Fernanda Maciel is a renowned athlete in a demanding, beautiful, lonely, empowering, and grueling sport—ultramarathoning. An ultramarathon is any footrace that is longer than a marathon and is categorized as either a timed or a distance run. Some timed ultramarathons can take up to a week to complete and see runners camping, hiking, and navigating through wild terrain and a range of altitudes. At the age of eight, Fernanda was a competitive gymnast and traveled the world through Olympic Gymnastics. She moved to the U.S. to train two years later and became a capoeira fighter and a jiu-jitsu champion and found herself running trail races. Brazilian born and currently living in France, Fernanda is now an ultramarathoner and an adventure racer, and has participated in international 600-kilometer adventure racing since the age of twenty-three. To complete these complex endurance races, Fernanda has kayaked, mountain biked, run trails, snowboarded, and summited and descended mountains. Through her hard work, determination, and resilience, Fernanda became the first woman to run the Camino de Santiago Compostela, in which she ran 860-kilometers in ten days. She also placed second on the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, which was a run of 169-kilometers.
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When not running mountains, Fernanda worked as an environmental lawyer and has also been an environmental instructor with Outward Bound International. Her love for nature is clearly not something she pursues only for herself; Fernanda also encourages others to discover and protect our collective natural environment.
Face the Current was excited to learn more about this extreme, intense, and arduous sport, and Fernanda Maciel was the perfect person to show us the path. Fernanda discussed her upbringing; her project, White Flow, that provides aid to communities in which she races; and the way she harnesses the meditative qualities of running in flow-state to achieve success. While humans might not be able to actually move mountains, Fernanda has shown us that it is indeed possible to run them.
Sasha Frate: You grew up participating at high levels in a variety of sports including Olympic gymnastics from the age of eight, and capoeira and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. You then started to hit the trails as a runner and multi-sport endurance athlete. What have been some of the greatest factors throughout your life that have kept you competitively involved?
Fernanda Maciel: My family is a fighting family and I like to keep that fighting spirit in my daily life. My grandad was a jiu-jitsu champion and my dad is a capoeira master, and we fought at my grandad’s house in a ring when I was a kid. I have learned some strong values through fighting that help me during my sporting career today.
SF: While most athletes have one or two sports for which they focus and intensely train, you’ve chosen to pursue multiple paths in parallel. Why multi-sporting?
FM: I started to run as a means to get to school. When it came to jiu-jitsu fighting, I began running road races because I didn’t have too much time to train for jiu-jitsu. I then realized that running was a great sport for me because I had good endurance and I had been running my whole life. When I had the opportunity to try other sports I liked them, but running was always my main sport—even when I was training in gymnastics.
I love the freedom that comes with the movement of running, and because it is in nature, it is not boring and therefore easier for me. It is a form of meditation for me where I can turn off my brain and enjoy the flow of easy terrain. Nature keeps my energy high, and observing the details of the tracks, the beauty of the landscapes, and glowing sunrises gives me so much energy that I am able to run for days.
SF: As a “non-stop” adventure racer, do you have any particular facets that you favor over others?
FM: Comparing all other sports, running was always my strongest skill.
SF: How do you maintain a high level of performance in so many different sports? Can you share what a typical “week-in-the-life-of-Fernanda” looks like, in terms of your training for the variety of sports?
FM: I was an adventure racer fifteen years ago, but at that time, my coach was a triathlon coach. My trainings were based on triathlon training which included running six times a week, biking five times a week, kayaking two days a week, and swimming one or two days a week. I did no gym training and all my trainings involved volume, intervals, and rhythm.
SF: What is the idea behind the project name “White Flow” and what does it encompass?
FM: White Flow is a personal project that has a running challenge and a social action. In 2012 I worked for a Conflict Resolution project with politicians from Israel and Palestine. At the end of this work, I figured out a way to combine a personal running project that could also have a positive impact on society. I created White Flow as a result to help the community in which I am running the project. To date I’ve completed six White Flow projects. The first one, White Flow Camino de Compostela, I ran 860-kilometers in ten days to help children with cancer in Spain and Brazil. The latest one, White Flow Elbrus, I ran up and down the highest mountain in Europe (the Elbrus, 5620 meters) in seven hours to help women who have experienced violence in their lives and are in the recovery process.
SF: Of your three World Records, which was the greatest feat (most challenging and rewarding) for you to accomplish?
FM: I was born in Brazil and I remember hearing about Aconcagua mountain in Argentina when I was a teenager. It is the highest mountain in the Americas and I knew that many female ultra runners and mountain guides had been trying to run up and down that mountain without any success. In 2015, I attempted the run but I failed at 6000 meters elevation when altitude sickness issues struck. I tried again the next year and failed again. However, after resting for ten days and waiting for better mountain conditions, I returned to Aconcagua mountain and was able to accomplish the run. I became the first woman in the world to run up and down Aconcagua (6962 meters high/22.837 feet) in twenty-two hours and fifty-two minutes.
SF: You attribute nature to not only calling you to run long distance trails, but also to your professional life as an environmental lawyer and instructor as you work to protect our natural environment. What type of environmental projects are you (or have you been) involved in professionally?
FM: I was a lawyer in Brazil working for FEAM (Minas Gerais state environment foundation). It is the public organization that protects the environment in my Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. In parallel with my work as a lawyer, I was also linked to a recycling project implemented in the buildings of the state departments. I later worked for Outward Bound, the international NGO that also works for the betterment of the world’s environment. I no longer work for them today, but I continue my environmental efforts with NEEF, the National Environmental Education Foundation of the U.S.
I usually try to go to extreme locations to be out of my comfort zone; only then can I can expand my limits and improve. As an athlete and runner, I like to explore different terrains and conditions because they teach me many lessons. I’ve learned to be humble, to be a fighter, to be in the present, and to give value to the basic life elements such as food, water, sleep, a hot shower, and a coffee with my friends or parents.
SF: When doing endurance trail runs on the mountains, what keeps you going for such great distances?
FM: I love the freedom that comes with the movement of running, and because it is in nature, it is not boring and therefore easier for me. It is a form of meditation for me where I can turn off my brain and enjoy the flow of easy terrain. It’s also interesting when the terrain is hard and dangerous because I have to be alert and focused on each step of my run. I listen to music during my long run trainings, but not during the night because I can get lost if I lose concentration on the track marks. (I always run alone so becoming lost is a real concern!) Nature keeps my energy high, and observing the details of the tracks, the beauty of the landscapes, and glowing sunrises gives me so much energy that I am able to run for days.
SF: Ultra-running and endurance training are very time consuming! How do you balance everything and make time for other professional projects, friends and family, and non-sport fun?
FM: The endurance training consumes a lot of my time and I don’t have much left over to spend with my loved ones, but my family and friends understand my passion and my mountain lifestyle. I usually spend one month a year in Brazil to be with my family and visit my old friends.
SF: As a Red Bull Athlete, you’re quoted as saying: “When I’m running on top of mountains or paddling in the ocean, I feel so small and yet I feel the most intense feelings of freedom and peace.” Your sports have enabled you to access and experience freedom in many unique places and ways, from running inside the most dangerous favela in Brazil, to the Sahara Desert for Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands), also known as “the world’s hardest race”. Can you share any lessons learned and perhaps new perspectives gained from these rare experiences you’ve had?
FM: I usually try to go to extreme locations to be out of my comfort zone; only then can I can expand my limits and improve. I ran in Aconcagua, a high and cold mountain, and then one month later I was in the Sahara Desert at forty-eight degrees to race 250-kilometers on flat and sandy terrain. As an athlete and runner, I like to explore different terrains and conditions because they teach me many lessons. I’ve learned to be humble, to be a fighter, to be in the present, and to give value to the basic life elements such as food, water, sleep, a hot shower, and a coffee with my friends or parents. I suffer on extreme runs, but I also learn and feel the personal growth.
SF: In your talks you describe the mountain as a metaphor for what we face daily in our professional and personal lives. As someone who takes on mountains in the literal sense for your sport, does tackling daily challenges in life feel easier to manage? Does it feel like there are no limits in terms of the obstacles we can overcome and the accomplishments we can attain?
FM: Yes, I feel very fortunate to have discovered outdoor sport in my life; it teaches me to observe my pure self and to see both my defects and my potentials.
SF: In addition to ultra-running, you also run your own company called Run Sport Nutrition that creates customized diet plans produced by yourself and your extended team of Sports Nutritionists. Can you tell us about this company? How was it conceived and does it specifically tailor to runners’ nutrition?
FM: I created Run Sport Nutrition with Jaume Gimenez. Jaume is a Spanish sport nutritionist and the Sport Nutrition Director of Barcelona University. We work together in Run Sport Nutrition to help runners that have struggled to follow a training diet and race diet.
SF: Your philosophy is “move positive”. What does this mean to you?
FM: It means compassion. I try to do positive things in my life and in the lives of others. I observe my mind and I try to leave it with only the positive thoughts that come into my brain. In this way, I know that I can move positive and share good things with the universe.