Surviving Ultra Sierra Nevada – part 1

Survival, that was always going to be the name of the game for me at Ultra Sierra Nevada (USN) – 103km and 6,000m+ ascent. My biggest challenge to date!

And as this blog is shaping up to be as long as the race itself, I’ve carved up into three parts…just like the run itself.

Part 1 – A technical sleep deprived night run

While Glasgow’s supremo Casey Morgan was battling it out for the GB contingent up front (ending 3rd male, having led much of the way) the rest of us were hanging off the back. USN is part of the Spain Ultra Cup league of races of which Transgrancanaria attracts a strong British team. Sadly, as of yet USN seems to be off the UK ultra radar. Maybe I’m biased, but I reckon it deserves to be up there with the season opener.

Regular readers will know that I have a constant battle with my right leg, which I’m sure actually belongs to someone else who is similarly cursing their left leg. Oscar Arrabal, the osteo who I see here in Spain, had put in some impressive work and got my leg functioning something a bit more like. Feeling pain free for the first time in a long time, I promptly got carried away sailing downhill and triggered an old injury site. Stop laughing, it was fast descending for me, right!

It seems a loose ligament in my right ankle gets upset when I pick up a bit of speed downhill. See, I knew there was a reason why my brain tells me to slow down when descending.

Training was therefore curtailed, I’d limped through a last 20km night session about ten days before the race and that was it. I was laid up, sitting down as much as possible, getting increasingly nervous, and hoping the ligament would settle.

I’d packed in a few fair miles before however over the finest Andalucian trails we’ll be using for Ultra Trail Spain running and training holidays ( but really wasn’t sure it was enough. I’d done the 500m altitude hill climbs, the 2km tempo loops on undulating track, and I’d pushed out some quality daylong runs. I could but only trust my running during the weeks’ prior.

The morning of the race day dawned. We were to start at midnight. Eek! I’d managed to get in seven hours of sleep the night before and was hoping to catch a siesta later.

Not so ready for the off!

So much for carefully laid plans! Number pick up was due to kick off in the centre of Granada at midday. I had no idea where the location was in the city, not being good at navigating cities, but had persuaded a friend to tootle in with me and show me the way. With hindsight, I’d still be looking for the number pick up now without her. We arrived to find a long queue tailing back across the square. Okay, no worries, we were early. Unfortunately, there were are few issues with number collection set up and we were to wait another 30 minutes. Thankfully, as it was getting hot stood there, the go-ahead was given and we filtered into the collection.

As is often the way in this part of the world, things were a little chaotic but bibs were eventually collected. While standing in the queue I met Robert from Abderdeen, a keen Ironman Triathlete and Celtman finisher who’d won his race entry in a facebook competition, and would be tackling his first 100km. I and a few more Brits local to the area (we were in short supply) persuaded him poles were the order of the day and he was dually dispatched to Decathlon to pick some up.

Following a late lunch, I realized it was already time to pack up and get myself up to Pradollano, Sierra Nevada, where the race would finish. I’d then catch the race bus to the start-line.

Kit rechecked, I was on my way up to the mountains, spotting waving tape marking the various race courses as they criss-crossed the road. This was starting to feel very real.

After checking into the hotel apartment; literally 100m from the finish line, I tried to catch some zzz’s. Unfortunately, my brain, the sunlight pouring in through the mountain-view window, the high temperature of the room which is designed to keep skiers warm in the winter, and the noisy kids in the neighbouring apartments had other ideas. I eventually gave it up as a bad job at 7:30pm, nibbled some more food, drank plenty of water and started to get myself ready.

After rechecking my kit again, I grabbed my 70km drop bag and headed to catch the coach leaving from just outside my door. With dusk, at around 9:30pm, two coaches pulled up. The runners milling nervously around crowded on board, and we left with military precision at precisely 10pm – ultra running is serious business and we could not be late.

Hitting Granada there were already some local road closures for a 6km urban run going on as part of the event, but as athlete transport we were allowed through, to arrive at just after 11pm. We filed off the bus and headed to the start to hand in drop bags. Race DJs are something of a legend in these parts and our compere for the evening was already energetically geeing up the crowds.

After using the facilities in a nearby pizzeria, I limped into the starting pen. My chipped number was scanned, I wasn’t called

The start line beckons!

The start line beckons!

over for a kit check, and I was ready for the off. But really not feeling like I was ready for the off! It was nearly midnight, I was feeling sleepy, and my leg wasn’t feeling so great under my calf guards.

The countdown started and I was ready to bail, looking around nervously I don’t think I was alone. We were off and the front runners surged ahead, okay I was moving, sluggishly and my shin was decidedly sore. ‘The first six km or so should be straight forward’, I thought to myself. ‘It’s road, my leg doesn’t feel so bad on road because the foot is level’, I told myself. Except the road wasn’t smooth, I’d forgotten it’s around the Albaycin – it’s all cobbles!

Okay, Sarah time to find that place: 1) It’s an ultra you’ll soon be in greater pain somewhere else. 2) It’s an ultra everything is going to hurt sooner or later. 3) It’s an ultra, be grateful for what doesn’t hurt yet. That’s good, my hammies are both sound – now that doesn’t happen very often.

The six kms were soon ticked off, we were siding the Alhambra Palace, through the car park behind and onto single track. Soon, we’d be looking down at the Alhambra and winding our way through the Generalife. Now I’d run part of this in the CXM Nocturna San Juan a few weeks before and there were definitely familiar stretches as we vied for our places. It would be a long night and we’d get friendly with the same pair of heels in front of our own as we bunched up trying to share as much light as we could.

First bum shuffle down – everyone of a certain height had to here – it was an 8m drop down behind the sewerage works – and we were heading down into CP1. Well everyone but me. It was stony technical track and what’s the big thing you cannot do with a dodgy ankle and shin…stony technical track. I slowed, folks poured past and hit the CP fast.

Eventually limping in, the Sapiens Human runner crew had it sorted. Raidlight bottles refilled, slipped back into the front of my Salomon vest, sandwich bag full of grabbed supplies, and I was sent back out on my way whilst everyone else was still messing around.

Yeah, I know mix n match brands. There’s a method to my madness. I ain’t farting around filling soft flasks or bladders. It takes far too long. Plus the larger plastic Raidlight bottles have nifty straws. I don’t need to take them out of the vest to drink which is a must on technical trail at night. I simply turn my head and suck, thereby ensuring I keep drinking and keep hydrated. I knew we had a hot day ahead. Miss out on getting enough fluids in now, and you’d be calling it a day early.

There was more vying for position as we trundled on our way. We could still hear the CP1 fiesta going on deep into the darkness as we trotted through olive groves, touched a short section of the Camino Mozarabe de Santiago which passes through Moclin, home to Ultra Trail Spain, and started to climb. We passed a small group of volunteers clad in track tape, ringing goat bells, and marking off numbers are runners went by. It was past 2am and things were getting surreal. A wide smooth track took as down into Beas, which provided me with an opportunity to open my as of yet stifled gait.

Through CP2 (Photo thanks to

Through CP2 (Photo thanks to

The residents of Beas must be forgiving folks and mad keen on running, not only do they have 100km ultra runners clattering through their town all night, they also have the 62km distance starting on their doorstep at 6:00am. They are generous hearted people and I enjoyed a tasty quince jelly sandwich at their CP.

Back on the road, I had to stop to empty the grit out of my shoes – this was to become a theme and if anyone is considering this race in the future – get yourself some natty cloth gaiters or you’ll be sat fishing stones, thistles and pine needles out of your runners at 3am!

Focus, mind back on the job. Now, I’d read the course notes, I’m not daft and I knew the next section to CP3 was insane. We hit the Parque Nacional on a bed of grit and single track. Next up a steady climb over rocks, no problem. We were all moving together, heading upwards under a truly epic starlit sky. The moon was three-quarters full and we could see fairly well. I forged ahead over a bit of flat sand. No problem for us desert dwellers, opening up some space between me and other runners behind.

Heading right, I spotted a ‘caution’ sign and then, there it was looming up by the light from my headtorch – a wall of dirt! This was it! This was the infamous firebreak. I locked and loaded my poles and dug in. Climbing up on loose soil, literally stabbing in my poles and hoping they held, I really do not know how I got up there.

A male runner went past and signaled to me to keep digging, not to stop (or I would slip, fall on my face and slide down probably taking 20 or so other runners with me!). Summiting we were into rough downhill overgrown trail… and of course everyone went shooting past – again. Slip sliding off the trail, which was back to single track, we were into CP3 battered and some of us slightly bruised. Ably fed and watered by the Illiberis Scouts, who I’m pretty sure were camping out for the whole weekend to look after runners, we were out onto runnable track and road before picking up the trail to Quentar. The next section was to be a longer one and I’d prepared by stuffing sections of banana into my plastic bag as well as jelly sweets and tapas mix (salted nuts and corn) at the CP.

Dawn heads our way!

Dawn heads our way!

With baited breath I waited for my turn to cross the tree branches used to make a temporary river crossing…baited breath as the guy in front tried to balance on the wrong branch which had a bit of spring in it! Disaster averted he was over, I was over, and we were heading up on rocky trail, switch backing up the hillside. Now, I reckoned there would be some easier trail coming up. Why? Because this was a longer section between CPs.

And I was right, a runnable-ish down, another river crossing – this time a sit on the trunk and slide over – and as dawn broke we were onto rolling easy-ish track. The guy ahead – the one who’d nearly taken a bath in the river – was tired but he wasn’t going to let me past despite me being close up on his heels all the time. How could I tell? Well it was just hitting dawn, that famous time for feeling rough when you’ve been up all night, and he was struggling to follow the track which was excellently marked with tape every 50m metres. (I don’t know how many folks it took to mark a 100km course, but amazing job!)

So, when the guy headed off the wrong way once too often, I nipped past and then called him past. Mission accomplished. I was past, he was still on the correct track, and everyone else was now stuck behind. I trotted on alone up easier hills, past a couple of other guys on wider track and then started to descend. The light was breaking across the valley, I could see headtorches still burning on the duller side of the hill as yet untouched by light and it was a special time to be alone in the mountains. I’d done it; I’d got through the night relatively unscathed.

Surviving the night selfie!

A special place at first light.

A special place at first light.

(to be continued)

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