About time… here, finally, is my post on the Ultrafiord race I ran last month in Patagonia: at 70 km, my longest ultramarathon to date. I’ve already posted an Ultrafiord race report on RunningUltramarathons.com – but here is a more personal account of what happened.
Well, I have known the Race Director, Stjepan Pavicic, for around 15 years, and I know his style: his motivation is to create races that are big and wild and very very hard. I have attended and reported on his multisport adventure races (hiking, mountain biking, kayaking etc. – total distances of 600-1000 km, run non-stop over a week) in the past. And through those races, I have actually been to the part of Patagonia that Ultrafiord would be run in.
So I knew in advance that this race would be really remote. And the big issue, for a racer, about “remote” is that, if something goes wrong (as in if you are injured), there may not be anything that anyone can do for you for along time. Access is a huge issue here. On top, this Ultrafiord route was a completely new route. Rather than following established trails, most of it was brand new trail (or not even trail, just flagged route) that Stjepan and his crew had developed over the past year.
“I have spent more time in the field preparing for this race than on any other race,” Stjepan told me in Punta Arenas a week before the event. “Five months all together!”
He also gave me a few other clues about the route at that time, which were really helpful, as the Ultrafiord website didn’t have much route info other than a provisional elevation profile. I would be doing the 70 km, which was actually the shortest of three races. There would also be 100 mile and 100 km races going on too – but my 70 km would be the “core”part of all routes, the toughest section within the longer races too, by far.
“There’s a creek to cross only a few kilometres in from your start line,” Stjepan told me. “It may be knee deep, but if there is a lot of rain it could be as high as chest-deep.” Great… News that I would be soaking wet and cold right from the start of my race didn’t help my confidence! He also mentioned that we would have to travel several kilometres across snow up top on the mountain. And that the race cut-off time was 32 hours!
I had come in feeling pretty confident about this distance. I’ve done up to 60 km in the mountains in the past, and I am more fit and uninjured now. I had been thinking that maybe I could complete this in 12 hours or so. But suddenly, I started wondering if I might be out there for 24 hours or even more. It made me very, very nervous. I had never gone non-stop for that long before. And it could mean a REAL lot of night-time travel. I’m glad I had a week to get used to the idea – and it really changed how I packed, what I brought with me.
So, I carried with me two headlamps, and spare batteries for each of them. I didn’t know how many hours of light that would give me in total – hopefully it would cover the whole 12 hour night if it came to that. I only like using one trekking pole, but I carried two in case one broke (they fit inside my running pack). Fortunately, I have worked at becoming fat-adapted over the last two years, which means that I don’t need to carry much food with me, and I no longer bonk or otherwise lose it if I run out of food. (This is actually a really big safety issue. If you are glucose-adapted and you run out of food, you are just not as mentally sharp, and therefore at higher risk of falling and getting injured.
I reassessed the route with the new info from Stjepan, and came up with what I though was a fairly realistic new estimate, that I should be able to finish in around 16 hours. I packed enough food for that, and threw in an extra bag of nuts and an extra bar, just in case I was longer. (Being fat-adapted means that my trail foods are less sweet and more based on nuts, compared to the pretzels and granola bars and gels that I used to consume).
I spent that week before the race hiking in nearby Torres del Paine National Park, fastpacking 9 to10 hours per day, covering a total of 143 hilly kilometres in six days. I wasn’t sure if that week out there would hurt or harm my race: backpacking is extremely good ultramarathon training, but my timing meant I only had two rest days between the fastpacking trip and the race.
OK, so race day:
We started together with the 100 km racers at 8:40am at Río Serrano, just outside the southern boundary of the park. The 100-mile racers had started 60 km east of here at midnight, and most of them had already run through here by the time we started. Our first few kilometres were over bumpy grassy cow pasture. All I could think of was that first river crossing that Stjepan had warned me about, and I actually could not wait to get to it – I just wanted it behind me, not ahead of me. So it was a relief to finally get to it. Many racers hesitated here, I guess deciding whether to remove shoes or maybe just surprised to see this river. But I knew it was coming, and that there would be more creeks after this one, so I just waded in (there was a rope there) and strode across… very refreshing, icy water up to my belly button… and clambered up the far bank as quickly as I could.
Now I felt I was initiated… cold and wet, and wondering how many hours of this I would have ahead of me.
Well, this blog post will be even longer that it is if I recount everything that happened. I’ve put a real lot about the actual route in my RunningUltramarathons.com Ultrafiord race report – so if you want to know more about the route details, you should jump over and read that one, then come back here for my summary.
So the first rolling 30 km section ended up being mud: like mud that is pretty hard to describe, so much mud, for so long. You just had to be there to get what I am talking about. Mostly ankle deep, but frequent enough mud-soakers or thigh-soakers that you couldn’t see coming. I got with a group of four guys who were slower than me on the slippery stuff, but who were better runners when we hit short runnable sections. I would not have run so much, but I knew from the elevation profile that these first 30 km would be the only part of the race that I would be able to run at all (the remainder was too steep) so I worked hard to stick with them. It was a good motivation, definitely made me run more than I would have had I been alone.
I’d calculated that I would need to be at the 30k aid station in 5 hours if I was to achieve my two goals, which were:
– get off the highest part of the mountain before dark, and
– finish the race in 16 hours
But I ended up taking 5:45 – and not leaving the aid station until 6:10 (there was hot soup there, and I needed to deal with all the mud inside my socks and shoes and pants before heading up the mountain). So already I was off my planned time – but not by much. And I was actually feeling really good.
So, as I’ve mentioned in the other race report, then we had the big mountain climb (more mud and bog on the way). I was really happy to run into Daniel Darrigrandi, from nearby Puerto Natales, on this long ascent. He and I had run the last few kilometres of UltraTrail Torres del Paine together the previous September. He had a thermos of tea with him, which he shared with me when we hit the first summit.
Then there was lots of mountain: hours and hours of up and down over loose rock and boulders and snow patches. Stjepan’s few kilometres of “snow” turned out to be an actual glacier, and then it got dark while I was at the very peak of the mountain, and I could no longer find the route markers. Racers continued to catch up to me, and we searched together for any route markers in the dark. I passed a very scary hour, up there in the blackness, listening to rockfalls coming down above us – nearby – very thankful that the night was windless (extremely unusual for anywhere in southern Patagonia, not to mention on the peak of a mountain here) and comforting myself with the fact that, if we really did get stuck here, at least there were sixteen of us and we would be able to huddle and keep one another warm.
Eventually we found a route marker. It took another hour, descending over rocks and snow and eventually into forest, to get to the aid station. I did not want to be last – risking losing the trail again with no one behind me was a terrifying thought. So I shot through that aid station to get ahead of the group. I actually was feeling great this whole time – that fat adaptation meant that I hadn’t had to eat or drink much at all, and my energy levels and mood were amazingly excellent.
From here, I ended up travelling with three guys in the dark for quite some time. By now the flagged route was becoming a muddy trail, and it no longer seemed like we were at high risk of losing the route. This was actually a really cool period – I didn’t know who the guys were. We didn’t talk at all. But we all stuck together, I guess all of us still acknowledging the safety-in-numbers thing and silently looking out for one another. I eventually figured out, by the swear words I heard as each stumbled in the dark, that two were French and one was Chilean.
I didn’t want to leave this group – but I was realizing that I really did need to stop and eat, drink, and pee. I held off as long as I could, but finally we crossed a little creek and I just had to attend to those needs. I didn’t say anything to the guys – we hadn’t spoken at all for the hours we’d been together. Just dropped my pack, stepped like three feet off the trail to pee and dig my food out, and they kept going.
I was done in a minute or two, and got going again. I was surprised to see my three guys were all standing around at the trail just ahead. I wasn’t sure why, so I asked if everything was OK as I passed. They said yes, and slipped in behind me. I suddenly realized they had been waiting for me – they didn’t want to leave me alone there in the dark. Wow… one of those beautiful moments between ultrarunners.
As the night progressed, we did all eventually split up. The route was no longer scary, it was a clearly marked forest trail. It was still muddy and you had to be attentive and careful not to fall and risk injury – but, other than that, it was pretty straightforward. So I spent most of the last few hours alone in the dark – but still feeling remarkably great. I never actually had a bad moment that whole race! Turns out my hiking trip had been absolutely great preparation for this race (it’s not that big a step to go from 9 to 10 hour days hiking to the 19 hours it took me to finish this race – which was nearly all hiking anyway). I had all of the right clothing with me, I had lots of spare battery power in my lamps when I finished at 3:45am, and I was well nourished and hydrated throughout.
So there you go… I was part of what I am sure will become ultrarunning history. Or perhaps “legend” is a better word. Ultrafiord was not the type of ultramarathon race that any of the racers expected. And many people were grossly underprepared for it (42% of entrants did not finish). I actually finished in the top half of the 70k: 16th of the 36 entered (and 24 who finished), my first ever top-50% finish. I also won my age group (as the only 50+ woman entered – so I was alone at the top of the podium! (Basically because rough terrain favours me. I’m not a fast runner but I’m really good when the terrain turns crappy and unrunnable). And here are Daniel and me with our medals after! This was an amazing and unforgettable first edition of a race… hopefully we will see it return again next year. Keep an eye on news at: http://www.ultrafiord.com/