I found myself glissading on my rear down a snowfield with only one good pole, the other I’d snapped in two at the handle a mere 10 minutes after getting it from my drop bag 4000 feet below. As I neared the bottom of the incline to glissade onto the glacier, I noticed a crevasse in my path. Whoah!I jammed my pole handle into the wet snow, dug in my heels and popped to my feet just in time to step across the foot-wide void. That got my attention.
Wow, it wasn’t marked — a wake up call. I needed to pay attention a little more. I’d been running for nearly 14 hours and that shot some much-needed focus into my fatigued body and mind. I moved more carefully for the next 1/4 of a mile to get off the glacier and back on solid rock. The course went straight off the glacier and into a class 3 scramble over wet exposed rock for another 1/8 of mile to drop me onto a saddle above a moraine lake.
The terrain I’d been moving through was more wild than anything I’d come across in the last 15 years of running ultramarathons. My 21st 100 miler and this course was throwing it at me. I had to keep pushing. Just after getting above treeline, I made a move to get away from Chilean Emmanuel Acuña running a series of off-camber rocky scree drainages and up a rockfall snow chute to gain a notch before the snowfield climb to the pass. I’d pushed hard. We’d been running together swapping the lead and pulling away from the rest of the pack for nearly 60 miles. I needed to get a gap and finally had a small one. I couldn’t see him anymore and knew I had at least a 5-10 minute lead and needed to increase it even more before we got out of this wild terrain 20 miles down a drainage I was trying to find.
When I heard about Ultra Fiord, it was via a Facebook message from ultrarunning acquaintenance, Nico Barraza. He spends some time in Patagonia and the rest of his time in Flagstaff, AZ. The new race was looking to bring down around 20 international runners for the various distances (30K, 70K, 100K, and 100 miles…actually turns out it was 108 miles) and he thought I might be interested in the 100-miler. I had just made a trip in December with a team to film Mile for Mile documentary and was excited to check out another section of Patagonia Chile, the southern tip.
Due to some business conflicts I was only able to be gone for 9 days (which really means 5 days on the ground with 2 days of travel on both ends). But, I wanted to race in Patagonia and knew it would be wild and remote compared to our U.S. races.
We had a required gear list, very similar to Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (100 miler in France) and after my December adventure run in Chile, I thought this would be a good tester for carrying UTMB-like gear/pack, since I was heading to UTMB in August. I also knew the Patagnonian weather could be gnarly and chage quickly after my previous trip. 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.
I would have some folks I knew coming down to run too. Willie McBride from Portland, my long time friend and practically an adopted sister, Krissy Moehl. They were both running the 100K and then other running folks I knew from the ultra scene in the US, but hadn’t really hung out with them before this trip: Kerrie Bruxvoort, Nikki Kimball, Candice Burt and Britt Dick.
After getting picked up at the airport we stayed a night in Punta Arenas and then caught a shuttle bus to Puerto Natales the next morning where the race would be staged. We immediately felt welcome and I fell in with The North Face’s Enzo Ferrari, who lives in Santiago. Enzo spent a couple years in New Zealand and his English is excellent. We had a great time hanging out and I was able to communicate everywhere with his help — and my limited spanish. We had a great time.
After a day of checking in, hanging out and getting final gear prepped, the race bussed us to the start about 30 minutes drive north of Puerta Natales for the midnight start. We were dropped on a lonely dirt road with a large starting banner and under a starless, overcast sky we headed out into the night.
The first 60K is a combo of crossing some estancias on old 4wd roads and across some old horse/game trails before eventually popping out onto a paved road by a lake, then back onto some old overgrown grass doubletrack and singletrack. It started raining a couple of hours after the start, which would continue for the next 10 hours. A light mist that would utterly soak to the bone, making all the underbrush wet and further saturating the already saturdated ground.
Our first drop bag spot was at Hotel Del Paine, a camp with a nice dining hall. I had been running in the top 5 and eventually caught each guy before this checkpoint and finally reeled in the leader, Emmanuel Acuña, a friend of Enzo’s, on the descent into the checkpoint and we arrived together in the dark at 6:23am.
The two of us ate, got resupplied and got into drop bags. I was done first and Emmanuel followed me out. We met the 3rd place running a few minutes out of the aid station. Emmanuel doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak more than 15 words of Spanish, so we just ran quietly together in the dark knowing we had a major river crossing 3K ahead.
We arrived the first major river crossing and ran up the shore to the fixed rope line tied to trees on both sides. As we stood there, Emmanuel called across to the volunteers on the other side in spanish, they called back. We were standing 2 feet from each other and I gestured with my hand “how deep?” and Emmanuel being shorter than me, indicated up to his neck. I let out a loud “Umpf” and took my waist lamp and hiked it up around my neck. I offered my hand in the overhand chilean hand shake style…we shook hands in an unspoken “alright, let’s do this!” and I plunged into the dark cold river. It came up to my armpits while on my tip toes. Side note: After the race I asked him what he said to the volunteers, He had asked, “How deep is it?” They replied, “150 centimeters” (and he’s 160cm!)
Once I was across the other side, I ran off into the night grunting and yelling to get some adrenaline kicking to warm me up and get the blood flowing again.
The next few hours slipped by as dawn arrived after 8am. I hadn’t seen Emmanuel after the river crossing as I was just concentrating on the gnarly trail. The trails were some of the muddiest trails I’ve ever dealt with. Mud bogs mid-calf deep, moss-covered rocky technical terrain that never let up. Everything was a sloppy mess. The week of unseasonable rains southern Chile had received the previous week had everything fully saturated. Some sections you didn’t have a choice but to simply hike through a mid-calf mud bog. I had slowed a little through this section as dawn finally arrived between 8 and 9am. I was cruising along when Emmanuel caught back up to me and blew by me on a technical downhill section. He was cruising.
Whoah. I decided I better keep him in sight, so I picked up the pace so he wouldn’t drop me. I kept him in sight for a while before I had to do some pack and gear adjustments and I lost sight of him. Soon I was running along and passed him doing the same. From here on out, we ran together all the way to the 90K checkpoint at Hosteria Balmaceda. We were both soaked to the bone, it had raining a steady mist on us for 8 or 9 hours and we both got into our drop bags at the same time, ate in the food tent side by side, chowing down potato chips and soup and hot chocolate.
We left Balmaceda together with our poles out and ready to make the ascent up through what the race director had coined “The Fortress” — a 25 mile off-trail section over the high point of the course. Within a few minutes the course veered off the trail and straight up a brushy mountain side. Within 10 minutes, I caught a toe in the brush and fell onto my hands and broke one of my carbon fiber poles at the handle. Ah man! Useless equipment I still have to carry! I had no choice but to fold it up and stash it in my pack and use one pole.
At this point I just tucked in behind Emmanuel and had a little low point feeling sorry for myself. I only had one pole and I was soaking wet and cold. I perked up a bit when we hit a ridgeline in a stand of beech trees and Emmanuel pointed behind us and we were above the clouds that were sitting on the fiords below with a giant snow covered mountain range towering out of the fog. It was like a scene from Lord of the Rings. Truly specatular.
As we gained this high ridge, it was really windy and I was soaked and shivering and decided I better situate gear layers before we went any further up, as we were approaching treeline. He continued on hiking up and I stopped in the stand of beech trees which offered some protection and dug out some gear. I got out my Patagonia Nano Puff and got it on under my M10 waterproof jacket, put on a dry Cap 4 beanie and Houdini wind pants, shouldered my pack and took off running through the brush to catch up to Emmanuel and get my core temperature up.
After pushing through some beech shrubs and through a few small water-filled grassy basins, I topped my water bottles off at a snow melt stream coming out of the rocks above. As I jogged through the rocky, off-camber terrain we were on, I noticed Emmanuel was hiking and not running much. After getting more layers on I was feeling good and decided this might be a good time to make a move. I jogged by him and around a rocky point and glanced over my shoulder to see he was still hiking 40 meters back. As I rounded the corner, the route traversed a series of rocky, scree drainages for a half mile or so before dropping into a rocky basin. I picked up my pace and ran all the drainage downhills hard — 20 to 50 meter sections hard and power hiked up out of each. As I got to the basin, I ran through it, splashing across a creek and up the basin.
The route started up a steep grade of mixed jumbled rock fall and small snow fields to gain a notch above. I hiked it hard and got to the top fully sweating and warmed up. I quickly took off my nano puff and houdini pants, stuffed them in my pack and glanced back down to see Emmanuel was still in the basin. I had a good gap. I took off over the notch and up the rock field onto the snowfield wall that loomed ahead towering a quarter of mile above me.
I got into a nice hiking rhythm on the snowfield making my way to the saddle above. I soon gained the saddle and looked back down to see Emmanuel was just reaching the snowfield. I had at least 5+ minutes on him. I needed more.
I took off traversing the saddle before the route descends a steep snow slope down onto the glacier. I pulled my jacket over my rear and plopped down onto the snow to glissade down the steep incline. This is where I ran into the unmarked crevasse. Bam, I just got up off my rear to step across it. That was close. After I got across it and up and over the class 3 scramble, the course markers started to get hard to find, they were spread out and some clouds were moving in to cause a little fog. I stood on the saddle above a moraine lake trying to see which way to go. Finally I spied a blue marker down by the lake. I plunged off the saddle toward the lake.
The slope was a 40-50 degree slope of jumbled rock and snow. At this point, I would just glissade on my feet the 20-30 meter snow sections and jump off to dance through the technical rock field to the next small section of snow and repeat.
Below the lake, I ran out of markers. I hiked around the rocky hillside trying to find the next marker. After a little panic session and some praying, I found the next marker traversing up the rocky drainage, not down like I thought it would. It went against the grain and wasn’t the natural route. Easy to miss.
I soon traversed up and into an upper large flat basin and came to another stand still. I ran back and forth across the basin trying to see another marker. More praying. Finally, I spied another marker on the far end of the basin going up and over a rocky rise. I took off hard to get to it. I was worried all my effort to get away from Emmanuel were going to melt away with all the desperate searching I was doing trying to find the course. As I hit the rise and looked back, no one was in sight.
I started dropping down a drainage and could see the beech forest below me. It looked like I was heading down the prominent drainage in front of me. Sure enough, the route traversed a mossy, slick, off-camber hillside where water was everywhere. It was like traversing a 45 degree icy slope. I must have slipped and slid in the mossy water 3 or 4 times in 50 meters. Super sketchy.
Finally, I hit a rushing knee-deep stream crossing with a fixed rope and gained a very technical, faint trail. I started descending in earnest and came into a minimal aid station. Two dudes with a ziplock bag full of peanuts and some nalgene bottles they were filling in the creek to fill my water. Handfull of peanuts, topped my bottles and I was off.
The next 15 miles down the drainage was some of the most gnarly, technical terrain I’ve been on. It was muddy, slick, rocky, rooty and just constantly steep up and downs. Hard to get a rhythm. Mud bogs, peet bogs. The course just kept coming at me. Throwing every obstacle it could. More creek crossings. A wild bull sighting. Crazy and wild.
This section that evenutally drops you at Estancia Perales (mile 81) seemed like it would never end. Finally I arrived at the banks of a wide river and plunged in to cross the knee-deep river. I got into Perales at 6:47pm and quickly adjusted gear and resupplied from my drop bag. I got my headlamps on again, ditched my poles, dumped mud out of my shoes and ate a half sandwich, cup of soup and drank a coke. I was eager to get out of there before Emmanuel showed up.
I headed out of the aid talking with Max, the intern from Belgium who had been coordinating tons of logistics for us the previous days and was very helpful. I noticed Stjepan, the Race Director in the yard and told him this is a HARD course. He simply smiled and said “good job.” So, I took off up the dirt road hill out of the estancia and settled into the long dirt road marathon I had in front of me.
After about an hour it was dark again, and I kept looking back whenever the road afforded me a long view trying to see if any headlamps were on the road — nothing. I tried to get some idea from a few passing vehicles where the 2nd place runner was, but my limited spanish and the drivers lack of english kept me in the dark.
Finally with about 12 miles to go, a van passed me with Brazilian Manu Vilaseca (women’s winner of the 70K). She speaks Portugese, Spanish AND very good English and I heard someone say, “Good job, Jeff!” and I yelled at the open window, “WAIT, WAIT!” and ran up next to the van and asked them about 2nd place’s status. She said I had a HUGE lead and not to worry. Come to find out that Emmanuel had slipped descending out of the high alpine section and banged his knee and would end up dropping at mile 81 later in the night. Bummer, but thankfully he’ll heal up. I got a chance to hang with him after the race and go out for a few drinks post-race and we had a good chat with Enzo as our go-between.
At this point the fatigue really hit me. I knew I just needed to keep plugging along and I had a win, but my feet were absolutely destroyed I could tell. All the mud and grit and wet for the past 24 hours were taking their toll. I wish I would have brought a few pairs of shoes and changes of socks. But I just had what I started with, nothing I could do put keep plugging away.
I soon was hitting the last 6K of paved highway on Ruta 9, complete with a police truck behind me with red lights flashing and another truck with flashers on in front. Kinda cool and allowed me to just run down the middle of the highway’s right lane back to Puerto Natales. I came into the town square to complete Ultra Fiord’s 108 miles in 24 hours, 25 minutes and 39 seconds. Kind of weird to finish with TV cameras and lights and microphones in my face. A little different than in the U.S.
After some fatigued-induced comments to media, Stjepan the RD escorted me to Nunda, a store/cafe that was staying up round the clock to serve finishers and act as race headquarters. They made me 4 eggs and a big steak. Man, good stuff after such a long race. After a ride back to the hotel, I showered and slept. My feet are still hammered after over a week.
The race was such a beautiful, wild course. There were definitely some first year bumps, but I feel like they’re open to good constructive feedback from all those who came down. They want to continue to fine tune the race and slowly establish an official route over the 40K off-trail section. This race has tons of potential and I think they’ll continue to improve it each season.
A big thanks to the Stjepan, Max, Camilia, Sam and all the interns and volunteers that made Ultra Fiord happen. Coordinating 20 athletes from different countries is a logistical undertaking. I’m amazed how much they get done with such a small staff. Also thanks to my wife and 3 kids who support and pray for me while I’m out there in the wild. I love you guys. And many thanks to my awesome sponsors: Patagonia, Altra, GU, Ultraspire, Barleans, Rudy Project, and Black Diamond. I also have to give credit to the Big Man Upstairs, as always, keeping my path safe and getting me to the finish line in one piece. Giddyup.
Patagonia Duck Bill Hat
Patagonia Cap 4 Beanie
Patagonia Cap 1 SS Jersey + Arm Warmer Sleeves
Patagonia Strider Pro Short
Patagonia Nine Trails Jacket
Patagonia M10 Rain Jacket
Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover
Patagonia Wind Shield Gloves
Patagonia Houdini Pants
Calf Compression + Cycling Leg Warmers
Altra Lone Peak 2.5 Shoes
Black Diamond Icon and Storm Headlamps
Black Diamond Z-Poles
Ultraspire Titan Pack
Rudy Project Zyon Glasses
66 Gels, 4 large packets of Trail Butter, 1 Omnibar, and few other misc bars, soup and peanuts.