Patagonia has been a dream destination of mine for a long, long time. I've always loved watching documentaries on the region showing the amazing landscape and wildlife. It's a place I've always wanted to visit but didn't think I'd ever get the chance, so when the opportunity came to race Ultra Torres del Paine in Chile it was an easy decision to make. Fast forward 3 months and I find myself on the startline in Villa Cerró Castillo in Southern Chile with 81km and 3500m+ ahead of me, I was looking forward to this.
It's pretty cold in Patagonia at 7am so it was a relief when the gun went and we could get moving. The first couple of kms were flat, a nice warm up, before hitting the first climb of the day. As we hit the climb I began to pull away from the field, not intentionally, but I was comfortable so I pushed on up the 500m of ascent. The route was on a dirt road so I wasn't really paying much attention to the course markings, I was too busy looking at the colours in the sky before sunrise. As is traditional for me, I missed the course markings that lead away from the route and onto the open hillside. By the time I realised my mistake I'd ran an extra km off course and had to run another km back to the correct route, I met another few runners along the way who had made the same mistake, sometimes 81km just isn't enough! By the time I got back on track I'd dropped from first to fifth but I wasn't overly concerned as I could see the other runners off in the distance and pulled them in by the time we hit the bottom of the first descent at around 12km. The sunrise was pretty special, amazing colours in the sky showing the incredible Torres del Paine off in the distance.
I took the lead again at the bottom of the second climb and as I approached the top I could see two massive birds sitting at the edge of a cliff just 20m for me. They were giant condors, I actually stopped to watch them as they took off. They were massive, a sight I'll never forget. I've seen them on TV before but I couldn't believe how big they are when you're this close to them. I lost a couple of minutes watching them but it was worth it. The chasing pack of 3 caught me so no more condor watching, back to the race! I stayed with the pack until we hit the checkpoint at 15km. Between checkpoints 1 and 2 were a fairly flat 5 kms which took us to the bottom of the toughest climb of the day, a pretty brutal 800m+ over just 3km. This part of the course reminded me so much of an area very close to where I grew up in the South of Scotland called the Dalvean Pass, very green, very steep and very wet underfoot. By the bottom of the climb I already had a gap on the others again and by half way up I could see that the gap was opening all the time so I just relaxed again and really enjoyed the surroundings trying to take it all in. The climb was pretty brutal, really steep and long enough to make you wish it was over but it was worth it for the views from the top, just unbelievable. Underfoot conditions had changed from boggy marshland to volcanic ash and snow. Running along a volcanic ridge in the snow just after sunrise was just surreal, one of those magical moments that stays with you forever. The descent was pretty amazing too, through a forest of dead trees that have turned a white blue kind of colour, just totally alien to anything I've seen before. It's easy to forget that you're in a race in these kind of situations.
The next checkpoint at 33km was supposed to be where I would collect my drop bag that contained my gels for the remainder of the race. Unfortunately I arrived before the drop bag! It meant I'd have to rely on whatever they had in the aid stations for the next 50km, a little bit risky but there was no other option. A few kms outside he checkpoint my mind was still thinking about my lack of nutrition when I heard a strange noise, looked up and saw my first guanaco, kind of like a lama. That seemed to make me forget about my gels, what a place!
The next 25km were pretty wet, muddy and fairly flat. I discovered they had chocolate and bananas in every checkpoint so that kept me going. This section was really remote, no people, no buildings, no signs of civilisation in any direction, a true wilderness. Eventually I started to catch the runners from the shorter races that had started at various points along the same route. I quite like this kind of scenario as it always gives you targets to work towards when you can see people off in the distance. The going was really slow in a lot of laces with the underfoot conditions, knee deep mud, huge puddles, river crossings, not somewhere to be breaking any speed records but a great course all the same.
By 60km the course started to climb again, not a continuous climb but really rolling and with the underfoot conditions and 60km in the legs already it made finding any kind of rhythm pretty tough.The most important thing was I was still moving well and my energy was very good, maybe chocolate and bananas are the way to go. By 78km we emerged from a forest at the top of the final descent, the views opened up beneath us of a massive flat plain with stunning mountains all around. The finish line was in the grounds of Hotel Río Serrano visible from 3km out. The last descent was brilliant, nice smooth single track, really fast running. I hit the bottom of the descent and knew that with only 1km of flat to the finish I had the race won. I just relaxed, enjoyed the moment and took in the amazing location. A really great day.
Thank you so much to the race organisers and Carrerasdemontana.com for the invitation. And thanks to the people I met along the way. I had a really special time.
See you in April Chile!