“Your bag might arrive on the 11pm flight”, she offered, trying to sound reassuring. The fatigued airport employee had been dealing with complaints like this all day, and probably deserved a medal for her enduring professionalism in the face of adversity. To us, though, it all stank of unfounded optimism, if not plain whitewashing.
“How do you know it’ll arrive at 11pm?”, the smartly dressed passenger in front of me retorted, sceptically.
“Another passenger received a baggage delay email, and when I called BA Head Office, they said they hoped to send his bag on the next flight”, she explained, honestly.
“But I didn’t receive an email”, countered the frustrated passenger. “Where is my bag?”
“London”, she asserted, authoritatively.
But trust was in short supply, and the passenger wasted no time in challenging this claim. “How do you know? Where was my bag last scanned?”
There was an uncomfortable pause while the employee put her hands on her hips, took a step backwards, and considered her response. “The man who received the email; his bag is in London, and it’ll be the same with yours”.
Slowly, deliberately, and forcefully, the passenger repeated: “I didn’t receive an email. I want to know where my bags are”.
Silence again, until someone near the back of the queue voiced what we were all thinking.
“They haven’t got a bloody clue”.
I was left standing in Toulouse airport, somewhat shellshocked, with just my hand luggage, and a piece of paper titled “Baggage Irregularity Report”. My case contained all of the kit I was to use to run Val d’Aran in two day’s time, which was going to be the hardest race of my life. It was the European Major of the UTMB World Series. Featuring a little over 100 miles, and 10,200m of ascent (equivalent to almost 13 ascents of Snowdon via the popular Pyg track), VDA has roughly the same profile as the UTMB itself; but it’s reported to be even more technical, and the longer cutoff time of 48 hours reflects that. Having the right kit for a mountain endurance race like this is imperative.
My bag had everything. My pack, poles, shorts, socks, tops, midlayers, waterproofs, headgear, gloves, safety gear, flasks, electrolytes, nutrition. Even the all important vaseline and pants. It was sourced from a wide variety of worldwide manufacturers, and had been tested and selected specifically for VDA, based on my years of experience of ultra racing. And now I didn’t have any of it.
I tried calling the French phone number on my “irregularity report”, but all I got was a recorded message. I tried calling BA’s UK number, but a recorded message told me to call France. I tried BA’s website, and found their delayed baggage portal, which told me my baggage was lost. Not unlocated in London, but actually lost. There was certainly no mention of it taking a flight later that same day.
At a complete loss for what to do, I decided to head into Toulouse centre, and formulate a plan as I went. I deposited my hand luggage at a cheap hotel, and donned the only running gear I had with me, my running shoes. For what I had in mind, I was going to need to be quick on my feet.
I ran to Decathlon and bought a cheap running top and sunglasses; then I ran to the Salomon store, and bought some running shorts and socks. Having donned my new running gear, I could now make faster progress. I set off to i-run, Intersport, and wherever else I could find, finally looping back to Salomon. I’d managed to acquire a pair of running pants, a handful of gels, a pair of trail socks, a tri belt, a running vest, and a pole quiver. I’d also sourced some socks and pants, toothpaste and a toothbrush. It was a start.
I’d hardly eaten since the previous day, so I dumped my haul at the hotel, freshened up, and popped out for dinner, where I formulated my next plan. I had my bus to the race village, Vielha, booked for 11pm that evening; but catching that would preclude me from returning to the airport to see if my case had indeed turned up on the 11pm flight. However, a search on SNCF Connect, the French train planner, told me I could get a train to Vielha tomorrow morning, which would be perfect. I settled into my plate of delicious Ethiopian injera in relative satisfaction.
When I drilled down into the details over my after-dinner tea though, things quickly unravelled. The route involved a train to Montréjeau, and a bus to Bagnères-de-Luchon; that was all fine, but then the website showed the remainder of the journey as an ‘undefined’ form of transport to Vielha, which was to take 59 minutes. This was a distance of some 33km: probably achievable either as a day hike, or an hour’s cycle. But I didn’t have a day, nor did I have a bike. Insofar as I was concerned, SNCF Connect had had a brain fart.
I could always hire a car, I thought; but that would be ridiculously expensive in comparison, as well as emitting a metric tonne of completely unnecessary emissions. I could perhaps hire an electric vehicle; but I didn’t fancy missing my bib pickup window just because I’d struggled to locate a functioning charge point somewhere in rural Spain.
Despondently, I reverted to my original plan of catching the 11pm bus, abandoning any hopes of retrieving my bag that night. I checked out of my hotel, and headed to the bus station, where I met my running coach, who had heroically driven into Toulouse to lend me some of her running kit. Buoyed by another bag of gear that inched me closer to satisfying VDA’s mandatory kit requirements, I boarded the bus to Vielha. Hopefully I’d find the remainder of what I needed there.
Arriving into Vielha at a half past one in the morning, I let myself into my aparthotel, and settled down for a few hours shut-eye. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.
I still had to check in properly, so I popped down to reception fairly early. Upon hearing my tale of woe, the receptionist informed me that exactly the same fate had befallen another VDA runner who had arrived earlier that morning. Apparently, he had been in tears. I could well sympathise.
I entered the town to buy some oats for breakfast; but when I didn’t find any at the petrol station shop, I shelved my plans for breakfast, and set off down the high street to continue my quest for mandatory kit. Vielha has lots of running shops, but they’re all small shops, mostly independent. The largest of them is probably Intersport; even that’s one of the smallest branches of Intersport you’ll find. If you’re short, and require uncommonly stocked sizes, then small shops with limited stock tend not to be able to help you. Pants, for example, were only available in large, or above. Those who have met me will understand that an XL garment is not going to afford me the ideal fit.
I’d spent a couple of hours shopping, and come up empty handed. I perked up, though, when I came across the UTMB finish line beside the church in Vielha. The PDA (the 55k race) was in full swing, and eagerly awaiting its first finisher. I joined the throngs of spectators beside the barriers, and got caught up in the building excitement. Chinese runner Yanqiao Yun emerged down the finishing straight, and put on a consummate performance for the crowd as he ran back and forth, high fiving the spectators and relishing in his victory. He wasn’t the tallest of runners himself; I wondered if he’d lend me a pair of pants?
I stole a moment for a quick lunch, and found a restaurant whose menu contained a few dishes under a Opciones Veganas (vegan options) heading. Yet, when the green salad arrived, it was absolutely covered in cheese. “Don’t you like cheese?”, the waiter enquired, when I questioned this. Eating a plant-based diet in rural towns on the continent can be quite a challenge. I committed the phrase sin queso to memory.
I began to explore the UTMB Ultra Trail Village. Hoka had an impressive wooden “base camp” where they were lending out shoes for testing. Next to this was the bib collection, which I needed to attend at 4pm, and just behind that were the exhibitor’s stands. I had my fingers crossed for as wide a selection as at UTMB: if so, I should be able to get everything I still needed there.
Entering the race village, with the UTMB’s traditional wooden booths, I was hopeful at first; then, despondent. There can’t have been many more than 10 exhibitors. Compared to UTMB, this was tiny: a sixth of the size, at best. None of what I still needed was there, including the infamous “self adhesive elasticated bandage” demanded by UTMB races, which was always prominently on sale in UTMB’s race village. To say I was disappointed would have been a huge understatement. The rest of my day was spent revisiting all the running shops time and time again, gradually purchasing less and less suitable pieces of kit.
At 4pm, I headed to the bib pickup, where I also got two drop bags (but what did I have to put in them?), and a bib for the back of my pack (this needed to be attached with safety pins: I had thousands upon thousands of the things at home, and a generous handful of them in my case, but none with me).
Having now located the main supermarket (which was considerably better stocked than the petrol station), I stocked up on a few essentials, returned to my hotel to prepare a simple meal, and assess my mandatory kit readiness. I was getting closer, but I was still missing a couple of things. More worryingly, I still had only a tenth of the nutrition I required. Also, some of what I did have, like my pants and socks, weren’t really suitable. Then there was the question of my empty drop bags…
The race started at 4pm tomorrow. I tried to sleep, but it wasn’t a restful night.
I woke and made myself some porridge. Feeling the pressure, I headed straight back out, and started crossing items off my list: different socks, warm gloves, warm headgear, nutrition, a survival blanket (I have at least 15 at home, and several in my case, but here I was paying six euros for yet another one). Buying all these duplicate goods was playing havoc with my morals, never mind my bank balance.
Back at the hotel, there wasn’t long to go now, so I hurriedly loaded my new pack, checking off the mandatory kit list as I went. I was immensely relieved to see I had everything the race demanded. Then I packed my drop bags as best I could, which mainly entailed spreading my nutrition out over the course, and adding a few items of spare clothing (none of which fitted well, so this was fairly pointless). With just twenty minutes left before I had to head off to deposit my drop bags, I finally turned my attention to what I was to wear. I hadn’t managed to buy a technical t-shirt that fitted, but fortunately the organisers had given us all one at bib collection. I doubted they expected anyone to run the race in it, but needs must!
It was my pants and socks that I was most concerned about. I’d given up on the running pants I’d bought in Toulouse, which were more like compression pants, and had scratchy, exposed seams. That wasn’t going to end well. I settled on a pair of regular pants I’d picked up from Primark (Primark – another moral dilemma there, but I digress). For the socks, I had 4 separate pairs to choose from, but none of them were anything like I was used to. I chose a Salomon pair, which at least had a base with a consistent thickness, rather than only being cushioned in specific places; but it wasn’t as thick as I wanted, and the sock was quite obviously a couple of sizes too large.
I pulled on my pack, which I immediately realised would need some adjustments, when my phone rang. It was a local number.
“He-llo”, I answered, tentatively.
“It’s reception. We have someone here with your case. Could you come and collect it?”
Surely not… I looked at my watch. It was 2:45, and I was due to leave at 3. I dropped everything I was holding, and bolted down the stairs, to my amazement coming face-to-face with my trusty case in the hotel lobby.
“Can you write your full name and sign here please, on these three sheets of paper”. Like a man possessed, I scrawled something totally illegible on each sheet, grabbed my case, and hauled it back up the stairs to my room. I stood staring at it, speechless.
I looked over at my hurriedly packed race vest with the borrowed poles sticking out of it. I looked at my two drop bags filled with untested nutrition and unsuitable gear. I looked down at my oversized socks, whose heels were dangling out the back of my shoes. Then I looked at my watch. I had precisely 10 minutes in which to do something with this.
I upturned my case, dumping its entire contents onto the floor. I started rummaging through the contents maniacally, like it was happy hour at a jumble sale. I immediately changed my pants and my socks, and my shorts and baselayer. I then sought my midlayer, my poles, my waterproof top, and my gloves, and replaced these in my pack.
Nutrition, what was I going to do about nutrition? I looked at my watch again – I had 3 minutes. I replaced half of the nutrition in my vest, and shoved loads of extra nutrition into my drop bags. Then I supplemented each drop bag with spare socks. Pins – I had pins! I hurriedly used them to attach the optional rear bib to my pack. Again, I looked at my watch. It was time to go. There was no time to double-check I still had all the mandatory kit.
Dashing out the door, I looked down and realised I didn’t have my race bib. I popped back and retrieved it from beneath the explosion of clothing strewn all over my room. This time, when I left, I set the “do not disturb” sign on my door: given the state my room was in, I reasoned the cleaner might assume it had been broken into and ransacked. I didn’t want to return to a police cordon and a detective inspector searching for a phantom thief.
Bag drop was easy, and I was soon joining the hundreds of other runners at the start line beneath the famous UTMB arch. 20 minutes to race start. The atmosphere was infectious, and I briefly exchanged photoshoots with a couple of other runners.
What did I actually have with me now, and where was it? How did the pack loading feel? My new Salomon Advanced Skin’s sternum strap was in an odd position, thanks to one of its clasps being affixed on too low a link. So I quickly removed it and moved it up a link… but try as I might, I couldn’t get it back on. This tiny piece of grey plastic, which holds the front of the pack together, has three affixation points that the link has to sit within. For ten minutes straight, I battled with this infernal thing, but manoeuvring it into the correct position with just one’s hands was nigh on impossible. When I heard UTMB’s tune start to play, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, I knew the game was up. I hooked the link as best I could around one of the three tiny little plastic protrusions on the clasp, and very gingerly tightened my vest. This was utterly ridiculous, it was literally hanging on by a thread. The slightest movement could ping the clip off into the surroundings, and it’d never be seen again, leaving my pack with only a single frontal connection, right at the very bottom. There’s no way I’d be able to run any serious distance like that.
Two rows ahead of me, the countdown was playing out on the screens of the UTMB arch. I took stock: I was hungry, dehydrated, tired – nay, exhausted; and stressed. I couldn’t remember what I had in each drop bag. I couldn’t even remember what I had in my pack. What nutrition did I have with me again? My pack was liable to fail irreparably at any moment. I’d had no time to look at the route profile, and frankly had no idea what was in store for me.
But at least I had my pants.
And with that single reassuring thought in my mind, I set off to run the VDA.
I started in around 40th position, ensuring I didn’t repeat my mistake from Saint Jacques of starting at the back and getting stuck in queues for the first 30 kilometres. I needn’t have worried, as the VDA route has almost 5km of easy overtaking at the start, before you hit singletrack. With every uneven kilometre that passed, I grew in confidence that the tiny little hook holding the front of my pack together might just hold out…
The first ascent is broken into two stages by the Pomarola checkpoint. I poled up these grassy trails quite happily, drinking to thirst under the heat of the Spanish sun. I was surrounded by grassy, mostly forested mountains in a continual 360 degree panorama. They all looked much alike, and to the uninitiated (especially those who hadn’t had time to so much as look at a route map), they afforded no clue as to where we were headed.
Summiting offered excellent views of the region, but led straight into some serious, rocky, steep descents, which I likened to fell descents. They took a concerningly heavy toll on my quads at this early stage of the race. Some of the other runners hurtled past me on these descents at breakneck speed, and I hoped for their sake that they knew what they were doing. Given the number of runners who subsequently DNF’d very early in the race, I’m not so sure.
The second aid station at Geles gave my quads a brief break whilst I adjusted the lacing on my shoes to better clamp my forefeet into position, and ward off the dreaded spectre of trenchfoot (a real possibility when running this sort of elevation profile over such a long distance). Then it was straight back to the rocky descents. During a two minute window, I stumbled three times, before the runner in front of me fell hard, planting the full length of his body into the ground almost at once; and then I stumbled a further four times for good measure, the last one being a fairly spectacular entanglement involving both of my feet and a long branch. It was the sort of terrain where people were bound to pick up some minor injuries.
The temperature was dropping as I arrived into the third checkpoint at Artiga de Li. Ahead of me lay one of the longest and steepest climbs of the entire course, but this didn’t concern me: if anything, it would be a welcome break from those hard descents.
I powered up the grassy climb over the course of the next 90 minutes, past glaciers and rocky outcrops. It was a long slog, but I was feeling good, and overtook many faltering runners as I went. The sun was setting as I summited, and when I clambered up the final couple of rocky peaks, I was greeted by the most incredible sight. A carpet of clouds highlighted in deep murky blue hues lay beneath me, with the warm orange glow of a setting sun resting atop, delicately blending through a colour gradient of beiges and greys into a calming teal sky. It was the sort of scene you only usually get to see from the window of an aeroplane, yet here we were being treated to a 360 degree panorama of the real thing. It was spectacular, and I was more than happy to invest a few minutes standing still, soaking it all in. After all, these are the moments we run for.
I donned my headtorch, and tracked the ridge for a little while, before starting on what would be the second long descent of the course. It was getting a little chilly, but I never felt the need to adjust my clothing. I dropped through the cloud layer, where visibility temporarily dropped to a few metres, and emerged to the sight of the fourth checkpoint. This was just a water stop, with two volunteers, a cubic metre of water in a huge plastic box that one presumed had been flown in, and a small cluster of red tents, which I discovered were there for us runners, in case we fancied some shut-eye. I couldn’t have felt more awake.
“It’s just a little climb, then it’s all descent”, one of the volunteers manning the water cube reassured me. Buoyed by this, I set off at pace, but soon found myself questioning the accuracy of this information. The climb was steep and significant, and by the time I reached the next summit, marked by two volunteers and a tent, I’d obviously ascended a good two or three hundred metres, and was quite knackered. I hadn’t fuelled properly for that. However, due to a language barrier that took me about a minute to convey my question to the volunteers, I enjoyed a nice little breather here.
I pointed out a bright cluster of orange lights down in the valley far below, and enquired what town that was. I finally learned that it was Bossost, the site of a major aid station with our first drop bags, some 13km away. There’s something awesome in trail running about identifying a distant point you’re running to, and then making it happen. I left that exchange excited by the journey ahead.
Whilst I was again expecting all descent from now on, the climbs kept coming. The trails were indistinct cutting through long grass, offering generally slow progress. I finally checked my route card, and realised that this segment had 500m of ascent (which explained all the climbs), and that through the next checkpoint into Bossost, there was a whopping 1.8km of descent! This is going to be interesting, I thought. How would my weakened quads cope with this? I exercised some caution heading down into Portilhon, not wanting to break myself at this early stage.
It was half past midnight when I entered the fifth aid station at Portilhon. Aside from grabbing a slice of watermelon and a bit of banana, I headed straight through, whilst someone shouted something at me about being in 40th place. I have no interest in learning my place so early in a hundred miler.
We were into woodland descents now; still rocky and perfect for rolling one’s ankle, but otherwise pretty fast and good fun. Since I was feeling good after my hitherto cautious descent, I felt very comfortable opening up the taps, and blazing a trail down into Bossost. I’d picked up some debris in my shoes, and was running on fumes, so I was looking forward to taking 10 minutes to remedy these items.
Bossost had a fabulous vibe, with supporters along the streets hollering and cheering “ánimo”. As I approached the huge white aid tent, individual cheers merged into a single roar, as tens or hundreds of volunteers, crew and supporters raised their voices, applauded, and hit anything they could find. Inside the tent, I raised my poles in appreciation, and took in the dizzying reaction to my arrival. The sound was almost deafening, until their cheers died down and I could orient myself. The child of a volunteer ran up to me, presenting my drop bag. As I sat down on one of the countless long benches, a lady approached me and ran through a list of food options. Some banana, I modestly requested. She raised an eyebrow, and brought me a small platter of fruits, which I gratefully devoured.
Looking around, I realised I was one of only a couple of runners in the tent. Aside from us, there must have been 20 or so attendant volunteers, and countless crew awaiting their runners. I could picture this venue filling up as the race drew on, with runners strewn out on the benches, stretching, sleeping, tending to their wounds. But for now, the attention seemed to be on me, and so I was slightly self-conscious as I proceeded to change my socks, carefully retie my shoes, and repopulate the nutrition in my pack. I hadn’t pre-planned this, so was winging the decision-making for what to take, based on what I’d consumed thus far. I selected a mixture of my own gels I’d managed to salvage from my case at the last minute, and some of the new fruit-based jellies I’d purchased in Vielha.
A few more runners arrived, and a couple of them didn’t seem to be wasting any time, with their crew pouncing on them like a formula 1 pit stop. That was it; I dropped off my bag, and headed back out onto the streets of Bossost, for the next leg of my adventure.
I was on cruise control through the town, before rejoining some nice easy, forested trails, gradually climbing up out of the valley, which developed into a steep climb up to the next checkpoint at Canejan. There wasn’t much there, so I headed straight through and continued the climb, until it levelled out onto a comparatively easy trail running along the mountainside. These were feel-good hours, after refuelling at Bossost, approaching the light of the dawn, and before the most serious leg of the course, the climb to Pas Estret: 13km with 1.5km of ascent.
When I reached the eighth aid station, Sant Joan de Toran, I filled all three of my water bottles in anticipation of the climb ahead. “This is the big one”, I told myself – the hardest leg, during which I’d pass the halfway point, both in terms of distance and vert. I expected this to take anywhere up to three hours, by which time the sun would be out, and the race would take on a wholly different complexion.
The climb was up through a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Just like the second climb, I passed countless glaciers, waterfalls, and streams; but this ascent was rockier, more technical, and harder on the calves, ankles and quads. Three quarters of the way up, I tired, and took the decision to pause, perch on a rock and take on calories. As I neared the summit, the sky lightened, and the sun began to peek through, its rays playing on the mountainsides. Day 2, I thought. Less than half way to go back to Vielha. Let’s do it!
There was a 20 minute descent to reach the aid station at Pas Estret, which I moreorless headed straight through, eager to get started on the longest section of the course: 13.9km, with 600m v+/1000m v-.
This was the section where things really started to unravel. My legs were tired from all the vert that had preceded it, and I was simply desperate for an easy section where I could clock off some k’s; or at least, where I could run without lifting my feet over obstacles, clambering over rocks, hopping over streams, or whatever else the terrain threw at us. However, the going was peppered with technical passages over a variety of terrains, and the Pyrenees clearly had no intention of providing me with what I was craving.
Talking about craving, I could have devoured some real food; but all I had were my two sweet nutrition options. Both my palette and my brain were thoroughly bored of these, and with my growing tiredness, came a disinterest with consuming my all important calories. I really was running on fumes.
Even passing through the old mine workings, with their rusted railway tracks winding their way around the mountainside, abandoned carts, blasted tunnels, and a route that literally look us directly over glaciers, all with spectacular views over the valley; not even this could rescue my mood. My mind was firmly on the second major aid station, with my drop bag, and for the very first time in a race, my crew. My crew would have brought real food, I told myself. You can eat at Beret. You just have to get to Beret.
I had to get to Montgarri first; and as I was descending one of the many steep sections with slippery grit and stones, the stones shifted beneath my feet, and I wound up smashing into the ground & sliding a little way down the trail.
It wasn’t too bad, and I ploughed on, just glancing every now and again at my right hand, which was becoming rather bloodied on one side. I was dehydrated, I reasoned, so it shouldn’t take long to clot.
Finally we dropped down the last stretch of glassland into the aid station at Montgarri. My hand looked a bit like a scene out of a slasher movie, so I asked for a plaster, but was told they’d have them at Beret. I chowed down on a few slices of watermelon, and set back off – just 5km to Beret, and my coach, and real food. This stretch was actually very pleasant, but I was counting down the distance every 100 metres, until the sight of an aid station emerged in the distance. As I jogged toward it, I elicited some waves from distant supporters, until I realised my coach was alongside, beaming at me.
“How’s it going?”, she asked, enthusiastically.
“Awful”, I responded. This was easily my lowest point, and I desperately needed food. “I’m in a massive deficit now”, I explained.
And so commenced my first experience of crew assistance at an aid station. Much like the formula 1 treatment I’d witnessed earlier, my coach sat me down and produced a veritable buffet of food, before running around, making everything that needed to happen happen. I just sat there, eating.
She managed to patch up my hand so it looked a little less like I’d been attacked by Freddie Krueger, and even had a go at fixing that infernal plastic clasp on my race vest. She couldn’t do it either, which made me feel a little less useless – it genuinely is a particularly awkward design.
I left Beret around midday, and enjoyed a few kilometres of easy valley running, before joining a stream bed to resume a rocky descent to Salardu. I had acquired a greater variety of foods from my coach at Beret, so ensured I kept eating and trying to correct my hydration. The temperature had risen to around 28C, and shade was to become hard to come by; so I needed to do what I could now, during this descent, to prepare for the even warmer weather to come.
By the time I reached Salardu, it was approaching 30C. There were water fountains in the towns along the route, and I had been dunking my cap in every one I came across, leveraging all the evaporative cooling I could. For the next 16km or so, it was all uphill, with over 1000m of v+. There were signs at the aid station mandating a 1.5l water supply, and I needed no encouragement: I downed half a litre then and there, and filled my three bottles.
The early stages of the ascent were the nicest, as we crossed back and forth over picturesque streams, affording excellent opportunities for more cap dunking, before we got into the serious business of climbing up to Bahns de Tredos under the glaring heat of the early afternoon sun.
What with all the chaos of my lost bag, I hadn’t done any research on the route beforehand; but if I had, I might have been eagerly anticipating what I was about to encounter. Spain’s official tourism website describes the National Park atop this mountain, Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, as a “veritable Eden” – high praise indeed – and for once, I have no bones to pick with this description. It’s one of the most delightful ecosystems you’re likely to find anywhere.
There are apparently natural hot springs to be enjoyed here; but for me, the simple perfection of the vista of the lakes of Colomers was enough to stop me in my tracks. I sat on a rock in a rare spot of shade and gazed, awestruck, out over this watery idyll. I could have stayed here all day. And as I sat here, soaking up the present moment, I did consider doing just that. I wasn’t making the time I’d hoped to in this race, it was 30 degrees Celsius, I was 120km in, and I had stumbled across this hidden paradise. I had water and food. I could just stay here, and be. Why not?
I eventually decided to make a move, and continued my journey winding around a number of these impressive lakes. The trail was rocky and a little technical, making for relatively slow going.
As my route turned away from one of these lakes, I spotted a grasshopper who’d taken up position on the handle of one of my poles. I spent a while inspecting this magnificent creature up close, before showing it off to a couple of tourists who started snapping photos, and probably turned my ‘hopper into an internet sensation on TikTok. It took some gentle encouragement to move my grasshopper back into the grass, and with that I could get going again.
I was surprised nobody had overtaken me over the lakes section. I’d made slow progress over the technical terrain, and taken more than my fair share of stops to soak in the beauty of the area. Where was everyone?
The sun was moreorless directly overhead, affording little if any shade here in the vicinity of the lakes. I was starting to bake, and so despite the stunning beauty all around me, I was really looking forward to a shady, forested descent. I briefly sought some shade under an overhanging rock; but remaining stationary never got anyone very far, so I pushed on again through the heat. I was nearing the Colomers aid station, where I’d take a moment to cool down.
A steep rocky descent led down to a dam, where I could see a volunteer roaming the trails. With my attention distracted by him as I descended some large rocks, my foot slipped straight through a gap. Completely taken by surprise, and with nothing else to save me, I plummeted a couple of feet down onto rocks below. I still don’t understand how I walked away from that without so much as a scratch, but I did. My only concern was self-consciousness, wondering whether that volunteer had witnessed my careless tumble from down below.
As I approached him, he congratulated me on my progress (as opposed to surviving my fall – which answered my question), and he told me there was 1km to the Colomers aid station. I made it 1.2km, and was happy to have some validation – I was close.
I crossed the dam wall, descended past a seemingly abandoned building, and continued to drop down through the forested valley. It was 1km since I’d met the volunteer – where was this aid station? I continued past 1.2km, 1.5km, 1.8km – still nothing. At this point, I pulled over to the side, and took stock. Maybe the aid station had been sited inside the building just beyond the dam, and I’d missed it? I mulled over the possibility. The signage had been a little unclear in this section, so it was a possibility. If not, then where was the bloody aid station?
I decided to keep pushing on for a little while longer, aware all the time I was descending, I would have a significant climb to make if I needed to return to the dam. As I dropped down some more technical terrain, through the tree cover, I spotted a white tent in the distance. I’d found Colomers!
I must have devoured about 10 slices of watermelon in that aid station, before I headed into the medical tent to request a piece of tape to better secure the plaster on my hand, which had barely managed to cling on for its life. Looking down at it, I was a little embarrassed – it was so dirty, grotty, and hilariously unsanitary, that the notion of asking a self-respecting medical professional to put a piece of tape around it sounded a little ridiculous. She was obviously thinking the same thing, and gently suggested that she apply something more suitable – so I waited a minute or two here whilst she kindly patched me up. Properly bandaged and fed, I set back off, wondering what the descent to Arties would hold for me.
There was a gradual ascent on road, which I started off walking whilst I intook another gel, but quickly built back into a run. The road continued, and transitioned into a slight descent, before breaking off onto a trail wrapping around the side of the mountain. This was a cracking trail, mostly flat for a change; and I made great progress along here, happily clocking off the kilometres.
There was a stop at Mont Romies just before the descent, which I ran straight through, as did a couple of other runners who – to my surprise – had caught me up along the flat trail. I hammered the descent to Arties, the final large aid station. There was only one ascent and descent remaining now.
Pulling into Arties, I almost bumped into my coach, who was out for a run, and upon realising it was me, looked like she’d just seen a ghost! My passing Mont Romies hadn’t reflected on the timing system yet, and she had no idea I was expected into Arties so soon. She looked aghast, and sprinted off to obtain supplies like Zharnel Hughes off the blocks. Meanwhile, I kept running into the aid station, where a volunteer’s child was manning the water table, who managed to carefully pour me a flask out of the 5 litre bottle without spilling a drop. I grabbed a few more slices of melon (seriously, how good were the melons they had along this course?!), before my coach burst in, sorted out my liquid nutrition, and forced more real food down me. I rotated my cap like the cool dude I was, put my headtorch back on, and wasted no time in setting back off for the final section of VDA. I was going to hammer this finish.
This was a 1100m v+/1200m v- section broken up by one aid station two-thirds of the way up the ascent. I poled up the climb to the first aid station with absolute focus, no longer paying any heed to conserving any energy. As I emerged out of the forest onto the plains at some 1700m altitude, I could see a few headlights ahead of me climbing up the second ascent. I wasted no time: “is this the way?” I enquired of the volunteers as I approached, pointing toward the mountain.
“Come in here”, the volunteer demanded, signalling for me to enter the aid station. I acquiesced, then pointed to another flap in the tent: “Is this the exit?” The volunteer looked at me quizzically, and tried to encourage me to take some food. “I have food”, I responded, frustrated. “Is this the way?”
“Do you want to go?”, he enquired. “Yes”, I responded, momentarily exasperated. He looked me up and down, as if to check I was fit to continue. “Okay”, he said, signalling to the tent flap. I hotfooted it out of there, in hot pursuit of my competitors’ headtorches.
With 155km and 9800m ascent behind me, this was the final 400m climb. Just this last little push up from Arties, before a 1200m descent down the other side of the mountain to reach Vielha, and the finish.
In the darkness, my headtorch picked out a handful of the reflective route markers which led directly up the mountainside. The trail, insofar as there was one, was very steep and slippery. Without the markers leading the way, I would never have contemplated attempting it. I gingerly tested each foothold for friction before committing to it. Many of them weren’t good enough, and required some exploration to locate more secure holds. There was nothing whatsoever to break one’s fall, so there wasn’t any scope for a miscalculation.
Was the descent also going to be this treacherous, I wondered? I wanted to finish in a good time, but survival was non-negotiable.
I caught up with my competitors halfway up the ascent. I overtook one who was moving more cautiously, and tagged onto the back of other two. On this sketchy climb, I was quite happy to hang with a group, even if it cost me a minute or two.
I dropped them at the summit, where the markers briefly skirted the ridge, before leading us down a steep gravelly trail. One could choose between placing one’s feet on grit, or clumps of larger pointed stones. The grit afforded very little traction; and whilst the stones appeared the safer choice, they slid and shifted unpredictably under one’s bodyweight. To my surprise, somebody hurtled down to the side of me, turning his feet over rapidly & causing a mini avalanche of stones. In English, he shouted “be careful, you don’t want to fall here”, a fine statement of the obvious. Ten seconds later, I heard an ominous cry, followed by the sound of stones cascading, as he smacked into the ground, and skidded some way down the path. That probably was the fastest route down, but I didn’t much fancy it.
At the end of this gravel section, I struggled to pick out the markers in the distance. After some guesswork, I picked up the trail again, and began to grin as a cluster of orange pinpricks of light came into view far, far below: it was Vielha.
Just the last 800m of descent now, on trails cutting through the forested mountainside. Every landing vibrated through my battered quads, but there was no need to protect them any more. I could give the descent everything I had. Through gaps in the trees, I could hear vague sounds of music, no doubt from a DJ at the finish line, enticing me down.
The trail morphed into something like a slalom mountain bike track that had been carved out of the ground. I made excellent progress through here, hurtling down as fast as my legs would carry me. I sipped on some Maurten drink out of habit, but there was no need to worry about nutrition, fluid or electrolytes any more.
I sprinted into the delightful town of Vielha just after midnight to beaming smiles, applause, and cheers. I pumped my first and cupped my ear to encourage the spectators to shout louder. I might not speak a word of Spanish, but it wasn’t difficult to get the gist of what they were saying.
When I turned onto the main high street, it simply erupted. A quarter past midnight, and it was heaving with spectators, all elated to be sharing this special moment with us. Some in the cafes were banging their glasses so hard I expected them to break! My sprint slowed to little more than a jog as an army of ecstatic kids joined in; running alongside me, high fiving and cheering. One wonders whether there could be a future VDA champion among them.
The signature of the VDA finish line is the finisher’s bell hanging beneath the arch. As I passed under the arch, I leapt up and gave it a good ring. My race was over. Given the utter pandemonium emanating from the crowds behind the barriers, I couldn’t help wondering who was more excited by that: the spectators, or I!
It was a quarter past midnight. It had been 32 hours or so, covering some 163km, with over 10km of ascent.
So, I did what any self-respecting Brit would do: I went and had a cup of tea with my coach, to talk through what went well, what could be improved, and whether I’d run VDA again.
In a word: No.
I said an emphatic ‘no’ after finishing the Arc of Attrition, and shortly afterwards registered again for the following year. But, seriously, VDA is a very tough race. It’s just not very runnable. Most of the route has some complexity that requires care and focus. So does Arc, but that only has half the ascent. When you put it all together, adding in the hot weather common to Spain in July, and that nastily steep final ascent, you have one tough cookie to crack. If you want to compare it to the CCC section of the UTMB route, this is much harder.
It was Mark Darbyshire’s crazily fast 19:12 finish at Arc that inspired me to go back. Will Germain Grangier’s impressive 23:24 finish at VDA persuade me to return? I don’t think so. At least I can get to the Arc without risking my pants in the hands of British Airways!
A big thanks to Sarah for helping me replace some of my lost kit, and crewing me so expertly from Beret. Based on the number of runs and hikes she slotted in during her crewing, I think she’d have loved to be out there running as well.
As for my race: I finished in 35th place, and directly qualified for the UTMB. Mission accomplished! Not so pants after all.