Friday 22nd September – 7am start
110km with 6,700m+ elevation change
I like doing long ultra trail races because it always ends up being a mental battle and a problem solving activity, especially when the body is so fatigued and you have to get through the low patches and back into the happy places. I really like the idea behind it and find it very rewarding when trying to battle through these emotions and see how well the body can respond to it.
In short this race was the mentally toughest one of the year, it was one of the shorter races and took me less time than the other 2 big ones, but I was mentally exhausted and failed to get through the low spots like I’d done previously this year.
For me, ultra running’s rewards (aside from the obvious: views and new places) are about developing your character, perseverance, determination, ability to adapt to change and also reckless abandon on the descents.
So let’s get into this unforgiving and brutal race!
Training had gone pretty well since Lakeland 100. I took some time off to recover fully and heal up my tendonitis before doing any more big climbing weeks.
Chamonix and Plateau D’Assy was incredible for a big training week, got some great short runs in while over there with tons of ascent – 27 miles in 4 runs with 16,000ft ascent. It was fun to do some of the runs with Vicky and also with Sarah. It was fantastic to see all the UTMB races unfold including seeing some friends finish which was very inspiring leading into UP2017.
The next section in training was to have fun in the hills so a cheeky little trip around Aonach Eagach with Stuart before almost falling off the damn thing! Then the Mamores VK (Glencoe Skyline) the week before UP2017.
I had a little worry after the Mamores VK when I could hardly walk for 3 days with an issue in my knee, having taken co-codamol it eased up as the week progressed but we almost cancelled the entire holiday to Barcelona if it persisted. So glad we didn’t looking back now, thanks to Paul and Gordon for helping me get it sorted!
I flew out to Barcelona with Vicky on the Wednesday, picked up a rental car in the airport, drove to Bagà where we were due to stay with some friends of the hostel owner, quite scary.
Registration was on Thursday and was super easy and fast, there was a few booths set up selling merch and I had to get some more Electrolyte tablets as I forgot mine – D’oh! I got GU Hydration Tablets (more of these rubbish tablets later into the race).
I got one of those forearm tattoos, didn’t think it would show up as well as it did on my arm, but it looked fine and was a life saver later on into the race.
Kit check wasn’t actually mandatory pre-race but I wanted to go get it done anyway. There was also a choice for 1 drop bag at either Bellver (40km) or Gósol (74km) – I choose the later one because it made more sense to get extra kit, food, head torch later on into the race as it was getting dark.
The goodies you get are actually amazing and include loads of Salomon swag, travel toiletries and even some Gazpacho (cold soup haha).
Bagà to Bellver (0km to 40km)
Start was at 7am and we were staying a 5 minute walk from the start so it was very relaxed and meant I could leave last minute.
I went into the start pen quite near the back hoping to take it slow at first, get warmed up and hopefully progress down the field and get stronger towards the end. There was a sea of Catalan flags and buffs absolutely everywhere. The start was crazy! Within 20 seconds you’re running down a tiny cobbled street through Bagà and out up the first climb.
The first 8km to the checkpoint were painfully slow, there was constant bottle necks on the little trail waiting for people to climb up, go around etc. I got to the checkpoint 40 minutes before the cut off and thought I better actually get a move on now because I’d wasted so much time standing around waiting for people to move.
Heading up to the second CP and high point on the race at just over 2,500m, the views were absolutely amazing! I wanted to get up to the CP and hopefully put some more time in the bank before the cut offs, so I worked pretty damn hard to get up here. I think one of the factors I was feeling so tired was probably because of the altitude, a big chunk of the race was over 1,700m.
Got to the CP and all the Catalans were shouts Venga Venga Venga at me, amazing support!
The descent down to Serrat (CP3 at 28km) was fast and quite fun. I was working hard still to try and make up as much time as possible hoping to get the cut offs to be over an hour so I didn’t need to worry about them. Constantly short of breath and feeling tired I thought this was due to not taking enough calories/salt so I was having quite a lot of Water with those GU tablets in. I also had a lot to eat and drink at the checkpoints thinking that would help.
Arriving in Bellver was a huge relief, I couldn’t wait to sit down as I’d promised myself this for the last few hours. Running through the town was pretty good because there was tons of support from everyone. The marathon was still going on so even bigger crowds hanging around. I went into the small kit check where I had to show my Waterproof jacket, foil blanket and mobile phone to carry on. Inside the Checkpoint I got a plate of pasta, a tiny cup of soup, a cup of coke and went to sit down and eat it. The trails were pretty rocky and I was having to take my shoes off a lot to get out all the little loose stones which were embedding into my feet making them quite sore. I wanted to quit here but didn’t have a good enough excuse to justify it. I knew I felt tired but my legs were fine, so no actual issues to give me that easy excuse.
Bellver to Gósol (40km to 74km)
Leaving the checkpoint I started the long slog up to the second high point of the course passing 2 other checkpoints on my way.
12 hours into the race I was running along a high section and I thought it would be nice to put on my iPod and hopefully lighten the mood, there was a few songs on then BOOM – One song came on, it was sunny, it was beautiful views and I was totally overcome with emotion, the song really touched me, I love the song normally but even more so now. Lost Horizon – Highlander. WOW! This was my proper highlight of the race, for the full 11 minutes 56 seconds of pure bliss.
When I got to CP6 Aguiló, the sun was starting to set and creep behind the mountains.
My next goal was to try and get to the top before putting my head torch on. I knew I was behind schedule by quite a lot because my friend Ozzie last year put his head torch on at the CP after this which would take me almost 2 hours longer to reach. I used my friend’s splits for TransGranCanaria and also Lakeland 100 as we run a very similar pace and he has done the races before.
After what felt like bloody hours and hours of slogging up, stopping to lean on my poles, slogging up some more I finally make it as the sun was setting. I didn’t want to put my head torch on until the last minute because I know the batteries on my Petzl Nao wouldn’t last me 9 hours+ until I finished. I ran down the descent pretty hard again, finding the trail really easy to pass people on the descents and did so without issue, whereas the same people would always pass me back on the ascents. Yo-yoing with the same people all day. The head torch was on now an hour or so before getting to the next checkpoint.
No more photos now in the dark 😦
This descent to Gósol is very long, it was dark now and I was feeling so sick. I tried to throw up twice with the hope of clearing my stomach from those awful GU tablets (Wish I did remember my SIS tablets because I’ve never had issues with those), but nothing came up. Again looking for more excuses to quit, is it wrong to think how good it would be too accidentally fall badly and stop there?
I found it quite difficult to speak to people during this race, most of the competitors seemed to be Spanish or Catalan and due to my very limited phrases I couldn’t chat for almost all of the race, it was quite lonely at times. Especially during this night section!
I ran through the entire night alone, through the forests thinking about the Blair Witch Project, scared of putting my music on in case I got lost. I thought I saw a beaver working as a stone mason but it was just shadows on a rock lol.
Finally I reached Gósol, it had been dark a few hours by now and I got into the CP, got my drop bag and started to get changed. I picked up my spare head torch (Petzl Tikka RXP), changed to a long sleeve base layer, changed my buff and had some food. I had another plate of pasta here and then a Catalan sausage. I must have sat here trying to catch my breath and relax for about 30 minutes, I was messaging Vicky, Sarah & Ozzie about it saying how I was feeling.
Gósol to Finish (74km to 110km)
There wasn’t many long sections left now without checkpoints, the next being 8.7km then an easy 3.3km section and so on.
From CP7 to CP8 it was 8.7km, most of it was runnable for me but just before the CP there looked to be a tiny tiny climb and it was so steep and took me forever to get up. I was sitting down on rocks in the forest thinking about how I can quit.
The next section was only 3.3km and it was all downhill so I was excited to get this done thinking I’d be down it in less than half an hour. I did pass people but I also slipped a lot too! It was a pretty steep descent through the woods on very slippy trail, very slippy! Luckily you could use the trees to grab and swing around as all the grip on your shoes was lost on the slick rock and compressed dirt. They were having a party at this CP and playing Sum 41 which I thought was really funny at the time.
10km to CP10 nearly at the end of the race. I resolved to the fact that I’m 100% going to finish now, and finish in the light around 25hr (8am) so Vicky can get a nice finish photo of me in the sunrise hehe. It turned out to be a really nice descent here so I ran fast down it into the checkpoint feeling like I had accomplished something or a man on a mission.
The next 4km looked not too bad but as usual it was ALL uphill, this took me the longest in the entire race and my slowest KM splits. I thought the river bed at Gran Canaria was bad, but it was nothing compared to this 4km stretch.
From CP10 Vents to CP11 Sant Jordi you only climb 650m in that 4km but it was so painfully slow going, you are constantly climbing up and around rocks which are essentially part of a fast flowing river with waterfalls all around. Thankfully I never fell into the deep pools of water, or even slipped on the huge soaking rocks. It felt like Ghyll Scrambling in the Lake District at times! Luckily I still found time to stop, lean on my poles and catch my breath.
By Saint Jordi I knew this was it, there was 10km left and it was almost all downhill apart from one other big climb (which looks tiny on the race profile) – Looks can be deceiving but I had grown to expect the tiny looking climbs were actually beasts too.
The final downhill from around 103km to 110km finish was amazing. It was very runnable and I ran at my absolute max for the entire rest of the race. The descent was so nice it was on great big wide forest tracks/roads so easy to pass people, say Hola to people and keep gunning it down. I was using my poles on the descents in this race and it was really good this late on for balance too.
I had swapped my head torch from the Nao to the Tikka so the trail was all bright again, I wanted to see if I could run a sub 30 min 5km on this easy trail so I tried, passing everyone. There was a long actual road section just before Bagà where you could really open up your stride, but I’d gotten a stitch here.
Coming into the finish area I could see a runner savouring the moment ahead of me, I thought the finish was just around the corner so I walked here to let him enjoy the finish and not race by him. After a few minutes he was out of sight and I ran hard again down the steps and turned the corner onto the green carpet finish, he was walking in there (damn it). We smiled at each other as I passed him and then saw Vicky just at the last corner before the finish. Finally I saw the finish arch and passed under it in 23 hours 20 minutes and 42 seconds – THANKFULLY IT WAS OVER!
I didn’t expect to finish in under 24 hours a few hours earlier, I just had a burning desire to actually get it over with, all the fatigue just seemed to vanish and I was running what felt very fast on the final descent. Happy to have done it in under 24 hours even if I didn’t get my photo finish in the daylight!
- Thanks to Ozzie & Myvanwy for giving me details and tips going into this race.
- Thanks to Ultra Pirineu for putting on such an amazing event.
- Huge thanks to all the volunteers and supporters involved along the course, they were always happy to help me, encourage me and passionate about the beautiful area they live in.
- Huge thanks to everyone who wished me good luck, congratulated me and followed along during the event, I was thinking about it during the race and it was once of the reasons I kept going! Also for the UTMB points hehe.
- Finally huge thanks to Vicky for keeping me going when I was struggling in the race, for Sarah for her continued coaching and smart training to keep me at it, and to 1000 Mile Socks for supporting me and keeping my feet fresh and free from losing any toenails.