Coming back to do the same race can seem a bit crazy, especially when it took a massive effort first time around, but for me it’s the opportunity to log progress and Al Andalus Ultimate Trail (AAUT) rounds of my annual running season pretty sweetly too. It’s well organized, the volunteers and support staff are amazing, and it never fails to bring together some awesome and friendly runners. What’s not to like?
Returning to run the 230km in five days of AAUT I’d set myself a series of goals that I wished to accomplish throughout the event, which is set in the challenging topography of southern Spain.
1. I’d written out a series of daily time goals. Realistic challenges which would ensure I’d come home in a cumulative time under 30 hours.
2. I wanted to end the second day, a notoriously gruelling goat track climb and descent, in better shape that I did first time around.
3. I would run the third day faster – not so crazily that I hadn’t fuel in the tank left for the long mileage of day four but not so conservatively that I was out for too long in the scorching sun. Day three had been the nemesis when I’d pulled up at the side of the trail and questioned what I was doing here.
As it was, I left my bit of paper with my goal times behind in the hotel at the start. I’d be running blind with a guesstimate in my head. Turns out, as always, this was no bad thing.
After 3km from the start, runners are faced with a steep climb up a wide mountain track, switch-backing and twisting its way back and forth. I knew from past experience that for most runners this is a walk hill – no ifs and no buts. Those who attack it too hard usually run out of steam on a later day. Clearing the first checkpoint (CP) at 11km, it’s a downhill trot all the way to CP2 – another opportunity for first-day-fresh legs to gallop away. Leaving CP2 it’s pretty much a tarmac trot to CP3. This felt much shorter and cooler than last year. After chatting to a good friend at CP3 it’s a trail run back to the finish of the 39km. Again, this was much smoother than my previous attempt when my tummy had been a little wish-washy. Day completed in 4:11:45 (2013 effort in 4:47:52).
Following a good feed at the finish at the swimming pool, as opposed to in Alhama de Granada itself (as in previous years) and an uneventful evening bedded down in the local sports hall, Day 2 started all too quickly. The 48km kicked off at a brisk pace down through Alhama gorge, with plenty of passing and being passed before a short road section, scenic trail and CP1. The trot to CP2 is mainly uphill, some steepish bits (poles at the ready), and passes the evening’s campsite. This isn’t great second time around as you’re all too aware of where you’ll end up and what’s in between.
CP2 was an in and out affair with me spying those just ahead weaving their way on the infamous goat trail. And so I was off – me versus the sticky bit. I really attacked this last year, knocked too much out of my legs and made slow progress afterwards. I don’t like heights, so with eyes firmly up and right, I poddled the 9km between CP2 and CP3. It was slow; 2 hrs! But I knew that the rest of the route was for me, runnable.
CP3 passed and I was trotting on what feels like the road to nowhere, a long, straight, hot, red track before a tight left and the drop down to the river crossing and CP4. I don’t do wet feet – I did last year and regretted the sloshy, heavy shoes the rest of the way. So, I stopped took off my shoes and socks, paddled through and put them back on the other side. I know, I know, but I completed the remaining 7km much faster than last year. There’s a fair few ups involved so a fair few runnable downs (in dry footwear). Day completed in 6:15:00 (2013 effort in 6:30:14).
A dip in the El Nacimiento Campsite stream, a good feed in the village of Jatar, a sound night’s rest and we were off again. Day 3 is reputedly the easy day. Just 39km with more down than up. Runners have two choices; run fast and finish early giving them extended recovery time but risk burn out, or run conservatively spending more time on the go in the sun and have less recovery time.
Stage-racing involves looking at the bigger picture and is very much the thinking man’s game. I totally bonked on Day 3 in 2013 and wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. I’d gone home, done my training, not got injured and was in better shape.
The 11km run to the first CP is basically on road and downhill – it’s the opportunity to clock some miles. My legs felt okay, so away we went. CP1 passed I was a bit footy on the following hard stone track. The balls of my feet were sore and so I stuck to the softest going wherever I could. A steep ascent precedes CP2 and then a windy trail before a fast descent to CP3. More downhill and a silly 600m stretch of single-track drops runners onto the track to the El Bacal campsite. Day completed in 4:24:13 (2013 effort in 5:06:42).
(continued in next post).
Thanks to Tim Harman for the great photos.