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Volcano Ultra Trail: Mountain Running Erupting in Chilean Patagonia

The Osorno Volcano in the Los Lagos reigon of Chile is a powerful monstrosity of seismic creation. Sitting just shy of 9,000 feet high with a massive prominence of 6,100 feet from sea to summit, its one of the most active volcanoes in the southern Chilean Andes. Tucked deep beyond the neighboring Patagonian town of Puerto Varas, the snow-capped peak rests its base at the edge of the great Lago Llanquihue, roughly 30 miles north from the Calbuco Volcano. Last April, for the first time in 40 years, Calbuco erupted, blowing its cap completely off and spewing out miles of thick volcanic ash and debris to neighboring forests, rivers and towns. As of a result of Calbuco’s eruption Osorno and its surroundings were covered in a thick layer of volcanic sand that would make this Volcanic Ultra Trail races in early December the most physically demanding races the world has ever known.

PHOTOS: 2015 Volcano Ultra Trail Races in Chilean Patagonia

The 100K version of the race circumnavigated the entirety of the Osorno Volcano with 14,000 feet of climbing and descent. The 73K and 42K distances followed suit with 10,000 and 7,000 feet of climbing in each respective race. While the 100K is the only race to circumnavigate the 8,700-foot conical stratovolcano, all of the races have one thing in common: an absolutely mind-blowing amount of volcanic sand. As a result of Calbuco’s eruption, this year’s races were ran almost entirely in ankle to shin deep volcanic ash. With some short-lived exceptions on road sections in the 100K and 73K courses, the marathon’s course never reached hard-packed dirt or trail and only on the last climb did it briefly cross over a short and steep volcanic rock field. By far, the sand was the most difficult element of the race to deal with. It was an exceptionally hot race day for the area as well, reaching 87 degrees by mid-day. When you combined the heat with the exposure and sand-filled shoes, the 2015 Volcano Ultra Trail was a brutal slog around one of the most iconized volcanoes in the world.

Horacio Lyon grew up in Puerto Varas, he and his trail running friends trained on the terrain of the Osorno Volcano for years before making the jump into race directing. They developed a series of races (both ultra and shorter distances) on this challenging terrain. This year was Volcano Ultra Trail’s third running, bringing a total of 1,638 runners competing in distances from the 100k UltraTerra (175) to the 42K Volcano Marathon (337) and 21K Trail (437). In 2013, I lived near Puerto Varas on the neighboring island of Chiloé, during this time I had encountered Osorno a handful of times from a view across the grand lake in a town called Frutillar. It wasn’t, however, until I stepped foot beneath the beast for this year’s 100K race that I saw the vast diversity of ecosystems and terrain that encompassed this stoic giant.

From the marathon to the 100K, runners were taken through dense volcanic forests. Passing through leaves the size of car doors and grabbing onto fixed ropes to aid in climbing steep loose terrain, while searching for the next course marker that paved the way for the mostly off trail race. Out of the forests runners emerged onto steep volcanic rock fields that were accentuated by sharp ridges covered in layers of volcanic sand. The sheer grade of the climbs are closely comparable to those found in sky races around the world. However, when volcanic ash from the Calbuco eruption established itself on the three vertical kilometer ascents throughout the courses, these climbs transformed into absolute suffer fests that left runners relying more on raw power and patience, rather than speed and cadence.

The Volcano Ultra Trail is known throughout Chile and beyond as being one of the most competitive races in the country. This year was no exception. Cristofer Clemente Mora (a Spanish speedster from the Canary Islands who was second at this year’s Run the Rut 50K in Montana and second overall in the Ultra division of the 2015 Skyrunner World Series) and Boulder, Colo., mountain running powerhouse Joe Grant (seventh-fastest Hardrock 100 time ever) tied for first on the podium. Although not speaking a mutual language, the two ran almost every step of the 100K race together and crossed the tape hand and hand in 12:31:35, establishing the new course record. It was an inspiring display of the humble community surrounding international mountain and ultra running. Grant and Clemente had mutually decided after racing back and forth for the majority of the event that they would run the rest of the race together and finish their trip around the volcano in tandem with wide smiles, embracing the monumental feat that they had just accomplished.

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Boulder, Colo., backpacking legend Andrew Skurka rounded up the podium with a third-place finish in 13:24:41. Skurka noted that despite his experience with the 6,875-mile Great Western Loop and 7,778-mile Sea-to-Sea route earning him 2007 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year that the Vulcano Ultra Trail 100K held its own as one of the most physically taxing events he’s ever participated in. Coming off her 10th place finish at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Brazilian Manuela Vilaseca lit fire to the already blazingly hot course, establishing the new female 100K course record in 15:48:00. Local Chilean Veronica Bravo (winner of the 2015 Costa Rica Costal Challenge) was second in 18:09:00 and Argentine Laura Emilce was third in 19:19:23.

I had the pleasure of running the majority of the marathon with friends—local Chilean’s Max Keith and Enzo Ferrari. We all agreed that the heat combined with the shin-deep sand made for one of the toughest courses we had ever experienced. Ferrari, who just came off his 100-mile win at the North Face Endurance Challenge Chile, said completing the course took every once of energy he had that day. Moises Jimenez, a native to the Patagonian region by way of Coyhaique, Chile, ran a near flawless 73K finishing second (9:29:59) to Francisco Alexa (9:27:50) after a big win at the North Face Endurance Challenge 80K earlier this October.

With new races appearing almost annually Chile has been establishing itself as a prominent ultra mountain-running destination.The Volcano Ultra Trail races in early December have erupted onto the international mountain running radar in recent years, inviting adventurous runners who wish to test their might against the beautiful yet rugged Northern Patagonian Andes. A race course that can only be described through the most figurative of language, the Osorno Volcano has now rooted itself not only as a beautiful gem to view from a distance, but a brutal force to reckon with in a pair of running shoes.

The 2016 Volcano Ultra Trail races will take place in early December (Southern Hemisphere’s summer). There is a wild magic of Patagonia that can only be experienced by being there, delving and embracing its soil first hand. If you are looking for an international adventure, Patagonia will welcome you with humble arms and rugged terrain.

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