13.6.2015 Travesera Integral Picos de Europa, 74km, D+ 6700m, time 14:26, 16th place
There is a statement in Spain, saying: Zegama es Zegama, to point out the exclusivity of the Zegama’s atmosphere. Spanish runners also say: There are mountain races – and then there is Travesera.
Travesera Integral Picos de Europa starts at the very cradle of Spain. At the valley of Covadonga, where at 722 AD the Pelayo defeated the Arabs and started the Reconquista. At midnight on 12th June a completely different battle started for 310 “lucky” runners at the same place: the fight against their comfortness, discomfort, laziness, fear, mountains, weather, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, mud, snow, rubble, desire to retire… This year I was one of those lucky ones to run this celebration of mountain running and Asturians’ love to Picos de Europa.
I took one day off for Friday before the race. Not because of proper preparation, relax and 15 hours of necessary sleep. In fact I spent the whole day travelling from Prague to the village Arenas de Cabrales, deep in the Picos. The plan was easy – 3 hours of flight and 5 hours of car ride. To increase the level of adrenalin in my veins the flight was 30 minutes delayed and I was still in Prague…furthermore Friday 3 PM is not the best time to leave Madrid. My nervousness was increasing as the speed of my Ferrari (Fiat 500). Only 7 hours to start left!!! I drove my little Fiat furiously, pushing my little friend to its very limits.
I entered Arenas at 7:45 PM, took crampons from Demonion (muchas gracias Grande!) and rushed to the next village for bib. At least some cultural stereotypes are valid – 20 PM Spanish time is not exactly 20 PM. The queue for bibs was still quite long. Ufffff, I made it. First race of this weekend was won. Now, the easy one. While waiting in the queue, I was scanning the signs of endless hours of mountains in the faces of other runners. How many of them will be faster, stronger? I hope not more than 9…
Took chip, bib, t-shirt, other small things, map, and went back to Arenas. To eat, to meet the other Bandoleros, to prepare myself, to lay down for 10 minutes and close eyes for a moment. At 10:30 PM I was ready to move to start line at Covadonga. My colleagues not quite so… They were still dressing up, preparing backpacks, searching for shoes. I sat into their California and was trying not to vomit. Looking forward to race but so afraid. Have I regenerated sufficiently after Annecy? Is my headband looking good? Have I trained hard enough to handle this elevation? Do I have enough food? Do I look good for photos? Until what point I will be able to keep Raúl’s pace? Am I going to freeze to death? What about my culoski abilities? Aaaaaah, I am going to vomit. Yes, cold calm head is indeed my strength…
Travelling to start line was a bit foggy. Literally. There was fog and clouds and small rain and like 800% of humidity with 15 degrees. Wonderful weather to enjoy the trek in the mountains. What will be the weather like 2000m above? Is it enough to have one t-shirt? No, of course not. If elevation won’t kill me, the cold for sure will.
I don’t like starts at midnights or evenings. Usually it means that you don’t see much from the race and I am very tired. For us, old people, midnight is time to lie sleeping in bed – definitely not time to start a race.
New day is here and so is the start. First couple of hundreds meters follow the road and I don’t want to get stuck when the road enters the narrow forest path. Unfortunately, 300 people have the same idea and we all get stucked. For next 73 km, this running race turned into organized mountain walk, in my case. We entered the woods, the deep mud and white dark to begin the first climb up.
Picos de Europa are limestone mountains. As you can imagine, wet limestone is not the surface with best friction. Wet limestone covered with mud is an upgrade which does not motivates any intention to move faster. Well, to move faster forward. During this first climb, there were moments when I was sliding down despite the great effort to climb up.
Somehow I managed to slide close to the lake Enol where there was supposed to be first liquid Aid station. I missed this one because of so many cheering people despite the early morning hour. What a great ambience!!
Next 4 km of running around the lake. Time to recover, eat something and prepare for the second part of climb. I was running alone when the group of few runners reached me from the back just before the beginning of the climb. Hola, Raul, que tal? Raul and some other runners from the head pack lost the way. It was a strategy changer for my race. Nerea, my trainer, told me to hold Raul as far as I can and then to speed up. So, I speeded up a bit and took place in this group.
These climbs are always my favourite part. The whole group is pushing hard, no speaking, everyone concentrating on the feet of the preceding runner, his breath and pace. Same as during the Mortirolo climb on this year Giro – our group was becoming smaller and smaller and finally we were only three left – me, Raul and Alejandro (young demon from the mountains). As we got higher (elevation, not state of mind) we left the fog, clouds and humidity below. The sky was full of stars…wait…no…those were headlamps of front runners. Stars were far higher!!! Nooo, I am not able to climb so high.
With increasing altitude the temperature decreased. Raul stopped for a second to put on the windstopper. I kept walking because the descent was supposed to be close. It was. But it was so steep that I stopped for a while and was looking for some missed flags showing better way down. There were no more flags though, only the ones going down into the dark. The same direction as the Cain village deep down at the very bottom of the valley. The only solution was to hold my breath and start jumping down leaving caution behind.
Thanks to my headlamp I could follow Raul. My headlamp decided to shine less and less and I did not want to lose precious seconds by changing batteries. With the risk of being left in the dark I was forced to keep Raul’s pace to the Cain Aid Station.
We arrived there at 4:40 in the morning. Nice, 28 km in almost 5 hours. Really fast pace. I was trying not to eat all that amazing food at the aid station – though it was almost as if Mr. Michelin was cooking there. Salt, sweet, sour, fruits – fresh and dry, ufff. The temptation to stop and just fill my stomach was huge. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I had to change batteries and keep moving to catch Raul before the biggest climb of the race. So just two plums in my mouth and off I go!
Just when I started to really run, organizers stopped me to check my obligatory equipment. Noooo, I need to follow Raul. I don’t want to die alone. They told me that the minute of control will be deducted at the finish from my time. Who cares about the time!! I don’t want to climb alone. Fast, faster… move!! I tried hard, scrambling over the rocks, but at the end, I was with Raul again.
At the world trail championship two weeks before, Manuel Merillas warned me not to look up during the second climb. It was easy, there was still night and quite cloudy and fortunately you could not see anything even if you wanted to. We were stumbling up for hours, almost days, passing other “runners”, but not getting closer to the pass. During this endless climb new day came.
Peaks were changing colours, clouds stayed at the bottom of the valley, one small bird was trying to break the silence and welcome new day. We were above the forest, above the meadows, in the kingdom of eternal ice, snow and rock. The zone of high mountains, the zone not made for people to live in. Nevertheless we all love the poetics of this places. The rough surroundings of the effort we put into the race made it even more memorable.
We turned around the edge and very fresh wind hit our faces. Brrr, little bit more cold than comfortable. But race must go on, there is no time to put the windstopper on. We kept moving up. Two minutes later, Raul stopped and started to put on the windstopper. “Buena idea!” I admitted and took mine as well. Still quite chilly but not so much to put on my gloves. I never run with gloves, but this temperatures and cold wind may change my mind. No! Don’t be like a small girl. You wanted to run in high mountains and it is not like walking in the city. Be tough. My internal fight before stopping and putting on my gloves. I won it! But then I was betrayed by Raul, who stopped and started to put on his gloves. “Buena idea, Raul!” OK, I am just a girl, so I put on my gloves. The ones that I received only a few months ago in Arenas as a present for runner of the Trail de los Pastores de Portudera.
That time we could finally see Horcada Cain, the pass just before the Refugio Urriellu. We were almost there when the first wave of weakness came from my stomach. I did not want to eat one of my last gels so I took very small piece of energy bar, just to keep me moving. Alejandro was getting closer from behind. From the pass, the views were stunning. We could see Urriellu at its majesty and the whole heart of Picos. Lot of snow, lot of air…. wow. But there was no time for sightseeing! I wanted to catch Raul.
Descending the escarpment covered in ice and snow was fast. Maybe faster than I wanted, but on this surface my braking abilities are not so good. Little bit of running and there it is. Horde of audiences, volunteers, friends cheering runners next to the Refugio Urriellu. Could not hold myself and tried caldo, some cookie and chocolate. I was sooo hungry. On the other hand, we were in the middle of beautiful mountains, healthy (ok, it depends) and ready to fight for better positions.
I started running before Alejandro left the Refugio and with Raul on sight. The game was on. We were still around 10th position and none of us seemed too tired or destroyed. We started the last part to the highest point of the race, the Collada Bonita with 2382 m. Still next to Urriellu which kept our eyes employed together with other limestone towers, peaks, edges. We were still in “no life” zone and it was wonderful.
The last part of the climb was once again hard snow. There was a fixed rope to help, but me and Alejandro were ascending using only our poles and shoes. We were almost up the hill, when the runner beneath us took the rope. My heart beat jumped over the pass and reached the stars. I wanted to scream: Wait! But there was no oxygen in my lungs and easier was to just speed up and decrease the time of exposure to the accident.
Just behind the pass, the same scene was prepared. Fixed rope over the rock where we should descend. Thanks to Raul I was still wearing gloves so I didn’t burn my hands running down holding the rope tight. But as before, the guy after Alejandro took the rope with two of us still holding it. Well, safety first I would say. After this part, Alejandro decided to use crampons. I decided to take advantage of him not running and was pushing down the descent to Vegas de Sotres.
I thought I was running easy to reach Sotres fresh before the last climb. I reached the Aid Station just when Raul was leaving. So I just took some dried fruits, water and started to run just before Alejandro. I love this!!! We started the climb, organizers checked our gear one more time, and disqualified one runner. I didn’t want to look above to see another pass touching the sky where we need to climb. It is called Collau Valdominguero and there is a Vertical kilometer competition on the very same route we took.
“Jan,…En… can…ta…do.”, “Alejandro.”, after 50 km of running together we started very deep and intellectual conversation. Robotic pace, easy but continuously up, and up and up. Around the corner, on the other side of the couloir. Only 15 minutes up, only 14,…, 13,…12…Oh no, wait!!!
My left quadriceps went on holidays because of crimps. It did not want to rise even by few centimeters. And it hurt. To boost the feeling my stomach was screaming quite loud that it is empty, as well as my energy supplies. I was feeling dizzy, weak as a child and I wanted to cry. Why!!! I tried to eat salt tabs and some energy gel but also not to lose contact with Alejandro. I lost contact with him and in the very last part of the climb I was happy to handle the technical section with another rope, rock, steep snow.
Halleluja, only half marathon left and I had 2:40 to achieve time below 14 hours. At that time I believed that I can manage that. Because the gravitation was playing with me I could chase Alejandro hard. I passed him few km before the last Aid Station and it seemed that my crisis was over. Well, I was running with crimps in my quads, but one can get used to everything and pain is not so bad feeling after all. Watch out! A photographer, time to smile! Don’t let them see how much you are suffering!
I passed the last Aid Station quite strong and with feeling that I could make it. All descending and flat parts running. Just to the beginning of the last small climb. It was my end station. Dizziness and weakness, welcome my friends! And of course, the pain in quads reached totally new level.
Last descent, Calzada Caoru, for sure I will remember that. The frustration of seeing Arenas, of hearing Demonion at the finish line, but with no forces to run, to compete, to fight. I was passed by thousands of people. Alejandro just flew around. Everything has an end, even this torture and I have reached the last one kilometer on the road.
People were cheering and crossing Arenas was like a dream. I finished in 14:26 as 16th runner. Just behind the finish line I was feeling happy. Now, deep inside I believe that I could have done it faster. I hope the lottery will be on my side next year and I will have the chance to cross Picos de Europa with such a great runners as Raul and Alejandro.
Travesera is one of the most difficult races that I have participated in. It caught me with its cruelty, unchained strength of mountains and the best Aid Stations. There are some small opportunities for improvement on the side of organizations (registration at different village, safety of the runners, obligatory gear…) but it is more than overweight by the enthusiastic spirit of all organizers, volunteers on the trail, cheering during finish line. Travesera has it all – unbelievable nature scenery, tough course within unpredictable weather conditions, amazing people.
Now I understand the desire of all Spanish runners to participate and finish this festival of trail and mountaineering.