The Ultimate Trail Race: Ultra Fiord, Chile
Looking for the ultimate trail challenge? Then enter Ultra Fiord. This footrace is much less of a trail run than it is an adventure. At times it may seem more of a test of pure grit and survival skills. Jeff Browning, US professional ultra-runner and winner of the 2015 Ultra Fiord 100M claims that Ultra Fiord “was the most technical 100 mile course” he has ever seen. To put this into context it should be mentioned that Browning recently completed his 30th 100M event of which he won 16. When Red Bull describes an ultra trail as probably “the toughest race on earth”, you take note.
However or whatever it may be, life as a trail running adventure seeker may never be the same after that first Ultra Fiord.
What is Ultra Fiord?
Since 2015, NIGSA (Nómadas International Group SA) hosts the Ultra Fiord race in Chilean Patagonia on the far southern end of South America. It is literally the end of the world, with the next stop being Antarctica. The town of Puerto Natales is the race hub and also the gateway to the world-renowned Torres del Paine National Park. The name of the race derives from the hundreds of kilometers of fjords, formed by the passage of large glaciers thousands of years ago. Race director Stjepan Pavicic wanted to show the true face of Patagonia. His goal with introducing trail running and adventure racing in the Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope) Province was to present a more sustainable form of exploration and tourism in this awe-inspiring wilderness.
How The Race Was Supposed To Go Down on Paper
Ultra Fiord race week offers five events to choose from with various difficulty levels. It may all seem very clear cut on the website upon entering, but on race day the elements (of weather and surprise) may change the game entirely, whether you are prepared or not.
In ideal weather situations, race week kicks off with a Vertical Kilometer, followed by 30K, a 42K and a 50K race. The longer ultras include a 70K, a 100K or a 100M option.
With race starts at various points in the Torres del Paine National Park it is safe to say that the early morning bus- or boat ride may be one of the most scenic trips one could ever imagine! Should there be a break in the clouds, soft orange, pink and yellow hues of sunrise render the imposing towering landscapes and lakes even more magical, mystical and mythical than how it is usually portrayed by photos and guidebooks.
How it Really Went Down in 2018
Ultra Fiord organizers defined the 2018 event as “the year of meteorological instability”. Which is kind of an oxymoron, seeing that the only certainty in Patagonia is the unpredictability of the weather. Nevertheless, the first three events went smoothly and with relatively little surprises. The weather worsened by the time the 70K was supposed to come about. The race was postponed for 24 hours to coincide with the start of the 100K and the 100M.
After fresh powder snow on the Chacabuco Cordillera glacier, the race director made the call to divert the course of the ultras altogether. The weather got even worse during race day as wind and snow swept over the Victor Álvarez Pass. Many runners made it across the Pass safely as night fell, but others were stopped short and had to hike out as a group. With no met improvement and increased safety issues, the three races were terminated at a combined finish line at Estancia Dos Lagunas after 81 km.
How to Enjoy Your Best Ultra Fiord
Everyone that has competed in the Ultra Fiord probably has his or her ultimate list of tips for future runners. You call this experience and hindsight. But some things are worth mentioning, reiterating and possibly overstating. Here they are.
The Course is Technical
When a runner describes a trail course as being technical one usually think it to be covered in obstacles such as rocks or tree roots, maybe a few streams or rivers or a steep pass or two. With Ultra Fiord there is all that, but those are not the hard parts. What makes the race technical is (the crazy weather and) the miles and miles of endless mud and peat bogs. It is a seemingly constant slog from one puddle of slush and gunk to the next. The struggle to keep limbs and shoes intact makes for a true test of grit and tenacity. The river crossings (and there are plenty) offers sweet relief from dragging heavy, mucky shoes. But it is a rinse-and-repeat effort for a couple of hours or even a day.
- Serial Ultra Fiorders (yes, there are those) advises not to fight the obstacles. Too much energy and negativity go into the fight. Once you make peace, the course will flow better and easier (experience and hindsight, see?).
- Waterproof socks are a very good investment. It will probably work better if they are taped to the legs to prevent water or mud from entering at the top. Runners sink into mud pits as deep as their waists.
The Weather is Capricious
April is in Patagonia’s fall, which is said to have milder winds and temperatures. It is still, however, Patagonia, with its close proximity to the Southern Ice Field. At first glance, the Ultra Fiord route profile may not look intimidating, but alpine conditions starting at 600 m AMSL changes the game. This means that runners anywhere above 600m altitude are exposed to all weather elements without natural protection. With snow and glaciers abound things look much different up here than a few meters below in the forest and pampas.
The minimum required gear list of Ultra Fiord is quite extensive but comprehensive. Runners should remember that the list of gear is still the bare minimum. While the front runners finish the race in half the time, mid- to back of the packers spend much more time on the trails and out in the cold. They probably need more warm/dry layers than is suggested.
- Do not be fooled by photos on the website of runners wearing shorts. They either did the VK or sprinted their entire ultra. Prepare to wear warm layers that can easily be piled onto or taken off.
- Waterproof, windproof gloves are a really good idea, as well as proper warm head protection.
Be Prepared For Anything
Not to cause alarm or take anything away from the organizers, but Patagonia is brutal as it is beautiful. Mentally one has to be prepared for anything and everything (with no reference to training or packing). The route may be altered, course distances may increase or decrease or be called off entirely. These are all very possible at any time on Ultra Fiord.
Also, do not rely on aid stations for food or assistance. The volunteers have to hike vast distances (through the same type of terrain) to reach remote aid stations and are subjected to the same difficult weather but for much longer than the runners. Also, sometimes helicopters can’t drop off food at the aid stations due to the weather. And that is just how it is. Aid stations are just geographical points where two kind souls wait to sign your race passport. Should a runner decide to withdraw at a remote aid station, the only way out is on foot. There are no easy escapes.
- Be sure to get the GPS route and carry a route map. The course is very well marked but there is still ample opportunity to get lost.
- Be 100 percent self-reliant. Take sufficient food to not rely on aid stations. There is plenty streams that are safe to drink from along the course.
- Don’t fool around with torches and batteries. Take the best and take enough.
- Take an extra emergency blanket, especially if your route includes a glacier crossing. Runner pile-ups at altitude can get very cold and has the potential for hypothermia.
However deep and dark the muddy forest trails may be, the views up top are breathtaking. Even the forest with its curious vegetation, which reminds a lot of scenes from Lord of the Rings, is magical and enchanting. In short, the traversing of the Ultra Fiord course (it seems unjust to call it a race) evokes the full attention of all the human senses and then some. Which makes it an experience one can never really recover from, let alone forget. But please, in the true spirit of adventure, do not take our words for it. You have to go find out yourself.