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.
The 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??
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.
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!
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***
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.
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;)