The sun started to rise just before we passed lake Pehoe in the Torres del Pain National Park. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever witnessed in my life, through probably the dirtiest bus windows ever. Oh the irony! It left me no choice but to take in the beauty rather than to try to photograph it. The soft early light turned the cloudy sky all hues of oranges and pinks, setting off the majestic Paine Cuernos (horns) in the most extravagant way possible.
The driver stopped so we could take pictures, which was rather nice, but stepping out I realised that I had no idea how cold it would be. Wearing my short tights for bottoms I was clearly well under-dressed.
We arrived at Hotel Rio Serrano, the start location of the 50K, well passed the 8:30 planned start of the race. It felt much colder that the predicted 4 deg C, but the wind from the Southern Ice Field was most likely to blame for that. By then I was wearing all my compulsory warm items except for one top. I noticed we weren’t more than about 40 runners in total. The 100K and 100M races were obviously the main events with about 150 runners in total. I was still very happy with my conservative choice of the 50K which excluded a glacier crossing.
As with the rest of the country, the race organising was very much Spanish. There were plenty of English speaking facilitators during the race briefing and gear check, but one had to be patient and not get overly excited (read: stressed) when English information weren’t readily forthcoming. In this regard I thought I heard a Spanish-speaking lady call my name over the PA while we were trying to keep warm at the start. In a tizz I went off in search of who was calling me, only to find out it was Ryan Scott they were looking for, not Riana Scholtz. (Ryan happened to be the South African Runner’s World gear editor who ran the 42K a day later – what a coincidence!)
As per usual I scoured the web for race reports in preparation for the race, but stopped short after most of my searches ended in a list of reports on the runner that died during the 2016 race. When Nico entered me for the 2017 Ultra Fiord earlier I read some of these reports and decided that it sounded like too much of a risk. Now, in retrospect, there was so much info that I (dis)missed because of this. On the Ultra Fiord website are numerous reports of runners that completed races earlier, and also some that couldn’t. Most of them made mention of the capricious weather and the endless mud and peat bogs. But somehow one (I?) usually think that it would be different once you are out there yourself?
Well, it wasn’t. And I had no Idea what I was about to face.
With a cutoff of 15 hrs for the 50K, I kept asking myself “what on earth could take so long?” I browsed over previous years’ finishers’ times, and was alarmed to see that the winning times were well beyond 6 hrs. And from experience I know that the top athletes can cover even the toughest of alpine trails of this distance in 5 hours or less. What was taking them so long?
And then it was time to find out for myself. With a brief ceremonial countdown in Spanish we were sent off. The course started with a nice, flat and fast section through an open field, which is where I clocked my one and only sub-7 min km, my goal trail pace. And I was already regretting wearing my insulated jacket beneath the windbreaker. Just as we entered the forest on the foothills of the Chucabuco mountains I stopped to take the jacket off. It was during this stop that I thought the last person hiked past me. Yes, she was hiking. And I thought “great, now I’m last and even a hiker could overtake me. This day is going to get very interesting”.
The only mountain on the 50K is within the first 13 km, and the real rise only starts after 4 km. Although I don’t consider myself strong on climbs, this was one of the highlights of the race for me. The views of the Torres del Pain Park were incredible from up top. The unusual trees and general flora were just fascinating and the autumn forest colours were inspiring and energising. Plus the protection from the elements within the forest let me forget about the bitter cold for a while. I wasn’t moving overly fast on my watch, but I was feeling good and strong and very much in control (from my very inspirational position at the back, that was). At least I couldn’t be passed by anyone again, I thought, so relaxing was the only option.
Around 10 km I met up with a girl from Sau Paulo. Jo was her name, I would later learn. I was delighted with her perfect English and she even knew where Namibia was. We crossed a few rivers together and slid down a few muddy hills after each other, but the going was still pretty much easy.
In this part of Patagonia the treeline stops at around 600m amsl where alpine conditions set in. This means that scaling a lowish mountain such as the 850 m high Chucabuco leaves you exposed to all elements, including weather emanating from the Southern Ice Fields and the Chucabuco glacier, for the last vertical 250 m as well as on the plateau up top. This amounts to roughly 10 km of very rocky terrain made more difficult by the alpine weather.
Light rain was predicted for around noon, so I was pushing for time. According to my calculations I would be crossing the rocky, exposed flats on top of the mountain between PC Chucabuco 1 and 2 at noon and the thought of rain in addition to the icy wind from the glacier didn’t sit well with me.
Lucky for us, the rain never came, and most of our time on the plateau was spent in lovely semi-sunshine. The wind was still strong and icy but I managed to keep myself dry and was able to appreciated the immense scenery.
PC Chucabuco 1 wasn’t active since that was only supposed to be a backup aid station in case of severe weather. Then somewhere between Chucabuco 1 and 2 I lost track of the route markers. We were following the contour line along the left side of the Mountain peak, and slanted, rocky terrain made the going a bit awkward. I noticed a blue route marker a few meters to my right, and visually following them into the distance had me realise that the route would take me up an incline and over another pass. This seemed odd, since I knew that we were supposed to be done with climbing by that time. Nevertheless, I turned right and started the climb. But something in the back of my mind told me to check the route on my GPS watch. Up until that point I had never considered navigating with my watch since the route was very well marked. Just as well that I checked, because immediately I could see that I was almost 500 m off track. I found myself en route to the glacial crossing which is where the 42 km and longer routes would come from.
Only in retrospect is it possible to really appreciate how the route on my watch saved my day. Nico obtained our tracks from the organizers weeks before we left Namibia. My husband is persistent and thorough like that. During the gear check the day before, Nico overheard someone asking an organizer for the GPS track, and it was declined. It wasn’t emailed to all athletes, and it wasn’t available online. Yet a GPS was recommended equipment (not compulsory), to do what with I don’t know. Getting lost in that wilderness is pretty easy should you veer off track, and with real and very grave consequences. Later I would find out that a few people indeed got very lost on our race, one even within the first three km. Some had to overnight at an aid station and only hiked out the next day.
I tracked back to my route and a while later arrived at PC Chucabuco 2. This checkpoint, located at the top of the descent down the valley, consisted of a bright yellow two-person tent tightly zipped shut. As I approached, a guy partially unzipped the tent flap and leaned out. “Hola!”, he called, not overly happy to be brave the cold. The top of his white long johns were visible from the sleeping bag in which he was sit-laying. He signed my race passport and with a “good luck” I was sent off again.
And then the fun and games began. Our technical briefing the night before ended with a mention of 26 km through the forest to finish at Estancia Perales. I still mentioned to Nico how much I was looking forward to a run in the forest. Little did I know!
I slip-slided down a steep muddy slope to cross a picturesque little stream at a waterfall. And then into the forest I went, to lose my mind, my sense of humor, my composure, almost my shoes, a few limbs and some other garments but luckily not my determination.
To put it shortly, it was a muddy mess from beginning to end, with very little running in between. When I think of it now it seems like I only left the mud pits to step into peat bogs. The icy river crossings, and there were plenty, were actually a relief because it would alleviate my shoes of the heavy mud clumps. Although the relief was only to be short-lived. In many places I sank into knee-deep muddy pits that threatened to wholly devour my shoes and possibly my feet for dessert. One time I tried to free my stuck leg from yet another muddy trap when I heard my hip bone snap in its socket. Right there I realised the seriousness of the situation, and how potentially hopeless it would be to get hurt and stranded in that wilderness.
By then I was really looking forward to seeing some people and maybe have a hot drink at the next aid station, Pas el Salto, at 21 km. I ran alone for a long time after I passed Jo and the muddy struggle was getting to me. Unfortunately it was the same story at Pas el Salto. A guy with very limited English or joy asked me for my race passport and didn’t have any sustenance or mental support to offer.
Just before the start of our race the announcer made mention that one of the five aid stations didn’t have food (I didn’t catch the name of said station). Apparently the helicopter couldn’t land due to the weather. Besides the bad timing of the announcement this didn’t overly concern me because I did carry some food, albeit much less that usual. With five well-stocked aid stations, who would need extra food?
Onward then for another three solo hours in the forest. I was averaging a dreadfully slow 4 km per hour and the hallucinations were having their merry way with my mind. I was ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’ people and aid station tents through every bend and clearing in the forest. The running in solitude wasn’t as enjoyable as I remembered it.
Then from nowhere a guy appeared behind me. With his little English the Colombian told how he was lost somewhere for over an hour. I suspect he was equally relieved to see another soul. We ran together for a while, not really able to communicate sensibly, but I appreciated the additional pair of eyes to assist with navigation. At one point I was leading and we had to climb over a fallen tree. The stump was thick, wet and slippery with moss and I kept sliding off, unable to get up on it and over. The next moment I felt his hands on my backpack and with a “uno, dos, tres!” I was pushed over the offending barrier. That comical scene kept replaying in my mind and had me in stitches for a while, a welcome relief! Shortly after that the Colombian lost the pace and I was alone again.
Finally El Bosque aid station came into view. My hopes flared up for a hot drink and something other than nuts to munch on. Yet upon arrival it was the same story again. Passport signed and no food. And there, after some 8, mostly solo, hours on the trail and no food since after the first aid station, I lost my sh!t. Surely at least one of the three aid stations should have had food as promised during race briefing? Well, the poor volunteers got an earful and offered me some peanuts, which I suspect were from their own private stash. And promised that there would be food at the next station.
I was getting really worried.
It wasn’t so much the lack of food at the various aid stations that concerned me, but more probably what it reflected about the race organisation and how it wasn’t playing out nearly as solid and well-rehearsed as it did on the internet or in the days leading up to the race.
In hindsight I know and I totally accept that my negative feelings at the time were more as a result of my own inexperience in this type of unfamiliar wilderness. My vulnerability of having to face that I was out there on my own, totally and solely dependent on myself and my own preservation of self. And with it I was also dealing with the growing fear of a new unknown: Nightfall, and trying to navigate a route in a dark, muddy forest. By that time I had endured sufficient heart-stopping moments where I couldn’t locate route markers in the forest to make me dread the night with a passion. And Nico’s last word’s were ringing through my mind: “You’l be done just after sunset and get home in time for a glass of wine before dinner!” The thought of getting home to him and my boys before nightfall had me pushing all afternoon, but now I was losing hope of making it on time. I had never run a race at night.
The remoteness of the trail can not be overstated. One is so far removed from civilization or anything man made that the only way out is forward (or back, heavens forbid). One of my biggest sources of joy during the latter parts of the race was spotting some cow pies (and stepping in a few) lying about in the grassy clearings in the woods. The thought that a domestic animal could share the realms of my immediate environment would relieve the feeling of desolation for a minute or two, only to be spewed back onto the ever-meandering, psychedelic, very much deserted forest trail.
None of the aid stations on the 50K could be reached by something other than by helicopter or on foot, to the point that some volunteers had to hike 30 km to get to their spot. In hindsight (again!) it was very appreciable and admirable to learn that the volunteers had to negotiate the same godforsaken muddy pits that we had to to get to their stations. Only they had to stay out for much longer than most of us and face whatever the week’s weather would dish out. Now THAT is hard core!
After another 2 hours the next and last aid station came into sight in the last afternoon sun. Rio Tenerife was a welcome relief with smiling and helpful volunteers and loads of food. Energy levels were replenished but the spirit-lifting effect was probably more pronounced. It was 7pm and I was starting to make peace with the fact that the bulk of the remaining 12km would be in the dark.
The muddy pits were still not relenting, and onward with sploshing and feet-dragging we went. It was in the middle of one of these pools that the American came flying past. I offered an excited “Hi!”, but with headphones on she didn’t notice. Swift on her feet, barely getting her shoes wet, she cleared the swamp and disappeared into the forest. I was so incredulous of her energy that I told myself she was obviously not part of our race. She must have been an organizer or a silly tourist that went for an early night run from a nearby (?) hotel. This of course gave me hope of civilization nearby! (… more hallucinations?)
It was getting dark fast. Just before a wide-ish river crossing I got my headlamp out and prepared for the night-stint. The pack back on I crossed the river, only to discover that I had lost a glove. For a moment I pondered the consequences of leaving it behind, but then decided to go back and look for it. My fingers were already complaining of the short exposure to the even colder night air. So twice more through the river it was, but luckily the glove was where I must have dropped when I took out my torch.
As I scaled the steep bank on the other side I switched on my headlamp. Miraculously the next route marker lit up in front of me, and gazing in the distance I could see at least two more! The reflective tape on the markers actually made navigation in the dark much easier than during the day! Oh the joy and sweet relief! Suddenly facing my fear of nightfall wasn’t the hardest thing that I’d have to do all day.
With renewed courage and increased visibility I was able to start pushing harder and faster. I spotted the American up ahead and before long the distance between us diminished to zero. Headphones removed now, she was taking strain from a leg injury picked up while crossing the mud pits. I offered her one of my trekking poles to help with the leg and from there on we stuck together.
With Jennifer’s company the last three hours of the race flew by fast and with a good few giggles as well. Navigating muddy pits at night is much more enjoyable (even funny) when you have someone who can appreciate and echo your bitching.
Finally we cleared the forest. The final 4 km to the finish was across an open field and we could actually get a good rhythm going again. Jen’s leg was giving her trouble but she kept up and never complained. A real trooper. We knew we would have to cross a final river just before the finish line, so we were keeping an ear out for the sound of rushing water. After a few false alarms we heard a dog barking and a river nearby. We had to be close! Shortly after that we saw some flashlights and people started cheering. The finish was in sight! When we realised that the cheering was for US we both broke into tears, just barely restraining ourselves from breaking into full-on sobs. Jen and I waded through the river and crossed the finish line hand-in-hand. My toughest race to date completed.
It was just after 10pm when we reached Estancia Perales, with a total race time of 12h45min. Little did we know that we were the 2nd and 3rd women in our Puma age category, and not last by any means! Although we finished together Jen was given the 2nd place finishers’ medal and I the 3rd. In a gesture that was incredibly big of her and still has me in awe, she offered me her 2nd place medal, claiming that I led most of the way with my brighter headlamp. She needn’t have done this at all, and I still feel awful for accepting it when she insisted. Truth is her company meant just as much to me during that final hours of an incredibly tough, mentally testing race at the bottom of the world.
It took me days, even weeks, and only after Nico returned from his 70K Ultra Fiord race without dying, with many hours of postmortem over many a glass of wine, to realise what Ultra Fiord really afforded me. It was much tougher that I was mentally prepared for and I really didn’t want Nico to risk it on the 70K race two days after mine. But he did. And now I had someone to deliberate with and share my sentiments about this Wild race in this Wild place.
Am I glad I did it? You bet, very much. Would I do it again? Most probably, yes! But would I be more open-minded and better prepared the second time around? You can count on that. As for other first timers I wrote my own version of a rough guide The Ultimate Trail Race: Ultra Fiord.
During the Ultra Fiord in Patagonia I did indeed lose many things, perhaps really even my mind. But I found so much more. And most importantly a valuable piece of my soul.
Thank you Patagonia. Thank you Ultra Fiord.