Dai Davies - Val d’Aran by UTMB
The Torn dera Val D’Aran by UTMB, aka the ‘VDA’. This was the first edition of this event that has been franchised under the prestigious UTMB banner. The VDA being one of a handful of events as part of the weekend. A 162km (100 mile) circular route around the mountainous Val D’Aran region in the Pyrenees.
Our journey began back in the summer of 2020 when the first edition was postponed to 2021 and they reopened registrations. Paul was the mastermind once more and it took very little to persuade myself and Darryl to sign up too. Later on Paul C also signed up, but 2020 wasn’t finished with us just yet…. I’m not sure how many flights were cancelled, how much additional money we spent nor how many times the travel rules and restrictions changed in the weeks leading up to the race, but I do know it led to many, many sleepless nights spent stressing over deliveries, tests and forms. Paul C had to drop out the week before and I was left guessing until I woke up just 5 hours before the flight was due to take off. Until this point I still hadn’t received the negative test that was now required to enter Spain and I was prepared to go to the airport and hope for the best with numerous, less than ideal, alternative travel plans. For those who know me well, you know this isn’t how I like to roll. I like to deal with greater certainty. I thrive in a process and I struggle when I can’t control aspects of that process.
The Elevation profile for the VDA
Arriving at the airport with all my barcodes and forms, I already felt like a winner. Now, with a little over 30 hours to go to the race start, I could finally start thinking about the race itself… I wasn’t alone though. We went as threesome and we planned to run together. We are all now experienced ultra runners. We know each other well. We also knew and recognised that we are getting into some big league running with this event. 100 miles. 10,600 m of elevation. The Spanish mountains. It was an ultra that would push each of us beyond our comfort zone and redefine our boundaries once more.
It’s been a while since I’d run fuelled by a little fear. I think it is a good thing. It’s needed. We arrived not knowing how we’d cope. We were realistic that it will take us very close to the 48 hour cut off mark. We were accepting that it is going to hurt a lot and hurt in new ways we’d not yet experienced. But, mentally we were focused. We broadly knew what we’d face and why we were there and that, together we were stronger. Together we stood a chance of getting to the finish line.
Lining up on the start line along the main street in Vielha, the pre race jitters kicked in a little. This wasn’t like any other race in the last two years. This was a mass start, just shy of 1,000 runners bunching together at 18:00 trying to remain in the shade as ‘Conquest of Paradise’ (The song adopted as the UTMB signature theme) blasted out of the speakers. The MC was gearing up the crowd and initiating a final countdown. It’s hard not to feel special in a moment like this. Before we knew it the countdown was over and we were shuffling along through the town, about to begin the first of many climbs.
I cannot recount two whole days of trail running. It would take me longer to write that much never mind that I’m sure none of us have the time to read a two day long recap. I do broadly remember the sections though, the feelings and emotions and I can stitch together the adventure with what I can remember…
Snakes of runnersViews
Somewhere along the first climb there was a point where we all came to an abrupt stop. Runners waiting impatiently as the wide fire track converged to a single track path. We were at a physical standstill for a good five minutes. Those behind us would have waited longer. Oddly, after this, the etiquette improved and runners no longer tried to squeeze past each other and gain places along the narrow tracks.
Runners in the distanceLayers of mountains
Sea of clouds
Sunset from Montpius
As darkness settled in, we arrived at an aid station (Geles) which was manic. Runners were everywhere, grabbing what food and drink they could, layering up, shuffling through. There were chocolate spread sandwiches available which we snapped up and ate as we too started adding layers. Now the Sun’s heat had been replaced with the chilling mountain wind, a few moments break was enough for us to get very cold very quickly.
The next section saw us run towards the French border and soon after Antiga de Lin we crossed the wobbly suspension bridge deep in the night and began one of the biggest climbs of the course. The darkness here was our friend as it hid from our view the absolute monster of a climb. It was exhausting. The darkness masked the beauty but illuminated the ‘snake’ or runners by their head torches lighting up the trail. Every turn we took exposed more of the snake. It appeared to reach to the stars. One thing was clear, it was going to be a while to climb to the summit of Cap dera Picada (2400m).
The snake of runners was like a continuous train. Each runner was a carriage being dragged along by the momentum. Pulled from the front and pushed from the back. One would step to the side of the trail to break. The train would form up and fill the gap. Other times as runners re-entered the train it would adjust to accommodate them. It was an ongoing process. Every time I raised my gaze from the floor I’d see runners stepping aside or re-joining the train. We did it ourselves too, many times. At one point we stepped aside and sat down. We turned off our head torches and just sat there in the darkness. Above us was the Milky Way was visible, crystal clear. A beautiful sight worth stopping and taking in!
Eventually the trail became rockier as we approached the top. Above us runner silhouettes were all along the ridgeline, lit up by the Moon behind them. The Moon reflecting the Sun’s light and guiding us, showing us the way to go. Along the top the trails continued to undulate. The first of our collective low points hit us somewhere here during the night as Paul pulled up and vomited pretty severely. After this there was no stopping him and we struggled to hold pace and keep up with him. He’d struggled for a few hours during the night and was now emerging from his inner battle with the breaking of the new day.
We arrived at another aid station (Coth de Baretja) located on a long down hill section. We took some hot broth to warm us up and sat outside the tent in the chill. Already vans were collecting runners who were dropping out. The climb had claimed some victims. We were about 45km in at this point. We knew the next time we’d stop would be at the 55km mark. So off we went, heading into the day break as the morning Sun started to break through the darkness of the night before. Experiencing a day break on a trail run is an amazing and powerful experience. The energy it brings is difficult to describe. Your tiredness gives way with a freshness that only the Sun’s rays can provide. We were moving freely again and soon found ourselves approaching the aid station in the school at Bossost.
This was a significant milestone. The 55km mark. It sounds insignificant but, besides being the first of three aid stations with hot food and about a third of the race, it meant we’d now covered over 4,000m of elevation gain. Over 55km that is quite a lumpy run! The rest of the 6,000m was more spread out with a lot more downhill to cover. Before the race we’d aimed to get to this point without being completely broken. If we could do that, we knew we stood a good chance of getting through to the end. As we sat there, gathering our thoughts, we were hustled by a volunteer telling us that we had an hour until the cut off at 08:45. We knew this and weren’t bothered. We knew we were capable of completing the race and were currently way ahead of schedule with a projected finish around 40 hours. But, suddenly, we felt a little on edge. We were now aware of how tight these cut offs actually were. It felt crazy that with so much time in the bank we were being hurried at just the fifth aid station and first thing in the morning. It was now very apparent to us that a lot of runners would not be making this cut off!
After Bossost came Canejan and from there Sant Joan de Toran. Both of these were fairly short sections and didn’t include too much climbing. One of them was a 6km stretch and I remember thinking it was one of the hardest 6km I’d ever done. There was an initial part that ran along side some industrial factories and then the paths took us through some forest sections along a cycle/adventure track next to the main road. I remember signs for UTMB all long here. Then we began to climb, crossing over a dam and a massive waterfall. Each section had maybe 400m of climbing, but it felt like so much more. I was tired!
Being tired now was not a good thing. As we approached midday, with the sun getting hotter and hotter, we embarked on the next huge climb towards Tuc des Crabes (2,400m). Here we’d climb 1,500m through a valley. We started off through some lush green forests before the path opened up in the valley floor. We stopped at a river where some runners were completely submerging themselves. Paul and Darryl filled up some fresh water, I stuck with the 2 litres of Tailwind I’d prepared at the last aid station.
Beginning the climb to Tuc des Crabes
We met an Australian, Matt, and chatted with him as we climbed. Like the runners around us, we’d break frequent and often, sitting in the shallows of shade on the mountain paths. Often you’d stop when there was a chance as runners littered the path seeking out the shade spots. By now we were seeing familiar faces that we’d been leapfrogging with throughout the night (and would continue to do so with until the finish!). Stephen another Brit, David from Scotland and two Spanish guys who we could barely communicate with other than make fast car noises at – like the guy early on, they saw the funny side in it. We’d clearly done it to them when they’d passed us and sometime later they repaid the favour to us. It was now a running joke with them and we loved it. Every opportunity the five of us would ‘Vroooom’ each other and laugh.
The climb was exhausting. It was the midday heat. It sapped our energy. The higher we climbed though, the better the views became. After the climb came a descent into Pas Estret. By now our mood had changed dramatically. All three of us were now feeling the toils of the climb. We were hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. the terrain over the last 50km had been very rocky and our legs and feet were feeling the blunt of it. We were looking forward to a break at the aid station and were disappointed when we reached it. As he shuffled in, we saw four vans fill with runners who were dropping out. Inside the tent, runners were laying everywhere. It was struggle to reach the food as runners rested in the shade under the tables. The food was sparse with the aid station having run out of many things and the rest was simmering in the sun. Sandwiches were dry and stale, chocolate was melted in the trays and the water was warm. Luckily I’d been fuelling well so far and still had plenty of food on me that I’d sourced from Xmiles before the trip. Some more Stroop Waffles and some Kendal Mint Cake sorted me out as we stopped to rest. We then had to force ourselves to leave knowing we had another climb to do.
Up to the Iron Mines
We knew we had to keep going. We also knew that, after the next climb we’d be treated to the views of the old Iron Mines. We’d read about and seen glimpses of these in various YouTube videos we’d watched to recce the route from afar. When we reached them, they didn’t disappoint. First we ran through some tunnels on the edge of the mountain with the old cart tracks still in place. Through the tunnel, panoramic views of Lac de Montoliu in the valley floor greeted us. Further up the old mining structures, dilapidated and left in ruins. My mind whirled wondering all the scenarios for how they were built this high up in the mountains in such a remote area. Before descending we encountered a group of guys with a trumpet. They played a tune for each runner and cheered us all on. We loved it. We sat with them for a bit and cheered along with them. They entertained our requests and even played the UTMB theme for us when Paul emerged on the summit. This section of the route was very rocky but it was an iconic section for sure. The rocky trails back down were difficult to run on and jabbed at my feet as we covered the 1,000m decline into the next aid station.
Lac de Montoliu
Before long, night was closing in once more and I powered on ahead of the others knowing our drop bags at 104km were waiting for us. To my horror, when I arrived I was told we were only at 98km and the drop bags were at the next aid station. This was Montgarri, not Beret, I was mortified. Paul and Darryl asked the same when they arrived behind me. The only good news was that it was 6km to Beret and it only had 200m of incline and 40m descent to cover. We layered up again and pushed on. A quick pose for a photograph we trekked on into the forests.
After the disappointment of Montgarri
We continued on and reached Beret as the night descended into darkness. We made a joint call to try and get some sleep. A micro sleep. We had a long way to go and another full night to endure. We knew there were some ‘technical’ (let’s be honest, by now we’d realised that the majority of the trail was very technical!) later on. We gave ourselves an hour at the checkpoint. Eat, freshen up and use whatever time we could to sleep. Darryl found a deckchair, Paul laid out on the floor and I placed my head on a table. None of us really caught any sleep, but I’m sure the rest and moment to close our eyes helped more than we realised.
As we headed back out, still maybe an hour ahead of the cut off times, it was howling. Since we’d stopped, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped rapidly. As we walked on, we were descending again when we were joined by Rodrigo. A Portuguese gent living in Cambridge. He’d come alone and, like us, had never experienced running through two consecutive nights without sleep of running. He asked if he could stick with us to ensure he was safe and didn’t fall asleep in the night. We obliged and acknowledged we weren’t moving that quickly anymore but he was happy to stick with us.
I was hitting a lull here and was very happy in my own little bubble just head down and plodding onwards. My feet and legs had been hurting for a long time and I was really feeling them now. The 700m descent into the villages of Unha and then Salardu were slow and painful for me and I didn’t enjoy the cobbled streets or rocky trails along the river. Each turn in the villages seemed frustratingly familiar even though we’d not be here before. In the depth of the night, Paul was sick once more. Each of us were battling in our own ways and all we could do was grind away at the terrain in front of us.
The cut offs were once again looming and were now very much at the front of our minds. We knew we’d be fine and that the cut offs would be more lenient later in the race. But, for now, we were shuffling to ensure we made it. We left Salardu about 45 mins ahead of the cut off and left with a purpose. The next aid station was at Banhs de Tredos with a cut off at 05:00. It was 12km away with a whopping 800m climb (the fifth biggest single climb of the race). We were so confident that if we made it there in time, we’d no longer have to look over our shoulders at the cut offs.
We had a quick turn around at the aid station and formed a plan to put some speed in over the next 12km. We kept it simple and simply set out to once more beat the next cut off and hopefully bank a little time along the way to attempt another sleep. So we did. We left with a brisk pace. Powering up the roads before tackling the 800m climb through the dense forest. We worked as a team. Sticking together and clearing a path up passed other runners. We took breaks to rest and fuel every 200m. Ticking them off. Hard and fast. We were up the 800m climb in what felt like no time at all.
Into the second night
At the top the hills evened out and the vast forests we were in became visibly more clear. We descended back down a little and made it to the checkpoint with plenty of time. We all went straight into a position to sleep. Paul and Rodrigo on the floor laying on cardboard boxes. Me and Darryl hunched over on chairs with our heads on the table. It was cold in the tent and so we all had emergency foil blankets draped over us. We all woke a short time later when we were shivering. A volunteer asked us if we were leaving. I acknowledged we were and rallied the others. We all seemed fine and we had plenty of time before the cut off. Now though we had more climbing to do. It was time for the ‘technical’ section and another 1,000 meters of ascent…
As we left Banhs de Tredos it was very cold and dark. The others dug out more warm layers but I opted just for the addition of my windproof smock. I figured that I’d soon warm with the exertion of the next climb. I wasn’t wrong. Almost immediately we started climbing. Here the terrain was wet and muddy and the trails that were littered with huge boulders to overcome. There was a lot of lunging movements as we climbed. It soon dawned on me that there would be no let up, it was going to be like this all the way to Colomers…
Climbing to Colomers
Difficult terrain all around
Eventually the darkness started giving way to the light of Sunday morning and the sheer beauty of our surroundings started to reveal themselves. We were 2,000m high and, glistening ahead of us, the stillness of lakes sat in wait. We could see the head torches of runners skirting the perimeter of the lakes up ahead and we followed the paths they created. The further we went, the lighter it became, the more surreal the surroundings became. Each bit of climbing brought more lakes to trek around, each more majestic than the ones before. However, the terrain was truly brutal. With 130km in our legs, I was in no place of mind to enjoy the beauty. It’s a shame. Being miserable with the demands of the course I purposely left my GoPro in my drop bag back at Beret. I had no interest in the effort of turning it on anymore. Looking back, this was my one regret. However my brain cannot undo what my eyes have seen and I’ll never forget watching the sunrise over these lakes surrounded by jagged mountain ranges on all sides.
As morning continued to dawn, we were still climbing. It made no sense. We were each in our own spaces now and I was plodding on ahead. I’d somehow wriggled myself to the front of all the runners in the area and was pretty much leading the way. I couldn’t figure out where we were going. I was desperately seeking the orange marker flags amongst the grey terrain. Occasionally I’d see a glimpse of a runner way off in the distance but I could see no obvious way out of the mountains.
Bit by bit the route would reveal itself and we ended up climbing, literally rock climbing, our way out as we reached Tuc de Podo (2,700m). This was by far the most technical terrain I’d ever experienced. I can’t hide the fact I was quite scared at numerous points. I wasn’t alone feeling this way. As I reached the top, there were a few volunteers and we were scanned in. We’d been climbing for 3 hours solid. At a decent pace. Still aware there were cut offs looming at the stop after the next aid station. I sat and waited for Paul and Darryl, absorbing it the views and resetting my mind. Shortly after me the ‘fast car’ Spaniards arrived. One was fuming. I could see him berating the volunteer who scanned us in. When he saw me he joined me and found the words to communicate to me his frustrations. Basically that he thought it was dangerous. Tired runners who hadn’t slept for over 30 hours and who had already covered 130km should not be exposed to that terrain. I found myself agreeing. There were no real qualifying standards for the race nor prerequisites for having experience on this sort of terrain. Added to that, not once was any of our mandatory kit checked by the organisation (another frustration I’ll come to later…). He calmed himself down and carried on. I sat and waited.
Descending with one pole
We had another 6km to the next aid station (Colomers). All down hill. But all rock and boulder fields. We were hustling. Stephen was near me and asked if I thought we would make it. I recall my response to him was “if we run”. So I kept running. Darryl and Paul were exhausted. Rodrigo seemed quite energetic. I told him to help me make the others hustle and move a little faster. I felt we needed to use the downhills to our advantage now. As we were running I had a disaster, one of my poles slipped down between to rocks and my momentum snapped it clean, breaking the lower section. Bollocks. I’d become so heavily dependent on the poles and knew I’d be using them for the rest of the route. I recalled earlier on a runner talking about carrying Gorilla tape. I said this out loud and Rodrigo responded with “it’s me”. Amazing. He patched up my pole with the tape and we continued on catching up with the others again. Sadly though it didn’t last and there was nowhere near enough tape to secure them properly. One pole it was going t to have to be then…
The downhill was tough. Darryl bonked and needed to stop and get some fuel in. As was the theme, runners we’d passed now passed us back. Back up and running I hustled us along. Looking back, I hadn’t picked up on the signs of how Darryl was suffering. I was so focused on getting us down to the aid stations. We bottomed out and with 1km to go crossed a dam at Lac de Major Colomers. Descending further we eventually arrived into the aid station we went. I was with Stephen again and he too was carefully watching the cut off times but had mistakenly thought the next cut off was here. It wasn’t though. It was Ressec in another 9km or so where the cut off was. We had time to make it for the 12:45 cut off for sure. We would make it. I was sure of it. If we made that then I was also sure we’d have no issues of finishing in the final 48 hours. I thought we’d get there by 12 and have 6 hours to finish. We made sure Darryl fuelled more here and I gave him some food from my Xmiles stash. The KMC recharge bars were particularly refreshing now. Then, in a small group with David and Matt in tow, we gathered our things and headed back out. Rodrigo had vanished before we reached the checkpoint. we assumed he was good now the night had passed.
The next climb was a bit of a shock to the system – it was an incredibly steep climb for 400m. I struggled with only having one pole and found it hard to support my body and pull myself up. The rocks were loose and we were all conscious of them moving and falling under our foot movements with runners above and below us. I reached the top and sat and waited for the others who I’d seen not far behind me on some of the switchbacks. As I sat I started dwelling on something Darryl had mentioned earlier on – We no longer had the few hour buffer we thought we did. Those early calculations we had of a 40-45 hour finish didn’t include the few attempts we made at trying to sleep during the night nor the sheer demand of a 3 hour climb through the rocky lake section. We had no spare time banked any longer. For the first time I was really concerned that there was a strong possibility we wouldn’t make it. We simply had to move faster than we were, there was no alternative.
I briefed the others when they arrived. All four of them acknowledging the situation. I took charge and led us down. Running where I wouldn’t normally run. I was powering us passed other runners. We were our own train now and we were shifting. A strange thing had happened to me. Normally in races, when I’m in pain then that is just the end of it. I endure and succumb to it. I accept the pains and hobble on. This time though, with the pressure and reality of being timed out, I somehow found a way to block it out. I described it like a switch that numbed the pain. I was able to run and ignore the pains. I was using my frustration of the event and the difficulty of the route to focus my effort into finishing. I was focused, this was going to get finished.
Darryl however was suffering. He wanted to finish, I knew that, but his anger and frustrations were only adding to his pain. He was hitting a very, very dark place. We were struggling to pull him out of it and find a way to to foucs him once more. After we had descended the next mountain, David continued on whilst I waited for the other three. They were further back than I thought and several other runners came passed before them. Darryl looked bad. They were all chatting though and carrying on what I thought was a bit of a leisurely pace. I walked ahead. I thought I’d wait for them at the next aid station, Ressec, and try again there to hustle them once they’d rested.
On the trails to Ressec, I later heard my name called out from behind. It was Paul and Matt was with him. No Darryl though. Paul said he was in a bad place and was walking slowly. Paul was feeling the urgency now too. We felt that there wasn’t much that could be done here and we continued to the aid station where we’d wait. We hoped another rest and more fuelling would do the trick so we carried on. We arrived at 12:05. 40 mins ahead of the cut off. I thought we could have got here around 11:30 but we’d dropped off the pace. It was still enough time to have a decent rest though despite meaning we no longer had 6 hours for the final two sections (a plan we’d discussed back at the last summit). At this rate it would be more like just over 5 hours. It was going to be tough now. Very achievable but we’d have to hurry ourselves along. One thing was certain was that we couldn’t make the time if we continued at the pace we had been going at over the last few kms.
We waited, expecting to see Darryl maybe 5-10 mins behind us. The clock kept ticking. We found some pizza. He still didn’t show. We were worrying now. Then, with ten mins to go, he showed up. He was exhausted and had been hallucinating. In hindsight we shouldn’t have gone so far ahead of him, we shouldn’t have left him. He was slurring his words explaining the hallucinations he’d been having. I don’t think he was fully aware of what was happening. I asked him what I could get him and he asked for water. I needed his cup, but he didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked him for it. When I eventually came back with water for him, we pushed him. He had just 5 mins remaining before the cut off and he needed to make a decision. He either dropped here, now, after 43 hours of running. Or somehow turn himself around in the minutes remaining and pushed harder than he was. Deep down, me and Paul knew the answer. But Darryl had to decide for himself. If he came, and we wanted him too, we’d stick together. But he had to be sure he could move quicker. He called it. He knew. I went outside to tell the volunteer that we would be leaving but also asked if there was a medic. If we were leaving without him we needed to know he wasn’t alone and was going to be ok.
And so, after 150km, the 3 became 2. Paul went to the toilet and I became emotional as I waited. It hit me hard. I was shaking and trying to hide it when a volunteer started talking to me and encouraging me to finish strong. I wanted it so much. But I didn’t want it this way. I wanted us all there. Darryl and Paul C too who was stuck back in London. Darryl had worked so hard. 150km! It was cruel. Paul pulled me back together and we set off. We now had a new mission. Two sections. 15km or so. 5 hours. That’s all that stood in our way. The first section was to be a 700m climb and a 300m descent. The last section a 400m climb and a 1200m descent. Not an ordinary 15km to overcome! This was not going to be an easy way to end a race…
We set off with a renewed focus, straight away we were passing people. We were moving with a (relatively) ferocious pace now and were completely comfortable with it. We passed people who left the aid station a long time before us. We acknowledged them. Those we’d been chatting to along the way asked after Darryl. Each time it made the goal more important. We had to finish now.
The first climb I kind of enjoyed. It felt like the most forgiving of the many we’d done over the past two days. A long looping fire track, long gradual single track switch backs through lush forests then a slightly steeper section climbing through the grassy mountain summit. At the top we rested on the crown. Staring at the descent down. 2km to drop 300m. At our pace maybe 30 mins. We’d absolutely annihilated this section. We ran the steep grassy descent and into the final aid station. We completed the section in 1hr 30. We’d planned for 3 hours for this and 2 hours for the last section. We knew now with certainty that we’d finish. The impact this had mentally was incredible. The relief and pressure dissipated and drained out of us. There was nothing but smiles at the finial aid station. Runners looking at each other knowingly, acknowledging the job was done. However, as the pressure drained so too did my ability to block out pain. As quickly as the power ‘switched on’ the same switch now flicked off. I was a spent force. There was no way to turn it back on.
The next climb was unforgiving. It was more direct and steep. I had to stop very frequently to sit down and breathe. Eventually we reached the top and began to descend. An huge descent to drop and a nasty way to finish off an already destroyed body. I felt everything. Every blister. Every stone. Every blade of grass. I walked. I only ran when gravity forced me to move faster than I could handle. David was with us now and as vocal about his pains as I was. We supported each other. Paul was far more spritely and high off the knowledge of the pending finish. He was on the phone arranging a live stream video of the finish for his fiancé and family. How he never tripped on the sharp downhills I do not know.
The trails gave way to the cobbled roads of Viehla. We’d ran this very section when we started the journey two days earlier. A few people were out clapping and cheering. One group had a shower hose spraying water into the street. We took turns performing for them and basking in the refreshing chill of the water. A few streets later we turned one last time and were now on the main road, the home stretch.
Darryl was there getting the ice creams in. We’d joked about this for days. A joke stemming back to when me and Darryl finished the TDS – we saw an ice-cream shop as we approached the finish line. We went to get one but we’re put off by the size of the queue waiting. So we said we’d finish here with an ice cream. Sadly, the ice cream man was rather slow and lacked the purpose we did. Darryl told him we’d be back and we told Darryl to run with us. The three of us reached that line together. We rang the bell. We rang the damn bell. It was over.
Ring the bell
The finish line
I know one thing for certain, running together we were stronger. We may have set off together and not quite finished together, but if it wasn’t for Darryl and Paul I wouldn’t have made it. We each supported the others, dragged us through our dark moments and made this adventure memorable for what it was. We did it together and the achievement is a shared one. He may not have physically rang his own bell at the end, but if Darryl didn’t make the hardest decision of the weekend, me and Paul may never have rung ours. I can’t thank these guys enough!
Running is a bit of a conundrum. It isn’t easy. There is always physical and mental suffering involved. You achieve what you set out to, whether it’s 10 miles or 100 miles. Sometimes though you question whether it’s worth it. I’ll look back on this experience one day and maybe the thoughts will be different. But right now I can’t say I enjoyed that. It was tough. Far tougher than I expected and I expected it to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I think there is a very good chance that this will will actually be the toughest thing I’ll ever do. I’ve no desires to be in that ‘place’ again. I don’t really like the 100 mile distance. It’s a beast to conquer. This race is very though. Looking at the stats, the first finisher came in at 24 hours. The top runner took an entire day, that is 4 hours longer than UTMB! 50% of the participants did not finish. Nearly 500 runners set out and never made it back to the finish line. That tells you all you really need to now… it’s tough.
Throughout the run we moaned about the cut offs. We felt they were very tight and unforgiving. In hindsight though… we finished in the ‘golden hour’ so, arguably, the cut offs are perfectly good. If we’d been an hour later for any checkpoint, we wouldn’t have finished on time. On the flip side, without arrogance, I’m not a cut off runner. I’m always comfortably mid pack. So the entry level of the race is something to consider if you are thinking about signing up!
Overall, I also felt that the event didn’t carry the prestige of the UTMB name. The organisers acknowledge they have a lot to improve and that should be commended. But, the feeling out on the course was one of anger and frustration. The grumbles about the dangerous sections and cut off timings were common. Despite the language barriers, people were sharing these feelings. For me, two things stood out that fall well short of expectation for a UTMB branded event. Firstly the lack of mandatory kit check and secondly the aid stations.
Let’s start with the mandatory kit… there’s a big list, and rightly so. When playing in the mountains you need to be prepared. We were blessed with great weather for two days. However, the night we finished a thunder and lightning storm hit the region. It was an incredible storm that came on in no time. When we went to collect our bibs, that is all we did. Despite bringing everything, no one checked or asked for anything. They simply took our runners insurance, gave us the bib and that was it. I even asked if they wanted to see my kit and they said ‘no, tomorrow’. Tomorrow they never did neither, nor the next day. That’s right. Not once did anyone ask any of us for any single item of kit. At one of the early aid stations during the first night I did spot what looked like a table set up with paper lists of kit items. No one stopped us nor asked as we walked passed. The table was empty there was no reason not to ask at least one of us…
Given the severity of the consequences and the recent examples of when things go badly, I’m shocked that there was not a single item of kit checked over the two days. I thought this was very poor from the organisers.
Secondly, the aid stations. There were plenty and there was plenty of food. But… for a 48 hour race, there were some issues. There was a lack of variety and questionable quality controls. Most aid stations we arrived at presented us with discoloured fruit and dry bread that had been out in the sun for so long. Many food stations had trays where the food items, like chocolate, had melted and none of them offered any hot drinks other than some very cheap and bland broth. The exception to this was the pizza at Ressec. This felt completely out of place though and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t reactionary rather than planned. Either way though it was very much appreciated. Most concerning though was the quantity. We were arriving into checkpoints that were running out of food. That should never be the case. Especially not with the early pace we were keeping! Thankfully I had so much of my own food from XMiles that this wasn’t really a problem for me. This was meant to be supplementary though, and not my main source!
In the days after the event there was another twist in the saga as, after travelling home we each felt rather unwell. Soon after we discovered a Facebook group where over 500 runners have identified as having come down with the same symptoms of illness. The organisation are investigating the cause, but it has left a rather sore feeling for many of the participants!