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Ultra Sierra Nevada 2021 Race Report


Distance: 98 KM

Vert: 5,500M+, 3,900M-

Time: 13 Hrs 27 Mins

Position: 16th overall

ITRA Performance Score: 730/1000


Shoes: Nike Pegasus Trail 2

Socks: Injinji

Vest: Ultimate Direction AK Race vest 2.0

Poles: Leki

Head Torch: Petzl Iko Core 500

Watch: Suunto Ambit 3 Peak HR

I had been in Spain ready for the race in October 2020, but just as I had begun to taper, they announced a postponement. I spent the winter in the UK, logging an average of 100+km/ week on the trails and doing a similar weekly distance on the bike as recovery. After being denied boarding on my first attempt to get back out to Spain, I eventually made it back in March for a few weeks of training before the rescheduled race in April.

The last 6 weeks did not go quite to plan, with a period of overtraining, an Achilles hungry dog in Spain causing (what felt like) a fractured toe, and then a norovirus the following week. Fair to say, the final training block was not ideal, but I was still relatively fit and now at least well rested.

At the start line in the centre of Granada, they placed us out 2 meters apart using cones, in rows of 10. The first 5 rows were the elite athletes, and I managed to move up to the 10th row, so I wouldn't get stuck behind people early in the race. They set us off row by row, at 10 second intervals, starting at 10PM.

Everyone went out fast. The gradient started to pitch up after a few minutes, and I started to pick off the early "sprinters". Soon we were heading out of the city up above the bright lights of the Alhambra and into the foothills of the national park. I must have passed close to 30 runners in the first 10 minutes, so knew that most of the runners ahead were Elite. I could see only 1 runner ahead of me who was maintaining a decent pace, so followed him as we went down a fast a smooth section of track. I couldn’t help but open up and pull away from him. After a couple of minutes, I had not seen another "ticker tape" marker. I looked behind and could see the last runner heading back up the hill we had just come down. My watch showed the route another 500meters further down the hill, so I ploughed on into the dark, hoping that it was the right way. As the line on my watch approached, I realised to my dismay I had done a complete circle and re-joined the course at the bottom of the hill, but now with hundreds of runners ahead of me. I was so angry that I tore back up the hill shouting at myself as I pushed passed people. I guessed that I had added an extra 2km (2.04km now that I have checked).

I ran "angry" for the next hour or so, going too hard, attempting to make up the lost time. Eventually I accepted that there was little that could be gained, and at that effort I would likely "blow up". After 4hrs I had recaught most runners I had previously passed. A river crossing came up just as I had started to overtake new competitors. The fallen trees that bridged the river turned out to be broken in the middle. I fell in, smashing my arm into the logs, but clambered through and up the other side. The cold water was quite refreshing and helped to keep me cool on the next section of climbing. 6 hours in, at Quentar, the "ultra-hurt" had started to set in. The legs were aching, and food had to be forced down, as the nausea set in. I took another 4 places over the next climb, although it was on the decent that I saw how much better the Spanish runners were. By the time we had descended to Pinos Genil, the 63km aid station, the previous 4 runners had made the time back up. They did not stay long, only pausing to refill their bottles. I took at least 5 minutes to eat, refill bottles and get my poles out.

It started raining as I left the aid station with a Spanish runner, and the climb up to the ski resort began. We soon found ourselves running along the top of a 12ft deep empty, water chanell. At a shallow point, we jumped down into the canal rather than continue along the precarious 1ft wide, and slippery wall above. We were joined by 2 more runners as we dodged rocks and ducked under tunnel sections. Again, the awful feeling struck when no ticker tape marker had been seen in some time. We all ran back and realised our mistake. The route was now above us, and we were stuck down below in the canal. The other runners ran back looking for a way out. I managed to jump up the side of the wall, to grab some tree roots and haul myself out. One of the other runners came back to my spot and tried to follow suite. I lowered a pole down and managed to help pull him up. My newly made Spanish friend sounded grateful for the help, but I wasn’t sure what he was saying. We carried on together for the next 30 minutes up the steepest part of the course. The trail was loose scree and sand, with roots and rocks constantly catching your feet. It was hard to avoid "scrambling" down. The Spaniard was obviously frustrated by my lack of descending skill, I think he said, "Mi amigo, so como el agua" (Be like water my friend) as he flew past me down the perilously steep slope.

I let Spanish Bruce Lee (SBL) go, unable to follow him in the still dark conditions. I caught up with SBL and a group of 3 other runners on the next climbing section. I think a few years’ experience of "tabbing" was a real advantage on the steep sections. As the gloom started to lift, we arrived at the next aid station on the edge of the road leading to the ski resort. After a few orange slices, SBL and I headed out together again, running relatively quickly along the traversing section. As the terrain pitched up once more though, I began to struggle. Head down, I was missing markers, with SBL correcting from behind. He started running again, but reduced to walking I was unable to follow. I lost the marker again. I gestured to the runner behind, pointing if the marker was over there, he looked at me but didn’t respond, continuing towards me. I carried on further up the trail looking for the route, but when I looked back, he was no longer to be seen. Spurred on by anger once again, I was able to run back to his last position. As I caught up, I saw the missed marker, and he looked back with a look of surprise and guilt. I knew then at the very least, he had deliberately let me continue off course. Feeling drained I stopped at the next aid station. There was still 1,000m of ascent over the next 5km section that went up a red slope, to 3,200m above sea level.

The track quickly turned into a red ski slope, and I suddenly realised I would actually need the snowshoes I had on my pack. The snow was either soft and cruddy or had frozen to ice. My ten euro, Decathlon "specials", did at least give some additional grip on the ice. As we went higher the slope got steeper, and despite the sunshine, the temperature was dropping. At about 3,000m, my hands had started to go blue and numb, so I was forced to put my windproof on. By the time I reached the top, I was feeling frozen, starved of food, sleep, and now oxygen, and barley able to speak. Like a zombie, I started to run down the slope and slipped straight down onto my right arm, jarring my shoulder. The slope wasn't quite steep enough to "ski/slide" down, but equally, too steep on the icy snow to run full tilt. As I slipped and slid down, I was passed by two athletes I had overtaken on the way up, both wearing heavy duty snow spikes. A third runner started coming up to me near the bottom. Determined not to lose any more places, I gave one last effort down the final bit of the blue run and into town. Before I knew it, I had reached the finish. So overwhelming was the feeling of finishing, I was nearly overcome by tears, an experience I have never had before.

So far, the hardest 1-day race I have ever done, but an epic one. I could have been a little fitter, 2% extra distance in any ultra is never great, and certainly having proper snow spikes would have helped. I had been aiming for a sub 13hr time and top 10 finish, which I just missed (13hrs 27 mins, 16th place). I had left everything out on the course though, and it was a performance I was proud of, gaining a ranking of 730/1000 on the ITRA performance system. There is still a long way to go in terms of development, but I am confident that I will start reaching the expert and perhaps even elite category in the years to come.

The rest of 2021 is shaping up to be a triathlon focussed year, and rightly so with the Ironman World Championships in October. I doubt my ultra-running will improve much until 2022 as a result, but equally preparing for and racing Kona, certainly won't hurt it.

Watch this space...

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Will O'Connell
Will O'Connell
May 28, 2021

Brilliant Tom; many congrats! ps. Sé (tú)/sea (usted) = imperative of ser 😉

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