TRAIL RUNNING SPAIN: GRAN TRAIL PEÑALARA 110km/D+5.500m Race report by Casey Morgan.
Trail running in Spain this 2013 is becoming ever larger and better organized. The fifth edition of Gran Trail Peñalara has meant a giant leap forward: From 391 finishers in 2012 to 1.073 in 2013. Faster times as well, with top100 marks coming down from 22h37m to 21h55m. Among the runners involved, well known names such as Nerea Martínez on a guest star role, and illustrious veterans such as John Tidd or Salvador Calvo. Casey Morgan, from Scotland shares here his race report after leading the race to the 92km mark, where he was forced to drop off due to a knee injury suffered at km15.
Results Gran Trail Peñalara 2013 GTP110km 29Jun13. 292 finishers.
Results Gran Trail Peñalara 2013 GTP 80km 29Jun13 116 finishers
Results Gran Trail Peñalara 2013 GTP 60km 29Jun13 347 finishers
Results Cross Nocturno Navacerrada 10k 2013 29Jun13 318 finishers
Gran Trail Peñalara 2013. Race report by Casey Morgan.
The Gran Trail Peñalara was never part of my plans for this year but after breaking my ankle in the Ultra trail Serra de Tramuntana in April, I wanted to find another long race before the Swiss Irontrail in August. Fortunately I didn’t have to try very hard to find a race as I received a message from Sergio Mayayo inviting me to Navacerrada to tackle the Gran Trail. The race came at the perfect time for me being 6 weeks out from the Swiss race and also gave me the opportunity to catch up with friends Sergio, Ana and Celeste, all of whom I had met at this year’s Trans Gran Canaria.
As the GTP is very close to Madrid at the end of June my main concern about the race was the temperature. When I checked the temperatures for this time of year I discovered that 35 degrees and more was a possibility, very very hot for a Scotsman!!! I immediately arranged to travel to Mallorca for a week before the race to train in the sun and allow my body to adapt. I love the Tramuntana mountains and the people of Mallorca and after my week on the island I arrived in Madrid feeling fit, relaxed, heat acclimated and most importantly, ready to race.
I arrived in Madrid on the Wednesday night before the race and spent Thursday morning and early afternoon sightseeing in the city. It’s a very beautiful place. Mid afternoon I met Juan, an army colleague of my friends from the Palma Light Infantry. Juan has a 4 month old pet wolf and had kindly agreed to take me to meet him. What an experience!! The wolf is called Zato, after the great Emile Zatopeck and runs just as well. It was incredible to be moving through the woods on a trail with a wolf, I only wish I could run as well as him!
By Thursday night it was time to start thinking about the race. I met up with Celeste at the airport where we were collected by Ana. We travelled into the mountains to spend the night with Ana and Sergio Mayayo at their home along with Mikel Leal, a Basque runner who I immediately liked, he was full of life and made a great Spanish omellette! Sergio lives very close to the race route and knows the mountains very well so we spoke about the course in detail, where the race could be won and lost, who the main contenders were and what their strengths and weaknesses were.
Sergio is a great guy to have in your corner. he lives and breathes the sport and is very knowledgeable so I really appreciated the advice. As is always the way in Spain, we ate late and spent some time talking so it was pretty late by the time we went to bed. It’s pretty common to have problems sleeping the night before a big race but I was out like a light and didn’t move until the birds woke me in the morning.
We had some breakfast, planned the day then Celeste, Mikel and I headed into Navacerrada to have a look around. It’s a beautiful place. I was really surprised at how green everything was. I had always imagined Madrid and it’s surroundings to be extremely dry and dusty but I was the opposite. The mountains were beautiful, a lot like the West Highlands in Scotland with huge granite formations but twice as high, the race would go over 2400m.
We relaxed around the start area, had some photos taken, chatted with other runners and the race organisers and had some lunch. These are the hours I always find the most difficult, my mind is always on the 101 things I have to do between that moment and being on the start line. Everyone seems very relaxed but inside they are probably just as distracted as me. We picked up our race numbers around 4.30, had some food then prepared everything we needed for the race.
At 6.30 I got into bed for a couple of hours, I couldn’t sleep but I just relaxed my mind and body, listened to some music and prepared myself mentally for what was to come. It was an 11 o’clock start so I had my last meal at 8.30, showered, taped both of my ankles and got into my race kit. I felt very good. I knew from my time in the Tramuntana that I was coming into some good form, I was healthy, relaxed and extremely motivated for the race. On the 10 minute drive to the race start I could feel my heart beating hard, not fast, but hard, like the adrenaline was already flowing. It was a nice feeling, calm but ready. It’s always a great feeling to get to the start line of a big race, there’s nothing left to think about or become anxious about other than the race itself so, for me, theres’ always a real feeling of relief.
The start area was in the centre of the village square surrounded by bars and restaurants full of people and they had a big PA system pumping out music with an MC building the atmosphere. The spanish do this sort of thing so well and we could certainly learn a lot from them in the UK when it comes to generating an atmosphere around a race. Before long we were through the kit check and standing on the start line where I met another friend, John Tidd, an American ultra running legend. We chatted about our plans for the race but, as always, nobody says “I feel great and really up for this” instead we exchanged the usual list of reasons why today we’d be going slow, all part of the dance! It was great to see him.
So on the stroke of 11pm it was time for action, I always position myself at the very front of these European races because a lot of the Europeans run with trekking poles which can be pretty dangerous in a mass start. We left the fiesta of the village under police escort winding our way slowly uphill on tarmac then forest road for a few kms until we reached the foot of the first mountain, Maliciosa, a 2227m peak. At this stage I was at the front of the race with 2 other runners and already we had a gap of around 30 seconds back to the second group but i was concerned that the pace was too high so early in a 110km race so I slowed down and waited for the second group.
I really enjoy racing through the night, every now and again when you’re winding your way up a mountain you catch a glimpse of all the head torches lining the mountain. Even at close to midnight the temperature was still over 20 degrees and it was a relief as we climbed higher as the temperature began to drop. One thing that wasn’t dropping was the pace, the second group were moving pretty quickly too and I allowed them to move past me and open up a little gap. At around 1900m I was joined by Pedro Bianco from Argentina, we ran together for the remainder of the climb and his mantra was “calma, calma” Keep calm. He certainly had the right approach and we came over the top of the climb together in around 10th position.
On the descent we were very quickly back in the second group and going down at a very relaxed pace, protecting our quads for the many ups and downs still to come. Around half way down this descent, maybe 14km into the race I was adjusting my head torch and accidentally kicked a rock or branch or something and tripped over, it was a nothing fall really and I was back on my feet and running immediately with what I thought were just a couple of scrapes and bruises, nothing unusual, it wasn’t until I arrived at the first feeding station at 18km that I discovered the extent of the damage. My right knee was cut badly, a very deep gash and i was losing a lot of blood. As the other runners left the feeding station I was sitting in a chair while the doctor cleaned and closed the wound, a more painful experience than the fall!
To my great surprise, Juan, the owner of the wolf and his friend Patrick had come out to this feeding station to give me support which was a great boost and a welcome distraction while the doctor attacked me, I mean fixed me. I eventually started moving again 6 or 7 minutes after the other guys had left. I was still moving well and despite some stiffness the knee felt ok so I quickly put it out of my mind and focussed on the race. From the feeding station it was a 5km climb up to Dehesilla Pass at 1458km. I caught sight of the second group again and quickly caught them on the descent into the next feed at the 26km point at Hoya de San Blas.
Again I had the wound cleaned and closed as it had burst open again on the descent and was bleeding heavily but the others were taking a lot of time eating and filling their bottles so I didn’t lose much time. From here it was an 8km climb to Morcuera Pass at around 1800m. By now the temperature was perfect and I was feeling really good so before long I found myself alone in 3rd position and just moving at an easy pace focussing on eating and drinking well and doing all the right things to make sure I would be strong for later in the day. Just before the summit of the Morcuera Pass I caught the leaders who seemed to have lost a lot of the zip they had in their legs in the early stages. We ate together at the feeding station where the volunteers asked me “are you not cold in just a vest?”. This was Madrid in June, I was sweating!!
From Morcuera Pass It was a long descent of around 12km and then some flat running to Rascafria. By the bottom of the descent I was alone in the lead and reached the checkpoint at Rascafria feeling good, fresh and looking forward to the second half of the race. I had my drop bag at Rascafria with my gels and bars to last me for the second half along with sunblock, the locals were certainly looking a little surprised as I applied the factor 30 at 5.30 in the morning.
I left the feeding station just as the 2nd placed runner was arriving and made my way towards the climb of Peñalara, the high point of the race at 2400m. I was climbing very well as I made my way up the lower slopes through the forest and as I got a little higher the first signs of daylight appeared over the mountains. I switched off my head torch and enjoyed the most spectacular sunrise you could imagine, it was just breathtaking, a moment that will live with me for a long, long time, leading the race, feeling strong and moving well.
The climb up to Peñalara is very runnable, I didn’t break stride the whole way up to the feeding station at Reventon Pass at 63km and 2037m. By now it was daylight and the views were just spectacular. From here it was another 7km to the summit with the last 2km involving some very technical sections across boulder fields with a little rock climbing just for good measure. From up there I could see for a long way back down the mountain and there was no sign of any of the other runners so I knew I had a good gap and just ran very relaxed. The final little climb up onto the summit was great, there were quite a few people on the summit already and a couple of mountain goats. It was the first time I’ve been so close to mountain goats while they descend and it’s incredible to see the speed they can run down a mountain, I still think my teammate Tom Owens would be faster mind you! I enjoyed the views from the summit for a second and then began the descent.
The first couple of kms are very technical across a boulder field and I just took my time to avoid any accidents. It was at this stage that my knee began to present problems. It was becoming very painful going down and now that it was daylight i could see how deep the wound was, through to the bone and bleeding a lot. It was becoming more and more painful the more I descended but I tried to think about other things and just get down as quickly as possible.
Once I got down to flatter terrain it was a lot better and I could run freely again through a beautiful forest, again it was just like running in Scotland, I felt very much at home. There was a particularly steep section on the way down to Granja, the town where the 80km race would finish and the next feed station. It was at this point that I knew I was really in trouble, even walking down the slope was extremely painful on the knee. The last thing I wanted to do was stop because I was feeling great other than the knee and I still had a very big lead. The last couple of kms into the 80km point were flat so again I could move well and decided to continue the race. The 80km race started at the same time as the 110km race and followed exactly the same route and as I arrived there about an hour before the official winner I’m claiming the win!!!
I had the knee cleaned here again and headed off towards the finish, determined to tough it out for the final 30km because I knew there was a good amount of climbing and flat running and so far I’d been ok on both. Within a km or 2 of leaving the feeding station I knew my race was over, even going down a tiny slope the pain was too much and the final 10km were all down hill. It would be impossible. To have to drop out of a race is bad enough but to have to do it from the position I was in was really tough to take. The next feed station was at 92km so I walked and jogged to there where I officially dropped out and was driven back to the finish. Everybody was very supportive and complimentary of my race but inside I was hurting and even now, sitting at home in Scotland, it’s still hard to accept but I know I didn’t have a choice.
At the finish Celeste was a great help and i’m glad she was there. After having the wound cleaned again I had a sleep and then came back to the finish to cheer the other runners. The race was eventually won by Pedro Bianco and if anyone else was to win, I’m glad it was him. He was a really nice guy and he ran a very smart race. Enhorabuena Pedro!
It’s safe to say I’ll be back next year to finish what I started. It’s a tough sport and a cruel sport but I’m glad it’s my sport. Thanks so much to Mayayo for the opportunity and all of the people I met along the way.
FURTHER INFO ABOUT TRAIL RUNNING IN SPAIN.