Monday, August 6, 2018

Not A Mountain Runner

I never expected to fall in love but it happened nonetheless. I've mentioned in previous posts about discovering new places and things thanks to running. Andorra was a place I likely would not have visited without the prospect of running a difficult 100 miles race. The race may not have gone as expected but the overall experience has had a great impact on me.

Ultrarunning teaches many lessons. This race gave me a well needed dose of humility. Since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs last year I feel like I have been coasting along and not making much progress. Training has become stale, which was a main reason I decided to run a road marathon in an effort to change things up. This helped somewhat but I did not give this race the respect it deserved. The lack of proper training was evident from the start.

I arrived in Barcelona a couple days early, which gave me a chance to do some sightseeing. It had been 20 years since I had been in Europe. I still had the same feeling getting off the plane. The weather was hot and sunny. I wandered around the city looking for museums and historical churches.

The main attraction was the Sagrada Familia, which is the still unfinished basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. The exterior was chaotic and rough looking but the sculptures were very interesting. Stepping inside the design flipped to be very smooth and sleek. The stained glass windows were stunning, red dominated on one side and transitioning to softer blue tones on the opposite.

The next day was spent wandering the Gothic quarter and going through a Picasso and then a Joan Miro gallery museum. Barcelona gave the impression of being an art and culture oriented city and taking pride in that. Both museums very interesting. I was particularly fascinated by some of Picasso's work from when he was still a teenager, which you would think was the work of a much older, conventional professional artist.

Medieval alleys
Race HQ in Ordino, Andorra
The drive to Andorra was only 3 hours and not much over 100 miles away. It was my first time driving a manual in quite a while but it felt good, like I was driving for real again. Arriving in Andorra, the mountain roads and roundabouts made it interesting and slow going but the scenery was becoming more and more beautiful. The roads wound through the mountains, coming to village after village tucked into each valley. It was all like a setting from fairy tales. The buildings were all made from local mountain stones. Narrow alleys wound behind the buildings, hiding little creeks and small green spaces. Very idyllic. Small fields of grapes or vegetables were made wherever there was available space between buildings. Remove the automobiles and you'd swear it was a medieval town.

While stepping out of my hotel to check in and pick up my bib, I met two runners from China and gave them a ride into town. We talked about the race and how difficult it would be. I offered them a ride to the start line the next morning, which thrilled them since they could avoid the mile plus walk into town before the race. Once again, through running I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and share in great experiences.

International relations are easy

After seeing the landscape surrounding the town, I was getting more and more nervous about the race. 105 miles with over 40k feet of climbing and another 40k descending. If those numbers mean nothing to you then I will tell you that a profile like this is very, very difficult. That is close to an Everest and a half from sea level and then right back down again. I still couldn't get my head around it as I laid down to sleep the night before the race.

The nerves were biting me a bit and I had some trouble sleeping. The lady outside my window, arguing with who I assumed was a boyfriend of husband, in Catalan at 2 AM didn't help my sleep situation. I still woke up a before my alarm went off and started preparing to race.

The start line for my first European race was a strange experience. On the way into the chute, volunteers were checking for a random item on our list of mandatory gear. A team of drummers was making music while effigies of some sort of royalty were carried around. Fireworks and lots of noise were too much this early in the morning. Finally all the festivities were done and the race was under way.

We briefly ran down some pave roads circling out of town and then quickly transitioned to single track trail going up and up and up. From this point forward there was not a single flat area on which to run. The climb never seemed to end. We would climb and turn into another climb. There may be a brief descent but that would not last. Occasionally the trees would clear and I could look down on the town where we started. We climbed steadily through the woods for a couple hours before emerging to an open valley with views of mountains and ridges in front of us. More climbs to come.

It was at about this point that I met a runner from Romania. He said we should team up as that would make the time go by quicker, which it certainly did.  We continued to make this first big climb together, talking about our experiences. We would continue this for the rest of the day, which helped get through some difficult sections.

The first climb finally ended. A couple more miles crossing the ridge and descending through a valley led to the first aid station. This was approximately the 20k mark (12 miles) and it had taken me nearly 6 hours to arrive. This pace would mathematically get me to the finish but I would never be moving like this at mile 95. I wasn't worried as I had been told by multiple people that the most difficult climbs were in the first half of the race. Still, I was already feeling much more fatigued than I knew I should be.

This was also my introduction to the European ultra aid station. I was concerned about what food and drinks would be available. North American stations are full of fruit, candy and PB&J sandwiches. Coke, Gatorade, ginger ale are all standard. I looked down at this table and saw chunks of cheese and hard salami. Nuts and olives with fizzy water to drink. I tried to eat what sounded best but ended up leaving the station unsatisfied.

My shoe with only 100 miles blew out very early

The next station was about 12 to 14 km away at a ski resort. Based on the pace so far, it would be a long haul. A long climb followed by several small descents and then more climbing. I was now fully aware that I lacked and training or natural ability to move efficiently through the mountains. By the time we reached the next station, I was resigned to the fact that I would not make the cutoffs coming later. I just couldn't move fast enough.

Looking back down at Arcalis station with some regret
The volunteers at the station let us know that we were now the last runners to come through as everyone behind had dropped. I laughed. Of course I was last While sitting there refueling I had been thinking about when would be the best time to pull the plug. My Romanian companion came up and asked if I was going to keep going and that he would do whatever I decided to do. I just said," Might as go to the next station" and off we went, climbing the ski slopes while wondering if I had made a good decision. Clouds were low and ominously rolling in over the peaks and obscuring the path ahead.

I fought the urge to turn back only a couple hundred yards away from the station. I kept hoping my Romanian companion would say, "let's just stop here." The next section was reportedly 10 km yet took us 5 hours. There were two peaks to climb and a long steep descent into the station. This was the most scenic section I had seen so far but also the most technical. We wound over passes and around mountains and lakes. There was a narrow rocky descent followed by a slide down a small snow field.

Evening in the Pyrenees
The sun hung on the edge of setting for what felt like hours. I only had to use my headlamp for the last hour or so of the trek. The sounds of the cowbells echoed between the mountains. We descended a long final valley before approaching the foot of the highest peak in Andorra. This would be the end of my attempt.

After some confused cross language conversation I was sent on what must have been a 2 mile walk, down into the nearest little town to meet the van and ride back. This was the first time I really felt negative all day. That may sound strange since I had failed so miserably, I mean, I only made a quarter of the distance, barely. All day I had enjoyed the scenery and experience so much, I didn't care about the time or not being able to finish. The race was secondary, only an excuse to be here and take all this in.

Ubiquitous Spanish beer
Here I was back at the start/finish after only managing a quarter of the distance and no place to go since I didn't book a hotel for the days of the race. Since I would get into one until the next afternoon I walked back to my car, leaned the seat all the way back and tried to sleep. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep before the sun was up and made it too hot to sleep in the car. I tried to clean up as well as I could with no shower access and then hung around the cafes near the race HQ.

The day was spent eating, laying around watching the World Cup and wondering how those that remained in the race were doing. Early in the afternoon a rather nasty thunderstorm moved through. I later learned that the storm had caused the organizers to stop runners at checkpoints and eventually cancelling the race for those who had not reached a certain distance due to lightening and large hail. This would have meant that even if I had kept going and miraculously made the cutoff, I would have had my race end anyway.

Some consolation was gained when talking to a few runners with serious resumes and they stated that this race was one of the most difficult around. I certainly didn't help myself with my training. The one true regret I have is that I didn't get to see the rest of the course. The portion I did see was beautiful and distracted me from any of the usual ultramarathon suffering. Then again, I didn't last long enough to reach a typical suffering point.

It was an extremely memorable trip. I finally got to see Barcelona. I met a whole new group of runners from all over the world. I learned about more races. I visited and explored in a place I never would have gone otherwise. Andorra was beautiful and I am looking forward to coming back to finish this race one day.

Even my trip home was memorable. After 10 days, I was looking forward to being home. I had to get up around 1 AM to make the drive back to Barcelona for my flight. Dinner at my hotel didn't start until 7:30 so that did not leave much time for sleep, which I only ended up getting an hour or two. Driving through the mountains and roundabouts in the dark at 2AM with little sleep was a bit stressful. I couldn't wait to get to the freeway. When I was almost out of Andorra, I saw a person up the road swinging what looked like a flashlight. I assumed it was a stranded driver until I saw the lights on top of the car. They signaled for me to stop. Rolling down the window, I said hello. "You speak English?" the policeman asked me.
"This is alcohol screening" and then they proceeded to hand me a package with a mouthpiece in it, and directed me to plug it into the device he had.
It was now I though about the one beer I had at dinner 6 hours ago. What was the law here? Was any trace at all too much? I kept my eyes on the digital screen as I blew into the mouthpiece. 0.00 and I was on my way. I had avoided Andorran prison, at least for now. I eventually made it home after 30 hours of car driving, plane flying and train riding. Much longer than I lasted on the course

I've struggled to run much in the time since, almost as much a I have struggle to write this recap. The decline since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs has not appeared to swing back yet. I was happy with the marathon training but overall I'm finding it harder and harder to put in the work needed to perform at my best at these events. Maybe I'm not really cut out for this. Maybe I'm not being honest with myself over why I attempt these races.

The thought of giving up on this has crossed my mind very fleetingly but even that is jarring. There is so much I feel like I want to try to do but is it worth the physical and mental toll? I don't know. Maybe a short break is needed to reset. However, the idea of training to build endurance back again from zero is not pleasant.

I am still very excited about Iditarod and will be working towards that for the remainder of the year. First though I have the Bigfoot 200 this coming weekend. Perhaps it will be the catalyst I need to get restarted and invigorated. Either way I will try to enjoy it, work hard and make it a positive experience.

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