The Race at The Tip of The World
Set your eyeballs to stun and fire up Travelocity: In the heart of Patagonia, we give you a mid-spring mental thaw-out with a walk through Patagonman, the world’s newest extreme triathlon.
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It’s early December, and in the amber-lit parking lot of the Puerto Chacabuco Port in southern Chile, the winds whip up and begin bullying the Queulat, a hulking ferry that normally hauls travelers around the Patagonia fjords. This morning, it will release just over 150 skinny triathletes into the frigid waters of the Aysén Fjord for the start of the inaugural Patagonman Xtreme Tri before heading on its way. Windblown whitecaps crowd the previously serene bay, rocking the barge and sending its massive green metal ramp scraping towards the crowd onshore. One racer, taking in the scene, quits before he even boards the boat.
As a prospect race for the XTRI World Tour—a series known for the stunning beauty and brutality of its races—Patagonman, a point-to-point full iron-distance race, is flexing its muscles. (Other events in the series include the notorious Norseman, Celtman, and Swissman, among others.) When it comes to beauty, the Aysén Region is home to three climate zones, and all of the fjords, mountains, glaciers, temperate rainforests, and steppes you can cram into a territory the size of a stretched-out Tennessee. On the brutality front, the wind is just the start.
At 4:30 a.m., athletes file onto the ferry dressed in in full wetsuits and hoods that strap under their chins like neoprene bonnets. Three horn blasts later, the boat disappears into the darkness where racers begin their 3.8-kilometer swim in the protected bay instead of the outer fjord as planned. Clouds drape over the peaks of the mountains, lowering the sky over the bay, and by 5:45 a.m., the wind almost completely stops. The relatively balmy 55-degree water guarantees that the hot tub near the transition will go unused.
Mauricio Mendez emerges from the swim first, and a flock of drones follow the 23-year-old Mexican XTERRA phenom to his bike. After the first five or six men, Lucy Gossage jumps on her bike and begins the long ride on a portion of the storied Carretera Austral, a 770-mile stretch of scenic highway connecting north and south Chile. Before its construction in the ‘70s under Chilean president Augusto Pinochet, the only way to travel to southern Chile was by boat or plane, which is why it remains the country’s least populated region.
Race founders Ignacio Valdivieso and Samir Rosolem, both from Chile, knew that’s what would make this race special. It is unparalleled in its remote, untamed, and pristine geography; it is jaw-droppingly picturesque, and often, outdoor adventures are human-free, unlike the crowds at Torres Del Paine further north. In Patagonman, racers are closer to solo adventure racers—cycling and running for miles without seeing anyone. Even the aid stations are sparse. There is one water station on the bike course (at 90 km) and three during the run (at 10 km, 20 km, and 30 km), which is why the organizers require every participant to come with a support person to fill in the gaps. Mendez, who would go on to win the race, says that that stipulation made the race for him. He chose his dad as his support person, and he couldn’t stop smiling when he talked about their day together.
The first 120k of the bike ride rolls past crowds of purple and pink chochos, a Patagonian lupin flower that lines the roads, gnarled beech trees emerging from soft grass, and cattle ranches with animal skins drying on laundry lines. The views are pure Tolkien: Snow-capped mountains, lush forests, and deep lakes are shocking in their splendor. Several racers admitted that no matter how badly they wanted to stop racing, their curiosity of what they’d see around the next corner was enough to fight through. For the first 120 kilometers, it was the kind of bike ride that made you want to stop riding and wander, but potholes and light cobbles ensured no one was too distracted as they rode through the villages of Puerto Aysén, Coyhaique, and El Blanco.
But then the athletes turn a corner and hit a wall of wind that could drop a flock of birds. The bulk of the 8,500 feet of climbing seems to line up with an endless parade of false summits. Shoulders slump as riders crawl their way into the Andes, each turn a new wind tunnel. The landscape changes, too, with the chochos and emerald green vistas giving way to dandelions and the rugged, rocky Cerro Castillo National Park.
Cyclists end the leg by racing down the twisting road that leads into the Cerro Castillo Village for T2.
The most difficult and rewarding leg of the day for most racers is the run. Runners meet sandy single-track trail and two knee-deep rivers in the first 10 km of the 42.2-km run. Then the route opens up to a panoramic view of the largest peaks in the Chilean Andes, including Cerro Castillo, giving runners a tour of the region’s abundant glacier-fed rivers and lakes on a dusty, gravel road.
Beech trees and wild horses follow racers along the Ibánez River, but it’s not long before the heat and elevation gain take their toll. Steep climbs take slow running to walking to hands-on-knees propulsion—the strength of the athlete’s triceps determining whether or not they make it up the hill.
Luckily, midway through the long descent toward the finish, racers have the option to run the final 10 km with a support person. There, with company, the race’s last, and perhaps most stunning surprise comes at the bottom: the Río Ibáñez falls, booming, stunning waterfalls formed by the Hudson Volcano’s most recent eruption.
The long, flat finish ends in the village of Puerto Ibáñez, near the edge of Lago General Carrera, the second-largest lake in South America—one shared by both Chile and Argentina. Racers ring the finish line bell and look for a beer.
Most competitive athletes, especially the ones who love suffering, rarely have the energy to take in their surroundings during a race—they only feel its mercilessness. They set out to answer, What can you survive? Which course will make you call uncle?
For 10 percent of the Patagonman field, this one. But outside of the gale-force winds, the weather was pleasant. Buttressed by an 85-degree day two days earlier, and a rainy, 50-degree day two days after, the mid-65-degree race day was the race equivalent of room temperature. Meaning, this race can only get harder. Not that anyone seems to mind. As racers watched the awards ceremony in the center of Coyhaique the next day, many made plans to come back. It was the most beautiful triathlon they’d ever seen, some saying the views topped New Zealand.
Within the month, Patagonman was officially accepted in the XTRI World Tour and with 2019 lottery open, we’d recommend circling the December 1, 2019 race date in big red marker.