Friday, June 29, 2012

"El Diablo" and the Trail Peñalara 60k

"Seis, Seis, Seis!!"
"Seis! Seis! Seis!"  "Si, Si, El Diablo!"  Ordinarily, my race (bib) number doesn't garner much attention during a race but this one was different since I had the dubious distinction of wearing 666, the number often associated with the anti-Christ, Satan, the devil, etc.  I'm not a religious fellow so I didn't assign much significance to my bib number when I discovered what it was although it was a bit unsettling if I thought about it too much.  Was it just a coincidence?  An ominous portent of how my day would unfold?  Or did the race organizers have a twisted sense of humor and assign the number to the only runner from Austria knowing that Adolf Hitler --- the modern-times anti-Christ --- was, in fact, born in Austria?  Either way, I couldn't bother dwelling on it:  I had a race to run.  And this race, unlike any other ultra I've run, was on European soil.  I've been living in Austria for nearly two years and although I had a race scheduled for August 2011, I had to withdraw because of a bout with acute Achilles tendonitis.  After I recovered from that injury, I was determined to stay healthy to run at least one, perhaps two, ultras in 2012.  The first race I chose to run --- the Trail Peñalara 60k --- is the shortest of three races available (60k, 80k, 110k) and one long enough (~37 miles), technical enough, and with enough cumulative vertical gain to keep the pace slow and difficult (2586 meters = ~8,484 feet).  

When the race finally started --- just after 9AM on Saturday, June 23rd --- it was already pretty warm, I wasn't too confident about how hydrated I was, and I suspected I'd be dealing with a low-level upset stomach most of the day.  The night before Lisa and I had gone out for tapas (much like every other meal we had while in Spain) and although the greasy, bacon-like nuggets of meat were tasty on the way down, I suspect they were partly responsible for the three liquid-sapping trips to the restroom before I set off.  Or maybe it was the instant coffee made with the warmest (definitely not boiling!) water to come out of the hotel-room bathroom faucet.  Certainly not my regular pre-run routine and food, but I figured it was all worth it to be running and racing in a place most Americans don't have the chance to.  

While researching this race, among others, one major difference between European ultras and American ultras emerged:  the European races are "semi-autonomous".  Insofar as I can tell, this simply means that you must carry several mandatory pieces of gear with you --- there are no drop-bags and there are fewer aid stations.  I prefer to run with a hip-pack containing a couple of water bottles but given the number of required items, I instead opted for the Nathan Endurance Vest.  I wasn't 100% sure I'd be able to fit everything in the pack but in the end I prevailed and although moderately heavy when the two-liter bladder was filled to capacity, the pack distributed the weight relatively well and the bounce was minimal.  As for what I schlepped around, some items I would have carried regardless of the requirement --- water, GU, ClifBlocks, TUMS, band aids, and iPhone --- although the other items I may have foregone altogether or placed in a drop bag --- headlamp with spare batteries, thermal blanket, whistle, wind breaker/jacket, and map (provided by the race organizers).  I also had to carry my own cup for use at the aid stations since they did not provide disposable cups and although unlikely any races in the US will adopt this policy in the near future, I think it is a good one (less waste!).
The fire road en route to the first aid station

The course was a point-to-point with the beginning in Rascafria and the finish in Navacerrada, about 30 miles outside of Madrid.  Aside from a short and slight downhill out of Rascafria, the next ten miles were all uphill.  The first six or so miles were on a not-too-steep fire road with good views and when I arrived at the first aid station, I debated whether to refill by water bladder.  Fortunately I did since I wouldn't see another aid station for another ten(!) miles.  The next four miles led us to the summit of Peñalara where the last half-mile or so was less running and more rock scrambling.  It was insane. 
Peñalara straight ahead!
After nearly ten miles of continuous ascent, I was looking forward to the eight mile descent, although my enthusiasm and energy started to flag when I started to feel a bit of nausea (even after a couple of TUMS!) and I wasn't peeing as much as I though I should have.  When I finally arrived at La Granja --- more or less the halfway point --- I desperately needed to rehydrate and eat but the food on offering, aside from the orange wedges, didn't look too appetizing (not because it was a gnarly spread but because I could barely stomach the thought of eating).  After a few water bottles worth of water, a couple of cups of Coke, several orange wedges, and some pasta salad I started to feel better and headed back out.  Lisa was, of course, at the aid station and walked with me for a bit then she bid me well and told me she'd see me six or so miles later at the next aid station.  

I'm not sure if it was the Coke, pasta salad, or the few minutes spent regaining my composure but I felt pretty solid for the stretch to the next aid station (Casa de la Pesca), even if mile 20 felt so long I thought my Garmin was broke and I had to stop to apply a band-aid to my right pinky toe.  The trail leading out of Casa de la Pesca was relatively tame but it soon became brutally steep:  ~1,570 feet of climbing over 2.5 miles.  At one point I was moving so slow it felt like the flies whizzing around my head were simply waiting for me to collapse and keel over so they could feast away.  I was relieved when I finally reached Fuenfria but I still had another ~3 miles before reaching Navacerrada Pass and the long descent to the finish.  As with the other aid stations, Lisa was waiting for me at Navacerrada Pass, walked with me a bit, and --- as always --- had and said what I needed to keep me moving along.  My stomach was bothering me again and just like at La Granja, a couple of cups of Coke made a huge difference.  The last six miles featured some of the best single track I'd run all day as well as some fast fire road and at one point I looked down at my Garmin to see my pace dip below eight minutes per mile.  I could not, unfortunately, maintain that pace and three runners I passed on an earlier downhill overtook me and in the last mile or so, another two runners overtook me.  When I rounded the final corner Lisa was waiting for me and not knowing exactly where the finish line was, she pointed me in the right direction and I lumbered across.  I was the 39th runner to cross the finish line (among 147 finishers) and I did it in 10:15:21.  Although I would have liked to have finished a bit faster, I was still pleased with my run, especially since I was wearing an ominous 666 and passerby would comment (in Spanish) about "El Diablo" or "El Anti-Christo".  I suppose it was fitting it was so hot and I was maintaining a marginal level of hydration:  I can't imagine "el diablo" pees clear, or at all.  I certainly wasn't.   
"El Diablo!  El Diablo!"
Best.crew.ever.

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