This is Patagonia.
I’m on the summit of a mountain, in shorts and long-sleeve shirt, running against a wind hurling whipping curtains of snow in every direction; running on ice, loose rocks and through streams of glacier water; singing at the top of my lungs, talking to myself, cheering myself on; my legs are danger red, my beard and eyelashes start accumulating icicles; and somewhere in the great mess of things, my mind comes up with a fully formed thought: This is exactly where I want to be. Leading a life of passion. Leading a mad chase after my dreams. Leading the UltraFiord 100k.
Allow me to lead you through it.
It is 10:30pm the night before the race, I sneak down to the kitchen of our hostel, hungry and unable to sleep. Carlos Zavaleta, a young Argentinian man and fellow 100k runner, sits alone at a table in the semi-darkness. We strike up conversation, exchanging thoughts on training methods and on the beast of a race that now stands in the unknown, blurred, unclear, intimidating, no more than 9h30 hours away. Our nervousness can only be discerned by the overcompensating calmness of our behaviour.
My training over the past 4½ months since signing up for the UltraFiord has been somewhat sporadic and uncalculated. Apart from still feeling exhausted from a 2½ month trip through Chile and Argentina, including an 8 day expedition through the mountainous Torres Del Paine two weeks before the race, I had not run more than an hour and a half consecutively since December!
At around 11:30pm, I decide to hit the bed. All night, all five hours of it, I can’t find any sleep, tossing and turning between sweating and freezing. It is almost a relief when the alarm went off at 4:30am. A quick breakfast later, it is already time to go catch the two-hour bus to the start line. The weather is Patagonian by all standards.
It was ten past eight when the bus arrived at Hotel Rio Serrano, on the border of Torres Del Paine, with only 20min to go before the start of the race! The sun was just beginning to rise. A quick assessment put the temperature at slightly uncomfortable shorts and long-sleeve shirt weather. For a Canadian that is. Most of the other racers, coming mainly from warm South-American countries, were clad in fancy tights and rain wear.
With time, I have learned to ignore the fact that the attire worn at starting line of a major race makes everyone look like a professional athlete. No one seems to ever share my enthusiasm for wearing a dirty, stinky, ripped and weathered, no name and no brand running kit (for good luck, you’ll understand). Whereas for most people there, their insecurities hide behind the price of their gear, I know exactly what my gear spells, nay, shouts back out at them: ‘Do not follow that guy sprinting from the start line, he’s an amateur, he’ll crash hard in a few km and will probably not finish!’ I smile back at them: I want to be that goofy guy that no one takes seriously.
The gun goes off and that’s exactly who I am, running from the back of the pack to second place before the course narrows into a single track. I had not intended to lead the race from the start but last year’s winner Fernando Nazario from Brazil is now hot on my heels and the runner ahead is struggling with the technical downhill. And so, I wait for the right opportunity and speed past him, into the lead of the race. We are only two or three kilometres into the race and already I start hearing less and less breathing, less and less pitter-patter of running feet behind me. ‘Oh well’, I think, ‘I did that thing again’.
From then on, until a few kilometres from the halfway point, I run the race ahead, alone. There are 81 international racers behind me. The chase is on, and what a feeling! I run wholeheartedly for the shear passion of the sport and the land we are travelling.
The new modified course begins with a mild ascension of 825m and the way up is, here and there, garnished with a few river crossings, some light scrambling and fairly dry conditions. A few meters before passing from the forest to the exposed summit, a volunteer sees me in rolled up sleeves and short shorts and warns me: ‘Hace mucho frio arriba!’ (‘It’s cold up there!’), to which I confidently answer: ‘No, no, en Canada hace mucho frio!’ (‘No, no, in Canada it’s cold!’).
He was right of course. The summit rolls its way through at least 10km of super exposed freezing conditions, with slippery footing through rocks and ice and glacier water, and as soon as you leave the last tree of the forest behind, your choice is made. It is impossible to change clothing in the strong winds, and to stop would be dangerous.
I too was right, of course. One of my passions as a Canadian is to embrace extreme winter weather conditions. I make a point of going for a long run in snow storm and rejoice when the forecast calls for -30°c, -40°c. And on the top of that mountain, it all paid off. It finally made sense to be a little crazy sometimes! I roll down my sleeves, pull a slim merino tuque on, and apologize to my bare legs. I then set off, running and singing and laughing and life was exactly as I wanted it to be!
Upon finally escaping the extreme summit, I find myself sliding downhill, 10-20 meters at a time on a treacherous mixture of mud, snow and rocks, only to re-enter the forest through a waist deep glacier river crossing. Needless to say that, apart from a few cramping attempts from my legs due to the cold, I could not feel much of my body at that time!
This year’s UltraFiord presented its own set of unique challenges. Due to reasons as of yet unclear, most of the checkpoints and aid stations were non-existent. I ran out of water about 30km into the race and was beginning to feel pretty hungry unexpectedly because of the cold. My gels became useless at remediating these problems. So I ran on, through knee-deep swamps and freezing mud pits, waiting for the river crossings to chase a gel with some glacier water. (Sidenote: I discovered that it’s totally possible to submerge your whole face in water and drink at the same time. I thought that was only a thing cartoon characters did!). To this day I have no idea how I managed to kneel down in the rocks to drink from the rivers, what with the state of my legs and all!
Near the end of the 50k course, Weliton Carius, the Brazilian runner who would eventually win the race, caught up with me. As he spoke mainly not a word outside of Portuguese, we ran together for the most part in silence. Eventually, I asked him how far it was to Estancia Perales, the finish of the 50k and the half-way mark for us. ‘Six.’ He pointed at his watch, wondering why mine didn’t keep track of the kilometres. I peel back my sleeve to reveal my cheap Casio watch that barely can tell time, and we both share a good laugh. At that point, he must have seen that I was crashing from lack of food for he offered me his apple core, which I ate, pits and all. He then stopped and took off his pack. I could not afford to stop my momentum so I carried on, only to have him catch up to me at a gate crossing (one of many on the course, as we ran a lot on private land). He sticks his hand out to me and gives me the most unique and generous gift I will ever in my life receive: a tiny little bag filled with mashed potatoes and chunks of olives! I rip the bottom of the bag and slurp it all in hungrily. I didn’t care if I had no water left to wash it down!
At Estancia Perales, we find our drop bags (bags we had filled the day before with the equipment and food we would need at the half way mark, and had given to the organization to bring for us). I change socks, eat some food, throw out the trash from my bag, fill it with new food, refill my hydration pack with water, exchange a few jokes with the volunteers and get back on the course running. Weliton, who had left before me, is out of sight, and although we would eventually finish only about twenty minutes apart, I did not catch sight of him until the award ceremony the next day. A well deserved victory!
The second half of the 100k course is designed with only one purpose in mind: to get runners back in town. The last 44km follow a hard, very hilly dirt road all the way to the main highway which leads straight into the main square of Puerto Natales, to the finish line. This portion of the race can only be conquered by pure bull-headedness. I focus on keeping hydrated and check in many times with the state of my body and mind. My left hamstring is very tight and restricts the motion of my leg a lot. I attribute the pain to running on the slippery rocks of the sideways slope earlier on the mountain. The road before me stretches out for tens of kilometres in plain sight, making it seem like I’m barely making any forward progress at all.
At kilometer 60, the second place finisher and last year winner, Fernando Nazario, also from Brasil, passes me. He looks at me, says ‘Chao Amigo’, and runs on. I can tell he’s suffering too, and manage to keep him in sight till the very end, if only as a source of motivation. I knew I could not afford to push the pace if I wanted to finish the race running.
I crossed the finish line in 10h55, in third place overall and first in my age category (18-29), only a few minutes behind Fernando, with whom I exchanged a few high fives and congratulatory words. The live updates from the race had been so terribly off the mark that no one knew I was finishing. The race director hands me my medal and I walk the few blocks to my hostel alone. On the way back amidst a few tears and a few laughs with myself, I reflect back on my journey. This was the conclusion of a wild and amazing trip through Chile, as well as my second 3rd place finish in my second Ultramarathon ever! The amplitude of the accomplishment washes over me in waves.
Of all the thoughts that bounce around in my head at that moment, one important conclusions stand out.
Firstly, I am truly not a very competitive person, and ultrarunning brings that out of me the most. Somewhere along the line I lose all sense of the competitiveness I try to muster against other runners. Competitors become friends with whom I share these wild adventures, and I am, if anything, very happy if they run a stronger race than me. I always picture myself as someone who doesn’t have much fight. I always think, ‘if I can do it, then it can be done, it is therefore not extraordinary and I could have done better.’
That being said, however, one thing has become clear over time: I am usually always the most wrecked runner after events such as these (as is clearly visible at the award ceremony the day after the race). And whereas before I would attribute it to being an inexperienced runner and feel ashamed (especially seeing other runners walking fine or even running to get their medals); I am now super proud of my painful hobble to the podium. It is my truest of medals, as a testimony of my fight and how much I left out there on the course!
In sum, of all moments to check in with life, with my life, my mind chose this race, that mountain, to tell me that I needn’t doubt my path so much, that the rewards for discipline and dedication are huge and that I am exactly who and where I want to be in life.
Thanks to everyone who chooses to believe in this wild and unlikely journey of mine. It is with your love and support that I have learned to embrace it fully.
Now to go plant some trees and get ready for the Squamish 50/50!
Follow along on Instagram: @etiennegabriel