One of the many joys of helping out with the club website is getting to read members’ race reports before anyone else, and this one by Simon Pryde is an absolute belter.
Al Andalus Trail Race: July 2015
“It can’t be accurate”. Someone had photographed upon a building in Loja a large, red, digital display of time and temperature. At 3 o’clock the previous afternoon it had, apparently, been 52 degrees celcius. “Is that even possible”? A multinational posse of anxious ultra runners had gathered in deathly-still air outside the Hotel Manzanil , and this nugget of data wasn’t helping allay nerves.
Most of us had arrived two days previously, and so we knew what to expect. The heat had been oppressive even crossing the road to the supermarket. Now we were to run 143 miles over mountainous, uncompromising terrain. “It’s unusual”, said Eric, cheerily. Eric, once a DJ in California, was Race Director. “The air’s come from the Sahara. Even the local farmers are saying it’s nuts. It hasn’t been this hot since they got rid of Franco and started keeping records”.
The Al Andalus Trail Race of 2015 had attracted 68 entrants from four continents, and at 9 o’clock this sweltering Monday morning in early July, the race began. “It’s not up there is it? We’re going up THERE?” Yes, we are. Today’s stage, the first of five, was around 24 miles long. The first quarter of the journey was a devilish, steep climb, just to get us in the mood. The field soon spread out, and I encountered a herd of pungent smelling goats on the narrow, dusty trail. Even they were struggling. I’d never seen goats panting like Labradors before.
“Buenos dias”, said the farmer, smiling just enough to show he had a front tooth missing. I ran up most of this mountain, passing Graeme, a veteran of many ultras, who’d competed here the previous three years. He gave me a reproaching look. “I can see five people walking”, he said. “And they’ve all done the race before. What does that tell you”? But Graeme, I like running up hills. I reached the top, filled my water bottles at the checkpoint, and, inspired by the goats, skipped off panting down the other side. It’s not that bad, I thought. Fast forward two hours, and I haven’t reached checkpoint three yet. I’m ascending again, this time on a tarmac road. A fearsome-looking dog is barking at me from behind a wire mesh fence, I’ve run out of water, I feel dizzy and retch a couple of times, and have concluded I don’t like this race much, after all.
Such are the wild variations in mood experienced throughout a typical ultra. You spend a long time out on the route, and there are many factors – physical, mental, emotional and, occasionally, uncategorisable – in play. I finished the stage in well over four hours, drenched with sweat, my limbs screaming for mercy, and insanely grateful for the bucket of water provided in which I could stick my demolished, incredulous feet. I ate ready salted crisps and water melon, was massaged beneath a tree by a woman with a glint in her eye who made me squeal, and wandered with a peculiar gait to find my tent which, curiously, along with everyone else’s, was pitched inside a leisure centre in Alhama de Granada. Just one of the charming quirks of a characterful race which had us camping outside for the rest of the week.
Each evening Eric would, ramblingly yet engagingly, deliver a briefing involving a review of the stage just gone, and a look ahead to the next day. He would use words like “unseasonably hot”, and “undulating”, and deliver them with a wry chuckle. He would be prompted often by his partner Michelle and, occasionally, by Paul, the Race Founder, a no-nonsense, irrepressible Yorkshireman who, following a cycling accident several years previous, was almost completely deaf. If it sounds slightly surreal…. Well, it was.
Prizes were awarded to the top three male and female runners of the day, with further glory, in the form of bottles of local wine (it was jars of honey the next night) bestowed upon the quickest team of three. Eric had made an administrative error, and awarded the prize to my team (which consisted of two good runners and me). It should have gone to a trio of Dutchmen calling themselves themselves the Happy Runners, who no doubt that evening found themselves spiralling into uncharacteristic depression at the injustice of it all. They would get their just rewards the following day, though. And, indeed, the rest of the week. There was time to wander into town, where the restauranteurs had been suitably briefed and offered for 10 Euros a “runner’s special”. With Gordon and Steve (friends from races past), I ate well, before retiring to the leisure centre, the temperature status of which had leapt from “sauna” to “furnace”.
I awoke, sweating. To be fair, I’d gone to sleep sweating, and would spend the majority of the next five days sweating. Today would involve a good deal of difficult climbing on unforgiving terrain in intense heat. Anyone surprised by this coming into Day Two had not only entered the wrong race but completely forgotten Day One. We would weave and loop our way through 31 miles of remote countryside, including a challenging section in the Sierra Almijara mountain range, until we reached camp at the village of Jatar. Having breakfasted, typically, on cereal bars or freeze-dried porridge, we were divided into two groups, according to the previous day’s times. I was in the quicker group, but only just. Half an hour after the slower runners, we set off, and made our way through a blissfully shady creek, before exposing ourselves sacrificially, once again, to the sun.
I paced myself a little more steadily this time. In a race like this, most people run at a sociably conversational pace, and I spent some time, as I did most days, chatting with wonderfully diverse fellow competitors. Danes and Belgians, Brazilians and South Africans… nationalities aplenty had converged upon Southern Spain to indulge in our curious passion. Halfway through the stage, as I slogged up a ludicrously steep single track strewn with loose impediments, it didn’t feel particularly indulgent. It felt nauseating and physically destructive. I saw a fox cub, more frisky than sly, eyeing me from behind a rock. Off it sprang along the path, glancing over its shoulder, teasing me to follow. The foliage thinned, then dissipated and a glorious, expansive vista of rural Andalucia, beiges and greens beneath a hazy, blue sky, opened up before me, and I felt much better again. I ran for a while with South African Megan who specialized most days in overtaking me three quarters of the way through a stage leaving me flailing, demoralised, in her wake, and Jo, about whom folk had been whispering, awestruck (“she did that race where you run to Dover, swim the Channel and cycle to Paris”). There was a long downhill section on a wider track through trees, and I greedily inhaled the cooler, forest air. It wasn’t too long before we were at Checkpoint Three devouring our remaining food supplies and having ice put in our caps…. And then I was being overtaken by Megan and was chasing her forlornly to the end where Eric grinned and handed out awards to the right people. There was an ice cold, babbling brook into which it was a delicious occupation to plunge one’s weary form, the air temperature remaining absurdly high despite the onset of evening. We milled around the neatly-organised camp, set-up by the race crew as we ran. It included an electricity generator to charge phones and watches, as well as a supply of hot water to hydrate freeze-dried meals. But, mostly, we wanted to sleep. A dog howled as I dropped off, a cockerel was crowing when I awoke and it felt like the same instant.
Stage Three. The Easy Stage. They give you a nice, easy stage before the Hard Stage. The Easy Stage is just 24 miles and there weren’t, they said, so many hills. Off from our camp we loped, once again in two groups. There was a long tarmac stretch to start with, which I quite enjoyed as it provided a rare opportunity to run with a bit of rhythm. I spent some time talking to Tall Steve about racing lines and his injured knee. A man in overalls waved at me from a sewerage works. Then a massive, steep, winding, endless hill. We’d clearly been lied to. In five days we climbed more than 7,000 metres. The equivalent of a Ben Nevis every day and, combined, not far from an Everest.
I overtook some Belgians (always good fun), one of whom wondered aloud why I ran up the hills and walked on some of the flat bits. I couldn’t answer that. I passed my friend Steve, which I don’t normally do. He looked a bit peaky. I assured him he’d pass me again on the way down. He did, but in the doctor’s car. He’d felt awful, and when he started shivering in 45 degree heat, realised something was amiss. Illness and injury took its toll today, some good athletes were forced to retire. Megan zoomed past me, and I was pleased to finish, having towards the end narrowly avoided tumbling from a narrow path into a steep ravine when my exhausted legs failed to properly negotiate a corner. I was less pleased to contemplate 42 miles the next day. Near camp, we found a river just about large enough to immerse ourselves in. Freezing cold. Beautiful. Invigorating. “Muthafucka”, yelled Norman, an extrovert and endearing Londoner, as he dived into the water. He said that a lot, particularly the day he missed one of the pink arrows which marked the route and consequently ran a mile the wrong way. The organising team gave us paella and beer that night. “Zip up your tent”, warned Big Danish Daniel. “There are ants. And foxes which will steal your shoes”. I needed my shoes, so I did as I was told. As I lay back, feeling too hot and far from comfortable, I heard Big Danish Daniel saying to someone else, “I love this race. But I’m not coming back next year”. I sort of knew what he meant.
Someone had a bad dream. They cried out in their sleep, and Norman went to their aid. In the morning, I interrogated the sufferer of this nocturnal ordeal. “Was it a nightmare about what’s to come today?” “No, it was a nightmare about the last three bloody days”, he replied, grimly, rolling up his sleeping bag. Most multi stage races have a Long Stage. This one would involve 67 kilometres of running, with the usual array of strength-sapping, rugged terrain and long periods of utterly merciless exposure to this ridiculous, vicious, relentless, blazing sun. We applauded the first group as they made their way from camp. They looked anxious. Why wouldn’t they? Half an hour later, we were off in pursuit. As we meandered through a valley, still bathed at this stage of the morning in glorious shade, the leaders disappeared from view, and I was soon left at the back of the field. Only Belgian Fred, who had elected, for reasons best known to himself, to stop and vomit profusely, was behind me by the time I reached Checkpoint One. The back end of an Ultra can be a lonely place. We skirted the magnificent and vast Lake Bermejales and I began to reel in the early starters, chatting and taking pictures as I passed them – it was still early enough in the day for everyone to be feeling quite sociable. I passed Norman. “Mutha fuccckaaah!!”, he roared, happily. The Long Stage provides a challenge beyond the physical. As with many assignments which require stamina and mental fortitude, like DIY and binge drinking, we’re often told to cut down races into “manageable chunks”. It’s no good thinking, “Oh Christ, I still have 34 miles to go”. You will find yourself in the foetal position, demanding, between sobs, to be taken somewhere with air-conditioning. Small rewards (half an energy bar in 2 miles…. Then a checkpoint in 4) provide big incentives. Do it this way and, what do you know, a couple of villages, an extraordinary climb with breath-taking views over the plains, a winding track, some poplar groves, a river crossing (shall I lie down in it? Why not), a descent, another climb, and another lake later and time’s moved on eight hours and you’re at the finish with your feet in your bucket and life is good. I’d grown stronger as the stage progressed, as had Belgian Fred who, his nausea having abated, had steamed past me and finished quite high up the field. I, too, passed several other competitors near the end, and felt as good as I had all week. Camp was near a town, dinner was at a restaurant, I had a glass of wine, we chatted about other races we could do in Costa Rica and Mongolia… and there was but one day left.
We would end where we began. Exactly where we began, outside an unremarkable hotel in an unremarkable town, having – hopefully – done a fairly remarkable thing. We split into three groups for the final stage. “It’ll be quite a spectacle, a bunch of y’all finishing around the same time”, said Eric, optimistically, before leading off the first runners. They looked exhausted but happy – even Kirsty, who’d spent the previous evening under a tree on a makeshift intravenous drip administered by the cheerful German doctor who held a beer in one hand. Eric ran at the front of the field each day for a few hundred metres, a flamboyant pace-setter, skipping ahead onto the trail like an amiable sprite guiding lost travellers from some fantastical predicament. We set off at half hour intervals. I was in the middle bunch this time. Because I was one of the quicker members of this group, this gave me a different experience. Like most of us, I saw no reason not put everything I had into this, the final challenge. Tomorrow, after all, I would be lounging in the sun at Welsh Kevin’s Spanish retreat (which may sound like a dubious themed bar in Benidorm, but actually refers to my friend Welsh Kevin, who, in retirement, moved to an Andalucian town not far away, lured by its roof terrace, hot tub and his penchant for a bronzed complexion). I was in position 20 after four stages. The results were pinned to a notice board at camp each evening. A quick perusal this morning had confirmed I had nearly an hour to make up on Tony from Stoke, but that I also had a good cushion between me and Belgian Tom behind me. These two adversaries and Steve, recovered from his day three medical dramas, set off at the front of our group. I felt as good as I had all week, so pushed on with them, and then alone. The terrain was familiar now, and, more acclimatised to the heat, I ran strongly and was soon reining in the earlier starters. To occupy my mind, I set myself a goal. Checkpoint Two lay at roughly half-way on the 24 mile course back to Loja. I wondered if I could get there first. That would mean beating the competitors in my group, overtaking all the runners in the first group, and holding off the speedsters behind. As we wound our way around another spectacular trail, a white, dusty ledge carved into the scrubby Andalucian slopes, I calculated I had just one runner to catch. Looking back, I saw Richard, the Canadian who would ultimately place second overall. Richard had won stages three and four, and here he was, again leading the fast pack. He was about three quarters of a mile behind me. I could see him because of the way the path looped back on itself. He was the other side of a valley, his giant, loping strides eating up the ground. My goal of staying ahead of him gave his relentless progress a sense of menace. I felt like Sarah Connor must have with Arnie on her tail in The Terminator. It was only a matter of time before he caught me, but Checkpoint Two wasn’t too far off. And where was Dutch Hans, the one runner from the first group still ahead of me? I picked up speed on a steep descent, my quads screaming as I allowed gravity to take over. Then another climb. A crazy, almost vertical slog. But was that the checkpoint up ahead? And did I glimpse the veil and cap of a runner? Hans! I picked up the pace, hearing breaths behind me now. I practically sprinted, to the bemusement of Richard. I held him off, but couldn’t catch Hans. Exhausted, I slumped to my chair and chuckled as I was handed by one of the wonderful, consistently ebullient and encouraging checkpoint volunteers a cool, wet towel and delicious, icy Coke. Canadian Richard was long gone by the time I set off on my way again. My little game had given me an insight into the ability of these extraordinary trail runners. Averaging sub seven minute miles, in these conditions, on this terrain, for five days in a row, over distances averaging in excess of a marathon a day, felt to me to be superhuman. The competition at the head of the field was intense, but nonetheless embraced the overall sense of camaraderie. One day Mauri, a Spaniard who would end the week as Champion, took a wrong turn. Charlie, last year’s winner, a couple of hundred metres behind, spotted what had happened and, rather than capitalise, he sped up in pursuit of his rival and called him back, before both continued on their way. If they were superhuman, I at least felt just about human, an improvement on my disposition, say, halfway through day one. The sheer joy of realising, barring catastrophe, I would finish, and finish strong, propelled me down the broadening, dusty track back towards Loja. We passed under a dual carriageway, the other side of which lay the town, and it felt like an archway into a paradise where there awaited a powerful shower, beer and wonderful food. The last few hundred metres were on tarmac. Had there been crowds, I would have waved to them. I waved anyway, to a bloke in a pick-up, and swooped beneath the inflatable finish line, letting wash over me the intense cocktail of emotions uniquely concocted by finishing an ultra race. Michelle gave me my medal. I embraced Brazilian Carlos, and Gordon and Steve, and all the Belgians I could get my hands on. Tony crossed the line in the nick of time to make sure he stayed ahead of me overall, but I embraced him too. It would be quicker to mention the people I didn’t embrace.
We all dined together that night, enveloped in a collective, satisfied glow, and when I looked online later, I saw Big Danish Daniel had already entered next year’s race.
Race results can be found here.