One week after tying the knot on Jura, carbo-loaded by sustained prosecco and wedding cake consumption, with legs still tired from scrambling around lost on the Paps, I found myself standing on the start line of the World Skyrunning Championships Buff Epic Ultra Trail Race, a route of 105km and 8000m ascent, located in the Aiguestortes National Park at the heart of the Pyrenees. Other GB runners with me in the crowd were Kim Collison, and Andy Symmonds, whilst Tom Owens was running the shorter 42km route.
With the usual fanfare of European races (music, banners, crowds, photographers), we received a count down, and started at 6am, in just enough light for head torches to be unnecessary. The first few kilometres along the valley bottom were flat and runnable, but I held back and kept a steady pace, conscious of what was to come. At the start of the climb I was alongside previous race winner Nuria Picas, and was amused to witness a conversation with her road-side support team in Spanish - which I speak only a little, but enough to understand ‘You are running with the English girl’ and the reply ‘Oh, is that her?’. I would have introduced myself properly, but at that point the gradient picked up, and all oxygen was directed towards uphill movement.
We reached the top of the climb in beautiful morning sunlight, and there followed a fast run across some meadows, before a descent and valley run along tracks to the first food checkpoint at 20km. At this point I was feeling far from spritely (tracks have never been my strongpoint, particularly those of the mildly uphill-sloping variety, where one cannot justify walking), and was rather troubled to be told by the runner beside me (Jan Bartas, a Czech runner and a new friend) that I needed to be fresh at Espot (67km), which was ‘where the race would really start’. I grabbed some food, presented my bib for scanning, and raced on, trying to breathe through a combination of Nutella, cheese roll and toasted hazelnuts. On the next climb I managed to catch the tail of a group containing a lady (I later learned she was called Eva Maria Moreda) who looked really strong. I ran with this group, which fragmented and reformed a few times, until Espot. During the morning the higher sections of the course were shrouded in cloud, but every so often it would clear, and a fantastic panorama of lakes and rock formations would open up around us. As we entered the National Park we were instructed to cover our numbers and follow the directions of marshals (at which point I regretted having been so thorough with my safety pin bib attachment!). There followed a great section of technical running on wet rock, where I felt very much at home, before a long hard track descent into Espot, which I enjoyed significantly less.
Viewing the profile of the race beforehand, I had summarised the section after Espot as one lump with several separate peaks. Something along the lines of the leg-5 Bob Graham trio perhaps. However, it soon became apparent that these little ‘ups and downs’ were on a rather grander scale...
The first long ascent was a sustained climb of 1400m, initially through fields of cows and horses, then passing ski stations, and finally climbing a steep scree and boulder slope to a high col at 2700m. This final section was pretty tough, and I actually stopped on one occasion to rest (I usually try to keep moving, no matter how slowly), surveying the runners strung out below me. I suspect that some prior altitude training would have made things easier, although as someone pointed out to me after the race, my complaints of being ‘really tired and moving ever more slowly’, were not unique, and probably had more to do with the preceding 75km than anything else.
From the col the route dropped immediately down steep sandy grass into the next valley. In the absence of a path, my fell running experience served me well, and I bridged the gap which had opened on the ascent between me and the three runners in front. Another such climb followed, after which we descended to the final food station, where I made the most of the cola and watermelon, before embarking on my favourite climb of the day, along a rocky diagonal path to a high spiky col in the softening evening light.
|Ladies Podium (photo Skyrunning)|
|Lovely accommodation at Les Cabanasses|
The rest of the GB runners all had great runs too, with Andy and Kim finishing 2nd and 9th respectively in the 105km, and Tom 2nd in the 42km.