Introducing the Val D’Aran 100 miler. When it comes to entering 100 mile races around the world, there are plenty to choose from. There are also huge differences between them. The Berlin 100 or the Thames Path 100 are virtually flat, whilst Western States or Lakeland 100, have a decent amount of elevation gain.
Then there are the monsters. Unfortunately, the king of them all, Rhonda del Cims, in Andorra, is no longer with us. It had 13000m of gain and a 62 hour cut off, but became a financial victim of the pandemic. However, plenty remain including Hardrock 100, UTS in Wales, Eunmilak and the Swiss Peaks 170. All on technical trail with over 10000m elevation gain.
How tough a race is, does of course depend on a number of things. How tight are the cut offs? What is the weather like? Are you trying to be competitive or just wanting to finish? A flat 100 will be punishing if you run hard the whole way.
However, I think most people would agree that if you are looking at running your first 100, you would rather steer clear of anything too technical with too much elevation. Because perhaps they are seen as being ‘harder’ to complete.
Ladies and gentlemen may I introduce a newcomer to the monster class of 100 mile races. Welcome to the stage, the Val D’Aran 100 by UTMB. Over 10000 metres of elevation gain in the Pyrenees with a 48 hour cut off and some of the gnarliest terrain you are likely to come across.
I had entered back in 2019 for one reason and one reason only. For one year only, those who completed Val D’Aran would be given automatic entry to the full UTMB 100 mile race in Chamonix, without having to go through the ballot process. Of course due to the pandemic the 2020 race was cancelled and we were all deferred to 2021.
It certainly wasn’t a straightforward or cheap process to get out to Spain for the 2021 edition. Paying for the various covid tests, signing all the necessary forms and dealing with last minute cancelled flights all added to the stress. I eventually ended up taking a ferry across the Channel at 9am and driving all the way down through France to Spain. Listening to the England vs Denmark Euro 2020 match on the radio passed some of the time. There were no border checks crossing from France into Spain and I was parked up in Vielha by around 2am.
I spent the next day exploring the town. I collected by race bib and purchased one or two items from the very small expo. One purchase would prove to be extremely useful and would save me from a rather excruciating DNF. For 60 euros I bought two Salomon soft flasks with water filters. I knew there would be rivers and water sources en route and that it was due to be very hot during the course of the race. So being able to drink safely from the mountain run off would most likely be of great benefit.
I was very pleased that I had arrived a day early as it gave me a good amount of time to catch up on sleep. I slept in as long as I could on the day of the race and made sure I did as little as possible.
Nerves obviously kicked in during the day and it took me a good portion of the day to knuckle down and get my kit ready. No mandatory kit checks for this race, which was very odd considering the nature of the event. They said there might be random kit checks en route.
With my kit packed and camera at the ready I headed for the start line around an hour before kick off. I had to take my drop bag to HQ first and found that many people were lying in the shade outside. HQ was literally a few tens of metres from the start line in this small town. I sat with other nervous faces for half an hour out of the blazing heat of the afternoon sun before making my way to the sound of Eoin’s voice over the microphone.
Eoin Flynn’s voice is that of UTMB legend and I’m happy to say he has become a friend of mine over recent months. He lives in Gran Canaria but is an ever present at almost all of the major running events in France and Spain, particularly UTMB races.
In typical UTMB style, the beginning of the Val D’Aran was hyped to bring us to a frenzy of excitement. Some classic tunes filled the air, such as Thunderstruck by AC/DC, which they have stolen from the start of Transvulcania, and of course the main UTMB theme by Vangelis, Conquest of Paradise.
I must admit I do get sucked in to the hype. I love it. Sometimes I get a bit emotional. I think this time I was too focussed and nervous to let the emotion get through. The job for today and the next 40 odd hours was clear. Just get to the finish line. Forget racing, forget times. Just make each cut off and cross the line within 48 hours and get my guaranteed entry for UTMB 2022.
The countdown reached zero and the front runners sped off. I was somewhat further back in what was a much larger field of runners than I had expected. Vielha had been relatively quiet in the two days leading up to the race. Now, not only were there hundreds of runners on the start line but hundreds lining the streets to cheer us off as well! Where had all these people come from?
At 6pm we were off and immediately out of the town we started climbing. As is usual with UTMB events it was a bit of a cattle market with so many runners trying to move on single track. So it was that about 4km in we came to a complete standstill. Not for a few seconds or even a few minutes. We were literally stood still for around 20 minutes as the 970 runners filtered through a particularly narrow section. The back markers in the yellow jackets were right behind us as we eventually started moving again.
I was already nervous about making the first cut off, which seemed to be the tightest of them all. This made things even more hairy. However at 15 kilometres we reached the top of the first climb as the sun was setting, and were greeted with the most spectacular view of mainland Spain’s highest peak, Aneto. Jonathan Burnhams was at the top with me and introduced himself saying he recognised my voice from YouTube.
Then it was down the other side away from Aneto into the night and on to the first main checkpoint. We had to be at 30km, Artiga de Lin by 1:15am in order to continue in the race. At this point I made a ridiculous decision. I knew the light was fading and I knew at some point I would have to put my head torch on. However, for some reason I resisted doing it as long as I possibly could. To the point where it was pitch dark and I was following the runner in front using his head torch because I was too stubborn to stop and put my own on.
I was trying to reach the next aid station which I was convinced I could get to before it was totally dark. I was wrong. Anyway, luckily I made it to said aid station in one piece and finally put my head torch on.
Runners were still very much a train as we eventually rolled into the first cut off checkpoint. We made it with a good 30 minutes to spare and I breathed the first sigh of relief. From here cut offs should get a little further away each time.
Being the height of summer the night section was not too long and it was warm enough to manage without changing into long trousers or waterproofs. I spent the night climbing and descending our second major peak of the race and made it into Bossott, the lowest point in the race, in good time.
By now I was beginning to worry a little about my quads. I could already feel they were under strain and I was concerned they would blow out on my during a descent, leaving me unable to even walk downhill, let alone run. I resolved to be very careful and to use my poles as much as possible to minimise impact on descents.
I was eating well from the aid stations. Bread, cheese, soup, and Tango fizzy drink was going down very well as well! The day began to heat up and the views were awesome. I was definitely tired at 70km as we started the longest climb of the race.
A 1500m ascent which took most of the day. The good thing about high mountain races is there is nearly always a water supply not far away. And so it was here. Plenty of streams coming down off the high peaks. Many of us stopped on numerous occasions to fill water bottles and cover ourselves with cold water as we continued the long, slow climb.
Most of this climb was technical without being impossible. There were some ‘close to the edge’ moments but the views made it worth the fear! Such a beautiful waterfall towards the top of this climb but a deep valley between us and it and a rather narrow path up the side.
Reaching the top we were greeted with the old mine buildings and much rusted equipment once used to extract iron and zinc from these peaks. There was also some snow in patches and I took the opportunity to use my neck bandana. I filled it to the brim with snow and that lasted me all the way down the other side keeping me cool as I went.
This was an amazing section of the course with the most scary section as we followed the old mine railway along the side of the mountain and through small tunnels. I was being careful to watch my step as the drop to the right would not have been pleasant had I slipped.
I eventually made it to a spectacular pass where an official was on hand to scan our timing chips. We then made the descent to Montgarri and on to the drop bag stop at Berret.
Unfortunately getting to Berret seemed to take forever and it was getting darker and colder as clouds started covering the mountains. I was very tired and began to feel a little despondent, knowing I still had 40 miles to go, another night to get through and at least three enormous climbs still to negotiate.
I just about reached my drop bag in the daylight but I was becoming seriously miserable. I sat feeling sorry for myself for a while before I decided to phone home. I told Victoria I really wanted to drop out. I knew what her response would be. She is not one to say, ‘do whatever you feel is right. I’ll support you whatever your decision’. Victoria doesn’t work that way. Her words were more akin to ‘you are not dropping. You can do this and you know you can. Have some food and get out there’.
I guess it’s what I needed to hear. My daughter also had a word with me and with that I had no choice but to carry on. I changed my socks and my top and put on my waterproofs. I had assumed the night was about to get pretty cold.
As I left I heard two English voices up ahead and hurried to catch up. I was introduced to Paul Ramsden and Paul Milligan and sticking with them through the first few kilometres of the second night definitely helped to get me going again. They were a bit quick for me on the climb out of the next aid station, but I was ok by then and carried on at my own pace.
Far from being cold I found than I had to start removing layers as the night wore on as it was nowhere near as cold as it had threatened to be earlier. However, I had started to notice my stomach feeling a little queasy. I had also noticed a few runners throwing up and looking non too healthy at this stage. I ended up retching a few times but wasn’t able to bring anything significant up and I didn’t actually feel too bad. I was just aware my stomach wasn’t quite right.
The second last major climb brought us through the night and into the final day. This was the most technical and arduous climb of the race and made a few of us worry, just a little, about making the final cut off. It was taking an age to negotiate. There were more stunning views at this highest point of the race and we were serenaded by a trumpet player at the top of the climb.
As it was I made the final cut off checkpoint at Ressec with an hour to spare. Once there though, I suddenly realised how hot it actually was. It was absolutely sweltering. A very kind volunteer offered my some factor 50 suncream for the final section, which I gratefully accepted. I also took my shirt off and dunked it fully in water before heading off for the final 10 miles.
By now I knew I would finish and I took the final climb slowly and tried to enjoy the scenery and the experience. There was one aid station in the middle of this final section. It was nestled in the valley and accessed after a very steep descent. I didn’t spend very long there at all as I knew there was one small climb still to do before the finish.
I should have known by now that nothing in this race is simple. From what I had understood, the final climb was short and simple, out of the valley and then down into Vielha. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Climb was in fact easily another 500-600 metres and was incredibly steep. Some of the steepest climbing of the entire race. It was an absolute killer of an extra bit at the end which I had not accounted for. But, apart from being steep, it wasn’t overly technical and once we reached the top, the run down to Vielha was easy.
My quads had long since given up the ghost, but sometimes when you have no choice, you simply get on with it. I think that’s what my quads decided amongst themselves. “He’s not giving in so we may as well just play ball until the end”. I certainly couldn’t run properly down to the finish, but I shuffled along at more than walking pace! It was still boiling hot and I stopped twice on the descent to throw water over myself from taps in farmer’s fields.
I could hear Eoin’s voice on the mic from way up in the forest before I got to Vielha. There was one timing mat to cross on the outskirts of the town and then the final shuffle to the finish line. It was a nice idea to have a huge bell hanging under the finish arch, which each finisher had to ring as they crossed the line.
Eoin was kind enough to grab the mic and come and talk to me briefly and then translate into Spanish for the small crowd still remaining at the finish. The winning runner had crossed the line 23 hours earlier in just under 24 hours. I finished in 46 hours 50 minutes. Just an hour and 10 minutes before the cut off.
However, as I said, the goal here was to look after myself and make sure I crossed the finish line in order to get my place at UTMB for 2022. Hopefully I can put in a good block of training and do myself justice there.
Before that though I have Chamonix 2021 to get through. I DNF’d TDS in 2019 so this will be my revenge. Essentially we can look at Val D’Aran as a good training run for TDS!!
Despite taking it as easy as I could and despite being very slow, this was without question the hardest race I have ever done. Sure I have done 100 miles a few times now and I have run on technical mountain terrain a few times too. But the severity of some of the terrain, the altitude, the distance and the steepness of the climbs combined, gives Val D’Aran the edge as my toughest challenge yet.
Immediately afterwards I said, never again. But of course a few days later and here I am thinking it might be worth another go. There will be no grand prize next time. The offer of a guaranteed place at UTMB was a one time offer only. So next time, if there is one, it will be for the glory alone.
I have to say I am absolutely delighted to have finished. I am very grateful to Victoria and Elsa for giving me a push when I was down and for the two Pauls who dragged me along not realising how they were saving me from a possible DNF. I got it done that’s all we can hope for sometimes.
Interestingly, after the race news filtered through that a large number of runners had suffered severe stomach upset during and after the race. So much so that the organising committee launched an investigation. I filled out a questionnaire explaining the stomach issues that I had had. Remember I purchased some filtered water bottles at the expo prior to the race and so I did not drink as much unfiltered water from the mountain streams as some others.
It was later confirmed that the source of the problems seemed to be high levels of ferrous in the water coming down from the old iron mines on the high peaks. As I suspected. My GP suggested it was down to people using the aid stations but not washing their hands correctly. But I knew it wasn’t that as, if that were the case, it would happen at every single trail race in the world on a much more regular basis. No, it had to be contaminated water from the old metal mines, and so it proved.
I am sure that next year UTMB will make it very clear not to drink unfiltered water from the rivers. I’m so glad I purchased those bottles as they almost certainly saved my race. Furthermore the bandana which I filled with snow was also a lifesaver in that heat.
I would love to go back and give this monster another go. Amazing views, gruelling climbs and 47 hours I will never forget.