Blood, sweat and tears – a day in the life of an Endurance Runner
I woke just after 5.00am – no alarm needed, my aches and pains providing the necessary wake up call. A quick shower and with teeth brushed I was ready for the next onerous task of the day – trying to find some clean running gear or perhaps I should say the least dirty!
I sat on the bed and got my bearings. I had been running for eleven days and had run 227 miles and climbed a total of 49,000 feet and I wasn’t even half way. On the positive side I was relatively injury free and no longer aware of any specific or isolated pain, I just ached all over. My gear was holding up well and I was thrilled with my shoes that I had been forced to buy a few days back when my Hokas disintegrated! Yep, all in all I was in pretty good shape and I never forgot how lucky I was to be able to do these things, although sometimes I needed reminding.
Next up was the rucksack ritual – this involved putting all my worldly goods on the bed and working out what I could discard to reduce the weight, followed by deciding I needed everything and re-packing it. Each day I seemed to accumulate more clobber although I knew this wasn’t possible, after all there were no shops – What was it going to be like by the time I got to the Med in fourteen days?
No breakfast, I hadn’t even managed to forage anything from the restaurant the night before; never mind I was used to this by now – Spanish hours by now – get up late and eat late, not great for the early rising endurance runner!
A couple of “Kilian” stretches which involved pulling up each leg in turn behind me by the ankle without falling flat on my face and I was off!
I loved this part of the day, the stillness, just the sound of the odd restless dog barking and the cockerel crowing, announcing his presence to the village and anyone else who would listen. There was also the anticipation of the day ahead – who would I meet, what would I see, what new challenges would I face and would I get lost (I already knew the answer to that last one).
I crossed the river and started climbing through the woods before I reached the open meadows. My feet were already wet from following the waterlogged track. This didn’t bode well for the long day ahead. It was already getting hot and I had long since stripped off my running jacket and was in the obligatory shorts and tee, my uniform since I had landed at Bilbao eleven days ago. Was it only eleven days? It seemed like a lifetime – so much had happened since starting out and I knew that there were more adventures to come. But my mind was wandering, fatal on these narrow, complex paths and sure enough I was lost. Of all the challenges and travails getting lost was one of the worst. Not only was I under constant pressure from the clock to get to my destination before nightfall but it was soul destroying having to re-trace your steps and losing those hard earned miles, particularly if I had been climbing which was all that I seemed to do – whatever happened to the principle of “what goes up must go down”
Fortunately I didn’t have too far to descend before I picked up the familiar red and white markings of the GR11 “La Senda” trail. The terrain was relatively flat for a mile or so and I was able to pick up the pace which was just as well as I knew that today would probably be the most testing to-date as I was climbing to 2,700 metres before descending into Andorra. It wasn’t long before the lush meadows gave way to more woods and a steep path wending its way ever upwards. I was just congratulating myself on my progress when the inevitable happened. I had faced so many fears already on this trip – unruly cows, rabid farm dogs, snakes and even wild boars, getting lost, running out of water but what I feared most was a big fall. Where I was running was so remote and sometimes I would go through the whole day with only seeing one or two people. I was negotiating a particularly rocky part of the path crossing over a fallen tree when my foot caught a root and I did a not so graceful face plant. I didn’t get up straight away but took stock – everything still working just a few scratches and dented pride. As I picked myself up something caught my eye and there glinting in the sunshine was a brand new pair of Rayban sunglasses. How incongruous – I hadn’t seen anyone since the night before and here were these glasses waiting for me. I felt guilty about picking them up but it would be crazy just to leave them I justified to myself!
Another hour saw me reach a plateau with a rough car park where the not so intrepid could drive to, have a picnic and explore the fabulous scenery. People! This was a new phenomenon for me. As I left the car park I bumped into a couple of young hikers who asked me the way towards Andorra. I was always amused when people asked me the way – I supposed I looked like I knew what I was doing with my running stuff and rucksack and after all, what madman would be crossing the Pyrenees without having planned a proper route! Anyway we parted company as I broke into a trot on the relatively flat valley; I was conscious that time was moving on and I had the big climb ahead.
The trail was hard to pick up through the boulder field but I kept looking for little cairns that kept me on track. The snow too was now more evident and my heart sank when I saw two people coming towards me in full mountain gear, jackets, coats and crampons and ice axes attached to their rucksacks. They were lost and French and I was able to reassure them that they were on the right track and probably four or five hours from their destination. The asked where I was going and when I replied “Andorra” they looked at me in my skimpy running shorts, running shoes, t-shirt and lightweight running jacket then at each other. “I think you ought to turn back, there is snow up to your waist in some parts and you just don’t have the right gear”.
I knew it was decision time – everyone had told me that I would struggle on this section without the proper equipment but the thought of heading five hours back to where I started from was soul destroying and besides where would I go from there? Somehow, despite all the warnings I knew that I would be safe and I also knew that my decision now would define the rest of the adventure. Succeed and it would give me so much confidence for the arduous days ahead. I thanked them and said that I was going to press on and set off without looking back – would I regret this decision?
As I climbed the temperature dropped dramatically and the patches of snow became larger and larger. It was not possible to skirt around them so I followed the footsteps in the snow, ominously, they were all pointing downwards and not upwards. I was a keen skier so I knew that snow wasn’t always as it seemed, one minute you could be walking on a crust and the next immersed to your waist. I was trying to get to a refuge that was perched precariously on top of a large ledge secured to the rock with wires to avoid blowing off. It was one thing looking at the picture in a book but trying to find it was another matter and then out of the corner of my eye I saw the metal refuge glinting in the sun and my spirits rose. I had to do a little bit of rock climbing onto the ledge and there, to my surprise, I saw a man sitting on the steps of the refuge eating a cake. We introduced ourselves and I looked longingly at the cake – I hadn’t eaten anything since the night before other than a bit of congealed, melted chocolate that I had found in one of the rucksack pockets and I was famished but not famished enough to ask my new friend for a piece of cake – oh the British reserve!
But the good news was that he had come over from Andorra and that the route was possible although the next bit would be tricky without proper mountain boots. It had taken him 6 hours so it looked like I would be doing the last bit in the dark but there was nothing else than to go for it! I set off through the snow, trainers and socks by now soaking wet, and skirted round a lake before ascending a very steep path. This led to a snow field up the side of the mountain which would be followed by what looked like an almost sheer scree and boulder face to the summit. My German friend from the refuge had explained that mathematically the scree was unlikely to crush me because the angle was just within the limit before it would fall – great!
From the base of the snow wall I looked up several hundred metres to the final scree slope and the summit. It looked impossible but it was now or never and I took my first tentative step. I tried to plot a course between boulders to minimise the amount that I would fall if the worst happened and I knew, from my previous mountain experience several decades earlier, that it was just a case of going slowly and always trying to have three limbs on the mountain. I kicked into the snow with my trainers to create a step and gradually wended my way up the slope. As I got to the first refuge point, a group of protruding rocks, I sank into the snow up to my waist but I hauled myself up onto the rocks and took stock. I saw my course – maybe 4 more “rock stops” and I would be at the foot of the scree slope, this was on! I was wet, cold and bedraggled but getting to the top would give me all the lift I needed and I could change clothes at the top.
30 minutes later and I was at the foot of the scree slope and the final ascent. I decided to go as fast as I could, forget taking it easy, I had to keep moving in case the scree started to go. A final sip of water and a gear check and I was off. I was on all fours scrambling as fast as I could, sweat pouring of me despite the cold and wind. I edged towards the side of the slope to hang onto a rock for a breather and then the final few metres before I was at the brow and over the other side. I tore off my rucksack and gave a scream for joy and did a little victory dance too after all there was no YouTube up here. I had done it, 2,700 metres and before me was Andorra, another huge milestone in my journey.
I took a few pictures, changed socks and tee shirt and started the descent to Andorra where a bath, food and a warm bed awaited me. The scenery was spectacular – I descended a steep path and made my way down another small snow field entering a “Shangrilaesque” hanging valley where I passed between two lakes. Here I came across two young hikers who looked suitably amazed when I ran past them. I stopped for a rest on a boulder further down where they caught me up and a little competition ensued! I really should know better at my age but these twenty year olds, fully kitted with their poles and mountain boots, didn’t like been overtaken by the old timer and English at that! Off we went haring down the slope, they were just in front but then they took a wrong turning and I regained the lead. Down, down hurtling along the narrow path, all tiredness and hunger forgotten in the push for victory. Then the inevitable happened and my ego and the young hikers caught me at the same time as I tripped on a stone trying to leap across a narrow stream, went flying and landed in a crumpled heap on the path, sunglasses and hat jettisoned in the fall. They passed me without a glance, let alone a word to find out if I was OK. The race wasn’t over! I picked myself up, a few cuts and bruises, nothing serious and hared after them – we reached the tarmac path as one and I knew I had them – they were tiring and nothing was going to stop me now. I pulled away and before long, just as the last rays of the day were disappearing behind the mountains, I was on the outskirts of Encamp.
The book Moving Mountains is coming soon.