I soaked in every minute. Every second. I didn’t want any of it to end. Lean in. Lean in to the mountain and lean in to this full life. If you are lucky enough to check an item off your bucket list, then you owe yourself nothing less.
I’ve been wanting to run an ultra in Spain for a long time. The Ultra Trail Guara Somontano 102 km race is in Huesca, Spain. It is in the north, near the Pyrenees mountains, where my husband Javier was born about an hour from the start line. Despite many previous trips to Spain, I was unfamiliar with this area. Our two kids and Javier’s mother (Abuela) joined us for this special experience.
The race starts in a pueblo called Alquézar. It is a beautiful little tourist town built on the side of a hill. Canyoneering, hiking and wine seem to be the primary draw. A full weekend of activities included the pre-race dinner and “breafing” as well as a post-race lunch and awards ceremony.
On race morning Javier seemed more nervous than me. It was super-cute and funny and only slightly annoying. As I looked at him restlessly waiting, I couldn’t help but feel anything but love. I sent him away to the hotel lobby to confirm the existence of coffee. Affirmative. Phew!
I arrived at the start well-caffeinated, happy, and fairly relaxed. I looked around: lots of sticks (poles); lots of compression clothing; everyone with packs. The bibs had our first names printed in large letters and bib numbers so small they seemed an afterthought.
Loud music played as the runners passed a control point into the starting coral. Each runner carried an RFID chip that must be physically inserted into a device at every control point. I might have been totally unfamiliar with this concept, except that our family recently tried an Orienteering race back home. It is an identical system.
A few minutes before the start, “California Girls” by The Beach Boys blasted over the speakers. I sang, danced, and generally embarrassed Javier as he waited just outside the coral. In Europe, the 100 km distance is the big show – few races are longer. So, despite efforts to create a fun atmosphere, most racers were appropriately nervous and not feeling quite so festive.
Since I finished the Wasatch 100 just three weeks prior, I had few doubts about my ability to go the 102 km (63 miles) distance. I felt good at the start, but was still worried about how it would feel so soon after a hard 100-miler.
The race started at 6am with a single blazing rocket launched into the air. With over 300 runners in the “Ultra Trail,” the typical congo line on the initial single track was not a surprise. We started with a lap through the stone streets of the pueblo. That helped thin the crowd a bit, and then everyone settled into position on the single track trail.
The first 14.2 km (8.8 mi) makes a loop back to the pueblo of Alquézar. This section of race is mostly in the dark, though we traversed the best parts in the early morning light. I would take the kids back later to experience the trail and raised walkways (pasarelas) in the daylight.
It was nice timing to see Javier back in Alquézar and replenish my Tailwind sports drink. Aid stations were close enough that I could get by with just 1 liter (35 ounces) of fluid out of each aid station. (Although I did run a tad short twice during the day). It had been complicated to stage and plan my Tailwind mix, but worth the effort to have my preferred fuel for most of the race.
Returning through the pueblo was exciting with so many spectators and I quickly learned the vocabulary: !Ánimo! !Campeona! Several people informed me that I was 6th woman. I don’t take too much stock in on-course intelligence, but it was still fun to hear.
All the while, I was waiting for the rocks. Javier and I had the opportunity to visit with the race director the day before. He described the first section as fast running single track and warned that I would later encounter “rocks from hell” (loose translation, as the actual translation may be too irreverent to put in writing).
I met the rocks soon enough. They came in several varieties: sharp and smallish; big, loose and round; or large boulders. Over the course of the day, they would slow me down and trash my feet. But they would not damped my spirits, because all day long, around every rocky corner came a new delightful vista: a reflection pond; a metal foot bridge in the river canyon; gray stone spires like hoodoos; a church in an abandoned town; surprise fall colors; snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Then, around mile 20, I hit a physical low. Body parts hurt. It didn’t feel like 20 miles ~ it felt like 60 miles. So this is what it means to not be recovered from a hard 100-mile race? I looked forward to the longest climb of the day. Power hiking on the long climb would not exactly be restful, but it would at least mix up the muscle use.
I caught sight of two men who were moving quickly up the climb. I picked one and imagined he was Kelly, my pacer at Wasatch 100. I would connect to him in my mind like a bungie cord and commanded my feet keep up.
On this climb I passed several men and also the 5th-place woman. She was older than me and seemed tough as nails, but she was clearly tired. I imagined her a Basque version of my close friend Betsy. We exchanged a few pleasant words and I continued up the climb. Knowing that I was in 5th place gave me a big mental boost. I’d be happy to finish in 5th place. I forgot about the body aches and pains.
Several of the men congratulated me and it was then that I realized the men consider themselves in a completely separate race from the women. I was distinctive with “UNAFRAID.” printed in english on the back of my Donner Party Mountain Runners jersey and my foreign name printed just as large on my bib in front. I was probably also the only woman who wore a smile and greeted others when I passed them.
I was “Helen, La Americana,” and I had my own roving cheering section in the form of Spanish ultrarunning men. The Spanish runners tended to stop longer at the aid stations, while I stuck to my routine of refilling fluids and grabbing food to go (including jamón serrano). As such, I would yo-yo with several of the men runners throughout the day.
After the big climb came an especially rocky descent. It was time for music. I turned on the tunes and recalled my favorite part of Coach Peter’s pre-race instructions: “be light on your feet as you dance down the hills.”
I felt amazing and happy as could be, enjoying my own private dance party, but my legs felt the fatigue by the time I reached the bottom. The trail popped out into a clearing and a mere 20 meters to my right I saw a mirage. I hesitated. Was it worth it to dip in the water? Then I recalled how much the cold water had helped my legs at the Canyons 100k earlier in the year. Yes, it would definitely be worth the diversion.
I sat down to fully submerge to my waist. After a prolonged minute, I left the oasis and did a double-take as I saw that the 5th place woman was cooling down around the corner. She looked tired. And mad. Maybe she was kicking herself for stopping at the water? I tried to greet her pleasantly with my basic Spanish, to no avail. In her unhappy state, she missed a course marking and was headed in the wrong direction until I called her back to the course. This only made her more mad. No matter, my legs felt great now and I took off. It was not quite half way and I was in 4th place now.
I entered the half-way aid station in the town of Rodellar where I successfully found my drop bag (bolsa de vida) and replenished my Tailwind supplies. The day was starting to feel hot and dry. I asked for ice. No existe. I lingered there, unfocused for a bit, until I realized there was nothing more to do but continue on course.
I hit a second low point shortly out of Rodellar. I was hot and disappointed at not finding ice. I fumbled around with my phone and sat messenger to try to get word out to Javier to bring ice. It would be at least 2 hours before I would see him at mile 41. I struggled up a rocky climb that just didn’t seem that steep. I looked at my watch and saw that I was moving insanely slowly.
I thought to myself, “It shouldn’t be this hard.” Ah, ha! That’s my cue to pull out the inhaler. I had not taken any albuterol yet. It was on my pre-race list, but Javier’s early morning anxiety threw me off my pre-race game and I neglected to even look at that list. In any case, I took the albuterol then and everything improved.
The course continued to offer spectacular views and even more opportunities to cool the legs. Apparently one of the soakings covered my bum with brown clay, but I wouldn’t know this until watching my finishing video the next day.
In the meanwhile, Javier had received my pleas for ice and was busy performing a small miracle. The aid station was in a very tiny pueblo and he managed to secure a tray of ice from one of the few private residences that actually contained a freezer.
By the time I saw Javier, the day had cooled and I wasn’t even sure that I needed the ice. I took it nonetheless, recognizing how much effort it had been to secure and preserve it. I put most of it down my bra and the remaining on my back. I’m glad I did ~ the air remained dry and my core was warmer than I realized.
Some time out of this aid station I found myself chit-chatting quite a bit with my fellow runners. One such occasion led to me getting off course for about 1/4 mile ~ downhill, naturally. As soon as we realized this, I pulled out my phone with the GPX tracks to confirm and hiked back up the hill like a bat out of hell. I blamed only myself ~ I absolutely know better than to blindly follow another runner. No more chit-chatting. By this time my mind was getting tired from speaking Spanish all day, anyway.
I took the deviation in stride and refused to let it spoil my mood. The sun was getting low in the sky and the coolness revived me. As I passed the same men as before, they greeted me by name and encouraged me on my way. If anything, I felt relief at not “needing” to catch the 3rd woman, who certainly would be far ahead by now.
Peter had told me to focus on just finishing safely and no picking off competition until the last 12 miles. No chance of even seeing the competition, I thought, so I entertained myself instead with some pacing math to calculate potential finishing times. I put on the music and happily danced down some easy-running downhill dirt roads.
It was dark when I entered the last aid station with just 5k (about 3 miles) to go. I was all smiles as I refilled water and looked forward to seeing my family at the finish. I quickly left the aid station in the pueblo of Radiquero and followed the stone streets to the final section of trail.
Then my heart skipped a beat as I saw two runners approaching from off the course. A man and a woman. The 3rd woman. They had been off-course. She was breathing hard and she was mad. Pacers are not allowed in this race, but the man was clearly there as her companion. I found this lame and it annoyed me.
I knew from my Pacelette (pace bracelett) that this final section would be a 1.5-mile climb followed by a 1.5-mile descent to the finish. As we headed up the hill, I did my best to appear fresh and comfortable. The couple ran for a bit on the climb and I could tell it was trashing her. I didn’t think I could sustain the pace myslef, so I let them go a little ahead. I wasn’t enjoying their company, in any case.
She had asked if I was wearing a headlamp. I told her I carried it in my hand… “better to see the course markings.” Then I shot back, “can I help you turn on your red light?” It turned out that her rear red light was on, but completely obscured by her pony tail. All this irked me even more, and I used the angry to push past them and do a super-fast hike up the climb. (Thanks to Greg Walker for a recent conversation on “using the angry.”)
“Don’t make a mistake now,” I told myself, “you know you’ve wanted this all day long.”
I crested the hill and found the final mile of single track to be super-technical rocky downhill. No music now. Just concentrating in the dark and listening for the pair behind me. I started to recognize my location as I approached the pueblo of Alquézar.
Just before entering the town I passed two men that I recognized from earlier in the day. “Hola, guapos,” I called out as I flitted by.
“!Helen, La Americana!” they cheered, “!No me digas! !Ánimo!”
Around the corner I was delighted and surprised to see Javier waiting. He took this super-fun video of the last 2 minutes of me snaking through the stone roads to the finish. Abuela waited lower in town with the kids, who both escorted me to the finishing chute. Later I would see Abuela bursting with pride at my third-place finish.
I passed through the arch after 15 hours and 31 minutes, where they announced, “Helen, from California, Lake Tahoe,” over the loud speaker.
The next day I got to stand on a real podium. That was pretty fun for one time. And since this was the final race of two separate series, the plaza was packed despite the rain. “Better rain today than yesterday,” I thought, unable to escape my profound gratitude and genuine happiness.