Andy JukesHere at Cornwall Running News we love to read race reports from near and far, from the shortest road race to some of the longest trail ultras. So this month we’re very happy to host this guest blog from At Your Pace trail runner Andy Jukes, who spent five days running 230km (143 miles) in sunny Andalucía in Spain recently. Local runners may know Andy from his exploits last year, as he ran 310 miles around the Cornish Coast Path in ten days, raising thousands of pounds for Children’s Hospice South West, not to mention his trademark slogan “piece of cake!” It’s over to Andy then, for his account of five days of hot trail racing:

Al Andalus Ultimate Trail 2014 – “A piece of cake!!!!!!”

The description on the race’s website goes:-

“The AAUT is a 5-day, 230km ultra-marathon in Southern Spain. Each race day offers a new challenge and the end of each stage is an opportunity to enjoy the local culture and ambiance of the beautiful Granada Province. The intense sun, diverse trails, and scenic natural parks have earned Al Andalus the utmost respect of the international running community. It is semi-supported with race kit bags brought forward to campsites with facilities, refreshment, massage, and meals available”

Sounded just right, the next step up for me on the way to one day attempting some of the ultimate in stage races like the Marathon des Sables!

How wrong could I be! Four weeks before the race, Ed Chapman a veteran of numerous stage races informed me it was way tougher than MdS, ‘he can’t be right’ I thought! I then turn up in Loja at the hotel base and over the next couple of days meet people returning to try and complete it on their second or third attempt! And six MdS vets in the field confirmed Ed’s comments informing me this is way tougher!!

What have I done? Surely it can’t be?

The organisation was amazing with Eric and Michelle doing an incredible job. The website, entry, constant updates, airport transfers, route marking, camping, catering, checkpoints etc, etc, etc were all superb and you always had the utmost confidence over all aspects of the event, whereby all you had to do was eat, drink, sleep and run!!! However they were just the tip of the iceberg, the team of volunteers helping were equally amazing, no one could do enough for you!

As far as fellow runners, there were people from all over the world, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Holland and the UK, and a nicer bunch I have never met. Everyone just slotted in, mucked in, helped, supported, it was like one big family, both runners and support crew. Just like minded people out to have a great experience in great company. It was pretty awesome!

Spanish trails

Hot Spanish Trails

Day 1 – Monday was 24.4 miles with about 4,400ft of ascent most of which was in the first 11k hill, it was a brutal start on rough tracks and temps were hitting the mid 30’s. From there it was a fast undulating downhill on jeep tracks and a bit of road pretty much all the way to the finish, however the hills you did have were made to test! I was well pleased with my 6th place in 4:02:31. That night was spent camping in a sports hall, a bit of a contradiction, but we were in tents and we were in a sports hall! We were in the beautiful town of Alhama at the sports complex with pool, bar and restaurant, all was good!

Day 2 – I have never run such a hard 30 miles in my life, brutal is an understatement! However this was one of the most spectacular days, we climbed right up into the mountains on goat tracks, through forests, on jeep tracks, temperatures were low 40’s on the ground but estimated to be at least mid 40’s in the mountain valleys where the sun reflected off the rock faces. Every hill was either very long or very steep, right to the finish and I staggered in to the finish absolutely exhausted in 5:57:40 and in a very surprising 3rd place! We were camping in a wild camp site just on the edge of a little village where I spent 20 mins flat on my back in an icy stream; it was heaven!

Long shadows

Day 3 – I couldn’t believe how bad my legs were feeling at the start of another 24.4 mile day, but this was supposed to be the easy day! Only 3,250ft of ascent today and a lot of forest tracks, apart from the first 10k of road which just destroyed already destroyed legs, and then most of the ascent in two hills, and I thought this was supposed to be the easy day, even the downhills very far steeper which on tired legs destroyed the quads! So much for an easy day! I eventually finished in 4:09:35 in 7th place and it was a bit cooler with temps in the mid to late 30’s. We were in a beautiful wild campsite again but right in the middle of nowhere. It would have been an amazing place to explore but walking by this point was a bit of a challenge.

Day 4 – We had 41.8 miles to do and 6,700ft of climbing of which most was in two climbs in the second half. We had one short sharp climb at the beginning then it was a flat run around a huge turquoise lake filled with huge trout, it was spectacular. Well I say run, more like a crawl, I hung on to the top six to about 7 miles then started to die a very painful death! Every step was agony, shredded calves and quads, a screaming hamstring, I got to mile 14, the easy bit, and did what I promised myself I would not do, I pulled out! I was gutted but knew I would not have survived the next 26 miles with the bulk of the climbing in exposed mountains in mid 40 temps, it would have totally destroyed me! I wanted to finish the last day, supposedly the most beautiful, and I was here for the adventure and the experience as well. I had learned a hard lesson in stage racing, especially in hot conditions, pacing from the start is all! I had got it wrong and had run the first two days way too fast and paid for it! I spent the afternoon having physio, icing, swimming and eating and drinking as much as I could get down. I was desperate to start day 5 and cross the finish as was everyone who had pulled out of stages by this point! We wild camped again but were ferried 1 mile up the road to a bar and restaurant for the afternoon and evening which gave us a fighting chance of recovery. Very civilised!

Valley heat

Day 5 – The last day involved 23 miles and 3,400ft of ascent, but with a net loss overall of 925ft. It turned out to be the hottest day in the mid 40’s constantly, it was a day of constant up and down through the hills of almond and olive groves and goat farms; very dramatic and stunningly beautiful. I ran the first day with someone all day, Brendon from New Zealand, every other day I had run on my own for most of the day, it was so nice to have company and push each other along. It was so hot, you came in to a checkpoint and drenched yourself from head to foot in water, put your cap in an ice bucket and put ice down your shirt, but within 10 minutes of leaving you were bone dry again and within another 10 dripping with sweat! But it was awesome! We crossed the line equal 5th in 4:21:33, but the time didn’t matter! We were back at the hotel base where we started 5 days previous!

Everyone started and finished day 5, it was incredible, it didn’t matter how many days you had completed you were all treated as heroes. This was the spirit of the event, some did it all, some didn’t, but no one judged you, everyone had done their best and in their own ways achieved personal goals, and that was respected by all! Also unlike many events if you dropped out of a day you could still run a subsequent day, again such a refreshing approach and summed up the event.

The people who achieved all 5 days were amazing, I take my hat off to them, and Charlie Sharpe and Sonia Furtado who were the two lead runners were just epic to watch, overall beating the next best runners by over 4½ hours; it was a privilege and honour to run with two top class athletes! In fact it was an honour and privilege to run with everyone and there were some epic feats of guts and determination. I am a bit disappointed I didn’t complete all 5 days but it did not detract from the overall experience, it was an incredible adventure with a lot of incredible people in one of the most stunning places I have been.

I would recommend it to anyone, but do not underestimate it and listen to the advice given, which I didn’t, pace yourself and take the first couple of days steady. But don’t be afraid to give it a go if it is your thing, whether you complete all 5 days or not you will have an adventure of a lifetime!

Would I do it again? Most definitely, but probably in the future when I am a bit older and wiser!!! Or not as the case may be!!!

Thank you AAUT and all involved!