UTMB Uahuaia 2019 – Race Report

I didn’t get a huge amount of sleep the night before the race, given that my alarm was set for 2:30 a.m. But it was enough. The Columbia Argentina crew kindly offered to pick me up from my hotel and drop me to the bus departure point at the race hotel. Even though it was less than a kilometer, given the weather forecast I was happy to avail of the offer. As it turned out it was dry at that point. The short transfer to the start line was all very efficient, and we had about 150 runners ready to go in plenty of time.

A nice small field (relative to the Chamonix UTMB) ensured that it was easy to saunter in to a good position near the front without any fuss or bother. We had the classic UTMB music (1492, by Vangelis) playing over the P.A. system as the start time became imminent. That’s once piece of music I’ve always loved, and its now firmly associated with UTMB for me now. As the music reached its crescendo we had a countdown in Spanish, and then we were off.

It was a nice wide dirt road to start on, so there was no mad panicky jockeying for position. Everyone seemed to be able to head off comfortably at their own pace. The leaders weren’t doing a lunatic pace, but I was still happy to let them away and settle into a nice fast but cruisy pace for the first kilometer or two along the seaside road.

I had decided to wear my Columbia Outdry Down jacket (a magic combination of down jacket with a waterproof out layer) as my midlayer. Given the weather forecast I wanted to have it with me in case conditions turned really nasty, and I realised that the easiest thing to do was simply wear it from the start. The only potential downside was that it might work too well and I could overheat. I was warming up, but it was tolerable. Adjusting zips on the midlayer and shell layer gave me enough control to adjust enough.

The road turned to trail, and then we turned right to head inland and start climbing. Here we go. I had my poles a bit too long and did a quick adjust so that they were just right. Soon I was catching and overtaking people by keeping up a slow run on the climbs when others walked. The trails were nice, snaking their way through the trees, and not too manicured at all.

Ushuai Coastline

The Ushuaia Coastline. The early section of the race followed the coast before heading inland.

We broke out of the forest after a while and were on a long forest road section, which took us through the first aid station where our numbers were scanned for the timing system (the numbers have built-in timing chips). By now my position had basically stabilised with the same runners both just in front and behind me through this section.

I was happy with my speed, being able to keep up a nice fast pace but still very much controlled without any real exertion. We turned into another trail section. This one was much more wild, with a few nice technical sections, and one or two short sharp wall-like climbs.

After this we broke out onto a road section. This section was the substitute for the first big climb which had to be taken out because of the high winds on top. Down in the valleys the wind was much less noticeable, especially when in the forested sections. I settled in for a bit of road running. Its times like this where I’m glad I’m not a pure trail runner, as this section would have driven a pure trail runner bonkers. It turned out to b a very very long drag, mostly a gentle climb. It had also started snowing by now (the bad weather finally making its presence felt).

I overtook one or two runners here, either because they were a bit slower on the road, or because they were getting their waterproof jacket on. On some section of the road it was more noticeably exposed to the wind, and the snow was being driven across us quite hard at these points. The runner who had been just behind on the fireroads very gradually passed me and slowly but surely opened up a gap of about 100 meters. I could feel that there were one or two runner just behind.

After what seemed a very long drag we finally hit the turn off from the road at a small drinks only aid station, along with the standard number scan. A short steep muddy climb took us up to a well used forest road which ran above the road. There was obviously a bit of forestry operations going on, as the road was well churned up. It made picking nice lines without sinking my shoes into deep puddles a nice distracting on-going task.

At one point two runners came back towards us. We had been assured that there would be markers at minimum every 100 meters, and they had run on without seeing one for a while. I knew I had passed one about 100 meters back, but we all decided to head back to confirm it. I was first to turn and carry on along the original track,  as I could see no other obvious options. After about 300 meters we passed another marker.

As we turned around I noticed that one of the runners in our little cluster of 4 or 5 was Rory Bosio (American top class female ultra trail runner and Former UTMB record holder), who I had met and briefly chatted with at the race press conference a day earlier, so we exchanged greetings. I was very happy to be in a group with a runner of her class. After a few short sharp undulation a group of about 3 of us emerged to the front, which included Rory, and we had a nice chat for a while.

Ushuaia UTMB from Plane 2

We were originally to head into the valley on the right by going over the mountains, but had to take the valley between the mountains instead.

The fireroad ended at a road crossing, which was policed for us. We were now back on the original course. The trail on the other side of toad still ran in parallel, but was much rougher and more interesting. Eventually we came to what was obviously a ski piste, so I knew the next aid station was close. Sure enough within a kilometer we turned at a marshaled point for an in-and out trip down to the ski station where a nice warm indoor aid station was set up.

I just grabbed one or two pieces of fruit and did a rapid turn-around to head back out. The other runner from the lead group followed closely behind as we dragged our way back up the piste (which had a light dusting of snow from the current weather) back to the marshal where we turned to carry on down the trail.

This soon brought us out onto another section of road. My running companion came alongside and we chatted about the dogs we had heard howling (it sounded bizarre) a kilometer or two before the aid station (I reckoned they were a farmer’s working dogs). I could tell from his accent that he wasn’t once of the south American runners, so I asked him where he was from, which was Estonia.

A lightbulb lit up in my head and I realised I had met him before out in UTMB Oman. We confirmed that and chatted about that. He was running much more strongly at this point in this race than in Oman. After about 2 kilometers we turned back off the road, thankfully, and up steeply into another trail.

After a few minutes on this trail I reckoned there was enough light in the sky now that I could turn off my headtorch. It was definitely nicer to have some more awareness of the “big picture” surroundings. There was a few spectacular mountains around us, all with a good covering of snow.

The trail was pretty obvious, so we were pretty relaxed, seeing the occasional marker to confirm we were all good. After a while we ran into another runner running towards us, who I recognised as Chico Santos, a top ranked Brazilian runner who I had also met at the press conference. He said he had run on for a kilometer and turned around because he hadn’t seen a marker. So again we turned to retrace our steps to the previous marker, quickly meeting Rory and another runner who joined us.

Leivo, the Estonian runner, had a GPS watch and quickly confirmed that we had missed a turn, but it wasn’t far. Sure enough we came across the turn within a minute or two. Not too much time wasted. The turn took us on to a much wilder track. We had been told at the race briefing that the ground here could have quite a bit of water,and basically described boggy conditions. Sure enough, there were plenty of boggy bits on this track.

This was the most technical section yet, and was a lot of fun, whilst being a lot of hard work. There was a mix of boggy sections through trees, and boggy sections in more open ground, with lots of undulations over what was fundamentally a gentle climb (but in no way seemed like it). After a while Chico’s raw speed started to tell, and as we left the treeline behind he gradually opened up a gap and disappeared off. The other two lads were not too far ahead, with Rory slowly gaining from behind, having stopped to put gloves on.

As we gained altitude the snow cover became deeper, so that it wasn’t long before we were plodding through a completely snow-covered landscape. I was thinking that this probably wasn’t the race that anyone, organisers included, was expecting. But I was enjoying the full on Patagonian experience.

The Argentinian army had volunteered as race helpers, and there was quite a few of them up here. They had laid out a continuous yellow tape roughly following where the path would be. Of course there was no trace of a path at this stage, just snowprints of runners (and army boots) in the snow blanket. Rory passed me on this section and joined up with the 2 lads ahead. I was happy enough to stick to my own pace and let the gap open or close accordingly. There were plenty of false tops over the top of the pass, and it took a while to run over the plateau before we finally reached the descent section.

A little nature break here let the gap open up enough so that they were out of sight and out of mind, and I was running completely solo for the first time in the race (although I wasn’t looking back to see if anyone could be seen behind. It was way too early to worry about battling for positions, especially now that this race had its difficult sections so heavily back-loaded).

At the briefing we were told that this was a new path. It was very technical, and actually quite a lot of fun. Although I was going a bit slower than I would ideally have liked, being careful not to fall, and not to put too much stress on my muscles and knees too early in the race. You could tell the track was new, with a lot recently cut vegetation, and new gaps cut into fallen trees.

I was presuming that the others would be opening a big gap ahead of me, but about two-thirds of the way down this descent section I caught a glimpse of a red jacket ahead, which was Leivo. Of course I used this as motivation to try to close the gap down a bit.

After the nice long technical descent, which burned off most of the height the trail turned into a forest road track. 5 minutes of this later led us onto a dirt road which skirted the edge of a gorgeous small (by local standards… maybe 2km long) lake. There was a small drinks aid station a few hundred meters along this road. /i just had my number scanned but didn’t stop for anything else, so I was now just behind Leivo. About 1 kilometer along the rod I could see the green jacket of Rory up ahead.

Leivo slowly open up the gap again along the lakeside flat section of dirt road. At the end of the lake the road veered up into forest with a gentle incline. Leivo walked this short incline, so the gap closed a bit again. As the road made it way in slow climb through the forest this pattern repeat on the slightly steeper section. By the time we came to a junction, and a left turn towards the half-way aid station (beside a huge lake) I was within 5 meters.

After the turn there was a couple of hundred meters of gentle descent and I slowly closed the gap to run beside him. We chatted about how much was left to the aid station (a volunteer on a quad bike had said it was about 5 kilometers when he passed us on the lakeside road). When we hit the next short climb I ran up as usual, but Leivo again walked. This pattern repeated over the net few kilometers of dirt road so that the gap opened up.

After what seemed like a lot longer than 5 kilometers I finally reached the junction for the out and back run down to the lakeshore. it was a long enough out and back section, so it could be interesting to see if I’d meet anyone coming out. Sure enough a few hundred meters down I met a runner in a bright orange jacket who I hadn’t seen before, and gave him a wave. A few minutes later Chico was making solid speed up the road, and I gave him a wave and some verbal encouragement.

Unusually we were scanned in and out about 200 meters from the aid station itself. I was quite glad to get to this aid station, as I had been trying to maintain a relatively fast cruise pace on dirt rod section, so a little time out would allow a little recovery. As usual I was aiming to minimise this stop. Rory was in the aid station and we had a quick chat. She was looking as fresh as ever.

Ushuaia UTMB from Plane 4 (2 lakes)

The trail followed the shoreline of the smaller lake on the bottom left, then along a dirt track just visible in the trees, with an out and back to the big lake, before heading into the big hills.

Our drop bags (30 litre plastic bags which we could put supplies into) had been moved to here by the race organisation. I had lots of spare clothes, but through the entire race so far I had not changed a thing, keeping all my layers on through all the various conditions we encountered. I was also carry an extra fleece layer in my ruck sack already, along with my lightweight heavy-duty Mountain Hardware mittens, So I already had all I reckoned I needed. As was somewhat predictable I hadn’t touched the small food supplies I had on my rucksack either.

So all I needed to do was swap head torch batteries for my #1 lamp (just in case… I had no idea how long we would be spending in the dark at the end), and pour the peach juices I had in the drop bag into one of my water bottles. I had also been drinking very little to this point. I started the race with one of my bottles filled with orange and mango juices, and it was still about half full. Whilst doing this I accepted the offer of some coffer from the aid station staff, just for a little warming effect, and maybe a caffeine kick.

Of course Murphy’s law applied and the two things I wanted were at the bottom of the drop bag, so there was a scattering and re-shoveling of kit. Whilst doing this Rory headed out, and Leivo arrived in. After what I reckon was about 10 minutes I was ready to go. Two more runners arrived in (now I knew the gap behind). I grabbed a few bits of fruit again, supplemented by a few nice jelly sweets for a sugar kick (as well as simply tasting great), and then I was out the door and off again.

The easy drifting run down to the aid station was now a moderate climb back out. I made sure to run the whole thing, knowing that would probably start building a gap again. As this was roughly halfway distance wise I was starting to switch to a more aggressive racing mode. The limb ahead was one of the big ones on the course, and the race notes indicated it was quite steep and technical. It was also a lot higher than the snow-covered pass of the preceding climb, so conditions had the potential to be very “interesting” up there.

After the out and back junction it was back onto the relatively flat dirt road for a few kilometers, before a left turn led to much narrower muddy jeep track which was a bit steeper. At this point it had finally stopped snowing, and there were even hints of blue skies.

I reckoned the muddy jeep track was still just about runable, so I kept the running going without over exerting. I actually was running very well indeed now. I’ve definitely been climbing a lot better in the last month, and the results of this training were kicking in nicely. I manged to run this entire dirt track section, and hit the downhills comfortably but at a very good speed.

I had chosen to use a fairly unique pair of shoes for this race, which combines the Outdry Extreme waterproof upper and built-in gator of the Columbia Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes with the very aggressive grip and nicely balanced cushioning of the Columbia Montrail Trans Alps Shoe. The grip was noticeable on the muddy downhills and I was flying along with confidence as a result.

The road took me up into a high valley,where it ended and led onto a barely existing trail through very rough ground. Back to full-on technical running. The views around me were fabulous. I was wondering which of the passes through the high peaks the trail would take. There were definitely no easy options.

The trail round its way through very rough ground in the middle of the valley before heading into forest on the left side of the valley. As I looked ahead I reckoned I caught sight of a flash of bright green. I must have closed the gap right up on Rory. This was good. I was working to ensure that I wouldn’t be caught and overtaken, but gaining on runners in front was a nice side effect.

The section through the forest was another very technical undulating track that seemed to be fairly new. After about 20 minutes or so I started catching more regular glimpses of Rory. Eventually I ended up within 10 meters. She must have noticed me, as she upped he speed a little and started very slowly opening the gap again. Motivation was working in both directions and we were both moving well as a result.

The forested trail slowly climbing the left side of the valley ended with a left turn, with the trail heading pretty much straight up the side of the mountain beside a small stream. This was in no way runable. It was quite the opposite. The ground was very steep indeed. I was thinking that anyone who gets this far without poles will be at a significant disadvantage here.

The steep climb witched here and there to being open ground beside the stream, to being inside the edge of the forest. Going through the forest sections I was having flashbacks to Barkley. This was a seriously steep challenging climb. I was going to make it my priority to get up with reasonable speed, but not to over-exert. It would be very easy to push too hard here, with a huge chunk of the race still left to go. And this is was just the first of the 3 significant big climbs (having lost the original first climb to a weather related safety call to reroute the race).

Rory was moving just a little faster ahead, but every now and then would stop for a moment, so overall the gap didn’t change much. The climb was relentless, and if anything seemed to be getting steeper. Once above the forest the open ground was covered in snow. Again, there was no obvious path, but there was a line of footsteps in the snow that was easily followed, passing the occasion race marker. About half way up Rory began to steadily open the gap between us again. I was sticking to my plan to pace this climb very carefully and not blow any limits too soon, so this didn’t bother me.

About two-thirds of the way there was a small plateau, where there were some tents pitched (Probably safety team). Looking up the final wall of the climb it looked steeper again.  It was also much more rock-covered, so likely more technical. I could see two other runners ahead higher up the slope. It looked like Chico, a little ahead of the orange jacketed runner. Amazingly Chico was still in shorts. It was bloody cold up here now! Rory had been making excellent pace and looked to be halfway towards catching the runner ahead.

We had been warned that the ground here was steep and covered in loose rocks, but the snow and cold temperatures had the effect of holding it all together. So the chances of someone knocking rocks down from above accidentally were significantly reduced.

I took the climb on patiently and made my way up steadily. Despite not putting in too big an effort I was happy with the speed of progress. Towards the top the wind was becoming more noticeable, with a significant chilling effect. Overall it was an epic climb, one of hardest I’ve done in a running race, made all the more epic by the weather conditions. I was thankful to have got it done in a relatively dry period of the day.

Finally I topped out, with a marshal on top tagging my number. He told me that the next big climb was being taken out of the race as it was too windy up on the pass. I wasn’t sure whether this was good or bad news! We had now lost two of the four big climbs in the race due to the weather conditions. So I was going to have an easier day. On the other hand longer races suit me better, and the longer a race goes generally the more opportunity I get to grind out a good result.

I couldn’t see any runners in front looking down the mountain. They must be descending fast. It was less steep on this side of the mountain, but all the snow on the ground mixed in with rock fields made for a tricky descent. Again, I was taking this relatively easily and gently as I didn’t want to risk a slide/trip and fall. It took quite a while to get any kind of rhythm going on such technical terrain.

A did look around a fair bit making this descent, and the scenery was fairly epic. It was definitely turning into an epic race. I was recalling chatting to someone recently saying the main reason I turned myself into a runner from my hill walking / mountaineering previous life was for the competitive aspect. You generally don’t race mountaineering. But this race WAS actually feeling more like a raced mountaineering event for large parts. I was definitely enjoying the adventure.

The descent turned right to head out the valley, and became significantly flatter. As a result it was back to good running speed. However the ground was quite boggy from here, and all the fresh precipitation made it very waterlogged in parts. There were some nice zippy undulating sections through sections of forest to break things up. At one point I caught sight of a red jacket head. None of the runners I knew of ahead had a red jacket though. A few minutes late I caught up with the red jacket in a forest section. It was a pair of hillwalks. We exchanged “Hola”s and they wished me well with my running (I think).

It got a little steeper again, but now the ground was turning into cut-up boggy muddy trail. A lifetime living in Ireland means that I know how to mud-surf down these kind tracks with a good amount of speed! I could see a power-line tower in a flat plain ahead, so I guessed I must be starting the approach to the next aid station. (The power-line is probably near a road, and the road is where an aid station is most easily set up, particularly if there is a building there).

At this stage I was very happy with my energy levels, and with the speed I was maintaining. It felt like I could keep this up for a long time. It was also good psychologically that I was more wondering if I would be able to catch any runners ahead, than worrying about anyone catching me from behind. I had no idea what my race position was, but if the last runner I had seen ahead of me was Rory Bosio then it must be alright.

Hitting the flat plain the trail turned into a more obvious walking track. A times there were long sections where pieces of wood were laid out to provide a “bridge” of sorts across boggy ground, sometimes one or two hundred meters long. There were a few hill walkers along these trails as well.

I was pretty glad to get to the next aid station in the end. I probably took about 3 times longer than usual here… in other words 2 or 3 minutes. I grabbed a few pieces of fruit (The fruit at all the food aid stations was really nice, with slices of apple, orange and banana generally available). I also grabbed a small cup of coffee mainly for the warmth, but sure a little caffeine kick would do no harm!. One last grab of a few jelly sweets and off I went.

This was originally designed to be an out and back loop, but with the removal of the next mountain pass it no longer looped back to the inbound track. For such a short stop I was feeling quite nicely refreshed afterwards. There was a tent near the trail with marshals at the  new turn point down the alternate lower course. There was much smiley waving and cheering in both directions as I ran by and turned onto the new course.

This section looked like it was another well tracked walking trail. It was nice and wide, with good footing and pretty non-technical. Since it was replacing a mountain section I reckoned it was unlikely to be too steep. So I again reminded myself that I was in a race and concentrated on putting out a good fast pace, running the uphills as much as possible.

The trail turned out to be nicely undulating, and I was moving along and a very nice pace indeed. I had no issues running the uphill sections, and really started to fly along nicely through the downhill sections. It really felt like I was speeding along, but in a very sustainable way. Hopefully I would be able to keep this kind of speed and effort level going to the end (however far away that was now, given the truncated course)

I was well used to running solo by now, having spent a long time with no sign of any other runners ahead, and not even bothering to look behind at this point. The trail took a slightly longer flying downhill section for a few hundred meters, and then across one of the wooden platforms across a flat bog in open ground for about 100 meter. As I got to the wooden section I saw two runners ahead. I quickly caught the first one, who was moving very slowly indeed. I didn’t recognise him, so I reckoned he was probably on one of the shorter courses. Now that the finish line was getting closer the 4 different races of 4 different lengths and start times were starting to combine up to reach the shared finish line.

The other runner was wearing a gray top, and was making much better speed. I couldn’t tell much else apart from that, but it gave me another mini-target to chase down. At the speed I was going I was confident I could catch anyone I could see in front of me. With the trail heading back into twisty forested section I lost sight of the gray topped runner again for a few minutes, but then I started seeing them, and seeing I was closing in on them.

As I closed that gap I also noticed that the orange jacketed runner was also appearing ahead in glimpses. I then recognised the bandanna on the gray-topped runner. It was Rory again. I must have been really flying on this section of trail to close them both down. Rory must have taken off her jacket for the lower level sections. However by now it was starting to pelt rain, so just as I closed to within about 20 meters of Rory she stopped, /i’m assuming to put her green shell jacket back on. We both helloed and holaed each other as I flew by.

I was right behind the orange jacketed runner now. I was really happy to have closed this gap considering how far in front of me he had been at the halfway turnaround. I closed in the gap steadily, and passed by him as the trail ramped up into one of its relatively steep undulations. My passing seemed to motivate him to up his effort though,and I could hear him just behind me as we ran on up a steady incline on the trail.

The trail topped out on a road section. This lasted  few hundred meters, and I switched to road-ultra mode to keep my speed maximised. I could no longer hear the orange jacketed runner behind me. The route left the road and headed down onto a forest road that ran below and parallel. This was fairly muddy , as it was obviously being used for forestry operations, and the rain was making for plenty of puddles and standing water. I was still concentrating on pushing the speed along to try to keep Rory and the orange jacket behind, and maybe even start to grow a gap.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this trail I could see an aid station coming up in a building of some sort, with another pair of runners slowly approaching it. I reckoned those runners were a little too slow to be front-runners in the long (FMU) course. Probably more runners from shorter course. I reckoned I’d start seeing a lot more of them, and that it would become much harder to track who was on my course.

Into the aid station for an express stop. This time a quick cup of coke, plus the usual grabbing of one or two bits of fruit and a few jellies, and then out the door. Probably under a minute. The orange jacketed runner arrived in about 30 seconds or less after me, so he had tracked me well into the station. So even though I had caught up with him fairly well it looked like creating a gap behind would be harder. I was happy though that since the halfway point I had (presumably) completely left my immediate chaser behind,and had created some new ones in the best way.

The aid station had quite a number of runners from other courses in there. After leaving the was a marshal directing us on down another road-paralleling track, with signs up for several of the courses. Yup, It was definitely all in now, and there would more than likely be a lot more runners around. I couldn’t quite remember what the next section entailed on the route profile, but I knew there was some sort of hill involved.

The first 5 or 10 minutes mixed up some road running with trail running parallel to the road, and as expected I overtook a few people from other courses. The route finally left the road and after a few sharp turns started a climb through forest on more technical running trails. Through the last very acute turn I had the opportunity to look over at the road and see the distinctive orange jacket with 200 meters or so. Motivation isn’t an issue here!

The rain was pretty heavy, and as a result the trails were muddy. As the trail ramped up steeply I needed my poles to help with traction in the muddy ground. I ran the first few of the steeper ramps, but after while switched to walking the really steep sections. There had obviously been a lot more runners going through beforehand on these later trails, as they had really been cut up with a massive amount of footprints plugged into the mud.

The muddy section became longer and longer. Any time I came up on shorter course runners they were not moving very fast through the mud. Being Irish, these were conditions I knew how to handle, and would usually go rocketing past, relatively speaking. As the route became more undulating than continuously climbing some of the mud sections became more extreme. The kind of deep deep mud that I would rarely come across even in Irish races. I was very thankful I had gone with my highest grip shoes. The gators were also doing a good job of keeping the mud from getting into my feet.

Gradually the trail began to descend gradually. This was back to being maximum speed possible running. I passed one runner who looked a candidate to be on my course (guessing by the gear he had), but I couldn’t be sure at all. I could hear jet engines at one point, which probably meant I was getting close to Ushuaia. I then stated spotting some houses in hills across a valley.. Ushuaia was definitely getting close.

The trail then popped out onto full width hardpack road. I recognised this as being the road that leads up from Ushuaia to the poshest hotel in town, the Arkur, where the press conference had been held on Friday. So I knew it would be full speed down this hardpack road to get to the main tarmac road out of Ushuaia. 10 minute later it was onto the footpath of the tarmac road, crossing a bridge over a wide river valley. I could see a steady enough number of runners coming out from a road ahead on the right. They were undoubtedly shorter course runners coming from the out-and-back aid station.

As I headed in on the turn into the aid station I could look across the valley to see the route I had taken down, and could see the distinctive orange jacket coming down. He was within a few hundred meters, so that entire section had made very little difference to the gap between us. I definitely couldn’t relax, even though the end was starting to feel close.

Into the aid station, ad pretty much a repeat of the previous one… a few bits of fruit and a coke. I was the only runner running down the halls in the building, which seemed to be a big ski station. After a minute or so I headed back out don the hall, and met Rory coming the other way. She had obviously re-caught and passed the orange jacketed runner, and was close to catching me. More motivations, and definitely no relaxing for the last leg.

Heading back down the road into the aid station I saw the orange jacketed runner, along with the runner I suspected was on my course. They were chatting and running together so I guessed he was.so now there was 4 of us pretty close together. I didn’t anticipate that this race would be so “racey” at this late stage, given the relatively small field.

This stage is a nasty one if you’re feeling tired. The route heads along a road at the top of the town, before heading away again up into the last big climb of the race. I could see that I was within a kilometer of my hotel at one point. It would be so easy to just run down there! But I was racing now knowing I had to keep my best speed up with 3 near chasers. By now there was always at least one shorter course runner in view pretty much all the time,and I was overtaking them all in turn.

Ushuaia Lagoon reflection

Ushuaia in the evening. The route followed a road along the heights above the town.

After what seemed like an age of road running I finally reached the start of the trail where it would climb away from town and up into the mountains. It started steeply. For once I decided to try to power walk this sections. 10 or 20 meters up I looked behind to see Rory and the other long course runner about 50 meters behind about to hit the trail themselves. I didn’t see the orange jacket though. They must have burned him off. They seemed to have closed up ground to me too, so a catch could be immanent.

The slope became slightly less steep, which enabled me to start running again. By now daylight was rapidly being lost. I knew I’d have to dig out my head torch from my backpack pretty soon. After a few hundred meters the trail turned from fireroad to proper forest trail, with the surrounding trees ensuring there was even less light to work with. I was surprised not to have been overtaken by now, or even see the other 2 behind any more.

A few minutes later I knew I had crossed the point where it would be counterproductive not to have my headtorch active, so I stopped to get it out and put it into position. It was now pretty cold, so it took a little longer than I thought it would to get my bag unzipped and root out the torch. And of course in the minute or two it took to get this all done, several of the short course runners, as well as Rory and the other FMU runner passed by.

I knew I had enough battery power to use the torch at almost any light setting I wanted given that there was only mountain left to climb, but even the lower power setting was plenty. Within a minute or two I had caught and passed the other FMU runner. That made me think that when push come to shove I should be able to get in front even if we close towards the finish, but I reckoned he was probably on the limit as is.

A minute later I was about to catch Rory yet again when she again stopped to make some trail-side change. So now things had reverted back to the state at the start of the climb, but I had got my head torch on and shouldn’t need to stop again.

I kept a running pace up through the steady relentless moderate climb through the forest, gradually opening up a gap of one or two hundred meters on the pair behind. A few sharper steeper ramps had me change to power walking, which broke my running rhythm. As the climb was now definitely steeper in general I settled in to steady fast walking. The gap seemed to hold fairly steady (I was only glancing occasional as the path zig-zagged). We were still working our way continuously and steadily through shorter course runners on the trail.

It was a long steep climb through the forest before we broke through the tree line. There was a massive change breaking out into the open ground. What had been fairly sheltered soft snowfall in the forest was now a harsh windy blizzard. The ground was completely covered in snow. I reckon it was at least a foot or two deep (but I’m no snow guru). With that much snow there was no sign of a trail, but with so many runners making their way along this section of the course there was a ton of footprints in the snow to follow.

I had covered most of the race so far making almost no changes to the gear I was wearing. It was functioning well through a wide variety of (mostly terrible) weather. And by no changes I mean little more than occasionally adjusting a zip. But this was definitely the harshest conditions yet. And since it was now just after sunset it was likely only to get colder. So I put my hood of my Outdry down jacket mid-layer up, which gave my head and face a nice bubble of protection, once I angled it to shelter from the harsh horizontal wind-driven snow.

Ushuaia - hills behind town

The hills behind the town, showing plenty of snow on the ground. The route wound around up there!

The open ground section was noticeably less steep than the prior forest section. After a while it was shallow enough that I was able to run long sequences, even in the snow, without over-exerting myself. Hopefully this would make it harder to be caught. I was also thinking I needed to keep a good effort up to stay as warm as possible (I had a spare fleece layer if things got bad, but I didn’t want to have to stop for any reason in these conditions if I didn’t have to).

The one layer that was no longer working so well was my gloves. They were a good Polartec pair, but as I hadn’t pt any waterproof layer over them. I could feel my fingers freezing. But it wasn’t so uncomfortable as to cause any speed issues, so I decided to just put up with it and carry on without stopping (I had a pair of Mountain Hardwear Outdry down mittens in my bag that would be well able to deal with much harsher conditions than this, but it would have taken a minute or two to dig them out).

The climb went on and on and on. It seemed to slowly curve around the mountain as it worked its way up, giving changes to the angle the wind was driving the snow from. I was still regularly passing runners (well walkers here) from the shorter courses. Some of them didn’t sound too comfortable, But there was enough runners around that if anyone got into real trouble help would come within seconds. There were so many clusters of runners, and visibility was so tricky, that I had no way of telling where the two behind me were. So I simply had to do the obvious and keep ploughing on as fast as I could manage.

The hill plateaued out, and a there were a few marshals around scanning numbers (An important safety task in these conditions in particular). I had a vague memory from the route profile that the check was a little before the peak. I’m glad  did, because I was mentally prepared to climb a little more. And indeed there was at least another five minutes, if not more, of climb before finally reaching the top.

Looking down I could see the headtorches of the runners ahead. The trail seemed to arc around to the left in front of me in a slow descent, before diving down much more steeply. I carefully set off down, using my poles for extra stability and braking. I didn’t want a fall at this late stage. The arced turn went well, as I eased myself into running down the snow slope.

Then the slope got considerably steeper. And it was covered in snow. I could see tracks going everywhere, and runners trying to make their way down all over the place. This was going to be interesting! I gingerly  took a few carefully controlled steps down, maximizing my pole use. But it wasn’t enough. I lost traction and went sliding down a few meters before managing to arrest the slide. Anywhere where previous runners had gone sliding was now lethally slippy, and a no-go track as far as I was concerned.

So I tried to pick out fresh lines to maximise my traction. This worked well for the most part, although I did take one or two more slides. I was still making much much better progress than all the other runners around though. One thing I knew is that even a long slide here would probably be benign unless I was really unlucky, as there didn’t seem to be any cliffs or sharp drops, or protruding rocks. I still wanted to be in control though, and hot any visible track markers (The yellow poles were still showing above the snow).

After about two or three hundred meters the slope became less steep, so I was able to get trotting again, still moving a lot faster than the other runners around. Hover another steeper sections saw me take another slide. The effects of that slide made my lower calf muscles to cramp, so I found myself trying to stretch out the cramp on the side of a steep snow slope. It took a twenty or thirty seconds to get that sorted. I then set off again cautiously trying to find the least slippy line down.

This was not easy running. But it was a huge amount of fun, and yet more mountaineering racing! After a while I was able to get running (slowly and carefully) again, and work my way down towards the treeline.

Once I hit the treeline running conditions were much better. Even though the ground was much steeper again, and the trail was switching back and forth on technical ground, it was less snow-covered and much grippier. On less secure sections the trees were a crash-target which could be aimed for in case a slide came unexpectedly. I was speeding up for sure, and still overtaking shorter course runners regularly. Ahead I caught  glimpse of Ushuaia, and lights being reflected in the sea. It didn’t look too far ahead, but I guessed it was probably further than I wanted it to be!

The ground became less steep, and the forest and lower altitude meant that the snow cover was no longer such a big factor. Now it was back to a different type of technical running, as the trail was cut-up mud for the most part, with plenty of tree roots. But a little bit of concentration meant I was actually flying along nicely for the most, pretty confident in my ability to handle the slippy muddy ground.

At one point a small river merged into the trail and the trail was literally a river for about 100 meters. I was “WTF”ing out loud at this, just behind another runner. Hopefully he didn’t think I was referring to him, and I gave a cheery Hola just in case (I tried to say Hola to most runners as I approached them to let them know I was coming, and try to say it cheerily so that the didn’t feel under any pressure).

I still had no idea how far behind the others were, so that ensured that I kept the pressure on myself to keep the speed as high as was safe. I had a very nice flow going now, and was enjoying the technical nature of the descent (and the fact that it was almost all downhill to the finish). Gradually the snow had transformed to heavy rain as the altitude reduced, ensuring the ground was either muddy or waterlogged, but always requiring attention.

Eventually I thought I saw a cabin or house nearby, and a few minutes later I popped out onto a road, where the local police were marshaling to ensure we could cross and head down. The end was starting to feel really close now! But I knew this was the very high side of town and there was still at least a few kilometers to go yet. And I knew that I still couldn’t relax, given how close the others had stayed on the last leg.

There were a few off-road shortcuts of a few hundred meters through the high part of town, but mostly this was now a road descent. The rain was really bad now… properly Irish conditions. I overtook one or two other short course runners. The last of them said something to me as I passed, and then stuck in behind me. Maybe he wanted to pace off me or run down together. My Spanish wasn’t up to finding out, but it was no problem either way.

When we hit the denser street section it was getting harder to find the markers to see which direction we should be running in, so it was actually useful to have a second set of eyes here. A little bit of pointing doesn’t need any translation. We worked our way down several kilometers of streets at a good fast pace. Big junctions now had marshals on them to ensure we could get through the traffic safely. This town seemed a lot bigger than I thought.

And then suddenly I recognised the building 200 meters in front as being the bar at the finish line….yeehaw.  blasted on. My companion dropped back a bit, so I was able to run in solo. Thankfully none of me competitors behind were nearby, so no raced sprint finish was required (I really thought it might happen earlier). The spectators cheered me in to the finish. Done! I had no idea how long I took or what my position was.

The race announcer came over to me, so asked him what my position was. 8th, and 2nd M2. I was delighted with that. 2nd M2 was the best I could hope for given that Patrick Bohard was likely to run away with the category. And 8th was 3 places better than my “paper” ITRA ranking before the race. Top ten is always good. And I had managed to win all my mini battles that had been going on since half way. I was definitely on an up! We did a quick finish line interview. Apparently my description of the race as being “interesting” was a first.

There were good post race facilities laid on. I was able to sit in a very warm changing room and strip off all my wet gear. I had retrieved my Drop bag, and was able to change into the dry gear I had there (a complete set). I met Chico here. He had finished 5th in the end and seemed happy too.

I was in remarkably good shape. My feet didn’t have a trace of any blisters (the shoes had done their job in keeping the grit out). The only issues I had were a small bit of chaffing around my waist from the backpack. I was even walking around with relative ease. As good as it get post-race. I must have paced the effort well.

The Columbia Argentina crew had been looking for me and eventually tracked me down. Columbia really can be like a big family, and their help here was a real plus. We headed into town and I was indulged in a late night meal, hitting a really good Argentinian restaurant where the specialty was the local lamb roasted on an open fire. That was absolutely perfect post race food (Thanks Kevin!).

 

Post Race Analysis

This race was like a combination of several race I’ve competed in previously. The long road sections (which were not originally in the plan) were like a flat 24 hour race. Some of the steeper sections of forested rough to non-existent trails were giving me Barkley flashbacks. And the weather was definitely Spine-like, with only 3 or 4 hours of relatively benign conditions. It was most definitely an Epic.

The statistics for the race reflect this. They are showing that only about half the field managed to finish the race (and some of these may have been over the adjusted cut offs). The weather caused a huge rate of attrition, to the extent that several of the prize categories has no finishers.

The original course would have made for a very nice race indeed. A good high standard of technical trails, mixed in with some joining-up dirt track sections, through an a fabulous wild scenic landscape. The weather definitely adds and edge which needs to be embraced as part of th challenge. This is a worthy addition to the UTMB collection. Hopefully the race can be lengthened out to a full UTMB style 160km or so.

In terms of achieving my pre-race targets I was very happy with the results. I had anticipated that Patrick Bohard would win my age category (over 50s), which he did with some style. He came 4th overall, but apparently was joint leader when he and Gabriel were not informed of the second course adjustment, so ended up crossing an extra mountain pass. So the end result for those 2 (4th and 2nd) was even more impressive than it looks on paper.

I was very happy to be 2nd M2, over 2 hours clear of the next category competitor. I was happier still with my 8th overall result, which beat my pre-race ITRA ranking by 3 places. It was only afterwards when analysing the results that I realised I had closed down the gap to the 2 runners in front of me to 5 minutes. Given how strongly I finished I reckon I would have had a very good chance of overhauling that gap if the course had not been shortened. But that’s only minor, and you have to race the course as it’s layed out on the day.

ushuaia-utmb-prizegving-v2.jpg

The M2 Category Prize-giving for the FMU course, raising arms!

I was surprised to see I built a nearly half an hour gap on the last section to the runners I had been battling. My pacing went well to finish so strongly on such a tough section to race. Again, I can only be happy with that. It think this is the first time I’ve managed to finish in front of Rory. It was great sharing so much of the course out there in close proximity. We definitely pushed and pulled each other along.

The stats on what I ate and drank during the race are also interesting. I ate no food whatsoever outside the quickly grabbed snacks provided at the aid stations. I transported my emergency food rations all the way around the course without once touching them.  I never felt hungry, or lethargically lacking in energy.

With liquids, I ran the first half out to the big lake only using about half my bottle of fruit juice, and whatever I slugged down at aid stations (which was little or nothing on the outward half). On the return leg I finished off that bottle, along with a second bottle of juice which I had filled at the halfway aid station using my drop bag. At no other point did I need to refill my water bottles.

Having good gear was a key aspect to finishing this race so well. My Columbia Outdry shell, Outdry down jacket mid-layer, and full gatored Montrail trans-alps boots were particularly key. It’s a combination I had not used before, but I reckon I got that choice spot-on under the circumstances.

Massive thanks go to my sponsors who make this possible. Columbia, as ever, provide me with a huge amount of support, and it was great to meet more members of the Columbia family out in South America.

Richard Donovan of Global Running Adventures, which organizes the North Pole Marathon, Antarctic Ice Marathon, Volcano Marathon and World Marathon Challenge (7 Marathons 7 Continents 7 Days) is my other key supporter. Over the years nobody has done more for Irish Ultra-running than Richard. He continues to be one the great supporters of Irish Athletics (as well as one of the most remarkable race organisers in the world).

 

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2 Responses to UTMB Uahuaia 2019 – Race Report

  1. Mr P says:

    TLDR – avoided being chicked! 😉

    Excellent performance and race report, an experience to cherish alright. I’m even more impressed that you can recall so much detail!

  2. Wow, what a race and report, well done Eoin!!

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