The Borderline: The Haute Route Pyrenees Fastest Known Time.
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
The Pyrenees are wild and rugged, full of life and change like a moving picture as you cross them, so that one moment you are in green pastures and the next, almost like magic, you are staring up at a soaring 500m limestone wall listening to rockfall batter the scree slopes below. A place where chamois and runners live under the watchful eyes of the bearded vultures and eagles above, as a constant reminder to the circle of life, but also to the joy of feeling alive and taking every single moment, every single step and every single breath as one to be savoured.
The col on the Pic du Midi d'Ossau.
I had clearly forgotten the pain of the previous year’s fastest known time (FKT) on the GR11 as I set out at 0554am from the beach at Hendaye on the uncomfortably cool Atlantic coast one September morning. This time was going to be different. I had spent most of the previous year meticulously upgrading my lightweight arsenal and pouring over the route of the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP). I had thought back to my GR11 crossing and highlighted where I felt mistakes had been made (of which there were many!) and I had problem solved solutions and plans to avoid the same errors happening again. More than anything I was setting out to prove to myself that I could do something that I thought was beyond my abilities, something I would have to suffer and fight for. So, rather undertrained physically but more than ready mentally I made for the hills at speed to discover what would give first, with a big grin on my face.
My mandatory kit photo.
Day 1: Hendaye to Lindus (82 km 3686 m): Autumnal beginnings
“WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!” The turning of the seasons was evidently clear as chestnut husks hurtled to the ground like falling sea urchins, so I did not hang around and took my chances with the gauntlet in the dark. The initial kilometres passed quickly, but the wind persisted as I pondered my equipment choice for the unseasonably cool weather thinking back to my final note saying, “consider taking mitts”. I also mused as to whether my zero season sleeping bag was going to do anything for warmth at night. Rolling grassy hills and open deciduous forests were the order of the day as I joined the GR11 and arrived in Elizondo at around kilometre fifty for lunch and a good resupply. I needed to carry food for 4.5 days from here as I wouldn’t be passing another shop until Gavarnie and Parzán around 180km away. The heavier bag was noticeable, but the trail was easy underfoot to Aldudes, a small French village surrounded by amazingly sculpted pyramidal hills that looked as if they had been sanded down to create perfect lines against the backdrop of the green valley. It was six-thirty now and I felt good, so decided to push on. The trail led onto a long forested ridge with very little opportunity to fill up with water. The rain started and thirst turned to desperation as I approached the final water point on the map. Fortunately, there was what looked like a fire hydrant with enough pressure to knock someone over! Onwards and upwards with a new-found enthusiasm and only a few kilometres from a hut. I arrived at the ruins of the hill fort Lindus in the dark in the rain and gale force winds with no sign of an actual hut. I decided to take shelter under my tarp in the moat, which turned out to be quite the opposite of a wind breaker. Twice during the night pegs blew out and I struggled against the wind to get them back in whilst getting soaked from all angles. A good first night I thought…
Day 2: Lindus to Refugio Belagua (64 km 3194 m): Lost in the mist
The morning revealed not only a flock of sheep resting in the calm 20m from my wind ravaged pitch, but also the hut I had been looking for, a mere 200m further down. Deciding not to dwell on this I continued over increasingly high sierras with around five climbs over colls and through forests and open grassy hillsides culminating in Pic d’Orhy (2017 m). The first point above 2000m on the route and the point at which the weather decided to take a turn for the worst again. The vast herds of sheep huddled together as I passed, another reminder that colder weather was on the way. The next few hours were spent following the trail over featureless grassy hills, getting lost occasionally and generally cursing the weather and feeling anxious for no particular reason. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps loneliness or homesickness, it always happens in the first few days of any long adventure. Luckily, it cleared a little for my final descent to Refugio Belagua and I watched the clouds being blown up the valley in a spectacular display of swirling mists and I reminded myself of how lucky I was to be there in that moment with the cows and sheep for company, approaching the high Pyrenees at a pace faster than I had imagined possible.
The Rolling ridges and mists of day 2.
Day 3: Refugio Belagua to Candanchú (53 km 3040 m): Into the heart of the Pyrenees
Boggy hoof trodden forest tracks in the dark are only fun if you pretend they are. Luckily, I have a very active imagination and I got through the first ten kilometres or so easily enough before the sun rose and revealed the Karst limestone wilderness in all its striking beauty. I climbed quickly up and over the pass, watched attentively by the local chamois before dropping down to the Source de Marmitou to refill my bottle with the pristinely filtered water trickling out from under a boulder field. A loud bang kicked off the next part of the climb as a single rock cleaved off its high perch somewhere above on the vertical limestone wall, undoing millions of years of upward geological progress. I stopped and looked carefully just to check that the rock was not about to undo my upward progress at the same time. The next part of the trail all but melted into the limestone lunar scape. Hopping over chasms and caves, and skirting round what seemed like bomb holes became all consuming. One wrong step in this unforgiving landscape could have serious consequences as some gashes in the landscape cut more than twenty meters deep and opened up like the gates of Mordor. All the adventure was missing were some hobbit friends and a ring… The Table de Trois Rois (2421m) gave great views to the terrain to come which was completely different and much more runnable, directly along the border line on perfect grassy ridges before dropping down into the green forests below Candanchú and up again to find refuge for the night.
The Karst limestone wilderness.
Day 4: Candanchú to Lac d’Arratille (47.51 km 3508 m): Rain. Cold rain.
On into the clouds and persistent rain.
An easy start up to Astun and over the col above revealed the Pic Midi du Ossau in a somewhat pre-dawn blue light, rising vertically above the clouds and signalling the start of the high mountains of the central Pyrenees. The previous night’s bad sleep due to snorers and coughers working as a tag team of nocturnal nuisances had put a major dampener on my spirits, and several bad navigational decisions and a face plant while looking at my phone, was all I needed for a full-on rage at life in general. What lifted me out of the downward spiral was the realisation that the salad sandwich I had ordered the night before turned out to be several pallid limp slices of lettuce with a sprinkling of salt. Who says vegans do not eat well? Still, it hit the spot. While my mood lifted the weather deteriorated just in time for the Passage d’Orteig, one of the more exposed sections of the route, protected by in situ chains. The greasy rock made for an exciting crossing with brief clearings in the cloud to drive home the exposure. By now it was pelting it down and I was soaked to the bone. The landscape changed again into rolling steep granite ribs, humps, cliffs and channels for the descent to Refuge d’Arrémoulit. Everything was running with water and extreme care was needed to avoid a slip or tumble, but I made it to the hut where I quickly eyed the next pass which went up and over to Refugio Respomuso. Another technical climb and descent over boulder fields provided the proverbial nail in the coffin as I passed the point of discomfort and got so cold I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. I definitely should have brought the mitts!
Must work harder on tarp skills! Wind puts an end to any sleep in a tarp!
I had a warm coffee in the hut and came back to life enough to trick myself into leaving again into the dreich Scottish like conditions once more. It made me feel right at home but not in a particularly great way… Finally, the weather cleared enough to get a great view from the Col de la Fache (2664 m) that led down to Refugio Wallon, which at present is a bizarre juxtaposition of high mountain and building site. To finish the day, I hiked up to Lac d’Arratille and set up the tarp for the night. Tarps, I have come to realise, are fickle beasts and you clearly need to know what you are doing, which I do not. The wind changed direction in the night causing a level of flapping so great that I bailed completely and slept outside under the freezing September sky. I now knew for sure that my sleeping bag was not warm enough for the weather and the rest of the night, and many more to come, was spent trying to stay warm from about 3am. The bad weather was also taking its toll on me mentally and the oppressiveness of rain and cloud was seeping into my bones.
Day 5: Lac d’Arratille to Parzán (62.38 km 3343 m): Big Mountains and Big Miles
I started early because it was better than lying in my freezing sleeping bag doing core exercises to generate heat, plus I needed my energy for running. A rocky scramble up into a high cirque presented many route-finding difficulties and the cliffs dropped off into the darkness but the situation and rhythm felt peaceful, and I zoned out. The high mountain bowl that I was traversing was in half light and mist, but the majesty of the position could be felt through cliffs and rocks rising from the valley mist. Suddenly, out of nowhere something cast off downwards like a ton of bricks thundering down the scree slope. I say scree but it was more like football sized rocks, angular, unforgiving, and unthinkable to descend at any speed, even for a seasoned Lake District fell runner. The black shape disappeared quickly into the mist as I stood rather perturbed by what had just happened. What was it? What could descend scree like that? A few meters further on another animal blasted off and I caught a glimpse of it striding to the right below me to join the other one. I’ve heard many a chamois bound off down a mountain but never with such a weight of sound behind it, and as I stood there with not a sound but the wind, blowing mist into the orange warmed horizon, I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d crossed paths with two bears like ships in the night.
Dawn Light came just too late to confirm my suspicions!
My imagination took over the morning’s entertainment until I descended right under the north face of Vignemale, which took me by complete surprise and illustrated how little I had planned my days! The tooth like bastions rose defiantly over the sobering remnants of a great Pyrenean glacier, which I saw calving and breaking into pieces over the newly exposed rocky slabs, giving a stark reminder of our impact on the world. The climb wound its way up and past the face, close enough to see the details in the rocks and crevasses which opened into the belly of the glacier. It was easy to see how this wall inspired some of the first pioneers of Pyrenean exploration.
Vignemale North Face montage
The run down past the highest manned mountain hut in the Pyrenees (Refuge de Bayssellance (2651 m)) into Gavarnie was pure joy. A perfect trail wound down the slope past walls and waterfalls to finish in an open valley, long ago glaciated, but today alpine meadow bliss. The looming hulk of Monte Perdido (3355 m) slowly appeared and presented itself above Cirque du Gavarnie as the afternoon’s objective. After a refuel for lunch and with some food to go, I set off for the next objective: Refugio de Tucarroya. The first part of the climb was straightforward with Tolkienian views over to the Cirque de Gavarnie and the Brèche de Roland. The latter is an almost perfect rectangle cut out of a vertical wall which provides a route through to Spain and Refugio Góritz, perhaps the very definition of a weakness in a band of cliffs!
Balcón de Pineta and the Brèche de Roland as seen from Gavarnie.
It was here that I started to notice swelling on the top of my right foot and remembered hitting an exposed root stump on the edge of the path. By this point I was getting good at ignoring my body. Most aches and pains were floating or would come and go, so I generally passed them off as insignificant. The climb up Refugio de Tucarroya was steep and extremely loose, but it topped out looking over the Balcón de Pineta and the majesty of Monte Perdido, the lost mountain, but seemingly found this afternoon! What followed was one of the toughest descents in the Pyrenees, zig zags for over 1000 m into the Pineta Cirque: wild, unpopulated and one of my favourite valleys. By this point I’d run past two of the tallest mountains in the Pyrenees already that day and had another 900 m and 20 km to Parzán, where I was due to stop for the night and resupply. I had to make it as I was out of food and badly needed to have a shower and wash some clothes. The trail was easy enough and spectacular to boot, but as darkness fell the pain on my right foot intensified and I started to hallucinate, not from the pain but exhaustion. Day 5 was way too early for this malarky! All I could do was put my head down, ignore the hallucinations, and finish one of the hardest but best days I’ve ever had in the mountains.
Day 6: Parzán to Lac du Milieu/small open bivvy cave (40.98 km 3116 m): More Rain
It’s hard to ignore pain in your foot when the tendon is squeaking. It certainly doesn’t fill you with confidence less than halfway through a Pyrenees crossing, that’s for sure. I think it was caused by inflammation that had started on day 1, which I’d successfully ignored, combined with bad bruising from the root stump impact just before Gavarnie. A good rest helped bring the swelling down overnight a little, allowing me to ignore it again. I may as well set out for the day and see what happens, I thought. Fully laden from the garage, which has an excellent selection of vegan supplies, I set off late due to torrential rain and booming claps of thunder. The thunder was somewhat of a godsend as it allowed me to sit in a café and drink coffee for an hour (small pleasures were important by this stage!). The first climb up and over to Refugio Biados was easy enough. I also had the good fortune of bumping into my Instagram buddy Christopher Lange on the descent! It was great to meet him and his group in person!
Passing under the north face of Posets always makes you feel small. It sweeps down from 3369 m almost at an unbroken angle into the flowery meadows of sheep below. A little higher up, after I had hit the boulder fields, was when the thunder started again. Static claps menaced from the clouds and sent me running for shelter. A half-exposed rock did the trick and I wrapped myself in my tarp to avoid getting cold. Incidentally, this was the first time the tarp had actually done a good job! Again, small pleasures! The thunder passed but the rain persisted until about 6pm. I passed over the Port d’Aygues Tortes (2683 m) into France again through the mist and drizzle, soaked to the core. Stopping wasn’t an option, so I laboured on, feeling the exertions of the previous day and cursing the weather gods.
The exposed path above Refuge de la Soula.
They must have heard me because the rain was relentless and unforgiving. I rounded the valley above Refuge de la Soula, and climbed up eerily steep terrain above dams, feeling tension and anxiety from the situation and screaming at the sky to clear. Finally it did. The pressure lifted and I saw where I was. Pic des Gourgs-Blancs (3129 m) rose in front of me with savage walls and boulder fields formed by rocks that had once perched high above. It was one of the wildest places in these mountains and the shelter I saw was nothing more than an overhanging rock. An individual suite that lacked a door and promised a restless, uncomfortable and cold night at 2500m. At least it was free!
As I bedded down, I got into all my clothes (including waterproofs) and put on my fleece layer as a pair of trousers which made me resemble an old man wearing incontinence pants. The night was exactly as was promised on the tin. On the plus side, I had run my foot tendonitis into submission. How that happened I’ll never know! I drifted off, hoping that my cold soaked oats weren’t frozen in the morning.
Day 7: Lac du Milieu to Cabaña de Rius (48.39 km 2658 m): Icy Lows and Sunny Highs.
The thing that worries me most about long efforts in the mountains, especially when going for a record, is that you have no choice but to continue regardless of the conditions otherwise your time slips further and further away from your goal. Psychologically, you end up on the wrong foot and subconsciously you are always trying to make up time. The balance of risk in these situations is a fine line to tread. Lightweight gear, alone, uncompromising terrain, sleep deprivation, exhaustion: you make the decisions and you deal with the consequences. To me, that is the beauty, but also the beast of it.
I started the day in my sleeping clothes as it was too cold to contemplate a change. Almost immediately I lost the cairns in the dark. It felt like I was grappling around blindfolded. Then about 100 m above my bivvy, the rocks started to get slippery. They seemed dry but I had no purchase in my trail shoes. The previous day’s rain had frozen solid forming a thin veneer of ice on everything and the wind burnt with cold as it ripped over the pass. I slipped and slid upwards into the dark, a sense of impending doom building inside me. I reached the coll and stared in horror at what lay before me. A steep descent into a glaciated corrie that looked like a bowl of smashed up ice cubes: angular and broken with no path to speak of. The descent was dicey and involved careful sliding and lowering off rocks while relying on tiny pebbles frozen in place on muddy scree. Then the task of navigating the corrie floor began. I lost the cairns early on, I don’t think even a cairn could survive long in this frozen amphitheatre. With roller skates for shoes I forged on past a frozen cave forming a rocky icy glacial mouth and up to another pass. I was averaging about 1 km/hr at this stage, and it is fair to say my good mood was wearing thin. More scrambling, downclimbs and ice avoidance ensued until I eventually got to Lac du Portillon (2571 m) and the mountain hut there. Never have I needed a coffee more. I sat and stared through the wall as I sipped my hot sugary coffee, harrowed by the morning’s sport!
A thin layer of ice covered everything above 2500 m
One more climb into the sun and I was descending into the Hospital de Benasque. The granite rocky landscape was relentless but the crystals in the rock resonated with warmth that reenergized my muscle fibres and soothed my haggard nerves. I even started to enjoy myself as I ran down into familiar territory. I spent half an hour drying all my kit in the valley to lose the few hundred grams in rainwater that I had been carrying from the day before and then set off up Tuc de Molières (3010 m), the highest point on the HRP. The climb was stunning and my mood lifted under the blue sky and reached euphoric levels as I reached the slightly snowy peak. I took it all in, by this point revelling in my solitude and feeling restless to push on into the evening light, becoming one with the pain cave and loving it!
The valleys around Benasque, The summit of Tuc de Molieres (3010 m) and the hut on the descent.
Day turned to dusk, and dusk to night. I ran on under the light of the moon and my headtorch beam. I had planned to stay in a hut just before Refugi de la Restanca in the Aigüestortes national park. After falling down a rocky brushy hillside completely out of control, I arrived at 10pm after a 17-hour day to find three people occupying the hut floor. I still had to cook and used my better judgment to sleep outside under my tarp. By this point I had stopped caring about my lack of sleep…
Day 8: Cabaña de Rius to Alós d’Isil (37.98 km 2403 m): Fatigue sets in.
The pitter patter of rain on the tarp is soothing to wake up to but terrible to contemplate engaging with in any way. Back to the grind in the rain! I was really starting to feel the previous week and I had covered 400 km and 22,500 m by this point. The climbs and descents past Refugio Colomers and up and over into Vall d’Aran were gruelling, slow and tested my patience to the limit. This section weaves through more rolling hills and it gave me a fleeting feeling that I was getting there, the worst of the terrain was behind me and I just had to see it out. This was true in part, but the following section to Alós d’Isil was challenging in a different way. Wide open mountains with big lochs and rounded ridges, liberally covered in forests. The path all but disappeared completely and it was almost comical to find myself bang on the GPS track with no real idea which way to go! Eat Oreo, check GPS, change direction. Eat Oreo, check GPS, change direction. This went on for about an hour until the path rematerialized from wherever the hell it hadn’t been and I pushed on in an increasingly battered state, mentally and physically. I really needed something nice like a refugio or a bowl of soup or anything that wasn’t bland couscous to reanimate me after another long day. The town lay deserted bar a few mangey but friendly dogs. With a warm bed and hot food on my mind I went into the forest outside Alós d’Isil and pitched the tarp safe in the knowledge that a bad night’s sleep would make everything better. Grumble.
Day 9: Alós d’Isil to Gîte de Mounicou (47.68 km 2945 m): Getting my groove back in the snow.
Rutting deer took the joint title with the cold for waking me up at 3 am. The morning’s climb was long and got progressively colder and colder until I was up in the mist again with snow lightly falling on all the rocks. It made for an atmospheric climb and I felt quite at home after the icy escapade a few days previously. The trail was good until the descent to Noarre where I slipped and ripped the backside out of my waterproof trousers. I tried not to think about the consequences of that slide continuing down the slab I was on and over the edge. By this stage my feet were succumbing to trench foot due to day after day of wet trails and rain. I did my best to dry out the maceration overnight but with days in excess of 15 hours it was a losing battle. So, I decided to stop and wash my socks and feet to feel like I had control of them!
The decent to Noarre where I ripped the back out of my waterproof trousers (and my backside!)
Another long climb led up to the Coll de Certascan (2605 m). Just below I refilled my water and took on a hearty litre or so before I smelt something off. Just meters up from where I was, a dead horse lay next to the stream, rotting. There was only one thing for it. My fingers went straight down my throat and I spent the next five minutes retching on the side of the mountain as pretty little snowflakes fell around me. Something like this could easily completely derail and blow all of my efforts over the last 9 days. I was a good way up on the record by this point and the thought of water poisoning was too much. I was going to have to use my tried and tested strategy to get over this one: hope for the best and ignore it. Plus, the snow blowing over the pass made for a dramatic moment and the trail down to the hut was runnable and helped me get my rhythm back after days of hard terrain.
The Refugi de Certascan had an incredible vegan menu so I filled up on soup, hummus and Coca-Cola. I couldn’t believe my luck! I felt great as I said goodbye to the giant black dog in the doorway and set off to descend past two lochs and climb up to another pass to gain the French side once more. This part of the route follows La Porta del Cel/ Sky portals route and the passes really feel like that. They are hidden until the last moment, and they seem like the slightest weakening in the ridgelines as you shoot through them and down the other side. The descent into France was long but straightforward and spirits were high. With my motivation back and the thought of crossing through all of Andorra the next day, I ended the day in a gite with a shower and comfy bed and slept like a king.
Haute Vegan Cuisine on the Haute route Pyrenees! Refugio Certascan.
Day 10: Gîte de Mounicou to Pas de la Casa (53.06 km 4289 m): The race for food.
Feeling somewhat rejuvenated I walked out the door in the dark only to wait 20 minutes to get a GPS signal in the constricted valley. Little did I know how this would come back to bite me later in the day. The first climb of the day up to Refuge du Fourcat was brutal to say the least. Straight up and unrelenting for 1440 m. The snow made another appearance but only on the north faces in the boulder fields. The morning dawned with spectacular light cutting through the summit of Pica d’Estats (3143 m) and illuminating the imposing mountains that barred access to Andorra to all but the mountain goats and, fortunately, me. The hut was closed and I was dangerously low on supplies by this point so I decided to take the variant that goes up and over to El Serrat, where I knew there were no shops but I hoped I could get something.
Up and into and up and out of Andorra in a day.
The descent was long and hunger inducing, and I pondered what the rest of the day would be like on my meagre rations. Luck, however, was on my side and I got an amazing bespoke, tailor-made vegan sandwich in one of the hotels and picked up some other snacks too. Full of beans, I set of up the Sorteny valley and through Andorra, skirting the heads of valleys, ticking them off one by one. The day wore on and the going was slower than I had anticipated when I realised that the shops would close at around 8 pm in Pas de la Casa. I had one more climb of around 800m and a flattish ridge run and descent between me and the resupply. The ascent was mentally challenging with every step feeling like the soles of my feet were being sucked into the ground like quicksand, only to be extracted again on the next step. I was down to my last Oreo as I crested the hill at 2691 m and I had to put my foot down. What followed was probably my fastest section of the entire route as I barrelled down into Pas de la Casa like I hadn’t been running for 10 days, to make the shop by 10 minutes. Beer. Food. Shower. Sleep.
Day 11: Pas de la Casa to Vallter 2000 (75.82 km 3252 m): Fleeting thoughts of the Mediterranean.
Up and out after about 5 hours sleep was easier than it should have been! I was consciously cutting my sleep time down the closer I got to the end as finishing times became more and more important. The trail over to Carlit (2921m) was easy enough but it packed a punch in the ascent to the summit. By this point my legs were on autopilot and it felt amazing to be moving through the mountains so quickly, but I was also getting pangs of sadness that it might all be over within the next few days. The rhythm of life on the trail suits me. I like not having to stop until I want to, pushing into the night, getting through the sleep deprivation and seeing the world through different fatigue addled eyes. It’s simple and uncomplicated. Running through the first rays of morning light cresting the ridge and feeling the last warm rays of dusk on the back of my neck.
The summit of Pic Carlit (2921 m)
From the summit the final mountains stretched out before me in the glorious sun washed morning, reflecting off the myriad of lakes, streams and bodies of water surrounding Font Romeu. I could see the Catalan hills of home and knew I’d be there before nightfall. Following the trail around all the very similar looking lakes was somewhat of a mental game. I almost felt dizzy like I was going round in circles, but I popped out the other side to have a good feed in Super Bolquère. Then it was crossing the wide, open valley in French Cerdanya following mainly roads to reach the opening of Vall d’Eina, a long arable valley leading to the ridgeline and peak of the same name. My thoughts turned to the final push. I calculated that there was about 140km left to go. I knew that with a few more kilometres into the night, I gave myself a chance to finish in one push the next day. Excitement was building, the entire run had come down to this. The clouds cleared on the ridge and I was treated to an ethereal sunset in climbing mists before darkness fell again. I made it as far as the ski centre carpark before I knew I was done at around 75 km for the day. The tarp went up at the side of the road and super noodles were cooked, all in the space of about 15 minutes. Then I was in bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
Sunset with the chamoix from the Vall de Nuria ridge.
Day 12 Vallter 2000 to Banyuls-sur-Mer (134.85 km 4606 m): The Final Push
At 3 am the alarm went off… 4 hours sleep seemed a little frugal, but I was keen to get off. I climbed up and over Costabona to start on a long plateau that led to Canigou, the final peak. It went on forever. It was really dark, the rocks underfoot were slippery and I ended up angrily walking most of it. By dawn I’d made it to Refuge Mariailles where I had a relaxed coffee and chatted to a Frenchman who, as it turned out, knew Georges Véron, the man who first put together the concept of the Haute Route through the Pyrenees! This must have been a good omen if ever I’d seen one! The climb to the summit of Canigou (2784 m) went on forever but had a great chimney scramble at the top right onto the summit. This mountain feels like a volcano as its flanks sweep down onto the plains around Perpignan, unchallenged by any other mountains. A quick sandwich at Refuge des Cortalets and it was into the long traverse round the side of the forested mountain and descent into Amelie Les Bains to resupply for the final night. I was now back into the humid aromatic forests of the Med and felt it as I dehydrated slowly but surely. Nevertheless, psyche was high and, surprisingly, I wasn’t really feeling any of the effects of tiredness at this point. I was 70 km in and rationalised in my mind that all that remained were two 30 km sections.
Running through the Mediterranean hills.
Fed, watered, loaded with food and optimism, I set off up into the forests to reach a vantage point over the valley. I stopped to stare straight into the setting sun, knowing that when I saw it again, it would be rising on the opposite side of the sky over the Mediterranean. The trails and tracks snaked and wound through the hills with the GPS track being the only clues as to where I was. The wind was picking up on the tops and I was relieved to be finally descending to Les Perthus in the early hours. Gone was my steely resolve and sleep was permeating my entire body, fibre by fibre and sinew by sinew. Quick navigation stops turned into “That looks like a comfy rock”, and “I’ll just sit in the trail to check where I am”. I knew I had to sleep and decided the town in 5 km would do.
Running in the country in Europe is always a little edgy when you approach a house, as you never know how numerous and how aggressive the dogs will be. In the early hours in the French border hills it turned out to be about 4 and very aggressive. They barred my way through and I beat a retreat back into the night. Up through the forest and back onto the trail where I’d been before, which turned out to be the right way anyway. Enraged and covered in mud and bush detritus, I followed the small trail into the town where I slept under a streetlamp next to some bins for a glorious 15 minutes of intense dreaming. Momentarily horizontal and happy.
30 km to go seemed like nothing by that stage and I smashed an energy drink and got going. Climbing up steadily, feeling unstoppable, disturbing a badger and then into the mist once more. Wet mist, thick mist and impenetrable mist. The light from my headtorch got about 10 cm from my face before coming to an abrupt stop. I was getting soaked, and the trees were raining on me. I’d lost the trail again, been round in circles, not believed my GPS, believed it and found the trail again only to lose it once more. I was going mad in the mist so decided that waiting 45 minutes until dawn was the best option. Sheltered in my tarp, I lay on the wet ground trying to dry my phone out and shivering, too afraid of deep sleep to get comfortable.
The final night and a final storm. What's one more night of bad weather anyway...
Dawn came and the mist remained, but I could see marginally more, and I set off at pace to get back some of my lost time. It was then that I noticed a dull pain from the front of my ankle radiating up my shin next to the bone. A sprain from the previous night I guessed (or the previous 735 km, one or the other!). As the mist cleared, the pain intensified until I was slowed to almost a walk. So close yet so far. It was pain that felt like the bottom of my shin was detaching from the rest of my leg, pain I couldn’t ignore and keep on running. Less than 5 km from the end and my mind was going through all the worst possible outcomes. A stress fracture, a popped tendon or ligament, or anything that might stop me completely. I’d never felt pain so sharp and intense from running before so I slowed right down as I descended bit by bit closer to the sea. A few false summits later and I was entering the picturesque Banyuls-sur-Mer hobbling at a run that was slower than a walk. Pain blanked out all thoughts of finishing until I stopped on the beach and collapsed into the sand.
It had been an epic final day of 31.5 hrs, 4600 m and 134 km, linking the last Ski resort in the Pyrenees with the Mediterranean Sea. I had taken 42 hours off the previous record and came pretty close to my physical and mental limit, and as I lay there burning on the beach, I was completely satisfied with everything, except the thought of moving.
Total: 748.98km / 40059m
Time: 12 days 4 hours 41 minutes 58 seconds
Average: 62km / 2959m per day
Pack Weight: Around 4 kg
Number of hours of sleep: Don't ask...
Number of Oreos eaten: No comment...
Keep your eyes peeled for my film of the run coming soon!