Patagonia Ultrafiord 100 mile, 100k and 70k race report Part 2: What the heck was that?

Participants’ emotions immediately after Ultrafiord were all over the place: anywhere from elated to angry. I’ve now had a month to process everything that happened out there… to figure out what I feel and think about this race, and also to digest what other racers have had to say. (Read my Part 1, a description of the Ultrafiord route, here).

10360533_561143887361474_2985929674967085372_nI think that the biggest issue about Ultrafiord comes down to what racers’ expectations were. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of information coming from the organizers in the months, and even final days, preceding the race – so a lot of people simply had no idea of what to expect. (There was no pre-race briefing, either).

Which is not to say that this was a terrible race – it was an amazing race! But that lack of information meant that a lot of people came in unprepared: for the terrain, for the conditions, for how much nutrition they needed to carry, for the length of time they would be out there. (Many people did not have any time goal or estimate at all for this route beforehand – but many of those who did took 50% longer than they expected, myself included). As Nikki Kimball told me afterward: “I’m OK with glacier travel if I know there’s going to be glacier travel, and I’m OK with bushwhacking if I know there’s going to be bushwhacking. But I need to know these things in advance, so I can prepare and bring the right gear.”

11023439_561009094041620_6824064650017549587_nI know that many entrants were frustrated beforehand, after months of trying to get more information about the route and conditions from the organizers. Some did not have their emails answered at all, and many received the response that “everything you need to know is in the videos” – beautiful promo videos that show RD Stjepan Pavicic powering over some extremely runnable trails and splashing through a couple of streams, giving no indication of the 30 km slog through deep mud, or the chest-deep river crossing, or the bushwhacking with branches clawing at legs, or what Jeff Browning labelled as “class 3 scrambles” – not to mention the glacier. The videos are great – but they definitely did not provide us with everything we needed to know.

11134051_553985088077354_784015073651051146_nSo, in the absence of information, runners came into this event with a range of expectations. Some, like Jeff – who went on to win the 100 mile event – counted on being pretty much self-sufficient throughout. Jeff notes on his blog that “I also suspected (and expected) that a first year race in Chile might have some glitches and not as deep of support at aid stations that we’re used to in the states. I came prepared mentally and technically to run from drop bag to drop bag (3 key checkpoints) and not really rely on aid stations too much.”

Others, however, came in expecting that “aid station” meant the same thing that they were used to back home: counting on the food and other support they would find there as part of their race plan. So when all they got was a candy bar, or a handful of peanuts scooped from a bag lying on the ground, they were understandably disgruntled – and many probably departed from those aid stations dangerously undernourished.

Krissy Moehl told me later, “I didn’t realize how minimal the aid stations were going to be along the way. I think it would be better to call them check points rather than aid stations.” Krissy had, however, packed extra food anyway – enough that she was able to share it with fellow racer Britt Nic Dick, who ran out while still up on the mountain. (Krissy and Brit went on to take first and second women in the 100k).

11124497_555763144566215_6581089576528306198_nNikki Kimball explained to me how important that pre-race information is to her. “I do a lot of things in my life that other people perceive as risky – but I do as much research as I can beforehand, to arm myself with knowledge, so I can mitigate the risk the best I can. In ultraracing, the race website and the course description are where you get that knowledge. And that didn’t happen. I came into this expecting one thing, and it was completely different.”

Aside from mismatched expectations, the other big issue that came up about this race was safety. Which does relate to expectations because, as a racer, you need to know what to expect in order to be able to prepare for it.

Well, there was a list of obligatory gear, published on the Ultrafiord website for months before the race. However, 24 hours before the race, many of those “obligatory” items were abruptly down-graded to “recommended,” such as trekking poles, knife, second headlamp. I am a strong believer in racers always carrying their obligatory gear. First of all, RDs have that gear listed there because you may need it, for your own safety. And second of all, not carrying something that is in the race rules is cheating. (I have been pissed off a few times in other races when other runners have asked me to stop to lend or give them something that they should have been carrying themselves).

11169931_555762681232928_1807538900858721456_nEven with that reduced list, I ran into numerous racers who did not have their minimum required gear – most notably, one guy who did not even carry a headlamp (one headlamp plus spare batteries was required, and a second headlamp also with spare batteries was recommended). He was on the top of the mountain with me at 8pm as darkness fell, with 8 or so hours to go until the next aid station. With no light.

I don’t know what happened to him – he must have had to stick with other racers that whole way down. I know that in Chile “rules” are often treated as flexible – but I think that an event that strives to be acknowledged as world-class must to stick to international standards about rules: if you have them, then require that people actually follow them. Otherwise, don’t have them. For Ultrafiord this would mean gear inspections (which can actually be done quite fairly: e.g. a surprise inspection at a specific aid station where every racer must produce a specific item such as their headlamp).

And then there is the safety of the route itself. We were incredibly extremely amazingly miraculously lucky with the weather. I have actually spent a lot of time in this part of Patagonia, and it is notorious for its strong winds. (Previous time I was at Perales, which was the 70k finish line and a 108-mile aid station, it was blowing 55 knots – that’s 100 kph). The day and night that we all travelled over the mountain, however, were windless – completely uncharacteristic for this place.

11182061_555765111232685_3227778224974255049_nTwenty four hours later, I lay in my bed at sea level,  the windows of my hotel room creaking and groaning under extreme wind gusts and being battered by rain, wondering: What would have happened if this weather had hit 24 hours ago, with 50 or so of us still up on the mountain? 

I don’t like to think about the answer to that. That part of the course was really scary even in good weather, both to those who passed through during the day (like Willie McBride and Sofi Cantilo, who narrowly missed being hit by a boulder that hurtled down at them as they traversed the steep slope of the glacier), and to those of us who were lost in the dark up top for an hour or more, listening to rock slides coming down somewhere above in the blackness, such as myself and 108-mile female winner Candice Burt (read about her Ultrafiord race experience here).

It was a long long long journey down the mountain. I arrived at my 70k finish line (which was the 140 km aid station for the 108 mile racers) just before 4 am. Nikki Kimball and Kerrie Bruxvoort had arrived just before me, and they had serious concerns about the safety of other racers. They had lost a lot of time helping one racer who was in trouble to get him to the next control point up top, getting quite chilled themselves as well as spending extra hours on course by doing so. They also believed that two other racers who they knew had been ahead of them were lost on the mountain. (Seems there was no record of them having passed through this aid station – so it was fair to assume they were off-course).

It turns out that those two racers had passed through here and were fine, on their way to the finish. But there was no way for any of us to know that at that time. There was no communication from here back to the checkpoints up on the mountain, or with the RD who was in town. It was actually one of the photographers who set out hiking up a hill to try to get cell reception to establish communication with the RD.

So I am still not 100% sure what happened here. I know that Nikki and Kerrie believed that there were people lost on the mountain, possibly dying up there, with minimal gear and minimal food on that cold dark night. There was no communication from here to any organizing personnel on other parts of the course. If anyone here did know that those racers had indeed passed through and were safe, that was not communicated to Nikki or Kerrie or me. (I speak Spanish and French, so this was not a language problem).

Nikki and Kerrie believed that their companions could be in grave danger. Nikki told me that night, “I can’t keep racing when my friends could be dying.” So, although they were leading the women’s 108 mile race by an hour or more, the two women dropped from it here.

In the end, although there were some minor injuries (one racer got a stick in the eye, another had a badly sprained ankle and a cut requiring stitches, and of course there were the usual crises related to nutrition and hypothermia), turns out that everyone was fine. However, as I noted, we were blessed with an atypically calm, windless night. Had that race been scheduled for 24 hours later, I would be telling a very different story right now.

So where does that leave things? Well, this race was definitely more on the edge than any organized race I think any of us had experienced. It seemed to me at the time that there were little or no safety measurements in place in the field – however, I did find out later from Anne-Marie Dunhill’s characteristically great and thorough reporting for SleepMonsters, that RD Stjepan Pavicic did actually have a lot of safety and communication measures in place up on the mountain. I wasn’t aware of them while racing or after, and I would have like to have known more about that before I set out.

The terrain was dangerous. For the most part, not outrageously dangerous – but, as I’ve already mentioned, as racers we needed to receive more information about what a route entails so we could be adequately prepared for it.  It was a route that requires a high degree of self-sufficiency. I’m still processing what happened up on the mountain – getting lost in the dark, thankful at least that I was with a lot of other people, and so lucky with the weather. But I’m not sure that I would go up there again without gear for overnighting – a bivvy sack at least. Circumstances can change very quickly up there, and there is no easy way out.

11181386_558585570950639_2485148447129108081_nAnd then there was the glacier. I am not experienced in glacier travel, but what I am getting from other runners who are is that this section needed to be roped, and it was a very high-risk area for avalanches and rockfalls. Here’s what Jeff Browning told me:“Going up that snowfield – what if you slip? Not everyone knows how to self arrest. If you slipped there, you’d slide hundreds of feet down into rocks. That section needs to be roped. And then going across that glacier was pure sketch. For me, knowing snow – there was a giant crevasse to the left of the route, about a metre off where we ran. And where we stepped off the glacier, it was a slough-off section. How many people can run over that until it breaks?” I know that Willie McBride was still pretty freaked out, the day after the race, as he recounted to me the story of his near miss with that boulder.

So there you go. This race is not for everyone. For others, though, it will be the highlight of their running careeer.

11231679_561011010708095_7896246885445150201_nMany who did Ultrafiord claim that it was more like an adventure race than an ultramarathon. The RD disagrees (he responded about that to SleepMonsters: “It is ridiculous for people to think that this was an adventure race! Because an adventure race has many disciplines; needs a compass for navigation; the race route is never cleared; you need a team, you need a lot of mandatory equipment including a tent; you need to provide skills certificates such as rope skills, kayaking, etc.).

France’s Sisi Cussoult, who was second female in the 70k, definitely found it more like a “raid” or adventure race. She told Redbull: “We were going for a trail run, and we quickly realised that it was much more than a trail: it was an expedition, with very technical passes, in a very hostile environment… My only goal was to make it in one piece.”

11169888_555825187893344_8985037647306001721_nEven though this was not a team event, many runners chose to travel as teams anyway – like in an adventure race. Here’s Krissy’s take: “This was much more of an adventure/survival feeling event than a race to me. I remember at the start looking around for people that I should stick with. To create a pack that would work together to ford the first rib-high creek crossing that they kept telling us about, and then the unknown that lay beyond.  It felt more to me that we needed to work together to pass through safely, than to race each other. As it worked out I got to spend the first 30k with Willie and Britt. And then all the way through the 70k with Britt. It seemed working together was key, and it helped minimize the trials knowing I was looking out for Britt and she was looking out for me. ‘Life is better shared.’”

I agree: other than the fact that there were (mostly) route markers, this was much more like the trekking section of an adventure race than any ultramarathon. And again, that is not a bad thing at all – but runners who are used to “normal” ultramarathons need to be told that, so their expectations are in line with what they get. And so they can travel safely.

Interestingly, the racers who were most disgruntled about this event tend to be the North Americans. Daniel Darrigrandi of Chile, who I ran much of the middle part of the 70k with, arrived at the finish line at 6am, after 21 hours on course, and gave me a big hug, exclaiming “Wasn’t that amazing! Just you and the wilderness, this is the real thing!”

And Spain’s Genís Zapater Bargués, who took third in the 100k, was thrilled by the experience – a remoteness that many Europeans cannot experience in their own countries. He told me the next day, “I had expected spectators, people cheering. I had no idea there could be a place so wild, so remote. It was incredible!” If you can read Spanish, check out Genís’s blog post.

Xavier Thevenard of France, who somehow destroyed the 70k course in 8:46 (apparently he floats over mud?) posted on Facebook (in French) “This was a trail race unlike any other. It’s difficult to describe the emotions and sensations we live through every moment on trail races. Because of that, you can only truly understand what someone experienced on a trail race like Patagonia’s Ultrafiord if you were there” and he goes on to list the amazing experiences he had on this race in terms of scenery, wilderness, wildlife – as well as how technical the course was.

11111802_555825304559999_2510597769801980924_nReally, when it comes down to it, this was a fantastic event. Yes, there definitely were some glitches – but it was a first-time race, along new routes (not trails) through country that no racers, or even hikers, have ever passed through. How unique is that?

The terrain, and the lack of infrastructure and resources, are huge challenges. It is incredible that Stjepan and his team are making events like these happen at all here in in remote southern Patagonia. The biggest issue was not the race itself, but the mismatch between racers’ expectations and what the course really required.

The organizers have been incredibly open to feedback from participants. They know that there are aspects that they need to improve, and they seem pretty committed to do that. They have received some excellent support from local businesses and tourism boards to help them produce this inaugural event (and, as one of the group of invited press and invited racers, we appreciate the generosity of these supporters greatly). It is challenging to put on a race in such an incredibly remote region – and I hope that the organizers will continue to receive this type of support and more, both from businesses and from the government, so they can build Ultrafiord into an annual world-class ultramarathon event. Because this first edition has already become ultrarunning legend!