The heat had finally burnt out of the South American summer. With 6 weeks until Ultra Fiord, I could finally run in the mountains after sunrise and not have to return home to a saline drip. The path that I had been gently teasing open in the mountain above our home, was now in a runnable condition and I added it to the selection box of training runs that I was now cherry picking through on a weekly cycle. To close even the shortest loop however here in the foothills of the Andes, involved never less than 1,000m of ascent and it left my UK Kelston Round Hill loop choking in the dust and cactus.
I had decided to target the inaugural Ultra Fiord in Chilean Patagonia because it was being held by the same race director who organises the Patagonia Expedition Race - once heralded by National Geographic as “The last wild race.” There were whisperings coming up from the south about glacier travel, of swimming across rivers and of puma sightings. It was something I wanted to be a part of. The flight from Santiago to Puntas Arenas took us from the equivalent latitude of Morocoo to the Pennines and yet we still weren’t at the bottom of the country. I watched however as the Santiaginos got off the plane and shivered in the cold. On the runway, I reassured myself I was coming home.
The 3,000m tomb stone granite pinnacles of the Torres del Paine were largely submerged in cloud on race day as the night begrudgingly gave way to day. Runner’s head torches were still reflecting off the first few race markers lining the course infront of the start line. Another three thousand of these stretched out over 70miles of forest, mountains, glaciers and barren tundra - some of which, 5 months previously when the race was first conceived, had never been travelled before.
Two Catalan men from the Asics Team and the Frenchman Xavier Thevenard - 2013 winner of the UTMB - set a wicked starting pace. Fortunately they were in the 70k race however, that was being simultaneously held, and I checked the other race numbers nervously to try to stay at the front of the star studless 70mile event.
The Brazilian Fernando Nazário beat me to the the first river crossing at mile 2 but rather than charge across I decided to slow down, ensure my race pack was held high above my head and not compromise my chances by deteriorating so early into discomfort and fatigue.
Over the next 20miles the rain came down hard. I passed a lot of distressed 100miles runners who had run an extra 9hours though a wet night before we had even started. Many of them became hypothermic in the slow conditions dictated by the deep mud and DNFd at the next aid station.
I then remember sitting on the ground outside the aid tents, pouring water and pebbles out of my shoes for the fourth time in the race. A photographer pushed a banana into my mouth. A volunteer emerged with my drop bag from the tent and took a knife to my tangled drawstring bag to free my waterproof trousers. I then set off running, pot noodle in hand along the jet black pebbled shore of the rain riddled lake.
I estimated at least a ten degree temperature drop over the 1,500m climb into the mountains. The route markers weaved at first through tangles of gorse and peat - akin to English moorland - and yet it was so steep at times as to require steps to be kicked into the dark soil to make uphill progress.
At 1,000m above the lake, the vegetation gave way to technical running across rugged jumbles of scree and boulders partially covered in snow. I got a time check on the Brazilian as being 15minutes ahead, in 1st place, and chased after him up a steep valley that led directly onto the glacier.
Wallking poles had been made optional a day before the race began and with little experience using them, I decided to do without. The steep white terrain was ravished however by the scars of rockfall and it resembled territory that I had only ever travelled before when roped to a climbing partner and carrying an ice axe. I put the camera away and concentrated for the next forty minutes on kicking solid steps into the snow. Approaching the top of the pass, the snow rustled with every step as ice crystals formed in the fading afternoon temperatures and thinner air.
I took a wide contouring line on the descent from the summit plateau to avoid a cerac that was close to the route markings. Once running down the fall line again, however, I seized the opportunity to take the weight from my feet for a while and slid on my backside for 500m.
Once finally off the glacier I caught sight of the Brazilian. I was jogging through a boulder field 300m above a hanging cirque and he was down there, inside it, picking his way through the moraine on the edge of the lake. I wasn’t certain that I could catch him, but felt that I had run a controlled race so far and had a lot left to give. We were only at mile 24 but the majority of the climbing had been done. There remained 19miles of technical downhill followed by winding forest trails and rivers to cross and then 27miles on a rolling 4x4 track. I clinged onto a group of four 70k runners and enjoyed taking pictures and sharing the navigation over the next 3miles as we descended back towards the tree line into a constricting valley of auburn leaves, conceding peacefully to the tightening grip of winter.
Once in the woods, I removed my waterproof layers and stripped to shorts and a t-shirt with arm warmers to run hard before nightfall. Now was the time to try to reel the front runner in. I wanted to cover as much of the course as possible in the daylight to have less to run in the night, as well as to have more visual experiences from the day to feed off when the lights did go out and the sleep monsters set in.
I didn’t feel hungry but kept eating every 10minutes or so from my little bird feeder like zip dispenser on my Ultimate Direction rucksack. I had been given some liquid calories as well in powder form at the aid station, and so with this mix of energy sources, I thought I was getting close enough to nutritionist Renee McGregor’s suggested 90g of carbs. p/h during the race.
I waded through rivers and drank in the sounds of woodpeckers banging out applause to my efforts; the trees themselves disintegrating now into the dusk. Some pain in my knees came for a visit. It usually floats around aimlessly and then goes away if I don’t welcome it in. I noted it as about a 4/10 and then tried to forget about it, despite its unusual insistence for further acknowledgement. As the darkness closed in, I took my last photographs and then put up the hatches completely for the night - hoping that I had enough miles run and enough positive thoughts to take me home.
There was a big pulsing event tent for the 70km finishers. I waded across a river towards it with my arm across my face with bright search and rescue lights blinding me. It was just after 9pm and it was into the 12th hour of the race. Fernando Nazzaro had left 20minutes ago and had not stopped. I stood in the tent, dazed by the attention of the eager to please photographers and volunteers; pushing cheese sandwiches into me, pinning me with a floodlight camera and pumping me for answers about how the race was unfolding out there. I was the third runner through including Jeff Browning who was leading the 100mile race. There were many runners behind me - some still perhaps on the glacier. There was a gathering tide of concern in the tent about the potential misadventure of others. With these disconcerting thoughts in mind, I poured some isotonic into my pot noodle to cool it down and finished it off. One of the Catalan photographers walked with me out of the tent, and then jogged with me to the edge of the estancia. I remember her stopping and I stopped too and looked at her to see what was wrong. “Suerte - good luck” she said, and I remembered I was on my own for the final marathon through the night.
The first 20km I walked the uphills and tried to fade out my conscious awareness of time passing and pain and fatigue into just a background autonomous function - like breathing in your sleep and pumping blood through your veins. I came out of this trance and realised however that I hadn't seen a race marking for a long time and backtracked for a km. As I did so, I couldn't recall going past any of what I now saw, but surprisingly, I was still on route and found a marker and turned around to retrace my steps.
Just before midnight I grew aware of the weight of the balls of my eyes, painful and protesting at the lack of sleep. I scanned ahead on the dirt road and then took the head torch and held it up against each one of them in turn for a few seconds - hoping to wake myself up a little.
At the 58mile aid station I stepped into a small tent and two figures in the shadowy light of a paraffin heater spoke very softly and calmly to me and gave me coffee and sugar and more noodles. I felt very relaxed and peaceful and grateful - but not tired, and was warmed by the companionship in the middle of that long road in the night.
I ran harder after this and sucked intermittently on the isotonic drink that I had mixed with 3 spoonfuls of instant coffee. I ran for 40 minutes and gave myself a two minute walking break. I watched the seconds disappear and then forced myself into a run again. The finishing lights of Puerto Natales glowed on the horizon and reflected in the sea - like a sun that refused to set until everyone had been safely gathered in.
There was a fire by the roadside and three Chilean men were kicking embers and drinking yerba mate. They seemed surprised to see me and almost despondent that by 1am only three runners had now appeared. I wanted to encourage them that people were coming - it was just that those markers from the start line had led through mud, over mountains, across a glacier and through the deepest woods before casting me out on this interminable track. I wanted to say this but I had nothing. They asked me if I knew how to run the last 4miles to the plaza - the same plaza I had spent the last three days before the race. I told them to give me a moment to think about this - and I stood there, rocking, in silence, for a half a minute or so.
“….I think it’s better we drive you in" said one of them eventually. I turned onto the road and my knees immediately fired up with a 6/10 at this unforgiving surface after 17hours on the trails. I ran in the headlights of the truck. I knew I wasn't going to catch Fernando now. Instead, I swerved intermittently out into the road to check that I wasn’t going to be caught by the American Krissy Moehl who I was certain must be bearing down on me by now. I ran in fear, in adrenaline and satisfaction at the distance I had come. At the plaza I vaulted two steps at a time and then, after crossing the line in 2nd place, crumbled quickly as the adrenaline sluiced out of me.
Agradecimientos más que especiales a Stjepan - un hombre con una gran pasión y visión por las montañas, y su tremendo equipo de Camilia y Max y demás.
(My own better photos and words to come in an article in an autumn edition of "Outdoor Fitness Magazine" UK)