I’d passed the covid test, bib number 106 was on, kit check passed, I stood on my number in the exit corral, heart beating with anticipation, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
The act of leaving the starting gates is so simple and easy, but it’s the whole leading up to that part that I can never get right. After my Transgrancanaria debacle exactly a year ago to the day I was determined to be ultra-prepared (bad pun) for my first 100 miler. I’d had two of the best training blocks of my life going into it. Before Christmas I had been working on speed for 2 months before burning out slightly and taking a full month off. During which I’d been toying with the idea of doing something but with the current situation and my burn out, motivation was waning. Against my better judgment I entered the Tarragona Ultra Trail 100 miler and so began my second training block with a bit more purpose. I dialled back the speed and adapted my training for pure endurance by religiously running in Zone 2, actually doing recovery runs properly and giving up booze completely (54 days! Arguably the most impressive part about this story!). The main change I made to my training was the addition of back-to-back long runs at the weekends and consistently doing 115 km a week ish. I think my biggest weekend was 47km/27km but most were in the region of 65-70km total.
So, chuffed with my last long run and two weeks away from the race, I headed to a friend’s place for dinner. There wasn’t much else to do since Barcelona had been shut for business and entry and exit and fun for the previous 2 months. Then I eased into the taper and started reducing my milage carefully with the intention of capitalising on the 1000s of kilometres training I had done.
3 days later I got the message…
She had covid! I’d spent about 6 hours in close contact with her eating and chatting. My head spun and I instantly felt like I had a rising fever, headache and a sore throat! Did I have enough time to recover from it? What’s the incubation period? Do I really feel fine? Is the race a write off? I ran to the Health centre before it closed to get a test which came out negative. However, I had to self-isolate for 10 days which led me up to the week of the race. Regardless, I was pretty concerned about what would happen if I had it and how running 100 miles would affect my body and immune system. What if the incubation period was 14 days and it hadn’t hit yet? Was the first test a false negative? Had it been too early? Would I pass the antigen test to do the race even if I had recovered? My mind raced all week and combined with the anxiety of actually having to run 100 miles, the lead up was horrifyingly stressful.
We were off and I was about the 5th or 6th person out of the gate and to start a race in Catalunya for over a year. I felt so lucky to be racing again after so long and it felt great. I ran the first 45km really conservatively to the first drop bag where I had a really fast turnaround. The bag drops in this race were 45km in and 29km from the end which, unfortunately, left an 85km section with only 5 aid stations so my bag was on the heavy side. Shortly after, the front of my foot started hurting really badly running down a tarmac road. I was making an effort to fix things before they got worse so decided to take of my compression socks and fortunately after a few hours the pain disappeared! The next 50km was where the majority of the climbing was (3500m) and it was really rough under foot with steep technical ascents and descents. It caught a lot of people off guard, and I started passing people occasionally although it was difficult to move quickly, and my pace dropped off considerably. However, with the break of dawn the scenery was stunning as the race weaved over scrubby ridge lines and into pine scented valleys all to the backdrop of the most expansive vineyards I’d ever seen. The area really is a hidden gem nestled in between the Montanyes de Prades, the coastal hills south of Barcelona and Montserrat.
Fuelling and hydration were going really well to just before 100km when I started getting really bad hiccups. I think my body had had enough and was demanding that I stopped! I was trying to stretch out eating between check points, but they were too far apart, and my stomach was in tatters. It’s funny how you know what to do in this situation, but the action of eating is so much harder in reality. Once I’d stuffed a few Oreos into my face I got my groove on again and determined to run the final 60km I set off (at a very slow trot!).
I hadn’t anticipated the difference between a 100km and 100-mile race much past being 60% further, but there were some pretty big differences. I didn’t have the same highs and lows of a shorter race because I was fuelling better and running slower but the increase in mental pain was quite noticeable. 27.5 hours is a long time to be running and although I was still moving, the final 6 hours in the dark were excruciatingly long, boring and difficult. I desperately wanted to see something more interesting than the roots, bushes and the 2 m radius of my headtorch. It felt like a never-ending labyrinth of trails and it was easy to believe that I was going nowhere. The kilometres ground by and it felt like my bones were grinding down at the same time, but I ground on because running was just as bad as walking.
To top it all off, the sleep deprivation hallucinations had started and were putting on a tour de force of activity that just wasn’t happening in reality. The shadows of the forest were a hotbed of hallucinatory over stimulation. Zebras jumping up from the ground, Gollum peering out of the centre of a pebble, bushes pretending to be people or just being strange bushes trying to reach out with their twiggy arms and fingers. In the dark humid air of the coast, I couldn’t tell what were people and what were bins, railings or trees. One thing is for sure, it was 0100am in the morning with national curfew, no one was picnicking in the forest with friends in the dark. The worst part was not what was going on around me but when I got closer to the hallucination and it snapped back to being what it actually was: be it stump, bin, house or signpost. I was badly in need of dinner!
The final kilometre or so along the sandy beach felt like purgatory, so I walked it, but managed to muster the final 20m over the finish line, in 27 hours 30 minutes and a fifth place finish, to rapturous applause of the volunteers who had managed to stay up for the same length of time as I had. Respect! I was too tired to feel anything at that point, but it was amazing to see Sam and Jen who surprised me at the finish line with the antidote to tripping: bean burritos! Happy days/nights/days/nights!
A massive thanks to all the organisers and volunteers who made the race really special since there were no spectators allowed. A great event!