ZOLKAN 4 Days Race Review – New Stage Race in Chile

A New Breed of Multi-Day Ultra Marathon

A little overdue on this race review but I don’t think my quads couldn’t come to terms to reconciling about this stage race until now. When Jon and I heard that the Zolkan 4 Days trail race was only a little over 100 km and over 4 days, we felt a good 10lbs lighter. With our wedding happening only 3 weeks before the start of the race, our training was pretty minimal for this specific race but we knew we could run an average of 25 km over 4 days no problem. But the Chilean Andes mountains are a whole different breed of trail running! See all the race details on their website.

chairlift to the start line at top of ski hill

Chairlift to the starting line at the very top of the ski hill

This ultra marathon race turned into a quad wrenching couple of days that tested our limits and as every ultra promises, some new lessons to take away in the end.  Jon and I have raced many ultra marathons as a pair from the beginning and we always say “it has it’s highs….and it’s lows”. When one person slows down or stops, the other does too. BUT, they do so to get that other back on track, to rev up a defeated mind, and get the wheels turning again. These moral and physical pushes have been one of the biggest benefits we have experienced as running as a team. Through heat exhaustion, screaming patellas, & a broken foot…Jon has raised me up more times than I have for him. This has been frustrating to me and obviously not a trend I like to boast about.
 However, Chile decided for this race, to switch the roles for the two of us and give us both a different perspective…
ultra marathon stage race chile, andes mountainsArriving to camp with perfectly aligned tents, pre-blown-up mattresses (doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re about to run an ultra, any thing that conserves energy means A LOT), and having a 4 course meal with wine/beer set on the had us both on cloud 9.  Contrary to our Racing The Planet Madagascar race, we were “liven’ it up”, “glamping”, “high rollin’”….With an announcement night that at every stage’s finish line there will be ice pools, massages, and beer waiting for us we were planning out our days already after our run every morning. What we didn’t know was how desperate we would be for each of these crossing the finish line each day, especially Jon.
Day 1 fed us, and 41 other competitors, with a 2800 m drop over the span of 25km, so as you would expect, much more than quads got torn apart.  As always, we started the race in our Xero Shoes however about 10 km into the race the shale and the steep declines proved too much to handle in our sandals. After deciding to switch to shoes, the hot spots on my feet that were ready to bloom a blister were silenced. Jon made the switch only a few km’s after but that proved to be too late. This plus he forgot to even pack a pair of socks, so he was stuck running the rest of the stage with bare feet in his shoes.  At this point, his feet were getting raw and we would see the extent of the damage by the end of that day. Arriving at the finish line, Jon was clearly already in excruciating pain and for good reason after we took off his shoes. A beautiful garden of roughly 8 blisters had blossomed on Jon’s feet with sizes ranging from a heel-wide Big Bertha to small but fierce ones between the toes. Never having to deal with blisters to this extent posed a big challenge for Jon for the remainder of the race.
We set a pace for the rest of the race; becoming habituated with power hiking ups, lightly running flats, and doing as much as we could to get down the declines as fast we could to work with Jon’s feet. Hearing him say that he didn’t know if he could start the next stage day after day was something foreign to my ears and goes to show the amount of pain he was experiencing. But as he did for me, we talked out him out of the negatives, said “the hell with it!” and we will start each day and keep going till he couldn’t go anymore. And that decision was a good test for Jon and his mental strength while giving me a different perspective with the role of helping to keep the gears turning throughout the race when the other’s gears get a little roughed up. Being in this role that Jon has been in multiple times before when the situation had been switched gave me a greater appreciation for the words of motivation and the physical aids he lends to help me out. And although I would have never wished this kind of thing to happen obviously, it allowed me to have a sense of “repayment” as silly as that may sound.
zolkan 4 days trail race, mountain running

Biggest take-aways from the Zolkan 4 Days race:

  • Chile has BADASS trails that we never knew about and killer sights to see on them
  • Jonathan is a stubborn man that doesn’t know how to quit
  • You can actually gain weight on a stage race if you do it the Zolkan 4 Days way (fresh salmon, croissants, quesidillas, cookies…..oh lord)
  • Remember why you run and why you race. Experiencing a race that handles all the logistics for you and allows you to focus on building a sense of community with other competitors is a real treat.
  • Get a pack that fits like a glove….invest in the money for that or you’ll be investing your money in scar removal cream…you choose

Run Free

Ultra Mel and Jon

ultra mel and jon finish line of stage race, chile

Ultra Fiord Race Report – Patagonia, Chile

Starting line of Ultra Fiord

Ultra Fiord – Puerto Natales

This past weekend the two of us runners geared up to take on the 1st edition of the Ultra Fiord ultra marathon in the beautiful Patagonia.

Originally signing up to race the 100 mile distance, a late training injury strongly urged us to scale back and run the 100 km.  Running vacations is what we’re all about, getting to see remote areas that a typical tour won’t take you.  However, this race shook our nerves a bit more than any other.  Claiming to be one of the hardest ultra marathons out there, this race very well stood up to its name in our minds.  The question exists though, was it for the right reasons?  We’ll give you a taste of how things went down here, and later we will share a post with you about our biggest take away lessons that we are using to forge on and become better runners for future races.


 Ultra fiord race chileThe race organizers, NIGSA, are famed for hosting the annual Patagonia Expedition Race in the same region of Chile.  Their website was credible, race ambassadors for the inaugeral Ultra Fiord event were well known and accomplished and the social media hype that was stirring in the weeks leading up to the race was lively.  So why can’t such a well established event organization company reply to their email….Twitter…..OR Facebook???
We had a painful time trying to pry information about the race from the organizers.  Questions about terrain (Obviously we wanted to know whether our huarache sandals were possible to wear or not!), food at aid stations, and some of the mandatory gear which was mentioned on the site.  To be clear and concise the communication from the organizers and the competitors was absolutely awful.  To us and many other racers, all they seemed to say was “watch the trailer video, that’s what the race will be like.”  Alright lets take a look!
The Video – I’ll give it to them, they posted three trailers on youtube to promote the event and they all will get your legs itching to run!  It’s funny though, not once in that video was the runner knee deep in mud!:S  How were we supposed to be ready to start our race with 30 km of deep uneven mud?? Never did I see him jumping over glacier crevasses!  Racers from all distances were blown away that there were such things in a race with no safety crews in sight?? Never was he even using trekking poles!  So why was the terrain so unstable that runners were breaking their trekking poles left right and centre??

Race Time

One thing we both loved about this event was they incorporated a very interesting film festival showing called “Trails In Motion” put on by Trail Chile.  Their featured film about Nikki Kimbal’s most recent FKT was quite a moving documentary, and the rest of the films ignited the fire inside all of the runners getting ready to race later that night or the next morning.
Trails in Motion - Running film festival
After this we picked up our race packages and dropped off our drop bags.  This should have been a hint!!! It was like they planned this race last week, no one knew what was going on and we were less than confident that our drop bags would make it where they needed to be.  Regardless we headed to bed early to get up early and board the bus to the starting line.
The 100km runners and 70km runners all started at the same point at the same time on Friday morning.  An odd logistical thing to note here is the poorly planned start times.  12:00 AM for the 100 miler runners getting started the night prior, and 8:30 AM for the rest of us.  I’ll keep it brief with the numbers, but the 100 milers were given 15 hours to finish just over the first half of the course and 29 hours to finish the second half.  And the 100km runners had 7 hours to finish the first 30km, and 26 hours to finish the next 70.  I’m sure all can do the math…we don’t know what kind of calculator this RD was using…or rather, lack there of!!
Speaking of race director, if someone knows who he is, we’d love to meet him… Because at the film festival, package pickup, and even the 100 milers pre-race dinner, he was nowhere to be found, at least not publicly.  Later I figured out that he was the man who met us at the starting line and yelled out “One minute!…”30 seconds!”… “Go!”.  Maybe that’s his style but we like races a bit more when the RD’s give speeches to thank everyone for coming out, talks about the race a bit, wishes the runners the best of luck, or at the very least tell us what the course markings are.

Terrain of Ultra Fiord Race

We started out for the first kilometre or two running through a grassy horse paddock before being put to the test early.  With dawn cracking open the daylight, runners began crossing a chest high river in freezing cold glacier water.  If this would have been a hot race, then right on, but this may have been an indicator for the cases of hypothermia to come later.  The next couple kilometres felt like an awesome Patagonia trail race.  Ups and downs, technical terrain, we both were enjoying ourselves and beginning to warm up our bodies.  Then it all came to a crashing halt!
Deep river crossing ultra fiord
We sunk our feet in some deep mud (and we mean DEEP) and that didn’t stop for the next 30km.  People were barely able to run, everyones’ feet were soaked, and the most difficult part was that the mud was unpredictable.  Sometimes the swampy areas were filled with rocks, sometimes it was a peat mossy sort of “sauerkraut looking mix” that would just soak your feet, and sometimes you sunk deep down up to your waist.  We were lucky to not lose any of our shoes!
We kept trucking along, at quite a slow pace, until we came upon the first “aid station” around the 16km mark.  This must be a cultural thing, because their aid station had two guys hanging out in a bush, with a small jug of water filled with lake water, a bag of what looked like halloween candy from which we were each given to “goodies” and a soaking wet sheet of paper they marked down that we had came through.  First let me say that with our time living in Chile we knew that the food they were providing us was the ABSOLUTE CHEAPEST things you can find at the supermarkets:P.  At this point we had let our body temps drop a little too much and were quite cold.  Melissa was shivering pretty bad and one of the aid station guys asked if she was ok, or wanted to stop.  We asked, how we would get out of there….. crickets…. they weren’t sure.  ***It was beginning to make sense why they made it MANDATORY for runners to have their own travel insurance***  
Mud running in Patagonia
We chose to layer up and keep moving, however with the rough terrain rolling Mel’s injured foot around, we had been pulled back to a trekking pace.  At this point we knew the 30km mark might be where we throw in the towel, as it just didn’t make sense to push her foot too far when there appeared to be no emergency plans in place should a runner need to be transported to a hospital.
***We cannot say too much about the aid stations along the rest of the course, however some runners said that there was next to no food offered after the 30km checkpoint.  Even at the finish line!!!!***
Upon reaching the 30km checkpoint, where our first drop bag was, there was almost nothing in site when we arrived.  Two kids asked for our numbers and pointed inside the building.  We walked inside to find a few other runners who had called it a day.  There was a bit of soup, bread (always lots of bread in Chile!) and fruit offered.  This was nice to have a little bit, however little did we know we would be stuck waiting inside this shack for the next 5 1/2 hours!  Runners continued to come in, many from the 100 miler, and all were cold, wet and hungry.  We all huddled around the little wood burning stove to warm up, shared the foods we all had in our drop bags and just hoped that we would soon be brought back to Puerto Natales (everyone’s home base).   At one point a runner came in who collapsed onto a table. Barely talking, shivering, blueish feet….yup hypothermia! Worst of all? There was NOTHING done to get him help.  No medical staff, no emergency pick up and drive back, the rest of the runners had to help warm him up and get him food.
We eventually made it back to our hotel, 8 1/2 hours after we had stopped running.  During that time and the days to follow, we spoke with other racers with almost worse stories than ours.  We were told that while the first 30-40km were well marked, at some points on the top of the mountain, the marking just dissappeared and runners were getting lost.  Lost at night, on a mountain, in Patagonia, in a race with no rescue plans or procedures…. As much as our first DNF hurt, I’m glad I didn’t get myself caught in that kind of situation.
There were tons of factors that continued to make this course difficult/dangerous, from running along glaciers, to jumping crevasses, difficult scrambling, many more kilometres of deep mud, more river crossings and probably some other interesting/shocking stories you can find in others race reports.
One final note I will add, is that Ultra Fiord seriously lacked in any kind of spirit.  While it may sound lame, we like it when we get close to an aid station or even the finish and the volunteers cheer you in, you hear music, there is energy!  The best and most common way people were describing this race is that it was more of an adventure race instead of an ultra marathon.  The risks that made it “the hardest ultra” were uncontrolled and reckless.  If this were advertised as such and runners brought bags of gear with medical and safety equipment, it could make for a great race.  But for ultra runners looking to run, with lightweight and minimalist gear, it quite possibly in my opinion could be the place ultra running sees its first fatality.
Update (April 18, 2016): We have not heard many details, but this past weekend the Ultra fiord 2016 race took place, and there was a tragic event resulting in one racer passing away.  We cannot urge people more to stay away from this race and any others put on by the organizers.  Ultramarathons are serious by nature, and the Patagonia makes things more serious.  The race director simply does not things serious enough to manage a race of this capacity.
Port of Puerto Natales, Chile ultra fiord race
I would not return to the Ultra Fiord race or any other organized by NIGSA, nor would I recommend anyone to attend.  I loved my visit to Patagonia and will surely be back to visit, to run my own trails, take my own risks, and push my own limits.
Huge congratulations to all runners who started this race, and MASSIVE congrats to those who finished!!! We hope this article doesn’t come off as being bitter for not finishing because we can honestly say we may have had worse things to say had we experienced the later part of the race.  My intentions are to encourage people to assess the race and its risks, and if the organizers are to read this post, we encourage you to take action on these comments and host a safer and more enjoyable race for competitors in years to come.

Train Hard and Run Free

Mel and Jon

**Be sure to take a read of our guide on 5 Key Points to Never Forget for an Ultra Marathon – inspired by this race;)

WWOOF Experience Gone to Shambles

horse ranch chile adventure

After moving down to Chile in December of 2014, we planned out lots of traveling around the country for the first three months.  People said that the major cities especially along the coast go crazy in January/February as it is their summer vacation.  So we jumped online and searched out some of the options at World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).  We thought it would be an interested way to see different parts of the country, meet some locals and work on our spanish, all while learning to live like a Chilean while the busy cities are packed with tourists.

melissa horseback riding chileThere were some options to work on small organic farms harvesting their crops and doing those kind of gentle activities… they appealed to our yogi and health driven sides but we weren’t sold.  We found one where the host was looking for a couple people who loved to rock climb so he would have some climbing buddies during down times… we liked the sounds of that, but weren’t able to connect with the host, not at all surprising in Chile:P  Then we read up on one that was a polo horse ranch in southern Chile, we’d be working on the farm (we both love horses and hard work), riding and training horses (both of rode horses long ago and would love to get back into it) and would learn to play polo (a sport neither of us know much about but love the intensity of it!) …. SOLD.  Contacted them and planned to go for two and a half weeks.


When we arrived, the farm was nice, there were horses, chicken coops, pigs, cows, and it was just outside a small town so had a grassroots feel.  Having taken the bus all night to get there, we needed some sleep, and being Sunday they didn’t have much work to do, so that worked out great.  The host family seemed nice and welcoming, one of them knew english so that helped.  Then it started… and it kept going… until it got funny… oh man what were we in.  Here are some highlights (and I use that term in a … I don’t know what kind of way, you’ll see:P)

mel and jon work horse ranch

We planned well in advance and told them we were vegan (even knowing that in Chile most people just assume that means vegetarian… oh well, we’ll do our best).  Yet the first day we got there he said have some breakfast, we just made fresh homemade buns.  What we weren’t told is that these buns were going to be our staple food for the next two weeks, three meals a day.  Literally if you didn’t want meat, it was bread and water out there.  My stomach is still trying to clean out all the gluten build up!!

When you think about working on a horse farm, what comes to mind?  Well for us we knew we’d be mucking out stalls, letting the horses in and out, feeding, probably clean some tack, the USUAL things.  All good with us.  Here were some doozies that were thrown our way:

  • working on horse ranch surprise“Go climb up on the roof that was just done yesterday and paint all the trim around the second story windows.”  There was just so much wrong with this one.  First of all the roofing was not shingles, it was some tin stuff that you had to watch where you put your foot other wise you would sink in the metal and leave a big pothole.  So picture the two of us walking around like Clark Grisswald from Christmas vacation up in his attic, with obviously no harness or ropes on us to prevent a misstep.  And it gets better, we find THREE bumping hornets nests all around the windows we were working on, and when we told our host family, they asked another worker to go up with us and get rid of them.  No bug’b’gone, no other sprays, just a plastic bag to smack the nests and shoo them away…. I KNOW!!! So NOW picture the two of us tip toeing around the roof trying not to fall off, not to damage the shingles (and lets not kid ourselves we caused a whole whack of potholes haha) AND swatting bees away from us as we tried to paint this trim.  Oh and what better time to do this than 3pm, the HOTTEST time of the day, which made standing on black shingles just a treat!  Luckily we managed to get it all done without a scar, but of course there were no thank you’s or “it looks great”… just another day.
  • “Here, here, hold her!” – Boy did Melissa get tired of hearing this one.  With a one year old girl on the farm who took a liking to Melissa’s sweetness, she was often subbed in as a nannie while the men did all the work.  Even for tasks as simple as taking up a horse, walking a horse in from a paddock, or ANYTHING else that was not cleaning or cooking, they just didn’t think Melissa was capable.
  • “Pare!” –  Coming from a world with quite a high level of efficiency, this week absolutely killed us.  The best was bringing the horses in one evening  We all walked out to the barn around 6:50pm, but “Pare!” (stop in spanish), they couldn’t come in until 7…. because all the horses standing at the gate really cared about ten extra minutes of recess:S  And oh how badly we wish we caught all this on tape.  There were about 18 horses at this farm, how long should it take to bring them inside or move them wherever they need to go for the night,
    Mel and Jon rest hammock

    When we were left hanging… we’d go find the hammock!! #trainwreck

    with three people??? A LOT less time than it did.  Our one local worker helping us do this spoke no english and seemed to have absolutely no confidence in either of us.  If there was a horse tied up to a rail that had to come in, we couldn’t untie them, he did then handed us the rope… apparently that slip knot is a tricky one:S  Time to herd this group of horses from one paddock to the next… sounds easy, I’ll grab the gate… PARE… he walks over and unlatches it for me… I bet it was a Chilean latch:S  Then here’s the kicker!!!!  Our friend heads to the barn…. finally bringing one horse inside… one minute later we hear hooves on the floor…. he’s bringing another one out!!  WHAT!!! I thought we were bringing them in??:S  This one needs to be tied up for a bit longer apparently.   Then after shuffling around 18 horses in 19 different arrangements he tells us the barn is too hot to bring them in…. yet apparently it’s not too hot to tie some these poor horses up to a rail for 12 hours a day :S Even in the shade we were roasting out there!  (NOTE: We won’t even go into the difference in standards of animal care from what we’re used to in Canada… very different)  So finally after about an hour of what seemed like making absolutely no progress… our friend goes inside.  “What’s he doing?” I asked Melissa… “I DON’T KNOW… TAKING A NAP??:S??”  That was when we called it and headed inside.  Twelve hours of work each day was plenty enough for our three meals of BUNS!

Needless to say, we called it quits after a week.  While we did enjoy riding everyday, and giving many of the horses and dogs around the farm a little bit of love and attention that they pretty much never get, we figured we’d lose it if we stayed any longer.  This is no reflection on WWOOF itself as we know many people who’ve had great experiences with farm stays, but oh snap did we get a gooder!!!

Whats the moral of the story?? Don’t set expectations!!

Acro yoga in horse barn

Eventually we just did acro when no one told us what to do:)


ps. Take a peak on our social media outlets to watch Mel in action as she struggles in the art of sheep herding!

Decluttering your Home from “Stuff”

We have spent countless hours over the past year reading blogs, websites and articles about selling all your belongings, whether its simply decluttering your home or preparing for a move abroad.  Having left our lives in Canada just last weekend, we figure now is a great time to share our experiences.  We’ve left jobs, sold houses and cars, and most importantly reduced the amount of STUFF that we have by either selling or donating.


Jonathan quit edmonton police

Melissa meditation yoga omLeaving jobs was a relatively simple part of our move, Melissa leaving part time jobs at both Prana Yoga Studio and Optimum Health and myself leaving the Edmonton Police.  While it was difficult to “pull the pin” and hand in our letters of resignation letters, we found co-workers, supervisors and family overwhelmingly supportive of our decision.  It even sparked up some fascinating conversations with these people you thought you knew, until they open up and share their stories of travel, back packing, moving abroad, or other types of adventures.



Mel and Jon sell houseThe biggest reality checks for us was selling off our house and cars.  Your tomorrow doesn’t change much after selling a circular saw. But, to no longer have a set of wheels to get around town, or to suddenly no longer have an address that is yours to put on forms…it can all feel a little odd.  On the flip side however, the feeling that you are cutting loose from these anchors to set sail on a new adventure are equally stimulating and will fire the feeling of excitement within!


Now, when it comes to the stuff… where to begin.  There are so many reasons people will take cleanse like this, whether to move internationally, downsizing, just wanting some new things, or shifting to a minimalist lifestyle overall.  First step we feel that is helpful is coming up with a plan either on your own, or with your spouse and/or family that will be coming along for the ride.  Its best to have everyone on the same page and a direction for the kinds of things you want to keep, and the amount of stuff that is “worth” hanging onto.

packing for adventure travel abroad

Gotta love vacuum packing bags!

Once you have a game plan, find a portal that you can use to show off your inventory.  For us, we posted most of our things on kijiji and also had quite a bit of luck posting things on our Facebook pages.  And the best bang for your buck is going to be returning things that qualify, we have learned a ton about different companies return policies and will share some interesting stories with you!

The benefits of Kijiji:

Free to post, decent exposure within your local area, and you never have to pay any commission for items that sell.

The downside of Kijiji:

People are unreliable to appointments, you will receive some ridiculously low offers for items (and I seriously mean ridiculous!!), and you will have strangers coming to your house to check things out/pick them up.

The benefits of Facebook:

You know the people you’re dealing with, so you won’t get low balled nearly as bad, and you feel safer having people come to pick things up. (You might even have a chance to reconnect with some old friends!)

The downside of Facebook:

Just because they are your friends doesn’t mean they won’t flake out on you, haha, and with this you’re reach is limited to your Facebook friends which for most of us won’t be nearly the size of a kijiji audience.

If you are skimming over this article…..read THIS paragraph!!!

So return policies vary from company to company, and I can almost guarantee that we’ve all thrown stuff out or donated items that literally could have been taken back for a full refund.  We will share with you three scenarios that could save you a ton of money.

  1. Costo

    • –> They have an amazing return policy on almost everything in their store, even their food.  Their one restriction is electronics which limits the in store returns to 60 or 90 days.  For everything else if you are not satisfied with how long it lasted, how the clothes are fitting, or just simply bought something on a whim and have never used it, take it back and talk with them, more likely than not they’ll take it back!  If you want to hear one of the best stories of a return, send us an email, its priceless but not something we want to post publicly 😛
  2. MEC outdoor gear

    Mountain Equipment Co-op

    • –>  Being a co-op they offer some quality products a very reasonable prices so for the items we returned here, we were very careful not to return stuff to waste their money and time, as that would in turn drive up prices in the future.  But on items that you buy and never get around to using (for us we bought a bunch of bike accessories a month before selling our bikes, so all of them were still in a condition to go back on the shelves), take it in and explain the situation, they are more than reasonable!
  3. Clothing stores

    • –> There are a number of clothing stores which offer customer satisfaction guarantees on their product, so if you are sitting at home going through you’re closet and you have something you have almost never worn because it just doesn’t feel right, then take it in and explain, many will let you pick something new, and some might just refund it.

So you’ve tried selling it, thought about returning it…BUT, now before you burn it….consider whether someone less fortunate could use such an item.  There are dozens of places to take gently used clothing and other items that can be given to those in need.  Shelters are often willing to take your donations, as well as places like Goodwill or Value Village, all of which operate on your generous donations.

Now the load is getting lighter and your house is becoming less cluttered!  You might even be shocked how much space you really have now that its not full of STUFF.  We just want to finish with a couple key questions we asked each other almost on a daily basis while sorting through our belongings:

  • How many times have you worn it in the past year?
  • Is there an item on the market that can do the job of both of those? Is it worth investing in that?
  • Sporting goods –> How many times a year do you ski, golf, or whatever else?  Would the cost of renting be cheaper than the depreciation on your clubs, skis, or whatever other toy you have stores in the garage????
  • Is it cheaper to ship it or buy a new one once you land?? (For long distance moves)

moving abroad packing adventure

Landing in Chile, we carried with us two checked bags and one carry on, containing everything we felt that we needed.  Sure there are a half dozen boxes stored back home with some less useful items that carry more of a sentimental value.  However, over the past 12 months we have learned that the basic necessities of life are quite simple.  We have learned that buying something because it is on sale is not saving you money when you don’t need it in the first place.  And together have started focusing our money and attention into things that will open up our minds, and maintain our health.

The world is our playground don’t hunker down in one place and miss your chance to explore!

Chao from Chile!

Mel and Jon

…Here’s a great video if you’re thinking of de-cluttering your stuff! –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgBpyNsS-jU

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