Ronda dels Cims – 2019 Race Report

To start with I failed to finish this race so if you’re looking for a full description of the course, you won’t get it here. In fact, good luck finding one anywhere. You can get the gpx file easily but that doesn’t tell you much. There are official videos that show portions of the entire course but they basically consist of the peaks and rivers and not much else in between. Really the only thing helpful was Google Earth.

Also this report is almost as long as my VolState report so be warned.

Prior to doing this race I found and read 5 race reports. That’s all I could find. I think 1 of those was even translated. There must be more somewhere, perhaps in many different languages that Google didn’t find. Regardless, this race was mostly an unknown besides it being very difficult. No one who had finished it responded to my questions. Only 1 person who had started the race and quit responded to me. A big part of my success in ultrarunning is my preparedness. If I hadn’t done some mountain peak hiking in the past, I would’ve known even less than I did about what to expect.

The real reason I failed to finish this race had to do with being under trained. I knew full well what I had to do to get as prepared as I can in MN. The Minnesota river banks are actually the equivalent of 2,000 feet elevation gain per mile if you know where to go. That’s what I started training on. Then I somehow woke up one day in May with my knee feeling tight. Nothing hurt the day before, no acute injury or fall. Obviously it was some sort of overuse injury. Long story short, I got physical therapy but I essentially did no training other than to keep some sort of running ability and cardio. I think I got up to maybe 25 miles a week which isn’t even my normal long run. No hill training at all! Remember in my Arrowhead race report where I said “hope” should never be a word you say before an ultra? Yeah, I certainly “hoped” my previous training would somehow get me through this race. The race and trip was already paid for, so there was no reason not to try.

So just what is this race? I’ll try not to glamorize it since I really don’t want it to get popular and it is really hard. It’s a 170 km (106 miles) long mountain race in Andorra. Andorra is in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. By the way I never saw a Pyrenees dog there. It takes place usually in July but has also been in June. I think they try to have it during a full moon. Ronda dels Cims means “round of the peaks” by most translations and it basically goes around the perimeter of Andorra with occasionally going across the border into Spain. It goes up and down 16 mountains. That adds up to over 44,200 feet of elevation gain and 44,200 feet of loss. The only good thing is that it never goes over 10,000 feet above sea level so that never was a factor.

So that averages out to about 420 feet of elevation gain every mile. Of course because you have to go down as well, that means the average steepness of the race is 840 feet a mile. That’s steep! For comparison Superior 100 which is one of the hardest 100 mile trail races is only 22,000 of elevation gain. Hardrock is 33,000 feet of gain but is of course much higher elevation above sea level. Really it’s not even so much the steepness that bothered me, it’s the fact that so much of it isn’t runnable downhill.

I did some fun math if you’re not used to thinking about hike steepness in feet gain per mile. If you didn’t know, there is a race up the stairs to the observation deck on the 86th floor (1050 feet up) of the Empire State Building. Based on my observation of the stairs in the building and extra steps for landings, the stair rise and run itself, math, etc I come up with this: Go up the Empire State Building using the race course and back down, then run 1.8 miles, then do that all again 41 more times! This would actually be much easier than the race since the downhill and flat portions are all runnable and at sea level.

Only about half the field of runners finishes every year.  The record time for this race is over 30 hours on the normal course.  Hardrock’s record time is under 23 hours for comparison.  While I haven’t run Hardrock, I am assuming more of it is runnable to account for this difference.

So why do this race? If you haven’t figured that out by now, I can’t tell you.

Really the only reason I’m even doing a race report is for myself and to hopefully help our American runners do better there. I guess there’s some information of use if you ever go to Barcelona or Andorra as well. I’ll eventually get to the race but not for a long time I suspect so skip on ahead if you’re just here for the actual race report.

I like to research things if you didn’t already know so I checked out every book that had anything to do with Andorra from the library. By library, I mean every library in Southern Minnesota since there were only 3 total books to be found. Only the book obviously meant for 6th graders doing a book report on the country was of any help. There are no tour books for Andorra to be found. Not even many online resources either. The country’s official tourism website is slightly helpful but the best resources (physical maps, hotel guide, things to do, etc) are only available at the tourism offices in Andorra itself. For example if you look for a hotel online in Andorra you will find maybe 4 in Ordino and another 5 nearby. That’s even using the European travel websites. When you get there and look around you can see there are over 50 places within 6 miles. The paper guide on accommodations you get at the local tourism office is really thick and has all these places in it. I brought one home and I’ll never give it away, it’s a rare treasure, and it’s even in English.

Here’s a brief history on Andorra (probably would only get a D in 6th grade for this paper). It is believed to be created by Charlemagne granting a charter to the people for helping battle the Moors in the 8th century or thereabouts (again a D). This is really kind of suspect at best but at some point in the future a document appeared that said this was true and everyone in the world basically went along with it. It was originally ruled by the Count of Urgell. He gave it up in a land swap to the Diocese of Urgell which means it was under the control of the Bishop of Urgell. Then since they had no army, the Bishop asked the Lord of Caboet for protection and they signed an agreement for co-ruling Andorra in the 11th century. Through a bunch of marriages, revolutions, and stuff like that the Lord of Caboet’s co-ruling status ended up in the hands of the President of France.  So currently one co-prince is the sitting President of France currently Emmanuel Macron. The other is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Catalan city of La Seu d’Urgell, currently Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia. To start with there were 6 parishes. This was later made into 7 but I can’t remember why. So if you see the national symbol in a church or elsewhere with 6 stars instead of 7, then you know it’s really old. Each parish was ruled by one family that lived in it. They pretty much had absolute power but didn’t abuse it all that often as best as I can tell. Fast forward a bit and you realize how well this co-ruler thing worked out for them. They became a trading area and because of being ruled by both Spain and France in essence, they didn’t have to make allegiance to either of them. They were a kind of mini Switzerland. The populations never grew much until after WWII and even more so the last 20 years. It’s over 80,000 now. They use the Euro for currency now but they aren’t part of the European Union. There used to be no tax on shopping until recently but it’s still not bad by European standards at 4.5%. Basically the mountains are made of slate and because of that so are the buildings, at least the old ones anyway. Agriculture consists of grazing cattle and horses, and growing tobacco. Yes, they grow tobacco in the mountains. Here’s the story on that. Cigarette companies wanted to sell cigarettes in Andorra since everyone went there to shop due to the low prices and no tax. Andorra said you could only sell cigarettes there if you buy Andorran tobacco. Since Andorra’s tobacco sucks, the companies buy it as required but then just burn it and use good tobacco grown elsewhere. Andorra made a modern constitution in 1993 and joined the United Nations the same year. They speak Catalan which to me seems like a mix between Spanish and French. Barcelona speaks Catalan as well by the way, as does all of Catalonia which is probably why they want to separate from Spain which speaks Spanish. Well it might have something to do with being forced to join Spain, whatever (yes I know it’s serious but remember this is a 6th grade report). In Andorra you can go to a Catalan, Spanish or French school and most people know how to speak all three at least somewhat. They don’t know much English though. The end, and yes I did that in 1 paragraph on purpose (a D remember?)

Okay, let’s move on. I haven’t even put one picture in here yet, ugh. I have a lot to share too.

To start with I’ll go over phones. A phone that works in Andorra is one of the requirements for the race. We have Consumer Cellular and we use AT&T towers. You can also use T-Mobile with them since they both are GSM networks. We have unlocked GSM phones. Only T-Mobile allows Consumer Cellular to use it’s network overseas so we had to switch out our AT&T sim cards for T-Mobile sim cards. We basically had no coverage where we lived so we had to use voice over internet for a few days before the trip. Anyway, the phones worked great in Spain and Andorra. I’ve actually never had so much phone coverage in a race before. I guess it helps being on mountain tops constantly. I guess you could try to buy a sim card there but I didn’t really see them for sale in Andorra. There were plenty around in Barcelona but although both Spain and Andorra (and basically all of Europe) use the GSM network, I’ve read that not all Spain sim cards will work in Andorra since it’s a different phone company. Also don’t expect your European Union plan to work in Andorra either since they’re not in the European Union. That doesn’t mean they won’t but they don’t have to allow roaming like they do if you are in a EU country other than your own. It’s confusing but since I didn’t see much for sale in Andorra, I don’t know that I would just wing it and expect to be able to buy a burner phone easily in Andorra. Try to get it figured out before you go.

My wife and I packed our bags for Barcelona. Oh yeah, there’s no airport in Andorra and it’s land locked so you have to go through another country to get there. I put all my race gear in my carry on since I’m paranoid. I brought an extra…well basically an extra everything since almost every race report where someone finished the race, they broke a pole and changed shoes.

We landed in Barcelona on Tuesday morning after leaving Monday. The time change is 7 hours which is another reason I think Americans haven’t fared very well. Even after a couple days, it’s just hard to be well rested. We landed late due to some sort of air traffic issue in New York even though we flew through Washington DC.

First photo of the blog!
First photo of the blog!
We flew along the coast for a while before landing.

We had to deplane on the tarmac and take a bus to the customs area.

I got a strange feeling about Terminator on this bus. Is Cobus Industries just a rebranding of Cyberdyne Systems?

Then we spent over an hour going through the line at customs which took all of 5 seconds once we got to the agent. We got our rental car which wasn’t too bad. It was actually bigger than I’d like since I knew we’d be on narrow roads in Andorra.

Similar to Oregon (what’s with you Oregon?), you can’t pump your own gas in Spain or Andorra.  We didn’t know that at first but eventually someone came over and asked how  much gas we wanted.  Not a big deal, but just a FYI.

I had planned ahead by downloading offline Google Maps for the areas we’d be driving in. Although we could use data, the roaming rate would be expensive so we tried not to use it if possible. I had prepaid for a parking spot near La Sagrada Familia Church which is an amazing church that I’d recommend seeing. More on that later.

We then took the subway to a station near the beaches. There are supposed to be lockers available on some of the beaches but it took us a while to find them. They basically are in a building built into the earth and you pay for them as a group package with a shower, bathroom, etc. It’s not easy to find but they are indeed there (my wife was starting to doubt me I think while looking for them). The basics of the Barcelona beaches is that each sandy area between break walls is called a different beach. There are signs along the beaches starting at #1 in the South and counting up to the North end of town that helps you remember where you started walking from, crossroad you need, etc. Very useful.

I had a friend that said the beaches were topless so I was expecting that to some degree. Most online and tourist books made it sound like there were only certain areas that were topless. No. My friend was right, they ALL are topless beaches. We didn’t really care but just a heads up to expect to see lots of tan old ladies with floppy boobs in your sight line. Sorry everyone, I don’t have any photos. There was an occasional younger set that I’d see, that my wife would miss seeing. Weird how I could somehow find them so much better than her, I guess I have better eyesight. It obviously isn’t a big deal over there. The only thing that kind of bothered me was seeing a mom topless with her 12 year old son next to her. I don’t care how normal being topless is, I don’t think any 12 year old boy wants to see his mom’s boobs. We swam for about an hour. The beaches themselves have a pretty quick drop off and lots of rocks under the water so not really that great of swimming. It at least woke us up after the long plane ride.

So this is probably a good place to talk about bathrooms. It was the best of bathrooms, it was the worst of bathrooms. Public bathrooms had much to be desired in both Barcelona and Andorra. The public bathrooms at the beach were downright disgusting. There were no toilet seats, no toilet paper, and no soap. Yet there were usually dryers in them. I guess to dry your poop off? No changing tables in them either.

So that’s the beach bathrooms which you could maybe expect to be bad. What about the rest? Basically 80% of public bathrooms had no soap. I guess Europe is a bring you’re own soap zone. Even in the bathrooms you had to pay to use, there wasn’t soap. Really gross. I will have no sympathy for Europe if some outbreak happens there. Seriously I will bring my own soap everywhere next time I’m there.

In all this bathroom wasteland, there was one true treasure. At a gas station no less! We had to buy something to get the key to the outside entrance bathroom (usually a bad sign around here). Despite the grungy exterior, inside was a very small slice of heaven (3X4 feet max). It smelled great, there was a toilet seat, toilet paper, soap, hot water, mirror, paper towels, and a plant. I mean a nice plant, not some fake thing with 5 years of dust on it. With it being a single stall and I with the only key, there would be no interruptions from strangers or my kids which were thousands of miles away. I will say it was one of the most pleasant #2 experiences I’ve ever had. My wife in the women’s bathroom had a similar experience.

Next we ate at Burger King since we had limited time and just wanted to keep moving. We walked around the Gothic Quarter a little bit. It’s a fun place to explore. Lots of small shops, small streets, and lots of graffiti. Really all of Barcelona was graffiti. And not good stuff, just stupid idiots tagging their name. They stayed away from the stone and siding portion of buildings most of the time, but every window and door on multiple levels was covered in graffiti. We’re talking about thick wooden doors that are likely over 300 years old that some dick just spray painted their tag on. Occasionally there was one obviously political in nature, mostly for independence.

Gothic Quarter
Basically everywhere we went had this much graffiti.

For the most part Barcelona seemed like we were just in another city in America. Sure the buildings were different but almost all the signs were in English, the demographics were the same as any major city, the rules of the road and driving were basically the same, etc. I wish we could spend more time there exploring someday.

Next we took the subway back to the church. We had a little time to kill before our tour time period opened up so we did some shopping for the kids. We also got some of the exterior photos of the church.

Since I already did a 6th grade report on Andorra, I won’t be doing one on La Sagrada Familia. Just Google it and you will find tons of info. It is indeed as amazing as people say it is. I think my wife and I appreciated it even more since we’ve been in many other older large cathedrals around the world. To us this cathedral took it to another level in terms of beauty and thoughtfulness. It still isn’t finished but will be within 10 years most likely. It started being built over 135 years ago. The photos of the huge areas of stained glass just don’t do it justice to even put in here. Can I also just suggest you don’t spend 15 minutes posing in sexy poses and facial expressions for selfies like we saw some people doing? It’s a church!

The Passion Facade
The Nativity Facade. Notice all the cranes building the remaining taller towers.
These columns are meant to look like trees. They look better in real life and so much different than other churches.

We then said goodbye to Barcelona slowly since there was a fair amount of traffic getting out of town. We decided not to take the tunnel way to Andorra which costs money. I think it would’ve been around 30 Euros and only saved 10 minutes according to Google. It’s a 3 hour drive to Arans, Andorra where we stayed. We enjoyed the countryside as much as we could. I commented to my wife that people around here really like Spanish architecture. I almost immediately realized that duh, I’m in Spain.

The crops were basically in alignment with where they should’ve been in MN if not for the late spring this year. The roads weren’t very fast since we had to constantly slow down for round-a-bouts. At least it seemed that way. The car we got had navigation but it wasn’t very helpful for directions. Probably 2/3rds of the way into the drive we figured out why it kept beeping at us. It was warning us of upcoming radar traps. Unbeknownst to us, there are permanent radar sites all over Spain and Andorra where they take a photo of your license plate and ticket you automatically if you’re over the limit. I was just following traffic speed but I’m positive I was going faster than the limit. I haven’t gotten a bill yet from the rental car company so we’ll see. There are almost always signs to tell you they are coming up as well, we just didn’t know what they meant at first. You’ve now been warned. I wish they would’ve said something at the rental car place.

Near dusk we arrived at the international border with Andorra. We didn’t even need to stop to show our passports. We were kind of bummed that we didn’t get an Andorra stamp. There were lots of tunnels the closer we got to Andorra. The mountains also got much steeper. I was getting a little nervous. I knew how steep they’d be but seeing them is another level of reality.

We finished the drive through Andorra to Arans. It was quite funny listening to the Google lady pronounce the road names in Andorra, especially the tunnels. None of the roads have name signs anyway so we just concentrated on where to exit the round-a-bouts. I think there were 50 we went through in the 10 miles or so. That’s not hyperbole, it’s constant. The poor Google lady couldn’t keep up. The signs are in English or at least have the name of the town you’re going to with an arrow sign. Pretty easy to navigate and after just a day I was a pro getting to where we needed to go. After all there are basically just 2 river valleys in Andorra and 1 major road in each.

Some of the stoplights aren’t actually stoplights. They are red unless you are going slow enough and then you get a green light and positive feedback. In this case a winking smile emoji. Sometimes it was a thumbs up emoji.

We had some difficulty getting into our Airbnb since we had to find some WiFi to get the passcode since the owner didn’t bother to text it to us until that afternoon and the message was so long it didn’t all come through. We found a helpful bar owner nearby that let us use his. We ate at the only restaurant in town. It was around 9pm which is actually when most people eat supper around there. Many places don’t even open until 8pm. We were so tired but we had to eat and had to get on local time at some point. It was quite difficult to order with the language barrier so there was a lot of pointing, etc. Most everyone speaks Catalan, French, and Spanish but very little English. Often times there is an English menu available so for the most part it’s not hard to know what you’re getting, it’s the questions they ask or we ask that are hard to get through. Also we both know a little Spanish but not near enough to understand full speed native Spanish. I had rabbit which was one of the things I wanted to try here (a local specialty I read in my book). My wife had carbanara. Both were great!

We settled into our apartment which had a kitchen. The bed was a little bigger than a normal Queen bed which was nice but there were no sheets, just a down comforter, and fitted bed sheet. That would prove to make temperature control very difficult since we didn’t have air conditioning or a fan. There was one old school regular size roll of toilet paper. This was for 2 people for 8 days. Apparently they expect you to just bring your own toilet paper around here too (this is exactly what our Airbnb host told me when I asked for another roll). The other interesting thing was we didn’t have any screens on the windows. In fact we never saw a screen on any windows in Andorra. There are a lot of flies in this country due to all the animal poop everywhere (more on that during the race). Also some mosquitoes but nothing worth putting bug spray on for. So when we opened the windows to get the apartment cooled off, flies would make their way in. Also a stray cat made it’s way into our apartment as well since we were on the ground floor. While Andorra is a very safe country, we still kept the windows closed at night because of the previously mentioned issues, more than worries about theft.

Other quick little quirks. The electricity is different. We brought our converter and a power cord to plug all our stuff into. There is I think zero carpet in Andorra. It made stretching out muscles painful at times laying on concrete. As with most of Europe, you’re screwed if you have a physical disability that requires a wheelchair. The roads are of course narrow and curvy being in the mountains. On the plus side, the roads are all pretty much brand new with nary a pothole in site. There’s also no tractor trailers, just tall trucks.

Something that isn’t a quirk but actually kind of nice is paying by credit card. Every place (in Andorra and Spain at least) uses the same credit card machine and this is the process you go through. You tell them you want to pay with credit card or just show the card to them and they’ll understand. They bring the credit card reader to you at a restaurant or it’s on the counter if you pay at any other store. They punch in the amount you owe. They then hand it to you and you insert your chip credit card into the slot at the bottom. In a few seconds a screen in Spanish or Catalan pops up. Basically it’s asking you if the amount is the correct amount. Hit the green button if it is and then the charge goes through. You take your card and hand it back to them. It prints out a receipt you need to sign and they’ll usually ask if you want a receipt as well. We always paid in Euros since our credit card doesn’t charge transaction fees. In Barcelona they often asked if you wanted it in Dollars, they will charge you 2% for this service. You should never have to give your credit card to anyone. It should always be in your sight. I assume this is so they can’t copy your card or run a charge you’re not aware of. There is no tipping line on any receipts since it’s already included in the price.

So nice of them to once again search my checked bag. This bag has been searched every time I use it. So much in fact that I’m going to leave a letter to the TSA in it from now on.

In general, there is WiFi available almost everywhere in Andorra. Signs are clearly posted in almost every establishment with the password. It is so ubiquitous and so well posted that it seemed quite strange that they even required passwords. Perhaps a security measure. I use a VPN anyway for security. There are even government hot spots in most cities that are free as well. In the end we never needed to use our roaming data at all.

The next day (Wednesday) we went for a hike. My wife wanted to go on one and I wanted to see what the terrain was like. I had researched some hikes to find an “easy” one. There really aren’t any easy hikes in Andorra. The one I picked was to estany de l’Estanyo (Estanyo lake) in Parc natural de la vall de Sorteny (Sorteny Valley Nature Park). It was 5 miles round trip and about 1,800 feet of gain. It also happens to be one of the trails I’d be running on 2 days later. We had to pay a small entrance fee for the park. We got a map at the visitor center and went on our way. It was very beautiful with flowers blooming everywhere. We followed a creek for most of the way.

It was kind of weird to see all these plants and flowers that are invasive species at home living peacefully in their home environment. Instead of taking over the entire area like they do here, they are kept in check and you’d see a couple here and there. It really does kind of make me mad that I’ll never see what America looked like before all the invasive plants and animals ruined the ecology. At least we’re not as messed up as poor Australia. Anyway, it really was a sight to see. Very pretty and fun for me to try to identify stuff as we went along.

My wife on the other hand was not enjoying things very much. She was slipping on the grass (more on that later during the race) and said it was too steep. We’ve gone on hikes this steep so I don’t know why she said that. I’m guessing she was still super tired. When we went through a tree area, the trail did kinda suck and she started crying. I kept on going the 40 feet to the top of the hill where it flattened out and waited for her. She does this basically every hike at the beginning and by the end says it was a great hike and wants to go again. She did not say that at the end of this hike by the way. I think she was mad I didn’t stop and say “there there dear” this hike. In my defense she did want to do this hike.

Where the “incident” happened. I took this during the race 2 days later.

After a couple minutes she continued up the hill to me and we continued through a beautiful meadow.

One of the few flattish areas in Andorra. If all of it was like this, the race would be a cake walk.

Hearing bells ringing up ahead, we continued up the trail to where some bred Brown Swiss heifers were hanging out. They had horns so we didn’t mess with them on the way up. On the way down though I could tell they were pretty tame so I went up to them to pet them. I went to the one that looked the most daring (tame). Having grown up with cattle I know how heifers act. There’s always one that will check you out before the others. I ended up picking the wrong one and the one I should’ve picked came running over once she saw that we stopped. We pet her and she started licking the sweat off of my wife. It was pretty funny since she then wouldn’t leave her alone. Heifers can get kinda bucky and with these having horns we decided to leave them before they got too friendly.

After this there was a stone fence that had steps built into it that you go over and follow the creek up to the lake.

We started to notice the flags that I would follow during the race to show where the course is. The person who was putting them in went past us the opposite direction while we were going up.

As we got closer to the lake, I could see runners coming down off a peak and then going up another peak. They had to be the Euforia race runners. They started that morning on a more difficult course that is the same as the Ronda course up until the lake. It was nice since I then knew about how long it would take me to get there. It was a little longer than I was originally thinking it would take. I knew there was supposed to be 1 American team but I didn’t see them. They did finish which is awesome.

Euforia runners. They had to carry more supplies than us.
The lake.

In all honesty the lake wasn’t that great. If you’ve never seen one, you’ll enjoy it but most mountain lakes are prettier than this one. We headed back down. My wife fell a few more times. We went a slightly different way towards the end which took us to the refugi (pronounced ray-fuji) that would be an aid station during the race. Basically think of the refugi as a mountain hut for hikers to stay at for free. Some even have people there to kind of run the place. This particular one had electricity, WiFi and served lunch if you called the day before. Some are much more rustic.

View from near the refugi.

After the hike we headed back to our apartment to hang out before supper and our free Cirque du Soleil show. Yes that’s right free. Every July in Andorra there are free Cirque du Soleil shows if you know how to get tickets. Basically you just sign up for tourist information emails and they’ll send you the link to sign up when they open the ticket sales. Then you pick your day you want and print off the tickets within 48 hours I think it was. Otherwise they give them to someone else. You can pay for tickets if you want seats but I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t even sure we’d go since the show didn’t start until 10pm.

First off we tried to find a grocery store. Google was useless for this. We ended up stopping at a gas station which had a surprisingly large selection of items. And cheap! Days later when we went to the big grocery stores, food was even cheaper. Basically everything is cheaper in Andorra than in MN. Food, alcohol, perfume, etc. And don’t forget very little tax. On the way back we saw a bakery type looking place and stopped in. They had the grilled cheese sandwiches I had read about online, and other things like pizza besides baked goods. This is where I started to learn that there is no such thing as a heat lamp in Andorra. Basically most food you get is room temperature if it’s not just made. No one seems concerned about food safety. There’s no time set that you have to throw food away if it’s not sold by. Even at the one buffet we went to after the race, they just cooked the food in cast iron and put out the pot. I guess that kept the heat for a little while but it was room temp by the time we ate there. Anyway we brought the food home and microwaved it to enjoy with our ultra high temperature pasteurized milk since they don’t sell fresh milk in the country either. It was kinda okay, at least with the yummy warmed up food. We soon started to drink our pop for the remainder of the meal.

Garlic and parsley chips. Quite good. I just got it because I liked the pirate chip guy, I had no idea what flavor it was.

I think the rest of the afternoon we kind of organized things a bit and took a nap. It’s hard to remember since it’s been a month as I’m writing this.

First off for the evening though was going to supper at Topic in Ordino. We had horse the first/last time we were in Europe and loved it. If you want to judge me for it than go ahead, live in your bubble. It tastes almost buttery and very tender. The main meat produced in Andorra isn’t those Brown Swiss we saw in the morning, it’s the horse I’d see during the race. I had researched what restaurants the horse meat producers partnered with so that I could make sure to have local organic horse. Normally I don’t care at all about “organic” foods but for reasons I won’t get into, I only want organic horse meat. Anyway we went there and ordered 3 different horse dishes. I had some sort of appetizer of horse meat and then horse burgers. Mine were great. My wife had some sort of horse stew which wasn’t as flavorful as she had hoped. I concurred it wasn’t great. It still tasted like horse but the stew just kinda ruined it. She would’ve much preferred some sort of horse steak but we never saw that offered anywhere or in the stores either.

Then we left for the show. It was in the capital city called Andorra la Vella which is also the largest city. The show was under a large semi-permanent tent structure. We showed up just before the show on purpose so we wouldn’t have to stand too long. The show was just okay. This wasn’t a Vegas show. It basically was all the things I’ve seen at local circuses here but done better and with much more production effects, etc. It was an hour long which was just about the right length I thought.

Where we parked for the show. This is the normal parking space size. The mirrors of all the cars fold in automatically when you lock them so they don’t get knocked off by other vehicles. You often need your parking ticket stub to use the elevator and to get into the bathroom so always take it with you. You also pay at a kiosk before going to your car to exit so again take your ticket with.

By the next day we were starting to get used to the time zone change. We decided to do some easy tours around the country. There is a perfume museum in the capital that we went to. It was kind of hard to find since it’s in a normal large perfume store on the second level. We ended up finding it and the lady there gave us a phone that had an audio tour in English. Well by English I mean an extremely accented version with many words pronounced wrong. It was still better than nothing and we got enough information to make it useful. It was free for us but I think we were maybe supposed to be charged something.

Next we drove to Canillo where there is a road that goes up and over Coll d’Ordino (Coll means neck but it really means a mountain pass in this situation) back to Ordino. It’s super twisty and some crazy bikers were going up it. Runners aren’t crazy by the way, just bikers 🙂

Nice and twisty!

At the top is a platform that goes out over the ledge giving you a pretty good view of the area. It looked to me like there was a via ferrata route up the cliff if you’d rather get to it that way.

Statue at the end of the platform. Ordino is over the mountain to my right. Canillo where we started is to my left.

We finished the road into Ordino and I got some pictures of the start/finish area. We then went to our apartment and I slowly went through everything I needed for the race. I made piles and checklists for race day and packed up the supplies for my wife/crew in our wheeled carry-on bag.

The Race

Check in for the race was that afternoon in Ordino with a pre-race meeting in English/French at 6pm. Things were kind of spread out all over town but there were pretty good signs to help you get to where you needed to go. The hardest thing was finding a parking spot for the next 3 days. Basically the only rule for parking in Europe is there are no rules. There were some areas blocked off near the finish line but otherwise you just parked wherever you could. That included sidewalks. There were a couple times we just made sure that it would be impossible to tow us without picking the car straight up on a steep incline. No one ever got a ticket during the race weekend, come Monday we saw police everywhere.

This cow had changing LED lights at night, pretty cool.

Bib pickup was pretty easy. I forgot to ask for safety pins the first time through so had to go back for them after the meeting. There was a lot of stuff in the bag we got. We got calf compression sleeves, arm sleeves, compression shirt, headband, a BOGO coupon (worth 42 Euros) for the hot water spa we were already planning on going to after the race, free meal after the race, plus some advertising type stuff and food stuffs. All together the swag was worth more than I paid for the race (which is dirt cheap). With whatever you get if you actually finish, you’re way ahead of the game. There also were drop bags color coordinated for the 2 drop sites you could use if you didn’t have a crew. There were two wristbands that are actually for your crew to wear at all times so that they are allowed at the aid stations. We didn’t know those things until the meeting.

The elevation chart is upside down so you can look down at it. It is not at all an accurate representation of the topography. They basically just drew straight lines from the high to low spots and ignored everything else. I will make my own next time.

The meeting itself was informative but the English portion was an afterthought for the most part. We videotaped the whole thing so we could go over it if we missed something. The slides were in French and the race official told everything in French and then a French guy interpreted what she said. Well he tried and did a very good job as far as I could tell considering there were times she talked in French for a good 2 minutes straight before he was given a chance to translate. Of course he would say something maybe 10 seconds long so very summarized! There was actually a lot of information that wasn’t in the rule book or race guide. Like how to guide a helicopter to land for a rescue, how to squat to have the least chance of dying from a lightning strike, things I don’t normally hear at a local pre-race meeting. You have to have insurance that covers a helicopter evacuation by the way!

We went home and I finished my preparations for the race. I taped my feet since it was going to be dry during the race, or at least no all day rain predicted. I could barely get all the required items in my pack. For the longest time I wasn’t sure what was actually required. The translations were kind of vague for a couple things. A month or so before the race though they put up a list with pictures of the items which made it much clearer. For example “Elastic Adhesive Band” was what we call vet wrap. I was thinking it either meant KT tape or Elastikon, or an Ace bandage until I saw the picture.

Friday morning was race day. I felt fairly refreshed considering the time change. I finished my preparations including putting sunscreen on. Almost all of this race is exposed. It makes for great views but lots of sun and little protection from lightning. We headed to Ordino a little earlier than we thought we’d need to normally so that we could find a parking space easier. We picked up a runner hitchhiking to town, he sounded French. We eventually found a spot and headed towards the race corral. There are zero port a potties or bathrooms provided by the race. There was one restaurant open so there was a huge line for the bathrooms in there.

After that big use of time, I decided to go in the corral where you couldn’t leave from. You had to show an item from the required gear list, this year it was your headlamp and extra batteries. Most of the volunteers for this race look like they’re 12 as I’m sure almost the entire town of Ordino was helping out. I showed my stuff to one of the girls and then walked around the table where a woman stopped me to show her the gear. The girl acted like she had no idea who I was so I had to again get my stuff out to show the woman. Take away here is to just go to the grown-up if there is one. There were 6 of us Americans that showed up race morning but I didn’t see any in the race chute. I’m sure I was the slowest of all of them so I lined up towards the back. On a side note, while normally you will see people of all body types at ultras, you will only see one type here: thin. I was probably the fattest person there and remember I didn’t finish.

There was a drum line there making lots of noise and an announcer/emcee that I can only describe as that person you’ve heard yelling “goooooaaaaalllll” during a soccer game. What was funny was he only had that animation in his voice while speaking Catalan. Once he spoke English he was all boring and down to business. There were some fireworks and then the announcer did a countdown to the start at 7am!

I was nervous but had a good race plan. We all were nervous, most of us would be happy just to finish this race. I can’t imagine what it’d be like trying to win this, that kind of pressure. The only races I actually try to win are the winter races and even there I know someone else’s race would have to blow up for me to win. I knew I had to go at this as a multi day hiking expedition. There would be no running up steep hills or going faster than I wanted just to keep up with others. I would be fine with chasing cutoffs the entire time. I wouldn’t charge downhills like I’m known to do, flying by people as I go. I would run down easy if possible and hike if I had to (you almost always had to). I had only “blown” out my quads once during a race and that was due to screaming downhills early in the race. In that one I was able to walk the last 17 miles, mad but still a finisher.

We went through the city streets. Surprisingly the hilly streets that I disliked walking up and down earlier in the week felt pretty good to run up. I was already towards the back of the pack so there wasn’t much movement in position. My watch was acting all goofy the first 2 miles or so. I ended up restarting it and then it worked normally. Now I had no clue how far I had really gone or how much further to go since the readings were all off. We went on some wide dirt trail and then back in town just briefly before we finally hit the single track. Here there was a brief waiting in line.

Once we got moving again things moved better than I’ve ever seen them go. Almost everyone had poles, myself included. My goal was to not be the rookie American that took someones eye out when his pole slipped back. My poles never slipped so I guess that was one win for the race. For the same reason, I made sure to go behind someone without poles so as not to get taken out by a pole. People were super polite if they wanted to pass or would move over if they felt you should pass them. 99% of the time though, everyone I was with was content with the current speed of the herd. I still just can’t get over how pleasant that first 4,100 foot climb was, as far as speed and not being in a conga line. Over 400 people were in this race.

There were 2 smallish (300 foot) descents during the 4,100 foot climb. I wasn’t sure how many miles I had gone for most of this section due to the watch error. It didn’t matter really, I learned quickly that you weren’t done going downhill until you crossed some sort of creek no matter how many slight uphills you went on your way down. You weren’t on the top until you couldn’t see anything above you. That and the only flat areas in the race were often the very peak of the mountain. The trail was well marked with those flags in the ground when there weren’t trees and ribbons tied to branches when in the trees.

After climbing almost 3 hours we came out of the trees and would essentially be out of them until the decent into Margineda.

7000 feet elevation or so, looking somewhat back where we came from. Trust me, none of what you see is flat.
Pretty much looking the other way.

There was still another 1,000 feet of steep gain to be had. I could see the other runners ahead of me on the top already. The leaders were probably an hour ahead of me at this point and past the first aid station. I heard some cow bells only to find horses with bells around their necks. I never got very close to these.

My anterior tibialis tendons were basically mad at me since the beginning of the race. I had forgot to put KT tape on during the hike 2 days ago so they got a little inflamed then. This pretty much happens every race and always will just because of how my ankle is made. Anyway I just ignored it as best as I could knowing there wasn’t anything to be done about it. What is weird is that after the second aid station I never felt an issue with them again. This is even after tightening my shoes quit a bit due to the steep downhills and my feet moving forward too far in my shoes. Usually tight shoes make it worse. I haven’t really figured out why the pain went away.

Looking left from the picture of the horses above.
Looking North East up the trail. Looks kinda flat right? It’s the equivalent of 700 feet gain per mile for that short section you can see people on. That’s how much these photos don’t show the true steepness. I kept thinking things were flatter when I saw other peoples’ photos and videos and wondering how the race could be 44,000 feet. If I took the photo with the camera level you wouldn’t even see the orange flag in the photo.

I finally got to Coll d’Arenes around 10:40am and enjoyed the view. I was going about the speed I was expecting based on seeing the Euforia runners 2 days ago. I would be behind the chart I had made for my wife but that was really just a guesstimate based on what I thought at home. I would’ve changed it had I known what I know now. I was staying hydrated and still eating up to this point. Actually the entire race I would use up my last water just as I was getting to the next aid station. I couldn’t have done a better job with planning on how much water to fill up with.

View from Coll d’Arenes
Another view
360 degrees. We came up from the left and went over in the middle of the photo. The mountain on the left and right are the same mountain for bearings.

There was a little bit of running on the side of this mountain before we rounded it to go down to the lake we hiked to 2 days earlier. This was a fairly steep and technical downhill. I wasn’t surprised since I saw the Euforia runners walking down it and figured there was a reason. Once I got to the lake I was starting to feel the heat build. I wet my head in the cold water and took off down the somewhat flat area that had the heifers.

I ran down without using my poles. That was my plan and it worked fine for this section. Later in the race I used them on downhills more for safety in the super steep descents. It slowed me down but I figured it was better to be slow than have my race end due to an injury or fall. There were 2 photographers in this section. Neither photo looked all that great so I didn’t buy them. I stopped to take a picture of the “incident” area of the trail. I got to the first aid station which is Refugi de Sorteny at 13 miles into the race at 11:47am. Yes, almost 5 hours for 13 miles, and I wasn’t even the slowest person.

I didn’t see my wife right away so I took my pack off and looked at what food was available. They scan your bib at almost every aid station and it instantly updates to the race app and online. Since this one had WiFi at it, my wife got an alert that I was there and then walked around the building to find me (she was hanging out in the shade). You also could send a text with your location via the race app to anyone you wanted as well. I never used it since she was getting updates all the time on my location anyway. In fact, she said it would even tell her estimated times of my arrivals at the aid stations she could go to.

I had heard the food was much different from our races here. I guess that is kinda true but I found it to be very similar to ours, save the addition of cheese and cut up salami type meat. I absolutely loved that meat and cheese. The salami type stuff you could get in any store for 1 Euro. The cheese I never could figure out what kind it was. It tasted so good at that 80 degree temperature with the meat. It was hard not to eat too much of it. I kept it to a minimum since I needed things easily digestible in this heat. This aid station had less food options than the remainder of them but it was still fully stocked in my opinion. They don’t have gels for you. They have water and an electrolyte mix that wasn’t too bad but I stuck with what I brought since I know what it has in it. Theirs was a brand not sold here. My wife helped out getting water and reloaded mixes and food for the next section. I didn’t mind taking more time at aid stations this race since I wasn’t in a hurry and it was important to not forget anything as it took a long time to get to the next station. I spent close to 30 minutes at every station. This one was faster since there wasn’t much to do.

My wife modeling the salami type meat sticks they would cut up at the aid stations.

The trail goes up for a little bit and then down. After that starts the long hike up about 2,500 feet to Portella de Rialb. This was a very pretty hike. We followed a creek for most of the time. There were plenty of opportunities to cool off in the stream and the springs feeding it. I was dunking my head every chance I got. I don’t know what the temperature was but it was hot for me. There was no wind but full sun. I know John Kelly had issues with the heat as well which is part of the reason he ended up quitting. I wasn’t overheating but it was hard to go slow enough to keep my heart rate down. Because of this I could tell I wasn’t absorbing anything food wise anymore. Normally I don’t care too much about this since I know in the cool of the night I’ll make up ground. At this race though, there is no making up ground. As I would find out that night, you can’t cruise along quickly in the dark in this terrain.

We were told to look for these during a lightning storm and go in them.
Ever up!
I mean come on, how much nicer view can you get? It was like this for miles.

Soon enough I got to the top at 1:43pm. There was a great view of the ski hill where the second aid station was. Of course we wouldn’t go straight there, we had to go down and up an few more times before arriving at the next stop.

30 feet of flat ground, enjoy it while you can.

We then went down around 1,700 feet before going up again to Estany Esbalcat. This lake was a gorgeous one and hidden from the valley below. Well worth the hike if taking a much shorter way to get there.

Come to Andorra for views of magnificent mountain lakes!….and a naked guy swimming in them (look closely).

The race guide says this is a relatively flat and clearly marked trail from the lake onwards. That is not at all how I remember it. I think we went up 400 feet on this relatively flat trail and it switched back and forth a lot that if not for the other racers, I probably would’ve gone off course. Eventually you go downhill and run into a lot of day hikers. I suspect they ride the gondola up and then hike back down to their car. Then it’s uphill to the top of the gondola where there is a restaurant we used as the second aid station at mile 19.3 of the race. This is called Coma d’Arcalis but I just called it the first ski hill aid station as there’d be more. I got there at 3:30pm (yes I was that slow and there were still 50 people behind me). Since the road to the restaurant was under construction, my wife got to ride the gondola up for free.

I spent more time here as I had to take care of a small heel blister I could feel forming due to all the steep hiking. I hadn’t taped my heels since I never get blisters there. The only time I had was at Volstate which makes sense since I walked some there as well. I popped my blister and then used Tincture of Benzoin to help the new tape to stick to my heels. I ate the pasta they had here as well as the meat and cheese. I tried to eat more than usual here for the long haul this evening when I’d be able to digest it. I had my wife take pictures of the food tables to help you know what was available. She missed the pasta and soup table and also the meat and cheese table so this is only half of what was there really. They had paper bowls and wooden spoons to eat the pasta with but you need your own cup for drinks. I just used the bowl for other food after I finished the pasta. The bowl and spoon were composted.

That’s tuna on the left, available at most aid stations, I put some in the pasta. Sometimes they had pineapple as well and different versions of cake.

I left the aid station and started up the ski slope. There was a large group of horses here with their foals. It became apparent that all the ski slopes in the country were grazed by horses during the summer. My blister hurt for a couple of minutes and then never hurt again. Really nothing was hurting, my legs just felt tired. I was worried about my injury acting up but it hadn’t yet. I was getting a little chaffing and realized I forgot to apply more lube at the aid station. I stopped to get it out of my pack and the second I opened the zip lock bag it was in, a bunch of horses came running over. I have a strong suspicion that they are used to being fed by the tourists that ride up the gondola. A foal started to eat my race bib so I had to shoo them away while trying to apply lube down my shorts. Probably a good video to be had there.

Bib eater.

This is probably as good an area as any to talk about all the manure on the course. I don’t know if there aren’t any dung beetles in Andorra or what but if there are, they must not be able to keep up. The manure was a common theme in the race reports I read. While it wasn’t as bad as some of them made it seem, it was definitely something you had to look out for anytime you were in a pasture area. The smell was very apparent as well, which is something coming from me. There were a couple times I was expecting to see an elephant or rhino over the next hill because the manure piles were over a foot high and 2 feet wide at times. I don’t know if these horses are trained to all go in the same spot or if they just hold it for that long but I’ve never seen piles so big before (other than rhino or elephant).

It was fairly gentle incline in the beginning but then it gets steep. Steeper than we’ve had so far in the race and much rockier. In fact it was pretty much all rocks for the next 10 miles. I think we went up 1,700 feet in just over a mile. I even stopped for a couple minutes going up this hill. Normally I don’t stop but at least I took a photo.

The view from where I took a break looking back at the aid station in the distance (center left). That grass is about 1000 feet below me. The lake in the distance is not the lake we went past earlier, you can’t see it in this picture.

It was on this section at the base of Bretxa d’Arcalis I met a guy I would play leap frog with all the way until Refugi Joan Canut Pla de l’Estany the third aid station. He had his bib folded up so just his number was showing so I never did get his name or what country he was from. He could see I was from the USA so his first words to me were “just 400 meters” as he pointed to the top. As if 400 meters is a small amount. That’s still 1,300 feet and it was on loose shale. I’m pretty sure he was from Belgium because he had a French accent and later on talked about the best Belgium runners smoking. See, he smoked a cigarette every time he stopped. I saw him smoke 5 times. The views were nice from the top and it was at least thinking about cooling off. Some runners already had on arm sleeves or jackets since it was slightly windy on top. I made it up in 45 minutes but it seemed much longer than that.

View from Bretxa d’Arcalis looking South.

Guess where we went next? That’s right down. Nice and steep down. This is where I started using poles going down. As the English version of the race guide states, “We take the initial technical descent, remaining concentrated.” Real translation is try not to slip constantly on the moving rocks. It really wasn’t too bad, you just had to go slow and know where to step and place your poles. I was a quick learner. At the bottom were some lakes and then right back up the next climb called Pic del Clot del Cavall (Pic just means Peak if you couldn’t tell).

Again with the steep climb up and my friend telling me how many meters to go. We talked briefly about the race. He had made it to Margineda last time he was here and quit there. He was hoping to get at least that far again this year. I’m suspecting he didn’t make it any further if even that far since I never saw him again after the third aid station. He was under trained the same as me due to injury. I told him I at least wanted to get to Margineda so that I would experience all the worst portions of the course. Weird what kind of goals ultrarunners have. Of course I had no idea if I’d even make it that far. Things were starting to feel better but that can change quickly.

He was the only person I talked to the entire race. Even though I could always see another person either in daylight or their headlamp at night, I felt more isolated than I do during Arrowhead*. It wasn’t a hopeless feeling or anything but just the sense of being alone and somewhat helpless. Kind of like the isolation I felt while watching Lost in Translation, or more so how I think she felt. Seeing a loved one rarely and only for a brief time and then back into a foreign land with a communication barrier. I so wanted to talk about the race with other runners. What we’ve gone through and what is coming up if they’ve been here before. I’m not sure how I could prevent this isolation while running this race again other than to just know it will happen. I pretty much listened to my iPod the entire race because of this.

* {Don’t get me wrong Arrowhead is lonely, but I’m constantly thinking about the race and survival, that I never have time to let the isolation sink in I think}.

From the Pic del Clot del Cavall looking West towards Pic del Comapedrosa.

We reached the top of Pic del Clot del Cavall and the clouds were moving in. It didn’t look like it would rain anytime soon for now at least. If I remember it correctly, it wasn’t too bad at first going down but then got real steep. I know we went down 2,000 feet in just over a mile. There was some nice runnable trail towards the end through the trees. I was starting to feel better in the shade and the wind from running helped to cool me off. Since the last aid station there was hardly anywhere to cool off like the previous section with water constantly around you. Every once and a while I’d see Pic del Comapedrosa through the trees. It’s the tallest in the country.

Finally the trees gave way to a most beautiful scene I’d see in Andorra. I’ll just show you the best picture I have of it but it doesn’t do it justice at all.

This is the best view I saw!

This is the place I’d recommend someone to hike to in Andorra if you’re just there for hiking. Towards the left you might see 2 orange shirts that are workers at the aid station #3 Refugi de l’Estany. That water you see is the Riu del Bancal Vedeller cascading down 2,000 feet in this photo to give you a sense of scale. There’s another one to it’s right that was smaller and you probably can’t see it. There is a lake up there but we didn’t go past it. There were quit a few people with tents around here. You can see just a few of them in the photo.

The peak is the mountain in the center kind of hiding behind this foothill.

It was still a little distance to get to the aid station. I got there at 7:43pm and had gained a few spots even. This was a decent aid station but the refugi was not near as nice as the others. They didn’t let us in it so I’m not positive on what it was like but it was pretty small. There was a water fountain running that was just the stream water that they collected from further upstream and sent down in a plastic pipe. It’s here that I realized probably all the water we’ve been drinking was just collected straight from the streams untreated. I knew Giardia would take a few days to hit me and since I didn’t have any other options I went ahead and drank it. Plus like I said, I’m pretty sure I had already been drinking it and just didn’t know it. There were horses all over pooping and peeing above where they collected this water by the way, I saw them while hiking up the mountain later on. I also saw those heifers standing in the lake before the first aid station as well.

There wasn’t anywhere to sit here really either other than the rocks, so I ate quickly and got on my way. I wanted to get to the top of the mountain by dark. I put my headlamp on now so I wouldn’t have to deal with it later on. I was finally cool and that stretch of easy trail before the aid station allowed my heart rate to finally get down and I was absorbing some calories for once. I started the 2,900 feet climb up Pic del Comapedrosa. This is in less than 2 miles and completely rocks and boulder hopping after the first couple hundred feet.

I passed a couple people right away but didn’t think much of it. It was kind of hard to find the way sometimes. There were plenty of flags but since it was just a bunch of rocks, there is no clear path between the flags. I was doing surprisingly well at picking rocks that didn’t move under my feet. Soon I passed another person, then another. I never pass people on an uphill, like ever. Here I was a flatlander passing mountain people going up the hardest climb of the race. I passed 8 people! This was my only “win” during the race. It just shows how much more energy I had. And probably how little energy they had at the moment. I was almost having fun going up this mountain.

This was taken about a 1000 feet up from the aid station. This is what you’re hiking on and why it’s hard to find an “easy” path.
Looking I think North towards a different peak. The trail went to my left in this photo.
I think this was taken on the last leg up to the peak. I reached the top 15 minutes after this was taken. It’s looking West towards Spain based on the suns position.

There is a false summit and I knew that. The last part of this climb is very steep. It’s steeper than Rat Jaw at Frozen Head State Park if you’ve ever been on that climb. It wasn’t as hard at the top part of Longs Peak in Colorado but it seemed close. There were a couple spots you needed your hands so I guess it would be considered a Class 2 trail but it wasn’t dangerous by any means. All the nice sharp slate rocks would stop you from sliding to your death pretty quickly if you slipped. The rocks slipping beneath you or from above were the dangers. I always made sure to look above and below me if I was in a loose rock area to both not get hit and try not to hit someone else. You will have rocks falling while going up and down this mountain.

Top of Andorra! Looking East.
The last picture I took during the race. Looking West into Spain. Looks kinda steep to the left right? That’s how we went down. It’s considered the easier route (it actually is).

I reached the top in just under 2 hours at 9:50pm. You could still see although the sun had gone down already. I didn’t spend much time up there. I took a couple pictures, had my bib scanned and I was on my way back down. The first part is very steep and I was plowing a lot of dirt and rocks down the mountain. Then you eventually get to a more normal decline with a lake I could tell was there but really couldn’t see since it was now dark.

The trail continued to follow the stream that came out of the lake. The trail was sometimes dirt, sometimes big round rocks, and sections of snow. The snow wasn’t bad when it was in a flatish area but sucked when it was sloped. It seemed forever to get to the aid station. We only went down around 2,000 feet but it seemed more. The trail was occasionally hard to see because the big rocks would block the reflective flags a lot. I suspect whoever put the flags in this section went backwards on the course while placing them so they were in view from that direction more than the way we ran it. I wasn’t the only one having to stop often to look around for the trail in the dark.

I believe it was this section or maybe the next that I got pretty good at telling what species of animal was coming up by the smell of the manure in the dark. Really it wasn’t hard for me since I’m used to these smells. I hate horse manure smell but unfortunately that’s what most of the pastures were. It was in one of these night time manure land mine areas that I saw something that made me laugh pretty hard. Whoever was putting flags in the ground got creative and placed 2 rocks on top of a massive horse manure pile and stuck the flag in between them. I didn’t think to take a picture at the time but it was totally something I would’ve done myself if that was my job.

As seems to be the usual for this race you had to go uphill right before the aid station. I got to the 4th aid station which is Refugi del Comapedrosa at 10:57pm. So I went 2 miles an hour downhill. That’s what I mean by having to hike downhill in a lot of areas. It’s just really hard to make up any time in this race. I could see this aid station from a ways away. It was lit up like a Christmas tree pretty much. It was large and had a kitchen, electricity, and a pretty big dining area. We were only allowed to use a portion of the area. There were benches against one wall. Some were wide enough that people were sleeping on them. There were a lot of worn out faces at this aid station. I found out later that a lot of people quit here. I thought it was a weird place to quit. First off, you still have to hike out of here as there is no road to the refugi as far as I could tell. Plus the next section looked like it would be the easiest of the entire race according to the elevation profile. A nice gentle slope downhill after a couple short uphills. I was looking forward to it. Maybe they knew something I didn’t.

Here they had tomato sauce with the pasta. It was amazing! Much better than eating it with tuna like I did at the first ski aid station. I was getting low on energy again since it had been quite a while since I ate. The cheese and meat was again awesome, as was some cake I had. I also had some pop and I took some caffeine to help get through the night. They had a bathroom downstairs in the basement, of course with no soap. It was pretty hot in this aid station as well which I guess was kind of good since I was still soaking in sweat and it kept me from getting chilled. I didn’t stay any longer than needed. Of course they stopped me on the way out wondering why I didn’t have a coat on. Can you seriously not see I’m still sweating? Next time I’ll just put a sign in 5 languages that says “I’m not cold!” and “I like talking to people” but that part would only be in English.

The next mountain was only about 700 feet up. It started with a easy slope but got rocky and steep the last part. Once on top of this one I think it was pretty easy downhill to a kind of saddle and then an easy (for this race) uphill on the side of the next hill. I was in Spain for a portion of that section. Then we got to what I thought would be a nice easy downhill. I was looking forward to running down the entire way.

What I got instead was a ski slope with multiple narrow ruts going down. Oh and by the way not at all at a gentle slope. Doesn’t seem too bad right? Well add to this the fact that the wind that was present just a moment ago was completely gone and the trail consisted 4 inches of the finest dust I’ve ever seen. By fine I mean flour consistency. This meant it was very slippery and all I could see was a dust cloud from the previous racers and myself. There were flags in the ground but there really wasn’t any trail. You’d go back and forth between the ruts trying not to fall down. So why not go on the grass you ask? Great question. I don’t know what kind of grass this was but it was weird. It looked like fairly normal grass but when you stepped on it, you’d slide all over, almost like it was coated in wax which maybe it was. But that’s not the weirdest thing. If you put your hand down on it with any sort of pressure, it would feel like needles were going into my hand, and this was with gloves on. You couldn’t see thorns or anything and it didn’t burn like nettle but it hurt a lot so you definitely didn’t want to fall on it. Some grass was fine and in the dark it all looked the same so I couldn’t tell what was safe to touch and what wasn’t. It all seemed slick though. Especially since it was a steep downhill.

After about 300 feet or so of this I saw a couple runners stopped on the trail looking around. I figured they must’ve lost the trail of markers in all the dust. Once I got down there, I soon realized why they had stopped for a while. While I was correct that they couldn’t see the flags, the reason wasn’t the dust, it was a group of horses in the way. These seemed even bigger than the previous ski slope group. I think I saw a few mules in this group as well. A few had bells on which helped to know where they were. The main issue was they would keep going down the hill in front of me kicking up lots of dust. Finally after a while of this some of them broke off to the side. Great, now I was in the middle of the horses. I finally got in front of all of them. Then what do I hear? A bell ringing like crazy closing in on me very quickly. I could vaguely see a large horse barreling down the hill right at me. About 5 feet before me, he broke off to the side of me and stopped. I’d start down hill and a different one would do it but he didn’t have a bell so I just had to listen for the thumping of hooves. The moon hadn’t come up yet so there was no light other than my headlamp in a cloud of dust. For the next 10 minutes, my life consisted of being chased by 2 horses down a steep ski slope. I suppose they probably thought it was fun but maybe they were pissed that us runners kept coming up on them in the dark. Either way I was glad to finally get to a rocky area where they quit following me.

By this point I was most of the way down to the highway that we cross at the Andorra/Spain border. There wasn’t a border guard or anything like that though. The road in Andorra is tar and the road in Spain is dirt. It looked blocked off by the race officials who took down our bib numbers. Maybe there is some sort of barricade to keep you from crossing in a car but then why even have the road go there at all if not to go to Spain. Anyway the next part sucked even more than the dust.

We went off trail (well actually I think almost the entire time from the last aid station wasn’t any official trail) down the steep grassy slope in a straight line. It was almost impossible not to slip on that stupid grass. This went on for over a mile. I slipped often and if any damage was done to my knees or legs during this race it was here because of all the sudden jerks and slips. About 2/3rds of the way down I could smell I was coming up on a cattle herd. I was expecting an issue with me running with a head lamp on shining in their faces. Nope. I could run right behind cows laying down and they didn’t even care. They had their calves with them no less!

Finally towards the bottom I completely biffed it and rolled down the hill for about 30 feet. All the dirt stuck to everything. At the bottom of the hill was a stream with no real way to cross without getting one foot wet as far as I could see. I used my poles to vault across as far as I could but still got one foot wet. The first time I had a wet foot the entire race. At least I could change socks at the aid station that was now about 400 feet above me, plus 30 feet of stairs to get into the second ski hill aid station. Ugh.

Through all this slipping I was trying to think what could be done. 2 different surfaces and both are slippery. I suppose really deep treads on my shoes might help but I hate Saloman shoes and Sportiva aren’t great either (everyone from Europe wore one of those 2 brands). Do deep treads help on slick grass? I’ve figured out what I’ll do to fix it the next time for this section but I’m not telling my secret until I finish the race. It might not even work.

I reached the 5th aid station Coll de la Botella which I called the second ski aid station at 2:05am. I had gone 37.3 miles. It was a large cafeteria type place. They only let us in a small area of it. I wish I had a picture of me. I looked like I had been in the field plowing all day I was so full of dust. I made a huge mess in the bathroom trying to wash my arms and face. Brown water went everywhere since the faucet pressure was crazy high. I had to use towels to clean up the mirror and counter. I changed my socks. My tape was still hanging in there although I might use the benzoin for all the tape next time. The food was okay here but I didn’t eat much other than the cheese and meat again. Maybe something sugary. I wanted to sleep in the car since it’d be quiet and dark, but I figured that was against the rules or someone would think I was cheating so I kept on going.

The next section starts out with almost 3 miles of runnable trail. Other than the roads after Margineda, this is the only flat part of the course. It is a gradual incline in reality, but you couldn’t even tell after what we had already gone through.

I started hearing thunder and could see some big clouds in the moonlight from the North West. I had noticed this is the direction the clouds move from the last few days so I knew they would get to me eventually. I was doing the math and it didn’t look good as far as where I’d be when it got to me (like top of a mountain bad). We got out of the trees for just a bit and there were race officials at the bottom of the hill we’d go up. I was trying to determine if I should just wait here or keep going. Everyone else kept going so I did as well.

It was a pretty steep climb up a very eroded trail (or maybe not a real trail) through trees. It would’ve been tough without poles. Eventually we got above them and it was a more gradual climb up to Bony de La Pica. Basically we kind of skirted the ridge as we went up. Overall the climb was around 1,000 feet so not too bad. I could hear women cheering up in the distance and figured it must be the top. I have a feeling the views from here would be amazing in the daytime. All I saw now were the lightning strikes. They were still a bit in the distance but it was windy, and a few rain drops were felt. I moved quickly to the peak.

I made it there at 4:18am to cheers from the race volunteers on top. It looked like a miserable place to be. It was very windy. They scanned by bib and I immediately started down. They were worried I wasn’t dressed enough of course. I had finally just dried all the sweat off. The fist 10 feet down is a scramble and then it’s a mix of that flour dirt and loose rocks. Also there was absolutely no wind now that I was off the ridge and behind it. I started to sweat again 10 minutes later. It really never cooled off that much overnight.

So maybe I buried the lead a little bit here. If I got anything from all the race related things I read, it was this; Bony de la Pica should scare you. Or more specifically, going down from the peak should scare you. This is the part that has chains bolted into the rock to help you not fall off a cliff. It’s almost 5,000 feet of descent in an almost constant fashion. And most everyone will do it in the dark. This is the part that I meant when I told the Belgian I wanted to at least do all the hardest parts of the course. What really made it suck for me though was the dirt and rocks beneath your feet just gave way. I almost felt like I was just plowing my way down the hill with my feet. Poles helped a little bit but you can’t use them when you have to hang on to a chain. Really the trail wasn’t that dangerous, the drop off was usually only about 30 feet. You wouldn’t die but you sure don’t want to fall that far either. The only reason you would fall though is because it is so frickin slippery. The trail is wide enough to just hike down it if it had a normal trail surface. I think there were 4 or 5 short sections of chain. This was all towards the top of the peak.

Okay, so now that you know that this part is scary and a long steep downhill I’ll continue.

There were a few sprinkles almost immediately after I got off the peak and I wanted to get past those chains quickly in case it really started raining. It never did rain by the way and the lightning quit as well. Of course I didn’t know at the time.

During the chain section I could hear and see people running down the hill, yes running. They ran as though someone had just plopped them on the top of the mountain with fresh legs. I was confused as to how they were doing this while I was slowly going down with my poles in front of me. I certainly could’ve gone faster without using my poles but not that fast and I didn’t feel safe doing that anyway not knowing at all what the trail was like ahead. I moved over for them as best as a person can while on a steep narrow trail with sections of chain. They would just have to wait until I got to a section between chains to pass. After like the 3rd person I was getting pissed. Did these people sleep for 5 hours at the ski resort and wake up refreshed and new? Why were they so far back with me if they could run this good? Who purposely goes slow for almost an entire day before kicking it up a notch (more like 5 notches)?

After the chain sections, the trail was still steep but kind of switchbacked it’s way down. There were small sections of big boulders and what looked like rivers of rocks that had flowed down the mountain that we went back and forth over, or at least it seemed that way. Mostly though the trail was the dirt and loose rock and roots. It was hard work going down this mountain. Harder work than all of the previous ones. Plus with no wind and almost all of it in the trees, I was almost hot again. The last bit was more gentle downhill so I ran it. I was still getting passed by other runners screaming down the hill. I only passed I think 2 people going down. After 2,900 feet of down (with an occasional short up) I got to Aixas which is private property. I think it is maybe a vineyard or has stables maybe. It was hard to tell in the dark but it looked like a fairly big complex. There was a fountain with water and a couple race officials. I think they wrote our bib number down but I can’t remember.

You have to go back uphill about 200 feet but not too bad and then you go the rest of the way down. Here the trail surface is much more stable dirt. Still some roots and rocks here and there but runnable. It has lots of short switchbacks on it. The sky was getting lighter now. Still more people passing me but now that I was running I also passed a few people towards the end. It was light enough to turn my head lamp off now. This last section of downhill was 1,700 feet.

My watch had stopped recording my track but I could at least still tell the time. This time the uphill before the aid station was very small but there were still 20 feet of stairs. I arrived at the 6th aid station and the 1st major aid station of La Margineda at 6:30am. My official time is messed up since they marked me as coming back in when I quit later on. The hard cut off for this aid station is 9am so I was still doing pretty good as far as that goes. This aid station is at mile 45.4 and is a school.

I found my wife and told her I wanted to sleep for a couple hours to see if that would give my legs more energy. The food here honestly kinda sucked. it was supposed to have all this great food since it was a major station but it didn’t. I barely found anything to eat but forced myself to eat something. I wanted to eat 1,000 calories before I slept but there just wasn’t anything good or with good sustaining carbs. I mean who eats a salad during an ultra? Bizarre. Also there was no where to sit down in the gym. No chairs, benches, etc. Just lay on the floor guys.

I saw runners with a different color bib than I had on. They were Mitic runners. I didn’t realize they had started their race at 10pm the night before. I thought they started today (Saturday). So all those runners who were flying by going downhill were the leaders of that race. Now I wasn’t so pissed anymore. No wonder they looked so good, they are good. Probably 20 of them passed me on that mountain.

This last section I had really noticed myself slowing on the uphills. My legs just didn’t have any energy going uphill. I could still run downhill pretty well which was bizarre to me. I’m used to my quads either hurting or not hurting. Not this compartmentalized fashion where they could handle one stress but not a different one. I knew I couldn’t continue the race with the way they felt. I also know that things can change for the better with some simple sleep. They had a nice room of cots with blankets away from the large gym where the food and massage tables were. I went there and got some sleep but not great. I should’ve changed shirts to get rid of my sweat soaked one. I just put more blankets on to stay warm.

After about 90 minutes my wife woke me up. I didn’t feel any better. I changed my shirt and loaded up my pack. I decided to continue up the next hill to see how my legs held up. I told my wife to stay put for at least 30 minutes in case I called it quits. I checked out at 8:40am.

You run downhill and then mostly flat for almost a mile through town in a convoluted way as to cross under the major highway and over a river before the climb up the next steep hill. I tried to run some on this flat part but it felt better to just power hike. I was hiking 4 miles per hour and felt like I was flying. Oh why couldn’t I just walk it in the rest of the way like this? Because you signed up for a crazy hard race, that’s why! Some more Mitic people passed me, what else was new.

Initially the climb wasn’t very bad. Then I realized how slow I was going and how much steeper the 2,000 foot hill in front of me would get. My legs had no energy and I just wanted to cry. I was so mad at my body for crapping out like this. I looked at the cutoff times and realized I would never make the hard cutoff at Coll Vallcivera at 2am. I knew they let people finish the race after the cutoff and they even joked about it at the pre-race meeting. I was positive they didn’t let you leave the aid stations after a cutoff time. I don’t know if I got that from previous race reports or what.

I could keep going maybe I thought. Perhaps some great resurgence of energy would happen. Maybe I wouldn’t get any slower in the next 55 miles. Ha, ha, ha, maybe Superman will make the Earth rotate backwards to turn back time too. Sounds a lot like hope doesn’t it? I thought for a long time as I very slowly made it up the easy part of the slope. If I quit after the next aid station, I would basically be in the middle of nowhere. I would have to hike myself out or take a helicopter ride. I didn’t really feel like figuring out how good my helicopter insurance really was. I fought back tears and turned around.

I had just done what I had never done before.

I quit.

Little did I know how horrible it would feel. Little did I know how stupid of a way I did it. Now I had to watch everyone who didn’t quit go by me in the other direction. Just now as I’m writing this, the feelings are coming back. It sucks. It sucked then too.

Most of them were Mitic runners. Then I saw Ronda runners. What? It was already well past 9am. How are they out here? Then as I went down I saw 4 more in a group. They obviously left after 9am. They were ALLOWED to leave after 9am. I seriously thought about turning around and going back up the 200 feet I had already gone down and ignoring the 30 minutes I just wasted. I imagined this group of Japanese runners would be my new best friends and we would somehow communicate and persevere I told myself. This is why I quit in the worst way. I had to quit about 10 times in my head before I texted my wife to just pick me up.

It took some time for my wife to find me but we eventually got together and she drove me back up to the Margineda aid station. I told them I was quitting. They scanned my bib for some reason which messed up my results page (I left somehow before I even arrived). I think they thought I was just showing up for the first time. Then they tore off the finisher portion of my bib so everyone would now know I was a quitter. The scarlet letter of ultrarunning.

It’s been a month since I quit this race and I’m still having a hard time figuring out how to write my feelings. You know how artists like to reference a fire burning inside all of us? Well I guess I’ll try to use that metaphor. Once I quit, whatever flame was there shrunk in size greatly. I’m not going to say it was an ember because that seems cliche and dumb. The fire was still there (hence me wanting to turn around), but it was small. I also know artists like to then talk about something changing inside of you at this point of the story/song/poem. They use words like kerosene being dumped on their fire, or explosion. I think you know what I mean.

There was no explosion, no kerosene. If I had to describe it, I’d say what came next felt like a big Bur Oak Tree stump being dropped on me. The weight of it sucked. That scarlet letter sucked. I was so pissed at my legs. I wish I could say I was numbed by it, but I can’t. I was wide awake and aware of all the suckiness. Yeah, that’s probably not a real word, but I’m not an artist either.

Anyway, we left and looked for a fast food place so we could just eat and go to the apartment to sleep. It was after 10am now, but McDonald’s and Burger King weren’t open yet. We ended up going to the gas station along the way and getting some food there. We ate at the apartment and I took a shower to clean up. It felt so strange being able to stand, squat, etc in the shower while cleaning myself up. Usually I’m just sitting on the floor in the shower or tub because I hurt so much. My feet felt fine which is another oddity.

I hadn’t thought to make ice the last few days so we didn’t have any to put in the bags that I did remember to bring along to ice my ankles, so that didn’t happen. I just lay on top of the bed with my legs on a pillow and slept for about 3 hours or so. I didn’t want to sleep too long and then wake up at midnight or something like that.

So going back to that fire metaphor. Stumps are hard to burn. Bur Oaks likely even more so, since they are made to withstand prairie fires, although I’ve never tried to burn one. The only way to get them going is to use fuel of some sort to get the fire to catch onto the stump. My little fire wasn’t going to do the trick on it’s own. The sleep I got was the equivalent of paper. Something, but certainly not enough.

There was a buffet at a restaurant very close to where we were staying and they were still open for lunch when we got up so we went there. I made many trips and tried pretty much everything once or twice. The food was cold of course since it was something like 2:30pm, but it tasted good. The fruit and yogurt parfaits were amazing. They need those at aid stations!

There is a church right next door to that so we went there next. There was a young woman there to give tours. There happened to be a British older couple there as well so she gave a tour in English. She was very good. She kept thinking the Brits were our parents due to their age and we all spoke English. There are many very old churches in Andorra to look at. We’d see a few over the next few days since we had all this extra time now.

Sant Marti Church in Cortinada

We killed a few hours at the apartment and then went to Ordino to eat the finish line meals we had paid for around 7pm. It wasn’t too bad, but nothing impressive and I wouldn’t bother to buy it for your crew if you have one. It was here that I saw all the Japanese runners that passed me as I was walking back after quitting. They had all quit as well at some point that day. I had mixed emotions about seeing them. Happy that I probably made the right call, but sad that they didn’t finish.

Now I had cardboard for the fire.

I wanted to watch some people finish the race so we went over to the finish area (the food was blocks away). The announcer was doing his job in his ggoooaaaallll voice and giving beer to the finishers. There really isn’t a good place to just sit and watch the finish line really. Plus I was still feeling weird about not finishing. We found a grocery store in Ordino just walking around and got some more supplies. We went back, finished off the pirate chips and other snacks and went to bed.

Had to get something from Cuba. It is really good and it’s legal to bring back to the US

The next day we slept in. The main goal was site seeing today. We started off by going to the Miniature Museum in Ordino. It was quite good and I’d recommend it. It has lots Russian dolls, miniature artwork, and bottles that are painted on the inside of them. Amazing.

There were over 20 sets of dolls. All were beautiful.
Lunch that day. I just liked the cute little fry basket.

We then went to the Caldea Spa in the capitol city. It is expensive but we had a BOGO coupon from the race. It is worth it having just done the race. It’s not a natural hot springs or anything, just a giant building filled with various hot water pools. There are different portions of the complex that you pay more to go to. We didn’t really know which was what so we just went everywhere until someone told us we couldn’t be there. The places I liked the best were a couple places we weren’t supposed to be. There is one pool that has grapefruits floating in the water. Kind of fun to play with them, there were signs not to eat them. The other nice one was a 4 foot deep 3 foot wide walkway/pool that had river stones on the bottom of it. It meandered around like a river would. It felt amazing to push my feet through the rocks as I walked around the pool as the instructions said. Like a foot massage all over my feet at the same time.

Now I had sticks.

We left around 5pm and set about finding somewhere to eat. It was Sunday so a lot of places were closed. This is also the time in our trip where we were missing food from home. There are no Mexican or American Chinese restaurants in Andorra. There are I think 2 places that have sushi, but my wife didn’t want that. We settled on finding a pizza place. There are quite a few of those in Andorra and they have good pizza. We ate close to our apartment again. It’s always fun trying to figure out the toppings in another language.

We spent some time trying to find a cheap place in Barcelona for the next night since we had seen most of Andorra and wanted to see more of Barcelona. Plus we’d be closer to the airport for the flight the following day. In the end we decided to just stay in Andorra and save the money. I tried to not think that I would first be finishing the race now (Sunday night), had I kept going.

The next day (Monday) we drove to the oldest church in Andorra. The road was narrow and eventually just kinda quit. We parked like everyone else does in Europe and just started walking the rest of the way up. It was supposed to be open when we got there based on what the tour guide at the last church had said, but it wasn’t. It’s over 850 years old.

View of the church from the defense tower that was built later.

The main plan for the day was to go to the one part of the country we hadn’t seen yet, the Eastern most part. The road to France is on that side and the city of Pas de la Casa. This is where the second major aid station is. As we drove, we stopped at yet another church that was open and looked around.

Sant Joan de Caselles Church in Canillo

From Canillo on, we kept seeing all these parking signs for Grandvalira. Turns out the Grandvalira ski area is so big that it traverses several towns. There are 210 km of runs there. That’s huge! Anyway the road gets real nice and twisty again just before Pas de la Casa. There is a toll tunnel you can take instead but I think I’d only use that in the winter when the road likely sucks.

We parked in Pas de la Casa at one of the ski hills parking lots. The terrain in this area was what I was expecting from the videos I’d seen online. Much more gentle slopes and runnable terrain. The mountains were still tall and I wouldn’t have been running after 80 miles anyway most likely, but it definitely looked easier than the portions I had done.

Now I had dry, split pine.

Parking lot.

Pas de la Casa can basically be summed up as a giant shopping center for French people, with hotels for the ski people in the winter. Signs and advertising were everywhere. A million shops selling the same stuff, etc. We ate at some crappy buffet. We shopped around a little just to price check things mostly. We wanted to find horse steak to cook at home but never did. They pretty much only sell pork there. I got some Muscat wine since all we ever see at home is Muscato (bubbly and less alcohol than straight Muscat wine). It was very good by the way. I also got a stick of that salami meat stuff to have it one more time. We weren’t going to bring home any pork of any kind even though I would’ve loved a case of that stuff. It’s just not worth the risk of bringing home a foreign disease. Please don’t bring back meat from any country.

The grocery stores are called supermercat. We liked to say Super Meerkat instead.
Their warning labels were very to the point.

The drive back from Pas de la Casa was long. Well not long in distance since it’s a small country but it takes over an hour due to the speed limit and round-a-bouts. Along the way, I got all my fire starting items together and placed them next to my flame that was being crushed by that stump.

It lit and the fire took hold of the stump. I wanted so much to run the race again. This giant Bur Oak stump will burn for a long time. It will sustain me for months and years to come. Through horrible hill training and saunas. It’s already given me a new drive in my running since I’ve gotten back. Now that it’s burning you can dump water all you like on it, the flames will come back. It’s a stump. I won’t quit.

I don’t know if I told my wife that I planned on coming back someday during that car ride or not but I’m sure she already knew it. That’s one of the great things about her. I don’t know if she’ll come with next time but I also know she won’t stop me either. It could be years before I get there again.

The rest of the night we got stuff packed up and ate at the bar that helped us out the first night. It seemed like a fitting way to end our stay in Andorra.

We got up early for the 3 hour drive to the airport. This time at the border crossing we had to stop on the Spanish side. We had to show them the alcohol we brought in but it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t really hit any traffic and made sure to go the speed limit in the radar areas.

The airport check in is a little different in Barcelona. The airlines don’t have a specific check in counter. There are just rows and rows of counters with numbers and you check into a certain numbered counter based on the flight you are taking. In other words everyone on your flight checks in the same place and no one from another flight. We had to show our passports constantly it seemed. I think 5 times we were required to show it through all the security and customs check points.

We took buses again to the plane. Even though we weren’t in first class, we were still on the first set of buses to go to the plane. My wife ran up the stairs to the plane on the tarmac and was the first one on. She was so excited. I went much slower although by now my legs were feeling pretty much normal. I guess I’ll just end the trip portion there.

The portion of the race my watch collected after I restarted it and before it died.

So officially I made it 73km or 45.4 miles. I went another 2 miles before I turned around and quit. My best calculations put my total elevation gain at about 20,500 ft in those 47.4 miles. Crazy. Notice in the graph above around 32 miles where it drops real steeply and then again after a short flatter part? That’s the portion that looks real easy on the official elevation profile. That’s why I say don’t believe it. Put the gpx file from the race into Google Earth and print out your own elevation profiles. I mean seriously, it was just as steep as any other downhill on the graph.

Out of the 408 starters, just 210 finished. I suppose that should make me somehow feel better but it doesn’t one bit. 6 of us Americans showed up for Ronda and only 1 finished (he was 10th). That’s horrible in my mind. We need to do better and I hope this blog helps somehow. Of the 5 that quit, 1 made it to Como Bella (the aid station after I quit), 3 stopped at Margineda (myself included), and 1 at Refugi del Comapedrosa. Looking overall at where people quit; if you made it past Coma Bella aid station, you went on to finish. That kind of makes sense since there isn’t a good place to quit for a long time after that, and who wants to quit at mile 80 once you reach civilization again?

As far as the rest of the course I didn’t do goes, I suspect it is mostly easier terrain. I know that after Pas de la Casa it can be more swampy. Also there is supposed to be a mountain that has fog in the morning which can make it difficult. I don’t remember which one. They mentioned it during the pre-race talk. I really wish I could be more help.

So now I’m going to talk a bit about something I’ve wanted to write about for some time. I figured I should keep my mouth shut until I had my first DNF (did not finish) so I had the complete picture. I’m guessing many won’t agree with me. Ever since I’ve started doing ultramarathons I’ve heard people say variations of this phrase “I think everyone should DNF because I learn so much more than if I finish”. I’ve always thought that was complete crap on many levels. Having my first DNF just confirms what I thought before.

Here’s why I think that sort of thought process has no business in ultrarunning. If I’m really honest, I wonder if people even believe what they are saying or if they are just trying to make themselves or others feel better because they failed. The time for learning by failure is IN TRAINING! In every other sport, you practice. You fail almost constantly at first but you get better. At some point you don’t fail much at all and even if you do, you don’t learn anything from it anymore. You just realize what it was that you did wrong and it was something you had previously learned was wrong. You just didn’t execute correctly.

I failed, period! I didn’t learn anything new.

If you DNF because of weather, that’s on you. Why weren’t you running with completely soaked shoes that you dumped water on every hour to train for that possibility? If it’s a hot race, run in hot weather, or a sauna, or with lots of clothes on. If it’s cold, run in the cold, or with wet clothes, or in a walk in cooler. Etcetera.

The same goes if you failed due to the course itself. If it’s a hilly course, run on hills, or a parking ramp, or stairs, or a tiny hill a million times. If it’s a road race, run on roads. Etcetera. The course and terrain will be spelled out in great detail in many race reports and even the race website if you bother to look. Even without fine details of this race course, the major picture could be seen on what to expect. I knew it would be really hilly. I didn’t know about the grass being slick but that certainly isn’t the reason I failed.

Some say they quit because of injury which would be fine if you were actually injured. Most new people think something must be broke because they hurt so bad. No, it just hurts a lot to run 100 miles. Actually, now that I think about it, I know quit a few runners that still finished races despite actually being injured. I wouldn’t recommend that necessarily, but it shows how much more we can do than we think we can. Our minds are weak.

The point of training is to purposely “break” things so that you know how to prevent, fix, mitigate, or deal with them during a race! That includes the mental aspect of training as well. I’ll give an example. For VolState I ran 80 miles for a training run with all my gear I was planning on using packed the exact way I planned on packing it. It took until mile 45 before anything “broke” with what I was planning on using in the race. The initial goal was 132 miles but I stopped at 80 in order to not wreck my body more than I already did. That was the time for a DNF. I learned a lot of things that day that made my race go smoothly.

The other thing that really bothers me about people being so cavalier with DNFing is that they took away a spot from someone else who could’ve finished. Almost every big race and even the small ones nowadays has a lottery to get in because space is limited due to permitting or whatever other reason. I know for a fact there are people that purposely sign up for races knowing 100% they won’t finish. They just go to see friends and go a few miles on the course. That’s crap! Go volunteer, or pace someone, or just show up and see you friends without wasting a spot. If you want to see the course, there’s this thing called hiking you can do anytime you want, even on race day, and it’s free! I pulled out of a race early this year to let someone else have the spot because I knew I wouldn’t be able to give it my all due to where it fit in my race schedule. I could’ve just went and ran a few loops and hung out with all the elite runners from around the world. I would’ve felt like garbage if I had done that though.

It’s not to say you can’t fail in a race, or shouldn’t try something at the edge of your ability, but don’t act like it was a good thing to DNF. Think real hard about how prepared you were before that race. Did you read all the race reports? Did you train on the right terrain and in the right weather? Do you know what shoes to wear in what conditions for your feet? Do you know how to prevent and treat blisters in ALL conditions? Did you do any nighttime running? My wife likes to tease me that there are times I’m not “doing anything” but just sitting there inside the house or looking at something outside. I tell her I’m “figuring stuff”, meaning coming up with every possible way I could screw something up or something else could screw me up. It’s the same way when I’m designing something I’m about to build.

Could I have finished this race? I just don’t know 100%. I know for certain I wouldn’t have made it in under 62 hours. The last person to finish was 2 hours over the limit so…? If someone put a gun to my head of course I would keep going and likely could’ve even finished the course eventually. Even if someone would’ve offered me $2,000 to finish the course, I probably would’ve kept going, knowing it wouldn’t be official. In reality though, my chance of even making it until nightfall was slim. This is possibly all Monday morning quarterbacking and I wouldn’t have even made it up that first 2,000 foot hill after Margineda.

One thing I am certain of is that I want to go back and run this race again. If I do go….I will finish! That stump won’t quit burning until I do.

2 thoughts on “Ronda dels Cims – 2019 Race Report

  1. Hey Nathan, I was looking for a race map and came across your race report. A great read and brought the memories flooding back, I ran (ha ha) this race also in 2019. It was fucking hard, I mean, dire, really fucking hard. I managed to get round in 56 hours. I’m from Sydney. I’m on instagram – jasetrim.
    It would be cool to catch up on line and have a chat about this sometime. I hear that RdC won’t be held again due to COVID. Anyhow, that’s a real damn shame. Geez, that was fucking hard. All the best Nathan, Jase

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    • Congratulations on the finish. I really wanted to go back to do this again but yes it’s been discontinued by the race director. Perhaps someone else will bring the race back in the future. Otherwise I’ll have to just do a different Pyrenees mountain race. Now that I know the Ronda del cims course I can improve in a lot of ways if they bring it back.

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