After the injury I had from running the South Downs Way 100 miler, I was a little worried that I’d aggravate something during the Al-Andalus Ultimate Trail, so in the days leading up to it, I spent some quality time with a sports physiotherapist who gave me some exercises to incorporate into my daily routine, so that by the time I was ready to fly to Spain, I was only left with a bit of taper flu.
The Al-Andalus Ultimate Trail is a 230km trail race which starts in Loja and takes you around the Pointe Grenadine with around 7,200m of ascent in the mountains over 5 stages.
After a long and delayed flight from Gatwick to Malaga on Saturday, I settled in at the hotel we were staying at for 2 nights before the race and had a good nights sleep. Sunday morning I caught up with some friends I ran with at the Namib Desert Challenge last year over breakfast before wandering around town for a bit and then having a little 5km run of the first part of the route we would be taking on Stage 1 before heading back to the hotel and spending the afternoon at the local municipal pool, chatting with some of the other participants.
Stage 1: Loja to Alhama de Granada (39km, 1,300m ascent)
With the area experiencing a heat wave with temperatures soaring well over 40ºC, sometimes reaching 50ºC, quite a few of us were a little concerned with the relatively late start of the first stage, starting at 09:45. We knew we would be out there in the heat of the day and there would be no real escape, so the focus would be on hydration for the whole week.
I had brought SiS GO Hydro with to ensure I was taking on electrolytes, however I found the flavour a little sickly in the heat so didn’t use as much as I should have under the circumstances.
Following the first 5km was easy, as I had run it on Sunday. I was surprised to see a few people ahead walking up the slope. What I hadn’t realised was that the gradient changed sharply after the point I had stopped yesterday and that the rest of the way up the mountain was going to be a determined march. One mean climb within the first 10km of a 5 day race!
After this point it became undulating and started to wind its way mostly down towards an uphill climb to the 3rd checkpoint at 31km. I was doing well but the heat was taking its toll on me and I was taking on about 1.5 litres between checkpoints and sweating it all out.
It wasn’t long until the finish of the first day’s stage but I was feeling the heat so did a bit more walking than I’d have liked. When I could see Alhama de Granada I started to run again and kept a steady pace to the end, which was at the local municipal pool. It was a real treat dipping my toes into some cool water and having some watermelon, refuelling with carbohydrates, protein, a rehydrated meal then dinner at a local restaurant before settling in for the night.
We were staying in our tents inside a sports hall which was baking hot from the days high temperatures, so quite a few of us moved our tents outside late that night for some cooler air.
Stage 2: Alhama de Granada to Jatar (48km, 1,640m ascent)
There wasn’t much sleeping on the first night at camp. By the time it cooled down enough to climb into my sleeping bag, it was time to get up after my alarm went off.
Today would see more hills, technical terrain and a couple of twists and turns along the way. It was a relatively steady run to checkpoint 2, where we headed into the mountains. I was amazed at how similar the terrain was to the mountains of my childhood back in Cape Town. Second nature took over and I was quite enjoying the climbs and descents. I think if I had tied my laces a little tighter, I could have really let go and bounded down the slope but I didn’t fancy a broken limb. By the time the 3rd checkpoint popped up on the horizon, I was out of water and pretty thirsty. Things were getting hot again and I wasn’t really enjoying the SiS GO Hydro. Maybe lemon & lime just isn't my flavour!
I started running alongside Liz Weeks for a bit and moments after passing the camera crew, we both managed to miss a critical turn and ended up running down a 3km slope which we then had to climb, costing us both valuable time and putting ourselves at risk, as we had both run out of water. Luckily the next checkpoint was at a river crossing, so we both took full advantage of the fresh stream but unfortunately I suffered from stomach cramp shortly after, so mostly walked the last 5km to Jatar.
Photo by Gary Bray/UNiCOM
The campsite in Jatar was basic but had a stream flowing through it, so after I unpacked my sleeping bag and other bits, I went and sat in the ice cold stream whilst refuelling on my SiS REGO shake. Perfect recovery for weary legs and body.
Stage 3: Jatar to Jayena (39km, 980m ascent)
It was cooler through the night, so I was able to enjoy some sleep after dinner in town.
There was a staggered start and I was leaving with the leaders, which was nice, as there was an opportunity to chat with other runners and see people outside of the checkpoints, which hadn’t always been the case up until now.
After an undulating start, there was a steep climb from the same place where I was lost on Stage 2 up to the top of the mountain where there was a landing strip for aerial firefighters. We were running through some beautiful scenery. Rocky slopes and pine forests were the order of the day. The path on our final descent from checkpoint 3 gave you an excellent opportunity to really relax into a fast descent, however I took my eye off the track for a moment whilst looking for a convenient bush and ended up falling flat on my hands. Luckily it was onto sand, so I survived unscathed.
The most surreal moment was encountering a squirrel crossing the road which didn’t expect to see me and stood upright in shock before darting off up a tree. Lucky for me it didn’t decide to run up my leg!
That evening were sharing a camp with some school kids who were obviously singing a Spanish version of kumbayah rather late at night but I suppose us getting up rather early and setting off for stage 4 at 08:00/30 more than made up for it.
We enjoyed a home made paella for dinner and I managed to find some non-alcoholic beer in the barrel of drinks, which went down extremely well!
Stage 4: Jayena to Alhama de Granada (67km, 2,031m ascent)
Also known as the long day. Which was long…
After watching the first two groups leave, it was our turn to go. The mornings seem quite relaxed whilst everyone wakes up and has breakfast under torchlight, until the moment we need to start.
It was really quick to the first checkpoint, by which time we were about to run along the side of the Embalse de Los Bermejales which was the most spectacular emerald colour. After leaving the edge of the lake and shade of a pine forest, we had a steep climb up and then a nice undulating stretch and downhill slope to the small town of Cacin. Things were getting hot.
On the way out of town there was a river to cross, which I bounded across. The icy water was refreshingly cool on my feet and just as well, as there was yet another long slow climb uphill. This seemed to be the theme for this long day. It was at that moment I felt like one of the von Trapps, endlessly climbing every mountain.
With little shade for the rest of the day, it was important to maintain hydration and electrolyte levels. I had given up on using the SiS GO Hydro in the heat, as it didn’t agree with me and swapped it for using SiCaps, which I took every hour and my body seemed to manage fine.
Somehow I managed to miss another critical turn on the way to the finish and ended up on the wrong side of town. Knowing I had gone wrong, I decided to read the map, and got that wrong too, so ended up further from the finish than I had intended. Luckily Paul (who marked the route) spotted me and put me on the right track, so I didn’t lose too much time. It’ll teach me for momentarily taking my eye off the road and looking up at the spectacular scenery which immersed me.
After reaching the finish of the stage, it was time for the daily routine of refuelling and, as it was rather late, we headed across to the local pool for an early evening swim before the daily debriefing and a lovely pasta dinner. There was an option to have steak but I knew I wouldn't be able to manage one during a week of running, especially when more running lay ahead the following morning.
Stage 5: Alhama de Granada to Loja (37km, 1,120m ascent)
The routine of waking up early, making a large coffee and eating pancakes for breakfast had taken it’s toll and I was really not in the mood for eating. I forced myself to have my raisin pancakes, which were by this stage pretty dry.
I packed up my tent for one final day and put my bag by the luggage van with plenty of time to spare. We were split into 3 groups on the final day and I was leaving with the leaders at 08:45. The start felt quite quick, passing through the town and gorge where we stayed the first night, and we were well on our way to the first checkpoint without much slowing down to a walking pace on the hills, except for some traffic in the form of sheep and tractors.
I was glad that my legs were feeling fresh, however I wasn’t feeling so great in other ways and had to manage with tummy troubles. Before I knew it, I was at the 20km checkpoint and ready dash down a hill, however I found myself dashing to the nearest olive tree instead. This happened more than once but, as things go, I felt much better after.
After perking up whilst running through the little town of Salar, I realised it was online check-in time for my flight. Priorities. I wanted a bit of legroom on the flight back, so I could stretch my legs out, so changed my seat allocation on the way out of the town. Maybe next time I'll just pay for allocated seating, although I don't really see the value in that.
It was mostly downhill until going under the motorway, at which point there was a slow 2km climb up to the finish. I couldn’t contemplate walking any of it, as I just wanted to finish and do it in good time. I even passed a fresh water fountain without stopping, as it was less than 500m to the finish.
When the results were posted, I found out that I had completed the 5 stages in 26:30:46, ending up in 10th position, which I was really thrilled about, especially as I had done an additional 10km of bonus miles, which means I could have shaved off well over an hour. Maybe next time I’ll be more observant of the pink arrows…
Some thoughts about the race
Heading to AAUT, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After my experience at the Namib Desert Challenge last year, I thought it would be tough for a race to fill the void but maybe it’s not about that, maybe it’s about new experiences which help build our strength. Certainly within the first 10km of the race I wondered how I would manage 5 days in a Spanish heatwave but it’s amazing how easily you adapt to your conditions. Anyway, a tough race made even harder by the unpredictable conditions really does give you an even greater sense of achievement.
The fantastic thing about an event like this is that there’s such a diverse field of participants, each challenging themselves and even with a bit of rivalry in the front of the field, there’s a great sense experiencing the day’s challenges together and exchanging stories at the end of the day.
The event organisers, Eric Maroldo & Michelle Cutler, do an outstanding job of ensuring everything runs smoothly before, during and after the race. They really do everything from the heart, which makes it so much more of a personal experience. If you’re ever considering trying a multi-stage event, the Al-Andalus Ultimate Trail comes with my highest recommendation and it’s definitely one I’ll return to.
I've been asked "what's next" and whilst I have two more 100mi races this year, I hand't given much thought to next year, other than deciding I'd have a break from multi-stage races for a year and concentrate on getting a bit better at scrambling up mountains, of which there are absolutely none in London. I then happened to drop my name into a raffle with entry into the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM). It's not really a marathon at all but in South Africa they like to call all forms of running a marathon. Just look at the Comrades and Two Oceans for example.
With KAEM on the cards, I'll have to start putting some distance running in and maybe take up fastpacking later in the year and from early spring if I'm able to participate in 2016.
I've finished AAUT fired up and ready for another challenge, following the trail wherever it may lead me.