FKT on the Gran Paradiso and MatterhornFrom The Field
In conversation with Fernanda Maciel
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Jordan Manoukian
‘In adventure, we drive ourselves towards the unknown. It’s here, when I’m completely outside of my comfort zone, that I can see my real values and true self.’ — Fernanda Maciel
Fernanda Maciel is one of the most renowned ultrarunners in the sport today. With first place and podium finishes in some of the biggest races around the globe, she’s made a name as an athlete to be reckoned with, but it’s her personal projects – largely mountain Fastest Known Times (FKTs) – that show her true passion for the sport. We recently sat down with her to hear more about her most recent feat: named ‘White Flow Alps’, a personal project to make a speed ascent and descent of the Gran Paradiso (4,061m), followed by a summit of the Matterhorn (4,478m) in the same 24 hours.
You’ve achieved some of the toughest mountain FKTs out there and won major racing titles, but this challenge seems entirely personal. What did you want to get out of this project?
Gran Paradiso is all about icy terrain, big rocks, deep crevasses – it’s a new mountain for me, and a great physical challenge. The Matterhorn, on the other hand, has been a long-term dream for me, but I had a bad experience myself three years ago, which left me in hospital with my eyelids frozen shut. One of my closest friends recently died there in a climbing accident. I have a lot of respect for the Matterhorn due to my history with it, but also a lot of fear. This project was about facing performance on Gran Paradiso, running fast and climbing without a rope, and then facing that fear on the Matterhorn.
I think it’s great to combine your running with both races and personal projects. In races, we pit ourselves together against the challenge. I absolutely love the experience of having the trail-running community together, but personal challenges should be all about creating a project that will develop your own personal skills.
How did you approach the emotional task of returning to the Matterhorn?
I started working with a coach this year for the fear I’ve been experiencing – not just for this particular mountain, but all high mountains where there is always some danger. In the past few years I’ve lost five close friends in mountaineering accidents, and that was really affecting me. Two days before I was due to start this project, I really wanted to cancel because my fear was completely blocking me from any altitude over 4,500m. I know that this type of fear can be a real problem; you can literally stop yourself from being able to move in the situation. So, before we went out, I spoke to the camera crew that would be joining me on the project and told them never to ask me how I was feeling – if I had to stop and think about my fears, I might be blocked and not be able to continue.
So now that you’ve summitted the Matterhorn, is the fear gone?
It’s like I’m now a completely new person. When I reached the summit, I just stopped to cry – a really big cry. In that moment, the big trauma that I’ve been holding onto opened up like a void inside me as I overcame in. It just left a beautiful emptiness where I no longer have that fear. Ever since that moment, I can return to the mountains and feel more pleasure, more confident, and less fear. It’s incredible.
‘I learned from this experience that fear is amazing, it’s healthy to have, and it’s so powerful if you face it.’
What did you learn about fear that you can pass on to others?
In the past I always avoided fear, and I think a lot of people do that. It’s only natural. I learned from this experience that fear is amazing, it’s healthy to have, and it’s so powerful if you face it. I’ve learned to be able to observe myself from both the outside and inside. This is the only way to identify what is real (from the outside), and what is just my imagination (the inside). Your imagination is so powerful, and being able to observe and then control it is so important. You can imagine that you’re capable and confident, and then you can keep moving – or you can imagine the opposite, and then you’ll be afraid and unable to move.
You’re a strong multi-sport athlete, but what is it about running that grips you?
To me, running is the best sport. The movement is so perfect. You just use your arms and your legs, and then turn off your mind. Trail running, especially, brings me close to nature, and I love being able to do that alone. I love a lot of mountain sports, but running is where I’m most passionate.
I miss the big races where the huge trail-running community comes together, but this year has been great for personal projects and I hope that lots of people will discover their own unique challenges like this.
For more information on Fernanda, visit fernandamaciel.com and follow her on Instagram @fernandamaciel_oficial. Fernanda was speaking on behalf of her sponsors, The North Face. For more inspiration, visit The North Face Exploration Hub.
Written by Jenny Tough // @jennytough
Photography by Jordan Manoukian // @jordan_manoukian