We sent our man Matt Maynard to run one of the toughest races in the world, Chile’s, Patagonian Ultra Fiord 70 miler. He runs through forests inhabited by pumas, swims across rivers and cowers in crevasses.
Words Matt Maynard
The 3000m granite towers of Torres del Paine are rolling toward’s us through the twilight. I watch as the Brazilian athlete Manu Vilaseca kneels in the aisle at the front of the bus and sways to the rhythm of the dirt road. Her hands are to her face.
Her posture is one of prayer. The glacial waters of La go Torres come into view, undercutting the mountains. She bows her head and whispers some words to herself that I cannot hear. The Patagonian picture postcard vista is perhaps in her prayers, but it’s also alive in front of her and she is clearly entranced by the dangerous beauty of it all.
At 8:30 the next morning, she will put her thoughts and prayers into action .
I was taking part in the first edition of Ultra Fiord, but the race’s story began over a decade a go with a different event altogether: The Patagonian Expedition Race.
The concept behind this annual race was to open new passages through the vast, pristine and virgin expanses of wilderness at the bottom of South America and in doing so. reserve it for sustainable activities for generations to come.
It ’s a multi-day, non-stop team event by foot, kayak and bike. Racers cover distance s of up to 650 miles i n up to 14 days of competition, with as little as six hours sleep in total.
National Geographic once called the event “The Last Wild Race.” The man behind it is Stjepan Pavic and he’s also the driving force behind the Ultra Fiord – a race National Geographic might want to call, “The New Wild Race!”
The Ultra Fiord
Daylight begrudgingly loomed out of a sodden and very long Patagonian night. The start list for the Ultra Fiord was loaded with athletes from 14 countries, including no less that three previous winners of the revered 100-mile Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc.
Four separate events of 20, 40, 70 and 108 miles were being run. Amidst the runners there were whisperings of glacier travel, of puma sightings and of river crossings. Whilst I’d definitely come here to be competitive; drowning or becoming wildlife fodder had not featured on my training plan.
I tentatively planned to run towards the front of the 70-mile race; but never so close that the big cat in the bushes would reduce the field by one.
Manu was running the 40-mile race and I tried to match her quick clipped pace from the startline, running fast across the dewy grass on the forgiving peat soil, towards the mountains. A cluster of braying horses trotted alongside us at first, partly obscured by the low fog.
Shortly, we entered single-track, then passed through moss laden trees, then we heard a baritone rumble from across the water to the north as a chunk of Glacier Serrano calved off, and was enveloped by the waters of Rio Grey.
The first river crossing divided the competitors into two camps: those who pitter-pattered around ponderously at the water’s edge removing shoes and those who took a more direct approach and simply waded in and swam across immersing all of their dry layers.
I sided more with the cautious souls. I smiled to myself ruefully at the mud and the lake that we had to continuously wade through over the next 18 miles.
At the first aid station, Pavic stood over me outside the event tent and told me I was in second place in the 70 miler. For a moment we both scanned the field of ultra-runners coming out of the forest, banking wildly across the open ground toward the aid station.
Pavic turned to me again, grinning wildly and said: “Now the real challenge begins.” This Dr Frankenstein or race creators was referring to the not travelled line through the mountains that, five months previously, when the race was first conceived, no human had ever set foot.
I turned my back on the rain-riddled lake and climbed aggressively onto the virgin slopes of unidentifiable plants and glacial till. The slope kicked hard, the contour lines like monkey bars. I concentrated on hydration and force-feeding myself.
The altitude and exertion and the certainty of at least 12 more hours racing would put me into a serious calorie debt if I neglected my house keeping now.
Renee McGregor my nutritionist had made me well aware of this and I ploughed in those 70gs of carbs per hour, like coal into a steam locomotive. The Grey River continued flowing way beneath, heading due south to join the system of fiords after which the event is named.
In 1557 the desperate Spanish sea captain, Juan Ladrillero had launched his final futile attempt to cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean through this labyrinth of waterways. He named it “Last Hope Sound”.
I hoped I would find my way through a very circuitous 24 miles in the mountains to arrive at the fiords before nightfall. But I suffered negative thoughts; If Ladrillero couldn’t find a way through at sea level, I held out very little hope for my own safe passage higher up.
These morbid thoughts were soon cut short once above the tree line at 1,000m. A southerly Antarctic wind blew me out onto a snow clad boulder field and then continued to funnel me into a boulder-strewn valley, and on towards a glaciar.
An ice-screw had been driven into the foot of it, a climbing rope had been attached and was strung out, quivering in the wind, like the outlying strand of a giant spider’s web. At this same location 20 minutes later, the American Willie McBride would run for his life to escape the path of rock fall.
Sofi Cantilo, the Argentinian 70-mile favourite, was not so lucky and spent two days awaiting horseback
evacuation, after sustaining a blow to her leg. I heard this avalanche of rocks from higher on the glacier. I reflected that I had only ever travelled on terrain like this before with an ice axe, crampons and helmet, and whilst roped to another climber.
The wet fabric of my running shorts was beginning to stiffen with ice, my lightweight running shoes were ravaged and almost out of tread. I felt like the mistaken man in fancy dress, who had arrived for a party at the South Pole.
The Brazilian in first place was climbing hard about 500m above me. I kicked steady, secure steps into the rustling snow that was slowly transforming into ice crystals the higher I climbed. The concave slope had a trail of zig-zagging footprints towards the precipitous finale, and I looked momentarily over my shoulder and down the fall-line towards white oblivion – before shaking my head, and pushing on to the top.
This was a running race and I had trained hard all through the South American summer to be as competitive as I could. Torres del Paine – eighth natural wonder of the world and a famous trekking destination – was less than 15 miles away. To be making some of the first ever footprints over a mountain pass so close to the route had to be hard.
It had to be like this. But I wasn’t ready for what I found on the other side of the mountain. Glaciers are very slowly moving rivers of ice that can crack and open to form crevasses. So far there hadn’t been any gaping jaws to swallow unsuspecting runners.
These vertical catacombs have the insidious habit of disguising themselves under a thin dusting of snow and can bury you a hundred metres underground in a matter of seconds. Before me now, on the other side of the pass, was the eye-of the-storm. The convex descent was like a stormy sea – frozen at its apocalyptic height.
I waded out into the first choppy layers of snow and gazed further out, to where a three-storey barrel wave of ice was suspended over the course markers. I set out, intent on following the few footprints of the runners that had gone before me. Just metres from finally escaping the glacier, I saw two channels of slightly different textured snow. Footprints had crossed them without seeming to break stride.
My eyebrows reached back to the crown of my head, as I bridged across the invisible abyss to the relative safety of an ice rock shelf. I had been racing for nine hours. Darkness was near. This was the time to run fast out of the mountains and into the forest to cover as many miles before nightfall.
I could see Manu and the Brazilian 300 metres below, working hard, jumping between boulders, equally eager to escape. Manu would later finish the 40-mile event in first place in the women’s race, but I still hoped to catch my rival Fernando before our longer race was over.
The vegetation slowly returned. Wild bulls, that had never encountered man, turned and saw muddier, more domesticated versions of themselves obediently running between course makers to warmer pastures. Deeper in the valley, I ran through auburn trees, gently conceding to the changing season.
Silently they had stood for five-hundred years, repeating this cycle. Here I was witnessing my first ever autumn; seeing the leaves become part of the ground from which they grew.
“It is easy,” Charles Darwin had said, whilst exploring 19th century Patagonia, “to specify the individual objects of admiration in these grand scenes; but it is not possible to express those higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” I know where Charlie was going with that.
Night came at mile 40. When the head torch goes on, it is like a submarine submerging. The hatches are closed, the world becomes very narrow and focused and all the sounds become magnified and threatening. Going into it you need to be positive, dismiss tiredness, and temper the imagination. A hammering noise in the trees is just a woodpecker, not the mad axe man.
The blinking eyes in the woods are reflective course markers passing behind trees, not the predatory eye of a puma. The snapping of twigs behind you, that’s your own footsteps you idiot. Keep running!
Pavic’s created passage through the mountains finally ends with a river crossing up to my waist. I wade onto a remote sheep farming estancia (ranch) just before 10pm and with about 13 hours raced.
Once on the rolling 4×4 track, I become just a narrow beam of light jogging slowly through the night, and am unaware of the fiords to my right. There remains one final marathon to the finish.
Towards midnight my active involvement with forward propulsion is slipping into a state of background function. I’m on automatic. My arms and hands dangle limply and the motion feels akin to running but I have no point of reference. I hold the head torch light against each of my eyes in turn. I need a jolt to kill the sleep monster. The body keeps moving forward.
The finishing gantry was rolling towards me through the artificial twilight of the town plaza. It was 2:00am and I had been running for 17 hours and 26 minutes. Fernando Nazário had me well beaten into second place and was already on his way to bed.
Stejpan Pavic was there: “Think you will be recovered enough for the 108-mile race next year?” he quipped. I had my face in my shoelaces trying to get them untied but was remembering the 70 miles of rivers and bogs, untamed mountain, crevasses, wild bulls, the eyes of the puma and the battle with my sleep demons.
Most of the 108 mile runners would be out there in that, and more, for over 35 hours. “Yeah sure, what’s another 15 hours?” I said with a gritty smile.
“But you can’t call that ultra-running, – it’s more like survival running!”