Returning to Torres del Paine for the second year
The Ultra Trail Torres del Paine 109k is the brainchild of race director Stjepan Pavicic, held in one of the most unique places on Earth. I was so fortunate enough to participate in the 63k ultra in 2013, and I knew I could not pass up the opportunity to return in 2014, especially after hearing that they were adding a trail ultra distance. Running through Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile is surreal, and a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts, but that is not the sole reason that this event so uniquely special. It is the congregation of likeminded adventurers from all over the world running for a cause.
Epic weather to make for a challenging race
Race morning came around very quickly for me after many hours of traveling. The reason I say this is because the 109k ultra marathon started at 2 a.m. and our hotel was a good hour from the start line. That meant only a few short hours of sleep after dinner before the bumpy ride to the start. I knew it was going to be a shock to the system, and I predicted inclement weather, but I couldn’t have written the script for what actually went down in the inaugural UTTP 109k! The cold wind was absolutely howling and the small group of runners remained hunkered down in Sprinter vans with the heat pumping, preparing the gear, calories, headlamps, etc. before heading out into the star lit night. Willie and I both looked at each other in disbelief and before long Stjepan gave us a countdown to begin the journey.
The first 10k was a little quick as dirt roads and the adrenaline made for fast leg turnover, but then I settled into a comfortable and sustainable pace. The wind was vicious and my eyes were the only part of my body exposed. It was now about 3 a.m. and I found myself running in tandem with a man from Argentina. We chatted a bit in broken Spanish and English and switched out the lead at times, drafting each other in the onslaught of gale force winds. The first three hours of this race was hands-down the most powerful and extreme wind that I have ever experienced while running. It had to be in excess of 60 miles per hour at times (and sustained), but I plugged along power-hiking the hills and pounding the downhills whenever possible trying to shake off the Argentinian.
Keeping up the pace to maintain first place
About two miles from the first aid station I looked back and didn’t see any headlamps behind me and thought that maybe I put a cushion on my lead as I approached the first aid station at about 34 kilometers into the long race. It didn’t surprise me to hear that runners dropped at this point, including my compadre Willie, who was coming off a stellar top ten performance at the Tahoe 200-miler, which I was there to witness firsthand.
As I was in the warm aid station cabin I was surprised to see 2nd place come rolling in shortly after me emptying trash and restocking my pack. The roaring flames dancing in the fireplace and comfortable couches looked really inviting, but I knew I had to get in and out. After a quick bowl of soup I headed back out into the cold looking for the trail. It took me a few minutes to find it and I was a little annoyed that I lost time trying to navigate through a muddy farmland, but eventually got back on track.
I was now following the orange-tipped stakes through thick forest. The trails were narrow and hard to follow at times, and there were many water crossings. Amazingly, I was able to keep my feet relatively dry and I thought that this was an area that I could put more time on whoever is behind me. About an hour into these dense forests I looked ahead and just off to my right to see some eyes reflecting in my beam of light. Just as it was getting light out I locked eyes with a young puma about 75 feet away. It checked me out for a few seconds and then jumped over a log and ran away. This was the first time I’ve seen a big cat in the wild and I even said out loud, “cool!” as his long tail whipped over the log and out of sight. At that moment I wasn’t scared at all, I felt wild, just like the cat and I got the sense he was just as impressed by me as I was of him.
Battling through blurry vision and howling wind
Once the sun came up I clicked off my headlamp and kept rubbing my eyes. They seemed very blurry and foggy. I thought maybe because I was tired, and I even put saliva on my fingers many times and tried clearing them to no avail. The only way I can describe it is when you’re watching television or a movie and they are trying to portray someone having a dream. That glazed, clouded, haze. It was starting to become a little bit of an issue for me, but at least the sun was out as I made my way towards the next aid station at Paine Grande. The wind was still just relentless and at times I walked backwards into it screaming out loud for mercy, barely able to hear my own voice!
When I finally reached Paine Grande aid station I hand-motioned for people to ask if anyone had eye drops. They shook their heads no, and I drank a couple cups of hot coffee and restocked my pack feeling a bit disheveled. Then as I was getting ready to leave a woman came running back in with a bottle of eye drops in her hand! I quickly put as much as I could into my eyes and thanked them very much, looking like I was balling my eyes out.
Unfortunately, it did absolutely nothing to improve my vision and I headed back out into the race. The weather was much nicer with blue skies and sun, but that wind was still really whipping at times. My vision was reduced to about 50% and putting on sunglasses would actually make it more difficult to see. It was pretty ironic that I was in one of the most beautiful places, and I could hardly see 20 feet ahead of me! However, I was now on the “W”, which is a popular trekking route that I actually did with Krissy Moehl after last year’s race, so I was pretty familiar with where I was going.
Finishing off the race and getting the ‘W’
The final 20 miles involved many stumbles along the way, but I felt confident that I could still take the win barring no major disasters. For the last miles, I thought about my family, how much my life has changed, and how lucky I am to be in Patagonia for the 2nd year in a row. I also thought about the other racers and how they might be dealing with the conditions and sending them out positive thoughts.
Eventually I made my way to the finish line area and I saw Willie running towards me. I wasn’t terribly surprised to see him given the conditions and based on his recent racing. He congratulated me and snapped a photo, and I was very relieved to be first at the festive finish line area.
I was immensely happy with the gear that I used for the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine. I definitely think that this quality gear gave me an edge over my competition, which on this particular day was also the elements and Mother Nature.
Shoes: Trailroc 245
Pack: Race elite 16
Jacket: Race Elite 150 Storm Shell