coup, also left behind economic policies with terrifying social implications. Chile still has a 19 percent tax on books, for example. Pinochet died in a position of honor in Chile after he was voted out of office, but everyone also remembers how some 100,000 Chilean citizens disappeared during his regime.

I sense Chileans’ uneasiness with police and authorities in the legend of Manuel Plaza. The story everyone tells me in Santiago now is that Plaza was winning the marathon until the police leading the athletes along the course made a false turn and led the Chilean astray. The mistake gave the French Algerian marathoner Ahmed Boughèra El Ouafi, who had been trailing, a chance to win.

“Plaza was the symbol of ‘We never can get it — we’re never going to be the first one,’” Infante said. “He was the underdog, and he was first! We call that typical Chilean luck. Goddamnit, he got the silver medal.”

Marín’s book recounts a different version of history. In his version, Plaza was never in first place. According to Marín, the newspaper salesman made his final break at mile 21, too late to catch El Ouafi. Marín adds that Plaza’s knees were swollen because of the climate difference between Chile and the Netherlands.

But winning Chile’s first Olympic medal still made Plaza a hero when he came back to Santiago. A crowd of 30,000 was waiting for him at the Estación Mapocho, and cannons sounded from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía, a small hill in the middle of the city, to announce his victorious arrival.

matias-anguita-1

Matías Anguita started running when he was 25. He weighed 198 pounds, dangerously heavy for his 5-foot-5 frame. He was working as an investigator in the section of Chile’s financial ministry that handles cases of money laundering. He was smoking 40 Lucky Strikes per day.

Anguita wanted to lose weight and quit smoking — he knew he wouldn’t live long at his current pace. “I thought of running because it’s simple,” he said. “You put on shoes, and you go outside to run.”

He replaced one addiction with another. Jogging became marathons, which became ultramarathons. With encouragement from the six-time Ironman Triathalon world champion Mark Allen, who was visiting Chile, Anguita left his career as a financial analyst. So that he would have enough time to train for ultramarathons, Anguita created a regimen and began training a cohort of students — mostly middle-aged, working men and women — to run, for $80 apiece per month.

During our interview in the park, a heavyset white-haired man trotted over and, sweaty and winded, extended a watch to Anguita. The ultramarathoner took a look at his student’s watch, smiled, and handed it back. After he trotted off, I learned this was the owner of Bar Liguria, an iconic restaurant in Santiago.

“You use the same skills to win in the market that you use to run a marathon,” Anguita said. “The businessmen and entrepreneurs here were the first ones to create runners’ clubs and also this culture of competing in business but also in the street.

“The analogy seems very clear to me,” he added. “For the same reasons as the economy, this sport continues and continues to grow.”

I came to Chile and Santiago to begin training seriously for my first marathon and to quit smoking — a habit that seems to always catch up to me when I linger around Berlin, no matter how much I run. The German language is very precise — close to perfect, even — and so the people who speak it think they are, too. Then they feel bad for themselves, especially when they think of the country’s history, and then they medicate that sadness with cheap drugs like beer and cigarettes. This attitude hangs around the capital.

In my imagination, without having ever traveled south of Central America, Chile was all mountains, forest trails, beaches, and vineyards. Chile would be altogether a much better place to train than Berlin in the winter, with its gray skies and infinite flatness. Really, the only hills in Berlin are buried piles of rubble.

When I was leaving the Estación Mapocho after interviewing the director of the Maratón de Santiago near the end of my month of training in Chile, I noticed an 80-year-old Chilean man standing outside. He had a white mustache and wore his ponytail tucked through the transom of his baseball hat. He was standing over a blanket covered in artifacts from a lifetime of long-distance races: trophies, medals, and photos of himself at different ages coming over the finish lines at different marathons. He was raising money to compete in a half marathon in Colombia.

His name was Fernando Carvajal, and his white race T-shirt was tucked into black running tights, which were tucked into his tube socks, tucked into his running shoes. His lips were tucked into his mouth, folding inward where teeth were missing on the bottom. His body was lean and small without seeming frail.

I told him I was a reporter and interested in the marathon in Chile. “I ran to school when I was 8 years old!” he started telling me.

Oye, Suzy, oye! Do you remember which marathon it is in Santiago? The 10th?” he said, turning to a young woman hanging around his blanket with him. “Is it the 20th? Twenty-first? … ” Suzy didn’t know.

“I ran the first!” he said. He was excited but also calm. “I ran the first marathon in Santiago!” He lifted a pewter cup he got at the marathon in Mendoza, Argentina, in 2012 and read the inscription to me. “Sixteen times in a row, I ran without missing one year!” he said.

I asked him if he thought the marathon and distance running were especially Chilean — if it was part of the Chilean national identity to be oriented around long-term goals and to suffer toward them alone. As if batting aside the question, he plowed ahead talking. “My goal is to pass 100 years!” he said. “After that, God will decide what to do with me.”

The next day, I returned to the Estación Mapocho. It was even hotter outside, and the energy of people picking up their race packets mixed with the normal bustle of downtown: Peruvian women selling ceviche on a crowded footbridge, stray dogs, alcoholics clutching bottles at the riverside, the incessant honking over Santiago.

A friend was late to meet me at the station and, to keep from feeling overwhelmed by everything, I sat down next to Carvajal’s trophies. The oldest marathoner I’d ever seen was wearing the same outfit as the day before, and more people leaving the station with their racing bibs were stopping to examine his blanket and drop cash in his pile. Someone asked him how fast he was planning to run the half marathon the next day. He said he’d do it in 145 minutes. That wasn’t even 10 minutes slower than I’d run in Berlin. He was 54 years older than I was.

After some minutes of watching, Carvajal approached me on the stairs and went into his backpack. His lunch, a cup of plain yogurt that had melted into soup, and a wooden-handled spoon he’d brought from home were waiting for him there. I shook his hand and said “¿Qué tal?

He put both hands on mine, and then immediately we had our four hands together. He looked into my eyes and said, “The things that are happening are happening,” and then he took a seat on the stairs next to me to eat his warm yogurt.

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I arrived five minutes late to run with Anguita, short on breath after the sprint from a taxi, which I ditched in Santiago’s rush-hour traffic. Without much ceremony, we started to run. The Chilean Forrest Gump’s steps were calm and steady, and the pace was easy.

Early on in the route, a dog ran parallel to us behind its fence, barking and showing its teeth. Anguita looked down at the dog through his sunglasses, smirked, and said, “¿Qué pasa?

He said he’d started making all decisions of consequence during his runs. One of his students, a neurologist, had told him that blood carries more oxygen to the brain during a run. “Running made me more calm,” he said during our interview. “I prefer to take things calmly, even if someone is hurting me.”

Talking during a run is different from any other type of conversation. You have to speak more slowly, dividing phrases between breaths. Your steps create a cadence that washes into the conversation, too. You talk in simple sentence parts with no decoration. Slowly, you get high from the endorphins your body produces, and you can’t help but enjoy a more positive relationship to whatever is on your mind.

I asked Anguita about the benefits of running. “First you have to realize that a body that moves, a body that does sports, is much better than a body that doesn’t move,” he said. “The active body has a lower body mass index, it’s lighter, it sleeps better, and at work it produces twice as much as a sedentary body. Students who do sports are also twice as productive.”

Impatient drivers leaned on their horns at an intersection, and Anguita just looked at them, shook his head, and whispered under his breath, “¿Qué pasa?

We passed between 20 and 30 police officers and soldiers during the run. The Chilean state is obsessed with vigilance, and the servicemen and women still dress in post-Prussian uniforms that hark back to Pinochet. Chileans know not to be scared of them, though, and Anguita took time to say “Buenos días” to all the soldiers and carabineros we passed.

When I interviewed Anguita, I asked him about his goals — now that he’s run the length of Chile, now that he’s run 40 marathons in 40 days to confront middle age. “I just want to continue being happy,” he said. “That’s what motivates me more than making money. Making money is fine, but just being able to be happy is the maximum for me.”

Despite a training regimen that entails running close to a marathon almost every day, he goes out four nights a week with friends and drinks red wine. Running shoes, he said, are like pinot noir: They need just a short time to age before they’re at their peak.

Near the end of our 10K, I asked Anguita if, apart from all the rational elements of training, there’s something he does for luck. Does he have a secret? Is there a god inside of him that has carried him over every wall? He didn’t understand the question, so I asked again, trying different words in Spanish.

I’d tried to ask the same question twice the day before during our interview. Now I tried a third time. He said he still didn’t understand and asked me for an example. I pulled something out of thin air. I said I listen to certain music — rap or techno or any music with drums — and the music puts me in a better mood, and if I’m in a better mood, then I run better, too.

After this, he thought I wanted to know what sort of music he liked. It was an easier question to answer, especially for him. Anguita takes music with him everywhere. He also runs with earbud headphones. He had them in during our run, and he keeps them in when he runs with his students or during races.

He loves rock Latino, he said. It’s a style that blossomed in Argentina during the early 1980s, when the country was at war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. At the time, Latino bands started playing their own rock music with Spanish lyrics. It was antifascist, synth-heavy music for a continent that came to the sexual revolution late because of military dictatorships.

I asked Anguita why that music. Was he living in Argentina? Was the war important to him? But I was thinking too hard, working too much to understand something very simple, and worrying I had missed something in a language I don’t speak perfectly.

“No,” he said. “This music just reminds me of a beautiful time in my life.” He became the best ultramarathoner in Chile by taking that feeling and running with it. 

Zeke Turner is a journalist living in Berlin. You can read his work in WSJ. Magazine, the New York Times’s “Sunday Styles,” and T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Illustration by Jon Stich.

Filed Under: Marathons, running, matias anguita, Chile

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