The FBT (Five Brothers Trail) 70km in Patagonia, 6th April 2019

I received an email from the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) people informing me of a new series of races called Ushuaia Fin Del Mundo based in Terra Del Fuego, Argentinian Patagonia. They were offering 4 distances: 35k; 50k; 70k and 130k with no entry criteria, no ballot and masses of ITRA (International Trail Running Association) points awarded upon completion. It was a no brainer for me. I’d always wanted to go to Patagonia and it would tick off continent number five in my plan to race marathon distance or further on every continent. Also the fact that it was a brand new race appealed to me. The UTMB races have been going for some years now and, in my opinion, have been spoiled by over subscription.

It took a total of 36 hours to get to Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world. The journey included 3 flights and a frantic bus trip across Buenos Aries. I finally arrived late in the evening on Thursday 4th April giving me just one day to rest and prepare.

The Patagonian scenery was stunning. Snow capped mountains rising from the sea - the only blot on the landscape being man-made. The race literature describes Patagonia as one of the wildest and unpredictable places on Earth.

Friday was registration day where a thorough kit inspection was carried out to ensure that runners complied with the extensive mandatory kit requirements. Passports, medical certificates and insurance providers were also checked. (Although, I’m not entirely sure my Post Office worldwide, annual, multi trip insurance policy covers helicopter rescue in Patagonia!) We were tagged and given a t-shirt and a fleece.

April is autumn in Patagonia, cold and wet but apparently less windy than the other 3 seasons and so I was wrapped up in all my mandatory kit at 6:00am on Saturday morning for the bus trip to the start line at Playa Larga. There was no shelter at the start so, in an attempt to keep warm, we huddled like penguins and stomped our feet in time with the rave music blaring out of the loud speaker. I was feeling very apprehensive and almost got back on the bus. I gave myself a good talking to and came to the conclusion that I had nothing better to do that day so I might as well just get on with it. At 7:30am dawn broke and we were off.

The first few miles were lovely, easy running along the beach and then up into the woods. I soon warmed up and the first checkpoint came quickly. I was being lulled into a false sense of security. The trouble started at 23km in the Valle de Lobos. The route was hideous, a quagmire with an icy top where each step was into freezing mud up to the knees. This continued for some miles until we began to climb. The route then took us up a stream and as we got higher the water froze and we used our hands to scramble up near vertical ice covered rocks. And then the wind came, blowing icy shards into our faces.

After a steep climb often comes a steep descent and the descent of Paso Bonette was no exception. The route down was treacherous, ice covered rocks and a howling gale. It was slow going and very scary, runners were falling all around. I kept my centre of gravity as low as possible and inched my way down. Eventually back in the tree line the rocks petered out and we returned to mud.

I reached Checkpoint 5 (Mosca Loca), the half way point, over two hours ahead of the cut off at 18:30. An official kindly informed me that the cut-off times had been altered and 18:30 was now the cut-off time for the next checkpoint 10 miles away at Natatorio. I was uncertain if I should continue, as the race profile showed another mountain, Cerro Medio, higher and steeper than Paso Bonette, the one I had just negotiated. The official assured me that this mountain was less severe and that I had done the hardest part. I found that hard to believe but pressed on anyway, as I had nothing better to do that day.

The climb up Cero Medio started innocuous enough, up through the trees, manageable quantities of mud and as dusk fell and I put my headtorch on, I felt an eerie thrill following the reflective markers up the tail. Despite the climb I was getting cold so I put on an extra layer, my hat and my last dry pair of gloves. Then it started to snow I was concerned about conditions further up the trail and considered returning to Natatorio but it was only one mountain and I can always manage another mountain, so I soldiered on. Once through the tree line we were confronted by a full on blizzard which worsened as we trudged up the seemingly endless climb. It was completely dark by now so fortunately I couldn’t see the full extent of the drop to my right. Checkpoint reached it was just a small matter of over the summit and down the other side. A man appeared out of the gloom and said “descent very dangerous” and I thought, "No sh*t, Sherlock!" I have been on mountains in similar conditions to this before, however, I have always had: goggles; boots; crampons; ice axe; harness; rope; mountaineering guide and daylight. This was simply foolhardy. My trail shoes were woefully inadequate but I had no option but to continue, staying put would soon result in hypothermia. The blizzard raged, visibility was poor and the route markers were almost impossible to spot. A small group of us stuck together gaining comfort from having company. This was not a race, this was survival.

Eventually I reached the trees which offered some protection from the blizzard and the ground became less steep. It was then that I realised how cold I had become. It was a long run in to the finish but I could not warm up. I could see the lights of Ushuaia, a city that looks its best at night from a distance, and yearned for my basic but comfy hotel.

I felt nothing but relief at the finish. They gave me a splendid medal to add to my collection and I was assisted by a lovely man called Juan who spoke excellent English. He fetched me a hot chocolate and offered me a hot bath, which I declined. He then told me that the cut off times had been amended due to the deteriorating weather to avoid having the slowest runners exposed on the mountain. He then organised a taxi to take me back to my hotel.

It’s a miracle that no-one died that night and I’m sure I’ve used up another of my 9 lives, but after all, I really had nothing better to do that day.

Race stats

  • My finish time was 15 hours and 56 minutes
  • 28 different nationalities took part. I was the only British entrant in the FBT 70k
  • 930 runners registered
  • 859 runners started one of the 4 races
  • FMU 130k had 69 finishers from 164 starters 42.1% (6% women, 94% men)
  • FBT 70k had 166 finishers from 188 starters 88.3% (20% women, 80% men)
  • LCT 50k had 258 finishers from 261 starters 98.9% (38% women, 62% men)
  • ELT 35k had 245 finishers from 246 starters 99.6% (43% women, 57%men)

— Steph