Riaza Trail Challenge – mountain running

I like to do things that scare me. And mountain running definitely falls into that category. While we’re in Spain, I wanted to join a race, and while reading Trail Run magazine I came across the Riaza Trail Challenge. It looked absolutely terrifying. I love running trails which also means running a lot of hills, but ‘mountain running’ just sounded so difficult.

So, I signed up, toying with the idea of doing the 40km, but eventually caving in a little to my fears (thankfully) and signed up for the 20km race.

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Elevation profile for the 20km race.

We booked some accommodation for the weekend, and I set to training. My training was spot on. I was already in good shape, so I set to upping my distance. We’re also travelling and doing a lot of walking in general, so I knew I could easily manage 20km. It was the elevation that was going to be the problem. I had run this sort of elevation before, but not at this altitude, and I hadn’t been training for hills until I signed up. We were staying in a lot of places that didn’t have a hill to be found, so I made sure I included some stairs on each run. In the last week before the race, we stayed in Asturias, which is full of mountains and hills, so I found as many big ones as I could during that week. Unfortunately, something upset my stomach that week too, so my running took a bit of a dive. It still wasn’t good by race day, but I was determined to complete the race, so pushed on, making sure I stayed well hydrated.

We arrived in Riaza on Friday afternoon, and had to wait to check in to our accommodation, so headed into the centre of town to pick up my bib and t-shirt.

On the way, we could see the mountain that I would be running. It looked high. So high. Scarily high. You couldn’t see the very top because it was covered with with a cloud cap, but even then, it looked high. I was now really, really nervous. It wasn’t the distance that made me nervous, only the height. I felt strong in my body, and I knew I could do it. I just knew I’d need to fight my mind the whole way up.

Later that day the cloud cap cleared and we could see the mountain more clearly. Since I knew my body could cope, why was I scared? The more I thought about it rationally, the more I realised that I had done everything I could to prepare and I was going to be able to make it. My goal: to make the 3 hours 30 mins cut off time.

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Preparation

Race morning I felt great. I got up early, did some stretching, ate some toast with peanut butter and banana and headed off to the start line to watch the 40km & the 60km start. Unfortunately I missed it by 5 minutes, but getting there early gave me a chance to soak up the atmosphere and get excited. There’s a real energy around the start of a running event, and it is one of the main reasons I do it. I love solitary running in the wilderness, but running at an event gets the adrenaline pumping like nothing else. I couldn’t believe I was really going to do a mountain run. In Spain!

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20 mins until start time

My husband and kids arrived to see me off at the start line, and I could see my kids were worried. They told me they didn’t want me to get lost on the mountain, and that they were worried I’d come face to face with a bear or a wolf. We assured them that bears and wolves don’t live in these mountains and I gave them a kiss thinking ‘I don’t really want to get lost either’. I had the GPS map with me. I’d be okay.

As the race started, the excitement was palpable as competitors were shouting, cheering and dancing. So much more exuberant than the start of a race in Australia. This continued for the first two kms of the race where people would randomly cheer, or clap. It made it so exciting.

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Everyone lined up in the chute ready for the start

I was armed with a very specific plan of which inclines I was going to walk, and estimates of times at each kilometre. It all went out the window at the very start of the race. Another lesson in the values of plans, but the also the value of being able to abandon them. I had anticipated running the first two kilometres to give me a good starting pace, but there were so many people on the single trail, that it was bottlenecked. Everyone had to walk, and walk at a very slow pace and the trees were so close there was no overtaking to be done. I found this frustrating, but the random cheering and clapping kept me feeling good.

I powered up the first 5 kilometres. I felt really good. I ran where I could and walked with a strong pace where I needed to. I chatted in Spanish to a lady in front of me who was doing the 11km. She told me I was crazy to go as high as the 20km. I felt she was right.

At the 5km drink stop I was right on my target pace, but was already feeling the burn in my legs, and I knew this was the steepest part coming up.

Letting some people pass me, I slowed down. I was feeling the shallower breaths required by the altitude (I was already higher in altitude than I’d ever been before). I took each step carefully and slowly. I am glad I took this approach as it got me to the 7km mark with good spirits. I paused for some breaths on the way up. Each time I did, I knew it would slow my pace down, but I knew there was still a lot of steep climbing to go. I started hearing that voice in my head, ‘you can’t do this’, ‘you’re already exhausted, don’t keep going’, ‘just stop and rest awhile’. I listened to it, and said to myself ‘you can do this’, ‘you’ve done harder things before’, ‘you did everything you could to prepare’ and ‘one step at a time’. I repeated all of these like mantras and slowly made my way up. I had to constantly battle the demons in my mind. As the incline got steeper and the air got thinner, I had more of these mental demons come and face me. I started feeling like this was the hardest thing I had ever done, couldn’t understand why I had signed up, and that mountain running really wasn’t my thing. People overtook me. I kept climbing. The tree line ended and the large rocks appeared. I kept climbing. The air chilled and I kept climbing.

At the first peak, the views opened up and I started to feel truly alive. I stopped to take a couple of pictures. What’s the point of climbing a mountain if you don’t stop to appreciate it for a moment?

The air up there was fresh and clear, the views were spectacular, and I felt like nothing could stop me now. The final ascent was exhilarating and the burn in my legs and the huffing and puffing couldn’t affect me anymore. They were just a part of being, and no longer caused any doubts in my mind.

Finally, right at the top, there was a man, all rugged up agains the wind and the cold. In my limited Spanish, I understood him to say ‘You made it to the top, well done. All you have to do now is go down!’ I thanked him profusely. A quick look at my watch showed that I wouldn’t make the cut off time. I would have to run the last 10kms faster than I had ever run 10kms before. And I was already tired. Knowing that I would miss the cut off time released me from needing to keep a certain pace, however I didn’t want to be there all day, so I started running.

The first part of the descent was a steep technical trail, very rocky, and covered with loose shale. I took it slowly. I wasn’t so hooked up on pace that I needed to injure myself. I picked my way amongst the shale and when the track widened up a little, and the shale was less, I started to pick up the pace. I kept a really fast pace and reduced my average pace so far from 14 min/km to 11min/km. I felt good.

However around the 16km mark I hit a wall. I was feeling really tired. I walked some flat sections and tried to recuperate, and kept eating my snacks at regular intervals. I ran/walked a few kms, keeping a 10min/km pace but feeling really done in. The trail followed a fast flowing river, and even though I was tired, I was able to enjoy its beauty.

Soon, I started being overtaken by the 40km and 60km lead runners. They were all looking strong. I was impressed. They shouted ‘vamos’ – ‘let’s go’ and ‘venga’ – ‘come on’ if any of them saw me walking and it really got me going. I ran the last two kilometres feeling mentally strong (but physically worn out) and I really think it was due to the encouragement from these people who had run so much further (and harder) than me.

As I turned into the village, someone yelled to me ‘ya lo has hecho!’- ‘you have already done it’, and they were the best words I could have heard. With a renewed burst, I sprinted towards the finish line, and my kids joined me in the last few metres to cross with me holding my hands.

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Drinking a beer, looking at the mountain

I didn’t make the cut off time of 3:30, but made it in 3:47, and was really happy. It was the hardest thing I have ever done (let’s leave childbirth out of this) and I was so proud of how I managed it mentally and physically. I’m always telling my kids that bravery is when you are scared of something but do it anyway. I was the definition of brave that day.

Watching the rest of the runners come in while drinking a beer in the sun,I thought to myself, that’s it. I don’t need to do a mountain race again. Good. Tick. Done.

Two days later we went for a walk to the base of the mountain. It doesn’t look so big, I thought, I’d like to do that again.

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A few days later

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