After finishing CCC, TDS, UTMB and DDF in last four years I looked for a new challenge. When I picked Ronda dels Cims – a brutal 170km long race with 13,500m of cumulative elevation gain/loss I knew I would be seriously testing my limits.
My preparations went more less according to plan and included as a part of the training the 9Dragons race and a Stupa to Stupa race in Nepal combined with 100 miles long loop around Kathmandu in 4 days. The only scare came about 10 days before the D day when all of a sudden a bad right foot pain started to bother me. I had it checked out, there was apparently nothing wrong with the foot but nevertheless it was hurting pretty bad. So instead of gradual taper I went for complete rest interrupted only by few easy but painful walks – hoping that the pain would go away. It got better but some pain was still lingering when I lined up on the starting line in Ordino/Andorra.
My only target was to finish. I did not care in what time. Given the toughness I had 50 hours just as a reference. But I was hoping / expecting to reach the Comapedrosa peak (highest point of Andorra and the race) during daylight – that seemed as a realistic target given the long days in Europe during the early summer.
The day before the race I went for the race briefing. I studied most of the info beforehand from the materials available on the race website. But it was good to hear it all summarized by the RD. Part of the info was a weather forecast. It looked great for Friday, the first night and Saturday morning. But the possibility of storms on Sat afternoon were a reason for concern for me. I could only hope that weather will cooperate.
So here I was at the start – 7am on Friday morning surrounded by 450 other mad people ready to venture into unknown.
Start was very smooth. We ran about 2km on the roads of Ordino until we entered a forest trail outside of the town. This was to be the only road section I experienced until Margineda some 75km later.
The RD couple greeted and high fived us all once we entered the single track trail and the fun could begin. It was a nice touch. This was the last time they were organizing the race themesleves – they would pass the baton to their daughters from next year.
The climbing started full on. I found out very soon that any of the small bumps on the race profile map would be the major climb on any race back here in Hong Kong. Also a lesson learned very early on – switch backs are not in the fashion in this race. The most direct straight up or straight down route is the way to go no matter what the surface is .
My strategy was to go in relaxed pace – trying not to reach the cardio level. Easier said than done on these steep climbs but I think I managed that pretty successfully. I settled myself in a group of guys on similar comfortable pace. It was about 20km to the first CP – first 15km was one big climb from 1300m to 2600m split by 2 short steep downhills. After passing Collada Ferreoles we descended to Sorteny – about 5km downhill section to the first refreshment point. At this stage all was fine. Weather was great, a bit hot on the sun but it did not bother me. I felt good and the troubled foot seemed to be behaving.
We managed to skirt around all the snow fields still left out there. The only issue was that as a result of the melting snow there were many water soaked muddy places that made it almost impossible to keep the feet clean and dry. Yea, it was a bit swampy at places.
Otherwise happy times when I reached the CP. I refilled my bottles ate some CP food and went on.
The next sections somehow merged into one for me. I remember that I had about 8 hours of race time on my watch when I reached the 30km point at Arcalis. In comparison same distance took me about 5 hours at UTMB…
This was just never ending climbing and descending on some brutally steep technical sections. We had our first taste of scree, rocks, snow. There were moments when I was wondering whether I am dreaming – some sections seemed that ridiculous . Like this one on the photo below – downhill over some large sharp rocks then straight on very slippery snowy slope followed by another rock field. Not even the ropes prevented us from slipping and falling and doing other Neymar like stuff. Little I knew that much worse was to come
Time wise I was still happy with how I was moving. Even though I was progressing a bit slower than I thought I would be Comapedrosa Peak in daylight seemed achievable, so all was good.
Somewhere between Arcalis and Pia Estany I had a fall on the downhill. Nothing serious, I just slipped on the wet grass. But as the luck had it I managed to land with one of the fingers between my pole and small sharp rock. I skinned the top of the finger. It was quite painful and bleeding badly. Because of all the mud and horse crap involved I had the finger treated later on at the medic stand before the Comapedrosa climb. This was just a minor injury but it played a role later too.
And then came the Comapedrosa… I knew this would not be a walk in a park. All that one needed to see was the profile map and the elevation gain and loss on the next 6km. The reality at least for me was much worse.
It does not help that you can’t see the peak from where the climb begins. It is hidden behind other mountains. Plus the heavy clouds were rolling over the hills further obscuring the views.
I set off from the CP and almost immediately hit a very steep slope. There was no actual path or trail. Just the red flag markings between the rocks showing what seemed like straight way up. It was steep and very technical. Some of the rocks were perfectly solid but many were not and moved under me once I stepped on them. But as it was dry at least the grip was fine and I was not slipping around for now. I tried to keep steady and not too hard pace going up. It did not take long though and I began to suffer. With such a steep ascent even moving slowly meant rather quick altitude gain. From my previous experiences I did not expect any altitude related issues until 2700-2800m but this time the troubles started few hundred meters lower. I have only just left the CP where I ate enough so I surely was not low on energy. But I felt like I have no power at all. It was a proper struggle.
I dragged myself up over the initial rocky parts only to hit a snow field. There is no grip on the melting snow. One had to be very careful crossing it. It was definitely better going up than down on this but I still managed to land on my butt twice before it was possible to get back on the rocks. The next rock field was different – these weren’t rocks anymore – these were massive boulders. I am quite tall but sometimes I could not see the red flag markings ahead over them. But one could not really go wrong over here – steepest way up forward was most likely the correct one.
After the boulder section came another snow field. This one I managed to cross without falling and I reached the scree. If the ascent was steep before this point it became even steeper now. I continued going up. I was not catching anyone ahead of me but I could several very slowly moving people catching up with me. That gave me an idea how slow I must have been.
Right above me I could see some sort of top – a ridge. But as there were some peaks reaching higher up to sky both to the left and to the right I knew that the ridge is not the end. After all we were climbing to the highest point of Andorra. I have no idea how long this part took me but when I was close the ridge I heard from somewhere sound of bag pipes. I knew they would have piper on the summit – this was a sign that I am getting close. When I finally made it to the top of the ridge I saw people on the other side running downhill. I was a bit confused for a moment there as I surely was not on the top of Comapedrosa yet. Soon though I noticed the red flags continuing straight up on my left. I still could not see the actual peak but at least I knew I am on the final rocky part of the ascent.
When I finally reached the top I was totally spent. It took me almost 2 hours to cover the 3km from the CP to the summit.
It was quite cold when I was not moving so after a quick photo I started descending. The descend was steep as was to be expected and again rocky and technical. But after the initial rocky “direct down” section I reached something that remotely resembled a trail.
I was feeling a bit better going down and let my legs run until I reached the next snow field. This one was more tricky as it was going downhill. Once on the snow I stopped running and started walking carefully making sure to use my poles for better stability. I was managing quite OK but I was worried about a section just ahead where a small lake lied at the bottom edge of the snow field. If I slipped there only the lake would stop me…
Luckily there was a detour with a little climb over more rocks possible and the route was surprise surprise even marked that way. Not that I needed any more elevation but for this one I was grateful. There was still a bit of snow to navigate through after this rocky detour. I managed one fall but the only consequence was me getting more wet. Once I made it over this final snow field it was pretty fine and runable route to the next CP at Comapedrosa refuge.
Probably because of this nice and runable final part of this section combined with the descent to lower altitude I was feeling better. I stayed for a while at the refreshment point to make sure I eat as much as I could. Food supply was good at this CP (soup, pasta, sausages, sweet stuff, nuts, bread, fruits – all good). I also had my first coffee of the race. I was expecting the darkness to fall before reaching the next CP so I re-arranged my back pack, packed the sunglasses and hat and put on headband and headlamp. I also put on a windbreaker as it was getting cooler now when sun was low.
The temperature shock once outside after leaving the warm hut made me shake like a martini shaker. The only way was to keep going and warm up again. I did not worry too much though as another climb awaited at the end of a flattish 1km long trail. Again one of those small bumps on the profile. I looked up and told myself “ah OK, this an easy one, just another Lantau Peak from Ngong Ping, straight up”. It was actually Pontella Sanfons but you get the idea. I warmed up fast. I felt surprisingly OK on this climb as well as on the other bump that followed a short steep descent. From there it was a long downhill towards one of the larger CPs. I could see what I thought is the next CP from the top. I could also see that there was a road that leads towards it (as it should as this one of only 4 CPs where support shuttle could get). But as this is Ronda that road is just a decoration. Once we made it down to the road we just crossed it. I turned my headlamp on and continued steeply down on rather soft bouncy grassy surface. It could be quite comfortable except it was wet and potentially slippery. One lapse in concentration and I was flying face down. Upon landing I appreciated the soft bouncy surface though.
Soon I found myself in a bunch with few others – some I caught up with, some caught up with me. We had to navigate our way through some cow crap and lots of cows (they did not seem too impressed by our light beams). At least it was some change after all the horses and horse crap we have been meeting until now.
I was hoping to make it to the CP with my shoes and socks reasonably dry and easy to get rid of all the mess inside them. But at the end of all this was (yet another) stream that of course I landed in. There went the dream of dry shoes by the time I reached the CP. There was still a small matter of another bump on the profile map standing (literally) between me and the CP. Up the ski slope, straight up again. By now I knew well that switchbacks surely are not trendy in Andorra… I was however still riding on that wave of feeling reasonably OK and although rather exhausted I made it to CP at Botella in good spirits with no quitting thoughts on my mind.
There was a wifi connection here so while stuffing myself with all the available food and drinks I checked some messages still being able to reply them with smileys attached. But I already had the next CP at Margineda on my mind. That was where my first drop bag with clean socks and shoes was awaiting and that was where I planned some rest and nap. How nice was that innocent ignorance of not knowing what evil 12 or so km I had ahead…
The first 4-5km were easy. The first extended section of the race that was neither up nor down. Just some undulating trail/biking trail. I was tempted to actually run but knowing that another big climb was right at the end of this I took this easy. I also found myself to be completely alone. Strange feeling to be alone after only 60 or so km. Just before the climb started few guys caught up with me and passed me. But once we started that climb many of them stopped or slowed a lot as did many that were further ahead. I was not pushing too much either – after all I still had more than 100km to go … I settled on a steady comfortable pace and kept on climbing. The profile map was quite deceiving. After the initial steep bit we made it on a ridge and followed it up until we reached the final ascent to the Bony de la Pica. This was dragging on forever and I was starting to feel fed up with all this. Down on the other side I could see some lights moving downhill but I could not see from where those guys were running down. Eventually I made it to the top surprised to see race crew there scanning our bibs. And immediately the worst ever descent I have ever experienced in any event has started.
We started this descent at 2400m and the CP was at around 1000m. At first I felt like I am running from head of the lion on the Lion Rock. At least that was how it felt. Once that rocky bit was over came steep steep section on some other surface that I can’t even remember now what it was. Another steep and technical section with slippery scree followed. It did not take long and I found myself crossing some rock formations holding on to metal chains with not much to stop me if I slipped or lost the hold of those chains. That injured finger on my right hand did not make this any easier.
This descent was mentally destroying me. When all these technical and at places scary bits were over we hit what looked more like a regular trail – when I say regular I mean something like running down Dog’s Tooth on Lantau… The surface still had lots of lose rocks and I kept either slipping on them or hitting them. I just did not see them until my feet felt them. I was mentally losing it. I was in some dark places in races before but I have never felt like this. I totally lost all the confidence. I simply could not imagine any more continuing with this race after the next CP. I left the previous CP at about 23:30 and I expected to arrive at Margineda between 2am-3am. I got there by 3:30am as a total mental wreck.
I did not want to make any rash decision though so I went along with my original plan. I had some drink, quick bite, I took of my dirty wet shoes and socks, cleaned up, changed to clean and dry jersey and lied down for a quick nap. When I opened my eyes again it was 4:40am. I was still determined to give up but not yet ready to do so. So I slowly put on new socks, clean shoes from my drop bag and went in search of some food. I had the bowl of Calvo soup and it did not go down well at all. I sat down and just stared to the ground for who knows how long. Then I went back to try to eat and drink some more. Pasta worked better than the soup. I saw more zombies around me slowly getting up ready to continue. A sign that perhaps I should try the same … It was almost 5:30 now, 2 hours since I had arrived here. The sky was still dark so if I left here I would still need headlamp for a half an hour or so. I ate some more, filled up my bottles, put my jacket on and decided to give it a go again.
We still had to go down as the CP was a bit up on the hill above the main road we needed to cross. I could feel right away that the long break did not really help. My legs totally did not like the downhill. Still I kept on going down, crossed the road, hit the trail on the other side and soon started the next climb. The section ahead was about 12km long with one big and two smaller climbs. This perhaps would still be OK. What was worse, much worse was what was awaiting afterwards – almost 20km long section that on the first 8km included about 1300m of elevation gain in one go. I looked at the profile map on my bib and although I had this profile on the wall next to my bed since December I could not handle what I saw… I found a nice rock next to the path and sat down to ponder what to do. Few people passed me asking if everything is OK. To avoid these questions I took off my backpack pretending I am looking for something rather than just being a sitting wreck. The day broke in the meantime so while pondering I took off and packed up my headlamp. I got up and started walking back down the hill towards the CP ready to abandon. I met few more people – all of them questioning my intentions and encouraging me to continue. When I was alone for a while again I turned around and started climbing again… Not quitting yet.
This time I made it higher up the hill than the first time. But it did not take long before I glanced at that profile map again. My legs were not working going up and I could not imagine how would I handle the hard and technical bits that were still ahead. At this point I knew there is no way I can deal with this course today. I turned around again, this time determined to complete the abandon process. Did not work… Seeing on the way down all those determined people climbing up made me change my mind once more. I turned around and climbed up again. This time I made it much higher up than on the previous 2 attempts. I was really giving it a go. The body was not cooperating though and the brain was totally against this idea. I sat down again. I realized that during this yoyoing up and down I drank more than half of my water reserve. I did not have enough to get me to the next CP. Then I looked up in the sky – it was all blue but some patches of white started to appear. This reminded me of the race briefing and the threat of the storms for later in the afternoon. This was the deal breaker. I have already lost all my confidence on the way down from the previous hill. I barely managed to tackle that descent and it was not even raining. I could not imagine how would I deal with any adverse weather conditions should they materialize. My finger on the right hand was really hurting and I could not grab anything properly with that hand. Also this CP I just left was the last chance to quit for a long long while. There was no easy return to civilization until about 60-70km later. I looked back across towards the Margineda CP I could still see on the hill on the other side. And I decided now for good to return there and to pull out… I had to admit – this Ronda broke me, more mentally than physically but it did break me. Confidence is important especially when we are weak from exhaustion. And I did not have that anymore. Continuing would mean taking bigger risks than I was prepared to take. At the end it came down to plain and simple risk assessment… I turned around and about half an hour later I was back at Margineda ending my first attempt at Ronda. Game over, my first 100 miler DNF…
Later when I made it back to Ordino I found out that depending on where people were when the storms hit that afternoon the race was stopped for some, neutralized for several hours for others while some (the speedsters who have already passed the affected areas) were able to continue normally. (I spoke on Sunday with a guy who was in a group that had to wait for 7 hours in one of the mountain refuges before they were allowed to continue). Judging from my pace and location it seems that if I were to continue I would most likely be in the area where the race was stopped completely. Clearly it was not meant to be for me this year…
I am disappointed of course. But I am determined to come back and go for it again. This unsuccessful first attempt was a great learning and recce. I think I identified some reasons why I failed. I already know about few things that I should do and approach differently. There is no guarantee for success here though. The DNF rates are huge at this race. I do believe though that it is doable. One needs almost an perfect day to be able to finish this monster and that of course includes some luck when it comes to weather – but it can be done. I may have given up on a day but I haven’t given up on Ronda yet. The planning of the revenge has already begun. I will be back to try again…