June 21, 2016

Ultra Fiord Patagonia 2016 - A Bad Plan B

An interview with ultra runner Augusto Gamero on Ultra Fiord Patagonia 2016

Augusto Gamero is a Canadian runner from the Ottawa region, member of the Pearl Izumi Run Team and a personal friend. Experienced, strong and fit, he takes on several ultra challenges each year and does consistently very well. For having shared many runs and events with him, I know he's a responsible adventure runner, aware of the risks and challenges our sport presents and I know he prepares accordingly. He is also of Honduran descent, well-traveled and a native Spanish speaker.

After I learned about the disappearance and tragic death of our friend Arturo Rueda at the Ultra Fiord Patagonia this year, I wanted to sit down and ask Augusto how he navigated the event, how he felt about the situation and what had actually happened, from his perspective.
Here's the result of our conversation.

Q. You wanted us to have this conversation.
A. Yes. I’ve had time to revisit the event and everything that has happened, and I want to tell the story of Ultra Fiord 2016 from my point of view. I want this story to sift through the filter of polished marketing and empty public statements so that my fellow runners get a real sense of what happened, for the sake of truth and accountability.

Q. So tell me how it all started.
A. I attended the Trails In Motion film festival with beautiful movies of awesome races and that really got me inspired. I wanted to find an adventure of my own, one that would mix travel and racing. My friend Maude and I started looking around for an event and found the Ultra Fiord Patagonia, with its gorgeous videos, its promise of adventure and its awe-inspiring mountain setting. It seemed to be everything I was looking for.

Q. Did you research the event? How did you get your information?
A. I quickly realized this was a young race and that the previous year had significant issues with logistics and coordination. However, it seemed the organization had made amends and implemented substantial corrective measures. One important thing to understand is that NIGSA, the race promoter, excels at marketing. They have a very slick-looking web site, high-quality images and videos and they make everything look highly-organized and professional. When I read their material, it became obvious that this would be a difficult, challenging course with extreme weather and I knew to expect a semi-autonomous environment because of the mandatory gear list and the seemingly rigorous application process, where you had to describe your experience as an ultra-runner before gaining entry.

It was also made very clear that manned aid stations with basic food and water would be available along the course, as well as medical support and runner tracking through electronic chips. The whole registration and follow-up process gave me the feeling that Ultra Fiord was a challenging race, designed for seasoned ultra runners and held by a high-tiered organization.

Q. So you journeyed down to Chile and got to the race site. What was it like?
A. It was quite messy from the start. The most apparent sign of that was the absence of your typical race headquarters; things were all over the place. There was a spot for drop bags, another for race packets and yet another for the ceremony. NIGSA changed some of the locations last-minute, too, and it got really confusing for the runners.

Q. Was there a briefing?
A. The “pre-race briefing” was unnecessarily long and pompous, and NIGSA boasted that there were runners from all over the world, yet provided very poor English translation with conferences and official speeches in Spanish only and about 30% of the race briefing being translated. You could see there were runners present who had no clue what was going on.

This is when we were informed of the course changes due to severe weather conditions to allow the race to go on. NIGSA published an edited map and informed runners on how the course would be affected. Some of the fjords would be missed because of the changes. We were told the weather would be pretty bad with high winds and low temperatures, including snow. The course changes were obviously last-minute, but I feel that we, as ultra runners, have to be ready for such things to happen and I think at this point, everybody seemed to appreciate that the event was still taking place.

Q. What was the “vibe” like, at this point?
A. There was a lot of confusion and frustration. A lot of runners did not understand much of what went on because of the poor translation and everyone was trying to figure out the vital information while the program went on with a Spanish-only conference on mountain climbing. I think it’s fair to say that the runners would have much preferred some clear, upfront information on the weather, the course and how support would be affected rather than sitting confused while some guy talked about a topic totally unrelated to the race’s scope and environment.

Q. How did you feel?
A. I was there for the experience and determined to do the race. I felt confident about my gear and my preparation; I had my own food and my overall experience to count on. I was bugged by some pre-race aspects of the organization, but I was determined to run and finish my 70K endeavour. I won’t deny I was nervous because of the environment and the weather; I knew some of the conditions, like the wind and cold, were worrisome. I didn't know how my body and mental would be affected, but I saw it as a challenge.

Q. Let’s get to race day.
A. The logistics issues started with the 6:00 AM shuttle to the starting line, where we were told there would be a delay to allow the 50K runners a head start in order to avoid aid station traffic. The 70K runners were left shivering outside to wait a full hour for their later start, in biting 38-degree weather. I was fu*%#ing cold! There were no follow-ups and I was surprised that there was absolutely no check for the mandatory gear at any point.

When they finally let us start, I went out at a comfortable pace and focused on my race strategy. I had about 30K-worth of food and hydration and knew to take it easy on the hard climbs. I arrived to the first aid station and asked about the drop bags. The volunteer I asked had no idea so I thought it’d be in the following aid station. That was about 12K in the race so I was confident to find my drop bag at the next aid station. As the race went on, and went through aid stations, it became apparent that I was not going to have access to my drop bag, where I had most of my food.

Q. What did the aid stations look like?
A. Very minimal. Semi-closed tents, the first of which had very basic stuff like water and some food. The 2nd and 3rd had nothing, and the only “food” I came across was a guy offering some cookies outside of the aid station area. I started getting pretty nervous.

Q. Were the other runners coping well at that point?
A. Yes. I think everyone was prepared to be autonomous, at least for the first several kilometres. But I wasn’t paying too much attention to other runners, at least not during the first 30 kilometers or so.

Q. When did it start to really go wrong?
A. By the time I reached the 3rd aid station, around the 30K mark, I needed my drop bag to get my gear and my food. There were no bags anywhere. When I asked the volunteers, they didn’t even know what a drop bag was, and I got pretty rattled because I knew I couldn’t finish my run on a couple of cookies. I couldn’t get reliable information on distances in-between aid stations either, as no one seemed to know. I realized the organization was failing and that I couldn’t rely on anything at that point, so I rationed everything I had, slowed down and prepared to stretch very thin on my last 40K. At least there would be water from the rivers, and anyway I’d already seen the aid stations fill barrels in the same way because there was no filtered water available anywhere. Aid station volunteers even told runners to use the river water themselves.

Q. Wasn’t there any tracking? Was there medical staff?
A. All the race material said there would be chip timing and tracking as well as medical support, and it was confirmed at the briefing. I am positive that there were no medical personnel anywhere on the 70K course or in the aid stations, and the only tracking I saw was people writing down some of the runners’ bib numbers on papers. Although volunteers systematically scanned our chips at every point, we were told the chips had not worked because of the bad weather and that they were useless. Being a Canadian runner living in Ottawa, I have run in every possible wintry weather condition before and knew that chips couldn’t just “freeze” in weather close to freezing point.

Q. Could you just have dropped out of the race and be safe?
A. I could’ve stopped at an aid station, but I remembered the 70K course description said it was one of the wildest sections and there was no car access. I figured I’d only quit as a last resort, such as if I’d gotten injured, and even then I knew I would’ve been stuck there waiting in the cold for a long time. I also knew that if I slowed down to a hike and took a conservative approach, I would manage. At that point, I was angry and frustrated and just wanted to be done but the trails and views were of incomparable beauty, so that kept me distracted for a while.

Q. So how bad were the conditions?
A. It was really cold, windy and snowy. Many of the 50K runners I passed were “hangry” and tired, and I met some runners who had very little experience and were completely out of food, which made me question the whole “selection process” I’d gone through to get my entry into the race. Everyone I talked to knew that they would fare better by finishing the race than by dropping out.

However, you have to understand that I was running more at the front, where everyone seemed to have the proper equipment. I knew the back of the line was probably a different story and it worried me to think about people not getting their drop bags and running out of food. But at that point, I had only one thing in mind; get it done. By the time I hit the 50K mark, I picked up the pace because I had no intention to finish past daylight.

Q. Was it easy to get lost? How was the marking?
A. Probably the only thing that was well done. It would’ve been really hard for someone to get lost. There was a combination of posts and flags with constant visual contact, probably one of the best course markings I’ve seen. I even got sidetracked once and knew right away I wasn't going in the right direction because I didn't see any markings, so I turned and got right back on the course.

Q. So you finished?
A. Yes. I was tired, starving and pretty frustrated. When I got to the finish, we had been promised food and there was nothing else than a cereal bar I didn’t want to eat. I hadn’t brought any money and was very lucky that one of my friends could at least buy me a coke. I finished in about 9:20, and quickly changed into warmer clothing (yes!, my drop bag for the finish line was at least there) and jumped on the boat because my friend told me he didn’t know when the next one would be after that. I was later told that runners who came in past the 10-hour mark had to wait for hours for the boat and got back to town at about 2:00 in the morning.

Q. When did you learn that a runner had gone missing and died?
A. There was not any info on the race course or at the finish, not even rumours. There were some postings on social media the next day, so we asked around when we went to town and heard stories here and there, but people were confused. They said one runner went missing and died and that the family of other runners were looking for information on their running relatives they knew were on the mountain but were unaccounted for. I only found out for sure at the awards ceremony the day after, when race director Stjepan Pavicic held a minute of silence to honor Arturo. He then went on emphasizing how gear and preparedness were critical in such conditions and mentioned the probable cause of Arturo’s death, although unconfirmed, was hypothermia.

It didn’t take long for very angry runners to blame the director, the race and the whole organization for their negligence and to say that if proper logistical and medical support had been there, he wouldn’t have died. One runner made it clear that the race organization had not even called the police or search and rescue because she, in fact, had been the one to inform them first. There was a lot of mixed emotions among the crowd, and I heard many very sarcastic comments about the RD’s attitude and the explanations provided.

Q. How do you feel the race organization handled the situation?
A. I still don't have all the facts and the real sequence of events. I know for sure the organization didn't inform the police. There was even talk that the police didn't authorize the race because of safety and emergency access issues. It took 3 days to bring back the body and other missing runners to town. The organization justified Arturo's death by hypothermia, but where was the promised support? Where were the first response teams? Where was the verification of mandatory gear? Not to mention anybody with a trained eye would have seen Arturo was confused coming in through one of the most critical aid stations on top of the mountain and would have pulled him out of the race.

As runners, we bear the responsibility for our security and for bringing the gear and sufficient supplies for the environment, but I also think what was promised by the organization should’ve been delivered. I payed to have fun and to get minimal services from the event, and I ended up getting no service and having my safety and security endangered, along with all the other runners.

It's still hard to comment on what happened to Arturo, part of the responsibility is on every runner to monitor their health and make sure they're not pushing themselves over their limits or just being stubborn, but as the same time the organization has the responsibility of basic safety and logistics and my sense was that basic minimal support lacked throughout the race.

Q. What do you think should happen now?
A. There should at least be a thorough investigation into what actually happened out on the course and into the responsibility of the race organizers. On top of that, there are many recommendations I would make :
  • Have a single race headquarters in Puerto Natales, to avoid unnecessary confusion;
  • If this is an international event as claimed, all the information needs to be available in English as well during briefing activities, both pre- and post-race;
  • All runners understand that weather in Patagonia can swing drastically. But if the race is going to be held anyway using alternate routes, make sure plan A and plan B are equally sound and safe;
  • If the race organization knows about Patagonia, they are supposed to be equipped and ready to deliver their service no matter what the current conditions are;
  •  It is inexcusable that the chip system failed, and if it did, it is negligence to let runners out on the course untracked;
  • Any aid station must have a captain with the authority to pull runners out of the race if they are putting themselves in danger.

Q. Would you recommend the race to anyone?
A. No. It seems the same mistakes that were made in the first year were repeated, with deadly consequences. If anything, the problems got even worse. In my opinion, if you’re going to have an ultra adventure in Chilean Patagonia without any logistical support, don’t pay money just to get a nice t-shirt and a buff…

FlintLand wishes to offer our most sincere condolences to the family of Arturo Héctor Martínez Rueda, a fellow ultra runner, a Copper Canyons Mas Loco and a friend. May you run free forever. Gracias para la amistad, y descanse en paz, hermano.

1 comment:

  1. Je suis vraiment désolée d'apprendre la mort de ton ami Arturo. Quelle mauvaise nouvelle...
    Sois prudent!