Running for Environmental Advocacy: A Profile of Fernanda Maciel

Fernanda Maciel is passionate about the environment and racing, both of which have taken her around the world, from her home country of Brazil to her adopted home in Chamonix, France.

By on November 18, 2021 | Comments

It seems like Fernanda Maciel has done it all: worked as a lawyer in her home country, competed in multi-sport races around the world, stepped up into ultrarunning, and advocated for environmental protection in her worldwide running projects. The Brazilian runner, who now lives in Chamonix, France, has overcome multiple obstacles to get where she is today as one of the top mountain runners and adventure racers in the world.

Fernanda Maciel Running in Minas Gerais

Fernanda Maciel running in her home state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Maciel.

Maciel grew up in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, a region rich with precious minerals but flush with extensive mining operations — Minas Gerais literally means “General Mines” — many of which are damaging to the surrounding environment.

Maciel wanted to tangibly advocate for environmental protection, so she got a law degree from FUMEC University in Brazil and dove right in. Working as a trainee at the state level while still in school, she took over as the head of her department in 2003 at only 23 years old.

While she was successful and the job felt meaningful, long hours enacting legislation and writing fines for errant mining company practices left much to be desired: Maciel wanted a more tangible relationship with the outdoors.

In 2006 she moved to New Zealand for a year, which spurred on her desire to be out in the world. She returned to Brazil after one year and, for a time, she continued her environmental work as a lawyer. But after competing in her first ultramarathon in 2008, she knew she needed to make the leap. In 2009, she quit her job and moved to Spain to focus more on her competitive endeavors.

Fernanda Maciel Law School Graduation

Fernanda (left) graduating from law school at FUMEC University in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Maciel.

“It was a cool job [in Brazil], but at the same time, everything is very political. Working in environmental law, you need to follow all these political rules, and when you’re older you can accept that, but when you’re young, it’s like no, no way!” said Maciel. “There’s so much corruption, and it’s such a long process [to get people to stop]. I was fighting to protect the environment of my state, but in the end it was just out of my control.”

Prior to moving to Spain, Maciel was already a professional racer in the adventure racing realm. She completed expedition-length adventure races that incorporated kayaking, mountain biking, snowboarding, and mountain running, all while competing in Capoeira and Jiu-Jitsu, which are both Brazilian martial arts.

When she did decide to specialize in mountain running, she gradually moved up in distance and difficulty, rising to the top of the sport in such races as UTMB, TDS, Marathon des Sables, Lavaredo Ultra Trail, and Transgrancanaria. Eventually, sponsors took notice, including The North Face and Red Bull.

Fernanda Maciel Adventure Race Brazil 2

Fernanda (center) in her earlier years of adventure racing. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Maciel.

Starting in 2012, Maciel brought her passion for the environment and community into her athletic endeavors. In a personal project called White Flow, Maciel began running a series of iconic long-distance routes, making short films about each.

Along each run, the majority of which were unsupported, she chose a social or environmental issue to highlight. For instance, as she traveled the 860-kilometer Camino de Santiago in Spain and France, she helped children in shelters with cancer. And when she summited Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas at 22,837 feet tall and located in Argentina near the border with Chile, she raised awareness about managing trash in the natural park.

Fernanda Maciel Red Bull 50k Brazil

Fernanda on her way to winning a 50k race in the jungles of Brazil. Photo: Red Bull

Last February, Maciel’s adventures came to a halt with a major head injury. While climbing on an icy but roped route, her climbing partner and boyfriend, Martin, slipped, the rope pulling Maciel up and into the rock, where she hit her head — hard. A few days later, Maciel found herself losing sensation on her left side, eventually unable to move.

“I was really lucky that I didn’t have any bleeding in my brain, but I’ve been left with a lot of limitations. I was having eye and vision problems, a lot of pressure in my head, and even in my ear. I’ve had some cardiovascular problems. It’s a really complex injury, very hard [to recover from] and I feel pain every day,” described Maciel.

But true to form, Maciel wasn’t one to give up. With the support of her sponsors and extensive rehabilitation from a full team of doctors, physical therapists, and more, she’s cleared to move cautiously back onto the racing circuit.

“I’m up to running two to three hours now. Some days I feel great, but I’m training within my limitations. I can’t run ultramarathon distances yet, but recently did the Skyrunning Vertical K Championships, so this was a good test for my cardio, because I could finish it [in a short period of time]. My left eardrum was a little painful, but I’m getting the confidence to push again,” said Maciel.

Fernanda Maciel Friends in Chamonix

Fernanda (left) enjoying time with friends in Chamonix, France. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Maciel.

Despite the injury setbacks, Maciel has more big projects on the horizon, first with a January 2022 80k race in Patagonia. If that goes well, a larger expedition with fellow The North Face athlete Kaytlyn Gerbin will follow.

The Hielo Continental, otherwise known as the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, has a famous 350k traverse directly over, you guessed it, ice. As the third biggest ice field in the world, the Hielo Continental takes most people at least seven days to trek across, Maciel is planning to cover it in one big push.

“I attempted to do this previously, but I had to stop on the second day, I couldn’t do the traverse. But I’m going to try again with Kaytlyn. She has some experience with climbing and is a really strong runner, so this is good. This ice field has 49 glaciers on it; it’s just enormous.”

Until then, Maciel is focused not only on recovery, but also on continued advocacy with the environment. She has more White Flow project plans in the works, would maybe like to run the Western States 100 one day, and is happy to keep playing, running, and adventuring in the mountains.

Maciel stated how happy she is to be able to continue being in the outdoors and watch the sport grow, “I want to keep doing White Flow projects, and to keep running in high mountains around the world. I’m super happy when I see people, especially women, running. When I started I was the only girl running in my community, and now it’s so much more. It really inspires me.”

Fernanda Maciel White Flow Favela de Rocinha

Fernanda running through Favela Rocinha, Brazil in support of public safety in the area. Photo: Bruno Senna

Fernanda Maciel Running Chamonix

Fernanda running through Chamonix, France. Photo: Martina Valmassoi

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Alex Potter
Alex Potter is a contributor and former editor at iRunFar. Following a nearly decade-long hiatus from running after college, she has found a new love in trail running. As a photojournalist, Alex has reported throughout the Middle East and East Africa for publications like 'National Geographic,' 'The New York Times,' and 'The Washington Post.'