I was really happy to be part of the invited press group to take part in the inaugural Torres del Paine Ultra Trail race in southern Patagonia, Chile. I’ve known race organizer Stjepan Pavicic for 15 years, and worked on several of his adventure races (Patagonia Expedition Race, both summer and winter editions). But I was on those races only as a journalist. It was a real pleasure to attend these running races – both the Ultra Trail marathon and ultramarathons, and the Patagonia International Marathon (which also includes an ultra!) as both a racer and as a runner!
As press, we were very well taken care of. There were journalists, nearly all of whom were also runners, from all over the world: Canada, USA, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa. Southern Patagonia, especially the area around the town of Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park, is one one South America’s iconic tourist destinations. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we were lodged in some of the region’s finest hotels: the Hotel Remota in Puerto Natales, and the Hotel Río Serrano and Hotel las Torres inside the park. All three of these hotels were spectacular – sufficiently luxurious, but designed and constructed with ample attention paid to the spectacular local scenery: windows exceptionally located to take full advantage of views of both sea and mountain.
(And for those who think that “going down south” means enjoying sunshine, burritos and margaritas… southern Patagonia is WAY far south of Mexico, WAY far south of the equator. The latitude south is comparable to the latitude that southern Alaska is north – but the climate is much harsher thanks to the winds that spiral around Antarctica, the continent temporarily located, in the geological sense, symmetrically around the southern pole. More about those winds in a minute…)
This year, my health has been better than ever. Figuring out my dairy allergy 18 or so months ago has done wonders for my health, and therefore to my running. In addition, I have been gradually adopting a low-carb high-fat diet over the last year or so, and feeling great (not to mention dropping around 16 pounds). So I am running better than ever. I was worried that, with all the travelling, I would arrive before the race start both sleep-deprived and having accidentally consumed some dairy. But, big surprise: I both ate well and slept well in the days preceding the race, and ended up at the race start feeling amazing!
We started at 9:30am. I was racing the 42k trail race – other groups, the 67k and 109k, had started earlier. You can read my report on the whole race over on RunningUltramarathons.com.
It was cold and windy. Very windy. Race organizers had given us a list of obligatory gear, ranging from first aid kits to space blankets to synthetic jackets to minimum amounts of food and water. In spite of that, many racers stood on the start line with no packs at all. I had the most clothes on, and the biggest pack, of anyone there – by far. (I do tend to get cold very easily – I wanted to have room in my pack in case I needed to strip off layers).
We started – the first few hundred metres on a gravel road, straight into the wind. It was hardly worth running, we were getting blown back so much, but I tucked in behind another woman with a braid just like my own – my first time ever drafting in a foot-race! We soon turned onto a path through the grassy pampas. Drafting was no longer possible, so I just had to tuck down and face into that wind. Going was slow with that headwind. You simply have to experience the Patagonian wind, no words will ever make you believe how strong it is – but, in spite of the conditions, I felt strong.
I started slow, conservatively, and I figured I was around the middle of the pack. But when I finally turned around to have a look, I could only see 4 people behind me. Out of 34 who started! The pressure was on: don’t let anyone pass me or I may end up last!
I really felt great. I just kept up a steady pace, and – as I usually seem to do in the first half of an ultramarathon – I just started to reel people in. I passed one on the pampa flats. As we neared the first hilly section, I was approaching a group of four ahead of me. As soon as we hit our first little uphill, I powered past them.
My camera was in my pack – I had planned to take pix on the way, but it was so hard to make yourself stop in that wind. Not to mention that those hard-earned seconds I had gained by passing people would be lost. I kept going.
The wind was tossing me around – mostly against me, but as I hit the more hilly geography, gusts came from all directions, sometimes making it hard to run because I was never sure where my footsteps would come down (on a rock, resulting in a twisted ankle?) and sometimes because it literally threw me right off the trail and into the bushes!
As we approached our one and only aid station, at the 18 km mark, we ran alongside gorgeous sapphire-coloured Lake Pehué. I finally couldn’t resist it… I had to stop to take pictures. I had been counting the people I passed: according to my calculations, there were 9 people behind me, which meant that I was nearing the mid-pack. But I let a bunch of them go by for the sake for the photos. Take a look – I think it was worth it.
As I neared the aid station, I saw my new friend Juan Mata from Costa Rica, fiancé of my old friend Verónica Bravo from Chile, taking photos. Here the wind was angled to me, partly headwind and partly crosswind. No point running, I was just getting blown back. So I bent forward to reduce my wind resistance, and leaned sideways into it, while Juan snapped pictures. Unfortunately, wind does not photograph well, so I just look like a falling-over drunk. But that’s what was really happening (I swear!).
After the aid station, we turned east along the northern shore of Lake Nordenskjold. The wind here was more at the back – but since the trail meandered, there were still side-gusts which occasional threw me off the trail. I kept slowly reeling more people in. I just felt great! It’s my first race that I really have trained somewhat appropriately for (never enough – but I had run well in the preceding weeks) and that I had slept well, ate well, and had no injuries coming in. I wasn’t super fast, but I was just steady.
The wind was still incredible. We could see, on the lakes ahead and below, waterspouts forming. Waterspouts only form when winds are around 55 knots, or around 100 km/hr. At one point, when I was on a trail down low beside the lake, I could see a waterspout ripping across the water towards me, a wall of grey spray. I grapped the branches around me as it hit, so I wouldn’t be knocked over. You’ve just gotta be there to know what I am talking about.
I had a few navigational issues along the way – first, halfway along the lake where the trail seemed to be disappearing on me. I was glad I was carrying all of my obligatory gear, because I pulled out my map to assure myself that I was indeed on the right route (saving several other racers by doing so). And later on, I nearly followed the 67k route (they had an extra out-and-back that we 42k people were supposed to bypass) but I pulled my map out again – again saving another nearby racer.
I ran part of the last section with a local guy who knew the trails well – he owns a microbrewery in Puerto Natales, and used to work as a guide here. I could see he didn’t have much left to give, and I gradually pulled ahead of him. That was motivation for me in the final kilometres (as numerous people kept telling me “Only 200 more metres” so I’d pick up the pace, when really it was much further) to push hard to maintain my ranking – and in the end I finished 19th (out of 34), and even came in 4th female (out of only 9 – but still, top half!) and earned my very first ever running medal (finisher’s medals aside).
Great, fun race – an amazing place. I hope to be back to Chilean Patagaonia again next year (hopefully with Dave, too) – and maybe even next April when, rumour has it, Stjepan is organizing a 100 mile trail ultramarathon race here!