Not your average marathon: race report

It took me a while to set the course but I had finally found one that I was happy with. I was so confident with my choice that I decided to post it on the blog. However, in one week things change…
So, I feel that I need to start this race report with the pre-race events.

Change of plans

I arrived in Benasque on Sunday and announced my plan to my “facebookless” friends. It was a mix of excitement and doubt. Given the number of climbs and their difficult, more doubt than anything else. I must admit that it hit me. On Monday morning, before the workshop started, I went straight up from Benasque to Cerler, a 350 m climb over 4 km, just to test my body. I ended up climbing over 600 m and running 11 km and felt awesome.

The word quickly spread and another friend, a runner that knows a lot about the trails in this region, came to me to make sure that I knew what I was doing. He was genuinely worried and I really appreciated that. Because it was coming from someone with his experience, I decided that I should put some extra thoughts on the course. I decided not to change. The plan of a steady climb for the first 21 km and running downhill for the second half sounded perfect to me.

But that was when my closest friends started to talk about how nice it would be if I could finish up in the valley, at a place that is the starting point of many mountain climbs. They could drive there, walk around the valley and wait for me at a small hut called La Besurta, where we could celebrate the end of the first marathon with beer and food. Now, this was tempting! They were excited about being part of the very first marathon of my crazy journey. The problem? Moving the end point to La Besurta would mean finishing climbing rather than cruising downhill.

For the next couple of days I would take my computer and play with maps in any spare time. I came up with horrendous courses with even more climbs than in the original one. It wasn’t looking good until I decided to include a loop from the hotel Hospital de Benasque and La Besurta. The loop wasn’t really flat, but compared with the other climbs that I would have to face, the 200 m of difference in altitude was nothing. That was it, course decided! The change came even with the bonus of a support crew in the last 12 km, and two runners to share the road with me: Carlos for 20 km and Nadja for the last 12 km.

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Final course and elevation profile.

Race day

Six in the morning and I was already awake. No need for the alarm clock that was set just as a precaution. Vaseline for chaffing, band-aid for nipple bleeding, charged Garmin watch, camel back, energy bars and gels, sunscreen, hat, mobile phone, and the camera. Wow! I usually go with the minimalist style in official races but this was different.

I met Carlos at 7 am and we headed down to Anciles, then Eriste, and back up to Benasque on what was the easiest part of the course. I met Carlos for the first time in 2003 during a summer school in Les Houches, France. We met again in many other conferences since then, but this was the first time that we had the chance to talk about family, books, running or any subject that was not physics. It was a pleasant first 9 km.

We reached the base of the road to Cerler and Carlos stopped to read a book. I know, it sounds weird but was all planned. He wanted to keep me company for as long as possible but he also knew that 30km would be a struggle for him. His idea was to run the first 9 km, have a break while I climbed up to Cerler, and then join me again until the Hospital de Benasque where Nadja would take over to run the last 12 km with me. Brilliant plan!

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From top left to bottom right: Anciles, up to Cerler, down from Cerler, Carlos waiting at the bottom.

So, there I was doing the first big climb of the day to the “pueblo más alto del Pirineo Aragonés” all by myself. I had done that climb twice in the past five days and was feeling confident. I begun strong but soon started to feel the intensity of that climb. Without my companion or music to distract me, I found myself in an anxious state of mind, wondering how many more hills like that I’d have to face.

I have always enjoyed the loneliness of a solo run, so I couldn’t imagine that being the issue. So I just focused on those few hard kilometers until Cerler knowing that I would pick up again on the way down. Many people hate running downhill. I love it! And to make it even better, my knees have never complained about it.

After a speedy downhill from Cerler, I joined Carlos again along the main road and soon we found ourselves running on a gravel road with the Ésera river on our left. I had crossed that road two years before on a bike but couldn’t remember how steep some of those climbs were. I remembered Ruynet, a friend that rode with me in 2013, complaining a lot. “Oh, yes”, I thought, “he had some good reasons to complain”.

Despite the hills, this was the nicest part of the marathon. We spotted a deer (my camera missed that), immersed our shoes in icy-cold water to cross to the other side of the river, and were chatting happily. We were both feeling great.

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From top left to bottom right: (a) Carlos by the “Embalse de Paso Nuevo”, (b) Two happy chaps, (c) On the wrong side of the river, (d) Road to Hospital de Benasque.

After a while, however, Carlos started to feel a bit tired and begun to ask about the remaining distance. I then missed one turn to cross the river again and we had to come back. That was just before we reached the very steep slope that would take us to “Baños de Benasque”. “I remember this road”, I thought, to then alert Carlos: “This is a tough one. Hang in there because after that it should be easy”. When we reached the building of Baños de Benasque, my Garmin was indicating 29 km but we were not at the meeting point yet. Carlos had been following closely my updates on the distance and was psychologically more than ready to pass the baton to Nadja.

Perdon hombre, I miscalculated and we still have a few kilometers to go.” I was feeling embarrassed but there was nothing to do but keep running. We finally reached the first car parking and no signs of the crew. “Are you OK Carlos?”, I asked. “I’m exhausted but let’s go to the next car park”, he said, “It is only 450 away”. We finally reached the hotel exactly at the 33rd km. There was no sign of the crew though. Carlos reached his final destination after 22 km and I was left alone again but, this time, feeling guilty for making my friend run extra three kilometers. He said he would wait for me there. I nodded and headed to La Besurta planning to take the path along the valley. Just before leaving the hotel car park, I faced hundreds of cows just walking towards me. I was fatigued and couldn’t really assess the risks of running towards the herd. Afraid of what their reaction would be I decided to turn back and take the road.

That was the toughest part of the race. I had reached the 33 km mark, legs were tired, Carlos had stopped and no signs of the crew. Marcelo, Terra, Ruynet, Ana, Barbara, and Nadja. None were there. The trees that protected me for most of the way were now gone and the sun was free to hit me. So it did, together with the loneliness and the ups and downs of the road to La Besurta. It didn’t take long to see the group of Brazilians walking up the road. “There they are!”, I thought, and immediately felt invigorated. I could see the smile in their faces, Barbara’s camera pointing at me, and Nadja on her bright lime green singlet bouncing on her feet ready to run. I said in Portuguese: “Tá F#$@&%*… mas tô bem”, something like “It is F#$@&%* hard but I’m OK”. My camera picked that and so did Barbara’s. It turned out she was recording a video and not taking photos at that stage. Anyway, at this point I could only think of how thankful I was to the cows that made me take that road.

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From top left to bottom right: (a) the toughest part, the road to La Besurta. (b) Finally the crew! (c) Nadja “Speedy Gonzales” way ahead. (d) Nadja’s “Do I really need to go up?” moment. Apparently “Speedy” doesn’t like climbs.

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A better view of the “crew”: Ana, Marcelo, Nadja, Terra, Ruynet and Barbara.

Nadja, the rabbit, made me increase my pace. I suddenly was running again in under six minutes per km, something that I hadn’t done since my way down from Cerler. Later she told me that she was trying to keep up with me… she was so wrong! We ran a little bit more towards La Besurta from where we were supposed to turn back to the hotel to then get back again by running on a loop. Having reached Hospital de Benasque with 33 instead of 30 km, I decided to turn back a little earlier to correct for that. At this point I realised that I left Carlos waiting in the wrong spot: it was La Besurta and not the hotel the finish line. That was OK, we had to head back to the hotel anyway.

Nadja and I ran down the road to the hotel and Carlos waved to us from the inside. “That was fast André”, he said. “I’m not done Carlos, the finish line is about 4 km away.” He told us to wait for him while he picked his backpack. The three of us ran together for the first time, I had just completed 39 km and the cows had left the valley open for us to run. Nadja was running in a solid pace ahead while Carlos and I were just cruising. “Go André”, he said, “I can’t run. I’ll just enjoy the walk and meet you there”. I pushed a bit harder to catch up with Nadja and we were together at a big rocky climb. She slowed down but I decided to keep going. I had found my strength again and was feeling as if I had just started, well, sort of. Mentally I was feeling strong but of course the legs were feeling the effect of the 1500 m of ascent until that point.

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From top left to bottom right: (a) I didn’t quite get their joke but apparently it was funny. (b) The last nasty climb. (c) Happiness. (d) Official high five.

I left the climb behind and reached a mostly flat trail. I just made sure that Nadja was not far behind and that she had taken the right path. It was 41 km and I was almost there. I probably had a big smile on my face when the watch beeped 42 km. I took the camera that was sitting on the head mount and focused on the watch: 42.2 km. YES!!! I had just done it! I stopped and waited for Nadja. While approaching she asked: “Is that it? Have you reached the distance?” A yes and a high five later, and I was apologising for miscalculating the course. We still had a couple of kilometers to La Besurta. We ran for a bit more than a kilometer when we saw the last steep incline before the goal. We looked at each other, I looked at the watch and asked “Is 43.5 km good enough?” She immediately replied “Sure!” I stopped the watch and we walked up the hill. From the top of the hill we could see La Besurta and decided to run again just to make an impression to the rest of the crew but no one was there. Marcelo saw and came running towards us. It was all celebration, questions about the race, beer, “bocata” and croissant from Miguel (the baker from El Laminero), and photos, lots of photos. Carlos arrived shortly after to join the party.

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Official group photo: Ana, Terra, Nadja, Marcelo, myself and Ruynet. Barbara was behind the camera 😉 .

Things were not over as we had to walk all the way back to Hospital de Benasque where the cars were parked. But who cares? I had just finished the hardest run of my life, surrounded by friends, and for a great, great cause. I couldn’t feel better.

The runners!

The runners!

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