Newly shod in my Saucony Grid Excursions I was all set for the CxM Nocturna San Juan night race the following evening. Yes, I know, one day into a brand new model of shoes isn’t the way to do it. But this was my final competitive trot out before Ultra Sierra Nevada and I wasn’t going to be racing it now was I?
I also know that it’s not the best form to go to see the osteopath the morning of a race either. But Oscar Arrabal is a busy man and I was desperate to let the genius get to work and this was the only slot he had.
I first met Oscar four years’ ago at the AAUT race. He and fellow masseuse Charro have hands of gold and are the saviours of the day keeping us runners on the trail for five long days relieving our aches and pains.
I know that Oscar knows just how I’m put together and can usually persuade my spine and pelvis back into alignment, and so I made the pilgrimage to his consulting table the morning of the night race.
I like to think practitioners savour the challenge of working out how we’re all put together. They certainly rub their hands together and sigh the same way a car mechanic does when he’s got an old banger on the ramp when I’m on the table. An hour’s twisting and cracking later, I felt like I had 100,000 miles on the clock and my suspension was shot.
I really didn’t feel like running that evening as I crammed into the starting pen (yes, we all had to be penned to check we were all carrying working headlights or torches). Steve and I were near the back. We’d got spooked out that the trail might not be marked and made a pact that if after 5km we couldn’t find our way, we’d come back. As it was we needn’t have worried.
Penning a couple of hundred runners took a little longer that expected and the race kicked off 20 minutes late but it was still light. The gun fired and we streamed out of the park and along a river side track on the edge of the Rio Genil.
I set out, bouncing along in my new shoes, and realising for the first time since December 2015 I was actually running pain free, thanks to Oscar. Other ultra runners will be able to relate, when you’re running with niggles all the time you learn to switch off to that little tightness here, the stiff joint there, and don’t realise how bad things have got until they’re put right.
I started over-taking as we poured left and onto a single file trail. Surging on up towards the first proper hill, I rapidly overtaking runners walking. I felt loose and kept on powering up.
A bit of balancing, ignoring a sheer drop to the right, and I was through the first aid station, still climbing and overtaking a youngster I recognized from the Durcal mountain race Steve had tackled earlier in the year. I knew she was a pretty strong runner.
More up, the odd short sharp descent (and the chance to hold up some of the guys behind who then couldn’t keep up on the ups) and we were high running across the top of what felt like an old quarry. It was dusk and there were two short narrow stone bridges crossing sheer gulleys to dash across. I certainly wasn’t going to look over the sides; like a certain legs-gone-to-jelly husband did!
It was now flat and I was up behind another female runner. Clearly in club kit, she and her support runners kept glancing at me. It was obvious she was feeling threatened. We were knocking 4:30 pace. I didn’t want to be running my marathon pace, on a trail, in the dark, in a training race, so let them go.
Lights on, we were into a wood, dropping and kicking up dust. It was tricky to see as we poured down the hillside in hazy cloud.
Hard right and we were into a cemetery. Now if anyone has ever visited a Spanish cemetery they will know that every row of mausoleums looks the same. I just followed the runner in front, who followed the glowing tape, into the pitch black, with the odd marshall attempting to direct us. The place was like a maze, full of runners appearing to go in all different directions. Just as I headed back out onto the trail a voice came out from the darkness: “Whitters is that you?” And my husband Steve went flying past down the hill.
How did that happen? I’d made good progress, and I know he’s not the fastest hill climber. Was I really that slow downhill? A moment’s hesitation and I was back in the game, and he was fair game to catch. I motored off into the dark rapidly hunting him down. He then tagged on behind, his old Petzl headlight no match for my LED Lensor and he was in desperate need of some light in which to see his way down off the hillside. We took a left, through some undergrowth and were on out way back down to the river bank.
“Okay,” I thought, let’s see what these shoes are made off and I set off back toward the finish. Steve could manage to make his own way home on familiar trail with his one candle-bright Petzl now.
We were now pretty spread out but I was quickly picking off runners less confident in the pitch black. We run a lot at night in Qatar and I’m pretty strong when it comes to running on the flat in the dark. I also know that you actually run much slower than you feel you are doing at night.
I came charging toward where I thought the finish line would be but was directed on further along the river bank before being directed back on myself, through a park and over the line. That finish line sprint was longer than I’d expected!
I’d been quick and there weren’t many people milling around the finish-line fodder. Bonus! I got many hearty congratulations from guys I’d gone flying past over the closing kms. I reckon a few had gotten a bit of a shock get burned up by a girl in the dark.
Steve finished and we checked our times. I was second in my age group and fifth woman overall. Unfortunately, I am not affiliated to a Spanish club so was ineligible for a prize (neither was the local winner). It wasn’t much fun watching someone who was a good 30 minutes slower than you picking up the prize – but I had a bigger prize to savour – I’d run pain free!
Check out the Youtube drone cam from the race. (I’m at 53 seconds behind the dude in blue.)
PS We sorted out the anomaly of Steve getting ahead in the race. My GPS data showed I’d run nearly 17km…he’d run 16.1km (amended after posting to distance shown on hubby’s GPS). Who knows who went where in the darkness of the cemetery maze. Strava data shows race distances from 14km to 18km!