Jul 15 2013

Al Andalus Ultimate Trail 2013 – Five days in Spain – Extreme Running race report

Al Andalus Ultimate Trail is a 5-stage (230km) ultra-marathon in Southern Spain with 7,200 meters of ascent/descent, technical trails, and extreme heat (35-42C).

Al Andalus Ultimate TrailI arrived in Spain to compete in this event literally only 3 weeks after completing my first 100 mile non-stop run race. Most people are advised after a marathon and especially an ultramarathon to not race or run much for several months to allow their body to fully heal and recover from such a demanding event.  100 mile races are exponentially harder to recover from. The demand placed on the body is so severe, anything can cause it to break down and quit.  But I feel I was wise leading up to the 100, and in the weeks afterward listening to my body, knowing my strengths and weaknesses, would be able to attempt to tackle this 5 day ultramarathon race in extreme hot conditions with  little time to recover.  I competed in the Mt. Blanc Skyrunning Vertical km race in France a week prior to AAUT, so I had that in my legs. Oh, I also ended up doing a 28.5 mile ultramarathon training run on the Grand Union Canal only 4 days before the start of AAUT, slowly.  

 Day 0: July 7, 2013:  Flying from England to Spain

So with all that, I traveled from Irthlingborough, England to Loja Spain starting with …. 3 am wake up, drive to Luton by 4:20, wait 30 minutes to check bag, another line for visa check, a third line for "backpack" drop, 4th line for security (shortest I've seen) and get some food before the plane. I arrive in Malaga at 9:40, wait for a bus and eat a very good chicken salad and tapas. Take 90 minute bus to Loja, arrive 1:05 pm in front of our hotel. Get checked in to race. Doze off in hotel room that’s very hot. I wake up and do the medical check downstairs doctor while completely incoherent from the nap. At 3 pm, I took a log walk in the 99 degree heat and get used to being out in the hot sun. Enjoy the scenery and olive trees. 3 miles total.  Come back and eat some good food, a chicken kabob tortilla thing and ham and cheese sandwich. Go to room and doze off again, awake when roommate Fitz arrives. 

At 6pm is the runners briefing, I like the heat acclimatization sheet and information on how to prevent blisters and other heat related injuries. I didn't realize for the race there is no food during the run!  This is going to be quite a change from what I was expecting.  With 24 miles tomorrow, I’ll have to quickly figure out how to run in the heat that far with only water provided on the course. Just so you know I'm used to, trained to, addicted to eating with food during races. Will be interesting to see how it turns out.  Dinner tonight involves 4 or 5 courses! So much, very good! Hope I didn't eat too much as my stomach has been growing since my 100 mile race and not doing much core or weight training while gaining lots of weight too.  Talk with Edward about Buhtan race.  I'd like to do that some day.  Finally go pack gear, shower and catch up on blogging and twitter for the day!  End of day 0 at 11:32 pm.

 Day 1 July 8, 2013: 23.8 miles 39 km Loja to Alhama de Granada. 

Short version: I finished, I didn't enjoy the first 13 miles, but loved the last half. The Last 11 miles I ran, I negative split the race quite a lot, and secretly enjoyed 38 C / 100 F.

What was it like running in my first desert race? In the end, it was not bad. The beginning was horrible – not because of the 1000m / 3000ft climb in the first 10km – but because I could not get into a rhythm and could not really run even on the descents.  So today, it seemed everyone shot off quite quickly, I started the first few miles in the back, I knew the climb would be ok, I just kept going trying to keep a quick cadence, yeah it was warm, but did what everyone said and kept drinking water (with Elite) ever 5-10 minutes. I could tell quite easily when I needed to drink. I ate some trail mix too.  From 6.5 miles to 13 I just barely walked, struggled to get any pace, and even though it was downhill it was just boring. That's all I could think of, I was bored. 

Then after 13 miles, I just started running again, slowly picking up the pace to 12 and 11 min miles. Anything quicker than 10 minute miles I could feel my core starting to overheat, and would slow down. Also in the 2nd half I didn't add electrolyte to my water, I just drank it straight. I had a few MAP – amino acid things- and some more trail mix and eventually my apple. I started picking a few people off who seemed to be struggling in the heat. I was so surprised being able to run (jog) in this kind of heat, but guess the body is able to do some remarkable things.  So by the time I was half way, I assume the first runners were nearing the finish, I don't know how they do it.  The last check point at 19 miles I was looking forward to the coke, but they were out and I just had water the remaining 5 miles. Everyone will probably attest, the last 3 miles were so hot because there was no wind, and we were baking in the fields and orchards. But eventually I finished in 5 hours 41 minutes for almost 24 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing. 41st out of 50 runners. I ate lots at the finish, to rehydrate and get some calories in me. Lots of fruit.  I need to find some food for tomorrow during the race itself.  30 miles/ 48 km tomorrow. 


Day 2: July 9, 2013: 30 miles / 48km Alhama to Jatar – Absolutely amazing.

I Think I might have been the most improved in the race between day 1 & 2? I started quicker today, even hanging with the 'big boys' the first few miles, felt more comfortable than starting in the back. I knew I wouldn't stay there, but I was determined to finish further up the field and I'd have 30 miles to work my strategy. The first 10 miles was fairly consistent the in 100+ heat. Just before CP 2 at 12.4 miles, I walked a lot on the Tarmac/pavement cooling down a little. Then we were up for a huge climb up very dry sharp technical rocks to about 4,900ft. I was alone the whole time and took it easy walking up the forest an hour or so and eventually we made our way down. At CP3 – 19.1 miles I'd heard about 5-6 people went wrong 1 mile back. I knew who/where they were, and I assumed that put me back in 28th place I think. So I took off trying to put as much distance between them before they caught up. With the very long descent, I picked up the pace and pushed hard down the dry road was white rock and so hot! The next bit I ate my 2 apples on a dry red dirt track that went on forever. There was quite a few people around me, lots of people running strong even in the heat.

At exactly 26.2 miles we made the river crossing to CP4 where I was looking forward to refilling my water and having some coke. I got some and heard there were 16 runners still to come through. That put me in 34th, ok, better than yesterday, but I was determined to book it as hard as my body would let without overheating. 3km of uphill and I ran! Never stopped. Passed 2 going up. 4km down and I was really pushing limits almost sprinting. 9 min mile. Drinking lots ever 1-2 minutes. Passed a guy (found out alter this was Scott) going up the last 400m into town. Finished 30th overall! Pleased with that. Moved up 11 places. Tomorrow is supposed to be easier, only 24 miles with 3,000ft gain.

I must add that Michelle Cutler provided me with some very very very good peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which SO good when I ate them at 8 and 17 miles. I’d also brought 2 peaches and 2 apples I managed to grab from a store the night before.  Call me weird, but I love eating food during a race.  Gels just don’t do it for me much anymore. Thank you Michelle for the food!


Day 3: July 10, 2013: 25 miles, hot, finished, slowly. 78.5 miles in 3 days.

 Day 3 started with a long 10km road section that would allow those who like roads to do well.  I tend to get very bored and find momentum hard to maintain especially when carrying a backpack running on the road.  I just don’t do well. I started ok, but knew in first 5 miles it was going to be a long day. When I start walking (on a road) early in a race, it is very hard for me to get back into things.  It feels like a bonk – glycogen depletion when a marathoner hits 18-21 miles and the just can’t run.  That’s what I felt on Wednesday and suspect my glycogen stores were not filling fast enough in my muscles, and/or the 100 mile race 3 weeks prior and the previous 60 miles of running this week just zapped my legs.  I went off course once at 8 miles and retraced my steps running into Felix who was struggling with massive knee pain.  I offered him pizza – oh, the only food I managed to find the night before was an extra pizza I ordered during dinner, and absolutely yes I ate the whole thing during the run today! – Anyways I was in last place and coming to CP 3 – 17 miles, Felix was so determined to finish, yet his body would not let him, the doctors strongly advised/helped him return to the CP and call it a day before he hurt himself more.  I, still struggling just walked the remaining 8 miles in probably the slowest time ever during a race. I finished eventually, last, at a campsite. But once there, it was very fun hanging out with the other runners.  Angela, Roxanne, Daniel and I went and cooled our feet and legs in a nearby river for about an hour.  Was probably the best time of the trip. Very relaxing.  Tomorrow is scheduled for 42 long miles


Day 4: July 11, 2013: scheduled 67km /42 miles.

 I went 14.5 miles (93 miles in last 4 days with 13,000 feet climbing) and my body had enough.  I was not injured in any way, but definitely on the line. My body had enough, I struggled to run past 5 miles, and with all the research and podcast I just put out last week on preventing Overtraining Syndrome, I did not want to push my endocrine system beyond repair and/or push myself to injury by trying to go 42 miles.  I wasn't going quick enough for the cut off time, and couldn't get my legs to run at a decent pace. My pack was annoyingly heavy, of course it's still 100+F / 38 degrees C. I enjoyed being able to still run 93 miles in 4 days, not bad I think, but of course bummed out not completing all 5 days.  Going to enjoy some time off now, another night of camping with the ants, and back to London tomorrow night, work Sat morning. Never rest. Oh, I got a picture of Tony falling in the river!!!!



I don’t really see this as a DNF in disappointing sense of the word. I rather think I succeeded quite well even getting to the start line and managing to run 93 miles only 3 weeks after a 100 mile race, a vertical km race, and 28 mile ultramarathon. You know what? I didn’t even have a single blister!  Now that’s success!  No injuries, no blisters, well no finish either, but hey, I’m happy to have run as much as I did in the last 30 days, travel to 5 countries, have some amazing experiences, memorable adventures and meet new friends!  The other 49 competitors and race organizers were amazing to work with, to be around, to run with – I love being around other like minded individuals.  I also have to make a special mention to the ‘young’ men/women I mean teens helping out around the campsite.  They were amazing workers.  It’s not very often I find or see young people working as hard as they did and I was super impressed!  If I’m ever in a position to employ people in the future, I’d hire these lads in a heartbeat. 



As you may or may not know, I am moving to the United States in the next 4 weeks, and the last time I moved the stresses caused me and my body to shut down. This was 4 years ago, and with the stress that’s starting to come with this next move, I just need to take things easy and not worry about pushing things at all costs.   Al Andalus was a great experience, I probably won’t ever get to run it again, but will always remember it. The photos and videos will be added later this week.  I was supposed to race in the Alps for my next big race as I have confirmed entries into both the CCC and Tor des Geants races that start in Italy, but don’t know if I’ll get to run because of my moving (and of course financial) situation in the US.

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