I think I ran my perfect race last weekend. Remote, long, unmarked, through high and beautiful mountains, over unrelentingly technical terrain, Els 2900 was low-key and understated, like a classic fell running race being played out on a grand stage.
Admittedly, in terms of performance it was far from perfect – photographs taken during the final two hours are a stark reminder of how exhausted we were – but that only increases my desire to run the race again.
Traversing Andorra’s 7 highest peaks
This was the fourth edition of Els 2900, a linear race traversing the 7 highest peaks of Andorra (all over 2,900m) from the Estanys de la PeraHut to the Coma Pedrosa hut. Depending on the route one chooses, this works out as roughly 70km with 7,000m of ascent. The event is small (27 pairs this year) and prides itself on being a true mountaineering challenge.
Konrad and I travelled out to run Els 2900 as ‘Team inov-8’, with our race support crew consisting of our 10-month old daughter Rowan, her babička (Czech for ‘grandma’), and our Zurich-based mountain friend Loic Tregan (thanks to whom we have the photos, and whose family generously hosted us before and after the event).
Proceedings started on Friday morning, when competitors assembled for the climb to the starting hut. Since I am still breastfeeding Rowan, and had until last weekend never spent a night without her, we deemed it would be in everyone’s best interests for her to remain with me until the last possible moment. So Rowan, babička and Loic joined us for the 3-hour hike up to the Estanys Hut, where they pitched a tent and cheered us off at midnight. They then hiked down the following morning, drove down the valley and climbed up to the Coma Pedrosa hut to await our arrival (apart from Loic who went photographing). All in a weekend’s work for the Team inov-8 support crew!
Using old-fashioned map & compass method
The race started at midnight, under a clear starlit sky, in cool but still conditions. This wasn’t your typical continental race, there was no music, and no crowds cheering us off. As we started at a remote mountain hut, the only people present were the hut guardians, race organisers and a couple of partners and friends of competitors who had made the hike up. With a quick countdown and an ‘off you go’ from the race organiser, for whom this race is clearly a labour of love, we were on our way.
A line of torches was soon stretched along the ridgeline heading towards the first summit (Pic de la Portelleta 2,905m). Thanks to the virus-expanding property of small children (Rowan in this case), we both started the race with a chest cold, thus a steady stream of coughing accompanied our progress, no doubt compounded by the altitude. The route was rocky, in places steep enough to scramble with hands for purchase, and the big boulder-strewn descents reminded me of the third pap on the Jura Fell Race. We passed a refuge, and then commenced a long undulating grassy traverse such as one might encounter in the Lake District, before dropping steeply through the woods on single-track path into and along the valley.
In the still of the early hours we passed through a sleeping town, and then climbed up alongside a stream towards the second summit (Pic de l’Estanyó 2,915m). We passed several faster teams multiple times, all of whom seemed to be navigating based on a GPS trace whereas we were using the time-tested old-fashioned map and compass method. We were glad of this advantage, since it would have been hard to describe our ‘running’ as such – the 1,900m climb seemed to take us forever, and the many false summits made for repeated disappointment. As we reached the summit the sky was lightening in the east, and soon we were treated to a magnificent sunrise, casting the mountains around us into shades of gold.
Feasting on soup, sushi, cola and apples
As we continued we started to meet other teams coming the opposite way – those who had taken the route along the road, and were thus tackling the second and third summits in the opposite order (as an aside, I find it quite bewildering that anyone would chose to run along the road on this race – the difference in time is at best marginal, and it seems completely at odds with the remainder of the adventure to do so – but I hate road running, so I’m clearly not impartial).
We negotiated a tricky scree slope, icy with verglas, before an easy climb up to the third summit (Pic de la Serrera 2,912m). From there we took a direct line down into the valley, filling our shoes with scree in the process, and dropped onto a pretty little path, which snaked downwards through autumn trees towards the first aid station at the Refugi de Sorteny. We arrived there in good spirits, and feasted on soup, sushi, cola and apples. The race had taken us 9 hours to this point, and we were more than halfway through (42km), but as Pavel (Pavel Paloncy, who we know as a friend) pointed out as we were setting off again, ‘the hard bit was still to come’.
A traffic jam of cows confronted us on our path from the refuge. Watching their swinging gait from behind I found myself reminded of Rowan’s sturdy toddle, and felt a little lonely for her, after our first night apart. There was little time to brood however, as the gradient picked up again as we approached our fourth summit (Pic de Font Blanca 2,904m).
On with the harnesses and helmets
This was one of the rare places in which the race route was specified – we had to climb a random couloir (a steep, narrow gully) on the mountain’s SE face. There is nothing special about the couloir, it is not the only couloir on the face, it is not more or less pleasant than the other couloirs, it isn’t the most obvious way up the mountain nor is it the fastest… it just seems the race organiser likes it, so we had to find it and would incur a time penalty if we failed to do so. It turned out to be a nice line, a bit loose but straightforward, and we made reasonable time, grateful for the opportunity of some shade.
We arrived at the summit with a couple of other teams and sat awhile, nobody appearing particularly motivated to move on. Eventually we got up and continued downwards, to the second aid station at the Coma d’Arcalis ski area, where we collected our harnesses and helmets which were obligatory for the final, most technical section of the course.
Up until this point we had made steady (although not fast) progress, and were in the front half of the field, with around 5 hours left to run. There were 3 route choices now open to us – the longest going into France, a shorter route with more ascent in Andorra, or the most direct route along the border ridge. We opted for the latter, although not without reservations – we definitely felt the lack of a recce at this stage.
The wrong choice
As it was, the ridge was initially straightforward and we made rapid progress, skirting a minor summit to the left and then traversing a rocky slope on the right. We were pleasantly surprised to see Pavel’s team ahead of us, and we followed them over the next summit and down into the col. It was at this stage that things went wrong… With no knowledge of the ridge ahead (up until this point we had been given some suggestions, by a friend), we elected to drop into the valley on our left to reach the col connecting the 5th (Pic de Medacorba 2,913m) and 6th (Roca Entravessada 2,928m) summits. The map we had suggested this was doable, however as we descended the slope became ever steeper, and the grassy banks gave way to shelves of rock, eventually barring our way completely.
Not for the first time did we berate the lack of worldwide ordnance survey maps! We faffed around for a bit, wandering back (no go), down (definitely no go), and eventually traversing round on a dodgy line to reach the valley below. We’d lost around an hour of time, a good chunk of elevation, but most critically a lot of motivation. In addition, 17 hours of laboured breathing had taken their toll, and despite our slow progress (something like 2 miles per hour in the end!), we were pretty done in.
The subsequent climb felt disproportionately long, and we found ourselves stopping frequently to rest. By the col we were seriously considering abandoning, and morale was at an all time low as we spotted Pavel’s team climbing up towards Roca Entravessada, having successfully negotiated the ridge and previous summit.
Lost voices and a reunion with Rowan
We hauled ourselves up over the hedgehog-like Pic de Medacorba, and then descended at snail’s pace back to the col. Our race was saved by a combination of sweet tea (offered to us by the marshal there), meeting Loic (who assured me that Rowan was fine), and the realisation that it would be almost as long to go around as to continue over the remaining summits.
Thanks to the need for scrambling and the enthusiastic shouts of the summit marshals, the climb of Roca Entravessada passed quickly. The cut off (5.30pm) for entering the Cresta dels Malhivernsridge had been and gone, so we automatically accepted a 45-minute time penalty and continued on the straightforward line to the final summit (Pic de Coma Pedrosa 2,944m).
Having been coughing all day, we had by this stage lost our voices and were communicating with weary grunts, or nothing at all. Darkness fell as we started the descent, slowly moving towards the lights below. The final gentle slope might as well have been summit number 8, considering the speed at which we ascended it, but eventually we were at the refuge, running the final few metres to the waiting Rowan. We finished in 20:40 (plus 45 minutes penalty), 13thof the 15 teams that finished (27 started), and first mixed team.
The next morning it was snowing. After breakfast and prize giving (on a rock, in he amphitheatre of mountains) we all hiked down together, sharing stories, and that general feeling of camaraderie that comes with tough days in wild places.
Afternote: Rowan was also clearly inspired by the weekend, as she took her first independent steps the next day. Training already 😉
Kit used by Jasmin & Konrad
We both ran in ROCLITE 305 shoes, which were super comfy throughout our epic adventure and gripped well on the different terrains (except the verglas, obviously). The weather was fantastic for most of the race, but when the clouds pulled in at sunset we were very glad of the STORMSHELL waterproof jackets we were carrying in our packs (I had the RACE ELITE 10 VEST and Konrad had the bigger ALL TERRAIN PRO VEST 0-15). Big thanks to inov-8 for their generous support!
*All photos within this blog post were taken by Loic Tregan. See more photos below.