Ultra trail Pirineu – September 2015, Pyrenees, Spain.

Winner Killian jornet 12h 35m, Jonathan Worswick 266th in 21h 15m!

What happened? How could I take nearly twice as long as the winner when normally I am only a few hours behind?

Well in a few words, even though I knew this was going to be tough I still underestimated the event. This turned out to be one of the toughest races I have ever done, and that comparison includes 100 milers like Hard Rock and UTMB.


The race

*Spanish Pyrenees, north of Barcelona and just south of Andorra.

*110km, including 6900m ascent; highest point 2500m.

*1000 runners who were mainly Spanish, in fact mainly Catalan locals.

*Mainly single track, some dirt road, also some technical sections that included scree, boulders and creek beds.

*The course was well marked and had regularly spaced aid stations.

*As the weather was good we were only required to carry “light” kit. There were also many mountain streams to get water.


The start

The race started in the small historic town square of Baga.  Leading up to the gun, the excitement built and the crowd gathered, speakers played the sound track from the movie “The Last of The Mohicans”, film cameras were setup at different locations and interviews were given with elite runners. As the start time approached, the volume from the speakers and the cheering of the crowd ramped up and the tension grew. When the starters gun fired at 7am the runners started to funnel out from the square into a narrow alley where spectators were on the balconies and standing back in door recesses to avoid the first onslaught of runners. It was very dramatic, and enough to send tingles up your spine.


All’s good

Immediately after leaving Baga, the race hit the first of two major climbs and what a whopper it was – taking 14km to reach the summit at a chair lift terminus.  The view from the top was spectacular – 360 degree views stretching far into the distance in all directions.  While the conditions were picture (and running) perfect the summit ridge was quite chilly at an altitude of 2500m. I survived this climb feeling good and headed into the first major downhill.

The route dropped into a valley where the temperature picked up to 25 degrees before hitting the second major climb where half way up, things started to go pear-shaped.  I started to breath more heavily and my legs felt like lead; I knew what this feeling was as I’d been there before…altitude. The rest of the event was pure survival.

Fortunately, the checkpoints were excellent, stocked with pasta, bread, soup, sports bars, electrolyte, fruit, cake, nuts etc. It was also noticeable that many of the locals spent much longer eating and recovering than you see in Australian races. Must be that relaxed Mediterranean style of theirs…

I want out!

At 84km, I planned to pull out as I couldn’t eat and felt sick in the stomach. However, my partner Kate cunningly tricked me into heading out to the next checkpoint which was only 8km further and relatively flat where she said I could pull out. It went dark during this leg (at about 8pm) and, cruelly, it ended up being nasty trail so that I walked much of it. For reasons too long to detail here (it is a good story) she didn’t make it to the check point, and as it was a difficult place to dnf I continued on.

A slippery slope

The next section included a steep narrow technical forest track that had become a skating rink after hundreds of runners had already come through. Although there was a language barrier a number of us had laughs together as one then the next runner slipped and slid their way down.  My laughing didn’t last long as we finished a small climb into the next checkpoint – I had some bouillon and Coke, threw up 3 times then staggered out of the aid station 15 minutes later.

Automatic pilot

On the uphill I was overtaken by many runners who seemed to be going twice as fast as I was. The downs and flats I lost less time although still some. My head down I got into auto mode and ground out the remaining distance, stopping often on the remaining climbs.

A bog of mud and sloppy dung

One of the final ascents was through sloping cow paddock which had been made into a bog of mud and sloppy dung. I heard a few howls in the dark as runners slipped and fell into cow pats or large mounds of thick mud. Here my poles were a great help in keeping on my feet as they often slipped backwards. In long European races most runners use poles for up and down hills. Usually collapsible carbon fibre and very light they are an essential part of your kit.

Where is the finish line?

Finally we reached the top of the last climb. Now it was just a long descent of fire road and some Tarmac. I managed to jog most of it back. It seemed never ending, the last few km’s always seem to drag on. Everything was so quiet, where is the town? Eventually I turned a corner and there were lights ahead, through a few streets then the finish line in a small plaza. A small but raucous crowd cheered me in.

Would I do it again?

At 4am at the finish line of course I said never again but now a few days later after copious amounts of rehydration from vino Tinto in Barcelona “Yes” as it was a spectacular run (and would be a great area for hiking) BUT only after some serious acclimatisation.


What did I learn?

– make sure to check out the route in detail. I knew about the elevation gain so had trained on hills but the altitude had a major affect so ideally I would spend a week in the area staying high and running/walking the ridges.

– Don’t get cocky just because you think you have done the distance before as every race is different.

– don’t cop out when you think you have fallen into the abyss. The body is quite amazing. In most situations you can make it through, it may seem like a death march but just keep moving forward.

– Hill training in australia is good but it’s no substitute for the length of the climbs and the altitude.

Interested in competing?

This event is very popular.  Entries fills up quickly as does the town accommodation.  we actually stayed near the town of Saldes which was beautiful but a 25 minute drive to the start on windy mountains roads.

Alternatively there is another event on the same day just a few mountain ranges away that is a little shorter and doesn’t have as much hype as this one … Could be worth considering.


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