Extremely fortunate circumstances had me in Europe during the Ultra-Trail Barcelona 100K. I decided to sign up for it as my final tune-up race for the Cruel Jewel 100 Miler two weeks later. I arrived the evening before the race, picked up my packet and returned back to my hotel. No point in sticking around for any prerace briefing...it was in Spanish only. This would actually be the theme with pretty much anything, but I managed.
As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I picked up a large pizza pie to go and settled into my room. I knew I would have to get up around 4AM to make it to the race start in the beautiful Parc Natural del Garraf, a large park where the Garraf Massif is located, just outside Barcelona in the Catalonian Coastal Range. I spent some time studying the race information while eating my pizza, trying to piece together enough information to find my way to the starting line. Unfortunately, the English version of their website seems to have been largely neglected, but I wasn't deterred by that.
I was pretty sure I had all of the mandatory gear required for this race. Most European mountain races of 30 miles or longer often have mandatory kit requirements and this race was no different. Along with a medical note from my doc in the US I also needed an emergency whistle, emergency blanket, seam sealed rain jacket, cup, ability to carry at least 1 liter of water and a fully charged cell phone. The mandatory gear lists posted on the Spanish website vs. the English version vs. the various emails didn't match, but I was pretty sure I had it covered.
I also packed trekking poles (both as training for Cruel Jewel 100 and because this course's elevation profile was no picnic), a USB charger for my Garmin Fenix 3 and various gels for fuel, just in case I couldn't handle the aid station food. Luckily, food selection at aid stations wasn't a problem at all.
Even though race officials and volunteers arrived rather late to finish setting up everything, the race was started on time. The rain had become more constant and would continue for a few hours. There were about 200 or so runners, most of them Spanish with a couple of other nationalities represented. I think there might have been one more American in the race, but I never saw him. Along with the UTBCN 100K, there were races covering 70K, a marathon, a 21K and a few shorter distance races for kids.
Thankfully, I had hooked up with a Spaniard and a Swiss runner just before the start and the Spaniard and I decided to run the early part of the race together. This was a training race for me and I had no intention of pushing the pace at all. I was hoping for a rough finishing time of 15-16 hours, hiking the ups and running the flats and downs. I didn't know what to expect from the terrain. After some early road miles to leave the small town of Begues and some jeep dirt roads, we finally started to get on to some single track trails. These trails were definitely not of the tame variety. These mountains might not be tall, but they were extremely technical and rocky and runners were sent all the way down to sea level a couple of times. However, those trips down the mountains came with some truly spectacular views, sometimes making it impossible to distinguish where the sky ended and the Mediterranean Sea began.
I kept a controlled pace and made my way from aid station to aid station, keeping a close eye on my fluids, food and sodium levels. Aid station distances ranged from 6 to 16k. Humidity levels were low, so carrying two bottles proved to be enough. Temperatures stayed fairly level and mild throughout the day, but it did get warm on the climbs.
Since I wasn't "racing", I did take the time to "smell the roses" here and there to capture at least couple of pictures of this amazing scenery. The rain subsided a couple of hours into the run, but I kept on the rain jackets for a couple more hours. The wind on the ridges was a bit chilly and I wanted to stay warm, but as soon as the sun continued to stay ahead of the cloud cover, I stuffed the jacket into my pack.
Early on there continued to be runners ahead of me as well as behind me creating a bit of a train, but nothing that really made me change my desired pace. Before long, I was running on my own and I was fine with that. I had an iPod with me, but i never made use of it. I continued to enjoy the scenery as the miles ticked away.
One of the aid stations in the town of Garraf was actually situated at a beach on the Mediterranean Sea and required us to run on the beach for a very short section, absolutely stunning. I continued to feel great, even issues with the upper of my running shoes very early in the race as a result of a very technical downhill did not create foot issues. I made it to kilometer 70 without a hitch, changed shoes and clothes, extended my trekking poles and got back to work. I had chosen not to use them until this point to "reward" myself of sorts. It was the correct decision. I continued on, mostly on my own and only occasionally seeing other runners along the way. The field had stretched significantly by now and the 70k and other distance runners were no longer on the same course either.
Everything continued to go perfectly...until...12k from the finish. During a short but extremely steep climb requiring both hands and feet (night had fallen at this point), my headlamp and hat had blocked my view from a rather large limb hanging across the trail and boom! I hit the top of my head stopping me dead in my tracks along with everyone else behind me. There were 4 guys stuck behind me as I was having to collect my thoughts before carrying on. A couple of Ukrainians behind me suggested to take off my hat to inspect the damage and as I took off my hat, blood trickled down my face, oh good.
Thankfully, one of them had an alcohol antiseptic wipe. It stung a bit, but it it cleaned the wound. I knew I was still 12k from the finish, so my next concern was the severity of the cut and would it require stitches to which the guy behind be responded "Nah, you'll be fine, no stitches needed. I should know, I'm a doctor from Ukraine." That truly was a relief as I was worried I had another 12k to cover before I could get any necessary medical attention.
I pulled a buff over my head, put my headlamp back on and continued on. One would hope that this would be the only hitch during the race, but not so. Literally 2 miles from the finish the markings became confusing, pointing us in two directions. There were three separate groups at this point and we all independently chose the same path, the wrong one of course.
3 miles later, we still hadn't reached the finish line and it dawned on us that we might be lost. We were in the valley and close to approaching a village. Unfortunately, it was not "our" village with the finish line. This is where opinions diverged two Spaniards decided to backtrack all the way back up the mountain to try to find the correct and current course markings, a couple of Ukrainians and I decided to try to find the shortest way back as Google still had us well over 2 miles from the finish.
As luck would have it, there was no direct line back to the other valley and village, so we ended up climbing back up the same mountain as well. As we reached the top, we came upon proper course markings. Thank god, we were back on course. We now had 2 miles left to the finish, but we had already covered close to 6 extra miles. Time to get to work and get this thing done.
I rolled into the finish line after 17 hours and 4 minutes, 4 minutes after midnight on my 45th birthday. I crossed under the arch, received my finisher's medal, took a quick pic and headed to the ambulance to get patched up before walking back to the gym for some food and a nice hot shower before driving back to Barcelona. I was walking and not limping. I was feeling great, both mentally and physically. This gave me some much needed confidence leading into taper mode for the Cruel Jewel 100 Miler.
If you find yourself in Spain at the end of April and want to do a beautiful and well organized race AND collect a few UTMB points to boot, sign up for this one. It has everything a trail and mountain runner could want. As always, feel free to hit me up here or on Facebook for more details about this event.