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An unofficial Racer’s Guide to Vulcano Ultra Trail

This is my final post about Vulcano Ultra Trail. I’ve already written a race report and created a travel guide. In this post, I’d like to share more details about the race.

Do I recommend Vulcano Ultra Trail?

Not every ultra marathon matches the interests, skills, and strengths of every runner. For example, pure runners who dabble in mountain running love The North Face 50-Mile Championships in California’s Marin Headlands. Whereas mountain runners perform comparatively better at, say, Hardrock or Wasatch.

Vulcano Ultra Trail offers an adventurous course, ample technical terrain, an ambitious vertical profile, and slow running surfaces that favor strength over speed. While the race management seemed to be top-notch, the racing experience is much less refined than the US ultras that I have done.

Personally, I loved nearly the entire experience. But I’m a scrappy mountain athlete, and I’m probably more self-dependent, more adaptable to foreign landscapes, and more willing to endure inherently challenging conditions than most ultra runners. I only had one complaint: the sand, which I was unprepared for and which simply gets tiring.

The 100k course profile. There are three major climbs, two of which are in the first 40k. In total, there is 15k vertical feet of climbing (and ditto for descent), which averages to 450 vertical feet of change per mile. It's an ambitious course, especially in consideration of the slow running surfaces.

The 100k course profile. There are three major climbs, two of which are in the first 40k. In total, there is 15k vertical feet of climbing (and ditto for descent), which averages to 450 vertical feet of change per mile. It’s an ambitious course, especially in consideration of the slow running surfaces.

Vendor expo and pre-race meeting

At the Municipal Gym (address: San Francisco 913) in Puerto Varas, there is a vendor expo on Thursday and Friday, and a pre-race meeting on Friday.

Vendors included Merrell (the primary race sponsor), Garmin, Altra, and Ultimate Direction, plus a few others. It’s a good opportunity to see products first-hand, if you’re in the market for something.

Naturally, the pre-race meeting is in Spanish. If you’re not fluent and if you have questions, speak directly with a race organizer.

The vendor expo in Puerto Varas

The vendor expo in Puerto Varas

Getting to Petrohue and back

Because I had a rental car, I had the option of driving to the start/finish at Petrohue. It was an easy drive: high-quality roads, few intersections, and ample parking near the start/finish. By having the car, immediately after the race I was free to leave.

If you don’t have a car, take a shuttle bus from Puerto Varas to Petrohue that is provided by the race organizers, for a small cost, I think.

There is ample parking near the start/finish at Petrohue, which is a spectacular setting. Beware of the deep sand -- numerous cars got stuck and needed a push.

There is ample parking near the start/finish at Petrohue, which is a spectacular setting. Beware of the deep sand — numerous cars got stuck and needed a push.

Security of personal items

While we were racing, we left in the car a clean change of clothes, gear that we discarded last-minute, and a few valuables (e.g. one drivers license, one credit card, our passports, and our cameras). We felt very comfortable with this — nearly everyone at Petrohue was there because of the race, and there was a constant flow of foot traffic through the parking area.

If you take the shuttle bus, there appeared to be a secured bag-drop area for racers. Even so, you may want to leave non-essential valuables in your hotel room safe.

The first 40k and last 15k are smothered in volcanic ash, which has the consistency of sand. It saps push-off power and fills shoes.

The first 40k and last 15k are smothered in volcanic ash, which has the consistency of sand. It saps push-off power and fills shoes.

Footwear and gear

The first 45k and last 15k are extremely sandy. The course has always been sandy, but it’s especially sandy now, after the eruption of nearby Volcano Calbuco in April 2015. I stopped nine times in order to empty my Merrell Mix Master Move shoes, which I figure cost me about 30 minutes. If you can find a footwear system that prevents sand entry, your feet will be more comfortable and you will finish earlier.

Consider packing a second pair of socks, in the event that your primary pair becomes too uncomfortable and/or develops holes due to the abrasive sand. I have sworn by DeFeet Wooleator socks since about 2007, partly due to their excellent durability.

For all but the fastest runners, trekking poles like the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles (my pick) are worthwhile, if not imperative. Even without the sand, they would be worth it: the 100k course climbs or descends 450 vertical feet per mile, on average, and some of the shorter courses are even more aggressive.

For elite racers who will run more of the course, the value of poles is more debatable. Without question, they are helpful in many places, like when climbing out of steep ravines in ankle-deep sand. But in technical sections, poles feel like they are in the way; and during long, run-able sections, they must be carried.

My Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles, which were of debatable value for me but which are highly recommended for nearly all runners.

My Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles, which were of debatable value for me but which are highly recommended for nearly all runners.

Bring a bright light. I used the Coast HL27, which throws an awesome 307 lumens, and I would not have wanted much less. Unlike snow, which reflects light, the dark volcanic ash absorbs it. A bright light is also really useful in spotting faraway course markers, some of which are reflective.

There is a short list of mandatory gear, but race officials never checked my pack. We had an excellent weather window, but perhaps enforcement would have been stricter if the forecast was less favorable. I could see the course’s highest elevations, in particular, getting nasty.

I wore my standard race outfit: singlet, thin compression shorts, Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest 2.0 with 34 oz of water capacity, and a visor. My only regret is that I did not apply sunscreen before the race — at midnight, sun exposure seemed like a faraway concern. Sunglasses would have been nice for the final 20-25k, but overall I’m glad I left them behind — for most of the race, I was running in the dark, through lake fog, or in heavy tree cover.

My race clothing, footwear, and gear (center). Items in the upper-left were for my drop bag, which I didn't have sent out. Items in lower-right were for pre-race, and in upper-center for post-race.

My race clothing, footwear, and gear (center). Items in the upper-left were for my drop bag, which I didn’t have sent out. Items in lower-right were for pre-race, and in upper-center for post-race.

Aid stations

Expect “real food” at aid stations, like bananas, nuts, raisins, chocolate, and potato chips. You won’t see “ultra food” like blocks and gels. The aid stations had plenty of water and Poweraid. At Tesky and Las Cascadas, which have more infrastructure, there were more offerings, like soup — and even massages.

Natural water sources are generally unreliable. I crossed a few snow-fed streams just beyond Tesky. But at lower elevations, the water has percolated into the sand already. On the north side of Osorno, there is extensive cattle grazing that make all water sources suspect, although you probably won’t get sick for another 1-2 weeks.

Drop bags and pacers can be picked up at Las Cascadas, which is about the halfway mark. I had neither. Drop bags are collected in the starting area, morning-of.

Course marking

The course is marked primarily and extensively with flagging tape. Without the markings, there is often no obvious course: it travels off-trail, it cuts across open pastures and floodplains, and it links a network of farm tracks and cattle trails.

Due to the eruption of nearby Volcano Calbuco in April 2015, much of the southern half of the course was smothered in volcanic ash. With more foot traffic, the course will take shape again, slowly. But where it’s not obvious, the course markings are key. If you lose them, circle back to refind them, then start over.

The 100k course

Maps

Below is a map of the 100k course, based on the track recorded by my Sunnto Ambit.

View this map in a larger window.

More options:

View the course and my splits on Strava and Movescount.

Download the track as a GPX file. Right-click on this link, and “Save As.” Depending on your browser, the exact operation may differ slightly.

Pace chart

On the race website, find pace charts for each distance.

Based on this official information, which proved not to be entirely accurate, I created my own pace chart that would be more legible and that includes some additional information. Download the PDF: imperial units, metric units. If you want access the original Google Sheet, email me and I’ll see what I can do.

Screenshot of my pace chart. Refer to the links for a PDF download.

Screenshot of my pace chart. Refer to the links for a PDF download.

Course description

I have not found an in-depth course description, and frankly I don’t find them to be that useful anyway unless you already know the area. Instead:

View the hundreds of photos from the 2015 races that are posted on the VUT Facebook page.

Watch this video of the 2014 race. However, know that conditions have changed significantly since then due to the Calbuco eruption.

If you have not already, read my race report, in which I comment often about the course.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.


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