Chile 2016 – The Southward Journey

Four days away from the culminating point of a three-month trip through most of Chile and parts of Argentina, I find myself reflecting back at the great tangled mess of achievements, challenges, emotions, expectations, exhaustion, stress, adventures…, that is the result of the attempted convergence of two major lifestyles: travelling & training. Hereafter is a little glimpse of this most demanding, most rewarding journey: the journey to UltraFiord 114k 2016.


Santiago, Chile, January 31st.

A few days ago we left snowy Canada for the searing sun of Santiago, and here I am in a dusty courtyard between some construction scraps and a barbecue, facing a rusty metal gate doing squats and lunges. Yesterday’s attempt at running after three days of rest from a new injury has put me here to sweat in the dust.

2½ months to go until UltraFiord. Can I run? No.


The year 2016, started for me with an injury. The muscle tear in my right calf, meant that the first two weeks of the trip would go without running. Although, in some way this guaranteed more time to adjust to the life of travel, I could not quite find it in me to rejoice at answering the most basic of questions ‘can I run?’ with the word ‘no’, when not too far before me stood well clear, like black clouds and the promise of a storm, the words ‘UltraFiord 114k’. How does everyone else fill a day without a morning and evening training routine?


Cobquecura, Chile, February 16th.

Through the walls of our tent, the first of day light can not really be seen. It is somewhere around the tail end of 6am and I do not need my alarm this morning. It has been more than two weeks since my last running attempt. I am ready.

Cobquecura is a small fishing village on the coast of Chile, renown for its seafood and sea lions. The latter add character to the backdrop of ocean and sunrise by means of their wailing and snorting.  A few fisherman busy about their homes. They wave sternly. ‘Buenas dias’ they say. I smile. A good day indeed.

2 months to go until UltraFiord. Can I run? Yes.


Somewhere along the line, the distinction between all types of fatigue blurs, exhaustion is exhaustion, much in the same way that calories are calories. A hard learned lesson.

Flip open any menu in most of Chile and you will find all of seven staple ingredients: Carne, Huevos, Queso, Pescado, Carne, Huevos and Queso. Meat, eggs, cheese and fish. A salad is a plate of tomatoes. A Chilean salad is a plate of tomatoes with onions.

Needless to say that after weeks of a different home every night, of two training sessions a day, of hiking, of travelling, hunger becomes savage and calories become calories and veganism is not discussed at the table.


La Junta, Cochamó day #3, March 1st.

La Junta is a curious place in a country that prides itself with nature conservation reserves and well-organized parks, for it is neither. It is merely an amazing place in nature that people visit for its combination of amazing rock formations and gorgeous (mostly safe) natural water slides.

On the morning of day three in La Junta, I wake up fairly early, have breakfast and set out for a run. It is already humid and boiling outside. On the menu that morning, 2x20min of fast but controlled ascents of the area’s steepest trail. The ground is very muddy and roots are well lifted and beg for a chance to take me for a trip. An invitation that I work very hard to decline time and time again.

A few hours later, we are sliding butt first into near freezing waters, cannonballing into glacial ponds and sun bathing around one of Chile’s most incredible spots.

In the evening my brother and I go explore the wet mud tunnels, carved by excess traffic, bad weather and quasi non-existent infrastructure. A 45min easy jog along the trail that leads to Argentina.

1½ months until UltraFiord. Can I run an ultra? Probably.


Somewhere along the line, however, a distinction must be made between yawns and yawns and a clear line must be drawn to divide low mental energy and low body energy.

Even if the entire world would agree that my deathly cocktail of travel and training is inhuman, it might not necessarily make it so. I can not allow myself, by excess of weakness, begin to compare myself to people who think I’m crazy. I must instead look ahead, up the mountain, in the dark and through the rain at the blazing headlamps of the people who are far crazier than me.

In normal circumstances, that is to say, in a more stable training environment and routine, I have the knowledge, to a good extent, of what my body can take and how far is too far and too close to injury. The factor that makes the line become blurry while travelling, is the increased difficulty of making the distinction between perceived effort and actual effort. I could no longer rely on the usual signs and symptoms of over or under training as they are generally based on energy levels and mental strength both of which are thrown completely off kilter by extensive travelling.

And so, one of the hardest challenges in this trip has no doubt been looking objectively at exhaustion and qualify it into living too hard and training too hard.

For example, a struggle to find a hostel late into the evening after a 5h bus ride, however stressful it might prove to be, does not by means of cumulative exhaustion, disqualify the legs for some quality training. A yawn, in this case, needs to be ignored, for although it might help prepare for the mental challenge of running 100k through glaciers and fiords, it does nothing to provide the physical ability needed.

This distinction became exponentially important as the trip became longer and the training more arduous.


Delcahue/Castro, Chiloé Island, March 6th.

For me, when it comes to running, motivation is never a hard thing to come by. Chile, however procured its own obstacles to my enthusiasm. On the morning of the 6th I arose with the sun. Before me was 20km return of one of the best rolling dirt road I had ever encountered. It did, however, come at a price. As it was to be for the length of our trip to Chile, the only major obstacles to my running, were of the stray and feral kind. Canis Lupus Familiaris. My number one fans. Dogs here in Chile outnumber the human population 10:1, a ratio that yields a certain confidence to their barks and sharpness to their teeth. Given the fact that running next to a barking dog is like throwing oil into flame, each of my longer runs turned into interval sessions: walking next to angry dogs and running in between them.

After my run, we broke camp and set off for Castro where, ever so conveniently we stumbled upon a hostel perched over a set of 105 stairs. Needless to say, that’s how the evening was spent. 16 repeats and all out too.

1¼ months until UltraFiord. Can I run 114k? I think so.


To set foot on the start line of an Ultramarathon is a gamble. There are very few ways to ascertain whether the odds are on your side, whether your training was adequate, whether your analysis of the challenge was accurate, whether the obstacles set before you are surmountable and what’s more, on that precise day.

To set foot on that same start line with competitive intentions, is quite another gamble altogether. To run at a faster speed occasions more muscle destruction, a fact that I painfully discovered on my last attempt at the 114k distance. To run harder can sometimes mean to run yourself into the ground with 14k to go.

The UltraFiord 114k can be divided in three sections. The first consists of 30k of rolling hills in swamps and untraveled land and includes many glacial river crossings, some of which are chest deep. The second is an ascension of a 1200m+ mountain over 40k and includes glacier travel, steep technical downhills of rolling rocks and boulders as well as at least 4 more river crossings. The last 44km is a veritable marathon of faster, flatter trails that lead you from dirt single track to a stretch of 6k of road into Puerto Natales’ main square.

How would you choose to race such a course?


Parque Nacional Chiloé day #2, March 10th.

A false start. Halfway through breakfast we discover that, during the night, a rat has chewed a hole through my backpack to get to a forgotten piece of food. I munch through the rest of my oatmeal with a good amount of angry non-vegetarian thoughts rolling around in my head. I’m tired. We’re 1½ months into the trip and there is only one month left before UltraFiord 114k, and the travel and the training weigh heavily on my shoulders.

I grab my poles and set out on my morning run. Barely halfway through the first 5k, however, I have to stop and acknowledge a hard fact to acknowledge when all you want is a good hard run to clear your mind: I had no legs whatsoever. On the walk back, I came to the conclusion that, what with having to plan for in advance, carry and ration all of our food, I was not getting enough calories. It was also clear that, although sleeping on average 10h every night, I was low on rest.

Back at our camp, I slip back into my sleeping bag, fill my mouth with some food and chew and fall asleep for the best part of three more hours.

My afternoon run went worlds better. Two theres and backs along a 5k trail with an estimated of 1500m of elevation gain. My legs were back in strength, the trip was going great again and the rat holes.. well, truth be told, I stayed angry at those for a while longer!

Can I run 114k through glaciers and fiords, through mud and rain and wind? It kind of feels like it, yes.


A non-disruptive approach to training.

As others in the world work around their busy daily routines to squeeze in their training time, I have made the promise to myself before the trip to be as non-disruptive of our travel plans and complex travel schedules as humanly possible. Opportunism became a highly necessary skill. My eyes became experts at picking out potential training grounds, whether in the middle of a national park or at the heart of a city, and associating with them numbers of repeat, length of work out, mileage, rest times, intensity and benefits. This allowed for an almost uninterrupted, and highly necessary, streak of two trainings a day every day.

As I am only human, it has happened a few times that my training did overflow into our travel life, and for this I am thankful to have chosen my travel partner well! On more occasions than I would dare to count Amy had already begun taking down the camp, or cooked our dinners, or waited for me as my trainings took a little more time or demanded more energy than I could give.

I also might have always, from the very start, have eaten more than my share…!


Puerto Ibanez/Chile Chico, March 15th

The sun hasn’t quite appeared, and the tent bends and rustles under the strong gusts of wind. We’re in Southern Patagonia for the first time. I slip out of the tent, eat a plum and head out for a morning jog. Much in the same way the rest of the world has mountains where the bulk of the effort is running uphill, this strange part of the world has wind. The bulk of the effort is facing a headwind. Today I run light with the wind at my back, and I do not venture too far, knowing the windy battle that awaits me on the way back.

After a quick breakfast, the word reaches us that a ferry can take us across the lake to Chile Chico. We break up camp in a hurry and set off on a 2h boat ride across vast and turquoise waters. On the boat doing a few exercises kills time. ‘The chair’ against a wall for quad strength, calf raises for calf strength and way too many jumping jacks for the hell of it.

At our arrival in Chile Chico, a new training challenge jumps straight into view: a bright orange set of 210 stairs. Needless to say that’s how the afternoon was spent, doing 10 repeats all out.

1 month to go until UltraFiord. Can I race competitively 114k? Good question.


And so, a journey that began with the daunting question ‘can I run?’ progressively evolved into an epic of complicated proportions. And on many more occasions than one, I have had the support of my friends and family along the way.

Midway through the trip, I sent a few worried messages to my friend and running partner Jon, giving him a little lowdown of my training, hoping for a few encouraging words that would confirm my growing optimism concerning my capacity to face this challenge. With the help of his more practised approach to running and wisdom of the effects of good quality training we concluded that the first two weeks without training at the start of the trip were in fact only 2 out of 3 off weeks in the past year and a half of hard training. I had a lot of good quality miles behind me. A good conclusion by all standards!

A few days ago I sent again a message to Jon. I had just returned from a good strong run, and had just learned that a fellow racer, living in Santiago, could bring down 30 of my favourite energy gel: GU Salty Caramel. This time the message was different:

“Good news from the 51st parallel South. I’ve got the legs, this is going to be one hell of a race!”


Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine day #1, March 26th.

The bus drops us off and disappears in a cloud of dust. It’s windy and 11am and we set off for the foot of the mountain where a trail winds its way to Las Torres, the towers after which the park is named. We hobble along at a swift enough speed, making jokes about the fact that we chose to ascend the park’s steepest trail first and while our bags weighed their heaviest. Jokes aside, as they contained everything we would need for the following 8 days of hiking/camping, a modest estimate would probably put them at 50-60lbs. And so, for the next 2h30 hours, we perspire our way to our home-for-a-night. As this had been our lives for the past 2 months, we found our tent to be set up, our mattresses inflated, our sleeping bags laid out, and all this before we even had a snack or sip of water or a sigh of relief for having made it to our first campsite of seven.

Minutes later, with lighter packs we set off to explore the mirador Las Torres, a few hundred meters higher on a trail made of wind and rain and sand and rolling rocks. An hour later still, we are back, deeply napping and for a solid hundred and twenty minutes.

In life, one of my proudest turn around, is the one that follows a good nap. Within seconds of waking, I am eating a snickers and pulling dirty shorts on and lacing a pair of beaten runners, for my afternoon run. A 20km there and back of the trail we had just hiked. From the top of the mountain down and back up again. Just in time to shovel in a quick supper and a 10h sleep.

The next morning we hike all the way down again with our packs.


All through the trip I have gained much confidence, when it lacked, through the little likes and comments of the people who are following my/our journey from back home or away! For this I am truly thankful!

Wish me luck!

Follow along on Instagram: @etiennegabriel

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