Running On Full

Ultrarunner Fernanda Maciel on her appetite for endurance: “So much of an ultra is about suffering, you need to go through the pain”

By Sam Haddad

The Brazilian ultrarunner Fernanda Maciel is a phenomenal talent, who has spent much of the last decade on the podium at various ultra-endurance events around the world. But it could have all gone so differently, if she hadn’t quit her job as an environmental lawyer to spend more time “running fast in nature.” As a new film ‘Naranjo’ is released, which chronicles her latest act of extreme endurance in Spain’s Picos de Europa mountains, we talk mental strength, protecting nature and why running is always the best form of transport.

Fernanda Maciel has always run everywhere. Growing up in Brazil, from an early age, she never had the patience to walk to school or get the bus. Instead, her family watched in bemusement as she insisted on running the 10km round trip distance every day. “I don’t know why,” the 41-year-old said over Zoom, with a shrug and a smile. “Running became transport for me. The streets were super steep, but I couldn’t walk, it was too slow, and I hated to catch buses. I just liked to run fast.”

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Ultrarunner Fernanda is known for acts of extreme endurance. Photography by Jordan Manoukian.

Fernanda lived in Belo Horizonte, a big sprawling city of six million people, named after its beautiful view of the surrounding mountains, where her family had a weekend home. She loved going there and immersing herself in the wild nature; climbing trees, playing in the mountains and “running fast” with her brother along the river to reach the waterfalls. “This part of my childhood was so good,” she said. “I loved the movement, how it makes your body feel, being in nature. I felt like myself there.”

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Fernanda advocates for the preservation of natural spaces. Photography by Mathis Dumas.

During the week, she studied hard at school but worked even harder at gymnastics, training for four hours a day from the ages of eight to 15. Running was part of that regime, and she was always the fastest of the gymnasts by a stretch, but she never considered athletics or running as a future career path. Instead, her early love affair with nature inspired a fierce desire to protect it. She studied law at university, and before she’d even finished her degree, began working as an environmental lawyer. Here she advocated for the preservation of natural spaces in Minas Gerais, the state where she lived. But the reality of that role, the long hours stuck in a windowless office and the endless politicking she had to deal with, soon started to grate.

“My feelings for nature ran very deep,” she said. “But the job was a big disappointment, because as a lawyer, there was so much politics behind the scenes. When you’re in your early twenties, that’s not what you want. And while it was cool to be doing something for the environment, at the same time I was missing real contact with nature.”

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PHENOMENAL

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“You feel good, you feel bad, but everything will pass.” Photography by Mathis Dumas/Red Bull Content Pool

Fernanda had started to enter local running races when she gave up gymnastics in her mid-teens and had been surprised to find herself winning them. At first, she did 5ks and 10ks, then moved onto half marathons, and while the prize money wasn’t much in the beginning, it was nonetheless exciting for her to be paid to run. When she began working as a lawyer, she kept entering races on weekends. “I thought: ‘Wow this is interesting, I don’t need much time to train but I feel really good and I’m getting some money,’” she said. “When you’re 15-20 years old and getting extra money you’re super grateful.”

By the time she was becoming disillusioned with her job as an environmental lawyer, her prize money was almost matching her salary. She made the decision to leave law and work in environmental energy, so she could be closer to nature, and, with less punishing office hours, train more. The move paid off. During a stint in New Zealand, she upped her running distance further to full marathons and then ultrarunning races (from the 26.2 marathon distance up to 100 miles), and found she had a rare gift for the discipline.

glorious fernanda maciel red bull the north face climbing mountain
“So much of an ultra is about suffering, you need to go through all the pain and mental weakness.” Photography by Mathis Dumas/Red Bull Content Pool

ENDURANCE

Following a strong performance at an ultramarathon in California, Fernanda began to pick up sponsors including The North Face, and shortly after that, when her job brought her to live in Europe, she raced in the iconic and notoriously gruelling Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, and won. How did she feel at that moment? “For the first time, it was: ‘Wow, I think I have talent.’”

While she’d always had speed and believes all those years of hardcore gymnastics helped prime her body for endurance, Fernanda is convinced the mental battle is the hardest part of running ultras, and perhaps her greatest strength. “If you run two hours it’s fine, but if you are running 20 hours, you feel like your stomach is not working well and you have so much pain in your legs. You don’t need to be injured to feel this kind of pain, it’s normal. So much of an ultra is about suffering, you need to go through all the pain and mental weakness,” she said. To cope during races, she has long fallen back on a mantra she once heard attributed to a master of the Afro-Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, the gist of which is: “You feel good, you feel bad, but everything will pass.”

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Fernanda has lived in the mountain sports mecca of Chamonix for the last decade. Photography by Jordan Manoukian.

“So, when I feel super good in a race I just try to enjoy it to the maximum, as I know that feeling will pass,” she said. “And if I feel pain and everything is bad, I get moving, as I know that will pass too. During all the ultras, there are bad and good moments. Never in my life have I just had a good moment. But I think it’s super interesting to have the courage to face it.”

Fernanda has lived in the mountain sports mecca of Chamonix for the last decade, and while maintaining her consistently world-class performances in ultras, with a daily backdrop of Europe’s tallest peaks, it’s perhaps no surprise that she’s added climbing to her repertoire. Perhaps less predictable is that she often takes on these tough climbs after running huge distances.

glorious fernanda maciel red bull the north face climbing mountain
“On the climb, you need to breathe and go slow, it’s technical.” Photography by Jordan Manoukian.

This was the case in 2020, when she was due to climb Naranjo de Bulnes (a famous limestone spire in Spain’s Picos de Europa mountains) with her North Face teammate Eneko Pou. Instead of driving from the coast to the challenging, near-vertical 500m peak, she decided to run the 90km distance, which included running up 6,000 vertical metres at the end, over highly technical terrain. Eneko thought she was mad, but it seemed a waste of time and energy for her to do in any other way. Running is still her favourite mode of transport. Her journey to the summit, which included running a “crazy technical ridge at night, which was very scary,” has recently been made into the film, ‘Naranjo.’ I ask if climbing and trail running really go well together? “Well they are completely different, which is why I love to combine them,” she said, with a mischievous glint in her eye. “With running, you’re at full gas, pushing hard all the time, but then on the climb, you need to breathe and go slow, it’s technical. If you don’t go slow, you fall.”

TECHNICAL

glorious fernanda maciel red bull the north face climbing mountain
“I like doing it to make the mental side of me stronger, to open up my mind.” Photography by Mathis Dumas/Red Bull Content Pool

The switch reminds her of the winter sport of biathlon where cross country ski racers must suddenly go from sprinting to total stillness, so they can accurately shoot targets. As soon as she puts her climbing harness on, she’s trained herself to get in the zone and breathe slowly. “It’s kind of meditation,” she said, “I like doing it to make the mental side of me stronger, to open up my mind.”

How did she feel at the summit of Naranjo? In the movie, her relief sounds palpable. “When I reached the top and stopped my watch, I almost cried, because the place was so wild and so peaceful, and crazy beautiful. You can see the sea from there,” she said. It was important to her that she and her friend Eneko had some time at the summit before descending. “Usually we do this so fast and then come down, but it’s hard to come back to all these magical places. I wanted to appreciate it and share some happiness with my climbing partner,” she said.

glorious fernanda maciel red bull the north face climbing on top of mountain
Fernanda stands at the mountain top with Eneko Pou. Photography by Jordan Manoukian.

The easy camaraderie and mutual respect that she has with Eneko is something she’s enjoyed with men and women athletes throughout her career, in both ultrarunning and mountain sports. Ultra-endurance events have a rare quality: after a certain distance the gap between the top women and the top men shrinks considerably. Fernanda often beats the best men at events. How do they tend to react? “They see you going up the mountains and say ‘Oh my God!’ but sometimes they also say ‘Wow, well done.’”

“Most of the time I train with women, so I like going for it in a race and passing so many guys. I respect all of them, but of course I’m happy when I beat them,” she said with a smile, “And I think guys are beginning to respect women more as athletes too. Women have so much talent and achieve amazing things, but the guys still have the limelight. I just hope that in the future girls and women will be treated equally.”

MEDITATION

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“I like going for it in a race and passing so many guys. I respect all of them, but of course I’m happy when I beat them.” Photography by Mathis Dumas/Red Bull

Looking ahead, she will plan another running adventure, where she will also help out a local charity. This is something she’s done for the past nine years, in countries including Nepal, Tanzania and Brazil. Beyond that, Fernanda wants to keep running and to keep fighting for nature. She’s pleased to see so many new people taking up ultrarunning but urges them to be mindful of the surroundings where the races take place; wonderful, wild and natural spaces.

“You see so many runners coming for ultras, but they don’t realise the importance of mountains and nature,” she said. “‘Leave no trace’ doesn’t just mean picking up your rubbish. It’s also: don’t kill so many flowers, stick to the trail and don’t leave your banana peel, even if it’s organic.” As she passionately makes her point, it’s clear that Fernanda may no longer be an environmental lawyer, but she will always advocate for the rights of nature. Thanks to her ultrarunning success, she is now doing that more effectively than ever through her own platform.

glorious fernanda maciel red bull the north face happy on top of mountain
Fernanda will always advocate for the rights of nature. Photography by Mathis Dumas/Red Bull Content Pool

Images Courtesy of The North Face and Red Bull Content Pool. Visit Fernanda’s explorer page here

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