Running To Extremes
Breaking records and conquering mountains is commonplace for lawyer turned ultramarathon athlete Fernanda Maciel. We find out what drives her constant appetite for endurance sports
Brazil’s Fernanda Maciel is one of the world’s best ultrarunners, setting speed records on the highest mountains in the world including racing up and down Mount Kilimanjaro, being the first woman to run the Camino de Santiago Compostela (860km in 10 days) and to run up the entirety of Argentina’s Aconcagua mountain, the largest peak in South America. Most recently, on Christmas Eve, 2022, she scaled Mount Vinson, one of the legendary Seven Summits in Antarctica in world-record time. As a qualified environmental lawyer, Fernanda is passionate about protecting the environment and through her personal project, White Flow, she is determined to use her running career to make a positive impact on the places she visits to promote environmental and social change. Now based in Chamonix, France, which has easy access to trail runs up to the Pyrenees, we talk to the 42-year-old Red Bull and The North Face athlete about running solo, respect for feeling fear, favourite football team and most important dinner guests.
Glorious: You grew up in Brazil, so tell us about your childhood, is that where your love of sport and nature began?
Fernanda Maciel: I was born into a family of jiu-jitsu and capoeira fighters. At my grandfather’s house, there was a huge wrestling ring in the garden, so I always spent Sunday afternoons fighting with my brother and my cousins. My grandfather was the partner of Hélio Grace, founder of Grace Barra, my father’s a master of capoeira. I competed in gymnastics, then capoeira and jiu-jitsu, but I always ran in preparation for the sport I practiced. My love of nature also stems from my childhood, for example, running to a waterfall and back home again with my brother.
Glorious: From a gymnast to a jiu-jitsu champion, what attracted you to make the switch to endurance sports?
Fernanda Maciel: I had to study a lot to become a lawyer and I started to run during break times. Then a TV show in Brazil invited me to take part in an outdoor endurance programme where I had to run, ride a bike, paddle kayaks, climb, etc. That TV show introduced me to endurance sports and I have never looked back.
Glorious: When you’re not running or climbing mountains, how do you spend your time?
Fernanda Maciel: I enjoy reading books and I’m studying French. I’m also a co-partner in an import and export company that I created with my brother.
Glorious: Do you play or have an interest in watching other sports?
Fernanda Maciel: I’m Brazilian and we love football in our country. Since childhood I have watched matches and my favourite team is “Galo” Atlético Mineiro from my home state of Minas Gerais.
Glorious: Amongst other solo expeditions, you became the first woman to run the Camino de Santiago Compostela (860km in 10 days). How long does it take to prepare for such a feat, what is involved?
Fernanda Maciel: I generally spend around four hours a day training, road cycling and running, and for any long run ultra race, like Camino de Santiago, it takes many years of preparation. My diet plan for this race was the hard part. I packed lots of eletrolytes and carbohydrates in powder for the 10-day race, and fortunately I was able to find bars along the way where I could buy water, sandwiches and snacks.
Glorious: What has been your most treacherous challenge and why?
Fernanda Maciel: Marathon des Sables, a 250km run across the Sahara Desert is really challenging, because other than being given water, you have to carry all your essentials for the 7-day race.
Glorious: In 2020 you combined running and climbing Spain’s Picos de Europa mountains, covering a distance of 83km with an elevation gain of more than 6,000m. What inspired you to do this challenge and describe your emotions when you reached the summit?
Fernanda Maciel: My North Face teammate Eneko Pou (the Pou brothers) invited me to climb the most epic limestone mountain in Spain, the Naranjo de Bulmes. Of course, I accepted the challenge, but I decided to extend it to include the famous long traverse from the Spanish coastline to the Picos de Europa. It was an amazing technical running route that brought me so many wild emotions. The climbing part was the easiest because Eneko was clmbing so fast and I had so much confidence in him that we climbed the wall in just one hour. In total, it took me amost 15 hours to complete this crazy mission. It was incredible, we helped each other and hugged like crazy when we reached the beautiful summit.
Glorious: On Christmas Eve 2022, you ran up and down Mount Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica at 4,892 metres in an incredible time of 9hr, 41 mins and 38 secs. Tell us about this experience.
Fernanda Maciel: The freezing temperatures and wind were the toughest challenges, having to find the balance between running in light gear and trying to stay warm and safe. The route is almost 40km long with some steep wall sections and 50-degree slopes. I was not allowed to run it alone and was fortunate to be joined by the super strong Sam Hennessey, a former runner and a mountain guide on Vinson for over 15 seasons. It was an amazing challenge, the remote and clean environment in Vinson reminded me of the space movie Gravity – we are just simple visitors here on earth.
Glorious: What do you prefer – running or climbing – do you have to have a different mindset?
Fernanda Maciel: You have to have a different mindset. I prefer running, but learning to climb and adding to a long traverse is a tremendous challenge for me. Running brings adrenaline, speed, performance and my mind can be free to explore its thoughts. I have a macro vision of the moment and place. Whereas climbing requires technical skills, balance and focus. My mind has to be calm and I have to concentrate on the moment to succeed each step.
Glorious: Do you ever get lonely or scared when you’re running solo?
Fernanda Maciel: I do feel fear sometimes but that is one of the reasons why I love what I do. Some wild solo runs scare me but feeling that emotion is fine, as I give more respect to the place where I’m running and I become more alert of my steps. Usually I run 95% solo on big mountains.
Glorious: You are passionate about protecting nature. Tell us about your White Flow project?
Fernanda Maciel: As an environmental lawyer, I decided to create the White Flow project in 2012. Each project is a tough running challenge that I document and share with my friends and followers to promote environmental and social issues around the world.
Glorious: What continues to drive you to your next challenge?
Fernanda Maciel: My passion for remote mountains, the silence, challenging myself to be a better person, observing my emotions and feelings, and growing as a runner.
Glorious: If you could run or climb anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Fernanda Maciel: India and Tibet because I have never been to these places and the mountains and culture looks absolutely amazing.
Glorious: Name four inspirational women that you’d like to invite for dinner!
Fernanda Maciel: My friends are my idols: Bruna Kajiya, Leticia Bulfoni, Rory Bosio, Martina Valmassoi.