A weekend away with Tequila Dave and international man of mystery, El Baret (have you seen his passport photo?) … what could possibly go wrong?
The Three Amigos arrive in Xerta, Catalonia
Six weeks out from MIUT I needed some decent hiking terrain; the family (slash work) had granted me a long weekend of leave; and I had a pristine new pair of (hashtag) Inov-8 Roclite 305s to wear in. First choice was Montgo but I decided to google any races in the Spanish vicinity that might allow a longer day cradled by food and water stations. One event caught my eye on Ahotu’s race calendar - Ultra Trail les Fonts. Entering its seventh year the three day series of races in south Catalonia seemed well established and even offered the comfort of a very well translated English website.
Tequila Dave took little convincing - Spain runs through his veins! Brooksy was all talk and no play which was probably a good thing as who know what airport (or country for that matter) he would have booked a flight to! El Baret was a surprise but inspiring addition to the team. So the three amigos were ready to take on some Catalonian mountains.
Now get this… the 75 euro entry fee also included:
FREE camping with showers/toilets;
FREE breakfast / dinner each day - including the kind of quality Spanish coffee that Tequila Dave puts away in bucket loads;
FREE unlimited beer plus other beverages (if it was limited no-one was putting the brakes on team Beacon Club).
Add to that a personalised tech-tee, bag of giant taronges, and 2 sizeable chocolate bars we got in our goody bags. You wouldn’t even need to toe the start line to feel you were getting value for money out of this volunteer driven event. Which I am pretty sure relaxed Chris’ outlook on the weekend’s challenges. Should due intent find one pumping the air to the uplifting chimes of Trevor Jones’ iconic Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, along with the other 204 revellers toeing the post sunset start line, this is what lay in store.
Day 1. 9pm La Nocturneta (the head torch run - 23km / 350m)
Day 2. 6am El Trail de les Fonts (the mountain ultra - 70km / 4000m)
Day 3. 8am La Cursa de les Fonts (the mountain race - 27km / 1650m)
Fuelled on cortada and baguette we arrived in Xerta, on the south Mediterranean tip of Catalonia, with matchstick eyes following a 4am exodus from Truro. Race director, Karim, greeted and then ushered us to FREE parking and the poolside camping area. The turf was soft, pegs went in and our base camp erected. I regretted my failure to pack bite cream as a plague of mosquitoes set to work on my legs (bites which still linger as I write this three weeks later!). A slight breeze rolling off the foothills of Parc Natural Els Ports did little to temper the mid-afternoon sun. Mid twenties was uncharacteristically hot so early in the year. South-west Europe was in the throes of a heatwave!
View from the tent as El Baret surveys one of many orange orchards that dominated the plains.
Any concerns over the language barrier were alleviated by our pre-assigned translator for the weekend, Raquel, who welcomed us at the registration desk with a smile and was readily available for any questions we might have. Twenty euros were exchanged for a timing chip, event identification tag and race numbers. Two elderly villagers distributing goodie bags, both considerably more fluent in our language than us in theirs were perplexed by our fourteen hour exodus from Truro… in Cornwall… in England! But their efficiency belied their age as our bags materialised from several hundred that filled the stage.
Tequila Dave’s stature / ultra-running prowess had preceded us… as the paparazzi were quick to jump on his presence. But before the cameras would roll Chris was asked to step aside!? Lost in translation or a premonition of what would unfurl over the coming days. We called time on the photos and comic interview and made for a brief spell of solace in our tents ahead of La Nocturneta.
Unable to sleep, Dave and I explored the streets of Xerta. Despite following the course on my Galileo app we were left none the wiser as to which way we would be running out of town. However, I duly noted an inviting bar in the shadow of the church which would make a fine retreat to cheer in the back runners in Saturday’s El Trail.
Tequila Dave checking out the sites while scouting the “wrong” route out of town for La Nocturneta
The three amigos ready and raring to kick of the 2017 UTF. Chris’ expression suggests he may have woken up a little unsure of where he was!
If Dave and Chris had a plan they were giving very little away, but, as soon as the countdown finished and we squeezed through the starting pen on to the streets of Xerta, not for the last time over the weekend I watched the bobbing bandana on Dave’s head disappear into the distance.
La Nocturneta was not for me!
Road, fire track and occasional spells of single file rocky trail which were dictated by a long train of runners. All foiled in a sultry heat that had me bearing several pounds of excess sweat in my sodden merino tee-shirt (bad choice!). Our impending 6am start loomed and I was keen to finish and get bedded down to recoup some lost sleep. Of course this meant my 9min/mile target pace went by the wayside. A brief section of fast winding technical trail through the woods bought a spell of happiness as I discovered I could readily match the locals on the rocky stuff. As did the crowds of villagers that lined the streets of Aldover. Kids were everywhere. High fives, and the occasional low five, were obligatory. I even scored a five in a row with a group of young children of Ella’s age as a musical band summoned up an unexpected samba jig from my legs. Despite the mundanity of the miles, it was exhilarating seeing the exuberance and rapture of everyone involved in this late night party!
Chris’ one finish of the weekend sporting the TRC half marathon tee.
I walked in the last two miles. My goal had been 2:10. I was well inside. I was tired. Bed was calling… On the finish line Karim offered me a consolatory pat as he advised me to carry plenty of water in the morning. His face expressed genuine concern for my welfare and a seed of doubt was planted.
Dave and Chris were also waiting on the finish… as was the FREE beer!
Day 1 Results: Dave was first past the post in 1:51:00 (25th) but it turned out not the first from the UK. As, resident Frenchman, Ludovic (Serpentine RC) ran a blistering 1:44:03 to finish in 4th place. Chris ran 1:55:42 (37th) and I lagged behind in 2:01:18 (66th). 221 total finishers.
In bed at 1am, and with several toilet trips in the night I was feeling far from fresh as I lathered several layers of factor 30 onto my arms. The sun was yet to rise and the local consensus was jackets on to counter a slight chill in the air. I settled for mesh vest, buried my fastwing hoodie in my kangaroo pouch - never to be seen again - and, following an embarrassing affair with absent toilet paper, hurriedly joined Dave on the start line. There was no time for breakfast so a flapjack had to do. Where was Chris? He had been sporting injury in the building weeks and given no indication whether he would attempt to start the longest day’s race. As Knopfler’s Money for Nothing riff tore through the air, El Baret appeared from the shadows. Game on… not before reminding him to enter the pen via the mess hall to activate his timing chip, rather than leaping the fence. We nearly reincarnated the Ghost Runner!
Of course, the jumping up and down, pumping the arms and somewhat childish behaviour for 6am in the morning all amounted to very little as we walked our way over the start line, gradually wound up to a slow jog on the cramped streets and followed the procession of runners out of town. Today uphill equaled walking and within a kilometre the climbing began and I adopted the power march I had “perfected” on long days up and down the Beacon. Surprisingly, obstructive boulders, uneven terrain and stream crossings immediately bought the train of runners to a grinding halt as each took their cautious turn to ponder and then negotiate said obstacle! Now, under normal race conditions, I would avoid queueing at all costs, looking for a diversion, through the nearest undergrowth. Today however was different. My goal was to complete and feel strong for Sunday’s race so there was no urgency.
For the same reason when we hit a short stretch of tarmac I once again said farewell to Dave’s bobbing bandana as he pushed on ahead. I had done very little on the hard stuff through winter and several miles exposure during LaNocturneta had already aggravated my knees. Besides, I was confident I would catch Dave up later in the day and make up that ten minute deficit… how wrong I was :(
Glimmer of dawn over Parc Natural El Ports.
The gravel track winding it’s way slowly up hill to the mountain village of Paüls
Coming up to Paüls
It was a long gradual climb on road and wide forest track to the mountain village of Paüls, the first feed station. A few oranges the better I headed straight out and into a much steeper affair as a mountain trail cut through the side of vast limestone walls tempered pink by the rapidly rising sun. Birdsong broke the occasional silence but more oft the monotonous clink of walking pole on rock reverberated through the valley as I stepped aside for yet another Catalonian. “Passar per favor”.
The ascent was relentless. Flashbacks to An Gearanach in the Mamores. Finally we broke out of woodland, the path levelled, and El Ports dished out the first of many surprises. A plateau of lush vegetation, green grass and a brief spell of muddy trail. I was in my element! Add to that, the labour of the arduous climb was surpassed by majestic views back down the valley. A landscape of low level peaks, cloud inversion in the cool valleys and warm Spanish skies. Exactly what I came for!
Looking back down the valley to the mountain village of Paúls
Font del Montsagre de Paüls - 14.8km. 850m altitude.
The col heralded the approach of the next checkpoint and a much needed opportunity to top up my dwindling water supplies. I was carrying two soft flasks and a handheld which also served as my obligatory cup. 1.6 litres seemed barely enough to make the 6km from Paüls to Engrilló. I reminded myself to be sparing when we headed out into the more remote sections of the course.
The checkpoint sat at the northern end of a small tarn in the shadow of Tossal d’Engrillo and thanks to a track that ran to the mountain hut higher up there was a plentiful supply of water on offer.
Expectations were high for some rock hopping over the sharp upturned arête on the final ascent to Engrilló itself at 1073m. Unfortunately, this year the route skirted the lower reaches of the ridge as we trudged through some pretty rough and prickly vegetation instead. This deflated me. I had hoped for a change in terrain and a bit of scrambling would be a welcome break for the legs. Fortunately the vistas continued to impress.
Looking both down and up our path to Engrilló. The sharp arête I had hoped to scramble along, and the hut, are just visible to the right of the photo. I was slightly disappointed our route was different to the more technical path taken along the ridge in 2015.
Peaks and troughs of Monstagre d’Horta
Grassy paths; woodland and further climbing followed before the first of the day’s long descents. We had set off over three hours ago and finally opportunity to stretch out the legs. This was the kind of rocky terrain I thrive on and, despite the initial climb spreading out the field, for the first time I was the one saying “passar per favor”. I briefly joined silent forces with one of the numerous teams (of three) out on the course and, as we turned tightly back up hill, four heads to the ground missed the turning off the track and we found ourselves in thick vegetation at a dead end. For once Galileo came good and I was able to bring up both the course and our GPS position to confirm where we had gone wayward.
Coll de la Gilberta looking to the steep northern face of Punta de l’Aigua and the first big descent of the day.
At St Roc confusion struck in a moment of relief on seeing there was only one long climb remaining. Only to have the pretence shattered as I realised I was surveying the marathon course. Lack of breakfast was taking its toll and I hurriedly consumed a cheese sandwich, half a dozen melon slices and a full orange worth of quarters. Following another 5km climbing through the tall pine forests of Pla de l’Hedra and I briefly called time to phone the family back home and have a chat. Perched on a rock under the mid morning sun the park stretched out before me. A majestic landscape of sharp rock awash with trees. We chatted… and then I cried! Bit early for the sentimental stuff. The sun and heat were all over me. I even texted Dave in the hope he was within catching distance. Just to have someone to talk to. I didn’t know he hadn’t got his phone nor that he was already well into the last major climb of the day a good hour up the road.
Chris meanwhile was tucking into a cool isotonic as he chatted politics with Karim on the journey from St Roc back to Xerta. He had quite literally been swept up and removed from the course. He was grateful!
A local shepherd’s hut - La Barraca del Jordi - constructed Cornish style with dry stone walls.
Not a bad place for a time out to call the family
A long stretch of fire track offered respite from the climbing under the watchful eye of the pillars and sheer rock faces of Roques de Benet, one of the parks most iconic mountains. I found myself jostling with Pere - a local from the Tortosa Running Club. As we finally began climbing again I broke out in pigeon Catalonian: ’este mucho calor para me!’ Pere was in agreement. The midday sun was driving the temperature into the high twenties, far higher than the norm for March in the park.
Roques de Benet
We reached a col and following a fast descent with switchbacks aplenty I arrived at the hot food station in La Franqueta. Not before being pulled aside for an unexpected kit check. This involved gesticulations from the marshall as I pulled out everything but the headtorch that he wanted to see. I even waved my 80cm x 3cm EAB in front of him to little approval. Finally the Black Diamond revealed itself and I was released to gorge on pasta and cheese. The pitstop was too comfy so I replenished my soft flasks and handheld and was on my way for the high point of the course - L’Espina.
This is where profiles can be deceiving. The climb was everything but the steep hike suggested by the acute angle on the profile. It was a long gradual ascent as the metres slowly ticked off on my altimeter. It was also great fun! We followed a boulder strewn barranco hoping stones and scrambling along the edges. All under a canopy of vegetation that shaded the intense heat. The pasta had reinvigorated me and I was in my element.
Until I hit Death Valley! The sudden transformation in the landscape was unexpected and intimidating. A narrow entrance to a rock filled valley with high cliffs burning white in the glare of the sun. The thermometer was hitting thirty degrees and the enthusiasm and energy I had gained from that plate full of pasta was rapidly waning. The intense heat was drying my sweat to a crust as fast as it poured from my brow. Water supplies were diminishing rapidly and I forced myself to be sparing. With hands on my hips the pace ground to a halt and I sat on a rock to munch some unpalatable cranberries.
An hour or so later I sat on the pavement in the shadow of Alfara’s buildings as another runner threw up his guts. The trail of fluid and bile trickled past me down the street. How lovely! I instantly felt sick. Time to leave.
I struggled to digest some orange and watermelon slices; a very young villager keenly helped me fill up my bottles; I emptied some grit from my socks; then I slowly set about the last long climb of the day back up on to the ridge line of the Serra del Bosc de l’Espina. I still felt sick. My skin was tickling; my head was burning; I sensed the imminent onset of heat stroke. I poured most of my water over my head to cool myself and resorted to a very slow shuffle as I sipped away at my meagre remnants of my H2O. My turn to hurl - several times. Pere and many others passed by. ‘Este bien?’
Trekking at two miles an hour allowed me considerable time to reflect on the day and what lay ahead. Madeira - 115km, 7000m. Seemed an impossible prospect! If this pace didn’t improve I might be missing the cut-offs. A few sums in the head and I estimated I could comfortably walk in under the 15 hour time limit. Time to bury my heat-induced malaise and start appreciating the stunning scenery I had travelled all this way to experience.
A couple of views looking back to Alfara nestled amongst the mountains
Setting sun on the Serra del Bosc de l’Espina
The path to Moleta
Xerta sits in the valley below
Rounding the foot of Moleta I got my first glimpse of Xerta down in the valley below. It still looked a long way distant. I pictured Dave kicking back by now in the low evening sun supping on those FREE beers. All attempts to control my mind and not wander to the finish (hat tip Richie McCaw) were futile. I craved cold beer!
It was tea-time back in Blighty so I phoned home to chat to the kids before bed. I am not sure our youngest could comprehend that I had been running/walking before she woke up and would still be going well after she had gone to sleep. In fact I struggled to comprehend it myself! The last time I did 12 hours straight was TGC over 2 years ago. I said my goodnights and set off on the final descent.
At the feed station in Font Nova another broken runner lay on the path under the cover of his foil blanket. It wasn’t just a Brit that had succumbed to the soaringly hot weather conditions. I was instructed to put my head torch on before I could leave the station - the light was fading fast. One more short steep climb and then stoney track gave way to a long stretch of gravel road. I couldn’t help but notice successive curved traces along the road now illuminated by my head torch. All I could think of was snake trails! With a phobia of all things serpentes this got me moving quickly and for no apparent reason I felt a resurgence as I hit a stony single track that gradually ran downhill for a mile to the outskirts of Xerta. Time for a sub 9 minute miler as I picked off numerous runners that had succumbed to the ultra shuffle. Until that is I caught a rock and somersaulted across the path. Just a few flesh wounds but it was back to walking after this painful indiscretion.
The lights are on but nobody’s home… Finish time 14:01:29 (155th)
Crossing the finish line, a sunken shadow of my former self; dazed by dehydration; heels blistered; knees bruised; and confused by a long day under the Spanish sun I concluded my weekend was over. I craved sleep and tomorrow would have plenty. Dave and Chris shepherded me into a rather deserted mess hall. The banter on the long drive up from Alicante had been those well-earned beers after a long day in the mountains and the village bar by the church had Saturday night all over it. However, for the first time in my short-lived running career the only fluid I craved was MILK! And my team-mates plied me with plenty.
I learned that Dave had finished in a sterling 11:55:26 (74th overall). He had adopted his usual tactic of eating and drinking very little and had barely crossed the finish line before being rushed off to the ambulance tent. This wasn’t his first encounter with medics as he was forced to sit it out in the shade of Alfara’s walls while the medics assessed him. Time he spent fearfully watching for my imminent arrival! Which of course never came as I was still a good 90 minutes back down the path. All those winter Tuesday nights at Beacon Club clearly paid off however, as, once released, Dave tore down from the Serra ridge jumping 30 places before collapsing over the finish line!
Quick! Somebody catch this man before he collapses!
I reassured Raquel that I would be on the start line in the morning, knowing fully well I would not. Vegetarian fodder was depleted. Cold pasta was the only option and my mouth burned from dehydration. My towel had already been infiltrated by dew and the warm shower did little to revitalise me as I slumped into the tent shivering and wretched. I donned compression shorts and calf guards in the hope they would limit the throbbing in my legs and allow me a painless sleep. I contemplated Dave’s decision to run in the morning… and then I passed out!
So much for that bar in the village…
Awake early with an appetite I joined Dave, already kitted out, back in the mess hall. I had lain in my tent since first light contemplating the day ahead. Fortunately I could call on my experience at the GL3D to convince myself that running was the only option. After all what would I possibly do otherwise… drink FREE beer in the sun all day!
I tried some cheese on baguette but the bridge of my mouth was still burning. Strong black coffee and several cups of mango juice were far more palatable. I lacked Dave’s enthusiasm for the Cursa de les Fonts. But we had very different goals - Dave had the UTF top 30 in sight; I couldn’t think beyond just finishing the 27km course. The profile suggested the climbs were shorter than Saturday and there were only two (and bit) of them. Being a mountain race I hoped for some scrambling and more technical descents that were lacking on El Trail.
The runners were already queueing to clear their timing chips and with great haste I inserted lenses, threw a pair of shorts over my over-sized compression (Swiss don’t do stumpy legs!), grabbed a vest, pack, sunnies, cap and water bottle and raced for the start line. “Racing” being more of a protracted hobble as my legs were reluctant to bend yet. No time for suncream and certainly no time to attend to the blister that had reared its ugly head on my heel!
‘Catch ya later Chris’ … received a muffled response from within his tent.
Finally we start in daylight!
The music, dancing and excitement were routine now. For the first time we would start in daylight - blue skies and a scattering of cumulus awaited us. The omnipresent bandana was distant before I even crossed the start line. Tequila Dave was on a mission. Lack of sleep, food and drink did little to weaken his desire!
We rolled out onto Xerta’s streets and I felt the entire field overtake me as I shuffled along the tarmac. Amongst them many teenagers taking part in La Cursa Cadet-Junior - a 15km race for 15 - 20 year olds that looped around the first summit of the morning. We gradually wound our way through brush and woodland as we made our way back into the foothills of Els Ports. Once more I let the pace of the train of runners dictate. It was painfully slow but the legs were not complaining. With every step the Roclite’s grated my heel and I sensed the blister growing bigger. (Why did you have to change the last of a really good shoe Inov-8?)
As we approached the higher reaches the switchback paths got steeper and finally gave way to a rocky wall. Yes scrambling at last! For the first time in three days I was shinnying my way past other runners on a more direct route to the summit then that chosen by the train. All those reps up Dave’s Hill, Wendy’s Cliff and Tom’s Gully were paying off. Just to make it feel even more like home a strong wind tore across the tops making progress difficult at times but comforting for someone bred on Atlantic southwesters. Of course the baking sun quickly put paid to any nostalgia for the motherland.
Crossing one of several scree fields
Racing along the dusty track towards the feed station at Roca Roja I felt invigorated. How much fun this course would be on fresh legs! We traversed steep scree slopes; weaved along root strewn single trails shaded by the omnipresent pine trees of the Parc; scrambled both up and down rock faces and finally wound up in a valley floor north of Coscollosa - the final long climb of the weekend.
Once again I found myself alongside Pere. He was dragging a friend around filling her with vociferous words of encouragement every time she dropped off the pace on the climb. I tucked in behind them and imagined Pere’s expletives were directed at me! Soon enough we were on the same scree slope that had led us up to Moleta’s flanks the previous evening. I stumbled up the scree in half the time. Finally reaching the summit felt uplifting. Xerta was visible in the valley below and although this was not the highest point of the weekend I believed the climbing was done and I could now just let gravity guide me back to the final finish.
Token selfie from the summit of La Coscollosa at 890m
Racing down the technical trails from La Coscollosa
It was another steep quad burning descent and my twinkle toes lacked their usual grace as I awkwardly stepped my way down. Lee side of the wind the hot sun got to work cooking me again. Thank goodness most of my body was covered by compression!
It was fitting that UT Les Fonts throw one more little surprise our way to finish an epic weekend of trail running. A short steep rock scramble to the summit of Tosses de Vences. Fun but tough on tired legs!
Knowing the weekend was almost over, the last few kilometres lasted a lifetime. More meandering woodland track, more stoney trails and finally a mile of tarmac through the centre of Xerta. I got a lot of encouragement from villagers and fellow competitors as I shuffled through the streets. Rounding the final corner I saw Chris and Dave waiting. For a brief moment I felt elated and then as I crawled up the ramp to the finish relief took over…
Looks deceive… Finally it is beer o’clock and I am a very happy man!
Timing chip was exchanged and 20 euros refunded. I made my directly to the mess hall to gorge on whatever I could find. A protracted attempt to request vegetarian food ended with the cooks sieving potatoes out of the bull stew. I was too hungry to comment and for the first time in the eleven years I have been with my wife, Nadia, I succumbed and ate the juice of the bull! It actually tasted pretty good too. Of course the potato stew was washed down with a free beer or two.
Tequila Dave is reborn as the Mountain Goat that he truly is!
Dave finished La Cursa in 52nd place overall in 3:44. Of the 116 (out of 202) UTF runners that had made it to the final day, he was 17th over the line and jumped to 30th overall for the three days (17:30:48). An inspiring achievement fuelled on very little but sheer determination. Hats off to Tequila Dave!
Despite finishing La Cursa in 146th place, my own resurgence over the middle half of the course had allowed me to jump a few places for the series and I finished the three days in 73rd place in 20:38:25. Throughout the weekend I had indecisively hovered in the middle ground between training and racing. I may have finished with a blister and a few mosquito bites, but turf toe, achilles tedinopathy, hamstring tedinopathy and the many other niggles that have plagued me over the past few years were all absent. The mediterranean warmth had blessed my body and, despite a battle with the sun and unexpected heat, I felt great.
As if we hadn’t been given enough already there then followed a ceremony where all UTF finishers were called up on stage individually to collect a finishers paperweight and a pink gilet! Finally the beers were flowing.
And then there were two… pink gilets to be seen in a Truro bar near you someday soon!?
The finishers photo. Me top left under the flashlight. Dave is buried in the middle at the back
I genuinely feel we stumbled on something special here. There was no invasion of international athletes - yet at least. In fact I understand that only one British athlete had previously participated and that was only in the Ultra race. The event had a family atmosphere and there were clearly well established friendships forged over the seven year history among the many returning competitors. The dedication and passion of all the helpers, marshalls, villagers and organisers was admirable and a huge thank you to everyone involved. It is events like this that make me realise why and how lucky I am to be able to run.
I would like to say the adventure was all over but we still had a day to recover in Denia and loosen the legs on a hike over Montgo before flying back to the UK (this is why we flew to Alicante). Weather put paid to those plans as the heatwave finally broke and we were inundated with heavy wind and rain. Not enough to deter me from guiding Dave and Chris around Cova Tallada and Montgo’s foothills. Surprisingly the legs felt fresh and running came easy (for Chris and I at least!)
I know I have a lot more to give Parc Natural Els Ports.
With several weeks to recover and contemplate I can say with assurance that I wouldn’t hesitate to go back next year and do all three days again! Fancy it?