Written by Kai.
The Celestrail race in Andorra was the second major objective of the year after Transvulcania (there are a total of 4). This probably was the most challenging of all of them with 83km of running over mostly technical terrain and 5,000m of altitude gain and 5,000 loss. The race was also at relatively high altitude with average alt of 1,800 meters and three passes over 2,500m. The race start was at midnight and the most difficult parts were early on and were completed in darkness. This means lots of firsts for me: the most technical, the longest, the first night-time race and the highest altitudes I’ve ever done.
These little flags were used to mark the course, note the piece of reflective strap for the night
ANDORRA IS SPECIAL
The Andorra Ultra Trail event consists of five mountain races of different distances. The main event is the Ronda del Cims, a 167km race with gigantic 13,000m of total climb. All of the events are at the very top in terms of difficulty for their distances. The finishing times put things into perspective: a typical easy 50mile (83km) trail race has finishing times in the 6h – 6:30 range. The Celestrail winning time this year was 10:29. The most difficult 100 mile race in North America is the Hardrock 100 which was run the same weekend. Kilian Jornet won it in 22:43 while at the same time, the Ronda del Cims winning time was 30:20 and many participants took over 60 hours to finish. The races in Andorra are pure mountain events that attract a rugged sort of mountain people and the competition in this event is very tough.
Checking out the early part of the course the next day – I wanted to see what the place looks like during the day. At 2,500+ meters.
In case anyone still wonders why I run, or why I run trail races and especially ultras, then check out the photos in this post. What an inspiring place and I do feel privileged in being able to keep doing this stuff. The main prize in a place like this is just being in the race and things like time and position become trivial and sometimes feel almost artificial and unimportant. That’s why you have people running for 60+ hours in the Ronda del Cims and fighting for the last position and still finishing like kings of the world.
Even Luna is impressed.
Preparations for the race have not been ideal. The winter training season went well and that’s really where most of the work was done. In the recent weeks, it’s been very hot and difficult to train properly. Since Transvulcania in May, I’ve only completed one ‘long run’ and that was only just over 20km. I did do some short stuff, including a 16km trail race with 750m climb the previous week and that went pretty well. I also did a personal best at my regular training route that’s a 3,5km track with 650m climbing so I knew overall fitness was still pretty good. I had some doubts about how I’d handle 12h+ of continuous running.
Chilling out with the dogs, family & friends the day before the race
The plan was very simple, basically I was planning to cut the race into half and take the night and the technical parts very easy and start racing when the sun comes up, about half-way through the race. I also wanted to make sure I have learned from the experience in Transvulcania and to avoid any unnecessary risks and to keep race pace under control despite any moments of delirious euphoria. My strengths, weaknesses and the race course also supported this strategy perfectly. Slightly after the midpoint in the race, there is a significant flatter section that also turned out to be relatively non-technical. This is where I was planning to put the hammer down and catch as many people as possible. The challenge was going to be to get through the night while conserving energy and avoiding trouble and then also making sure to have something left in the tank at the very end of the race that had the most difficult climb in the whole race.
In terms of food and drink, I had put 8 GU Rocktane energy gels (100 cal and 35mg caffeine each) into a ‘soft flask’ where I could easily eat the stuff whenever I wanted without having to worry about trash, opening the packets, etc. I was also carrying a total of 16 High 5 Isogel gels, 10 of which were waiting for me in my drop bag at the midpoint of the race. I also had two 600ml bottles with sports drink and some powder with me to make some more during the race. This totals to some 3,000 or so calories.
It’s not easy to control nerves while waiting for an adventure like this to start. I just wanted to get going already, but had to wait until the midnight race start. It was also a bit difficult to figure out what and when to eat stuff before the race. I had some big plates of pasta for both lunch and dinner and then also had some crepes an hour before the race.
Tension before the race.
We can’t wait!
Ready and looking calm.
Finally, we were underway at midnight sent off by some fireworks and running under the full moon. Typical to my style, I was in the front row and stayed in the group of top 3 for the first 5 kilometres until we hit the first climb. This might seem counter-intuitive considering my race plan, but it was completely intentional as I wanted to warm up the legs properly for the climb and the pace was really easy at this point. The beginning was very easy running and I was wondering why these guys are going so slow …
The biggest climb in the race started after the initial 5km and we were looking at 1,200m of vertical gain over 6,5km topping at Clot del Cavall at 2,500m+ of altitude. I was being passed just 5 minutes into the climb and more and more people kept passing me here. I was just taking it very easy, sticking with my plan, eating and drinking and enjoying the spectacular mountains under the full moon. There were a couple of guys who went by huffing and puffing like crazy. With 70km+ of racing left, I knew I’d be seeing most of these guys later in the race.
Some of the early trails (the next day)
The first aid station was after 17km and about 4hrs of running. It was amazing how fast those hours went by. It felt like we had just left. Everything was going well, the only issue was that my headlamp got a bit loose when it got wet with sweat, but I didn’t want to stop to adjust it before the aid station. I was in position 20-25 during this time, but not the least bit worried about that. High up, it was pretty cold, temps probably below freezing and there were a few parts where we were running on snow. Handa got a bit cold, even though I had good running gloves on. Running at night added to the challenge a bit, for example the way the light from the headlamp reflected on the wet grass was a bit hypnotic and messed up with the way my eyes focused and this was certainly distracting. The other interesting effect is when you’re running and the light shines on a twig, the shadow will move towards you and every now and then this created an effect where it looked like a snake or something was moving towards you. Well at least it wasn’t difficult to stay awake. At some parts we also had very poor visibility due to clouds / fog. Also when running with the wind, the humidity from breathing stayed in front of the runner, making visibility even worse. Of course, the higher it got, the poorer the visibility and the more technical the terrain and the combination of these things made things quite difficult at times. Early in the race, I was avoiding risks in the downhills and continued to lose some positions here.
Near the top of the first climb (next day)
Things were going quite well, there were no real bad spots during the night. Two of the races (83km and 112km) shared some parts of the route and kept merging and separating every now and then. It made trying to figure out any race positions completely impossible. I was certainly a lot faster than any of the 112km runners and I started to pass people without even trying. Things kept getting better and better and I was running quite strong. In fact, I had to consciously hold back my pace and keep things under control remembering my experience at Transvulcania. Even so, I was still running a lot faster than almost anyone around me and went by some people so fast that some of them made a comment of it or just simply laughed. This was true only for the easier sections though, there was a lot of technical downhill that I was taking easy and some people passed me here. There were some people with some serious technical downhill skills that I could just admire as they went by probably twice as fast as me. Trying to do some math, I thought that finishing under 12 hours was still a possibility and as the night started to fade, I started to push the pace a bit whenever there was a runnable section. There was a couple of kilometres of very runnable flat before the big aid station at the midpoint of the race and I used this opportunity to pass all the people who had just flew past me in the downhills. It was a good warm-up for what I was intending to do for the rest of the race.
The midpoint of the race (in distance) was a big aid station where the race organisation had deposited drop bags for us. I had some gels, a new shirt etc little goodies in there waiting for me. I had been running in a long-sleeved shirt all night and now swapped for my C.E. Trail Tarraco sleeveless race shirt in preparation for the warmed day ahead. I also left my hiking poles here, wanting to keep my hands free and reduce extra weight. According to the race profile, there was only one serious climb left at the very end.
These tiny hills are laughable compared to the last climb…
I charged out of the aid station refreshed after eating some pasta soup, etc and ready to start my charge for the second half of the race. I was a bit surprised to have to face another death-climb that seemed to last forever. I remembered from the profile that there was a little climb after the aid, before the flat section starts but in reality this climb lasted something like 90 minutes. I also ran out of water here and realised that I was seriously dehydrated. This is also where I had my first tougher moment, which fortunately quickly resolved with the combination of 1 ibuprofen & hitting a double gel and lots of water once I finally got some at a control point. I was finally feeling reasonably good at the section that the race describes as ‘charmingly hilly’ and started to execute the part of my strategy that I was most looking forward to – stepping on the gas and starting to catch people. I started feeling better and better as I got into the rhythm of running fast and I started passing. I went by some of the folks that had overtaken me around km 7 – the guys I knew I’d be seeing later on and here they were, most of them seemed pretty wrecked and walking even the flat sections. At some points, I was probably going at paces closer to a half-marathon rather than an ultra. I still had some 5 hours of racing left and I was passing others at about the rate of 2-3 runners per hour. I expected to be around position 20 when I started this phase and knew that at this rate top 10 should be reachable.
Still plenty of snow up high, dogs loved it
Towards the end of this 20km or so easy section I stopped passing more people and there was a brief moment when I was wondering if there were any more people ahead (that’s how difficult it was to figure out positions). At one control, I had to ask what my position was and I was told I was in 8th place. This control point was also the beginning of the most difficult part of the race for me – I was starting to pay for the fast pace I had been keeping up and not drinking and eating enough.
Lots of waterfalls, little streams and just stunning scenery
THEORY OF TWO ENGINES
One things I was thinking about in the middle of the night after I had found this very happy place of running at a good pace and not feeling tired one bit despite having gone on for several hours already. In fact, it usually feels better than right at the start as all muscles, joints etc are warmed up. Even any lingering injuries are usually gone. It almost feels like there are two engines, one turbo-charged gasoline engine that uses a lot of gas and overheats very easily. It can go fast, but won’t take you very far. Then you have the second engine, an old diesel that takes a long time to warm up, but is very efficient once it gets going. In theory, these two engines working together should provide a good result. The problem is that there is often a gap between the gas engine overheating while the diesel one isn’t quite yet up to it’s optimal operating temperature. Usually, just bringing down the revs a bit will get you over this point. Once the diesel is up and running, you’re good to go for a long distance as long as you remember to fill up every now and then. You can even re-start the gas engine briefly when you need to.
Beautifully runnable sections – this is where you want to feel good and fly
This was just a theory I played with keeping myself entertained in the middle of the night. In reality, it’s about the different energy systems in the body (glycogen vs. fat). Fat oxidization takes long time to get going and is optimal for lower effort levels and glycogen is the preferred one for quick power and also for the brain. However, in the middle of the night, the theory of the two engines is much more fun.
Things were starting to look a bit rough for the final 25kms of the race. I was still in the easy part and not feeling great and knowing that the end was very difficult and we had been warned to save some energy here. It was getting hotter and hotter and and I knew I was still dehydrated. This is exactly when a gel is the last thing you want to take, but also what you need the most. I did another double gel, drank as much as I could get down and just hoped for the best. I got passed by one runner, but could also see another in the front but truth be told, I was mostly just worried about getting to the finish. I finally made it to the second-to-last aid station where they had all kinds of food and goodies, none of which I felt like eating. The only thing I could take was watermelon, so I grabbed a bunch and headed out. This was the beginning of the last giant climb, which was the steepest and most brutal in all of the race and I knew I was in for a rough time, but I was almost beyond the point of suffering where everything is so bad that it’s actually kind of hilarious. Just a couple of minutes into the climb, the guy I had passed at the aid station passed me and he also looked pretty rough. I made a comment in Spanish “Es el ultimo – it’s the last one” and he looked at me a bit confused and said “English”. I switched to English and had a bit of a chat, introduced ourselves and jointly cursed the climb. He then disappeared into the distance while I was taking it slow still eating my pieces of watermelon. The climb then evened out sooner than I expected and I caught up to my new friend again. We continued to chat, wondering if we still have more climbing to do or if that was it. I was pretty sure there was still more to come based on the profile and the fact that the next aid station was at the top of the climb and we had not seen it yet. Well, it turned out that we hadn’t even seen the actual final climb yet.
The final climb was one of the disheartening things I’ve met in my racing career. Basically, we had these gigantic peaks all around us, some people that looked like tiny ants about half-way up the climb. In my current state, it would take forever to get up there and it would be the slowest slog imaginable and I would have to dig deep into some reserves of strength in my legs which I wasn’t sure I had. Me and my new friend both just stopped and basically looked at the route with our jaws hanging. I finally said that it’s easier if you don’t look, just stare down and take one step at a time. Well, there was no way around it, so up we went …
My friend pretty quickly build a gap to me and he clearly was much better climber at this point. It was ridiculously hard and while I usually get strength from encouragement from spectators, this time I barely registered some of the people who had made the effort to come watch the race up here. About mid-way through the climb, I simply could not do more and had to sit / lie down, use the only trick I knew and took a gel a bit of water. Even though I probably stopped for only about two minutes, the two competitors in front of me extended their gap quite a way. However, after my mini break things definitely improved and the rest of the climb went easier.
Not even tired 🙂
One of the biggest surprises in the whole race came to me at the top. I expected to be completely trashed after the climb, but it was actually the total opposite and I felt good. It was very cold and windy (at 2,500m+ again), I just wanted to get out of there asap and grabbed some watermelon and started down. I was immediately running very fast, with super focused mind, strong legs and good level of energy. I realised that I had taken the climb so slow that my entire cardiovascular system had been resting and I was actually gaining energy. Downhill uses completely different muscles than uphill, so I had really fresh legs. This feeling lasted all the way for the last 13km or so to the finish. What I was also very pleased with was that usually late in the race, coordination gets pretty poor and a catching the foot on a root or a rock usually means that I end up face down in the mud, but this time I managed to stay upright. Controlling little stumbles and staying upright is a completely unconscious thing that happens in microseconds, but only if the eyes, brain and muscles coordinate perfectly. In the end, after by far the roughest patch of the race, I pulled out the strongest race finish I’ve ever done. That’s the beauty of ultra running for you.
Right after finish … where’s my beer
In the end, I finished in 9th place. I have to be very happy with my strategy and execution of it. At km 28, I was in 19th place, 15th by mid-race and improved from there while I also enjoyed most of it. This kind of a race certainly does not favour my strengths, but this is the stuff I like the most and I just wish I had better technical trail skills. Something to work on for the seasons to come.