Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

I’m spending this summer doing something I’d intended to do last summer, until I got sidetracked by the Nanga Parbat Mazeno ridge expedition. Working my way up to doing some ultra-distance mountains runs. I’ve hated running all my adult life and only got into this as a way to stay fit for ski-touring in the winter, but somehow, against all odds, I’ve come to like it – although I remain terrible at the actual ‘running’ part. (The deep dark secret of trail ‘running’, at least in the mountains, is that many of us spend most of the time walking.)

I’ve made my goal, in the sense that I finished my first ultra this weekend, a tough 55 km course, with 4000 m of vertical gain and almost entirely on technical footpaths. High temperatures added to the hardship, I flamed out half-way, walked the entire second half and took over 14 hours to finish – not what I’d hoped for. However, given than 25% of the 200-strong field dropped or were timed out, I’m pretty chuffed.

Now I move on to another related goal, to start using the high mountain refuges in the Pyrenees to move fast over long distances. With partner-in-crime Pär Lindholm (of and, we’ve pared a 5-day hiking route that traverses Pic d’Estats – at 3,143m the highest peak in Catalunya – down to a 2 1/2 day trail run. We noticed the area while out on skis in May and I’ve been wanting to explore it further ever since.

In the background, the mountains we’ll be exploring later this week. Photo by Pär Lindholm.

But one of the things that has stood out after doing six local races this summer, is what fun the Catalunya trail running racing scene is, and how much that feeds into my enjoyment of what I’ve been doing. A local race is normally organised by a local mountain club or just a group of activists, backed by the municipality. There’s no divide between town folk and extreme athletes. The villages see it as a reason to attract visitors to their bars and restaurants, show off the best of their countryside, get their names known to tourists and have an excuse to throw a party.

There is no formal race programme or set of rules. Each race is quirky and individual. At the Cadi Trail race, we each got given a box of veggies when we arrived to pick up our race numbers. veggies
Photo by Audrey Palat of

At the Ronda de la Carançà race, they had hand-painted distance markers and signs of encouragement. sign

Local musicians often wander along to the one of the aid stations, generally near the summits, and provide musical encouragement. At the Ronda de la Carançà someone had brought up a drum kit, at the Cadi race the accordions were out. music

They are generous with the timings too. The Catllaràs 55km was won by Salomon athlete Miguel Heras in 6h35, but they patiently kept the course open for a 15 hour cut-off, allowing people like me to trudge in hours later and get cheered on by all the athletes who had long since finished and were now chilling out at the bars along the main street of the village.

That happy mix of sponsored professional athletes and hopeful trudgers runs through many of the races. My backyard is the home of world champion Kilian Jornet and the famous high-altitude training ground of Font Romeu is just round the corner in France. Spain right now is churning out trail running champions. At the Font Romeu Kilian Classik there was a starting field of 1100, some 750 running the 30km race and the rest of us doing the 45km. As a Salomon sponsored event, their entire team was there and the elite athletes started after us, so I got to be overtaken – very soon and very rapidly – by world champion Kilian Jornet. But earlier in the season, at the 35km CMC Volta Cerdanya, Kilian was once again on the starting line with us, because the race was organised by his dad and he was there to have fun. Many of the races only take about 200 entries, keeping the field small and the atmosphere very supportive.

It is an odd mix of professional and cheap&cheerful. Race photographers often patiently wait for hours and then offer the photos for free, prizes may be cups or bottles of wine, or they may be quirky handmade sculptures or local sausages and cheese. Entry fees are low and free camping is almost always arranged. racephoto3
Photo by race photographer Oriol Batista Viñas. He, the girlfriend and the dog, had been sitting at that pool for a loooong time.

My experience of these races is always from somewhere near the back, where you pass and re-pass the same individuals as the hours go by and build a camaraderie, sometimes just a grimace of effort where you have no shared language, sometimes an on and off chat as you meet time and again on the climbs. In the Font Romeu Kilian Classik I was pleased to have caught up with the grupetto (taken from Tour de France cycling – the bunch plodding at the back, in contrast to the peloton leading out in the front). I start notoriously slowly and then – if I’m on form – slowly creep up the field.

Suddenly I looked back, saw only six people behind me and behind them, a volunteer ambling along taking out the race course markers! That always does the job of making you feel seriously slow. The back of the field had been culled at a time check and the rest of us picked up the pace in stumbling panic, trying to make the next two time checks. You compete and you co-operate and together you cheerfully swear that next time “iremos a la playa” (we go to the beach) and it all happens a world away from the race champions but it is totally worth it.

I do the races like a tourist, using them as a way to see scenic spots I didn’t know existed in my backyard. I do them for training, because doing long runs on my own are boring, but doing them with a crowd, where someone else has marked the route and provided the refreshments stops, is much more motivating. I do the races because they embody some of the things I enjoy most about the Catalunya trail running scene, the low-key camaraderie and the welcoming attitude to anyone prepared to give it a go.

IMG_0746 Myself together with Pär Lindholm and Audrey Palat at the Cadi Trail race.

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