The Skyrunning World Championships takes place every two years and this year, took place at the Buff Epic 105km in the Pyrenees mountains of Spain on July 23rd. Both women’s and men’s fields were stacked with international competition, and Louis Alberto Hernando of Spain and Caroline Chaverot of France went home 2016 Skyrunning World Champions. This is my story of the rough journey that finished well for me in 6th place for women.
In the days before the 2016 Skyrunning World Championships, I was tired.
Not just tired but deeply, physically exhausted in that penetrating way that your mind cannot seem to work around.
Less than two weeks prior, I raced in France at the High Trail Vanoise 70km, the third race in the Skyrunning World Series, and a 12-hour effort for me at high elevation with glacier travel. Then on the way to Spain, I spent 27 hours in travel status with over ten hours of driving in three countries, three airports, and an uncomfortable night trying to sleep on airport floors. When I arrived in Boi on Tuesday for Buff Epic 105km, I was so trashed I just holed up in the apartment and slept for nearly four days.
Most of Friday night, I was awake wondering if I would finish.
The Buff Epic course is extremely remote, with few aid stations near roads or transportation. Chances were high for circumstances that could force me to quit, leaving me stranded. This would be the hardest run I have ever attempted. It climbs over 26-thousand feet in about 65 miles, traversing the Aiguestortes National Park, and piercing deep into the heart of the Pyrenees where most backpackers would take at least a week to travel. The ground is rugged and difficult to move through, with various off-trail sections and multiple grinding ascents.
Amidst all these considerations, my coach Mike Wolfe of the Mountain Project told me simply to “Just run. Don’t think.” He was the top American at the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships, so it was worthwhile to listen. But I wanted something meatier than that: a tactical race strategy to keep me distracted until I arrived at the finish. Not something pithy or perfunctory.
I felt really alone.
But in the back of my mind I kept thinking about those mountains. Big, high alpine peaks traced with waterfalls and surrounded with pools of snow melt and grassy hillsides dotted with wildflowers. All that stuff that makes you feel as giddy as a little kid going camping on summer break.
At the start line, I stood back from the front, silently breathing as slowly as possible.
Guys speaking various languages around me jittered with excitement, so I closed my eyes and kept my heart rate down. But right before we began, they started playing the Dropkick Murphys–an American Celtic punk rock band–as their “official song” of Buff Epic. Finally, my shell crumbled and I just smiled and decided to enjoy, like when you break down and eat a donut.
Once we started, I could not push though and felt heavy. I focused on my breathing to stay present. I only remember the sun gradually rising over the hills, the changing colors of the landscapes, and the silence. Everyone was very silent. The clouds hung low, in a surreal mist. The course varied from roads to fun single-track to boulder hopping.
After nearly four hours, I realized how beautifully simplistic Mike’s advice was: “Just run. Don’t think.”
It echoed around in my head and helped me stop analyzing my position or worrying about distance, my place, or my guts giving out on me. I felt only grateful to be running and was completely absorbed in the activity. I realized: on this day, I only run! And this is my favorite thing. I felt like I was in a dreamworld.
But after about 8 hours, we descended down a bunch of hot roads to the first real town we would encounter on our journey, Espot, 45 miles from the start. From here, there was over 20 miles to go with still over 15-thousand feet of climbing, in the heat of the day, in a place where it would be easy to doubt and drop.
Foreseeably, the Espot aid station was a comfortable dining room with piano music where racers sat around staring blankly, like at hospice, where people go to die.
I rushed through getting refueled with some awesome volunteers while the announcer came inside with a microphone and rattled off everything I was doing to the crowd outside. Luckily, I left in a couple minutes in ninth place among women, but there was still a long way to go.
The climb back into the mountains was so brutal, cows were moving faster than us.
Everyone was struggling hardcore to keep moving in the heat. Guys were pulling hard on their poles. Everything stank like manure. My guts were curdling. I could not stand up straight and I could not run.
Soon, I caught up to Nuno Silva from Portugal who is also racing the 2016 Skyrunning World Series. He explained another lady was close ahead who he thought was Fernanda Maciel of Brazil. Shortly, I realized it was actually Hillary Allen from the United States, my Ultimate Direction teammate and one of the top Skyrunners in the world.
She was very sick. I encouraged her to continue because she was still in a good position. Also, it was getting later and we were climbing so it was cooling down which I thought may help. She told me Gemma Arenas of Spain was also having a bad day and was just ahead. Gemma is currently leading the Skyrunning World Series, and won the 2016 Ultra SkyMarathon Madeira in Portugal. I traded places with her eventually at a busy aid station, but I did not know and thought she was still ahead.
The sun was setting, and shining through the grass making everything glow beautifully, and I just felt lucky to be alive. But there was still a lot of work to do.
The mileage on the aid stations was off by at least three miles, so there was likely still 20 miles to go. We also still had several big climbs to go. My difficulties eating and drinking water worsened. I would go through dizzy spells and had a hard time seeing. I became very hungry and also extremely sick, and would lose my guts then feel slightly better.
During the final major climb, I turned around and Yukari Fukuda from Japan was within sight behind me. So I pushed myself harder on this ascent but soon felt like I would black out. I was getting more dizzy and having sharp pains in my brain. Then my vision went into a tunnel. I started stumbling and when I would try to take a step forward, I would go sideways and reach out for rocks that were not there.
At the top were four guys with a helicopter drop of water and some tents. They were enthusiastic despite the wind and cold, but surrounded me asking if I was ok. They told me it was only 15km to the finish and not technical “all down, very fast.”
As a side-note, I have learned to always take race information from aid station volunteers with a grain of salt.
If they say “15km,” it is probably 15 miles. If it is “all downhill,” there is probably still some major climbing. And if they say it is “very fast,” they mean, “it would be fast if you had not just run for 16 hours, but for you it will take forever, good luck.”
I stumbled off and felt better as I descended into the dark. I got out my headlamp and tried to keep in mind the girl behind me. There was definitely someone close behind me. And soon I stepped aside for them and it was Hillary!
I was shocked and stoked! We ran together on this rocky, rooty single track in the dark for a couple kilometers. But when we got to a road, I opened up a bit, running as efficiently as I could, not all out but just steady like I was running with friends having a conversation. But we were not talking—we were both trashed—and she dropped back a little bit. We passed an aid station and I could hear a guy running with her giving her advice on how far she had to go and encouraging her on to catch me. It was a great motivator. The company made me work hard at running my best at the end of such a long day.
We got to a town along the descent and the crowd was going so wild I thought it may be the finish, but they told me I still had 6km to go. We were dumped out onto a dark single track and I almost lost my mind. I was running my hardest then and had no idea how far behind the other girls were but I knew Hillary was close. I would push as hard as possible on runnable downhill and was taking insane risks on the steeper rockier sections, imagining I saw lights from the next town ahead.
I would hit a small uphill and feel like I was on Heartbreak Hill of Boston not competing for 6th place in an ultra marathon.
I was losing steam fast. But finally, a sign appeared indicating 1km to the finish. I pushed so hard I was starting to wheeze and grimace. Tears were streaming down my face. I felt like I would barf at any second. Of course, we ran a circuitous route around a VIP tent and up a sidewalk and over a bridge to enter from the other side of the finish line arch. And then it was done.
I honestly thought Buff Epic would take me over 20 hours and I finished in 17:22, which was under the course record set the previous year by Nuria Picas of Spain.
Nuria is arguably the best female ultra runner in the world and champion of the 2014 and 2015 Ultra Trail World Tours. The last I heard, Nuria—the favorite for the win—had to drop from the race, presumably from injury. But in this absolutely stacked international field, I finished in sixth place for women, and 33rd overall, which was still an enormous victory for me. Hillary also finished under the previous course record in 17:24.
As soon as I stopped running I could barely walk–the quintessential, inexplicable, ultramarathon phenomenon. My knee locked up and I stumbled around trying to figure out how to get to my car and whether or not I could drive. It took about 6 hours before I stopped vomiting and thinking I was going to die after the race. The dizziness and everything subsided around six in the morning when I could start drinking water again.
I feel so incredibly grateful I could have the opportunity to run, let alone finish, these two races—the two hardest events I have ever done, within 12 days of each other.
The lesson of this experience for me is that you cannot quiet an anxious mind by over-thinking everything.
Listening to Mike’s advice to “Just run. Don’t think.” was a breakthrough for me. The simplicity of that statement is brilliant because a good race can be found at the worst of times through just letting go. It is also important to never accept it is over until you cross the finish line, but continually running your best will get you there no matter what is happening around you.
(Note: published times were decreased by 10% due to neutralization of one portion of the course that crossed through a National Park where racing was not allowed.)
- Luis Alberto Hernanado (Spain) 11:36
- Andy Symonds (Great Britain) 12:05
- Javier Dominguez Ledo (Spain) 12:16
- Manuel Anguita Bayo (Spain) 12:22
- Zdenek Kriz (Czech Republic) 12:36
- Yeray Duran Lopez (Spain) 12:49
- Seas Sanchez Saez (Spain) 12:53
- Luis Fernandes (Portugal) 13:00
- Kim Collison (Great Britain) 13:09
- Sam McCutcheon (New Zealand) 13:29
- Caroline Chaverot (France) 13:13
- Eva Maria Moreda Gabaldon (Spain) 14:15
- Jasmin Paris (Great Britain) 14:22
- Maud Gobert (France) 14:50
- Fernanda Maciel (Brazil) 15:16
- Kristina Pattison (United States) 15:38
- Hillary Allen (United States) 15:40
- Yukari Fukuda (Japan) 15:54
- Gema Arenas Alcazar (Spain) 16:12
- Zuzana Urbancova (Czech Republic) 16:32
Buff Epic 105km Race Kit:
The required equipment for European ultras is extensive because of the remote nature of the courses and exposure of the racers to extreme environmental conditions. The following equipment worked well for me:
Tops: La Sportiva Sprint Tank & Ultra Arm Warmers; La Sportiva Neptune 2.0 long sleeve & Hail waterproof jacket (required kit).
Bottoms: La Sportiva Blaze Tight Short; La Sportiva Crux Tight & the North Face Venture waterproof pants (required kit).
Socks: Feetures Elite Merino+ Cushion No Show tab. (Hands down, best socks ever–no blisters, no problems.)
Shoes: La Sportiva prototype (The Mutants would have worked well on this course due to their superior traction in wet conditions, but I saw many racers wearing the Akasha, the Bushido, and the Ultra Raptor as well.)
Pack: Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta with 2 Body Bottle Plus (This pack was essential for this large of a kit, but it carried the weight extremely well.)