Distance 170 km, elevation +/- 13500m, average height 2100m, time limit 62h, 408 participants, 210 finishers
Prologue (Playa del Carmen, Mexico, January 9th, 2019)
“So, which races are you taking this year, then?”, Katarina asked me over a beer. “I know I want to do Tor des Geants again, I think I’m getting into the mood for it, and then I’ll see what else is there along the way. I know I don’t want to go to Andorra this year, I need a break from that race.” I participated in Ronda dels Cims in 2018, but the race was stopped due to a storm in Madriu-Perafita-Claror valley, catching me at Claror mountain hut at 105 km. It left me feeling incomplete and I vowed to go back, but not this year, not yet.
The second round of beers arrived. “Why are you putting Andorra away? If you want to finish it, you should do it now, not leaving it for sometime later. I’ll be with you to support you.”, goes Katarina. Sipping on my second beer and getting into a good mood, I said: “Yeah, I should do that, why not?”. And that was it. From the firm decision of not doing Andorra this year to getting online to register, in a heartbeat.
A New Perspective
Although Ronda dels Cims is a formidable race and not to be taken lightly, after I finished Tor des Geants in 2017 (339 km with 30000 m of elevation), I knew I could do this, I knew it wasn’t a question of “is it possible?”. I needed another reason to participate in such a hard race, besides pushing my own boundaries. I wanted to do something good and something close to my heart. I decided to raise awareness about the suffering of farmed animals and I chose to support Compassion in World Farming organization by raising funds for them. CiWF was founded in the UK 50 years ago by a British farmer who became horrified by the development of modern, intensive factory farming. Today the organization campaigns peacefully to end all factory farming practices and one of the campaigns that I focused on was to end the live transport of animals, during which they suffer tremendously (https://www.ciwf.org.uk/our-campaigns/live-animal-transport/live-exports-from-the-eu/).
The whole organization around Andorra Ultra Trail Vallnord event is just the best I have ever seen, everything went so smoothly, there were no waiting lines, no stress. Katarina and I arrived at the starting line at 6:15, 45 minutes before the start. The central street in Ordino was still empty and we sat in a cafe with other runners, ordered cups of hot tea, I went to a restroom couple of times, the usual stuff.
Ordino (0 km) to Sorteny (21 km)
The crowd quickly gathered and at 7 am the group of around 400 runners left the town square to make a 1 km loop around Ordino before turning right up into the mountains. As we hit the first trail shortly, a queue formed, and the climb was slower. I tried to remember and compare my performance this year to last year’s one. Was I going slower (it felt that way) or about the same speed? I was fitter this year, so it must have been the subjective feeling of going slower. The first part of the climb is single-trail, all in the woods, so it was hard to keep passing people, as I had to run short sections around them to get by.
The second part of the climb to the first pass, Col d’ Arenes, are meadows and open views to the high rocky ridges above on both sides. This is where I started to feel a bit weird and I concluded it must have been from the height. I was training near the sea level, all below 1500 m and didn’t have any acclimatization before the race. I was generally OK, but my overall performance was a bit off. The next part was the narrow trail through the barren landscape at 2500m and then a steep technical descent to lake Estanyo and eventually to the first aid station of Refugi de Sorteny (21km).
Knowing the route really helps, because I remembered this first descent as being quite long, but this time it felt much shorter. A big difference from the last year was also that I wasn’t alone. Katarina was crewing me, so that made things much easier. For a start, I didn’t have to think much about logistics, she’s great at it and I like not to think about anything else during the race except my movement if I don’t have to. Stop at Sorteny was quick, Katarina tended to my backpack, filled the water, gave me some food. I mostly had fruits. Oh, the watermelon, it’s the best! It was getting hot and watery fruits are what works best. I told Katarina that something was wrong, I was feeling a bit off, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I left the aid station shortly and we kissed goodbye until Coma d’Arcalis, which was only 10 km away.
Sorteny (21 km) to Coma d’Arcalis (31 km)
I knew there was a runnable part soon coming up, but once I got to it, I just couldn’t run, couldn’t make myself go for it. So, walking it was. The trail from Sorteny to Coma d’Arcalis includes one of the most scenic climbs of the race and I was looking forward to it before the race. I knew something was wrong when I had to sit down half-way up to Portella de Rialb. I never ever stop nor sit down on the trail during the race, unless I really feel bad. Something was very wrong, but how could it be so early on? I was only 25 km into the race. What was going on? A long descent and then another climb and that’s where I started to break down. The sun was high, the air was hot and I dragged my feet up the trail. I could see Arcalis house in the distance, perhaps only 3 km away, but I knew it would take some time to get there. Luckily, there were many water streams along the way, so I could refill my bottles and freshen up, as my water was all gone by that point. Finally, I managed to get to Arcalis and told Katarina that I had to sit down, inside the restaurant, and rest for a while.
Only after the race was finished, did she told me that I was burning with fever and looked terrible. Of course, she didn’t want to tell me that, then and there, as it would have killed my spirits and probably made me think about quitting. She decided to monitor me and pull me from the race only if my condition got worse, she knew how much this race meant to me. This is where she started to give me regular doses of paracetamol and I wasn’t suspecting why.
Coma d’Arcalis (31 km) to Pla de l’Estany (44 km)
I changed my soaking wet t-shirt into a dry one and after Katarina’s encouragement to leave the aid station and just go, I reluctantly obliged and moved on. I knew I had a longer section in front of me, so my backpack was fully stocked (mostly water) and I could feel the extra weight on my shoulders, going uphill.
Eventually, things got better, even as I was climbing to Bretxa d’Arcalis (2715 m). I remembered the section to Pla de l’Estany from the last year as neverending. Not so hard, but long. My condition was changing and I made another quick stop, sat down and had some food. As I was approaching the next aid station I felt a bit better and once I reached Pla de l’Estany, I had some fruits, filled up on water and pressed on to Pic del Comapedrosa (2942 m), the highest peak of Andorra.
Pla de l ‘Estany (44 km) to Refugi del Comapedrosa (50 km)
The climb to Comapedrosa is as technical as it gets, with large boulders paving most of the way. I was dreading this ascent before the last year’s race, from reading all the previous race reports, but I didn’t find it as hard as I expected. I also climbed this very route two weeks after last year’s race, together with Katarina. So, I knew it was challenging, but not terrible. Well, this year, it did look terrible, I had a harder time moving, I felt weaker and I perceived myself moving way slower than any of the previous two attempts. To make things more interesting, I broke one of my carbon poles half-way up, after it stuck in between rocks. I felt like Gandalf the rest of the climb, using only one pole. It felt funny. Luckily, I had a phone signal there so I called Katarina and told her to buy me new poles. The plan was to see her at Col de la Botella, 15km away.
Fun fact: Comapedrosa is the only highest peak of the country that I had climbed and I did it three times: first time at last year’s race, then two weeks after that when Katarina and I went back to Andorra because I fell in love with the country and this year at the race.
The organizers made sure that we had a special treatment at the peak, so there’s always a piper there, greeting every runner and once you hear his sound, you know you’re close.
Once I climbed Comapedrosa, the last part being on the ridge, practically scrambling, I checked my watch. I realized that it took me only 4–5 mins more to go from Pla de l’Estany to Comapedrosa compared to the last two times. I took that as a good sign because I was struggling.
The long descent to Refugi del Comapedrosa went by rather fine, the sun was already on its way down, so the heat went away. I realized I was faster than last year by at least 30–45 minutes, based on the setting sun. I remember the exact point at which I switched my headlamp last year and I was ahead of that and I started to feel good.
Refugi del Comapedrosa (50 km) to Coll de la Botella (60 km)
This section of the race is rather tame and I remembered every detail of it. After the short climb to Portella de Sanfons, I passed two runners on the way up and found myself alone running down the narrow trail with spectacular views around just before the darkness set in. I could hear cows from the valley below and passed some horses, grazing as I was passing them by. I put my headlamp on and was moving fast, running a few actually runnable sections. I could already see the lights of the next aid station and I knew there was a long descent through grassy fields with cows all around, not even a proper trail, just markings, and then a short climb. This part killed my spirits last year. It’s one of those instances where you think you’re there, but then, the lights suddenly disappear and you realize that you weren’t that close in the first place. Lights in the night, very deceiving!
Knowing what was ahead, I passed this section quickly and surprised Katarina coming into Coll de la Botella. She didn’t expect me just yet. I said I was feeling good at this point and was glad to get a new set of poles. I probably spent close to half an hour at this station to got some proper food. As it usually happens, as soon as I stop, I start to shiver, so Katarina gave me her hat and neck warmer. I went full ninja style, covering my head, neck, mouth and left the station into the dark, not looking forward to that brutal descent waiting for me soon.
Col de la Botella (60 km) to La Margineda (73 km)
In races like Ronda dels Cims or Tor des Geants, some of the worst parts for me are flat. I know it sounds strange, but it’s true. The thing is, these races are long and they are measured more in hours than in km. While flat sections could be easily run in a regular training session, during the race, when you walk, they are never-ending and quite boring. After Coll de la Botella such a flattish section is about 4 km long and is a wide bike-trail. I knew what to expect so it turned out to be quite good allowed me to get warm and get off extra layers of clothes.
A climb followed and then the ridge. This part was really fun, who doesn’t love ridges? Soon enough, I reached Bony de la Pica (2406 m) with absolutely the best crew at the race! It was past midnight, top of the mountain, lights from Andorra la Vella and other towns around visible down in the valley, and this volunteer crew of several girls was jumping, yelling and cheering us like there’s no tomorrow. Fantastic! This is exactly what you need before the absolute worst descent of the race.
I knew what I was up against soon and was mentally prepared. The descent from Bony de la Pica to La Margineda is about 1400 m of vertical and the first part is brutal. Super steep and technical, with ropes and chains to hold on to. The group of runners before me was very careful and quite slow, but I couldn’t pass them as there was no room to do so. Only when it got less bad, was there a room to pass some of the runners, but we pretty much stayed as a pack on the way down to the small village of Aixas. From then on, a short climb and then a runnable descent through the woods into La Margineda.
La Margineda (73 km) to Coma Bella (86 km)
La Margineda is the first life base, located inside a school, where we had our bags. Katarina was readily waiting for me and I told her that I’ll sleep for up to 2 hours, maximum. I took a shower and went into a quiet room, set up for runners to sleep in. I probably slept for just over an hour and got back to the main room to change my clothes, running shoes and to have some food. I booked feet massage, but the massagist told me that my feet were perfectly fine and there was nothing to treat. I had a massage last year and was looking forward to it, so this was a bit of a downer. I spent about two and a half hours at La Margineda, which was a lot, and headed out at 6:14, 45 minutes ahead of last year’s time. I could have just left La Margineda a lot earlier, but given my condition on the prior day, I wanted to be conservative and not attempt the next climb in questionable condition.
The section from La Margineda to Coma Bella is the least technical one and the most runnable one, passing through towns and tobacco farms (ubiquitous to Andorra). The first ascent is long and steepish, but quite pleasant as the ground is soft and it winds through the forest.
There were many check-points in the race, where volunteers were noting our bib numbers and the organizers did a very good job there. Nothing was left to a chance. I reached one of those check-points, being pretty sure that I had less than a kilometer to the next aid station when the volunteer pointed me to a road crossing and said “Only 4 km to the next aid station with water and food.”. What, 4 km?! Oh, man… Grinding ahead, I reached Coma Bella, where Katarina was waiting for me. I had some food and told her that I wanted to sleep for half an hour to call me to wake me up. The agreement was for her to leave the station and go home to sleep, as she had a sleepless night as well and we were going to see each other only after 44 km, at Pas de la Casa, which could translate to many, many hours. I knew what was ahead of me, and wanted to get some rest before. I laid down, closed my eyes and fell asleep immediately. I woke up by myself and felt rested. I checked my watch and realized that I was asleep for only 5 minutes. Good enough, so I packed my things and left. In a condition like this, the mind needs some rest, just to shut down for a little bit and reset, and it usually doesn’t take too long, sometimes even 5 minutes is enough.
Coma Bella (86 km) to Claror (105 km)
Along the long climb to Pic Negre, my mantra was, just get to Claror, the point at which the race was over for me the year prior. The second life base was Pas de la Casa and my thinking was, the key to finishing the race is to get to Pas de la Casa (130 km). To get to Pas de la Casa, the key was to get to Refugi de l’Illa (116 km). To get to Refugi de l’Illa, the key is to get to Claror (105 km). Therefore, the key to the race was to get to Claror first. That was my objective. Then, I was to take it from there.
As I came to the barren landscape leading to and surrounding Pic Negre after the long climb, I decided that I had enough of this race and enough of Andorra. It was midday, the sun was high, the heat was on and my condition was affected by it. I realized that, although Andorrean scenery is so beautiful and stunning, I wasn’t enjoying it. I was just counting kilometers and hours to the next station. This wasn’t physical fatigue, this could have only come from my mental condition. “Perhaps it was a mistake to take this race this year, I knew it was too soon!”, I thought. The memory from last year was still fresh in my mind and I knew the route very well, knew exactly what was coming.
Pic Negre deserves its title, its black barren landscape is so ruggedly beautiful. I knew the second-worst descent of the race was in front of me, but after that’s done, Claror was not that far. There was one steep ascent to Coll del Bou Mort before Claror, but descents are the worst. My problem was the left foot thumb. It was beaten from descents and hurt. I usually go rather fast on the downhills, but I had to take it easy as I didn’t want this injury to get much worse and possibly render me unable to continue. So I descended slowly and carefully to the point where course from Mitic race (112 km) was joining Ronda dels Cims.
Eventually, I reached Claror and it felt psychologically good. I could only go further than the last year from this point on. While eating corn and lentils inside the hut, I spotted a familiar face next to me. It was a Russian guy, Pawel, whom Katarina and I have met at Pico Ruivo, the highest peak of Madeira, earlier this year. I saw his Andorra tattoo then and that’s how we started talking. He was running MIUT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail), like Katarina, and here he was running Mitic. Small world, we agreed.
I was just about to leave Claror when the helicopter landed to pick up an injured runner. Something with his ankle, I heard.
Claror (86 km) to Illa (116 km)
The trail from Claror to Illa was familiar to me because Katarina and I hiked this trail last year while exploring Andorra. Being familiar with the route helps. I’m still in favor of being surprised by the trail, but sometimes it’s better otherwise. Madriu-Perafita-Claror is a glacial valley covering 9% of Andorra and World Heritage site and it is a true privilege being able to spend some time there.
This part was very enjoyable, there are no steep climbs, altitude is above 2000 m, so the scenery is stunning. I was pleasantly surprised to see many campers with tents along the way, most of them in their teens. Great way to spend time, being in nature.
As I was descending from Collada de la Maiana (2424 m) I heard someone singing. I couldn’t quite make what was going on. It sounded too good for someone to sing while running, but who would play music in the middle of the mountain and why?
I reached the bottom of the valley with the Madriu river and crossed the check-point, as I heard music approaching me. Then I saw him. Israeli guy, running Mitic course, with small speaker around his neck, listening to Israeli song, singing along and smiling ecstatically as he passed me by. It was totally weird, but I laughed as it lifted my spirits. I passed him by soon, as the music must have worn off and he wasn’t listening to it anymore.
The rest of the trail to Refugi de l’Illa is really beautiful, mostly running along the river and then passing by some lakes, but this is where it started to hit me. My mind was going crazy. I was thinking incomprehensibly, constantly struggling to snap out of strange visions. I was worn down, it was harder to move and I tried to stay focused on the trail, just to get me to Illa somehow. It got worse and I started to question my ability to continue the race. There was no way I could finish the race in such a condition. There was still about 55 km until the finish. If only I could drag myself to Illa…
After what seemed like an endless blur of confusing thoughts (and the whole phase probably didn’t last more than 45 minutes) I reached Illa. I knew this place and was looking forward to getting some sleep there. I was imagining beds in the refuge, but the race organizers erected tents in front of the refuge. There was no phone signal, but I knew there was wifi and I had it memorized on my iPhone, so I painfully climbed the flight of stairs to the refuge and called Katarina. We didn’t talk since the morning and I had to give her my status, so she could know when to leave for Pas de la Casa. I told her that I didn’t feel good and that all I knew is that I had to get some sleep because I started to think about quitting. Good thing was that I couldn’t quite at Illa, it would take at least 3 hours to get to the nearest road, so there was no alternative but to rest and then get down to Pas de la Casa. I slept for an hour, felt better, but far from good and left Illa groggily stumbling up the trail.
Illa (116 km) to Pas de la Casa (130 km)
Lake Illa is right above the refuge, artificial lake, but still beautiful, surrounded by rocky ridges. This is were Ronda dels Cims and Mitic were parting ways again and I helped one Mitic runner take the right path, as he started to follow me. The descent had some loose rocks, but it wasn’t too bad. Regardless, I managed to fall twice, enough to get my knees bloody. This was a sign that I was still weak and not focused yet. As the descent continued and darkness started to take over, I started to feel better and eventually I reached the meadowy valley with some tents and a check-point for the race. The volunteer cheered me up and told me there was only 8 km to Pas de la Casa and that climb was half of that distance with only 600 m. That’s really good news, I remember thinking, that’s easy. The climb was mild, I felt good and managed to increase my pace. It’s funny how things turn out during the race. Ups followed by downs and downs followed by ups. I was enjoying this and finally reached the first pass, Portella Blanca. I greeted the volunteer and started jogging downhill. He yelled after me and told me to go back and turn left. This was the only wrong turn I took at the race and it was only for 100 m.
I couldn’t see much, but I figured that the landscape was mostly barren and beautiful. The moon lit up on the right side and I glazed over left and right, trying to figure out the shapes of the mountains around. And then I saw them! Two eyes in the middle of nowhere. They looked like the cat’s eyes but could’ve been someone else. What would a cat do so far away, I thought, but then I remembered the cat on top of Madeira, at Pico Ruivo, nonchalantly walking past us. That was both strange and funny.
Coll dels Isards and then a steep descent to Pas de la Casa. As usual, the lights made the town seem much closer then it took to get there. Getting down on the last stretch, I realized this was a big ski resort as ski slopes were all around.
I got to Pas de la Casa just before 1 am and had plenty of time before the time limit (8 am).
Pas de la Casa (130 km) to Vall d’Incles (142 km)
My original plan was to sleep at this second life base, but I didn’t. Firstly, I thought there was no designated sleeping room (there was, but I didn’t know that at the time) and I didn’t want to just lay down on the bench in the main room. Secondly, I wasn’t feeling bad, so had no reason not to continue. Katarina was urging me to get some food, freshen up and leave the station as soon as possible against my urge to loiter. She had a hard time finding this life base, as no instructions were given. People on the street (not many, as it was past midnight) didn’t know about the race and what she was talking about. She called the organizer on the phone and they told her to ask anyone about the old ski school.
I went full-on ninja again and left the station into the night. The trail passed through the town for a while and I thought how nice it looked. Pas de la Casa is right on the French-Andorran border and is a big ski resort.
The long ascent was ahead of me and the first part was full of water streams, so my feet got wet. Although it was cool, I didn’t mind that as the wet feet tend to dry up pretty quickly when moving. I was feeling good, the ascent was moderately steep, but my legs felt strong and I had no problems going on like that for a long while if needed.
And then it happened. That moment in each race (during Tor des Geants it was Col Loson). You see the light on top, estimate it is not that far and it just sits there. Half an hour later, when you were supposed to have passed that top, it’s still there, not a meter closer. Perhaps even further away. I wasn’t discouraged as I was feeling good and knew how this goes, so it was most amusing, but it still amazes me how the visuals can trick the mind. Pas de les Vaques is the name of the pass and that’s where Mitic joined Ronda again.
Having reached the top, I felt a sudden chill. The fog was rising and then I remembered warnings from the race briefing about this part where it can get pretty cold. It was just before dawn, so it was pretty cold. Luckily, that part was runnable and then it started to descend, so the cold effect didn’t take its toll.
The descent to Vall d’Incles was a big endless blur. Pre-dawn time after the second night, well, it just can’t be easy. I couldn’t wait to get down to aid-station. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, my mind was going crazy, I was seeing shapes in the rocks and couldn’t make it stop. There was no way that I would stop and take a break. That would have meant freezing. After what seemed like an eternity, I saw someone walking in my direction. Someone is waiting for another runner, aid station must be near! As my headlamp allowed me to see, I recognized the trousers. They were the same ones that Katarina wore. Wait, that was her! Yes, finally! I couldn’t be happier, although I still had to stumble a bit until the aid station. I told her that I had to get some sleep, I just couldn’t continue in such condition. I slept for an hour, while she was sitting next to me patiently and probably freezing. While waiting, she also crewed for other runners and helped them get food, water and whatever they needed.
Vall d’Incles (142 km) to Sorteny (158 km)
I left with the first rays of the sun. Katarina told me there were just two climbs left and then it was all downhill. Of course, I knew that, but the way she said it, made it sound like a piece of cake and gave me the courage to get at it.
What’s interesting is that the race road map shows the inclines of ascents and descents and that can be used to gauge how steep they are. But, those inclines are pretty stylized and don’t represent the actual configuration of the terrain. So, what might look like an average climb could be super steep climb followed by a mild climb followed by another steep climb. On average it’s all good, in reality, it’s all bad. That was exactly what was ahead of me.
Anyway, I felt quite strong on this section and even though the climb to Cresta de Cabana Sorda was arguably the steepest one on the course, I kind of enjoyed it, knowing that I’m getting closer to the finish line and that the finish was now a reality.
Descending to Refugi de Coms de Jan, the sun was getting higher and the temperature rose. I enjoyed some watermelon at this aid station and left it quickly. Just one more climb and that’s it. Just get to Collada dels Meners and you’re done. Katarina and I were hiking from Sorteny to Collada dels Meners last year, so I knew that part that I would have to cover in the opposite direction now and I was looking forward to the most spectacular views from Collada dels Meners. OK, it’s not far, just one more climb. The hell it’s not far! The path seemed to stretch further away, the pass moving left to right. Where exactly do we have to go? And then I saw it. First, we needed to descend to ascend. Why didn’t they make a trail from right where we are straight to Collada dels Meners, why do we have to go all the way down? Just one of many similar questions that were floating in my mind. I was closing on a group of runners ahead of me and when the ascent started, I passed all of them, even though I felt I was going slow. Getting to Collada dels Meners was an emotional moment because I knew then and there that I will finish this race. Regardless of that, I always keep focus until the very end and never celebrate before the finish line.
Descent into Sorteny was very quick. I knew this trail, and although it seemed longer than I remembered it, I was practically flying down the mountain. When I spotted Refugi de Sorteny, I couldn’t stop running. The thumb didn’t hurt, the knees were fine, the pain went away, I was running as I had just started. I couldn’t have waited to see Katarina. She was quite surprised to have seen me, coming in so quickly.
Sorteny (158 km) to Ordino (170 km)
I stayed briefly at Sorteny and wanted to get on as soon as possible. We both went on down the trail and that’s when Katarina first told me that I had a fever. At that moment, I realized it too, I was hot and my head was spinning a bit.
Nevermind, there was only 12 km to the finish line, it was all downhill or flat and I could easily walk to the finish, plenty of time left. But, I just couldn’t restrain myself, I started running, first the downhill section, then the flat sections.
The course was now passing through villages and going along the river down to Ordino. I couldn’t believe that I could run, and I mean properly run, after feeling so beaten in the previous two days. Like my strength was waiting for this moment to seize it.
The last two kilometers to Ordino were on the road and I ran all of it. The pain was gone, I was on runner’s high and I just couldn’t stop. Katarina joined me for the last 500 m and after 55:05:25 I crossed the finish line!
Emotions got over me and few tears were shed. I didn’t realize how special this race was for me. Success is proportional to the struggle needed to achieve it. If everything went smoothly, it would have been a good race. But since it didn’t go smoothly and I had to struggle, it turned out to be an exceptional race. People that are not in this sport usually ask what place did you finish? The significance for me is in the race itself, in my inner journey, in ups and downs, in choosing to continue when you don’t want to nor see a reason to continue. That’s the beauty of this sport.
It’s been several weeks since the race and it’s still fresh in my memory. I want to take back whatever I said at Pic Negre about not wanting to see nor hear anything about Andorra ever again. I was in a really bad place. It’s a beautiful country, the race is fantastic with amazing people, organizers, and volunteers. Never say never.
A big thank you to all the supporters and donors for my fundraiser (1265 GBP was raised) and to Compassion in World Farming for standing up for farmed animals.