―George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
* A few disclaimers-The Ronda dels Cims is a brutally tough yet immensely beautiful race that gets surprisingly little attention here in the United States. This is my account of the race that started on July 11th, 2014. While this piece centers around the race, it should be noted that it was just a small part of our European adventures but a full write-up would be way too long. Big thanks to my family for their continued support. I truly could not do it without them. Thanks to the Worthington's, Dwight and Marita for all their support and encouragement. All photos were taken by myself, my wife Tawny or one of my parents Dan and Pat Spurlock. Be forewarned that this is a rather lengthy post. If you just want to look at the pretty pictures and get the quick and easy version, scroll through to the bottom for the highlights.*
|Typical scenery of the Andorran countryside.|
Andorra is a small country nestled in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. With a population of just over 85,000 it boasts a thriving tourism industry, world class skiing, the worlds third highest life expectancy rate and more cured pig-leg than I ever imagined existed in the world. It is an eclectic mix of high-end boutiques and discount liquor stores, shopping districts and massive outdoor wilderness playgrounds. It felt a bit like Jackson, Wyoming on steroids.
|Yep. Pig-leg flavored chips. For the record, not too bad.|
It is also home to a little race series known as Andorra Ultra-Trail Vallnord which hosts several races on the same weekend including the 10k Solidaritrail, 42k Marato dels Cims, 83k Celestrail and the 112k Mitic. The centerpiece of the series, however, is the 170k Ronda dels Cims which both myself and my father participated in this year. We had been turned on to this race by ultra-legends Roch Horton and Jared Campbell who had participated in last year's race which was run on an altered course due to late spring snow. They had only great things to say about the course and the country surrounding it although they had both done their best to give ample warning about the difficulty of the course. I should have listened, considering the source. It did not disappoint.
The Ronda dels Cims runs roughly around the northern 2/3 of Andorra for 170 kilometers (105-ish miles) and measures approximately 26k (85,300 feet) of combined climbing and descent. For the sake of comparison, Colorado's Hardrock 100 measures in at 67,984 total elevation change. The race traverses 14 passes or mountain summits over 7,800 feet with a highpoint of 9,652. Most of the route is mid to very technical single-track with a generous amount of off-trail, cross-country and scree-scrambling and a dash of road to connect it all together.
|Some sweet RdC single-track.|
|Approximately 200 meters into the race. This is the best I will feel for the next 47 hours, 29 minutes and 47 seconds.|
The race started on Friday morning at 7 A.M. from the small town of Ordino. It was nothing like any ultra I have ever been to before. The atmosphere was charged with energy as 310 runners filtered into the starting corral. There were drones flying overhead, spectators lining the street, a drum-line thundering in the background and announcers making what were probably very important announcements in languages that I do not understand. The race started with fireworks, literally, and the herd took off at a pace that would seem ridiculous mere hours later.
The first couple of miles wound through town to thin the crowd before hitting some fun yet steep single track. I was enjoying the cool morning and feeling well enough as we made our way up to the first of many summits. The scenery was fantastic as we made our way through shady pine forests, meadows filled with wildflowers and finally the scree of the high mountains.
|Topping out on the first of many climbs.|
|See the upper-left corner? That's where things started getting real.|
|Portella Rialp somewhere up there.|
|Dancing into Arcalis. Umm.... I think we actually went the other way.|
About a mile out of Arcalis I decided that I had had enough and did what any reasonable person would do when having a rough spot in a race. I laid down and took a nap. I didn't sleep for long, but it was enough to put my mind back on track and remind myself that this was something that I should be enjoying rather than suffering through. I came to terms with the shift in mentality from racing to just experiencing and started feeling much better. Good thing because it just kept getting tougher.
|Looking back down on Arcalis. See that rock at the bottom? It's a great spot for a nap.|
The next several miles were absolutely gorgeous and even had a few runnable sections of fun single track. There was a fantastic glissade, gorgeous fields of wildflowers and a well stocked aid station. I didn't realize that I was coming up on the monster known as Pic Comapedrosa, a 3000 foot climb up waterfalls and death-scree. The next 3k took me well over two hours.
|The start of Pic Comapedrosa.|
|Death-scree. Good times.|
|Mountain athlete, hard at work.|
Bony de la Pica is a fin of rock that drops off steeply on both sides and gets thinner and more technical near the end as you progress toward the drop-off into Margineda. By the time I started the descent I was a bit chilled and glad to be on the leeward side. The drop in to Margineda was just as gnarly as any of the climbs and included sections with chains bolted into the rock face to hold onto. It was here, just at the start of the descent that I broke a pole. I was folding it so that I could traverse a cliff section when it "malfunctioned", leaving me with one pole for most of the plunge. I was glad to still have the one pole though as many spots in this section made Wasatch's "Plunge" and "Dive" look pretty tame in comparison. Fortunately I had the foresight to pack an extra pole but I would not get to pick it up until Margineda.
|The view from Bony de la Pica. Its a looong way down.|
I left Margineda a couple of hours later at about 2 (?) in the morning, not feeling much more rested than when I had arrived. (I also abandoned my camera at this point so most photos following this were likely taken sometime on the first day.) About an hour later I found myself laying down on the side of a mountain to try to catch a little more sleep. I think a couple of people passed me as I laid by the trail but nobody tried to wake me. I'm thinking it must have been fairly common to sleep along this portion of trail because the guys at the next checkpoint told me that I shouldn't sleep until I got to the aid station at Coll de la Gallina where there would be a sleeping area. They were either lying or misinformed as the aid station was sparse and offered only water and a kind word. It seemed to take forever to reach the next aid station (I have no idea what it was called but it was set up in a quaint, tiny town on the side of the mountain) where I managed to get about an hour of decent sleep. My dad came into the aid station with the same idea and laid down for a nap just before I got up.
I was still a little groggy but the sky was getting lighter and the promise of sunrise motivated me to get a move on. I navigated my way through Andorra la Vella and started the climb up to Pic Negre which was over a mile above. This was one of the easiest climbs, technically speaking, but it was still a mile up and seemed to go on for a very long time. The next couple of passes were a bit of a blur. I was focused on forward movement and trying not think too much. The scenery was majestic and helped to take my mind off of just how exhausted I really was.
About an hour before the next major aid station at Pas de la Casa I started chatting with a chap named Drew from England. This was really a treat because there were so few English-speaking runners in the race and I hadn't spoken much to anyone for about 34 hours. He enlightened me on the particulars of fell running and the outcome of Hardrock as we made our way into Pas de la Casa. I met my crew rather abruptly as I was navigating the streets of Pas de la Casa and nearly ran straight into them as they were coming out of a pastry shop/bar (hey, crewing can be rough work!). My wife went off to grab me some food as I made my way into aid station, planning on getting in one more nap before nightfall and the final push to the end.
I was again having trouble sleeping due to the commotion and was surprised to see my dad come in not too far behind me. He laid down as well and I hoped to get a bit of rest and get out before him. I suppose that I should point out here that while I was by no means in competition with my father, I had every intention of finishing ahead of him. His finishing time at Hardrock last year is about 15 minutes faster than my time from 2011 and I am reminded of this on a fairly regular regular basis. I figured that as long as I left Pas de la Casa before him that I should be able to finish either with or ahead of him and save myself considerable reminders later on.
I was finally able to get a little sleep and drifted off for a short while. I awoke to my wife and mother giving me a rather sheepish look, as if something were amiss. I looked over to where my dad had been sleeping and he was gone. This was all the motivation to get moving. I got myself put back together and headed out into the evening, hoping to finish before sunrise. I knew it was going to be a test of will and determination to get through the second night. It did not disappoint.
I caught up with my dad within a couple of miles. He was moving steadily along but looked like he was hurting a bit. I chatted with him a bit and decided to pull ahead while I was feeling motivated. I rather enjoyed the climb up to Pas de la Vagues, watching a wall of fog roll into the valley as the moon once again rose to light up the sky. I topped out in what seemed like no time and began the long and rather cold descent into Incles. I was really hungry and had a veritable feast at Incles that included pig-leg, soup, melon, coffee and coke. Fortunately, I had no idea what awaited me on the next climb.
Cresta Cabana Sorda was a kick in the teeth. It had expected another difficult climb but this was painfully steep and just kept going. Every time I thought I was nearing the top the mountain seemed to grow another summit. I was glad it was dark because I could tell that several parts of the "trail" dropped of dangerously. Although I began to really and truly hate this particular climb I seemed to be passing a lot of other runners on this section which helped to keep me motivated. I was also treated to some light snow which amused me for some reason. Between my state of mind, the terrain and the snow, I was acutely aware of the absurdity of the situation and couldn't help but enjoy it. After a section of particularly rugged, slippery and dangerous side-hilling I reached Coms de Jan. This was a big mental victory for me as there was only one climb remaining and 13 miles total to the finish.
The last climb to Collada Meners did not disappoint. Ronda dels Cims does not let you forget where you are and the grind up to Collada Meners was one last reminder that that this race hands you no easy miles. I stopped for just a moment on top of the last climb to reflect on where I had been over the last two days and was almost a little sad that it would soon be over. In a way that I have a hard time describing, this race had given me as much as it had taken. I managed to push hard to the last aid station at Sorteny and left fairly quickly, eager to be finished. Most of the last seven or so miles was either asphalt or easy trail but I slowed considerably as I was feeling really nauseous, a first for me in any race.
-Thanks to ALTRA Zero Drop Shoes for their continued support. I wore a single pair of Lone Peak 1.5's for the entire race and never had any issues, even after 47 hours of rugged mountain running.
-Special thanks to Roch Horton for sharing his enthusiasm, insights and map. Venga! Venga!
-I cannot verify but I would bet that this race is longer than the advertised distance by several miles. If you choose to do this race, and I highly recommend that you do, be prepared to work for every inch!
-Things I would do differently if I were to do it again-
1. Treat the course with due respect. I knew it would be tough but I was cavalier and paid for it. Ronda dels Cims was my third 100+ mile race in an eight week span and I think it will be quite some time before I am fully recovered.
2. Not worry about time so much. Pace at a race like RdC cannot be compared to other races and I let it get into my head without taking it in context.
3. Devise a sleeping strategy. Knowing just how long this course can take means being proactive about things like sleep and having a plan to deal with fatigue and sleep deprivation.
4. Take more pictures!