This athlete and activist runs to make the world a better place
Fernanda Maciel lives quietly, far from cities, in Anserall, a village of 40 in the Spanish Pyrenees. There, she rises at dawn, bends her head and prays, folds through a yoga sequence, “at least one Sun Salutation per day,” drinks a mug of American coffee, laces her shoes, and runs. On trails winding through an accordion of peaks where thoughts come as clear as the morning skies, Fernanda logs 35 hours per week. The woman who grew up in Brazil and whose life motto is “Move positive” wisps through the high country like an ibex. Evenings find our hero researching communities in need that she can help through her personal charity, White Flow.
If you pay attention to ultrarunners, you know Fernanda is one of the world’s best. It was Fernanda who was the first woman to run the iconic Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the Way of Saint James), 535 miles in ten days across France and Spain. Between 2009 and 2015, she won four The North Face ultra trail races in France, Italy, Japan, and Brazil, among other competitions. In 2016, she set the women’s Fastest Known Time running and giant-stepping her way up 22,841-foot Aconcagua. And in 2017, she did the same on 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro. But that’s just the stuff of résumés and results sheets. You don’t know Fernanda Maciel from that. Fernanda is a warrior.
To understand, you must take a leap back in time to the summer of 1991. Fernanda is ten years old, an exceptionally gifted gymnast on the verge of world-class competition. But her father falls ill, and his care, coupled with a “political-economic crisis,” leaves the family struggling financially. “I don’t feel we were in poverty, but for sure we had to sell everything we had,” Fernanda will say later. She quits gymnastics but continues her schooling. And because she hates the bus, she runs—barefoot—to and from her studies. Later she runs races for prize money to help support her family.
Yet Fernanda sidesteps the tragedy that could have consumed her. “Fernanda,” her grandfather says, “you are a warrior but you need to fight more.” And so she takes up fighting—Brazilian jiu-jitsu—and remembers her grandpa's advice as she runs to the waterfalls above the city slums. Brazil swelters, but “the water of the waterfall is cold,” she says. “And my dad taught me that cold water cleans the soul.” More prize money from running helps pay her way through environmental law school. She dreams of protecting Brazil’s thrumming and threatened rainforests. To reach her goals, Fernanda transforms herself into a warrior.
Only a warrior would even contemplate running up Aconcagua. “It was my dream to run up and down the highest mountain in the Americas,” she says. But she admits that part of her thought it impossible. It was close to impossible, according to Christopher McDougall, author of the New York Times bestseller Born to Run. “Aconcagua is formidable,” he says. “The winds are ferocious. Before Fernanda did it, five men in history had gone up and down in 24 hours.”
On her first attempt, in 2015, poor weather turned her back. In 2016, during her second, she faced bad weather, including rock slides and avalanches, and altitude sickness. When her sponsors, friends, and family said, “Fernanda, stop trying,” she respectfully ignored them. On her third attempt, wanting to fully acclimate, she ran to 20,000 feet and back to basecamp, where she slept alone in a little half-dome tent. “She looks around and says, ‘This is where I ought to be,’” says McDougall. “'This is what I ought to be doing.’” The following day, she ran back down to basecamp and, starting from the base of the peak and evading multiple landslides along the way, finally notched her record-setting time.
She demonstrates the same kind of grit in running White Flow, her charity, through which she connects her social media followers with various causes, advising them on how to make a positive impact. It’s not a registered nonprofit, nor does she make any money from it, but it’s what Fernanda does. So far she has raised money for pediatric cancer patients in France and Spain, for orphans in the Kilimanjaro region, and for impoverished children in both Nepal and Brazil. “I can’t gush enough about Fernanda,” says her fellow The North Face athlete Rory Bosio. “She has the most positive perspective and attitude of anyone I know. She approaches everything from life to running to work to friendships with a joyful, spirited energy. She never complains, never has a negative attitude, and she’s tough as nails.”
At her home in the Pyrenees, Fernanda pads barefoot around in the woods of Anserall, praying, meditating, and training. She visits friends and recharges for her next race or White Flow project. And just as she always has since she was a little girl in Brazil, she continues to heed her grandfather’s advice, running, fighting, and crusading for all the right reasons.
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