My Experience of the Salomon Ultra Pirineu 100k - GILES PENFOLD

November 08, 2022

My Experience of the Salomon Ultra Pirineu 100k - GILES PENFOLD

My Experience of the Salomon Ultra Pirineu 100k 

It’s 5.29am, 3° Celsius, and I’m squeezed next to 1000 runners at the start line of the Salomon Ultra Pirineu 100K, an annual Spanish ultra-marathon that 30 percent of competitors fail to finish. Blaring speakers reverberate the count down of an enthusiastic Catalonian man: “Cuatro, tres, dos, uno… vaaaamos!!” and we're off, eager to kick off the nerves.

Start line madness. Photo Courtesy of Sergi Colome.

The paved, medieval road leads us steadily upwards, the dark, silhouetted mountains looming above. We leave the town of Bagà and enter the Cadí-Moixeró Nature Reserve, situated one and a half hours north of Barcelona and just south of the French border. This first section is emblematic of the course, involving more than 2,000m of elevation gain in 17km, something my Australian-trained legs were wary of. The NSW Blue Mountains, and parts of Victoria, have formidable enough ascents and elevation gain, but the Pyrenees are a different beast. We don't see running poles used very often in Australia, but in this part of the world, they're a necessity, acting as an extension of runners’ limbs.

Local spectators gift us their energy, a roaring that fires me up and induces pins & needles throughout my entire body. A group of six locals belt their blow horns and shout their hearts out as I scramble up the steep slope. I'm Intoxicated by it all.

Before I reach the aid station at Niu de l'Àliga (2,537m altitude), the sun rises above a thick veneer of clouds and paints the sky a blazing orange, shaping one of those gobsmacking sunrises you'll recall for a long time.

What a sunrise. Photo Courtesy of Diego Winitzky

At the aid station, there's everything from salami and prosciutto, to chips, dates, rock melon, banana and peanut butter sandwiches. Five minutes later and I'm following a pair of fluorescent Spaniards darting down the mountain. Every now and again, you hear a yelp as someone in the distance slips on the icy rocks, a less than ideal affair involving a wet backside and chafing in the worst areas.

Reaching Niu de l'Àliga after a 2,031m climb. Photo Courtesy of Diego Winitzky.

A steady 1,507m descent over 15km, I let my legs roll with the fast and runnable slope, maintaining a 4.30/km pace. I hadn’t acclimatised properly to the altitude before race day and reach the next aid station severely burnt out – feeling terrible 30km into a 100km race isn’t a great situation. I take my time, consuming less than I normally would, while sitting in a squat and breathing deeply through my nose. The squatting raises an eyebrow or two, but I've found it helps me maintain mobility and slows the onset of stiffness when running long distances. Nose breathing downregulates the central nervous system, basically helping to calm me. Ten minutes later and I'm out of there feeling better. 

The next section is primarily single track and tree-covered, the shade welcome on the gorgeous sun-filled day. The metronome continues: up, down; up, down; up, down. We follow ridgelines that treat us to 360-degree panoramas over the neighbouring valleys and peaks.

We start to encounter sizeable patches of snow as the magisterial Comabona towers over us and end up in Prat d´Aguilo (48km). It translates to "Eagle Meadow", and looking back up at the massive rock formation, I'm in awe. My body feels considerably better, which means I can take on board a heavy refuel of food and liquids at the aid station. After more squatting, and some solid eating, I'm underway once more, making sure to thank the volunteers as I leave. So many of us get caught up in the effort of our own race that we often forget how invaluable volunteers are to what we do. They are the backbone of these events. 

A slippery descent. Photo Courtesy of Diego Winitzky.
 After a steep climb, the powdery peak proves the icing on the cake, figuratively and literally, as we slide our way across terrain heavily covered in blinding white snow. It's both unexpected and unbelievable.

Ten kilometres, 1,150m loss and two very tender kneecaps later, I arrive at the largest aid station, in Gósol (61km). Here, the atmosphere is absolutely electric, with families and young folk cheering us on loudly. Our drop bags await, alongside more extensive food options such as hot pasta, ham-and-cheese toasties, Catalonian sausages and so forth. Unfortunately, sitting down for 15 minutes to refuel doesn't do me much good. I leave the aid station feeling lethargic and energyless and unable to run for the first hour.

My respiratory capacity is diminished and I begin noticing a wheeze in my breathing pattern. Not ideal, but it could be far worse. I battle hard over the next 9km and only start to feel better right before the aid station at Estasen (70km). One of the comforting notions when running long distances is that if and when you feel dreadful, circumstances almost always improve. Ultimately, the ups and downs never truly stick around, and genuinely embracing this concept can be powerful.

Comabona looming over runners in Prat d´Aguilo. Photo Courtesy of Jordi Costa.

It's 5.30pm. I've been in motion for 12 hours and have 30km to go. “The fun part starts now,” I tell myself somewhat sadistically as I exit the aid station. I realise dark times are just around the corner.

Over the ensuing 14km section, I feel fine on the downhills, but start to really struggle uphill. The altitude has badly affected my breathing and my lungs feel clogged. The wheezing is also worse.

By the second-last aid station at Vents (84km), I'm shot and can't stomach much. But my plight is nothing compared to the poor young guy lying prone in the corner of the tent, wrapped in a space blanket with two paramedics treating him. His eyes are bloodshot and ooze with fear. The scene serves as a harsh reminder of the manifest risks that long mountain races hold. I can’t help but think that could be me.

The cold & dark has been chasing us for the past hour, and it was finally time to wrap a head torch around our temples. I'd been forewarned of the next section, a 672m ascent in four kilometers, and am mentally prepared to suffer, but not to the extent that I do. Those four kilometer's suck the living soul out of me. Every step of the climb leaves me empty and defeated, my struggle made clear by the number of runners passing me. A few even stop to ask if I'm OK. Grit is a beautiful thing though, and after what seems like an eternity, I make it to the crest and the final aid station, known as Sant Jordi. “Sant Demonio, more like," I tell myself, sitting down feebly to put on an extra layer. I'm sweaty and cold and leave as soon as I can. I start the last 12km feeling much the same: pretty atrocious.

The mental fatigue mounts as runners continue to overtake me (thanks to a missed flight two days prior, I was running on two nights of four hours' sleep – hardly the best preparation for a 100km race). I'm reduced to running 100 metres, followed by walking about the same distance. I manage to maintain this sequence, until one last 250m climb wipes the floor with me. I've never moved uphill so slowly, I'm wheezing badly, and the cold air feels as if it isn't reaching my lungs.

I've always refrained from doing "maths" in my head during races, a slippery sloped phenomenon where you become obsessed with calculating the numbers of your own race: how much time there is to go, how many kilometers are left, how many steps you need to take. Fall into the trap and it’s hard to get out of and, most detrimentally, slows down time. During this last climb, I'm doing maths non-stop. Slow-motion and great discomfort aren’t a great mix. 

As I reach the top of this final ascent, my head torch starts to flash red, indicating the battery is critically low. The device automatically switches to a very faint beam, barely enough to see my surroundings. Four-letter words flow freely, accompanied by a surge of adrenaline. I'm fortunate to have a large group of runners around me and find that if I run behind or next to them, I can use the beams from their torches. I don't recommend this. As I chop and change my "light victim", I ask myself, “Do you think they know?” Maybe they just think I'm a freak who enjoys running in the dark – or some radical environmentalist who doesn’t want to burn through batteries. Or perhaps just an idiot who didn’t change the batteries in his head torch.

These last kilometers are strangely eerie. The sound of scrambling feet is all that can be heard. As dire as I feel, the end is near. The last 9km are downhill, so I do my best to run what I can, and eventually latch onto a new light source. After a few hundred meters, its owner – a man by the name of Jose, asks me how many kilometers are left, saying his GPS watch has died. I gladly reciprocate that my head torch has done the same. I soon learn that he too isn't having the best day and, both deep in the pain cave, we end up running, chatting and supporting each other the rest of the way.

The remaining kilometers seem to take an eternity, not so much due to my flagging energy, but rather to my hyper-focus on getting to the finish line. Mind games run rampant. “Surely it’s just around this corner?” must have passed through my head at least a dozen times.

And then it's here. 

At 11.16pm, absolutely spent but filled to the brim with happiness, I reach the finish in Bagà, 17 hours and 46 minutes after starting that morning. A saying pops into my head, “One can live through the highs and lows of a lifetime in one ultramarathon.” Grinning from ear to ear, I hug and congratulate Jose. What a lifetime today was. 

Words by Giles Penfold@gilespenfold Finish line smiles. Photo Courtesy of Ramon Casacuberta & Uri Sala.