Acing the A-race?!

Hands up, I was nervous toeing the Ultra Sierra Norte start line. I’d not run an ultra since this race a whole year before. After a long injury lay up, I’d be putting a new training strategy to the test. Doubt – was what I was feeling!

Ready for the off! Thanks to EscobedoHeart for the photo.

Knowing the course, I knew the first 20 odd km would be runnable before we hit the undulations of the natural park. And a dry course, unlike 2016’s event, meant it was a fast start. Not wanting to get caught up in the melee, I tried to keep my pace under control making sure I was eating regularly and giving myself a once over as to how I was feeling and that my right leg was behaving as it should.

Ending up short on preparation time (isn’t it always the way?!), I was wearing my battered, toe-stitched-up, year-old trail shoes. A quick Cinderella scout round Granada’s many running shops the week before, had revealed not one had a single shoe in my size. Nada! Nothing! That prince had gone awol 🙁

Following multiple blind online purchases, which has resulted in a stash of unsuitable, ill-fitting footwear, I really wanted to try some different shoes on…but it wasn’t to be. My old Saucony Excursions would have to make it round (so I hoped!).

First two checkpoints down, and I’d been told I was second woman. Nice! Just as we hit the first technical section and I hit the deck (for the first time). Seems like those trusty trail shoes were well and truly knackered. On the loose dry shale and flint of the natural park, I was like a duck on ice. Great, this was going to be slow progress, as not one, but three women went fly past in their shiny, grippy shoes.

Oh well, I wasn’t racing anyone else, just my 2016 time if possible. I’d then averaged just over 8min/km, so this year, I just wanted to stay under… but at 16min/km + downhill pace on the technical it wasn’t going to be easy!

Slowly, slowly, I reeled in the fourth and third women as the trail opened up into undulating jeep track. I played to my uphill strengths and hunkered down in third place. The second woman, running with a guy in support, was running every hill – not a game I was going to attempt – and I was able to trot past on the smoother downhills.

A quick chat with Steve and we were into checkpoint 3. I was literally in and out, leaving as second woman. Fueled with my own supplies (dates from Qatar – thanks Angie Salter, pecans from the US – thanks Judy Alexander, and Nakd Bars from the UK – thanks to Nicky Lees), I didn’t need much other than a water top up.

Pretty soon, that ‘run up every hill’ lady was trotting past again. “Okay,” I thought, “Up to you”. I wasn’t going to get drawn into this cat and mouse game just yet.

Just past 30km and another slip-slide-bum-descent-and-get-overtaken-by everyone and we came into an area of natural park which looked very different to the previous year. A wild fire had ravaged the area over the drought-ridden hot summer months. Such was the extent of the fire damage, which had totally destroyed all vegetation, wardens were laying feed cubes for the wild boar and deer.

Into 40km and first sandwich stop. Thanks to Sevilla Corre for the photo.

Hitting the 40km checkpoint, and my first sandwich stop I knew it was a straightforward-ish 14km run into the ‘half way point’ and drop bag time – if I didn’t take a wrong turn as in 2016! Heading out in a small group with the 2nd/3rd woman, who I’d been vying backwards and forwards with, I was making decent progress. Needing to retie my laces, the group pulled ahead and I was happy to let them go, preferring to run the next section on my own – with a potentially slippy section I didn’t want to feel any extra pressure. Dropping out onto a runnable track, I was able to pick up pace, reminiscing how fatigued my legs had felt at this stage last year. At around 48km, I spied the second woman. Neither her nor her running partner looked fresh. I hung back, before overtaking, as we headed into the drop bag checkpoint.

After a short wait for my bag to be found, I slurped my coconut water and chocolate milk, grabbed a couple of sandwiches, changed my socks and headed out. I’d decided to walk a couple of km uphill and get moving after the stop. The third female overtook and again I was relieved with another technical section coming up.

Following another desperately slow, slip-slide-slip-over descent, I could see the second woman and about five other runs spread out over the next couple of kms as I started the ‘firebreak of doom’…basically a 6X up and down loose grit, vegetation free, firebreak.

Giving a little whoop as I finally finished this section, I could now not see any other runners ahead, as the group I’d previously seen had headed off over the horizon. Hitting the next checkpoint – a pop-up style affair in the middle of nowhere – I downed a Cola Cao sport (basically chocolate milk) and was informed the second woman was about three minutes ahead.

At 64km I spied the second woman, now walking hills and head held down, she wasn’t looking in the best place…with a cheery ‘Hola!’ as I passed…this was the last I saw of her or her running partner. I knew I had a good 10km plus of runnable trail ahead and was feeling strong. My right knee was sore but still tracking straight. I was running well.

Overtaking 4 or 5 other runners, I was into the next checkpoint and out onto the last technical section. I was keen to get this down before nightfall. As I climbed up the last firebreak trail, I was awestruck by a massive bird soaring just above my left shoulder. I’d seen birds of prey riding the thermals for most of the day, but this one was really close. An Iberian imperial eagle, I was later to discover. I’m guessing a couple of hundred runners trailing through the undergrowth was disturbing plenty of dining opportunities for him.

Still making decent progress, I hit the 80km checkpoint as night fell. Lighting up time, I soon discovered all the rocking and rolling on my backside had broken my backlight. (Apologies to any runners depending on my red tail-light!) and ripped a big hole in the back of my Skins! Oops! I’d been flashing since 30km!

A quick refuel and I was back out, shouting at two guys heading off in the wrong direction! This next 15km section was legendary last year…quagmire. Thick, deep, sole-soul-sucking, mud. This year was definitely better, more runnable, but still plenty of walking as we headed through Iberico pork farmland, where pigs had rooted up the rock interspersed trail which had then baked hard. Making annoyingly slow progress, and feeling like I could still run, was frustrating.

Soon we were into the last checkpoint. The guys I’d been tailing headed straight out but feeling in need of something sweet I stop while the volunteers rustled up a hot cola cao. Gulping it down, I knew it was a 10km trot in and I’d be done. Legs still turning over, I decided to run it in and get the job finished. Back on the tracks we’d headed out on many hours previously, I was still running and my legs were feeling good. Hopping over a toad and thinking: “It’s going to rain soon!” I was into the town and covering the last few km. Entering the finisher’s chute, I just had the steepest finisher’s ramp in history to conquer 🙂 and I was done! Home in 12 hours 40 minutes, second woman, and just over ten minutes behind the lead woman.

Most importantly, the new training strategy has worked and my knee had held up. And my poor old Saucony Excursions…well they’re on their way to shoe heaven.

Apologies for not posting this sooner; I’ve been waiting for more race photos since plenty appeared to have been taken. The only conclusion…my bare backside was tripled XXX even by Spanish standards. 

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3 Responses to Acing the A-race?!

  1. Judy Alexander says:

    What a marvelous read, Sarah! I feel like I was there! And I was so flattered to be mentioned. Must be nice to be able to run AND write entertainingly. Thanks so much for taking us all along for the ride!

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