Ultra Fiord 100 miles

"An epic journey into the magical world of fiords…."

The tagline makes it sound like something you do in fairyland on a Saturday morning. A jolly little jaunt across beautiful scenery with birds chirping and frolicking huemuls on green grassy fields.

Don’t be fooled, this is nothing like that. This is fairyland with impaled heads, glaciers, crevasses, deep mud, freezing river crossings, extreme weather and everything else that Patagonia’s extreme south can throw at you. This is fairyland on difficulty level 11 - with the cheat codes disabled. (Ok, the decapitated bodies were not officially part of the race but more on that later…)

Having participated in the 2016 edition of Ultra Fiord with a changed route due to extreme weather I knew I wanted to come back for the 2017 edition. This is a truly special event with truly passionate organizers, making do with limited resources to host an extremely harsh run and committed runners - folks you become friends with for life - traveling to the extreme south to participate. Entry done it was just a question of making the long journey to the southern extreme of Chile without too much disruption of quite a busy work schedule.

My training’s not been as good running up to the event as I would’ve liked, having done only 564km before Ultra Fiord. The race would be contributing a 25% increase to my distance done this year. Better be well rested than overtrained I reckon.

Around 22h00 the buses departed from Puerto Natales to the start of the race. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Well not pretty much, definitely in the middle of nowhere! It was on the bus that the first problem popped up. Doing a quick once-over of my pack I realized that I was missing one water flask. Searching the bus it’s nowhere to be found, must be at hotel or restaurant. Being a really thirsty runner this presented a major potential problem for me. I had 600ml of water in the remaining flask and although I knew there would be plenty of water on the route (mostly) this was a scenario I definitely would’ve liked to avoid.

Panicked Self: “Dude, wtf, where’s our water?”
Rational Self: “Chill. Don’t think about it. It’ll be fine.”
Panicked Self: “We’re going to die”
Rational Self: “STFU”
Panicked Self: “But but…”
Rational Self: “Hush”

Arriving at the start it was freezing cold as expected. Got my passport signed and a few minutes later we were off - going gently into that good night. Some less gentle than others. Some in a wrong direction. (Long story). But into the night yes. A kilometer or two in having warmed up a bit I took off most layers, opting for the cold to keep my water consumption low.

The next 20 odd kilometers was undulating trails covered in darkness towards the first drop-bag at Hotel del Paine. I was having a fairly rough time for so early in the race, it actually felt like the only thing that was working was my stomach. My primary headlamp died and opting to only use one drop bag my hydration pack was stuffed to overflow causing me to stop a few times to reshuffle things. (Last year I had a very similar rough start with all my gear being new after my bag was lost after Transgrancanaria) Better to sort out these things early plus it helps keep the urge to go out too fast in check.

Closer to Hotel del Paine I started hitting a groove, good tunes, a sense of calm around and starting to catch up to folks. One particularly bizarre moment I remember well was getting this sense of an immense void to my right, only when I basically stepped into the water did it become apparent it must be the shore of Lago el Toro.

Arriving at Hotel del Paine thick fog had rolled in, visibility was getting really poor and the game of Ultra Fiord was starting. Since I didn’t have a drop bag there I just gulped down some soup and headed back out. Checking the sheet, 14th position.

The next hour was a comedy of errors on my part. Being one of the few English speaking runners that’s run the race before I presented the English race briefing earlier the day, assuring the assembled runners that it would be very difficult to get lost. Eating my words now. Dug up my briefing notes just to rub it in, bold for emphasis...

Route Markings

  • The route is really well marked. (It really was)
  • Blue PVC pipes, with reflecting yellow and white tape, that, according to the course section, can be anywhere between 25, 50, and 100cm in height. White and blue tape will be put along trees and other course objects.
  • If you don't see markings for a while - turn around - find the last marker. The further you go the more likely you are to get lost. But also be familiar with the route and trust your intuition.
  • Save the route map on your phone. I usually set the route profile as my wallpaper so I don't have to unlock the phone.

I should’ve listened to my own sagely advice to trust my intuition. Instead at the first sight of a headlamp veering off to the right in the darkness I blindly followed suit. It felt wrong. So very wrong. But in our defense there were markers. It turned out these markers led to the start of the 70km which was happening later the day though. After a while there were no more markers and I could see two headlamps coming back towards me. With a sinking feeling I realized that somewhere we messed up.

Heading back in the opposite direction past Hotel del Paine we also failed to find any markers in the thick fog. I was fairly sure we were on the right route now but without finding a marker went for a run back to the hotel and confirmed. (Kudos to the crew there they very quickly sent out someone to add additional markers out). [Tip: Later in the race I used my small handheld for route finding. It's got a much stronger beam more suitable for looking around finding markers. HT: Andy Wesson]

Lost...

Our little group of trailers have grown to about 5 now and off we went in the direction of the first freezing river crossing of the race. The temperatures here dropped significantly and I stopped to put on a base layer losing sight of the other guys. To put it in perspective taking a sip from my flask the liquid in the pipe would be frozen slush.

Here for the second time in less than an hour made another significant mistake, losing the trail again and stumbling along the river looking for a suitable crossing. Some headlamps appear, also lost, but we know the trail continues on the opposite side somewhere so picked a spot that looked passable and into the freezing waters we went.

It’s really difficult to judge the depth of the water, so seeing the guy in front of me suddenly getting fully submerged made me shoot up a prayer. I’m feeling sorry for him but I really don’t want that to happen to me so glad he went first. Tough luck man. Sorry. Managed to keep my pack dry and wade through waist deep. Onwards we roll. Sort of.

The next 30km heads directly to Fjord Ultima Esperanza, aptly translating to “The Inlet of Last Hope”. Getting there was a painful slog through endless soul sucking mud, sometimes waist deep, super technical trails and more freezing river crossings. I used to love playing in mud as a kid, I’m totally cured of that now. After every deep mud section I found myself wishing for river crossings so I could clear up some of the accumulated gunk I’m carrying around.

Photo: Shuhei Yamashita
Photo: Shuhei Yamashita

I spent almost this entire section on my own (as would be the case for most of the rest of the race). At one point being a little lost (again) I was contemplating the next step when something large ran from a bush right next to me. I’ve no idea what it was, but at that point I firmly believed it must’ve been a rare man eating puma. Or a fucking dragon bear. It reminded me of a post by Candice Burt from the 2015 race trying to chase away a Puma with her poles and suddenly had a deep regret for leaving mine at home. http://www.wilddefined.com/2015/04/on-becoming-conqueror-ultra-fiord-108-mi.html. Nothing more burst from the bushes and after my heart rate returned to normal the muddy slog continued to Hostería Balmaceda.

Another quick stop, this was also a drop bag spot so again didn’t spend too much time having all my gear on me. Some noodle soup, chocolate and ready for the part I was looking forward to most. The mountain crossing. The sun was out and it was promising to be a spectacular day out at the top. With a new day comes new energy.

From Hostería Balmaceda it’s a steady climb, slowly getting above the treeline and into the snow and ice of the Chacabuco Glacier. Cresting the ridge I’ve caught up with two guys and we take a breather to just take in the incredible views before dropping down into the snowy rock descent to Chacabuco 1, the first of the mountain passage check points. This is the sort of terrain I love so I knew I could quickly make up time here. No trail, technical rocks and snow. Arriving at Chacabuco 1 (which is basically just a small pitched tent with some mountaineers) again getting checked for crampons. The organizers did a great job of making sure everyone’s got the mandatory gear this year.

From Chacabuco 1 the level was turned up another notch. It’s no longer just snowy rocks but a steep scramble to reach the base of the glacier. Just before the glacier there’s a roped section, basically involving running head first down a rock fall but with no-one to belay you. Fun times. (Very thankful for the abseiling days with Ant and Chris although I think this is the same as when Ant thinks I'm belaying for him.)

Most other events would have a team here, with helmets, ropes, guides and priests. What made this especially special was you are standing there alone at the start of the steep sloped glacier with no-one around. Absolutely incredible moment. (Should just add there are mountain crews both just before the start of the glacier by the ropes and again at the top, should something happen help could be mobilized within minutes)

Starting the ascent up the glacier I decided not to take out my crampons and see how far I could get by sticking to snowy sections. This was a remarkable climb, halfway up Vangelis’s Conquest of Paradise started playing on my iPod. I may have had a spot of hay-fever there on the ice...

Chacabuco Glacier Climb from Armand Du Plessis on Vimeo.

Reaching the top it’s another rope scramble up a technical section to where another alpine team member was waiting to check that everyone that passed Chacabuco 1 reaches the passage of Paso Byro, the highest section of the race at 1250m. Reaching the passage you have absolutely spectacular views to both glacier passes. Here on the high passage I found the lone figure of the legendary Jordi Tosas, the alpinist responsible for the safety on the crossing. (tv.salomon.com/story/unbound#overlay). What a humble legend.

The lone figure of Jordi Tosas on the passage

From Paso Byro by far the most fun section on any 100 miler starts. A dash down the snowfield. You seriously can’t beat this. Pure joy. Kid stuff. Diving into the snow. Speed slides. Epic.

About halfway down a checkpoint, or rather just some guidance. Two very passionate climbers, pointing out the various ridges and glacier lines. But they were not there just for idle chit chat. Gently informing me that it’s quite important to stay on the tracks between markers for the rest of the way as there’s crevasses. As he’s saying it I’m stepping to the right off the tracks basically into a crevasse. F*k. Bad start. How do they know where these things are!? They did seem a bit doubtful after this about me making it down… not unfounded. Nearing the bottom about 10m from where the course basically goes straight from glacier onto a rock climb I went slightly off the ‘beaten’ trail this time stepping into a crevasse. As I felt my leg go I basically went into a levitation mode (something people struggle years to master) removing all weight from the leg instantly and suspending myself in the air. Whatever really happened in those split seconds most of my weight was outside and suspended on my arms and I quickly pulled my legs out of the hole. I didn’t expect this as close to the rock. A quick few steps and onto solid rock. Slippery rock.

Exercise: Dress Your Friend for His/Her Ultra Fiord Adventure

Your friend, Armand, is going to run on Chacabuco Glacier.
Choose the right clothing and gear for his/her journey. Please draw in the correct clothing.

Here's a list of possible items. Which ones are right?

coloring book blow dryer
crampons      bicycle
gameboy       experienced friend
jacket        boots
rope          sandals
gloves        football
bathing suit  ice skates
hockey stick  camera

Borrowed from https://www.asf.alaska.edu/blog/glacier-danger-safety/

Off the glacier and without a blink the route takes you straight onto some serious scrambling. Another 500m of scrambling over wet snowy rock and suddenly another incredible vista opens up. Perched on another ridge looking down at a turquoise lake below. I could see the markers doing a slight switch-back down but I could also see it’s fairly rocky scree straight down to a marshal and opted for the trailskiing option. Doing a fairly risky run tumble down but also wanting to maximize the benefit I could from the technical terrain.

The next few kilometers were good seriously technical running, steep rocky descents and rocks. I was feeling really good and pushing hard down the descent. Hitting the rocky basin below the lake, a quick check-in at Chacabuco 2 to indicate I’ve made it through the mountainous section, and off to find the drop into the beech forest below. This is one place where prior knowledge of the course came in very handy - I clearly remember sliding down a snowy slope here only to have to climb back up to find the route veering off on a tangent earlier than expected. This year there wasn’t thick snow here but I could still see it being really easy to miss the marker and plunge down the wrong drainage line. Another sketchy river crossing on a steep incline and into the forests.

Last year hitting the forest I was feeling really good - it’s an insanely technical 25km of trail and a good opportunity to make up time. It goes from short sections of fast runnable single trail, to insane deep mud (again), peatlands and scrambles up and down river shoulders. On this section where I was hoping to make up a lot of time I started feeling the first signs of trouble. 15 hours of soaked feet and the painful skin folding had started. The first steps to trench foot. I’m wearing the same copper infused compression socks which worked quite well last year, but then I also lubed up the feet with Vaseline and strapped them before the run. This year just used some anti-chafe I had in my pack. I think that made a huge difference. There’s two check-points on this section, I was making good progress but it was getting painful. I realized I only made 20 minutes on 5th place despite a fairly fast first section into the forest.

The rest of the forest was just a pure slog, moving forward at a fairly constant pace but expecting folks to catch up every step. What made it slightly more complicated at that point was the 70km runners starting and running on the same route. So you’d suddenly see someone come past at a ‘serious’ pace, highly unlikely it’s a miler but still you never know :)

Finally a break from the peat and mud and onto open grasslands for a kilometer or two before you hit the welcome estuary of Estancia Perales. Good to see the by now familiar face of Anne-Marie from Sleepmonsters here. Respect for making it to so many stops. This was the final drop bag spot and the only one I had packed. With my feet being my primary concern I decided to change socks. For some reason I had packed a pair of casual Converse socks instead of one of the multiple pairs of Injinji running socks I usually run with. I vaguely remember thinking the process of putting on Injinjis would be too much at this point so I’d keep it simple. Drying the feet as much as possible and trying to clean out the rocks and sand particles from the folds I put on dry socks and get ready to leave the aid station. In the interim Oscar and Jose running 7th and 8th have arrived (little bit earlier than I hoped) so despite thinking they seem like really cool guys tried making a move out as quick I can.

From here I dreaded the route - with 70km to go I remembered a very painful vehicle track to Puerto Natales from last year. On the best of days I can’t run on jeep track, to do it for 60km on totally fatigued legs is as close to a real life nightmare as I can imagine. About 5km onto the jeep track and the sun was setting - Jose and Oscar came steaming past and I was starting to see visions of finishing last. By now every step was becoming seriously painful. I’ve always believed I had a relatively high pain threshold but had to box and rebox it often this time. A few kilometers later I found Jose again, he had lost a toenail and was in a world of pain. I promised to blow a whistle (literally) when I find a checkpoint and to try and send someone back to pick him up if possible. Eventually got to the checkpoint manned by some really friendly folks. Much respect to all the volunteers working out there in the cold. Fortunately this section of the route is accessible by car so they could send someone to go and look for my friend with the mashed toe.

Fortunately Stephan, the race organizer, has changed the last section of the route and after 14km of vehicle track hell it veered back into the wild. At this point I was getting way beyond sleep deprived. I’ve had some races with less sleep (particularly Tor des Geants with a few days of no sleep) but this was the most sleep fatigued I’ve ever felt. For a few hours I had to shake myself awake every few minutes and remind myself where I was and what we’re busy with. I remember seeing a runner ahead of me and thinking thank God I’m not staggering like that poor dude only to realize it’s my own shadow cast by the lamp of a 100km runner coming from behind. This section was mentally one of the toughest parts of a race I’ve had to deal with. I was concerned about the state of my headlamp batteries as well so running with the setting on quite dim which made navigation even trickier, especially given my really frazzled mental state. Besides the usual snakes and animal hallucinations I ran past the really gruesome head of a woman impaled on a branch. For a few minutes there I believed I was somehow in the 1950s and this was some slave farm where workers were murdered. Really gruesome scary stuff. This did have an effect of jolting me somewhat out of the state I’ve been in and I started making better progress again. Thank you scary lady. Sorry about the head thing.

Navigation continued to be a challenge with my headlamp now flashing warnings when I turn the brightness up so decided to stop and take out my small backup handheld. Damn, wish I did this from the start. Originally bought as a second torch to help with path finding in the Fish River Canyon I forgot what a powerful beam it’s got. (Thanks Andy Wesson for the tip). With the ability now to probe the darkness way further than before navigation became a lot simpler. Whenever I’m missing a marker I’d use the handheld to scan ahead and for the rest just kept my headlamp on dim. I could’ve saved at least an hour using this earlier in the race. Lesson learnt.

Leaving the plains and seeing the lights from the outskirts of Puerto Natales in the distance the sun also started coming out. I was hoping not to see a second sunrise on the route but seeing the sky light up in spectacular purple and red colors I’m really glad I did.

Final checkpoint - 7km to go on a paved road. This was going to hurt but at this point you know it’s done. Just a last push, no pressure from anyone behind me and nobody to catch ahead so just grind it out. Took of my remaining sock, cleaned my feet and chucked it away at the checkpoint. Stuffed some toilet paper under my soles to make the painful friction areas a little more bearable. For at least two or three steps that helped.

Almost 34 hours later the final kilometer. New goal to finish in under 34. I think I did the final kilometer in something like 6 minutes which at this point felt like running a sub-4 minute mile. Done. Finished. Fucking hell. A cold beer (in this climate I doubt there’s ever warm beer), finishers medal and a surprising 3rd in category medal. Super super stoked.

I hung around for a few minutes, drank the beer and walked back to the hotel. Stumbling in at the hotel I could see the receptionist was somewhat surprised to see me - “Where were you?“ “I went for a run.” “We last saw you Thursday night?” “Oh true :/ It was a long run.”. Realization dawns. Without skipping a beat laughs and smiles - “Well you’re back just in time for breakfast”.

What a special event. Kudos to the organizers who put on this world class extreme event with limited resources without a big name sponsor. See you again in 2018 Puerto Natales!

View back to the route from my hotel roof post-race.