Last updated: 15-Nov-18
By Luke Jarmey
If speed records on Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro don’t tickle your adventure running taste buds, we don’t know what will! Join us as we dive into an interview with, one of the greatest female mountain and ultra-runners currently gracing this planet’s vertically-inclined surface, Fernanda Maciel.
Q. Thanks for your time Fernanda, let’s kick this off with a bit about your background. Whereabouts in Brazil are you from and how did you first get into running?
A. Belo Horizonte. I started to run because I didn’t want to catch buses. I was 16. My life was walking to school and running back to my house; I was running to Capoeira classes in the favela and running back home. Running was my “transport”. After I started to love the sport of running, I started to run 5km, 10km and 21km on the road, and I liked it because I also had the chance to win some money with the races.
Photo credit: Gabriel Tarso.
Q. When did ‘normal’ running turn into ultra running and what was your first race?
A. It happened in 2008 when the brand The North Face (USA) invited me to run 50 miles in California. The race was The North face Endurance Challenge Championship. I had a great result and I loved it. I couldn’t stop anymore. After that I started to run the best ultra races in the world.
Q. Your race achievements are simply outstanding and we’ll be here all day if we badger on about all of them! So just quickly tell us which ones have meant the most to you and why?
A. TDS Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc champion, Transgrancanaria champion, Lavaredo champion, Ultra Trail Mont Fuji champion. 4th place Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 2nd place Ultra Trail World Tour. 5th place Sky Running World Championship. They were the most beautiful and hard races at the same time for me. I had the opportunity to learn a lot with all the process to arrive well in those races.
UTMB Finish Line. Photo credit: Robert Caballé.
Q. You’ve got a lot of experience with the mountains, through racing and also personal projects, which we’ll come to later. But how did you find transitioning to the desert environment for the Marathon des Sables?
A. Marathon des Sables was a race that I wanted to run since I was young. It’s a famous race in my country, Brazil. I had the opportunity in 2016 and 2017 and I did it, it’s hard because I prefer, and I run better, in the mountains but I could enjoy and learn a lot with the desert experience. Wow, the heat and the sand are hard but the experience of 7 days carrying food, all mandatory material and sharing the same tent with 9 other runners was the best. Sometimes it’s good to be out of my comfort zone and to be able to learn more.
Q. Ok on to Aconcagua (6962m) – where you were the first women to complete a speed ascent and descent. What drew you to this mountain?
A. We don’t have high mountains in Brazil and since I was young I have been hearing about Aconcagua and how much of a challenge it is. Aconcagua is the highest mountain in my continent: America. When I became a mountain runner, Aconcagua was on my list of dreams. I had the opportunity and I went there to know about this mountain. It was the hardest run I’ve done in my life. High, long and full of challenges: altitude sickness, strong winds, lots of snow, cold rivers to cross and rock avalanches. Being able to run in Aconcagua was a beautiful experience. To know that I could do more than I thought, and my mind was prepared to give up and didn’t give up at the right moments. At the end I did it and it was unbelievable for me. I loved that challenge.
Aconcagua. Photo credit: Gabriel Tarso.
Q. To complete a round trip on that mountain in 22 hours and 52 minutes, at that altitude with that elevation gain, is simply crazy. How did your body cope? And what was the hardest aspect of it all?
A. Yes, it is crazy. I had to do 2 stops of 15 min at very high altitude to keep my body “slow” and to realize the altitude that I was at. I had very bad feelings before the sunrise and I had some rock avalanches on my way during the night running alone in the valley. There are many challenges in this mountain, that you need to go there to realize.
Q. How much mountaineering is involved in a speed ascent like yours on Aconcagua?
A. I had experience in my past with ice climbing and alpinism, but in Aconcagua we don’t need to climb. We can walk and run in a technical terrain. The problem is to do it during the night and alone, crossing some glacial rivers and trying to find the correct trails and routes. Coming down is a very tough challenge, because if I slip or slide, I can lose my life.
Aconcagua. Photo credit: Gabriel Tarso.
Q. Tell us about your White Flow project and how Aconcagua fits into it?
A. White Flow is a running and social project. In Aconcagua I had the chance to study and do some interviews about the problem of recycling and trash inside the Aconcagua Park and I discovered that each season the mountain guides have to collect thousands of kilos of trash from the base camps. The climbers get tired trying to reach the summit and they could not come back to the entrance park with their trash. They leave the trash on the mountain. The helicopter cannot fly so high to collect all the rubbish. It is sad and every day the park is trying to make climbers and visitors aware of the rules. I hope they get this environmental conscience soon.
Q. So of course we have to talk about your recent endeavour on Kilimanjaro (5895m)! A new fastest known time (FKT) of 10 hours and 6 minutes, smashing the previous women’s record by 2 hours and 52 minutes. Really amazing, well done. What do you think made you so successful on Kilimanjaro? And can you give us a quick insight into how your trained for it?
A. Kilimanjaro is a different mountain with different challenges: forests, mountain terrain, rock avalanches and high altitude. I was able to run fast on Kilimanjaro because I had more confidence in my own limits. I know better from my Aconcagua experience and know better about my bad sensations at high altitude. I trained hard for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and after I had just 2 weeks to do a good acclimatization, and this was by sleeping 5 days over 3500m. I didn’t have the opportunity to train well for the Kilimanjaro speed record, but it worked in the end.
Running up Mt Kilimanjaro. Photo credit: Gabriel Tarso.
Q. How did it all compare to Aconcagua?
A. Easier because it’s not so high, but I had some surprises with lots of rock avalanches on Kilimanjaro and it scared me a lot.
Q. Ok, looking to the future, are you already dreaming up any new projects or taking a well-earned rest from it all?
A. My focus for 2018 will be the Sky Running World Championship and Ultra Trail World Tour. Not sure if I’ll do or not a personal project next year. Let’s see. The important thing is that I am always motivated.
Good luck for 2018 Fernanda and many thanks!
For more on Fernanda’s amazing adventures, check out her website.
On the way to Mt Kilimanjaro’s summit. Photo credit: Gabriel Tarso.