I recently returned from Spain. I was there to race the Ultra Trail du Monsant. A 106km jaunt through rocky mountainous terrain.
I had history with this race, in 2017 I pulled out at the 95km mark with the worst blisters I have ever experienced. Both soles of my feet were one huge blister. At 2am I had resigned myself to a painful trudge to the finish line when my spare batteries dies in my headtorch. I turned around and walked five hundred meters back to the last check point and wrapped myself up in a foil blanket…
A wise man once said you don’t fail if you learn. Well I learnt plenty, check your batteries, don’t wear brand new shoes on an ultra marathon and quitting SUCKS!
One thing that did go right for me that time was meeting a young runner who was staying at my campsite. Ruud, a friendly guy who positivity knows no limits. After the race I’ll never forget that he gave me his race jacket. We stayed good friends, spending a week training in Gran Canaria and keeping tabs on Instagram.
So when Ruud messaged me saying he was going back and did I want to race? Well…
I flew into Barcelona, narrowly missing the protests that had shut down the airport the day before. I picked up a hire car and then picked Ruud up who was visiting a friend on route.
We arrived in Cornudella the local town from which the race starts and finishes. Ruud was staying in town and I had opted for the campsite again. The area is huge for climbers, and my campsite was basically built for climbers. It had a really chilled vibe, cheap food and great views. For me it was perfect.
Race day arrived. The race started at 9am, and I was down early to pick up my race number.
I felt calm and collected. To be honest I hadn’t really trained for this race, apart from trying to hit some hills on the weekends. The week before I had been racing cross country but I felt strong and fit.
There was a mass start with four races going off at once, 106km, 85km, 60km and 25km. I always find this dangerous as you end up racing people in shorter distances and can go off too fast.
I had said I would start slowly and build, but I ended up running up the first hill with everyone else. However I was soon in my stride and settled. I don’t know why but I fell three times in the first twenty kilometers or so. Twice on my knees cutting one quite badly and a third time running into a large overhanging branch. All three were quite painful, the branch really knocked me over.
Anyway apart from the falls I was running well, the area is beautiful, huge rocky cliffs and hard packed trails. The sun came up, and stayed up it was a beautiful day. However the day soon started to warm up, but I had a cap, plenty of water and gels to keep me going.
I passed the 50km point in just over six hours, at this point I started to get confident. The next 10km would punish me for my foolishness. It was 33 degrees now and I had a hard climb after the 50km aid station. By the time I got to the top I was overheating. The first lady caught me up and I started running with her, we started descending fast. Half way down I started to feel sluggish, I let her pull ahead and turned my run into a trot, then into a walk. My feet started to ache.
Coming into the 60km aid station I was in a bad way. The sun and heat had really got to me. The aid station was inside a town hall with drop bags and hot food, plus a medic.
I slumped into a chair and found I couldn’t get my self together. I spent far too long sitting there, as runners came in resupplied and went out. The medic cleaned my cut knees and drained a nasty blister I had on my heel. Then I changed my t shirt and socks and ventured outside.
I started running and got a spring back in my step, I even caught up a few places. Then on the next climb I started to suffer again. I abandoned any idea of racing, all I had in mind now was FINISHING!
The night drew in and I was pleased to note I had passed a great deal further in the daylight than my last attempt. With this small victory my headtorch came out and I gritted my teeth.
The last big climb is a killer, a horrible war of attrition as you ascend vertically. Indeed it is so steep in some places that you need to haul yourself up with ropes. When you finally get to the top you still have a long ridge line to run. I was now very much on my own, a huge blood orange moon came out. It was pretty spectacular, at one point I turned my headtorch off and just stared at it. The wind picked up and a mist rolled in, the temperature plummeted.
I took out my jacket and soldiered on, now I was approaching the last check point. The point where I pulled out last time. Thankfully I had no intention of repeating that and I had plenty of spare batteries for my head torch.
The last 10km was rolling wooded trails, turning into tarmacked roads, before I was running through Cornudella.
I passed through the finish in 18 hours and took 19th place. Half the runners would not finish, it really was a brutal day.
I ate a pannini that a nice lady handed to me, picked up my medal and drove back to my campsite. I then realized I didn’t have a token for the showers…. so crawled into my sleeping bag feeling filthy.
The next day I washed and met Ruud in the afternoon. He came third (the mans a machine) but was in a really bad state. He said that was hardest race of his life and I understood why.
I remember swearing I would only EVER race shorter distances during those lonely painful miles in the dark.
But you know what…….