The ultra-runner conquering the world’s highest mountains

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“Every girl should know how to fight,” says Fernanda Maciel with fierce conviction. The Brazilian ultra-endurance athlete, who has broken records for running up and down the highest mountains in both Africa and South America, grew up in a family of fighters. Her father and grandfather were champion martial artists, and as a young girl she trained in the family ring at home, later going on to compete internationally as a gymnast.

“Knowing how to defend yourself is amazing,” she says. “It makes you feel confident and self-protected. If you know that physically [you are strong], you also feel it in your mind, as well as emotionally and spiritually. I think it’s very important for a woman.”

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Maciel is speaking from her remote wood-and-stone house in the Spanish Pyrenees, where single-track paths wind up steep inclines, the air is crisp, and a nearby river marks the border of neighbouring Andorra. As well as being raised to fight, she was also brought up to revere the natural world, with frequent family camping trips in the mountains. That’s why she went on to become an environmental lawyer in São Paulo, one of the world’s biggest and busiest cities.

It wasn’t the experience she was hoping for, though, and she became frustrated by the political compromises her organisation was forced to make. Although she would clear her head by running in national parks on weekends, she also felt trapped behind a desk: “I was in a city, with papers in front of me, indoors. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not the best way to explore myself.’”

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