Friday, November 30, 2012

The Montserrat Pirate Marathon

IV Marató Pirata de Montserrat

It was getting to the end of our trip, but we still had at least one adventure to come.  Xavier, a Catalan runner  I'd been put in touch with for information about the Camí dels Bons Homes, had mentioned that his running team was organizing a "pirate marathon" (a free, loosely-organized, non-race event) at Montserrat, a mountain about 45 minutes northwest of Barcelona, for the day before our flight left.  He kindly invited us to join, and Divesh, Carles, and I decided that sounded like a pretty good idea.

Xavier's team are called the Koalas, apparently named after the founder being told that he ran like a koala.  This meant it was an appropriate event for Divesh, who has been told that he climbs like a drunk koala.

The Koalas and their friends are good at running, but also at putting on parties, eating, and drinking.  About 30 runners, including us, met up in a restaurant on Friday night around 10pm for dinner and drinks.  The friendliness and enthusiasm in the room was incredibly impressive.  The group reminded me of our little network of Midwestern runners, only with more decibels and a significantly more relaxed approach to sleeping and hydrating.  While many runners stayed up all night and then went straight out for the marathon, Carles and Divesh and I were in the group of weaklings who retreated to a hotel around 1 am for a few hours of sleep.

The idea for the marathon was to have lots of differently-paced groups start at different times, with the slowest starting first, then the next-fastest, etc., so that everyone would end around the same time.  This was key, because there was an impressive after-run lunch that nobody would want to miss.  Carles and Divesh and I went with one of the middle groups, which started at 5 a.m. and was supposed to take 8 hours to finish.  The description of the pace said it would involve plenty of walking and photo stops, so I figured that no matter how hard the mountain trails were, 8 hours to finish a marathon was plenty...

Our group met up at the start just before 5 a.m., got a course briefing (unless my Catalan failed me, the main navigational message was "Don't get lost.  If you get lost, you're doomed.") and set off.  What followed was some of the most crazy, but also most fun, 8.5 hours of running I've ever done.  Each group had a couple of guides who knew where they were going, but the rest of us had no clue, so everyone, which was about 30 people, had to stay together.  This meant a frantic, headless-chicken type scramble not to get behind, which was a little tricky when we unexpectedly set off at 8 minute miles in the dark.

The first trip up the mountain was a bit of a shock.  It went on for miles, on steep, technical ground.  It was now all too evident why it was going to take us 8 hours to finish this thing.  Fortunately, once it started getting light, the views provided plenty of distraction from the hard work.

As good as the views were, the people were even better.  Your legs can only hurt so much when you're surrounded by such nice people.

Photo from Senglar's team

And my legs did hurt.  The headless-chicken style of run continued for pretty much the entire time, especially when the guys in the photo above (who I was not about to lose, since they knew where they were going) took off like they were running a 10k... this was one fast bunch of runners!

This is where I unfortunately have to give some bad news to Minnesota runners.  We may pride ourselves on how great our aid stations are, but we are in fact being seriously outdone by the Catalans.  Exhibit A:

This is a sample of aid station food, including fresh baguettes, spread with high-quality olive oil, and various types of Spanish ham.  What I unfortunately didn't manage to capture in this shot is the pot of chocolate fondue with fruit for dipping.  Or the beer.

Exhibit B is the next aid station.  When we got there, there was a long line leading to a table.  We couldn't figure out what the line was for--water?  Coke?  No, of course not.  It was for face-painting, rum, mini golf, and hopscotch.  Because what else would you have at mile 22?

After this aid station, it was "just" one brutal trip up and down the mountain again, and we were home.  We were met with food, more beer, and a group trip to a buffet.  I don't think the buffet owners knew what hit them when 100 runners, who had just been out running up and down a mountain for 6 to 12 hours, descended on their restaurant!

I was telling Xavier on Friday night that with all the great people in both of our respective running groups (the Minnesota/honorary Minnesotan runners, and the Barcelona-area runners), it would be great to do a runner exchange, with some runners from here going to one of their races and vice versa.  Keep this in mind and I'll post more about future developments!

Home Away From Home

Climbing and Running in the Montsant area:  
Siurana, Margalef, and the Montsant national park


The village of Cornudella de Montsant doesn't feel like home to me in the way some places do, but it's one of my very favorite places in the world.  The village itself is old and small, in a good way:  life moves slowly and you can't help but relax.  You never know when exactly the shops are going to be open, and the primary source of village news appears to be the 1940s-style megaphone that periodically blasts out upbeat nationalistic tunes and information.  From the village, in just a few minutes, you can run for hours on some of the best trails of anywhere, or you can go sport climbing at two world-class crags, Siurana and Margalef.  And the local wine and olives are excellent.  What more could a person want?  If only someone would open a decent restaurant nearby, it'd be paradise...


This trip, I was climbing (much) less and running more, so even though there were no satisfying ticks, there were still nice days at the crag.  Maria and I spent a good amount of time exploring the Montsant trails and found some great ones.

Divesh did an impressive amount of climbing for someone who doesn't even have a local climbing wall to train on, and somehow found some extra energy to run to the top of Montsant with me one evening.  I didn't bring a camera on that run, which I really regretted because it turned out to be one of the most scenic runs of the trip--the trail wound its way along the top of the crag, with the entire crag lit up in the late-evening light.  The route is definitely going on the list for a repeat visit next trip.

Fortunately, there is a certain next trip.  I learned from Carles that there's a 100k on the Montsant trails in October, called the Ultra Trail Serra de Montsant.  It immediately went on my calendar for next year!  My climber friend Michael has more or less agreed (we'll call it more) to run it too, so I sense a long, running/climbing trip in the works...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Introduction

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):

A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

**Edit:  I decided to reorder these posts to go from first to last chronologically, instead of in reverse order as they appear by default on the blog.  I think it makes it a lot easier to read them this way, but let me know if you think it's worse...

For me, November is usually all about sport climbing in Catalunya.  Or it was, until I stopped doing much climbing over the past two years.  I still planned a trip for this November, but with my friend Dave (my usual Spanish sport climbing partner) injured, my other Spanish climbing partners busy, Divesh having only one week of vacation from work, and me out of shape, it was clearly not going to be the usual type of trip.

"Unusual" worked out okay.  Maria was able to get away from work for 10 days and we made a plan to spend the first week of the trip running in the Pyrenees...somewhere.  It was the "where" part that we weren't exactly sure about, even up to less than a week before the trip.  Luckily, Bryon of irunfar put me in touch with his Catalan friend Xavier, who turned out to be an extremely friendly goldmine of information.  He suggested the Camí dels Bons Homes, a trail that runs north-south from northern Catalunya to southern France.  The idea behind the trail's creation was to follow the route the Cathars took in escaping French persecution in the 13th century.  And although it goes over the Pyrenees, it generally heads over lower passes than some of the other trails in the area, so it was likely to not be snowed under even in November.  It looked good, a little too good--I was too excited to sleep for a few days before we left!

After getting into Barcelona on Saturday morning, Maria and I met my friend Carles in town and bought a guidebook for the trail at a wonderful bookshop called Altair that I could have spent hours in.  All three of us then drove up to Berga, the small town nearest to the start of the trail.  It was mostly dark by the time we got there and it was more than a little unnerving to see the outlines of tall, steep, cloud-shrouded mountains, including the lights of the hermitage where the run started...with the lights being FAR above the town.  

We had a good, if somewhat nervous, dinner at a restaurant in Berga and were treated to our first lesson in why the Catalans are so good at mountain running:  the restaurant was showing ultrarunning on its television!  Can you imagine anywhere in the US where people would value ultrarunning enough to put it on the television of a non-runner-oriented bar or restaurant?

And, on that inspirational note, we were ready to begin the adventure...


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 1

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):
A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 1:  Berga (Queralt sanctuary) to Gósol, approx. 22 miles

We had an ignominious start to our big run.  Maria was chased out of the hotel breakfast room (it was apparently too early), we were ignored by a large group of heavily lycra-clad mountain bikers in the hotel lobby, and we took a taxi from the hotel to the trailhead!  It was either that or an uphill hour-long walk; Maria and Carles both knew how I feel about unnecessary walking.  

After being dropped off at the Queralt sanctuary and spending a good few minutes hunting around for the exact location of the trailhead, we started running.  Carles was perturbed that we were planning to run fast enough to be taking our jackets off, and, in typical Carles-sandbag-style, he claimed that when he goes for a training run in the mountains, he "dresses like a pro" but "mostly goes for a walk."  Apparently this strategy has served him well, since he's finished both the Arrowhead 135 (many times) and the Badwater 135 with his patented marxa atlètica.

The first few miles involved perfect running on smooth, non-technical singletrack.  

There was lots of fog at first, but also friendly cows, friendly gossos (dogs), and forests. 

I was able to drool over some good-looking crags, many of which weren't even developed for climbing, which seemed horribly unfair considering they would have all been the best crags in Wisconsin.

The trail and scenery changed often over the course of this day.  We covered everything from forested singletrack to rocky ascents to dirt road. 

We had one bigger, long climb of about 600m during which Maria gave us both ridiculous trail names...

Other than the one longer ascent, it was mostly small hills in this day's section of the route.  The only part of the section that we didn't like was the last stretch before the village of Gósol, which mostly involved muddy cowpaths through forests and cowfields.  But, soon enough (okay, not very soon, the day's run took us nearly 6.5 hours!) we were at the hotel in Gósol, our stopping point for the day.

We had decided to run the route in stages, and also to stay at hotels each night so we wouldn't have to run with sleeping bags or camping gear.  It was definitely the most pleasant way to see the route; a non-stop ultra style run would have meant missing out on much of the best scenery during the nights!

After a nice lunch and welcome hot showers, Carles had to drive back to Barcelona, and Maria and I spent the afternoon napping (her) and reading the paper for lack of being able to sleep (me).  This was followed up by what turned out to be the best dinner of the run: salad, a massive bowl of escudella, perfect tortilla de patatas, and plenty of good wine.  After all, we wouldn't want to have burned any net calories, right?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 2

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):
A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 2:  Gósol to Bellver de Cerdanya, approx. 30 miles

Day 2 started with some very stiff legs trying to trot up a very steep hill.  The climb out of Gósol is not too long but packs a significant punch, especially at 7:30 a.m. after not very much sleep and not much in the way of breakfast.  Fortunately it ends in some of the very best running of the route:  a ribbon of perfect singletrack across the side of the mountain, high above the valley.  My photos don't even remotely do this section justice (click on them to enlarge), but you can at least get the idea:

We were a bit nervous about the navigation at this point because Carles had been our guidebook reader and navigator the day before, and now he was gone and we were left on our own with the all-Catalan guidebook.  Between the two of us we understood most of what it said, but there were some gaps in our knowledge.  For example, the guidebook ominously referred to a section with lots of "fang," as in, "Be careful here, there is a lot of fang."  We didn't know what this was at the time but we assumed it couldn't be good and liked to periodically remind each other "Watch out for the fangs!"  (Carles later informed us that it means mud.)

When we got to the top of the first pass, after the beautiful singletrack section, it was suddenly winter.

Unfortunately the trail went onto this dirt road here, and we had to do a steep 6-mile descent all on hard-packed road--ouch.  At the bottom of the road was Bagà, which is the town where, for ultrarunning fans, the Cavalls del Vent race starts and finishes.  For food fans, they also have a fine bakery, which we took full advantage of.

We left Bagà a little after 1 pm, which meant we were going to be cutting it pretty close as to whether or not we'd make it to our planned destination before dark.  Maria noted that it possibly would have been sensible to stop in Bagà, considering that it got dark around 5:30 and we would have almost twice as much climbing to do in the second half of the day as in the first.  I claimed without any supporting facts that we'd be fine, and we set off again.

After a few km on the road, the trail turned colorful and foresty as we made our way up about 1,000m of elevation gain over 12km.

The views from the top of the pass were pretty spectacular:

Alas, even 12km of uphill hadn't been enough for our quads to recover from the earlier big descent, and the run down the other side of the pass was fairly painful.  We had to race the clock a bit to get down before dark, but we made it with maybe 15 minutes to spare.  We were relieved to see a hotel right at the entrance to the village, which in fact turned out to be not technically Bellver but rather an even smaller "suburb."  The hotel, the Cal Rei, was perfect and came complete with friendly gossos, a friendly owner, books to read, and a good hotel restaurant which served almost entirely local food.

At night Maria forced us to take ice baths, which, while painful, may have helped, since we both felt significantly less sore the next day.  There may be inconclusive research on whether ice baths work but so far, on anecdotal experience, I'm ready to conclude that they do!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 3

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):
A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 3:  Bellver de Cerdanya to Porta, approx. 23 miles

It was the big day:  the border crossing day!  We were going over La Portella Blanca, which is right at the edge of Spain, France, and Andorra.  Once the trail crosses La Portella Blanca, you descend into France and end up in the very small village of Porta.

In the morning we said goodbye to our new dog friends and pocketed some packets of Crembo, an offbrand of Nutella, from the hotel breakfast, as emergency food rations in case anything should go horribly wrong on the run, and left Bellver.

Of course, border crossing day unsurprisingly came in conjunction with "really big mountain" day.  We had to do a long climb of about 1500 metres, which was mostly contained in the last 10k or so before the border.  I was nervous for most of the morning because there were some storm clouds heading our way and we expected the climb to take a long time.  We were also potentially going to end up right at the top of the peak around the time it got dark...

In the end, it didn't actually take that long--we must have finally been getting into mountain shape.  We did have to cross the Bridge de Fusta de Muerte at one point, though we were rewarded just afterwards by a herd of cows crossing the path; Maria got a quality video of this.

We loved the trail on the main part of the ascent:

On the way up to the steepest part of the border crossing, there was a largely-but-not-entirely decomposed dead cow in a stream.  A bad omen for what was to come?  We wondered whether we'd be joining the cow carcass if there was a lot of snow on the descent into France.

After a steep last uphill, we made it to the border!

We had thought we were suffering on the long ascent to the border crossing, but after the start of the descent, we realized how wrong we'd been.  *This* was suffering.  In the bullet point format in which we later wrote things down, the problems with France included:

Bogs.  Too many rocks.  Lack of defined trail.  Water everywhere causing wet shoes.  Mean ponies.  A rock bridge that we initially gave the French credit for building but which later turned out to have formed naturally.  Zonas de fang, lots of them.  False bottoms to the descents.  We couldn't see the village we were trying to get to until we were 5 minutes away.  Horrible steep rock road to descend.

In other words, we were not big fans of the French side of the trail.

We eventually made it to Porta and got a room in the village's only hotel, which also contained the village's only bar, the village's only cafe, and the village's only restaurant.  Despite it being about 5 degrees C at this point, none of the above had any heat.  Our room was mostly reminiscent of a prison cell.  The hotel owners were at least friendly, and the dinner was fairly good if not quite big enough for how hungry we were.  We ate, listened to a few podcasts, and curled up in bed wearing all the clothes we had with us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 4

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):

A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 4:  Porta to L'Hospitalet, approx. 7 miles

The start of day 4 fully confirmed our feelings about the French side of the trail.  There was no food to be found in Porta, so we set off without any breakfast (we could have had breakfast at the hotel, but we had turned it down as it was expensive and we were thinking we'd find a cafe instead).

                                Porta.  Looks nice, right?  Looks can be deceiving.

The part of the trail out of Porta was, for lack of a better description, boring.  There wasn't much in the way of scenery, since the trail mostly followed near a main road and went through cowfields and random grassy slopes.  We saw lots of mud, train tracks, and ski hill equipment.

At one point we came to a fork in the trail where both paths of the fork were marked with our trail's marking.  A quick Catalan learning session allowed us to figure out that we were supposed to take the left one, but considering what happened next, perhaps we should have taken the right fork...  Less than half a km after the fork, we got to an extremely sturdy gate.  Most of the cattle gates we'd seen so far had consisted of just a thin line of wire, sometimes with a bit of electrical current.  This one was practically bulletproof compared to the others.  We thought briefly about why that might be but then pressed onwards.

And then...cow attack.  We had been running at the edge of a cow field for a while when I suddenly heard Maria yell from behind me, "Um--Alicia!"  Considering that Maria is calm in the face of pretty much everything, you know it's a bad sign when she sounds worried.  I turned around to see a face-off between Maria and a large cow with significant-sized horns.  When it started running towards Maria, she got ready to throw her water bottle at it and I, less industriously, tried yelling "Hey!" at it in what I hoped was a menacing sort of way.  Luckily the cow decided to run away from Maria to join some of the other attack-cows in the field on our other side.  We ran away quickly but straight away had to cross between several more clumps of the same kinds of cow.  We armed ourselves with big sticks but didn't feel particularly safe even then, and from what we could tell all of the cows in this area had murder in their eyes.

After we finally made it out of the last cow field, we headed up a long, strenuous, and thoroughly pointless climb that was essentially in a gap between curves in a highway.  At the top we were rewarded with a scenic view of a burned out truck and a boarded up hotel. 

Nice one, France.  Maria suggested we go back to Spain, which would have been a far better idea than pressing onwards, but we were stubborn enough to keep going.

There was a long, barren stretch of dirt road to finish off this climb.  While it was frustrating not to be on a trail, we did have good views:

After this climb, there was a really nice descent on good singletrack.  The singletrack moved into position as France's sole redeeming feature at this point.

We descended into L'Hospitalet, a little village close to the border with Andorra.  Our guidebook had made it sound like this would be a large-ish town with plenty of places to stay and things to eat, so we had decided that we would end our day's run early here and do touristy things and relax the rest of the day.  Sadly, things were not quite as they had sounded like they'd be.  There was a hotel, fortunately, but that was about it.  It had heat, which we now considered a bonus.  The owners were very friendly and we got to talk to them for a while, which was probably the best part about the stay.  The hotel restaurant was very good but extremely expensive; I think we spent double the money here that we spent in any other town.  We made friends with the couple sitting next to us at dinner, as well as their dog Titeuf.  The hotel also continued our run's trend of good TV by showing a program about a long distance horse race, which everyone in the bar was completely entranced by.

By the end of the night, we had decided that we were going to wrap up the run early.  We still had another 40 miles to the end, but neither of us was feeling particularly inspired by the French part of the trail, and Maria's knee was currently swollen to about triple size.  We went to bed without a particularly clear plan of what we were going to do but with the knowledge that at least we didn't have to get up and start running.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: the encore

Appropriately, the end of our run was as ignominious as the start.  We packed our things up from the hotel in L'Hospitalet, decided one more time that we didn't really want to run any further down the trail, and slumped off to the train station.  We ran into Titeuf and his owner and had one more nice chat with them, then thoroughly embarrassed ourselves by getting onto one train and then changing our minds and running off at the last second in order to get on a different train.  With that plus our appearances and running gear, the train conductor thought we were absolutely insane.

We ended up having a nice little addition to our adventure, though.  We went to a village near Ussat-les-Bains to visit my friends John and Anne, two climbers whose house I lived in when I lived in Sheffield.  They moved to the Ariège region a few years ago and bought an old farmhouse, which they renovated extensively into a beautiful guesthouse called Chez Arran.  At the time I was unconvinced that their move was a good plan, because of course there's no gritstone in the Ariège, and as far as I knew it rained all the time there.  But after seeing the local crags and scenery and discovering that the weather is indeed better than in Sheffield, I was much more convinced (although they do still have the problem of a lack of gritstone!).

John took us to see a really nice-looking crag with some hard routes, called Grotte de Sabart, and then for a nice walk up to some castle ruins and back to the house for a visit with Anne.  It was really good to see both of them.  When Maria and I got on the train that evening to head back to Spain, we thought our adventure was over.  In fact, the outline of this run report, which we wrote on the train after we left the Arrans' house, ends with the visit to the Arrans.  But either fortunately or unfortunately, the run still had more in store for us.

The public transport situation from France back to Berga (in Spain, where our car was) was complicated.  We had to take a train to the French town of Latour de Carol, then change to a Spanish train to cross the border.  At Puigcerdà, we'd have to change from a train to a bus.  The problem was that we got to Latour after the last train to Spain left.  And there was nothing, truly nothing, in Latour--the entire town was shut up, black, and silent.  We saw one sign for a hotel but it was closed indefinitely.  We even ran into a woman at a house with a sign saying it was a gite, but even though we talked to her, she didn't give any indication that we could stay there.

We knew that it was only a 6-minute train ride from Latour to Puigcerdà, so we figured it couldn't be too far.  We decided to run to Puigcerdà and then hopefully find at least a hotel, if not a bus, there.  The run was pretty unnerving, with lots of getting lost trying to find out way out of Latour, barking dogs, and dark, sketchy-looking parts of town.  In one of the most bizarre moments of the trip, we actually saw the first and only runner of the entire route, running next to some train tracks in the middle of the night (okay, maybe more like 9pm, but it felt like the middle of the night to us).  If Maria hadn't confirmed that we'd seen and talked to him, I would have thought it was a hallucination. To be fair I think he was just as confused to run into two lost American girls as we were to have run into him.

We finally made it to Puigcerdà and successfully found a hotel and food, and made our way back to Berga the next day.  After a short wander around Barcelona, we had very welcome showers and changes of clothes at Carles's house and then an amazing "return to civilization" dinner with Carles and his girlfriend Elena at a very good seafood restaurant in Arenys del Mar.  The adventure was finally over.  Fortunately, we had several more days of Catalan running, food, and climbing to come...