So the Riano Trail Run or panting in the Picos if you prefer – what’s it all about? Well if you want the short version read no further and just head over to the Terra Incognito website and book your place for 2019 now! It’s a fantastic, vibrant, demanding event, brilliantly organised and a real blast to compete in. That’s the short version, for the longer version read on ….
Setting the scene
The Riano Trail Run is a 3 day festival of running held in the stunning surroundings of Picos de Europa, Northern Spain in mid-June. What makes this event different from most of the events I have entered is that, after each stage, you return to a “tented village” set up in the football stadium of Riano town. This gives the whole event a unique atmosphere as you share tales from the trails with other runners in the communal mess tent. The two man tents are provided as are all the meals you need over the 3 days (it’s actually 4 as registration is held on the Thursday before the whole things kicks off with the first stage on the Friday.)
There is a different stage each day, varying in length and terrain. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all fantastically steep! I suppose the clue is in the name. Transport is provided from the tented village to the start and of course there is a bus back too. Once at the start it’s like any other race with a marked route, aid stations and cut offs. Did I mention they are all steep!
Stage 1 –
Valverde de la Sierra – Boca de Huergano [30km with an elevation of 2,450m]
The buses left the camp bright and early to take us on the 45 minute drive to the 9:00am start in Valverde. There was the normal loud music, whooping and hollering and general excitement that accompanies the start of any ultra and lets face it, the Spanish do it better than most. The hooter sounded and we were off, winding our way out of the village and climbing almost immediately into the mountains that surrounded the small village. I had done a recce the day before so I knew we were in for one of the steepest climbs of the three days – the Pico Espiguete stands at 2,450 metres and is a breathtaking climb in more ways than one.
I always knew that I was going to struggle with the cut offs which were pretty tough for a part timer like me who did all his training on the flat tow path of the River Thames (and hard enough for the seasoned locals and professional teams too judging by the number of finishers). But I was determined to give it everything I had although I knew that realistically day 3 offered my best chance of finishing within the time.
After a relatively gentle climb out of the village the trail flattened out and there was a brief moment to take in the stunning views before veering sharply left to start the long climb. It was super steep and in one or two places there was even some gentle rock climbing. The organisation was brilliant with a helpful team member at each of the “danger” points. Although I was one of the back markers I was pleased with my progress and I finally made my way onto the ridge a good 30 minutes ahead of the cut off. One of the Terra Incognito team was on hand to take us across the ridge helpfully pointing out where the crevasses were – one way of getting down I suppose!
The descent was tough for me – I had done virtually no technical trails since my solo traverse of the Pyrenees two years previously and it showed! I wasn’t too bothered about falling on my backside (I’d done that enough= times in my life) it was just using muscles in my thighs that were totally alien to me. But I was determined to give it everything and at least get to the next checkpoint. I passed through by the skin of my teeth and was accompanied on the next stage by one of the sweepers. My legs had had it and after another hour or so the sweeper decided that I was falling behind and that we should pull the plug and get a lift to the finish. I was bitterly disappointed because I thought that I had a chance but you have to respect the advice of the experts – ultimately they have your safety as their number one priority.
As I walked down the steep track, tail between my legs, towards the rendezvous point I chatted with the sweeper who had been brought up in these beautiful mountains. He lifted my spirits and I was even happier when we finally met up with the organisers for the lift to the finish and they assured me that I would be able to give it another go on stage 2 tomorrow. I was struck by the wonderful attitude of these people, these runners, these mountain men – how inclusive , encouraging and embracing they were to everyone whatever their age, shape or ability.
After a shower and a quick change it was time to soak up the atmosphere of the camp. There was a stage with a booming sound system and it was with a real carnival atmosphere that we conga’ed into the mess tent. The food was great with lots of vegetarian options and a huge bbq for the carnivores. I always felt good around other runners not least because they were such a happy, positive bunch of people but also with food piled high on their plates they never made me feel greedy!
I crawled into the tent and I think I was asleep before my head touched the makeshift pillow dreaming of mountains, crevasses and plates piled high with pasta!
Tomorrow was another day …..
Stage 2 –
Cain de Valdeon to Hermitage of Ponteon – [38km with an elevation of 3,081m]
I was really looking forward to this stage as I was assured it had the most spectacular scenery of all three stages. As well as having an elevation of over 3,000m there was a corresponding descent which I realised I would probably struggle with after my travails the previous days but I would give it a good go anyway! The bus wound it’s way down and down right into the heart of the Picos D’Europa past jutting escarpments and cascading waterfalls. We finally arrived in the small village of Cain de Valdeon and he start
Immediately we were climbing up and up through steep meadows and deserted farm huts before we hit the mountain path – a long line of climbers and runners snaking there way ever upwards towards the snow line. Although I was near the back I was making quite good time and despite my perennial toe nail problems was coping with the step incline – it was the downhill which I dreaded!
I stopped to take some pictures of the stunning backdrop with waterfalls and mountains as far as the eye could see before tackling the final ascent through the snow fields. I’ve already said how fantastic Terra Incognito were at looking after us and this section was no different. It was amazing to see the guides running full tilt up and down the mountain checking on the runners and offering encouragement. All young “Kilians” in the making!
I had made good time up the mountain (several people had already dropped out) and I thought I was in with a chance of hitting the checkpoint ahead of schedule if I could master the descent. Wishful thinking! I was on my own now as the field had really thinned out. Somewhere behind me was the sweeper but I put him out of my mind and pressed on. After several slides onto my backside and with burning thighs I started to get despondent. My technique just wasn’t up to it – a lesson for next year. How on earth had I managed to cross the 525 miles of the Pyrenees 2 years earlier? I guess there it had been a matter of survival.
With no chance of hitting the checkpoint I took in the fabulous scenery and captured a few more pictures before I met a sweeper coming up the mountain who assured me I was a few km from the road and a lift back to camp.
My No 1 supporter aka my Sister was waiting patiently for me and after examining my toes, drinking a litre of water we drove to the little village of Posada de Valdeon where a cold beer and a sandwich awaited. Suddenly everything was alright with the world again and I was pleased that’s at least I had tried to complete the most challenging stage. I hadn’t let myself down and I knew this was within my capability if I could master the downhill technique.
We ate out that night and as I headed back to camp whilst my sister departed to the comfort of her hotel I thought about tomorrow and the final stage.
Stage 3 –
Salomon to Riano – [22.7km with an elevation of 1391m]
Stage 3 gave me my best chance of finishing – it was the shortest stage and there was only 1300m of descent. I knew I would be OK on the climb but it was the descent that had caused me problems thus far. I was feeling great with not too many aches and pains (I had always been a quick recoverer as was borne out by my traverse of Spain in 2016 and Italy in 2017). My big toenail was causing me problems but I bandaged it up and hoped it would last until Riano.
It’s was a short bus hop to the start. I noticed that the field had thinned out a bit from day 1 but I recognised several of the faces at the start and with a slightly more weary whoop and holler we were off. Straight away we were climbing out of Solomon before descending on a wide path. The maths was simple I had to get to the 14km check point by 12:30 and then it was just 9km to the finish. I was going well and even coping better with the downhill as the terrain was much more eve than on the previous stages.
We headed along a river before a short stint on a road through the tunnel and then up and up to the summit leaving the stunning views of the lake behind. My toe was giving me problems but at the summit I was ahead of schedule – just the downhill to contend with now! Almost immediately the path narrowed and the terrain got more difficult with a section of marshy, muddy pathway before it broadened out again. I kept on l looking at my watch – where on earth was the checkpoint? My thighs were burning with the effort but one last push and I would be there. But the time ticked on and no checkpoint in site – my watch already was at 15km, had I taken a wrong turn? But I finally picked up the signs and there on the path to the aid station was a sight to behold – I was greeted with horns bells, whistles and clapping as though I had just won the UTMB. What I had actually done was arrive at the checkpoint 12 minutes late. My race was done. But I’ll never forget the enthusiasm, encouragement and bonne homie of the organisers and the fantastic welcome they gave me that day.
As I removed my shoes my big toenail came off – well at least something had lasted the course! No time to feel sorry for myself – I had given it everything and I was truly fortunate to be amongst such a great bunch of people from organisers to runners to locals and now it was party time.
I got a lift back the few miles to Riano where Terra Incognito had organised a huge party with biggest pan of paella I had ever seen along with rock music and cold beers.
Would I be back next year? You bet! Thank you Terra Incognito, thank you Riano.
I will be adding a couple of videos and some more photographs when I have edited them – sign up npt to miss them.
Next review will be of the Sierra Nevada Ultra
The Terra Incognito website can be reached here.
P’S’ Here’s a short video of the reception I got for missing the cut-off at the last checkpoint by 12 minutes – imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d made it!