Saturday, 23 July 2016

BUFF Epic Trail Aiguestortes 2016

The third and final race of my 2016 European trip was the BUFF Epic Trail Aiguestortes, Spain, which also doubled as the biennial Skyrunning World Championships. This three day event had vertical kilometer (VK), 26km, marathon and ultra races on offer. I'm a big fan of the longer "value for money" type of events so chose the ultra with its 105km, +/-7950m. What I didn't anticipate was how much "value" I was to get on the mountainous ultra course.
BUFF Epic Trail course profile.
Two weeks prior to the BUFF Epic Trail I raced in the High Trail Vanoise VK and Petit Parcours races in the French Alps. Their purpose was to help me acclimatise to the altitude and big European mountains. Following the High Trail Vanoise event I travelled with Mum, Dad and Brian down to Spain to check out the BUFF Epic Trail ultra course prior to race day. Firstly we spent a few nights in Taull (Vall de Boi ) to check out the first big ascent and last big descent of the ultra course. We then moved to Espot for a few more nights where we checked out the middle part of the ultra course. Although these recce runs were short in distance, they generally involved a VK up out of the valley which was a lengthy exercise, but each effort was rewarded with gorgeous Pyrenees view and the occasional bird of prey sightings. I often wondered if they were circling Brian on his way up the mountain side to meet me. All up we managed to check out about half the ultra course, but as it turned out, these sections were the easiest parts of the course.

Prior to the "business end" of my trip we all drove to the Spanish Costa Brava coast where we spent a few nights in the white washed coastal town of Cadaques, Spain. It was a refreshing change from the mountainous regions we had been in for the last two weeks. The change in location also minimised the temptation to overexert myself before the big race. Essentially I had nothing else to do but sit back and soak up the suns rays while enjoying the Mediterranean views.
Tapering may as well be enjoyable. Cadaques, Spain.
When we returned for the BUFF Epic Trail, the race hub village of Barruera in the Vall de Boi valley, had transformed itself into a trail running mecca. A number of temporary structures had been erected for the event. This seemed to attract a myriad of trail runners, like moths to a bright shining light. Everyone seemed to be busy doing something somewhere.  It was a big change from the quiet little village I had visited just a couple of days earlier.

The VK kicked off the long weekend of Skyrunning races. While spectating the start I managed to catch up with a few of the Australian and New Zealand Skyrunning team members. It was good to meet some new faces and catch up with others. During our discussions they relayed to me that the ultra course had been modified. As confirmed during the prerace briefing, a 10km section of the course was to be "neutralised". From what I could gather, permits were not granted for this section of the course. The solution was for us to traverse this section of trail as "day hikers" and a percentage of our overall time would be deducted. All very confusing, but the general consensus was that the race would go ahead regardless.

The ultra trail, including the neutralised section, is 105kms. The lowest part of the course is the race start/finish town of Barruera at 1100m elevation. From here it is all up with four major ascents and descents accumulating in +/-7950m of elevation change. The highest part of the course is just under 3000m elevation, which I was hoping would not disadvantage me after my earlier acclimatisation in France. I had done as much as I could to be ready for this race and all that was left to do was the race itself.

Come race morning I once again lined up with the well styled European trail runners in the predawn light. There was just enough light to see without a head torch, but by the time we all started running I found myself jostling for position next to someone with a light. The pace was quite fast to start with. Much faster than I was prepared to run. After the first few kilometres the trail switched from following the relatively flat trail up the Vall de Boi valley, to ascending up the steep alpine slopes on the route's first big ascent (+1000m). The earlier enthusiasm of the other runners around me was quickly reeled in and the pace dropped dramatically to a mix of power walking and a slow jog where the grade allowed. This pace was much more sustainable and more to my liking.

Upon reaching the top I followed the other runners over the pass and started the  long runnable descent down to the village of Senet and the first crewed checkpoint beyond at Refugi Conangles (22.9kms). I'd done this leg of the course with Brian so knew what to expect and how to approach it. I was only a shorty way down the descent before a sharp pain quickly developed from my left glute down my left hamstring. Since arriving in Europe I'd had what felt like a deep bruise in my left glute. I suspect it was from sitting for too long on the airplane seats. It hadn't been restricting me on my previous runs, but just incase I'd been taking it easy where possible and had a few massages, but seemingly it wasn't enough. Now that the dull sensation had emerged as a noticeable pain I reigned in my pace, stepped off the trail and started walking. Almost as suddenly as the pain had appeared it started to fade. I tried lifting the pace back up to a run again, but the pain re-emerged. I spent the next hour finding that point where discomfort became pain as most of the field that was behind now started to trickle past me.

The less technical section of descent down to Senet.
In previous ultras I'd occasionally come across some pretty talented male runners during races. The fact that I'd caught them was an indicator that they were not having a good day. The guys that stand out most in my mind were those that managed to compose themselves and soldier on to the end, sometimes repassing me before the finish line. It's these guys whom I admire, who don't look for excuses to pull out, regardless of the expectations placed upon them by others. I've often wondered if under the same circumstances would I retire during a race. I've never seriously considered DNF'ing (did not finish) during a race, but I was now. I felt that my time of reckoning had arrived.

The remaining kilometres to Refugi Conangles checkpoint were slow and uncomfortable. I was able to jog the flats and ascents with some discomfort, but it was the descents that were causing me the most grief. I arrived at the checkpoint where Mum, Dad and Brian and been waiting for me. The look of sympathy on their faces said it all and I didn't have to tell them that something was wrong. Brian asked if I was alright. "Yeah, I'm OK". No, not really, but what could he do? I explained as best I could how I felt. Brian asked if I wanted to pull out or continue on. He reinforced that he, along with Mum and Dad, would support me either way. I stood there thinking about my options and what I wanted to do. We'd worked and saved hard to afford the trip over to Europe. I had trained hard to get myself ready for this race. Although I've had a few DNS's, I had never DNF'd a race before. My race might have been done, but my run (jog) was far from over. I refilled my bottles and replenished my pockets with food before announcing that I'd continue on. I was in a bit of discomfort, probably too much for this early stage of the run, but I was prepared for a long day and a long night on the trail. 
Brian restocking my supplies before I departed Refugi Conangles.

It is almost guaranteed that during an ultra something will hurt, eventually. I often find in ultras that the brain can only focus on one source of pain at a time. The level of pain is relative to what else is hurting in the body at the same time. If something hurts more then that becomes the minds focal point. My logic for continuing on was that the discomfort I was feeling at the moment was restricting my running but wasn't preventing me from continuing on (jogging, hiking, walking). There was always the possibility that something else would start hurting more and that I might be able to lift the pace a little. This might sound a little strange, but I'm sure that ultra runners can relate to it one way or another.
Heading up into the clouds.
The section of trail beyond Refugi Conangles was all new to me. I hadn't made it this far in my recce runs. The trail ahead and what it holds would be my reward for continuing along the route. I was still well in front of the sweeper (if there was one that is) and I wasn't last, though I felt like I wasn't far off. The trail headed up the mountain behind the refugi, into the low lying clouds. The climb was massive (+900m), which was a predominant feature on this course as there were a few big climbs. There were few sections that could be considered "flat", though there were sections where the grade on the ascents slackened off and became runnable. Unfortunately for me the runnable sections proved to be of little advantage. At the top of this next climb I could spot the first of the perched lakes, for which this region (Aiguestortes and Sant Maurici Lake Nation Park) is renowned. There are over 200 lakes in this area and the course was about to run past many of them.
The alpine lakes were spectacular and there were so many of them.
The checkpoints on this course were reasonably well spaced. As my crew could only get to two of the checkpoints (Refugi Conangles, 22.9kms and Espot, 71.0kms)) I was dependant upon the provisions supplied by the race organisers. As time in the checkpoints was no longer a concern for me I found myself gazing at the array of food and beverages on offer. I'm not sure if it was the altitude or what, but I definitely had an increased appetite. I found myself filling my pockets with food, along with two handfuls, before departing the checkpoints. I never eat this much at checkpoints, but if my body wanted it then I was happy to oblige.
Part of the trail down to Espot.
Shortly after departing the Colomers checkpoint (47.9kms) I arrived at the start of the "neutralised section". A marshal was there to ensure that our race numbers were hidden before we continued on. The course markings disappeared along this section of the course and we were instead flowing a string of marshals who marked the way for us. Prior to arriving in the Pyrenees for my course recce runs I'd loaded the ultra route onto my GPS watch. The one million waypoints had been reduced to ten thousand in the process, which led to some confusing interpretations of the route during the recce runs, especially when there was no trail in sight to follow. I'd slowly got used to it so knew what to expect if I had to rely upon it. Now, running with a watch for the first time in a race for many years, I was glad to have the add reassurance that I was on the correct route, even though there was little chance of getting lost.
Walking into Espot with mum.
At the end of the "neutralised section" I was once again on familiar trail as it descended down to Espot. I'd done this long descent with Brian and knew how runnable it was, however I had left my running legs way back at the 5km mark. Meeting me at the bottom of the descent at the Espot checkpoint was Mum, Dad and Brian. Although it had been almost 9 hours since we had last seen each other it looked like they were relieved that I'd finally turned up. Brian let me know that I'd made up 43 positions since we last saw each other. I don't remember overtaking any where near that number of people, so most of them must have been DNF's. This checkpoint was by far the biggest to date, and was housed in one of the village hotels. Laid out along one wall of the hotels dining room was a smorgasbord of food. I was like a food obsessed dog, starting at one end of the room, eating my way to the other end. I have never been so hungry in my life, but like I said before, I needed to listen to my body.
Espot was an awesome checkpoint with delicious food and a change of socks.
It was 6:20pm by the time I left Espot for the biggest and longest climb of the day (+1300m). Last light for this part of the world was just after 10pm and I was keen to make use of all the natural light as I knew that my pace would drop substantially when using my head torch.
Almost at the top of the final "big" ascent.
By the time the sun set I was on new trail. I hadn't made it this far on my recce runs and it was disappointing to be missing out on what I'd heard were spectacular Pyrenees vistas. When it gets dark there are a lot less distractions for the mind and it is easy to focus on those parts of the body that are hurting. My leg was still causing me a discomfort, though dropping the pace had helped considerably. However, being out on the trails for this long meant that other parts of the body were hurting just as much, like my toes from all the rocks I'd kicked. I tried to block all of this out and just focus on my headlight illuminating the trail ahead.
View of the final descent from the last pass. This is Brian on one of our recce runs.

Summiting the final pass of the route I was once again back on a familiar trail. I'd done this section with Brian and even in my exhausted state of mind I was eagerly looking out for familiar landmarks to count down the last few kilometers. I emerged from the trail onto a road at a small aid station manned by volunteers and anxious crew, one of which was mine. I almost didn't recognise them. I initially ignored them until they awoke me from my daze. By this time I was a girl on a mission. I wasn't looking for a distraction, just the finish line so that I could say that I'd conquered this epic run. I slowly counted the villages off the lower I got down the mountain, Taull, Boi and finally Barruera, again with its long awaited finish line.

Arriving in Barruera was a huge sense of relief. I had initially set out with, what I thought, a realistic expectation. Early on in the race my goals had to be reassessed, taking into account my current circumstances. I then stripped away my earlier expectations and just focused on the single goal of finishing. So after almost 22hrs on the trail I finally made it across the finish line with the official time of 19:46:06, to the applause of maybe a dozen sleepy spectators/support crew. 

Looking back at what I'd done, I am glad that I had decided to continue on. I felt then, as I do now, that had I DNF'd then I would have regretted it. There would have been this nagging voice questioning, "what if?". Though it might have been a long uncomfortable and arduous task, I can confidently say that I have an answer to a question that I didn't have to ask myself. To end on a positive, I've now completed a full course recce of the BUFF Epic Trail.
I ran the last few hundred metres to put on a show for the assembled crowd.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva Headband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.

Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap
BUFF Epic Trail route (neutralised section "missing").


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  2. Love this, Beth! Congratulations on finishing and thank you for your honest insights.

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