Barcelona or Bust
How a 45 mile mountain trail race in Barcelona became part of my 100 miler training plan
I had been eyeing this pretty, somewhat rugged little trail race out in Moab (called Behind the Rocks) for the past couple of years and I even talked my twin brother into joining me. The only problem was that getting from Maine to Moab in March is not a cheap undertaking. When I talked to Jerome about it he casually mentioned “oh, that’s the weekend I’ll be in Barcelona for work”. This is my highschool social studies husband speaking. What? What kind of Bucksport High School work is required in Barcelona? Turns out EF Tours, the company he works with to organize his school’s international trips needed him in Barcelona for a training.
Never one to give up
I casually joked, “what if there’s a trail race in Barcelona? The kids and I could come and you could watch them after your training”. He looked at me with horror and made me swear I wouldn’t do any such thing. But it was too late, I was already googling “Trail Races Barcelona”. “Oh look honey, there’s a 45 mile trail race that exact weekend!”. Nooooo, he groaned. I closed the computer and tried to put the idea down. But not after peeking at plane tickets and gasping over the incredibly cheap fares. The very next day Lucy (my ten year old daughter and future Secretary of State – the Madeline Albright kind not the Rex Tillerson kind just to be clear) announced to my good friend that “Mom and Dad want to go to Barcelona without me and Georgia, can we stay with you?”. To my surprise and horror my friend said “of course!”. And so it began . . .
Sometimes just getting out of the house is hard enough
A crazy idea turned into reality. Just barely. Jerome and I were due to fly out Wednesday evening and Tuesday Lucy came down with a brutal episode of the stomach flu. My friend, also conveniently our family nurse, assured me she could handle it. Her husband maybe not so much. But off we went, the girls in good hands.
Because Jerome was traveling for work, and I was traveling for cheap, we were on different flights. The overnight flight sucked as much as one would expect. I arrived in Barcelona at lunch time and caught a bus to my hotel (a different one from Jerome’s for the first night). After gathering myself I decided to head off on the mile walk to the outdoor store that was hosting my race’s bib pickup. I wanted to get that out of the way before I got lunch, but as I was walking I couldn’t figure out if I was hungry or . . . what . . . Alas, when I got to the store it was closed for the traditional 2-4pm siesta.
That gnawing feeling = stomach flu
I thought I would get lunch and then go back to the store in an hour but I was quickly starting to feel horrible. Not just hungry and jet lagged, but horrible, horrible. I bee-lined for my hotel and got to my room seconds before I started to violently throw up. Oh boy, I had Lucy’s stomach flu. Things got worse and worse and all I could do was alternate between passing out on my bed and barely making it to the bathroom. It was Thursday, the outdoor store was only open that night until 9pm and this was the last day to get my bib if I wanted to race on Saturday. Just as the sun was setting I forced myself out onto the street and decided I could walk the mile in 20 minutes, get my bib and walk back in another 20 giving me 40 minutes to NOT puke. In case you’re wondering, this plan failed miserably. I did make it to the store, with much sitting down on the edge of planters and sidewalks in between forced, dizzy marching. This was totally ridiculous and I knew it. I finally made it to the store and panicked when I realized the next major wave of vomiting was imminent. I asked an employee if he could help me get my bib (to my horror it was ALL THE WAY DOWNSTAIRS) and then if he could help me hail a cab. He did not speak English and the situation was well beyond my, or perhaps anyone’s, Spanish but somehow he got me out onto the street, utterly pathetic but victorious with my bib in hand.
Check off Life List: public vomiting in a foreign country.
The cab deposited me a block away from my hotel and as I stepped out I lost it. Violently retching in front of a lovely little sidewalk café. (Dear Barcelona: I am so so sorry). But all I had to do was get to my bed and pass out, which I promptly did.
I woke up the next morning feeling emptied out and tired but with a glimmer of hope. The hotel proudly advertised it’s healthy breakfast choices and I wandered downstairs to find the an un-appetizing (to me) array of cured meats, cheeses, savory spreads and all kinds of fried, sweet baked things. But then, there at the end I spied fresh juice. Not just any juice, but fresh ginger-beet juice. I probably spent an hour sipping juice and taking tiny bites of toast, so grateful to find something that agreed with my stomach.
Check out time was noon and sight-seeing was my only option until I could check in at Jerome’s hotel that evening. The metro system in Barcelona is fantastic. Inexpensive, relatively clean,
easy to follow and it goes all over the city. My first stop was the Sagrada Família. I didn’t know too much about Gaudi before this visit, though having gone to Waldorf school I knew something about his influence on the use of geometry and natural form on architecture. The space really is gorgeous. And what you can’t see in the photographs is how amazingly well the geometry absorbs the sound so that even with several hundred tourists milling about (and at least half of those are students) there is still a feeling that you are in a softly quiet space, like being in an old growth forest.
In search of forested trails in the city
I am not a city person and even surrounded by the most lovely architecture, people and pavement make my skin crawl. I decided the next stop should be Parc Guell. Another metro ride and I found myself on the outskirts of the city, wandering along narrow streets and up steep hills, past a building that inexplicably bore a plaque reading “Plaça Salvador Allende” and into the middle of a quiet, foggy forest. There were occasional signs pointing toward Parc Guell and after nearly an hour of slow, infirm walking I started seeing other tourist-like people. It was at the moment that I turned my cell phone on to see where Jerome was with his group and as fate would have it, he was only a few hundred feet away! I looked down into the plaza of Parc Guell and saw his red rain coat just as he looked up and saw me. It was a pretty sweet moment having not seen each other since leaving the U.S. a short, but eventful, 48 hours earlier. He was just wrapping up with his group and was able to join me for the rest of the afternoon and we had a nice time wandering around together in the pouring rain. Sadly I still had no appetite and by 7pm all I could think about was bed so our romantic dinner turned into an early, not-so-great pan of paella at a loud local bar.
That night with my race backpack packed, I fell asleep to the sound of thunder over the nearby mountains. I woke up at 5am (midnight Maine time) and felt worse than I had the day before, but not nearly as bad as two days earlier. I took that to be a good sign. I wanted to at least get myself to the start line to see what would happen. I could feel miserable sitting in a hotel room all day or I could feel miserable in the mountains.
Sometimes just getting to the start line is a victory
Still dry heaving and unable to to even think about food, I took a cab to the Gava Train station, where I was dropped off to wait alone in the dark, cold drizzle. In theory I was signed up for a bus that would drive me and several other racers up the mountain to the start line. Much to my relief, another runner appeared out of the darkness to join me, and then another. But still no bus arrived. We sent an emissary around the corner to see if perhaps the bus was waiting there. It was. It was only five minutes after the stated pick-up time but the driver was so irate that we hadn’t been there on time that he refused to drive us. He only spoke (more accurately, yelled) Spanish/Catalan and there was no reasoning with him. So the six of us tracked down a taxi-van to take us up the mountain instead. That’s when I met Fird and Rasim, two runners from Azerbaijan about to start their first ever ultra-trail race. Their enthusiasm was contagious, though I could tell Fird was suffering from the crazy switchback road as much as I was, and I wondered if we were going to make it without having to pull over. We did. Barely. I found the nearest bush, and afterward, the changing rooms. It was so cold I was shivering and I couldn’t bare the thought of taking any of my warm clothes off even knowing that I would overheat within the first ten minutes of running. If I could even run.
Follow your heart
As a funny side note, to register for this race (and apparently most European ultra distance races) you are required to produce a signed document from your doctor saying that your heart is in good enough shape for such an endeavor. Ironically, this past fall, right around the time I ran the Vermont 50 I started to feel a funny new heart arrhythmia. After a few weeks it became quite disconcerting. Sometimes it happens several times a day, sometimes only once a week and sometimes it wakes me up at night. I decided it would be wise to get it checked out and after several months of testing (EKG, halter monitor, MRI . . .) I was told everything was fine, and so there it was, my doctor’s permission to run mountain ultras.
The race waiver said nothing about being able to keep food down
The 70km race started at 8am with 180 runners (17 were women). I’m usually much too fast out of the gate but not this morning. The faster I ran the more it jiggled my stomach. After about a mile I looked behind me and realized I was dead last. Oh wait, except for these two super-friendly guys who started asking me all kinds of questions in Spanish. I quickly realized they were race staff and they were assessing my (apparently worrisome) condition. Once I convinced them I really was ok they told me I had to make it to the first aid station within an hour or I’d be cut off.
10,000 feet of climbing = slow and steady
Soon I caught up to my Azerbaijani friends who in neon-yellow were hard to miss even among
the brilliantly-colored sea of spandex that Europeans seem to love. The trail was steep, muddy, slippery and filled with chunks of jagged limestone. Good conditions for hiking while I got my body warmed up to idea of running.
Who needs food when you’ve got Tailwind?
I was carrying about 2,000 calories worth of Tailwind in my backpack (a very simple and palatable mix of sugar and electrolytes), which was more than enough to get me through the day even if I couldn’t eat. After the 15 mile aid station I headed out alone (Fird dropped out there) and followed the intermittent trail-makers into the wilderness . . . It’s a funny thing running alone in a foreign country relying entirely on faded orange dots to get you from one place to another, especially when the trail looks as much like a river bed as the actual riverbed next to it.
Ultra-racing = solo-running = fun times!
Those are some of my favorite moments in trail running. Being alone but also being part of something bigger. The trail climbed a crazy steep mountain and the summit was not unlike Cadillac Mountain here in Acadia. There was even a narrow road at the summit that switch backed down five miles to the ocean. Now I was feeling really good. I pictured all the times I’ve flown down the Cadillac road and all the good people I’ve run it with. I hit the beach at 5hrs and 50mins, 10 minutes before the cut-off time. There comes a point in every ultra where I know I’m going to make it. It’s a sweet moment where the anxious knot in my stomach dissolves and I can just relax into the present moment, running and enjoying the rest of the day. In this case I had another 25 miles to enjoy!
I headed out of the aid station and down the beach with great optimism. At the end of the beach there was a set of stairs that I ran up, where upon I found myself in the middle of a beachside restaurant. The diners equal parts fascinated and horrified by my presence and I quickly ran back down the stairs, confused about how I had missed the trail. I walked back passed the surfers and the naked kids playing in a puddle and asked a young man if he’d seen “others like me”. No he hadn’t. Eventually another runner came down the beach and I saw him disappear into an alley I had missed.
Ultra runners are always interesting, especially after you’ve been running alone for 30 miles
The rest of the run was incredibly enjoyable. Steep hills with sweeping views, pleasant stretches of dirt road, lots of ruins, vineyards and small farms (with ferocious barking dogs). No longer dead last, I was slowly passing people and enjoying chatting with a few. I met a German Physician-researcher who studies leukemia and says the U.S. is doomed as a leader in medical science. I met a couple of French men who are terrified that their country will go the same way as ours, and several Spanish men who wanted to tell me how wonderful and beautiful their home towns are. None of the locals spoke English and I had a very funny time communicating in Spanish like a toddler, all in the present tense.
Minutes per mile, miles per hour, hours per race is the constant background chatter in a runner’s mind
My original goal of finishing the race in 10hrs had dissolved with all the morning’s hiking, but I thought maybe I could make it in under 12hrs. But I swear the Spaniard’s Kilometer math didn’t add up. At 50km the race volunteers said 20k left! Ok great, that makes sense. So the next aid station was 12km away, which means the finish line should only be another 8km after that right? It was just getting dark enough to need a headlamp, I could here cars on a road somewhere nearby and by my watch I had nearly run the last 8km. Surely the end was in sight. But when I popped out of the woods there was yet another aid station. Was it for the 100km runners? Was the finish line just around the corner? No, apparently, I still had another 5k to go. I think the Spanish are a little looser with distance than say, U.S. road runners.
I’ve never felt better at the end of a 70k run
Running in the dark is fun and I swear I was feeling great! I wasn’t so much in a hurry to be done running as I wanted to get to bed at a reasonable hour since my flight was at 6am the next morning. Plus daylight savings was that night and I was going lose yet another hour of sleep. I reeled in another half dozen runners in that last 5k, discovering for the first time how fun negative splits can be (when you run the second half of a race faster than the first half). The last bit of the course was thinly marked and I had to look cautiously for turns, straining my eyes for any glimmer of headlamp on the trail ahead. Indeed, the very last turn, the one right in town, I headed off the wrong way until some people leaving a restaurant casually pointed and said “la meta está ahí”. Muchisimos gracias! I turned around and sprinted just in time to pass two smartly dressed and perfectly clean looking French runners on their way to the finish line (how do they do that??). My final time was about 12hrs and 34 minutes and I was 105th out of the 126 that finished the race (55 dropped out). Mostly I was delighted with what I had just pulled off, proud of persevering and having such a great day. A small, competitive sliver of me wishes, somehow, I had run just a little faster. And that there is the paradox that keeps mountain runners alive.
After a quick, scorching hot shower in the local school gym I tried to eat a few bites of white rice at the post race meal but failed. I passed by the finish line just in time to see my Azerbajaini friend Rasim finish and after a hearty congratulations I went in search of a bus that would take me back down the mountain. I didn’t get far before a couple offered me a ride and I was so grateful! They had both run in the shorter race that day and their 11 year old son looked as ready for bed as I was. They took me straight to my hotel near the airport, thereby demonstrating, once again, the generosity and goodness of runners and people everywhere!
Eventually Jerome wandered back to the hotel having spent a wonderful day eating tapas and biking around Barcelona. We were each happy in our own way.
If you want to get a feel for the scenery in Parc Del Garraf and what it’s like to run all day I made a little video of my adventure. It’s as boring or as interesting as running is, depending on who you are! https://youtu.be/AL0GwnaO07Q