Vall D’aran – Exceeding Limitations

 

This is a story about one of the times I challenged myself to new limits, and while breaking them, hit the new ones, during a 114km race with an elevation gain of 7,000 meters that I almost finished.

I woke up to my alarm at 3:30am in a guesthouse in a little town called Vilac, in the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains. I packed the last items in my running backpack, ate a breakfast of rice, avocado and peanut butter, and got picked up by a taxi that took me to the starting line of the UTVA in Salardu.

Before any challenging event I always have mixed feelings of calmness, surrender, anxiety and an acceptance that whatever has to happen will happen. I also get thoughts of “am I ready for this” and “what the hell am i doing?” And so on. That’s where my mindfulness practice comes in and I just remind myself to witness the thoughts without believing any of them.

Anyway, i had to wait for an hour and a half before the race started cause i got there a bit too early, so I just sat and relaxed in the cold and dark starting point. It was still 4:30am.

Then my Spanish friend Carlos showed up, he was doing the race too. That gave me some extra courage. We chatted and caught up a bit, trying to forget our anxiety/excitement/fear, got ourselves ready, and at five minutes to six we were on the starting line.

Here my heart always starts beating a bit more and it sort of hits me that I’m really gonna do this thing. Carlos advised me to take it really easy till at least km70 and save up energy for the end. (If I even make it to KM70?)

That’s the elevation scale

 

So the countdown was said, and off we went. Head-torch on, still dark and cold at 6am. And we were on flats and a bit of a downhill at first so the first part was fast. As soon as some incline came i paced myself.

The first few hours of a race go by fast for me and I reached Check-point 1 quickly, refilled my water, had some water melon, which is all i ate from checkpoints along with some nuts sometimes, all through the race. The sun had risen, but at first it was still shady with the mountains. The first real climb came, I felt good going up. I was still around other runners.

Then my first sort of low point came at around the 4th or 5th hour. I was going up a hill, it was a bit hot, tiring and my head went into thinking that i still have a long, long time to go, and whether i will finish and that it’s difficult and so on. That didn’t last too long, a fast downhill came and the adrenaline rush took care of it.

Checkpoint 5 was one of the two timed checkpoints. We had to reach it by 5pm, 11hrs into the race, or you wouldn’t be allowed to continue. I reached there around 3pm. Here they offered a small meal of pasta which i didn’t have cause i was feeling good drinking my food and having some watermelon and a bite from my homemade seed and nut bars occasionally.

Till here I was running on my own and occasionally with another guy, but at CP5 we lost each other and I never saw him again. Its nice to be with someone some parts of the race, but most of the time I just want to run alone and be in my own silence.

I rested for 15 mins while I was there, sat down a bit on the ground. I knew one of the two longest climbs of the race (1250 m) was starting now, and i was a bit scared. I reminded myself I can run back down if i get tired and stop at CP5. That’s what I always kept telling myself.

It was a beautiful trek up though, at times cris-crossing a river. My legs were getting tired but I felt I could keep on going.

I kept meeting the same few guys along this part, sometimes overtaking them and sometimes they passed me.

Yes, that’s how I look during a race!

 

I got to the top, where I found another guy who asked me to take a photo of him, so then he returned the favour. We started running down to CP6, where i met with a beautiful lake, so I decided to take a quick dip and get a good refresher from the cold fresh mountain water.

At CP6 they told us it was mainly flat and easy till CP 8. This was around 12 hrs in the race.

In these kind of challenges you have to expect and accept everything. I was expecting the easiness they said, and thought probably i’ll get to CP 8, another timed stop, in a few hours and it would be relatively easy.

I ended up having one of the toughest times of the race, mentally mostly. It got dark at 9:30ish, headtorch out now, and after walking up some hills that I wasn’t expecting, the downhill came. Dark, slippery, and very slow, this downhill made me get edgy and I wanted to get it over with. I had to keep reminding myself that this is what it is and I have to take it as slow or fast as the trail allows. Another lesson in acceptance of what is. I can either be pissed of, or accept and just make the next step.

The last part got faster though, and I ran ahead. I expected to find CP 8 by the end of the hill but instead another climb started. I was on an adrenaline rush now. It was pitch black, stars above me, trees on each side, and I was speeding up the hill. After a while I decided that I was probably lost or went past CP 8 without seeing it. My only concern was water. So I called the organisation and they confirmed that I had missed it and they admitted it was a bit confusing. But they said it was ok and that I was probably close to CP9.

This was almost 18 hours into the race, and thank God I found a guy who suggested I fill up my water from the river cause CP 9 was at least 7/8 long kilometers away. I detoured to the river where I had to walk down these big boulders, but I managed to fill up and walk back to the marked path.

The energy here certainly kept me going

 

I had water and food, so I felt good to go.

This was when the race got really tough. The next climb was long, made up of big and small loose stones that slipped down every step I took. I had to use my hands a lot.

Gratefully I was in a good mental space. I was accepting that this was it and grateful for being out there under the stars all alone in this wonderful place, and at the same time not alone cause the trail was marked and with constant attention I could make out the next marker, reflecting in my headlight.

By the top of the hill my mood had changed a bit and I was eager to get to CP 9. My torch batteries were going low. Snow was on the top. I don’t like snow and ice, it’s slippery and cold. More hard climbs punctuated with short downs. When was the downhill to CP 9 coming?

At the end I almost got lost, “where are the markers?” I kept thinking, but I turned back cause I saw torches behind me. So I found a couple of guys with stronger light and I stuck with them till CP 9.

Here I thought a lot about stopping. It was dark, my headtorch had no batteries (my fault for not carrying extra). It was actually feeling dangerous, and I was questioning whether it was my ego who wanted to continue. But my body was still feeling good, although tired.

I thought of asking the guys around me if they had extra batteries, and if one said yes, it’s a sign to continue. I did, and he had, so I continued on. This time I stuck with these guys. Some of them were close to 60 years old, all a bit tired.

Being in a group helped us keep ourselves on the marked trail, when one didn’t see the next marker, another did.

At around 7 am though (25 hours into the race), just as the sun had risen and lit up our way, I felt a sharp pain in my foot, just below my shin. It came instantly, and it felt serious. I was having a hard time walking, let alone running. So when the downhill came and the guys picked up the pace, I decided to listen to my body and take it slow (super slow).

After a cold night, it was the most welcoming sunrise

 

Now the thing is that in a race like this you can’t just stop, well you can, but they have to find you and pick you up and carry you, at least from the point I was in. No cars could come here, a helicopter maybe. And I’d have to be found.

Being cold in the early morning with not much clothes to keep me warm if I had decided to wait, my best option was to continue slowly till CP10, the last checkpoint before the finish.

So that’s what I did, breaking down into crying and anger at points, thinking how could they make the CP so far, and was I lost? I knew I wasn’t cause some trail markers were there. So I bucked up, told myself it’s OK, and continued.

In these times I always think of those run-away tibetan refugees who trailed through the snowy Himalayas for days and days, and made it to freedom. And I remind myself that we human beings are able to do more than we think.

At last I did get to CP10, where I decided to accept my limits and stop, about 10km or 2 hours from the finish line. A 4-wheel drive car was there, and they told me to rest and wait inside.

As soon as I sat on the ground, my body got heavy, and I found it hard to even stand up and put myself in the car. I love that feeling of having really used all my energy, all my muscle power, and a lot of mental power.

I was satisfied, I had pushed through about 105 km of some of the most spectacular, scenic trails I had ran in, in 27 hours, climbed around 6500 meters, and listened to my body when it told me to stop (hopefully without causing any lasting damage).

They drove me to the finish point, where I found out that most of the runners (less than half the starters had finished) had stopped, most of them much before me. And everyone was commenting on how hard a race it had been.

I remembered that when I booked it, I didn’t check the hardness, compared to other 100K races. I just felt drawn to it and went. And I was glad I did, cause the scenery was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been in, and the experience I had was amazing on many levels.

I had challenged myself, pushed through my limitations, although I didn’t officially finish, which I never really caredabout. I left the starting line thinking if I manage to do the best I can and keep going till I drop, I would be satisfied.

Why did I do this? Well I love to challenge myself, I love to run, I love nature. I love the atmosphere created by people doing the same thing. A commuity feeling And the lessons I gain from these experiences are incomparable to anything else. So yes, I’d do it again, and this time train a bit more for it 🙂

yep, a little bit swollen

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