Life Choices... The GR5 Fastest Known Time.
Sometimes I seriously question my life choices... After swearing off 100 mile races for at least a few years after my first one a year ago, which was an amazing experience but very hard work, I thought I'd got myself off the hook.
Lockdown in one of the most densely populated cities in Europe wasn't fun and had serious limitations on where I could train for the best part of a year. This led me to the GR 5: a route called Els Miradors which passes through 5 Natural parks including Garraf , Penedés region, Montserrat, Sant Llorenc de Munt I Obac, Montseny and Montnegre-Corredor and covers around 230 km and 8000m of ascent. All of this within 50km of Barcelona and easily accesible by public transport meant that I could do long runs on the trail and piece it together bit by bit. A complete run would be hard without a support team and my subtle (not subtle) requests to Mete and Dave (the latter being a van) were not gaining any traction. Anyway, being 70km further than 100 miles it was sure to be a terrible idea.
The route forms an arc around Barcelona at around 50 km.
After my Haute Route Pyrenees record last summer I was contacted by a filmmaker called Tom Pickering who was making a film called "I could never go vegan", and was looking for an endurance runner to film. How could I say no to that! At the end of our first meeting he asked, "Do you have any races or challenges coming up that we could film? I know you ultra runners always have projects!". Alarm bells rang in my head and before I knew it, I'd blown it!
"Well there is one thing I've been thinking about..."
Fast forward several months and after several aborted dates due to the pandemic, the film crew arrived in Barcelona and I had spent a week with debilitating pre-run panic and shock at the weather. The driest sunniest winter in years had ended the week before the run in dramatic style with heavy rain storms, temperatures plummeting to around 5/6 degrees and a diabolical forecast for the first half of the weekend.
I met the crew in Sitges at the start of the run to film an interview in the van, rain pelting the windows and the darkening sky menacing with foreboding of the the night to come. I'd envisaged a time of around 45 hours for the route which would hopefully put me under 51 hours set by Oriol Antolí in 2013.
As I set off into the night and rain at 8 pm, I tried to relax and settle my nerves. Little did I know that I'd be in the rain for 18 hours non stop... I'd broken the route up into 5 sections of 45 km in my head and each with two checkpoints where I'd meet the van team. The first hours went well and I was making a conscious effort to run slowly, but I was still way up on my time. I knew I had a long way to go so focused on eating, relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere of the night and more than a little rain. Garraf went quickly and easily and it was about 35 km to Gelida. At 1 am the rain hit hard in torrential downpours. A lone smoker outside a bar stared at me perplexed by what he was witnessing. A soaked runner in full waterproofs, checking his phone to see where he was going, and running off into the eye of the storm!
Sam and Jen loving the rain!
I kept positive by focusing on the fact that Saturday was due to bring better weather and support runners. Sam and Jen made a roadside rendezvous at 4am to see me up and over Montserrat. How nice it was to have some company in my rain/pain cave! I felt honoured that they had come to some random lay-by in the middle of nowhere to get pelted by rain for 5 hours with me! We had a great time heading over the spectacular trails to the monastery at Montserrat. Summits hidden from view but looming walls rising into the mists created a surreal atmosphere with clouds above and below us, sandwiching us in the rain. At the foot of the mountain we met the support van with Mateo, Mayte and Rosa who were joining me for the 20 km uphill to the 100 km mark. The climb was slow and cold and my efforts of the previous night started to catch up with me. We spent four hours ploughing upwards in the clouds and rain and by the end of the section we were frozen to the core. It was now Saturday afternoon and I'd been running for 18.5 hours but the rain had almost stopped! I had a change of clothes and put on all my layers for the next 10 km with Tom to the halfway point in Sant Llorenç Savall.
The afternoon sun lasted for about 2 hours before dusk set in again.
With a little sun my spirits lifted again and it was a steady afternoon ticking off kilometers. I still felt pretty good leg-wise and not overly tired, but I knew that the second night, including the hardest section through Montseny (55km 2300m), was going to be the make or break. Darkness fell 15 km from there in Sant Fileu de Codines. One more section before the big one! It was straightforward enough until the final descent. The previous nights rain had lubricated and smoothed out a steep muddy descent which I proceeded to fall down. I caught the rope to stop my slide down the greasy chute. Grumbling angrily, I gave the rope a good tug to get back on my feet, but in my tired state I didn't factor in which way the rope was coming from so effectively launched myself further down the slope. Well caked in clay and losing patience I arrived at the support van. Really tired after 140 km and considering sleep, the van wasn't there... I couldn't deal with it and sat down immediately and felt sorry for myself. I looked around the car park twice and essentially gave up. I taunted myself by closing my eyes momentarily whilst leaning against the empty train station cafe. Then I realised that a phone call would probably fix this situation. Turns out they were on the other side of the road! Any excuse to quit at this stage seemed blissful...
I smashed an energy drink and a few potatoes and stared into space in the back of the van. Tom could sense that it was getting tough and was really encouraging me to get back at it. I stepped out of the van, and that's when my night started to go sideways ...
The traversia de Montseny goes over Pla de La Calma, Matagalls(1697 m), Les Agudes (1706 m) and the high point of Turó de l'Home(1712 m), and is a big training day out in its own right, let alone after 28 hours on the trail, but I knew it well and hoped it would pass by on autopilot in the clear night. No such luck ! I started hallucinating near the top of the first climb as I ran into the mist on Pla de la Calma. I knew where I was but my eyes wouldn't connect the terrain to my knowledge of it, so I was stuck in this weird space where I knew where I was but didn't recognise any of it! My headtorch lit the forest up like a light show with bubbles of dew on the ground illuminating and moving up and down the grass like lava lamps. In addition to this, the rain had damaged the trail the previous night and huge puddles dominated the track. Tiredness hit and I was fighting to keep my eyes open and falling asleep running only to wake up with a jolt while keeling over to one side. I was also going into lucid dreams where I completely left the room and suddenly awoke without any idea of where I was or what I was doing but still running and moving forward. Time became a blur and had no idea how long I'd been up there. With the three peaks ahead of me it almost seemed irresponsible to be having such a wild time! In a moment of clarity I managed to eat a muesli bar and come to my senses. Eating woke me up and cleared my head enough to continue. I kept reminding myself that I'd agreed to do this run and I wanted to see what happened when I ran for so long. Well now I know - good one Mike. Again. Life choices.
The view to the end around 55 km away.
Despite getting lost, it was 5 am that I managed to get to the summit of the first peak, crunching through the snow for the last 100 m or so. Two more climbs I told myself and that was it ! Ignoring the remaining70 km completely. With new found energy I set off down the steep descent to Sant Marçal where I began the penultimate climb straight up Les Agudes. My legs were really suffering by this point and dawn was breaking in the forest. With the half light the hallucinations came back with full force. People everywhere in the forest doing things, normal things like walking dogs, having picnics with families or just walking around enjoying the forest. That was until I got closer and they slowly morphed back into their actual state, bushes mainly. There were also the people who were spinning giant handle operated rotating inventions above their heads. Hmmm... Just keep moving forward! It was bitterly cold on top with a sprinkling of snow but crucially, it was daylight and my desire to sleep had all but evaporated and all I was left with was the hallucinations. Two outta three ain't bad! The descents were painfully slow but I was still able to run/shuffle them with my poles being used like extra legs - heavily! I was happy to see the support team again after 8 hours of madness on my own and have some porridge and wraps for breakfast. I felt good as I left to finish the descent to Sant Celoni 18 km below in the valley.
On top of Les Agudes (1706 m)
It's funny that after so many kilometers and hours 18 km seems like a short section. I'd started to lose track of how far I'd come and it all seemed a bit detached by Sunday morning. Friday evening seemed an age away and it seemed so unlikely that I could have been running since then. My brain couldn't really deal with it and so it felt like I'd set off on a completely different run that Sunday morning. Forgetting the previous 180 km in order to get through the final 45. Ignorance is painful bliss!
30 km to go and Gavin was waiting for me, chipper and ready for a run ( a really really slow run) up and over the final hill of Montnegre- Corredor and down to the finish at Canet de Mar. We chatted and I moaned - a lot - but Gavin kept me running and moving forward. We crested the hill and then were faced with a longer than expected descent/flat section to meet up with Annie, Lucy, Mete, Mateo (again!) and Jen (again!), the so called glory team who were going to see me to the finish. The final section was sunny and easy enough as I ground my legs into the absolute ground. I'd been feeling completely done for the final 50 km and it was a wonder I was still moving! We hit the town and ran down the boulevards and high streets to the coast. It all seemed a bit surreal and I didn't know how to react. It was too far to really reflect on it in a oner and the previous night had been such a strange experience that I was in a pretty confused state. Perhaps to be expected after 60 + hours of being awake.
The final 30 km (Photo credit Gavin Conn)
We ran under the railway tracks and hit the beach and the end of the GR5 just as the sun dipped below the horizon for the third time that weekend. I guess I had done it. Proven to myself that I could run further than 100 miles. Such an arbitrary number. Just like 230 km, really meaningless, but at the same time something so difficult to achieve and something that I singularly focused on for months and months and dedicated 100's of hours to. I guess that's why anybody does anything - to find some kind of meaning. Maybe it's the uncertainty of something so long that I love and the confidence it gives me to feel like I could just keep running indefinitely and never quite hit that limit. But the limit or the end always seem quite irrelevant if you hit them because the best memories come from being out on the trail pushing relentlessly on. Either way I'm sure I'll do it again, or at least I'm sure I'll trick myself into thinking it's a good idea again - I never learn ! My time of 47 hours 4 mins was under that of the previous record by about 4 hours, but all I could think about was a beer and a kebab on the corner by the train station. Something that had been keeping me going those last few hours and after a long weekend, it was finally a sensible life choice...
Massive thanks to all the support runners who got up early and ran in the rain and the film crew who stayed awake almost as long as I did!
PS. Don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for the documentary "I could never go vegan", coming out at the end of the year and featuring the GR5 record!