Dragon, Phoenix, Caribou: What It Takes to Run 120 Kilometres

For Émile David, photography and videography are powerful storytelling tools. As a filmmaker and Director of Photography, his work focuses on the relationship between humans and land. He's currently based in the Saguenay to be closer to untouched, pristine natural spaces.

Dragon, Phoenix, Caribou: What It Takes to Run 120 Kilometres

William Wachter, Art Director at Altitude Sports, gets his thrills from photography, camping, and running, along with always being on the lookout for the best gear to optimize these adventures. For him, this trip to Argentina was an enriching opportunity to discover a new continent through rewarding human experiences.

Dragon, Phoenix, Caribou: What It Takes to Run 120 Kilometres

Written by Stéphanie Major, Altitude Sports writer.
Translation: Reilly Doucet

Dragon, Phoenix, Caribou: What It Takes to Run 120 Kilometres

In the middle of the Andes, in Patagonia, lies a trekking trail some thousand years old. Along its twists and turns, ups and downs, I followed ultratrail athlete Anne Bouchard for the first edition of the El Paso Austral. 

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Fixated, feverish: Anne faced with the path that dissolves into the Argentine night. It’s 9 PM, and departure is in a few minutes. Dressed in her mauve The North Face t-shirt, the ultra-trail runner takes her position, in front of everyone, as usual. A few more moments pass and I watch her leave, running at high speed, the light of her headlamp disappearing at a bend in the route.

All that’s left to do now, is wait for her. 

This year marked the very first edition of the El Paso Austral, a 120-km ultra-trail between Chile and Argentina, crossing the Andes across varied landscapes. Sometimes desert plateaus, sometimes forests, sometimes crystal clear rivers. The route follows one of the oldest roads in South America: the famous Paso de los Vuriloches, a testament to the cultures and civilizations that have existed along it for more than 14,000 years. Ultra-technical and extremely physical, Anne Bouchard was about to take it on. 

I came to Argentina with no idea of what to expect, but Anne has seen it all. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the Canadian Death Race (which I suspect is aptly named), or the Arctic Triple Lofoten Ultra Trail: the races she's racked up records and participations in exceed a hundred kilometers. "Ultra-trail is a passion,” she says. “The endorphins I get out of running give me the strength to face daily challenges. About 95% of people would say, I’m sure, that I don't lead a balanced life, that I do too much. Yet running is what keeps all areas of my life in harmony." 

Originally from the Gaspé Peninsula, Anne is the mother of two teenagers, a prolific ultramarathon runner and a tax manager for an international firm that specializes in investing in renewable energy projects. To me, it sounds like a lot of work, but Anne manages to juggle it. Over the next few days, I would learn more about precisely what lies behind this character, and what made her want to do the El Paso Austral. I arrived in Chile early that first morning with my team to document her journey, with Santiago and the Andes Mountains as our backdrop. 

Anne was jovial, bursting with energy, and handled the stress of the upcoming race brilliantly. "The preparation is difficult," she told me, as we left the hotel for a short run in the hills around the Chilean capital. “I came here from Quebec, where I was used to running in the snow, and now I'm in a completely different setting. It's not ideal!" We ran a short 4.3 km to activate our legs before a work day at the office. Anne is dedicated to her career, and unlike most of the other runners, she had more on her agenda than the El Paso Austral. Between two jogs, she took advantage of her visit to Chile to manage a land purchase for the company Innergex at its Santiago offices. 

But the start of this mythical trail race lingered on the horizon. Still in Santiago, we'd soon have to catch a flight down along the Argentinian coast to San Carlos de Bariloche for the 120-km endeavor. Anne placed two pairs of shoes in her bag: the Summit Series VECTIV™ Pros from The North Face - and several layers of running clothes. One curious item stood out in the ultra-technical ensemble. Anne proudly explained, "It's a piece of broomstick! I cut it myself, there's nothing more effective for massaging my legs." And some say ultra-trail running is expensive...

Bariloche, the "Argentine Switzerland," lies on the edge of a glacial lake, and really makes you feel like you're at the foot of the Alps. Stone churches, large European-style squares, chocolate shops...everything could easily be mistaken for the streets of Zermatt. The El Paso Austral would begin there the next day. Anne nervously discovered that there was not much information available to the runners. It was the first edition, after all, and the language barrier complicated things. With everything in Spanish, a Chilean athlete led translations. We understood each other, but barely. 

By that point, there were still no details on the refreshment points, nor was there visibility on the conditions of the course. The very organized Anne grumbled a little bit, and had no choice but to go into the race blind - literally - since it began at 9 PM, under only the light of stars and headlamps. Armed with gels, energy bars, powdered potatoes, Kit Kats and decarbonated Red Bulls, she couldn’t have been more ready. Departure came, the runners launched themselves into the night, Anne with them, and I waited. 

“Extremely difficult.” 

That's how the runners described the El Paso Austral, those who emerged first at the finish line in Ralún, Chile. I spotted Anne in the distance and immediately got up to do the last stretch with her. She was first among all the women. Under the rain at the end of the race, she admitted that the last 50 km were particularly hard. 

That's how the runners described the El Paso Austral, those who emerged first at the finish line in Ralún, Chile. I spotted Anne in the distance and immediately got up to do the last stretch with her. She was first among all the women. Under the rain at the end of the race, she admitted that the last 50 km were particularly hard. 

From there, Anne and the other ultrarunners continued the course through a rainforest, crossing glacial rivers and jumping over huge trees that had so graciously decided to grow horizontally, making things even more hard. "The air was heavy, saturated with moisture, and carried a spicy menthol scent all around. And there was mud everywhere! It really wiped out my energy," she relayed.

The silence, the wilderness, professional life, a family back in Quebec... A multitude of worlds became intermingled, jostling each other. While the common thread among all of them weaved her way through the race along the El Paso Austral ultra-trail. 

"A few runners and I saw a shooting star on top of the Andes together. I couldn't help but lean into childhood traditions, and made a wish." 

To be able to complete that unbelievable trail?

I didn't ask her, but I doubt it. There’s no need for superstitions in the case of Anne Bouchard.  

RETURN FROM THE FIELD

What were your first impressions of Santiago?
A superb city, extremely modern, but unfortunately surrounded by smog.

Would you ever want to try doing an ultra-trail race?
I’m more of a city runner, but nature seems to be calling me more and more. I’ll be participating in the 20-km Ultra-Trail Harricana race in September!

What shoes did you run with in Chile and Argentina?
The Vectiv Enduris 3 shoe from The North Face. Very comfortable and versatile, with excellent cushioning for the rough terrain I encountered there.

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