scree

2019 Ronda dels Cims – It did not get any easier the second time…

170km, 13,500m of elevation gain/loss in Pyrenees. Race that goes around the whole Andorra but extends to neighbouring France and Spain here and there – can say the route is bigger than the country.

I failed to finish this in 2018. Mentally exhausted with no desire to continue I stopped after the first drop bag station at Margineda… But a day later still in Andorra I decided to come back and try again in 2019. I signed up once the registrations opened in December. My preparations begun much earlier though with the whole season planned with the sole goal – Ronda dels Cims. Formosa Trail, UTMT were both races selected solely to bring my ultra confidence back. I made several changes in my training and added weekly gym sessions for strength and mobility. And although due to some niggles my training did not go 100% according to the plan I felt quite ready for the challenge. And┬ámentally I was surely there this time.

Last year I was the only one from Hong Kong on the start line. This year there were 3 of us – me, Tom and Alex. Once the race got going I quickly lost the sight of them as my initial focus was on high fiving my son somewhere along the road – and that I duly did.

I believed that my 2018 pace was OK so I tried go out in similar speed. Not to push but also not to be too slow. Soon a nice line of similarly paced people formed and I settled in. Ahead of me there were 3 buddies, talking, loud. No idea what about but they would not stop. It was fine at first but after a while I wished for some forest silence. I made a bit silly decision to get away from them. So I passed them one by one and slowly left them behind. A bit of a waste of energy… But peace and quiet was re-established :-) . A bit later I passed also Alex. I would not see him again until some 24 hours later…

above the tree line

above the tree line

Soon we were above the tree line and I found myself relatively alone between 2 large groups. I was moving faster than the group ahead of me. At that point I did not think I am going too quick. I caught up with that group before the top of the next climb. I made it over the initial climbs and rather comfortably reached the CP1 at Sorteny. Worryingly I was about 45 mins faster than last year. It was quite warm on the sun so moving this fast was not too smart. I took a short 5 min break, refuelled and went on, making sure I move slower from now.

CP2 right there but so far away

CP2 right there but so far away

It was officially only 10km to the next CP at Coma Arcalis but the reality was about 2km longer. And these 12km took forever. First there is about 5km long big climb. Once you get to the top you can see the CP2. It is there, right in front of your eyes. But still about an hour and 2 climbs and descents away… I remembered this from 2018. Knowing this helps mentally a bit but it does not make that CP to arrive any faster… I felt some cramps in my thighs. Probably result of that a bit fast start. But this kind of cramps does not worry me. I know they arrive sometimes early in races but they also disappear later on as the legs adjust to the terrain. So an inconvenience but not a problem.

I planned a bit longer stop at this CP3. More food and drink and a bit of a rest before heading for the next 15+km section featuring another 2 big climbs and descents. I ate and drank quite a lot, refuelled and headed up the ski slope to Bretxa Arcalis and beyond. All was good. I was quite enjoying the beautiful weather and the views. I was moving well, the cramping was less and less frequent. I passed the area where I felt last year and injured my finger. I was starting to believe that this year I may get to CP4 at Pla Estany without any damage. How wrong I was…

I was somewhere a bit more than half way down the descent to the CP. The trail was very steep (as is usual here) but pretty easy to navigate. I was running down in reasonable pace. Not too slow but also not dangerously fast. Basically I could say things were under control. Then I caught up with somebody who was descending very cautiously – in a way I would once my legs get tired in later stages. I stayed behind for a bit but when I reached a bend I saw nice and safe opportunity to pass. One of those lovely smooth, wide enough bends… Nothing to trip on (or so I thought), lots of space. So I went for it and… caught something, till now I have no idea what it was. And in an instant I was airborne flying straight of the trail down the slope. And right at a tree. A solid tree that would give no way if I hit it … It all happened in an instant but I still see it as a movie. The tree getting closer and closer to my face. Me unable to steer once in the air. Already imagining the consequences of the incoming impact… But then somehow I managed to grab that tree with my right hand instead of hitting it head on. I am really not sure how I did that… I spun around that tree scratching my hand and forearm on the bark in the proces. When I was close to 360 degrees around, facing the trail again the hand let go. The shoulder also let go. It popped out, it hurt, and luckily it popped right back in. In the meantime I smashed face down to ground. Luckily on the slope so the impact was not as bad as it could have been. Even more luck – I did not hit anything hard. My already hurting shoulder did not appreciate another impact on landing though…

I was there face down not wanting to move. I was assessing myself. It seemed like I can move OK although the shoulder and arm were hurting. I did not have poles in my hands anymore. Then I heard the person I was trying pass asking me if I am OK. I can’t remember what I answered exactly. But I do recall asking him if he can see my poles… That was my main concern in that initial state of shock… He found one of them a bit down the slope. I found the other one above me in the tree. Both survived intact – praise the black diamond.

I slowly got up back on trail. I could move. I only had scratches on the right hand and arm, on both knees and my shoulder was hurting a bit at that time. But overall it looked like I had a lucky escape. I could go on.

Soon I reached the Pla Estany CP. Some battle scars but in good spirits. Another planned longer break to get enough energy before the monster 3km long 800m high ascent of Pic Comapedrosa – the highest point of Andorra, just shy of 3000m…

on the way to Comapedrosa

on the way to Comapedrosa

This ascent is the first true spirit breaker of the race. It starts steep, then it gets technical and then it gets even steeper :-) . The average incline is 30% but there are sections that are even steeper than that. And most of the climb is on very technical surface – scree, boulders, rocks. Not much snow this year though. I decided to take it easy. Not to push too much, take some regular breaks to breath in properly.

the terrain

the terrain

The shoulder was behaving at the moment but every sharper move, hit or sudden unexpected body twist send immediate shock through the arm and the shoulder. Luckily not that many shocks on the way up – although not being able to make full use of the poles was not ideal on such a steep climb.

scree

scree and straight up

Eventually after about 2 hours (as planned) I made it up to he summit. Short stay up there to enjoy the views and then quickly down – a steep technical descent towards the lake and the next CP at Refuge Comapedrossa.

Here I started to feel the shoulder. It is hard not to hit, kick anything on such a technical downhill. So the shockwaves through that battered shoulder were pretty regular. But it still felt more like an annoyance rather than an issue. A possibility of DNF haven’t even crossed my mind so far.

Another solid stop at the CP – food, drinks and also change from day gear to night gear. It would get dark before the next climb is done. I remembered from 2018 the next climb to be ‘just a Lantau Peak sized bump’. So I set out in easy pace and kept moving steadily uphill without thinking about the climb too much. Halfway up the mountain I turned on my headlamp but that was pretty much the only pause I had on this climb. All reasonably good. After spending some time moving up and down on the ridge came long downhill. I was surrounded by horses and cows here. Couple of times I went a bit off course only to find out I am headed directly at a horse. The reflection of the headlamp in their eyes looked so similar to reflective spots on the route markings… Follow the horses, not…

Just before the next CP at Botella the route rises straight up – anothe ski slope to navigate without any switchbacks. But knowing that a comfy CP awaits at the end of the climb makes this one easier.

The shoulder was now hurting non stop and sometimes more but it was still bearable as long as I did not think about it too much. At the CP I focused again on food and drinks and I also tried to take a short 10-15 mins naps – just to recharge batteries before the section that destroyed me mentally last year. I was determined not to let that happen this year…

The first part is easy – biking path towards Collada Montaner – 5km long path, flattish, slightly uphill but easy. Then a climb toward Bony de la Pica. Also an enjoyable ascent although a bit tough with almost 70km and 7000m in the legs already. The worst starts at the top – the descent to Margineda.

I was determined not to let it destroy me again. And it worked. It is an insane descent but being mentally prepared for it makes a huge difference. What I did not prepare for was to have to navigate those rocks and chains without the use of my right hand – especially as all the chains are on the right hand side of the path.

When I arrived to THE rock formation I genuinely had no idea how to cross it with that injured arm. I let 4-5 people to pass while trying to work out the best sequence of motions that would least likely result in slide down to the abbys. Then one impatient runner decided to go while I was hanging in the middle of the rocks on my left hand figuring out my next move – the best time to have someone climbing over me…

Anyway, I survived but the right arm had to do more that it was ready for at that stage. There was still more than 1000m of descent to deal with. The shoulder was hurting more now but I still thought that I can deal with it.

Soon I made it to the end of the first part of the descent. A short uphill section followed before the final long descent to Margineda started. I could feel my right toe was pretty busted, my shoes were super dirty by now – I was so looking forward to finding my drop bag there and change to clean shoes and jersey…

I was moving down a bit slower than last year but there was a reason. Last year by this place I was already in the mindset of pulling out. There was nothing to be saving the legs for. This year I had no intention to stop. It made no sense to bust my legs with almost 100km still to go…

When I reached the Margineda CP I followed my plan. Quick semi-shower, change to a clean jersey, socks and shoes. Socks and shoes were easy. Taking off the jersey and pulling the new one on – that was a major pain in the shoulder…

I had few small bites and went for a nap. I managed an hour which was good. But when I woke up I did not really feel like going, I wanted to keep on sleeping :-) . What was not good at all was that while I was napping the adrenaline levels went down too and the pain became much stronger…

I was still determined to go on. I was about an hour and something behind my 2018 schedule but overall still feeling reasonably fine. Except for that shoulder. The next section however passed close to civilization with few easy escape paths so starting the next 15km section was a reasonable risk to take – also an opportunity to assess my condition one more time before returning to the proper wilderness.

It was not fun… Now the shoulder was really hurting. I could feel almost every step now and that was even when climbing up. Once we crested over the top of the first climb the pain was even worse on the downhill. Somewhere here Alex caught up with me and passed me. Here I for the first time admitted that I may not be able to finish… When I reached a road and a small town I sat on the bench. Decision time… Big town of St Julia was right down the road – I could walk down there and take a bus to the finish… I however noticed that just around the corner is a control point. So I decided to go there and announce my withdrawal. And so I did… Only to be told by the volunteer lady that it is only 5km to the next CP, not very steep, just a bit up and down. And better for me to pull out there as it will be easier to get transportation. Not sure why I believed a race volunteer that it really is only 5km… But I decided to go and give that shoulder one more chance to behave. It did not… Two hours later I reached the Coma Bella hotel (and CP). The 15km section from Margineda took me over 5 hours. I was now barely an hour from the cut off with only a handful of people still in the race behind me. Next CP was at least 8 hours away (in my current condition) and the next CP where I actually could pull out of the race was 5 big climbs and almost 50km away. Under these circumstances continuing would make no sense. There was zero chance now I could finish… I admitted defeat and pulled out…

Ronda has defeated me for the 2nd time. This time it was about bad luck or lapse in concentration. Positves are I made it one CP further than a year ago and still feeling well (except that shoulder). Negatives – I made a silly mistake and wasted a great opportunity on a weekend of gorgeous weather… But this is all part of the game. No regrets. Andorra is a beautiful country and worth the trip whether one finishes the race or not :-) .

Will I be back to try to give it one more go? I don’t know now. It is a monster event not to be taken lightly. I have 6 months to think about that before the registrations open again…

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