Wednesday 5th July, 17:00
I’m sitting behind a rock, out of the sun, above l’Estanys de Tristaina in Andorra, 42km into Euforia dels Cims’ 233km. Forearms on knees; wrists limp. Slack jawed, my shoulders shiver with short, shallow breaths.
Half an hour later, sitting again, in the sun this time. Up the hill, round the corner and looking north into France. Beside me, Lawrence; legs shoulder width apart, hands planted on the ground in front of him, similarly spaced. Like a yoga beginner trying to master a new pose; upward lurching lunch.
Around this time I began mentally drafting my post-DNF race report, defending myself against the strawmen who said I’d overreached, gone too big too soon. How could it be the scale of the course that defeated us when we didn’t even make it past 50k? No, the twin terrors of altitude and heat had put us in this deep, uncomfortable hole. The difficulty of the course was incidental.
And that difficulty was great. At the height of our nauseous misery I swore blind that the first 50k of Euforia was the hardest 50k I’d ever done, even controlling for the temperature and relative scarcity of oxygen. I’d still swear it now.
A mix of trails, technical exposed ground, steep climbs and descents and mountain marathon style off-trail contouring. The rock was loose, the hills were big and the grass was that kind of tussock specially designed to suck the energy from your legs and the life from your soul. Despite four wobbley hours towards the end we were the third team of 150 to arrive at the first support point. That 50k had taken us 12 hours. The cut-off for leaving the support point was 27 hours. For some teams that wasn’t enough.
The mindset we carried into Coma d’Arcalis, the first of the race’s 4 support points (or, as the organisers insisted on ominously referring to them, Life Stations) was not a positive one. The Plan had been to breeze right through before getting some proper rest at CP2, rinse and repeat for checkpoints 3 and 4. The Plan could fuck right off.
After an indeterminable amount of time staring vacantly at the floor and fending off volunteers who asked if we were ok in three different languages, we managed to eat something, shower and trudge upstairs to the sleeping area. Lying on my back, failing to sleep and listening to more and more teams arrive, I tried desperately to come to some conclusion as to what I would do next time I stood up; put my shoes back on and get out the door? Or add 531.1 to the already growing list of runners for whom it was all a bit too much?
The pros and cons of each had already been bouncing around for hours. If word count were the deciding factor I’d have dropped the minute we arrived.
There’s about a hundred and eighty kilometres left and if the last few hours are anything to go by it is all going to suck tremendously though that said we’d never manage all of it so if we’re going to drop we may as well drop now rather than dragging out the misery for another couple of days because let’s be honest our ailments aren’t even sport specific these are the early symptoms of altitude sickness and there’s every chance we’d become those sea level punters who manage to get HAPE at 2,500m and it would be selfish of us to place such a burden on the mountain rescue teams the organisers the other runners so dropping out would be the altruistic choice plus you could change your flights get back to Scotland and spend a few days convalescing in Edinburgh lying down breathing that rich sea level air reading books eating food that doesn’t turn to ash in your mouth on top of which dropping now would mean an earlier start to Glen Coe Skyline training and really that’s the main performance objective of the year…
On the other hand…
This cost a bunch of money and if you sack it off you’ll be left with all that Andorra Ultra Trail branded kit that you could never wear. And you’d never forgive yourself.
As anyone who’s been in this situation will tell you, that last part is weighty. In terms of carrots and sticks, the threat of condemnation by your future self is a baseball bat with a nail through it, dipped in glue and broken glass. I knew we could continue. I knew we could finish. The tricky part is convincing yourself that that is important when you’re queasy, sleepy and a long, long way from the end.
The team dynamic in situations like this is key. An enthusiastic partner can pull you out of all but the deepest funks. A partner who is similarly downbeat is likely to reaffirm your despair and validate the desire to pack it in. While neither of us was showing labrador puppy levels of enthusiasm by this stage, we both skirted just far enough from the Pit of Self Pity to avoid handing in our race numbers.
Parenthetical Partner Biography
When I started looking for a Euforia running mate it was clear that candidates needed to meet two vital criteria. Criteria which my partner, Lawrence Eccles, met perfectly; he was willing and available. He scored further bonus points for actually being quite a good runner and for being much, much more experienced than me when it comes to going long. Lawrence is a veteran of some of the running world’s most and least notable long distance events; Western States, Spartathlon, UTMB, the North and South Downs Ways. We first met at the Dragon’s Back Race in 2015, running together for portions of the first 2 days, me scampering off towards the end on both occasions, before my inexperience and tiny shoes reduced me to doing the Tendonitis Shuffle for the second half of the week as Lawrence sailed away into the distance. If one of us had reason to be anxious about the other’s ability to perform, it wasn’t me.
So it was that at half past one in the morning, six and a half hours after we arrived, we tied our shoes, strapped on our GPS tracker and departed Coma d’Arcalis. In fact, by the time we left I was in ebullient form, dancing through the door to the [be]/[a]musement of event staff/participants/innocent bystanders. My buoyant mood carried me through the first few hours of leg 2, the spell of the race where I had the most fun, in the traditional happy/smiley sense. Feeling strong from our extended convalescence, the night time temperatures meant we were comfortable in shorts and t-shirts, surrounded though we were by continental counterparts clad in caps and cagoules. Beneath a clear sky and a near full moon, the Pyrenees had an extra terrestrial feel, a disruptive stream of crumbling, lunar peaks backing away towards the horizon.
The near full moon also allowed us to use the phrase waxing gibbous, words to rival any in their capacity to brighten your day. Up there with free beer, Hitler is dead and Starring Jackie Chan.
But, as the darkness ebbed, so did our temporary fortitude. A series of long, steep climbs took us to the summit of Comapedrosa, the highest point in Andorra, just after sunrise. After a moment taking in the view, and taking one of only two photos that I took for the entirety of the race, we descended back into the shade, aware that the sun’s arrival started a countdown to the revival of the previous day’s difficulties.
Three or four hours later I took the second and last of my race photographs; Lawrence sitting in the shade below a tree, pouring water over his head. It was hot. Very, very hot. Getting into the support point at la Margineda, after a bruising 1,500m descent, we decided to wait until the worst of the afternoon’s furnace like temperatures had gone before tackling the 1,700m drag up the other side of the valley. The Plan may have been getting a little saddle sore but as far as I was concerned it could keep fucking itself til evening.
Stare at floor, remove shoes, stare at floor, drink, stare at floor, eat, drink, stare at floor, siesta.
The instant my head was down and my eyes were closed I began the most remarkable, vivid series of dreams I have ever experienced. It was like an advertising show reel; short, intense scenes one after the other, a sequence of characters appearing to sell me things or offer me advice; a Tom Waits style market stall hawker; a slick, slimy infomercial giving me the lowdown on the latest must-have household appliance; a man with a caricatured face, black hair and Buddy Holly glasses spouting profundities which would doubtless have launched a great literary career if only I’d written them down. Sleep should be the most relaxing thing you can do but there was a genuine feeling of breathlessness as I jumped from one staccato sketch to the next.
And just as suddenly as it had started, it was over. I was wide eyed in a badminton court. I’d been woken by Lawrence asking when I was thinking we should leave. It took me a minute or two to make sense of the world and give him an answer.
Setting off at 6:30 the gantry over the main road told drivers it was 30 degrees. Unsurprisingly, I sweated buckets for the two hours it took us to hike to the Refugi de Prat Primer. As the sun set and the temperature dropped we passed a couple of other teams and a couple of groups of horses. We were greeted in both cases by general indifference, except on the part of the foals who seemed delighted at the prospect of something other than grazing.
For the next 4 hours we made good progress, running gradients which twelve hours previously would have reduced us (ok, reduced me) to a thirsty, Frankensteinien lurch. Obviously, this didn’t last and as midnight approached I found myself weighed down by something I didn’t quite recognise; sluggish, uncoordinated, distinctly lacking in oomph.
It was only a few hours later, sitting with our torches off, having something to eat, that I got my first obvious clue of what was wrong. Lawrence may well have been talking, giving a detailed analysis of some vital aspect of race strategy, but I was completely zoned out, staring at an object a few metres in front of me. It was a tree. I knew it was a tree. Middle of the Pyrenees, middle of the night, if it’s not a rock, it’s a tree, what else is it going to be?
I’ll tell you what else it could be. A fox. A fox in a dinner jacket, humanoid and bipedal, one forearm across his chest, hand cupping the opposite elbow as he stroked his chin and tapped his lips, examining us closely. He had a vaguely mobbish air and as I stared I felt myself becoming uneasy, intimidated and a little bit scared.
For fuck’s sake Ally, it’s a tree. Eat your flapjack, dickhead.
The next few hours took us over some rough, pathless ground and a few big hills. Ample opportunity to expose my inability to function like a normal human being. A couple of power naps on the ground allowed momentary returns to lucidity but by the time we were descending Tossal de la Truita, a few hours before dawn, I was once again all over the place.
Gentle downhill trails were being taken at a purposeful walk. Lawrence, with his less compromised outside perspective, might question the purposeful part, but I just couldn’t summon the concentration to run. The ground wasn’t especially technical at this stage but after a few stumbling, joggy steps I’d kick a rock, or veer sideways off the trail, or just plain forget what it was I was supposed to be doing. Remembering to run was as much of a challenge as the running itself.
And the hallucinations were back. We knew we’d be passing a couple of refuges on this section and, because they are useful markers of your progress and frequently appear at junctions in the trail, we were keeping an eye out for them. With three or four exceptions the refuges in Andorra are unmanned bothies and they are all pretty much the same; stone walls, angled roofs, small covered areas outside the doors. I’ve stayed in a bunch of them and I know what they look like. But as my mind swam down the valley, any object which could be picked out from its surroundings was transformed into a hut; one rock was a log cabin, another a palatial yurt. A tree was an especially vivid gable end, complete with chimney and crow’s steps. Always I was aware that these things probably weren’t there, but never so sure that I didn’t look away and look back, studying every one of them as they drew closer, before greater proximity and illumination revealed them to be just another beech or lump of granite.
This was my first experience of significant sleep deprivation in a race, and of the Sleep Monsters, visual hallucinations most commonly spoken of by multi day adventure racers. It was now early Friday morning and I estimate I’d had 3 hours of piecemeal, poor quality sleep since Tuesday morning. The night before the race had been sleepless due to heat and anticipation, since then I’d had insignificant naps and dozes at support points and on the ground; I wasn’t coping well.
It feels a lot like thirst. Allowing yourself to drift off when you’re sleep deprived is like putting your lips to a chilled glass of water when you’ve woken up in a hot room at 3 o’clock in the morning after an evening of beer and take away pizza. The relief and refreshment flow through you, from your head down through your chest and all the way to your toes. You tense and stretch to make sure the sweet nectar of deliverance gets to every nook and cranny of your being.
And then your alarm goes off. Your ten minutes are up and you must haul yourself out of the cool, comfortable pool of sleep and back to the heavy, effortful grind of wakefulness. The release from dehydration is lasting, naps offer only a temporary reprieve. That may be the cruelest part.
Looking down on Pas de la Casa from final col of leg 3, with the race’s third sun just above the horizon, I took a final doze. At Lawrence’s recommendation I sat with my poles in my hand, closed my eyes and waited to be woken by the sound of carbon clattering to the ground. I ran through this twice and we descended to the third support point, semi revived by these dives into the shallows of unconsciousness and the arrival of the day.
Plans for an extended rest at Pas de la Casa didn’t survive the first ten minutes of boisterously playing children, so pretty quickly it was fresh socks, fresh shirts and out the door for our last but one stretch of plodding through the mountains. Maybe the least exciting of Euforia’s 5 stages, the 45k from Pas de la Casa to Cortals d’Encamp thankfully passed with little in the way of excitement. As elsewhere I generally trudged along a little behind Lawrence, except when the fork lightning started on Tossa del Cap de Siscario, the day’s highest summit; then I was to be seen sprinting off into the valley, electrically conductive poles in hand, the furrowed brow of someone furiously balancing the relative value of a £90 pair of Lekis and his ongoing existence.
Much later, moving through a couple of ski tow bedecked summits as midnight approached, a particularly satisfying snot rocket turned into a steady nosebleed. This mini medical drama played out in tandem with the race for a while. I cycled through all the tried and tested methods, persisting with the in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth breathing technique for a good ninety seconds before resorting to shoving square after square of our precious emergency loo roll up my left nostril.
As this went on we caught and joined a spanish pair that we’d seen at most of the race’s checkpoints. Headtorches makes double takes very obvious, as demonstrated when our continental companions were greeted by the sight of half a roll of Andrex speaking clunky, late night Spanish. If I’m proud about one thing at Euforia, it is the restraint I showed in not picking my nose (too much) over the next twenty or so hours.
The Life Station at Cortals d’Encamp was a change from the municipal sports halls which preceded it. Perched at the end of a ski road, a small wooden hut housed the physios, podiatrists and masseurs, with a small marquee next door for food and faff. Upon declaring that it was time to sleep, we were led outside by a race volunteer, around a 15m free standing climbing tower and through a door to the interior of the tower itself. Boxes of holds and chalky ropes were pushed back against the walls to make room for a small heater and a neat row of cots. Looking up, the structure’s geometric steel skeleton faded into the darkness. The irregular outer contours of the wall gave the interior the look of a regular shape viewed underwater, straight lines and right angles distorted as if melting or mid collapse.
I must be really fucking tired…
The volunteers’ unstinting willingness to help reached a kind of apogee here as Lawrence was not only led to a cot, but also tucked in, from shoulders to toes. He declined the offer a cup of Horlicks, a bedtime story and a kiss goodnight.
I got the best rest of the race here, sleeping for about three hours before waking up shivering; choosing the bunk furthest from the door to get away from any noise meant occupying the bunk furthest from the heater. It may have been July in Andorra but the early hours of the morning at 2,000m were a little chilly for snoozing when all you had was a lightweight blanket. It was only ten minutes until the alarm was due to go off so I got up, half my head still emerging from yet more bizarre dreams, this time about Edinburgh succumbing to the most dangerous aspects of communism.
…and we were off into the night, accompanied by the perenially enthusiastic cheers of the support staff. We crossed a suspension bridge (magnificent according to the road book. I can’t corroborate, it was dark.) followed the GPS down some roads, through some nettles, through someone’s backyard, through more nettles and onto the trail which would take us up and over Cap des Agnols. The hours around dawn passed pleasantly, hiking up through the woods, past a refuge (definitely real, not imaginary) and skirting the jagged summit of an otherwise mellow mountain. For Cairngorm savvy readers, think Beinn Mheadhoin but twice as high.
From here it was 25 kilometres downhill to Escaldes, a suburb of the capital Andorra la Vella. On the steeper sections I felt a slight progression of a pain in my right quad which had emerged the previous day. I treated it with caution, going to town with my poles to keep the weight off my legs, and crossed my fingers it wouldn’t get worse. Once we were in the valley proper things levelled out a little and, following a good, fairly non technical trail, we picked up the pace and moved well.
Relative to terrain, our fastest sections of running were on the final leg. Given that it was our 4th day on the course, this was encouraging. Being that deep into a race, knowing you’re moving fast yet still feeling relatively comfortable is a wonderful experience. We flowed down parallel to the river, passing Ronda dels Cims runners coming the other way who, through the rose tinted glasses I wore at this point, weren’t moving nearly as well as we were.
Cruising along we met a man running up the valley with his two dogs. One was a particularly outgoing border collie. This endeared me to him immediately. He clearly knew what was going on and was suitably impressed with our black Euforia race numbers. Studying them more closely he noted the little union jacks.
Finally, the time had come to unleash my most carefully rehearsed Spanish phrase.
“No no no, soy escocais!”
His face lit up.
“Aaaah, si! For me is the same; catalano, no espanol!”
It was my turn to grin. After some vigorous handshaking and much congratulation and encouragement we went our separate ways. I feel an abiding solidarity with my northern separatist comrade.
The steep, cobbled lanes dropping into town called a halt to our fluidity, but nonetheless we wove our way through the streets, bobbing along against a steady stream of 80k runners, more than once hearing an OooohEuforia passed between friends. (Come to think of it, Oohforia would be a great tag line for the race. Guys, that’s a freebie.)
Dipping hats and arm sleeves in water fountains as the day warmed up, we threw ourselves meekly against the steepest climb of the race, hauling on cables and sliding around on friable rock as we struggled up the cliff that the race directors had chosen to get us out of the city. Hiking through the steep streets I’d noticed my questionable quad was now tweaking on the uphills aswell. Again, treat it with caution, heavy on the poles, cross those digits.
Arriving at the Col d’Ordino we found a marquee, a support point for the marathon which was in progress. Inside, the event staff were sheltering from the approaching storm and had been joined by supporters of marathon runners and the family of the two Spaniards I’d bled on the previous night. Other race’s aid stations are fair game for Euforia runners, timing permitting, so we were made most welcome.
Watermelon, fill flask, watermelon, grunt thanks to volunteers, watermelon, go to leave, where the fuck is Lawrence, watermelon, oh, there, watermelon, off up the hill.
The billowing walls of the marquee were a warning of what lay in store on the final peaks of the race. As we cleared the treeline we donned first gloves, then jackets, then hats, until fully waterproofed, in sideways rain and the kind of wind which threatens to blow you over, we hauled ourselves up the hill. For a while there was a steady stream of marathon runners heading the other way. Then, after twenty or so had bounced by, windmilling arms and eyes squinting in the wind, the stream ran dry. Only when we reached the summit and spoke to a marsal did we learn that it had been deemed too dangerous to send the rest of the field on the normal course and they had been diverted onto the poor weather option. Struggling to stand upright as we were informed of this, I understood.
As we began our descent, it became clear that my right quad was now Really Not Ok. Rather than a piece of elastic living tissue, the space above and inside my right knee was occupied by a static foreign lump, something which didn’t belong with the muscle that surrounded it, like a knot in a plank of wood or a hockey ball in a vegetable rogan josh.
I was sore, I was a little frustrated, but I wasn’t surprised. Ask anyone who has had difficulty with their quads. It doesn’t matter how cautious you are or how many fingers you cross, once they start to go you’re waiting for the inevitable. Many an elite runner has dropped out of a high profile race with trashed quads while their competitor with calf trouble or a slightly gammy hamstring has soldiered on and finished respectably. Pains elsewhere come and go, they’re (you hope) transient. As far as I know the same is not true of quads; once they start to go, they’re gone and they’re gone for good.
Given that my particular ailment only reared its head on the final leg and only got really bad on the last big descent there was never any chance of it ending our race. It is interesting to think though how far from the finish it would have needed to be for me to pack it in. Yes, we had time in the bag, I could have got a massage, tried to do some stretching, sacrificed a small child to the Gods of Muscular Mobility, but the chances of any of that ridding me of pain for good would be miniscule.
And, to make matters worse, it doesn’t end with your quads. Descending from Casamanya I adopted an asymmetric gait, straight legged on the right side, swinging the afflicted limb out and round from the hip. A decent enough work around but one which puts unusual strain on any number of other muscles. Soon enough, the dodgy quad is joined on the casualty list by dodgy glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors and adductors. And so you find work-arounds for those and before you know it your back and shoulders and neck have cast off their dowdy work clothes and thrown themselves headlong into the Pool Party of Muscular Agony.
I hobbled, winced and swore my way into the valley, screaming at the trees whenever I caught my toe on a protuberant root, all the while fretting about the possible proximity of two bloody Spaniards with a grudge. Lawrence mused aloud about whether I had been smitten as divine retribution for the heresy of using poles and counted down the remaining kilometres from the GPS screen. I suspect he did this largely out of boredom. It certainly wasn’t helpful.
7k and we’re into the woods.
5k we’re back on the contouring trail we took at the start of the race.
4k we turn off for the valley floor and the run in to the finish.
3k we round a corner and there is a man filling a bottle from a stream.
His black race number matches ours. As does his look of surprise.
Worried as we were about the team behind us, it never crossed our minds that there might be a team in front. Yet there we were, spitting distance from the finish and all of a sudden there was a race to be run.
In testament to the psychological component of performance in endurance sports, all of a sudden I was able to run. It certainly wasn’t pretty, and there was a lot more swearing than there usually is, but there was a definite increase in pace as we tumbled down to the main road, past a man carrying a cake and a perplexed expression, with our newfound competition in tow.
Two kilometres of gritted teeth, half closed eyes and sharp intakes of breath later we crossed the line. In The Mighty Battle Of Who Is Marginally Less Fucked, after nearly three and a half days in the hills, we prevailed. In a race of 233km and 20,000m of climbing this other team trailed us by 45 seconds. It was all a bit cruel.
We went into Euforia with some casual notions of what might be possible in terms of finishing times, notions which we fell far short of. But given that the winners of the race were 9 hours slower than the organisers expected (and therefore finished at 3 o’clock in the morning to the deafening polite applause of a small handful of volunteers) our own tardiness is easily forgotten.
Ambition #1 was always to have a good time, with the hope that there might be some incidental learning. In this respect the race was a tremendous success. Euforia dels Cims is staggering. The course, the climbs, the generosity of the people who help you along the way, everything is massive. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone and everyone.
Much of what I learnt is of the hand-wavey, intangible, hippy bullshit kind. Really profound truths about myself, mankind and the universe which, funnily enough, resist expression in any meaningful medium. Even my MS Paint wizardry falls short of the mark.
To compensate for that horsecrap, I’ll give you two tangible bits of information, do with them what you will.
#1 – Rest is the best performance enhancer there is.
We spent far longer in the races support points than any of the teams around us. I mean much longer. Full results are here for anyone who is inclined to do the actual sums, but I suspect that our average speed on the course was the fastest of any team in the race. Our split for the last leg was ~9:40″, 2 hours faster than anyone else, 8 and a half hours faster than the team who finished less than a minute behind us.
Now obviously, splits count for nothing, your overall time is the only one that matters, and our rest strategy was a necessity forced upon us by our failure to deal with heat and altitude, some of the key factors of the race. But we undoubtably benefited from our extended rest stops and it is interesting to think how the race would have played out had others been less stingy with their time in bed. I suspect that had the team who finished behind us allowed themselves an extra 90 minutes of sleep at the Cortals d’Encamp Life Station they would have made that back and more in time gained on the course.
Beware the chair is a stock phrase for ultra runners; time spent sitting is time wasted. I think beyond a certain point, probably somewhere around a second night’s sleep deprivation, a more suitable mantra would be Don’t dodge the duvet.
#2 – Running really long distances is wonderfully psychoactive.
That said, in terms of the investment of time and money required there are probably much more efficient chemical means of achieving similar or greater effect. I wouldn’t know.