Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

I set as my goals for this summer renovating my terrace and working up to ultra-distance trail racing. Two weeks ago I completed my first 100km race and in doing so more than achieved my goal (and the terrace looks good too). Following are some reflections on that 100km race, the Ultra Trail Serra Montsant 2013, and on my racing in general.

I glance up in front of me, high up, to where the black-black of the mountain meets the blue-black of the sky. There’s a light blinking there and my heart sinks for a moment, damn, it might be a head-torch. No, it’s just a planet twinkling in the sky. And then my eyes are drawn to the left…..

On the left the black-black rises considerably higher, and zig-zagging dizzily up its face are more stars, wobbling unhappily, flickering in and out as they turn towards or away from me. Oh f***. Those definitely aren’t planets.

It’s around 11pm, I’ve been doing this since 9am, I’ve covered 80km of rough rocky mountain terrain and now I really want to go home. I have a nice home. It comes with a cat and a fireplace, a hot shower and a very comfortable bed. I desperately want to be there. I don’t want to be here, slogging up a 600m climb just to slog back down again 10 kilometres later.

Dammit, I knew I should’ve given up at the last aid station.

Start of UTSM 2013

Waiting for the start of UTSM 2013 in Cornudella de Montsant

I’ve spent most of my life hating the idea of running. As a teenager I watched the Comrades ultra road marathon (90km) on television, back in the days when Bruce Fordyce reigned supreme, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go that far. That was a week of hiking (or far more sensibly, an hour in a car).

I tried road-running as a way to get fit for my first ever mountaineering expedition, a trip to the Rwenzori back in 1990, and disliked every single minute of it. It would take many years before I finally realised that the first twenty minutes will always suck, whether for a 5k or a 100k, and the trick is to push on through.

My (male) climbing friends used to run down the trails from the climbing crags with rucksacks full of equipment banging on their backs and that seemed even worse. Run on footpaths? Down precipitous slopes? With a rucksack? No thanks.

I watched a friend shift from climbing into ultra trail running and simply didn’t understand it. Why would you? I mean, it simply isn’t possible for normal people to run 50 kilometres. And then somehow, insidiously, I found myself in the same situation. It came upon me like rising damp, creeping up so slowly as to be almost undetectable and by the time I realised what was happening, it was far, far too late. It is surprisingly hard to get rid of damp.

Autumn colours in the vineyards

Starting out from Cornudella de Montsant, running up past the vineyards.

I breeze through the first marathon distance feeling surprisingly fast and fit, enjoying the twisting canyons of the national park and the bright autumn colours. About 25 kilometres in, I am passed by two men jogging along easily, who point out that I am currently lying fourth in the women’s race. (There are only 13 women in a field of 153.)

As my goal was simply to finish within the 24 hour cut-off, and ideally in under 20 hours, I am a little taken aback. What did it mean? Am I a contender and should I start pushing harder? Or have I simply started out far too fast and it’s all going to end in tears? In so far as I have a strategy, I’m trying to push on as far as I can in the hours of daylight, assuming that I will walk once darkness falls.

Those two men will pass me again many hours later, still moving easily. I think they stopped at a small restaurant on the way, and enjoyed a typical three-course Catalan lunch and a short siesta before continuing. Clearly we are running two very different races.

Heading into canyon lands

Heading into the canyon lands of Serra Montsant

I never intended to start racing. I began a few years back with the local trail races or travessas in Andorra, just to get out in the community. At the same time, I got heavily into ski-touring and realised I had to find some way to keep my cardio-vascular fitness going through the summer. I found a friend who liked the idea of mountain running and surfed along on his enthusiasm.

Crucially, it finally dawned on me that trail running is actually ‘running’ in inverted commas, that is, a great deal of it involves walking. Twenty-five years of climbing had taught me to march uphill, the paths in the Andorran mountains were a fast education in tumbling downhill, I ignored the fact that I couldn’t run on the flat by picking races with vertiginous terrain. I enjoyed the races, not for the competitive side, but because someone else picked out the best footpaths in an area new to me, marked them so I didn’t need to navigate, supplied food and drink along the way, threw a village party at the end, and gave me a t-shirt or other souvenir for turning up! Why not race?

I mucked around with races here and there and promised myself that one year I would make a concerted effort to race and train consistently and see what that would achieve. 2012 was going to be that year, until I got sidetracked by going to Nanga Parbat instead.

So 2013 became that year, a chance to stay close to home, get some work done on my house, and see if I could work my way up to an 80km ultra distance. The race I actually wanted to do was Cavalls de Vent, an 80km race run in autumn in a glorious Cadi mountain range just over the border in Spain. And then they pushed it up to 100km for 2013….. Feeling throughly grumpy about that, I decided to just pick races as I went and see how things developed.

The spectacular Cadi range

The spectacular Cadi range

Looking back, it seems like a well planned season. Some short races, two marathons, then a 55km, a 60km. In-between I started doing some tough ridge traverses along the border of Andorra with a mad French friend. And in October I rose to the challenge of a 100km. However, the plan is only apparent with hindsight. The reality was a lot more haphazard. A bit like the race itself.

Paths through forestsPaths through forests

Everyone fit and fast early in the race

I hold my position in fourth for several hours before the few women in the field began inexorably to pass me, clearly better at keeping at consistent pace over many hours. In the 50ks things begin to grind but we have a major aid station around 58 kms to look forward to. I stop for 30 minutes to eat, to clean my feet and to change into dry clothes, thanks to the drop bag.

The long stop spreads the field even further and I start again alone – very alone as the sun sets. Dusk darkens around me as I climb slowly up through a forest and above me, always closer, the gun of a hunter rings out, once, twice, two dozen times over half an hour. I am walking towards him all the time, wondering just how much I resemble a wild boar at this point in the race.

Sun set in hunting land

The sun setting as shots echo in the forest

The 60ks grind by, the early 70s bring a brief second wind and I even jog some bits of it. But it blows out soon enough and by the late 70s – now picking my way alone in the dark – I am very ready for the race to end.

I have two friends who every so often arise, Cassanda-like, to prophesy in doomsday tones that the racing will destroy my knees and it will all end in bitter regret. (Neither of them actually run.) So I have promised myself that I will drop out rather than press on with an injury. I get little satisfaction from overcoming suffering, I’d much rather move on and do something else.

Frankly, a knee injury right now would be just the thing. 80 km done and a good reason for an honorable retreat. I consult one knee and then the other, ask them again over time to confirm the diagnosis. Not a twinge, not a whimper. The rest of me is slowly crumbling and my knees are apparently ready to march on to the Straits of Gibraltar and contemplate crossing Africa. Bastards! There’s never an injury when you want one.

I did know what it felt like to DNF (Did Not Finish) in an ultra. Indeed that was how my season had started, most inauspiciously. Late last year I got talked into the Old Country Tops races in the Lake District, months out it sounded like a great way to start the season! I then spent all winter ski-touring rather than running and not surprisingly crashed out. Freezing rain and mist, with the fells ankle-deep in icy water, helped to make it an easy choice to DNF. I realised I needed to (a) take this more seriously and (b) pick races with a more generous cut-off time.

Wet in the Lake District, by Colin Jones

Very wet in the Lake District, after dropping out of Old County Tops (photo: Colin Jones)

Shorter races followed as I reveled in Spanish sunshine. Two marathon-distances convinced me I could go further and I impulsively picked Catllars, having seen a poster in an outdoor shop. 55 km seemed a good distance, I ignored the 4000 meter vertical and the likely heat of running in the pre-Pyrenees in late July.

It was an epic race and 25% of the field dropped or were timed out. We started at 7am and I cracked about 6 hours in, dizzy with heat and slogging up the fourth major climb, 850m up in 3km. I slogged on, determined to give up at the next aid station – sadly another 5km away. But by the time I got there I’d worked out that I had enough time in hand to walk the rest of the course and inexplicably I shuffled on, finally finishing in a brutal 14h09. It was quite the introduction to the ultra distance!

Catllaràs Ultra 2013 finish

Catllaràs Ultra 2013 finish. (photo: race photographer Guillem Casanova)

Enough to make any sane person give it up, so when a friend emailed me the Val d’Aran entry form I did think twice. I thought, it’s 60km, and only 500 more vertical (4500m) but over a longer distance with better paths. How bad can it be? I signed up, he abandoned me to chase after a girl instead, I talked another friend in joining me who had done no running for months, and off we went.

The paths were indeed good on the first half and I was depressed to drop behind all the people who could actually run on flat or gentle gradients. And then there were no paths at all in the second half. The going got tough, the climbing relentless, my friend wisely dropped at marathon distance. About ten hours in, I tweaked my knee and limped down the last epic descent as the men ran by me. 12h13 and I finished knowing that while I really wouldn’t have wanted to face another hill, I could have walked further.

Now, feeling fit, I really wanted to try an 80km distance, but couldn’t find a race that fitted my schedule. I stumbled on the Serra Montsant, only 4000 vertical in 100km – practically flat! And I’d done the shortened marathon the year before – so I knew what the terrain was like. How bad could it be?

I really have to stop using that as a reason!

UTSM 2013 course

UTSM 2013 course, 100km, 4000m gain

It is now past midnight, I’ve finally clambered up onto the top of Serra Montsant and it’s got pretty damn bad. After an entire day in shorts and a t-shirt, the wind is now howling across the exposed plateau and carrying with it swirling tendrils of mist. It’s a full moon night and in theory there’s a glorious night view from up here. In practice all I can see is the beam of my head-torch and the mist ebbs and flows within it in ways which are making me vaguely motion-sick.

A rough mix of limestone outcrops and scrubby bush makes it hard to follow the path. The trail is marked by lengths of tape, each of which has two small reflective tabs stapled to it, smaller than a box of matches. The wind has wound the tape around the bushes, so I march on alone, peering into milky blackness, hunting out the elusive gleam of a reflective tab, disconcertingly like the eyes of night creatures in the way they seem to blink and move.

Two people loom out of the mist and vanish past me as I stop to pull on gloves, arm sleeves and a very lightweight wind jacket. The fabric whips around me in the wind and then catches frustratingly on salt-sticky skin. I eventually acquire three men who slipstream behind me across the barren mountaintop. They may be stuck back there because I’ve got my head down in a relentless death march, but more likely they’re exploiting the powerful mountaineering head-torch that I’m using, which gives me a better chance of finding the hidden reflective eyes.

A torch flashes out at us through the darkness, a sole volunteer swaddled in a vast jacket, running the loneliest control point of the race. I’m not sure whether he wants to make sure we don’t get lost or is just desperate for some company. The men behind me peel away and tumble down the steep, loose rocky path, pulling away from me into the distance.

I ruminate about the injustice of this for the next 10 kilometres, as I lose all the height I so exhaustingly gained just a few hours earlier and then begin an interminable contour around the mountain towards the village we started from so very long ago. Even as I am picking my way down the last footpath, the occasional lone man briefly appears, shouts “animo” at me as he passes, and is swallowed by darkness. Honestly, they can take their damn “animo” and stick it at this point.

I really want to stop one of them and conduct a brief but pointed interrogation, along the line of: look dude, if you can still run down a treacherous footpath at 3am after 18 hours of this, why have you been behind me all this time? But my other languages, admittedly spotty at the best of times, desert me when I’m tired and I just let them go with a sigh.

Still, the footpath finally transforms into a road, the village of Cornudella de Montsant lies ahead and my watch tells me if I get a move-on, I can come in under 19 hours. Even I manage to ‘run’ (jog-shuffle) along the silent streets. I cross the line at 3.50am – 18h51 – 110th out of 153 finishers – and I tell the nice organising woman waiting patiently at the finish line: nunca jamas! (never again!)


However, as a friend posted on my facebook later that morning:
“Selective memory requires about a 24 hour grace period to kick in.”

I do know that I don’t do this just for the running or for the satisfaction of finishing or for a better time. None of that is enough for motivate me. Much of the joy of it lies in moving through extraordinary landscapes, and racing at night negates that. I can’t imagine choosing to run right through a night, or going further than 100km.

I’ll stick to shorter distance, to daylight races.

But of course, I could try to be faster…. Or race closer to mid-summer with the longer days…. I won’t do another 100km…. probably not… we’ll see…

Serra Montsant

There’s always another hill to climb

  1. Stephen Nureldin says:

    What a wonderful account Cathy. I too discovered running comparatively late on but am focussed more on marathon/half marathon distance. Looking at those sweeping mountain vistas and the challenge of that “ultra” distance is making me think of hitting the trails though!
    Could this be a subject for another book? It has been an awfully long time since “Just for the love of it”!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m also going to scale back to max-marathon distance. The longer races are just too punishing. I do have another book in the works, although day-to-day life is getting in the way of the writing of it.

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