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Global Running: Pushing the Limits at the Ultra Fiord Trail Races in Chile

How challenging should the course of an ultra-distance trail race really be?

A runner carefully makes his way through the Ultra Fiord 100K in Chilean Patagonia in April. Photo: Alexis Gatica
A runner carefully makes his way through the Ultra Fiord 100K in Chilean Patagonia in April. Photo: Alexis Gatica

In recent years, ultra-distance trail running has exploded on the global stage as the sport has gotten more competitive and new events have popped up in some amazing places around the world.

While the advent of destination racing has sent both elite professional athletes and passionate age-group runners globetrotting in search of competitive races, new adventures and occasionally bigger prize purses, it has also exposed the vast differences on the risk vs. reward spectrum between various races.

What’s acceptable in terms of technical difficulty in ultra-distance mountain races has become a frequently debated topic inside the trail running community, especially when cultural differences about inherent risk and personal responsibility come into play. As passionate participants of this growing discipline of running, we want to push ourselves to the extreme over wild and remote terrain, but we also expect a safety net to catch us if we fall. The degree of that expectation, of course, depends on where you’re from, what your experience level is and how long you’ll be out on the course, although the cold hard fact is that a safety net usually just isn’t always possible in the mountains.

The first edition of the Ultra Fiord trail races, recently held in a small, untouched range of mountains near Puerto Natales, Chile, are a great example of how some newer international events serve up an extreme dichotomy of rich experience and heightened risk. That event, which drew 164 runners and included 30K, 70K, 100K and 100-mile races with increasingly more rugged terrain, was organized by Stjepan Pavicic, the same race director behind the well-received but challenging Patagonian International Marathon and the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine. The 100K race had about 13,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, while the 100-mile course featured more than 19,500 feet of elevation change.

PHOTOS: Patagonian International Marathon

While top-level ultra runners Jeff Browning, Krissy Moehl and Xavier Thevenard generally reveled in the challenge of the endlessly wet, muddy conditions and wild nature of the terrain, they also admitted to struggling too—an indication that the mid-packers and back-of-the-packers endured considerable hardships to reach the finish line.  

There were a few runners that felt the long off-trail section (which included weaving around the crevasses of the Chacabuco Glacier) neared the far limits of reasonable course selection. Pavicic defended the route that he’d conceived of and blazed himself, while he and his crew of young staffers worked tirelessly through the race night(s) to keep things in order and runners safe. There was happiness and relief as one mud-strewn (and mostly smiling) racer after another emerged from the trenches, exasperatedly telling tales of the difficulty.

Needless to say, it was not a boring couple of days at the bottom of the world.

“Chile is pretty laid-back, with a little of that ‘Don’t worry, it will be fine’ attitude,” said Browning, who won the Ultra Fiord 100-mile distance in 24 hours, 25 minutes. “You wouldn’t have a glacier like that in an ultra race in the U.S. You definitely need to be ready for a wild adventure.”

PHOTOS: Chile’s Ultra Fiord Trail Races

Pavicic has a childlike zeal for exploration and a tangible obsession with the most rugged parts of Patagonia. You can look in his eyes and sense his desire to provide people with life-changing, on-the-edge experiences through his races. Needless to say, Ultra Fiord is a good example.

“It was the hardest race conditions I’ve ever been in,” Browning said. “You can bail just about anywhere in the Hardrock 100. The thing about Ultra Fiord is once you commit to that section, you’re in. It’s all wild in every direction. There’s just no roads.”

Krissy Moehl, the women’s winner in the 100K (and fourth overall) in 19:31, attested to the difficulty.

“It took all of the tool sets I’ve gained over the years, like I was recalling multiple races just to get through that one,” Moehl said. 

Moehl says she understood people’s concerns about the route and agreed that there needed to be better communication about the course beforehand, though as a race director herself she acknowledged that most trail races tend to evolve once they’re established.

“First-year events are hard, pulling together all the pieces and knowing what needs to be available,” she says. “In the end, we sign up for it, we choose to do these things. Everything went well, everything was just fine.”

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It will be exciting to see Ultra Fiord evolve, as the never-before-traveled route becomes further established and more runners are drawn to the grueling challenge.

“It has the potential to be a big, classic world race,” Browning says. “It seems to me like what Hardrock was in the beginning, like before they thought ‘Oh, we should probably put a fixed rope on the snowfield coming off Virginius Pass’. I really think it has the original Hardrock spirit.”

In a post-race interview with journalist Anne-Marie Dunhill, Pavicic summed up the success of the event.

“There were zero accidents, zero people lost and 120 deep, wild, life experiences,” he said. “We are always seeking to improve, but we will not change the soul of this race.  You know, I didn’t want to create the hardest ultra trail race or even the most difficult, I just wanted to create an event with the stamp of Patagonia on it.”

First-year kinks aside, or perhaps partly because of them, Pavicic succeeded unquestionably in that goal.

RELATED: A Go-To Guide To International Racing

The Ultra Fiord trail races will be held April 14-16, 2016.