Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ultra Fiord 100: Wild, Tragic, Unforgettable

I’m sitting in a café, drinking an Americano fuerte, in Puerto Natales, Chile. Seeing those words in front of me seems vaguely surreal…like I’ve stepped into someone else’s life. I mean, what regular person actually travels to the Chilean Antarctic to drink coffee and run a race? That kind of charmed life is for the athletic elites, sponsored writers, and those with six and seven figure paychecks. And yet, here I am, with the sore Achilles tendons and tight IT bands to prove it.

Following the epic adventure of the Bigfoot 200, racing internationally seemed the logical next step in my search for beautiful views and life’s limits. After reading Candice Burt’s report on the Ultra Fiord 100 (, in which the High Priestess of 200s labels it the “toughest, longest, and most dangerous race I have ever done,” the wild grounds of Patagonia started calling. Pennies saved, entry accepted, passport renewed, plane tickets and gear purchased, and enough Spanish reviewed to say “Hi, I’m a mountain runner and a vegetarian who eats fish. Where’s the bathroom. Thank you!” all that remained was to step into the unknown.

Amazing places and epic adventures offer great highs but also the deepest lows. The beauty is in feeling such a full spectrum of emotion, the entirety of your humanity, in such a short time. And so, Patagonia and the Ultra Fiord 100 qualifies as an amazing and epic adventure, because it certainly did not fail to provide a canvas for that spectrum. Here is our story, as told through many pictures and a few words.

       Embarrassment/Confusion: Traveling in another country is a good way to see how red you can turn while ordering a cup of coffee and having your credit card declined. Always be kind to people who don’t speak your language well. Actually, always be kind, but especially then. Being surrounded by another language teaches you to build confidence over time, but you always feel like you’re missing information. Information that may be critical to your survival when entering a treacherous mountain course in bad weather, or to your luggage getting to the right destination when switching from an international to domestic flight area.

Fortunately, there weren't many wrong options to order once I got past the airport's Dunkin Donuts.

       Curiosity: The plane ride from Santiago was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. The sky opened up to view massive lakes, white topped mountains, and glaciers. Like a child with nose glued to the window, I could only wonder at what was to come when I stood in this new land and not above it.

    Anticipation: Hurry up and wait was the early theme for our race. As the weather forecast worsened, we knew that the course would be modified, but had few details to offer friends and family until shortly before race start. We awoke on Thursday and each made their own plans for how to pass the time until loading onto shuttles at 10:00pm. Some tried to sleep, others ate as many small meals as possible, a mixture of nervous and excited chatter balanced against silent contemplation. Even after the buses were loaded, we drove to a small town and waited again for 40 minutes at a small general store. Joviality covered the tense air, with many videos and self-portraits taken to pass the time. The anticipation continued to build, however, and when the Chileans finished their "Chi-Chi-Chi! Le-le-le!" chant at the start line we shot off like a champagne cork into the night, seemingly heedless of the fact that we had nearly 100 miles to run.

Drop bag preparations for a yurt with eight runners somewhat resembles a tornado in a skittles factory.
Photo Credit: Jim Dees
What do you eat during an Ultra? All the food. 
Photo Credit: Jim Dees
Joy: Jim and I agreed that our two days spent hiking 55 kilometers of “The W” in Torres del Paine National Park were enough to make the trip to Patagonia worth the time, regardless of how our race went. We enjoyed brilliant weather, perfect avalanche views, and sunrises and sunsets that set the unique terrain on fire. Joy came during the race as we reached our high mountain pass, revealing a wild alpine field with enough wind and snow to remind you that you were alive and accomplishing something big. It came again on the long road into town as snow fell in clumps the size of silver dollars, causing me to stop and spin with my arms in the air. And finally, it came as a young race volunteer ran with me up the last hill into town, rain and sleet pouring down and obscuring all vision but his blue coat in front of me.

 Fear: I say frequently that the only way to grow is to embrace fear. That does not mean ignoring it or pushing it aside, but accepting it and denying it control over your actions. Fear of failure. Fear of many people in tight spaces. Fear of a wild course with a weather forecast so violent that the route must be modified. Fear of falling down the side of a mountain in all that endless mud. Fear of predator eyes in the headlamp glow. Fear that if you lay down to sleep you will be too cold to wake up. Runners are not fearless; in fact, sometimes I think we are more aware of our fears than others. It is simply that we live alongside those fears instead of trying to avoid them at the cost of feeling less alive.

Aid station along the exposed glacier flat crossing. Photo Credit: Jim Dees
     Exhaustion: The biggest battle in the Ultra Fiord, even more than the thigh deep mud, 35 mph winds, sleet, snow, rain, river crossings, exposed mountain crossings, and treacherous climbs/descents, is simple exhaustion. The race starts at midnight and guarantees that you will go through parts of at least two nights. For me, that meant waking at 7:00 on Thursday morning, unsuccessfully attempting a mid-afternoon nap, and finally meeting my bed again around 1:30 on Saturday afternoon. You start the race tired, you finish exhausted. It’s still possible to move very efficiently, if not so quickly, when injured. When exhausted, though, your pace crawls and even the most determined minds eventually crack.

Course Photo: Jim Dees
Course Photo: Jim Dees
Course Photo: Jim Dees
Course Photo: Jim Dees
Course Photo: Jim Dees

Course Photo: Jim Dees

       Pride: While I can’t say that I felt joy for long after finishing the race in 36 hours and 48 minutes, due to the immediate and tragic news of a then unidentified fallen runner, there is always pride that comes with surviving a test of will with good humor and determination. As always, I am proud to say that I am part of a community that builds up the best in each other. And finally, I was pretty proud of my ability to order coffee and pay appropriately in Spanish without saying “I’m sorry” by the time it came to depart. Sometimes you have to appreciate the small goals.

7th Female Award, 3rd Age Group, and Finisher Medal.

    Sorrow: Perhaps the most potent and unexpected emotion for this adventure. The loss of our friend and fellow runner, Arturo Hector Martinez Rueda to hypothermia approximately 65 kilometers into the 100-mile route, and less than two miles from an aid station was a crushing blow to all who had the blessing of spending time with this kind and special man. His spirit truly embodies all the great potential of the human species. I wish I could share some of the pictures we took together in our bunks, with his "Leoncito", and at the race start, but they may be forever lost with him.

Anger: Anger is a rare emotion for me. I tend to move quickly to resignation and acceptance of a situation instead of wasting energy on passionate discourse. When the race failed to recognize my finish in time for the awards ceremony (8 hours later), however, I was angry. When the organization gave us mixed reports over and over about Arturo’s condition and whereabouts, I was angry. When I waited at one location for two hours for someone to come to fix the results, only to be told that I should walk across town, I was angry enough to be in tears. You should not constantly wonder whether your friend is alive or not. You should not have to wonder what the race organization is doing. You should not have to present your medal and prove that you finished a course in the freezing sleet, be told that it had been recorded manually even if the electronic timer had failed, then sit in the stands as the only female athlete not recognized for surviving 36 hours of extreme conditions.

   Love/Togetherness/Friendship: For someone who typically runs alone, I am continuously more blessed by my companions and world running community. We are bound by a love for the mountains, the challenge, and the identification of our “true” selves in a way that transcends language barriers. Jim, my fellow Bigfoot 200 finisher, provided steady companionship throughout the days leading up to and following the race. We shared stories and meals with German, Irish, and American hiking friends while in Torres del Paine National Park. There was Arturo, a 100-mile runner from Mexico, who shared our yurt and gave me hours of laughter and conversation that eased my nerves before the race start. Yitka, who shared the first hour of the course with me before going on to a win and sub 24-hour finish. Steve and Harry, who kept a great rhythm in the dark morning hours of our first 50k. Andrea, who yo-yoed back and forth with me across the grueling middle section and patiently translated for my weary brain when aid workers gave information. The 70k Chilean runner who kept conversation flowing and stayed with me for 6 kilometers on the second night so I wouldn’t fall asleep on my feet, even with his own finish line so close, and assured me that I had helped him just as much when I tried to offer my profuse and nearly incoherent thanks. Gaby, the aid station worker who not only made special effort during the race to always give a smile and reassurance but helped time and again after the race to translate information and get my official finish recognition. Adrian, our fabulous and compassionate host at Domos House (, who worked tirelessly to find our more information about our fallen runner and planned a traditional celebration meal for us after the finish. And yes, even the Japanese film crew who met me for a small part of each segment…they offered me something to look for and a reason to wake up and increase my pace to the finish. 

Jim, Arturo, and Oscar just before loading the buses to the start. Photo Credit: Jim Dees
Our "yurt-mates" at the fabulous Domos House in Puerto Natales. Photo Credit: Adrian Rubio

Japanese documentary crew doing interviews in Tucson.
These intrepid folks actually made it out to every segment of the course for the sake of their film.

   And so, in close, instead of summarizing a race or breaking down what should have been done differently, I ask you to treat every conversation as though you have one day to impact them. Sometimes one conversation, one smile is enough to change a person's life forever. Run free and happy trails, Arturo!


  1. Thank you for sharing Kate. Well done well done :-)

  2. Very cool commentary on your experience, so sorry for the loss of your friend...