Ultra runner, Eco Warrior, Lawyer, Fighter | The Fernanda Maciel Interview - Outdoors Magic

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Ultra runner, Eco Warrior, Lawyer, Fighter | The Fernanda Maciel Interview

For the secret to running further and faster, you might just want to look to the example of one woman from Brazil who seems to have got it all nailed down. 

It was a brutal storm and altitude sickness that hampered Fernanda Maciel’s first two attempts to run up and down Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. But The North Face athlete wasn’t to be stopped. On her third attempt at the 6962m peak she had success, completing her whole round trip within 24 hours – the first woman to achieve such a feat. A year later, she laid down the fastest known women’s time for ascending and descending Kilimanjaro as well, at just 10 hours 6 minutes. For a bit of perspective on just how fast that is, those trekking the iconic African mountain tend to take between five and nine days. There are her racing achievements as well of course, with first place finishes at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the Lavaredo and Trans Gran Canaria, three competitions often regarded as the pinnacle of ultra running. 

“She hated having to get the school bus, so quite simply, would just run instead.”

The cornerstone to her success? That’ll be her fighting spirit – and we’re not just talking about running grit here. In fact, this is someone who could just as easily defeat someone in hand-to-hand combat as they could in a foot race. The thing that’s formed the base she’s always had to keep running, she says, is jiu-jitsu. “I started to fight at the age of one, because my dad and grandfather were fighters,” she explains. “I started with this philosophy, a martial arts philosophy, with certain values that I have always practiced, and I think they make me a good athlete and a good person – able to fight for my dreams and to be a champion.”

She also credits yoga and meditation as a big part of her success. “It’s so important to have control of the mind,” she says. “You need to be able to control your thoughts and not be negative. Be positive and you can’t lose focus – that’s all the mind. So the mental part, mental training is super important. It’s good for the body as well; teaching you how to breathe well when running.”

Fernanda during her Aconcagua attempt. Photo: Gabriel Tarso.
On the summit of Kilimanjaro, another of her record breaking runs.

The running all started when Fernanda was at school but it wasn’t in gym class. She hated having to get the school bus, so, quite simply, would just run instead. Then came the races, which she quickly started winning. As she got older she was able to use prize money from races to pay for training in law, something she undertook not only to be able to support her family financially, but to protect the threatened nature within her home country. “Since I was young it’s been kind of my mission,” she explains, “and during my studies as a lawyer I was clear in my head that my career was going to be close to the environment.” 

“The White Flow project means that when I’m running it’s not just for myself but for someone or something else.”

Her path took her to Sao Paulo where she worked as an environmental lawyer but the strain of living in one of the world’s most populated cities, coupled with her continued racing success and the draw of being constantly outside would lead to her leaving her desk job to become a full time athlete. 

While the life of 9 to 5 and endless paperwork was left behind, her commitment to defending nature was never abandoned. Instead, she found a way to combine it with her running. Through her White Flow project she aims to give something back to the environment and the communities that she runs in, connecting her social media followers with various initiatives that need support. It was initially set up to help fundraise during her successful attempt to run the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage through Spain, with thousands of Euros going towards helping children with cancer that she had met before setting out. Then, during her Aconcagua attempt, White Flow addressed the waste and recycling problem arising from poorly managed tourism to the mountain. She’s since run for children in the Kilimanjaro region, Nepal and in Brazil’s biggest favela, Rocinha.

“I think in running sometimes, it’s not a team sport and it can be egotistical, so this is why I created the White Flow project,” she surmises. “It means that when I’m running it’s not just for myself but for someone or something else.”

Fernanda wearing the brand new Flight Series Futurelight™ Jacket with The North Face’s groundbreaking new waterproof technology.

Fernanda is currently ranked third in the world in Ultra Trail World Tour rankings, and is gearing up for another big year on the circuit, starting out with another crack at the Trans Gran Canaria – 130km and a total ascent of 8000m. From her base in Chamonix she’s been ski mountaineering and touring all winter to keep her fitness up and is about to head back home to Brazil for four weeks to get used to the conditions she can expect in the Canary Islands in March. 

So, if you want to be a better runner, you won’t go far wrong by following Fernanda’s approach; martial arts training, yoga, meditation, that’s the way forward by the sounds of it. Come to think of it, she’s not a bad role model for life in general; determination, perspective, selflessness – those seem to have been the attributes that have helped this person achieve one hell of a lot, both on and off the trail. 

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