Ultra Sierra nevada 2022 Race Report
Distance: 98 KM
Vert: 5,600M+, 3,900M-
Time: 12 Hrs 16 Mins
ITRA Performance Score: TBC
Shoes: Nike Pegasus Trail 3
Vest: Salomon S-Lab sense ultra
Head Torch: Petzl Iko Core 500
Watch: Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar
I travelled out to Torvizcon, Spain in the 2nd half of February. Training was ramping up nicely and I was soon running 190km with 7,000m+ of vertical ascent per week. Unfortunately, I tore a muscle in my quad in the middle of the next peak training week, unable to walk the 10km back, I had to call for a taxi. By switching to the treadmill and bike I was still able to carry out productive training. A week later it was starting to improve, but I then suffered from food poisoning as well. After a few days the symptoms went away and with additional gym work the leg continued to get better. I had lost some fitness and weight but with one week to go I was hopeful that I would be ok to race.
The day before the race I checked out a final section of the course, and placed out some rocks to mark where I should jump out of a drainage ditch. After I collected my bib, it started to hail heavily, which higher up the mountain was settling as a foot of fresh snow. I dropped off my car at the ski resort on Friday afternoon and got the bus down into Granada arriving at the start around 9.pm with 1 hr to go. I joined the que to drop off my midpoint and ski resort bags. Almost no one else had marked their numbers on their bags, and in typical Spanish fashion, there appeared to be no rush from anyone to improve the situation. With 5 mins to the start, I got my bags in and weaved my way through to the front. The music blaring, and the nerves starting to build I re-tied my laces and loaded up the course on my watch.
We went out fast, and a front group soon formed on the first uphill section past the Alhambra. One runner to my front and one to my left, we soon had a gap of 10m. The lead runner was in long sleeves and leggings, but it wasn’t that cold yet, and I thought he must be starting to overheat. As we climbed up towards the start of the trail, I was breathing hard (heart rate was at about 170bpm at this point), but not as hard as the guy next to me. I put in a little surge and moved to the front, which grew to a few meters as we hit the trail and first steep section. Having run this hill twice in last years race (got lost and looped round) I knew I could run it hard and still be ok at the top.
By the top I was about 20m clear, but could see that 2nd and 3rd were running together. Running off the front is high risk, but can be high reward. Not only are you acting as a guide with a light on your back, but the risk of "blowing up" is higher, as is the chance of missing course markers. I went through the first checkpoint (10km apparently) in 39:39, and I started counting from when I passed the cheering people at the aid station. After over 30 seconds counting I heard no further cheers so decided to ease off just a little on the next section and start focussing on eating and drinking. It wasn’t long though before 2nd/3rd started to catch up on the downhill section, and I lifted my pace again. This is where running off the front can be an advantage, not only can you dictate the pace, but also respond to any attacks before they pass. On the next steep hill section I put in another surge and extended the gap back out. After 26km I could see down the mountain to see I had a 3 minute lead. Flying down the trail to check point 3, I was feeling confident and in a state of "flow", however the race was far from done. A light grew brighter from behind as 2nd caught up again. Refusing to let him make the pass, I decided that I would have an advantage of going into checkpoint 3 ahead of him. As we left the aid station onto the recently altered course (river crossing was too high from the recent downpours), I heard him let out a little groan. Considering we were both under course record pace at this point, I was glad to hear that he was suffering as badly as I was. The new section was a steady climb, which suited me, and again I was able to pull away.
The descent into Quentar at 48km had some steep sections, which caused my left leg to cramp, and right laces to cut into my ankle. At around 60km my right ankle had started to swell and the knot of the laces was painfully digging in. I stopped to retie them, which was definitely the right call ( 2 weeks later and the ankle still hasn’t recovered fully). At 62km I got my spare bag which had slices of pizza, more gels, and 500ml flasks made up with drink mix. I also noticed that the low battery warning on my head torch had come on. I had no idea how long the battery would last, but I knew it didn’t get light on the north face of the mountain until about 8am, which was still four hours away. It was also getting colder with a frost starting to settle on the ground. I put the buff over the battery compartment of the head torch, to try and keep the cold from draining it further. I hoped that by flicking the setting between “low beam” and “medium beam” (depending on the trail), would get me through til dawn. This worked to an extent, but with the low beam setting I couldn’t look ahead, and at the same time see the rocks, or bushes... or the edge of the trail for that matter. I asked at the next aid station if they had any batteries. One of the guys said “yes, yes, here” pointing to a plate of milk chocolate on the table! Something had got lost in translation. I had written in my pre-race Instagram post “the night is darkest just before the dawn”, little did I know how literally it would play out….
Patches of snow started to appear, which became a solid covering in the forested section. As my head torch dimmed, the sky gradually began to light up with shades of pink. It was minus five degrees though, and even with hat and gloves now on, my hands were numb with pain. At the aid station I asked for coke. The woman who looked as cold as I did said there wasn’t any, but noticing that my bottles had now frozen, I asked her if there was anything hot instead. She managed to microwave some soup while I put on all the clothes I had and then my crampons. I bit into an orange quarter, only to get brain freeze as the orange was also frozen. It looked like I would be tackling the last section running on fumes. Following the course markings I ended up following the 100 mile route into town. Eventually I got myself onto the red ski slope up, but running on empty and with the altitude starting to “bite” it was a slow march up the final climb. The sun hadn’t had a chance to warm the snow up yet, so running down the hard icy slope in crampons was unforgiving on my swollen ankle.
Heading down the finish chute through town, people were waving and shouting for me to slow down because there was snow and ice on the road! LOL. “Breaking” through a finishing tape for the first time was a great feeling. This year I had better equipment and was better prepared by knowing the course. Being fitter enabled me to run tactically rather than just survive. The conditions were harder though with it being colder and with more snow on the ground. The ITRA scoring system doesn’t account for running surface, but I still hope that this time will have scored 800 or higher out of 1000, which is just below elite (825). Overall, the race had gone pretty well, and my target of sub 12hrs might have been possible if I had got my fuelling right in resort and followed the right course markings.
After 4 months of going “full time” with training, this is a great sign that I am on the right track, and that there are still large improvements to be had.
I am attempting the Bob Graham Round (102km and 8,300m+) this weekend, so it will be interesting to see how the body responds so soon after the effort. I’ve also booked into a 50km trail race with 3,000m+ at the start of May to see how I fair in a shorter event, before then building up again for Ultra X World Champs (250km, 10,000m+) in June.
Onwards and upwards!