Running Sea to Sea: The GR11 Self-Supported Fastest Known Time.
A record attempt at the 850km GR11, crossing Spain from the rugged Atlantic coast to the warm sun splashed Mediterranean through the heart of the Spanish Pyrenees.
With lockdown still in full force in Spain and the summer fast approaching, it looked doubtful that a much-needed escape to the mountains would actually materialise into more than a pipedream this summer. July 1st was the proposed date for the opening of the borders to France with Andorra opening a week earlier to Spain, which would slash my window of opportunity between jobs in half and effectively stymie any plans of long-distance mountain running. With a growing sense of disappointment, I followed the news obsessively and from my state of limbo hoped somewhat desperately that things would change. Besides badly needing a holiday, two months of one of the strictest lockdowns in the world had taken its toll mentally and physically and the strains of confined living and no exercise were beginning to show.
A complete Pyrenees crossing had been on my mind for a few years having done sections of the GR11 before and skied and run extensively in the region for the best part of ten years. However, there remained gaps in my knowledge of how different regions linked up and I was keen to fill in the gaps to link oak and pine lined valleys, rugged mountain tops and isolated passes to complete a more comprehensive map in my mind. The Haute route, which sews a line crisscrossing the border between France, Spain and Andorra seeking out the highest mountain terrain, was my original plan but with the borders shut I placed my bets on the GR11, which after some recent changes, traverses the Pyrenees exclusively in Spain and Andorra. After a last-minute change from the Spanish government, the date of free travel within Spain was brought forward to the 21st of June and it was on! Elation was quickly replaced by a week of pure stress doing my best to plan the entire trip, buying new lightweight equipment (which did and did not arrive on time), learning how to use my kindly gifted live tracker (thanks Sam and Jen!) and finishing up with work.
Fastpacking, fast and light travel carrying everything you need, had been on my radar as something I felt I would enjoy for some months. Having run numerous ultra-marathons I was keen to explore another niche area of the sport and indulge in my vices and run for as long and as far as possible over multiple days. I researched previous crossings extensively, and I found someone who had completed the route in 18 stages with slight variations on the GR11 and a team who had completed it in 11 days with a support crew. As far as I was aware, a self-supported crossing had yet to be done in less than three weeks. In this style you rely solely on yourself and the services that you find on the trail with no external prearranged help. So I set my sights on a sub 18 day crossing of the GR11 without any of the variations and psyched myself up to give everything I had to the Pyrenees, which at the time was a burgeoning post-quarantine beer belly and only a month of training within the city limits of Barcelona. “I’ll get fit on the job” I said.
Day 1: Cabo Higuer – Elizondo (61.2km 2090m 10hrs 49m)
The salty pre-dawn air of the Atlantic Ocean filled my nostrils as I breathed it in deeply and pondered the scent of the humid, aromatic Mediterranean coast that lay around 850 km and 40,000m of ascent away. The journey began with the immediate jettisoning of water, sandwiches and prunes as I quickly realised that my optimised bag of 6.25kg without food was a wholly different beast when loaded with water and provisions. From here on in I decided to address the problem by only carrying a 500ml soft flask of water which was perhaps not the best strategy. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! I then proceeded to climb back up the hill to the lighthouse as a result of thinking I had taken the wrong route, which fortunately I hadn’t. City navigation was the order of the morning and with a coffee stop it took me 2 hours to leave Irun. I trusted that my mountain nav was better and steadily climbed away from the cooling sea breeze into the foothills of the Basque Country en route for Navarra later that day. The first day passed in a whir of amazement at the beauty of the rolling hills and quaint farmsteads nestled into the small valleys across the landscape. Having taken supplies for the whole day, I stopped only briefly in Bega for a coke. I came to realise that carrying so much food was a bit of a mistake as refuelling was generally quite easy in towns and villages but being vegan, I was keen to avoid any lack of food and my strategy relied on towns as opposed to mountain huts for meals. I ran into Elizondo in the early evening feeling tired but motivated to have started the trip.
Day 2: Elizondo- Villanueva de Aezkoa/Hiriberri (53.7km 2395m 13hrs 57m)
6am and I was out the door through more idyllic countryside as a scorcher of a day slowly crept into the misty valleys permeating even the thickest oak canopies, which provided a semblance of respite. The GR11 climbed steadily up through some of the best-preserved natural beech forest in Europe which is also a migration route for birds heading north and as such the number of birds of prey was staggering with eagles, hawks, kites and the ever-present vultures circling overhead. The route followed the border ridge with France for most of the morning and there was a sense of ancient mysticism in the vast forests and open ridges with monoliths and stone circles adorning the skyline. After the Urkiaga Pass, for reasons unknown, I decided to follow the GR12 for a few km uphill. The markers hadn’t been totally clear all morning and this combined with a spattering of idiocy had me running back down the GR11 to the turning and then back up to my highpoint again with the “Grand Old Duke of York” stuck on repeat in my head as if to mock my predicament. Shortly after on the climb up Mendiaundi (1210m) I stopped for a break to soak in the surroundings and rest my worryingly weary legs. On the descent to Burguete/Auritz the 30-degree heat really kicked in and the final stage to Hiriberri was a sweaty suffer fest with the growing pain of blisters forming on the balls of my feet. I reached Orbara, 3.5 km from the end of the stage, exhausted and in pain. I had a quick wash in the river and a pack of instant noodles and let my restlessness carry me over overgrown trails to a bivouac above Hiriberri where I dressed my feet and got some sleep.
Day 3: Villanueva de Aezkoa/Hiriberri - Isaba (41.7km 1455m 8hrs 14m)
The first hours of the morning started painfully with the ´blister shuffle` which would become a regular feature until day 9. Luckily, the pain became more manageable once my feet had numbed to the relentless battering they were enduring. Up through the first climb and forest a growing sense of anxiety built that I couldn’t place. Perhaps it was like vertigo or claustrophobia in the seemingly endless forest or more likely loneliness having just spent two months in close proximity to my flatmate during lockdown and then running through deserted mountains. Occasionally it would reappear in the following days before disappearing completely as time on my own became the new normal and I started to relish the emptiness lost in my thoughts. The first glimpse of the high mountains greeted the top of the climb and beautiful grassy ridge running took me down into Ochagavía. A relaxed refuel later and I set off forgetting to take on enough water. The next stage was easy enough over barren dry countryside, but dehydration slowly turned into desperation as I dropped into the final wooded descent into Isaba. I’m not sure how much more I could have taken but the fountain couldn’t have come sooner. Resting for several minutes in the carpark was enough for my feet to become unusable as all the pain of the blisters returned at once. I began to worry about infection and if I had bitten off more than I could chew running 17 consecutive 40-60km+ days.
Day 4: Isaba – Refugio Lizara (43.5km 2365m 10hrs 59m)
One thing that can be said for blisters is that they are a great pace moderator and I steadily passed through the Belabarze Valley and the high green haven of the Aguas Tuertas without issue, stopping to dry and dress my blisters several times. The wet grass was my morning nemesis throughout the trip, and it tended to instantly soak my feet in the first ten minutes of every day. The end of the day climbed up and over the Bernera Pass (2102m) to Refugio Lizara. This section was a new addition to the GR11 in 2017 and it avoids the French section before Candanchú that is now discontinued, but it adds half a day to the old itinerary. It is well worth the detour and the curious S shaped valley cutting through the spine of the Pyrenees was a joy to run down on a par with the cold beer served up in the Refugio 500m below. My legs felt great today and I cautiously thought that I was adapting to the daily rigours of metres and kilometres. I dropped off route onto the road to stay in a forest hut for the night and enjoyed an uninterrupted 9 hours in my sleeping bag feeling a deep sense of relief to be out of the forests and into the high mountains once again after the enforced hiatus in the city.
Day 5: Refugio Lizara – Sallent de Gállego (40.1km 1950m 9hrs 36m)
The day dawned in a brilliance of high mountain haze cut by the morning sun as the GR11 weaved over high passes, cut under overhanging caves and meandered through boulders to meet with the top of the pistes at Candanchú and an easy descent into the resort where I found the only open bar (L’aguila) and ordered a vegan burger, possibly the only one in the Pyrenees but certainly the best at that moment! Then by the Canal Roya, a large easy rising valley, I crossed over past the Anayet lakes (2225m) and descended to the ski resort of the same name. A tarmac section to the main road turned into trail that took a meandering route to the left of the road that seemed frustratingly slow, but it eventually ended up in Formigal and soon after Sallent de Gállego for a refuel and the night. A violent thunderstorm rolled in ten minutes after I had ordered my first beer, avoiding a soaking made it taste all the sweeter.
Day 6: Sallent de Gállego- Puente de los Navarros (52.4km 2547m 15hrs 20m)
I neglected to look at the information for the following two days in advance which was just as well because they were the hardest of the whole route and it added to the sense of adventure exploring new valleys under moody and misty skies. The morning climb to Respomuso Hut passed without incident in about 2.5 hours to miss a coffee stop by 15 minutes as the hut closed for cleaning. A small blow considering the awful sleep I’d had under a damp overhang of a road but by this stage I was no longer reliant on coffee to wake up. The next section was snow bound, and ice axe and crampons were needed for the only time during the crossing. I walked up with a Belgian who had been stuck in the storm the previous night and wanted reassurances on the route. However, his lack of crampons and an axe slowed him down considerably, so I gave him some advice on safe snow travel and the route before continuing on. The wet snow made for an exciting pass round to the Cuello de L’infierno (2721m) and a fast descent down to the valley where the GR11 markings picked up again. A crowded descent led down to an even busier Panticosa on a Saturday afternoon where I stopped for lunch before making the steep climb up to Puerto Viejo (2566m). The ascent was tough and I had the first low moment of the trip. Luckily, the views were spectacular and with a bit of music I pulled myself out of my mental black hole and took in the spectacular views of Vignemale (3298m) towering above the valley floor. The descent was grassy and easy to San Nicolás de Bujarelo and I enjoyed coffee, beer and bravas at the bar and some cooked instant noodles outside to fuel me to Puente de los Navarros where I wanted to sleep for the night. This would allow me to make Parzán the next day with the promise of a hostel and refuel and avoiding a third night out with meagre supplies. During the night my hips were spasming and the deep pain in my thighs woke me up several times as the consecutive days started to take their toll and I pondered on how much more my body could take.
Day 7: Puente de los Navarros- Parzán (51.1km 3128m 12hrs 58m)
An early start and an easy climb up to Refugio Góritz (2220m) took about 4.5 hours through the Ordesa Valley, one of the most spectacular geological wonders of the Pyrenees. The day threatened bad weather from the off but luckily it never materialised and the swirling mist, reminiscent of an atmospheric Scottish day out, added to the grandeur of the faces, cliffs and waterfalls cascading out from the depths of the limestone walls. The Fuenblanca valley has a wild and remote feeling to it and it took me back to climbing in the Canadian Rockies hours from the nearest road with raw nature dominating the landscape. The climb to Collado de Añisclo (2453m) was straightforward but spectacular and from the lofty perch overlooking the Glacial Valley of Pineta the path dropped 1200m in only 2.5km. The brutal descent wasted my legs and by the bottom I was ready to walk along the valley to recover a little as I still had 20km and 971m to go before Parzán. From the climb up the other side of the valley, I took a moment to admire the paradisiacal waterfalls that were falling free for hundreds of metres down the rocky faces carved out by glaciers over millennia in the Pintea Cirque. Gaining height was a slow process at this stage but the high grazing land held interest in its hidden pastures flanked by rocky pinnacles forming pockets of what could only be described as paradise if you were a cow. Just before the descent I started to get a persistent pain in the back of my ankle and hoped that I hadn’t pushed too hard through Ordesa. I followed some shepherds and their cattle down the road which continued to Parzán and the end of two draining days in the mountains. The garage shop has lots of good vegan supplies and I ate a feast in the hotel room before passing out almost instantaneously.
Day 8: Parzán – Cabaña de Santa Ana (38.9km 2485m 10hrs 9m)
Badly in need of a rest day, the ever-present wet grass soaked my shoes and aggravated my blisters from the get-go, but it soon turned into a good track which climbed over 1000m to Collado de Urdiceto (2314m) where the first really cold wind of the trip blew up the valley. I didn’t hang around for long and dropped down into the valley to Refugio Biadós. Unfortunately, it was closed but I cooked some lunch in the sun and then passed under the impressive north face of Posets (3371m), which I have skied multiple times, its summit flanks still enveloped in a cloak of snow even in July. Soon Puerto de Chistau (2592m) appeared and the view gave way down the Estos Valley to Puerdiguero (3222m) and Maladeta (3312m) two more skiing peaks that hold some of my best memories of winters in the Pyrenees. It felt comforting to be surrounded by peaks and valleys that I know so well, and my spirits were high as I arrived at Refugio Estos for a well-earned beer. Sometimes it felt like I was a passenger and my body a vehicle and at others I was brutally aware that I was attached to my legs with the final descent being the latter. I continued a little to a free refugio called Cabaña del Turmo where I had stayed several times in winter to find it closed: so much for my rest day! I continued down the valley to Cabaña de Santa Ana putting more kilometres into my harried legs than desired. Nevertheless, I had a really comfortable night and felt ready for the next few days.
Day 9: Cabaña de Santa Ana – Refugio de Conangles (29.8km 1705m 8hrs 28m)
Today, at least, was a rest day in terms of distance but the terrain was rough under foot and time consuming. However, my blisters had healed over and my feet were pain free! Unfortunately, it was a case of out with the old and in with new as the downhill start immediately triggered pain up the front of my shin. I recognised it as an old injury that had prevented me from finishing Ultra Pirineu on my first attempt at the final check point only 12km from the finish. Despite this being quite a worrying development, I knew that it only limited my top range of speed and I wasn’t operating anywhere near this, nor would I, so with careful management I endeavoured to control it by being slightly more right foot dominant and with careful foot placement. My legs were heavy, and I needed to stop before the pass to cook some lunch and refuel. The spot couldn’t have been more inspiring with the peaks of Aneto (3404m) and Pico Tempestades (3296m), both classic ski tours, shrouded in fast moving summit clouds. Rocky terrain led to Refugio de Cap de Llauset at which point I was taken aback by the sheer size of this hut. It really is a hotel in the mountains with an absolutely fantastic view from the toilet. Attention to detail is important these days! The descent was easy enough and I had a mini celebration to arrive back in Catalunya and leave the isolated mountain tops and wild valleys of Aragon behind me adorned with slowly building storm clouds.
Day 10: Refugio de Conangles – Refugio Ernest Mallafré (37km 2522m 12hrs 12m)
I had an extremely restful night and a good breakfast at Refugio de Conangles and awoke ready to cross the Aigüestortes National Park. Some slight pain in my left leg persisted but it didn’t limit my speed or rather forward movement to more accurately describe it! The trail was rough over to Refugio Dera Restanca with prominent spires and rocky ridges rising in all directions. A quick Coke at the hut and I was off up the next stunning lake-studded valley to a pass at 2457m where I realised my error: I’d got carried away and taken the GR11.18 an extra 2.5km and 465m up the mountain! My plan had always been to do the original GR11 without variations despite the fact that this one was clearly the most popular route. So, back down the path I went, sheepishly jumping over a large snake in the process, to arrive back at the hut. The original and much less-travelled route went down into the valley and round the mountain of Montardo (2833 m), mostly on tracks until the final climb up a stunning valley of granite bulges and haggard pine trees to crest the ridge and traverse over to Refugio Colomers. This adds more distance and elevation to the route but for the sake of purity I wanted to do the original trail and I think it is more in keeping with the style of the GR11 as a whole which drops into valleys on almost every stage. The final climb to Pòrt de Ràtera (2534m) was easy enough and it was guarded by a pair of chamois that didn’t seem too fussed by my presence. The descent was reasonably quick to finish up at Refugio Ernest Mallafré for the night.
Day 11: Refugio Ernest Mallafré- Tavascan (42.1km 2220m 9hrs 28m)
Imagine trying to sleep under a bridge next to a troll who had just eaten a horse, fallen asleep and started snoring. This was how I slept, and it reminded me of how awful staying in mountain huts can be. At one point it actually sounded as if the perpetrator was suffocating or trying to pass a tennis ball through a tuba. The one recompense was that the first 20km was almost all downhill. I had a hearty breakfast in Espot and continued on to Estaon via a long climb up through abandoned villages and old pastures which finished abruptly at the crest as I entered the old growth pine forest. It rained heavily twice on the climb, the only rain of the whole trip. It was eerily silent in the forest, but peaceful making progress in the heavy rain. From Estaon it was up and over Collada del Jou (1830m) and a traverse up the valley to Tavascan. It’s funny how a seemingly innocuous low pass can change so dramatically within ten minutes. A crack of thunder signalled an incoming thunderstorm and triggered an increase in pace. The storm was driving down the valley as I pushed to pass the coll before it hit. Seconds after I crested the pass, hailstones the size of chickpeas hammered down and lightning cracked with electric static below, above and on a level with me. Unsure what to do and seeing the cows legging it I decided to take my chances and do the same. I blasted the descent into the valley hard and the pains I had in my legs threatened to get worse, but it was not the time for hanging around. I found some bins and took shelter for ten minutes and the worst of the storm passed. On reaching Tavascan the sun was out and it was just another beautiful evening in the Pyrenees completely unrepresentative of the raging tempest and overload of adrenaline.
Day 12: Tavascan – La Cortinada (47.4km 3380m 12hrs 59m)
I decided to take advantage of breakfast at the hotel so started really late. After a steep climb the trail traversed overgrown wet grass for several kilometres, my favourite! Then it passed over a pass to Áreu where I had a sandwich break before the 4.5 hour climb to Refugio de Baiau and the final rocky pass into Andorra. The ascent was draining and I arrived at Port de Baiau (2757m) quite tired to be greeted by the summit ridge of Comapedrosa (2943 m), the highest mountain in Andorra. Thankfully the run down into Arinsal was easy and quick and easy and I had a vegan burger with extra fries, a beer and a Coke before climbing over the final pass of the day to Arans. It was steep up and down through open pine forests but only took a couple of hours to get to La Cortinada. The reason why I pushed the extra distance was to time my arrival in Encamp to coincide with the opening hours of the post office so I could send myself my snow gear and things I had hardly used such as warm gloves, a buff and my stove.
Day 13: La Cortinada- Guils de Cerdanya (54.3km 3310m 12hrs 31m)
Spurred on by the thought of a drastically lighter bag the ascent to Coll d’Ordino (1973m) passed quickly. The ascents in Andorra are really quite steep and the markings are just too far apart to pacify my paranoia, so I did a lot of checking the GPS. I also realised that my heavily lugged mountain running shoes had been beaten into an old pair of racing flats and gave very little purchase on slippery or steep ground and I hoped they would last the distance as the holes in the toes grew and grew every day. Encamp arrived and the post office was open! The French post office… the Spanish one wasn’t open on Saturdays despite the timetables online. The crushing disappointment wasn’t abetted by an extended breakfast and restock in the supermarket and I set off in a foul mood still carrying the extra weight en route to Refugio de L’illa. The valley seemed to go on forever before giving in and presenting the refugio in all its grandeur and size, similar to Cap de Llauset, seeming somewhat out of place in the high mountains. A 4 euro Coke later I was on my way and quickly passed over to Catalunya for the final time. A stiff climb past horses and cattle led to the descent to Malniu. There was still a significant vertical headwall of snow on the Portella de Calm Colomer o d’Engorgs (2697m) which could be passed on the left easily enough. Arriving at Malniu was like turning up to the campsite on the first day of a festival. The number of people and cars was overwhelming and my attempt to buy bread at the refugio futile, so I left it behind and slowly dropped into La Cerdanya to sleep just outside Guils. I finished what little food I had and slept well under an impressive array of planets, stars, and a big red moon.
Day 14: Guils de Cerdanya - Santuario de Núria (49.2km 2635m13hrs 40m)
Aware that it was Sunday and I had no food left I set off for Puigcerdá in the hope that I would find something, and as luck had it, there was a garage and bakery open with an array of vegan treats (Oreos and crisps). Today was the day I was getting to my local training ground and an easy climb up to the French border was followed by a frustratingly badly marked and overgrown trail down to Planoles which took longer than expected and drained my energy reserves. Here was where I left my drop bag to lighten my load and it couldn’t have come sooner. The well-marked trail led up and over to Queralbs and up the classic path to Núria. This steep sided canyon never fails to impress with its sweeping vegetated walls and surging waterfalls. I arrived in Núria exhausted but with the end in sight, which helped rouse my motivation.
Day 15: Santuario de Núria - Can Nou (65.1km 2975m 16hrs 7m)
After an early morning climb onto the main ridge it was downhill all the way to Setcases where I had a king-sized breakfast of fruit and bread from the village honey shop. The trail over to Molló was straightforward and after the initial steep climb it descended easily into the town. Thankfully, I had bread leftover from earlier because there was none in the local shop. From here it was net downhill all the way to Beget and another oversized feed before the final tracked section to Talaixà, an outdoor club hut in the heart of Alta Garrotxa. With the descent also came sweeping waves of heat, each one more consuming than the last, and it became apparent that the cool breezes of the high mountains were a thing of the past. I had arrived to the Mediterranean lands. Initially, I’d planned to stay here but on arrival I spoke to a photographer who was staying the night and he said there was a great bivouac at Can Nou and since it was only 5pm I decided to push on. The steepness and ruggedness of the forests and tranquillity of the river basins in this area took me by surprise and the last few hours passed in a state of awe at the wilderness rich with birds, deer and the occasional long-distance runner. As night fell, I arrived at the hut to sleep outside under the stars overlooking my final destination of the Mediterranean. Not forgetting the now standard crisps and Oreos for dinner…
Day 16: Can Nou - Portell de les Creus (66.1km 2250m 14hrs 55m)
Another morning in which gravity was on my side reached Albanyà where I had a good breakfast to compensate for the previous night’s dinner. The morning was perpetuated with thoughts of a continuous push to Cap de Creus but at 125km it wasn’t exactly as short as I would have liked. This distraction from the trail proved troublesome on a few occasions on the way to Maçanet de Cabrenys as I missed turnings and ran off route several times. The markings were not great, and I was thankful for my GPX files. The heat simmered and sapped my energy progressively throughout the day peaking at La Jonquera where at least I could refuel and stock up for the final push. The early evening climb up through the popping brush seeds of the border lands flew by and I stopped at Requesens to charge my phone. At this point I decided that given the flatter nature of the final section I didn’t want to risk being reduced to a walk should I continue and so I gained the Portell de les Creus (699m) for 4 hours sleep, intruding on the patch of a solitary fox sniffing for scraps of food (probably Oreos).
Day 17: Portell de les Creus - Cap de Creus (58.4km 1230m 11hrs 46m)
The alarm went at 0230 and I awoke in an extremely degraded state of humour. The trail soon ended and turned to downhill track and road through the vine laden villages of Els Villars, Rabós and Vilamaniscle. With the exception of Coll de la Plaja (392m) over which, clearly in a bid to aggravate my temper, the path disappeared into a thick intertwined lacerating machine. The existence of the path was only clear from the runnel in the ground because above the ground every spikey, brambly pointed bush in Catalunya barred the way through, with shorts and a t-shirt clearly not being optimal in this situation. However, after 15 minutes I emerged bloodied, swearing and with an anger that could have ignited the bushes in a spontaneous combustion event. Fortunately, caffeine solves all these problems and the supermarket was open in Llança. The hill in between me and El Port de la Selva gave no resistance with the exception of the rising temperatures to what felt like near boiling-point. The final section to Cap de Creus was the hottest and driest running experience of my life. Very runnable through wild west scenery with dry riverbeds, cattle bones and abandoned ranches. As the lighthouse came into view the path skirted the road as if it was never going to finish. Dehydration was slowing me down with every step and the bushes reopened the wounds of that morning’s flogging. The coastal terrain battered my feet in the 30 degree heat leaving little space to actually comprehend that I was ten minutes from looking out into The Med and saying goodbye to the little red and white markers that I had followed obsessively for the last 830km sometimes in agony sometimes in elation, and sometimes not even following them at all. As I rounded the final promontory, I found myself alone again, as I had been for the majority of the last 16 days 9 hours and 4 minutes, staring at the final marker and little cairn with the humid, aromatic Mediterranean Sea breeze filling my lungs.
I rarely find that the end point of these things triggers a massive outpouring of emotion, but rather a feeling of what happens next? The satisfaction comes from the process as a whole. Such as those moments floating over boulder fields effortlessly as storm clouds threatened over the summits, or satisfying the feeling of restlessness by continuing into the dusk over high mountain passes, or staring a vulture in the eye as it calculated how long it would have to follow me before I dropped, or marvelling at why my body hadn’t given up and I was still going after 16 hours of running on blisters, or exchanging smiles with strangers after seeing nobody for hours, or just sitting down and ordering a cold beer at the end of the day and thinking about nothing.