Sunday, December 03, 2017

Burgos Ultra Stage Race – The Way of Legends

This race popped up on my Facebook timeline on July 21st. I innocently “liked” it.

"The Way of Legends is a six day, fully catered, ultra stage race...and consists of 5 successive stages longer than the legendary marathon distance of 42km followed by a final much shorter 6th stage along the historic pilgrimage path of Saint James to the finish line at the Cathedral of Burgos, a magnificent world heritage site. The Way of Legends is a fantastic oportunity to experience the natural beauty, culture, and gastronomy of this diverse region...The Way of Legends traverses this unique region with each stage crossing through a different landscape and engulfed by a unique Local Legend"

Burgos is one of the most beautiful towns of the Camino de Santiago, with the most stunning cathedral that I have ever seen. Jenny and I finished our camino there last year and spent a couple of days relaxing and sight-seeing and we re-started there this year; it holds many happy memories. Four 50km days, a marathon and a short 13km run finishing at the cathedral sounded like my kind of race. This is essentially how I train for the Spine – multiple long back-to-backs

A couple of days later, race director Manu Pastor messaged me.

Hello Richard, how are you? I see that you have liked my Facebook page about the 6 day stage race which I organize in Spain. After last year’s very successful first edition, registration is now open for the second edition. This is a unique event in the North of Spain starting on the 13th of October 2017 and traversing the historic region of Burgos. The event is not only a really tough challenge but also a cultural and gastronomical journey through this historic region passing by castles, many ancient monuments and medieval villages and finishing after 254km +7000m in six days on the Cathedral steps of the beautiful city of Burgos. Different to all other stage races this one has nice comfortable camps with beds and hot showers and plenty of delicious food cooked freshly everyday by my team of professional chefs. The unique small/family nature of the event with only 36 places available make it also a fantastic social event with very interesting people from all over the world participating. I´m sure you will love this event. I hope you will consider taking part. Cheers! Salud! Manu”

Hmmm…sounded good, but I wasn’t sure. After a few week’s pondering it over, Jenny persuaded me to enter. She knew I needed a break away and what better than running in a beautiful area near the wonderful Camino. I entered in mid-August.

I’ve had a pretty torrid race year. Training well but so many disappointments in races – ill before the Spine, couldn’t be arsed DNF in the Viking Way, 190 brilliant miles in the Spine Fusion then catastrophe, couldn’t be arsed DNF in Ultra GB, then a decent 2nd in the Cumbria Way Ultra.

A week before the race, I was considering pulling out. Did I really want to put my body and, more to the point, my mind, through it all again? My knee and both groins have been getting gradually worse all year and I should probably have rested more through the year. Jenny told me to treat it as a holiday and not a race. As I departed Manchester airport on Friday morning, this was my plan – a holiday, a chance to embrace all I love about ultrarunning.

No racing, oh no, not me…

I met Maik and Mundi from Switzerland at Madrid airport and we caught the bus to Burgos together. Manu met us at the bus station in Burgos and Luis drove us to Race HQ, a lovely Casa Rurale in Trashaedo del Tozo. Several runners were already in situ and we were soon all chatting over lunch served by our host, the wonderful Maria. Through the afternoon, more runners arrived and it was obvious that many knew each other from previous stage races. I was becoming aware of a completely different group of ultra-runners and soon was hearing about many exotic sounding races…memory banks engaged!

I was rooming with Matt from LA for the first couple of nights with Keith and Kaare opposite – much hilarity from all sides.

Matt and I got up early and went for a little walk in the first rays of dawn. 

The rest of Saturday was taken up by kit checks by Edward and Annie, medical checks by Laura and Helen, race briefings, general relaxing and eating, and a little stretching. Everyone, runners and support team, was so friendly; I felt very much at ease and comfortable. This was going to be fun.

The food was magnificent. I decided to embrace the vegan options for the week. Not sure why, but it seemed like a good idea – so much effort had gone into the preparation. Lunch in particular was fabulous. We all had our fill of soup, bread, salad and tortilla...and then the paella appeared...and then pudding. We weren't going to go hungry.

Sunday morning. Up at 5:30 for the 8:00 start. Rather alarmed by some boy-on-boy taping in the room opposite.

Muesli with oat milk (vegan!), bread (vegan) with honey. Discussion on whether honey is vegan – apparently it has bee ‘spit’ in it so some vegans won’t eat it. I decided to be a honey-eating vegan!

Day 1: The legend of the lost city of Bravum
48km from the Celtic hill fort city of Ulaña to the village of Sedano.

At the start line we were met by ancient Druids, their ancient dialect translated by Manu using Google Translate. We were given poison berries to take in event of capture.

We set of across a limestone plateau in the breaking dawn. I felt very spritely as we negotiated our way down a technical descent, soon becoming accustomed to the fabulous course marking – ribbon and purple biodegradable paint.

Once on the flat, I set the pace in a totally non-racing manner, with Keith and Maik in pursuit. We made good time to CP1 at 16km. I pulled ahead on the first decent hill and then was overtaken by Peter Osterwalder from Switzerland. Coming down to CP2, Vero silently drew level with me. Possibly the quietest runner ever – so light on her feet.  I powered up another decent hill and was surprised to catch Peter on the descent. Going up again, I pulled ahead, and cruised into CP3 in full non-racing, just-enjoying-it mode!! Or not…

The course was fabulous. All on trail through wonderful countryside – limestones plateaus, canyons, ancient villages – just beautiful. I was loving it

My knee and both groins were hurting and felt stiff. I just hoped they would last the week.

I covered the final 9km nicely and was chuffed to bits to win the first stage. Peter finished 3 minutes later, then Vero at 8 minutes, followed by Keith and Maik.

Racing? Not me!?


I managed to have a cold bath in possibly the smallest bath in the world, had a little lunch, and then we sat outside in the afternoon sun, cheering the other runners in. 

I was rooming with Matt again, and we got on really well.

I was in my element. Good Richard = Loud Richard = Happy Richard, was very much in residence. As Jenny describes it, I was being "Donkey"

Fabulous dinner again as it would be all week.

Day 2: The legend of Rodrigo's treasure, the last Visigoth king
51km from the stunning noble village of Sedano to the medieval town of Poza De la Sal.

The slower 6 runners were due to start at 08:00, with the remainder starting at 08:30. As became the habit for the week, Matt, Keith, Kaare and myself were the first to rise, having breakfast by 06:00. Unfortunately, Kaare had had to pull out of the race with a bad knee, but was staying on for the week to be on the support team and he was a worthy addition.

Today was forecast to be sunny and hot and we were supposedly running on exposed high plateaus so it could be a tough day. I felt incredibly loose as we set off. 

Synchronised running!

I scampered over the riverside paths and was soon setting the pace again. I passed Matt, the fastest of the earlier starters, just after CP1 at 10 miles. So far so good.

Peter passed me shortly afterwards with his by now familiar staccato running style and that was the last I was to see of him til the finish.

Amazingly, knees and groins were magically healed – perhaps the now shorter stride was beneficial. After the cool start, it was definitely warming up – it was going to be hot. Today’s terrain was even better than yesterday. We were high up with continual views of rock formations and canyons.

The stretch between CP2 and CP3 was a long one. It was hot and I was feeling the pace. First Maik than Keith went past. Keith, in particular, looked on a mission and he was soon out of sight. I ate and drank and ate some more and got going again, overtaking Maik. Approaching CP3, I could see Keith still in residence. I moved quickly through but Keith had obviously spotted me too, and was soon out of sight again.

As we descended along the last few kilometres to the finish, we went past an old castle. I had to answer the call of nature annoying close to the finish! 

Passing through a picturesque village, I managed to get lost – as did several of the front runners. Apparently the binmen had removed the tape marking the route! 

I then sailed past an obvious left turn with copious route markings and wasted a few minutes back-tracking. I finally crossed the line in 3rd place, 30 minutes behind Peter and 8 behind Keith. I was still in 2nd place, just 6 minutes ahead of Keith.

A tough day at the office due to the heat. We were staying in a school building; bunk beds in a dorm. Showered and changed, fed and watered, we cheered others in and enjoyed the autumn sunshine

The camaraderie of the race was very apparent. Runners and support team all one big family. The race had a great feel, a great vibe.

Day 3: The legend of the fratricidal battle of Atapuerca in 1054 AD.
47.5km from the medieval town of Poza de la Sal to the historic village of Olmos de Atapuerca

The days were settling into a pattern now. Wake up, breakfast, stretch, sort out kit, pack bags, get dressed, stretch some more….RUN….shower, dress, eat, chat, watch, relax, stretch, eat, chat, relax, stretch some more, chat, sleep etc.

After breakfast and having sorting out all my gear, I put some music on just to focus the mind. The body was ready to go; I just needed to summon the mental willingness to run 30 miles again. I could feel myself welling up a bit so I gave myself a good talking to! I decided to try out my newly-found yoga “skills” and miraculously I was able to fully flex my knee for the first time in years.

It was an overcast morning with a decent chance of some rain.

Right from the start, Peter pushed ahead. We all let him go – he was obviously on a mission. Nary also seemed to have abundant energy as she pushed hard. We were on some great undulating trail; Nary, Keith and myself with Maik and Rob in close attendance. Going through CP1, Keith and I were chatting away. 

 We then followed several kilometres of hard packed trail following the line of a disused railway, all gradually uphill. Keith stopped for a “comfort break”, I jogged on. I was really pleased to run the whole of the uphill section. I didn’t look round once, but was sure that I must have left any chasers behind. Turning off into a village and CP2, I glanced back and saw Keith and Maik 200 metres back! I went straight through the checkpoint, full of energy and full of running. I was now feeling great.

Passing through CP3, I hadn’t seen another runner for several kilometres and was still feeling great; loving the freedom, loving the race, loving the countryside and loving running.

As the route traversed up a long valley, I caught a glimpse of Peter and estimated him to be about 4 minutes ahead. Shortly later I caught a glimpse of Keith and Rob – I guessed they were 3-4 minutes back. I’d had a good section. Topping the valley, I began to feel weary. Onto the plateau, and there a significant headwind. This really sapped my energy and I felt my pace drop right off. After several kilometres of this, we started to drop down towards the finish at Atapuerca.

As usual, Manu’s mother and her entourage were manning the final major road crossing. I could see Keith closing rapidly and having safely negotiated the main road (and Manu’s mother!), I paused to let Keith make up the final 100 metres. This was the nature of the “race”. Although it was a race – yes, ok, I was racing – we were all very much friends together, having a great time on a great event. Having pushed hard, we decided to walk up the last hill into Atapuerca. Then we saw Rob, obviously putting in a big effort…so we decided we ought to run into the finish. Keith and I finished together with Rob a minute or so behind.

Another great day. And the forecast rain hadn’t materialised.

The night’s accommodation was fabulous – spread over 2 buildings. As usual, Maria directed the finishing runners to their rooms. I was sharing again with Matt and also with Hiro who had joined the party late. With 3 lots of dirty running kit, the room soon developed a mature odour.

Another fun evening was had. The food was fabulous and the company great.

Day 4: The Legend of St Millan, the hermit warrior, patron saint of Castille

52.5km from the medieval battle fields of Atapuerca to the mountain village of Pineda de la Sierra.

The weather was forecast to change today. From mid-morning we could expect significant rain with a noticeable drop in temperature. This coincided with us going over the high point of the week, San Millan 2130m with an associated exposed ridge. I knew Manu was concerned about the potential conditions and the risk to physical well-being. I had all the right gear and am obviously used to cold, wet conditions. I was more concerned about the effect of the rain on my mental well-being.

I was tired. I don’t think any of us slept well in our cosy room. Physically I felt better than expected but I was missing my Jenny. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks as she was in Costa Rica with work and we hadn’t spoken for a couple of days. After breakfast, we managed to have a chat. I was feeling a bit emotional and Jenny told me to run with her in my heart. That made me feel better. Also, we would initially be on the Camino, so that was another reason for good spirits.

Setting off, Peter pushed on ahead. After 10-15 minutes we joined my beloved Camino de Santiago and I immediately felt happy. We followed it backwards – in reverse direction, not running backwards! Keith and I were running together again and I explained to him why I was saying “Buen Camino” to everyone. We were moving a fair lick and I felt great. Through Ages, where Jenny and I had a lovely evening last year, and on through St Juan de Ortega, which I still have absolutely no idea how to pronounce. No time to visit the lovely church as we pushed on. 

Onto some fairly heavy-duty clay trail and it started to rain. As it became steadier, I stopped to put my waterproof jacket on. I thought I’d quickly catch back up with Keith but I just couldn’t seem to get going again. Soon Rob, Maik, and Vero passed me. I began to get annoyed at the weather, at myself, and probably at some other stuff as well. Approaching CP1, I was beginning to feel very miserable, very low. To make matters worse, I’d sweated out my waterproof which was now essentially functionless. At the CP I just wanted to stop.

I tried to summon some enthusiasm from somewhere. I ate. I drank. Then I remembered that I was running with Jenny in my heart…and that just made me sob. My spirit was draining. The section to CP2 was simply horrendous – I had completely lost my focus and lost my mojo. I was wet, cold and miserable.

Checkpoint 2 was at a bar. I went straight in without saying a word. Laura followed me in, took one look at me and offered me a hug. Well, that opened the floodgates. I was broken. I just wanted to stop. To sit down in the warm, dry bar. But I also wanted to minimise my time loss. I was racing. I didn’t want anyone else to think I was pathetic. I wanted to go. I wanted to stop. I didn't know what I wanted!

Up to know happy, cheerful, bubbly Richard had been out to play. Now it was time for miserable, weak, insecure Richard to make an overdue appearance. Quite what the locals made of my mental disintegration I will never know.

“Let it go, Richard”

So I did… after 20 minutes of self-berating.

I had a coffee and some tortilla – which caused much consternation as it most certainly wasn’t vegan ham and cheese.

The chocolate muffin probably wasn’t vegan either! Runners came and went. I dried out, warmed up and put more layers on. Further psychotherapy from Laura and Ana.

After 45 minutes, and several false starts, and in heavy rain, I set off on the 10km uphill section to the summit ridge.

I now had energy and I monstered the hill. Arriving at CP3, I no longer cared about time or postion, and had another 15 minutes in the warmth.

The next section was an exposed 5km ridge. It was very windy and the temperature had noticeably dropped. I was now in my element, almost on home turf. I skipped along the ridge in no time. Many found this the worst part of the day; I’d already been there and this was my favourite bit. On the long run down to the finish, I passed Nary who looked very cold.

Into the village and the finish. Relief. Just relief.

I was now in 5th place overall, having been overtaken by Keith, Rob and Vero. I didn't really care.

If I’d had a tough day, others had it far worse. Jasmine and Hiro didn’t arrive until 20:00 having been helped off the mountain by Ana amongst others. They were very wet and very cold. Hiro, in particular, was verging on hypothermic. Respect.

Day 5: The Legend of “El Cid”, the mercenary knight and epic hero

42km from the mountain village of Pineda de la Sierra to the Monastery of San Pedro Cardeña.
Just a marathon today!
Woke up feeling very tired; very weary. Yesterday had taken a lot out of me physically and especially mentally. At least all my kit was dry again. Everyone seemed pretty tired too. I still felt a bit wobbly as we prepared for the off. Laura gave me a pep talk and a sticky heart – I think several of us were wearing these today!

As we started I had absolutely no intention of racing at all. I intended to take it easily and just enjoy the run. I managed the first part, but the second bit was an abject failure.

I started at the back and ran on my own for a few minutes. Miraculously, we were greeted with a beautiful morning and could actually see the mountain we’d been on the day before. 

As I got into my running, I overtook several runners before running with Mundi for a while. At some stage I was up to 5th place but then it clouded up and this seemed to completely drain me.  Several others quickly overtook me. Coming into CP1, I had the feeling this was going to be a long day.

 I now felt very flat – no energy, no drive. 

I kept on hearing strange sounds coming from the woods behind me and kept on turning round to see what it was. All I could see was Nary a little way back. I stopped to ask her whether she could hear anything. She said it was her! She was chatting and singing to herself for motivation – she was having a tough day too. I ran with Nary for a while as she continued to chatter away. However, I slowed to a walk and left her to her singing!

For the next 10km, Sander and I played leap frog. I would run for a bit and overtake him. I would walk for a bit and he would overtake me. I was feeling miserable and I wasn’t having fun. My legs didn’t want to run. They felt tight and stiff. It was a war of attrition but I was going to win.

At CP 2, Sander had his customary beer. Anyone who can run an entire multi-day ultra in sandals and drink beer en route gets my respect.
Just after CP2 the sun came out again and seemed to give me energy. I finally got running properly. Coming down to CP3, I decided I needed sugar. As I entered the bar I was met by a beautiful sight…

Happiness is…

Now happy with my lot, I jogged along admiring the countryside, counting the kilometres down. The last few were painful and I was very happy to get to the finish at the beautiful Monastery of San Pedro Cardeña.

I finished in 5:15, probably my slowest marathon ever but I didn’t really care. I had finished and there was just tomorrow’s 13km “fun run” to go.

The monastery was fabulous. We were staying in single rooms and a monk gave us a guided tour. However the highlight was the individual cleansing that we all received from Oscar, the shaman. A lovely man and a very moving experience.

We had a lively evening. With the racing done, we sampled the copious supplies of beer and wine.

Just a non-competitive 13km jog into Burgos left.


Day 6: The legendary Camino de Santiago

13km from the Cistercian Monastery of San Pedro Cardeña to the World heritage site of the Burgos Cathedral.

There was a noticeably cheerful and relaxed air around the start. Just a relaxed jog into Burgos and the finish line. Many of the support staff were running with us today.

Lily going through her pre-race preparations!

We started off nice and easily, chatting away. After 2 very tough days at the office, I felt surprisingly spritely. I had changed into Hoka’s and I felt so much more comfortable…if only I’d worn them the day before…

Max started to inject a little pace, and after a bit of to and fro-ing, I joined Max, Peter, and Stephan in a little group at the front. Stephan and Peter picked up the pace a little and Max dropped back. With 5km to go, we were most definitely racing…in a non-competitive way! I committed myself mentally. This was going to be purely for me. A kind of redemption, proof to myself that I wasn’t weak, that I could indeed still do it. I gradually cranked up the pace as I do in my tempo training runs. It felt great to be really stretching out. With about 500m to go, I heard Peter’s breathing and footsteps fall a few metres back. As we turned towards the final bridge, I thought I was going to be sick; I was pretty much on the limit.

As I crossed the line, I felt the disappointment of the previous 2 days disappear. I had left a lot out there and it felt so good to finish on a high.

It took several minutes for me to get my breath back.
There was great camaraderie at the finish line. We had all gone through a wonderful journey, full of highs with a few lows thrown in for good measure.

Lily does her post race stretching with Nora

There's always one!

After the photoshoot on the cathedral steps, it was back to the hotel, followed by a fabulous afternoon with good friends in beautiful Burgos. Tapas, beer, ice cream and a bit more beer.

If you leave you phone unattended...
The evening’s dinner and presentation was a great way to crown off the event. I felt so proud as I received my finishers shirt the medal.
The medal, a bespoke design by Oscar, represents a helmet and therefore a legend, but when turned upside down represents the phoenix and rebirth. Rising from the ashes…it felt very pertinent.

After dinner, we retired to the local bars. For some reason, I found myself drinking very large gin and tonics. After several of these I developed the ability to dance like a professional well, that’s how I remember it!
Sander and I then sought out a kebab (we’re athletes don’t you know) and at 04:45 we rocked back at the hotel.
There were a few sore heads at breakfast!
I had a simply wonderful week. I rediscovered my love of ultra-running but more than anything I rediscovered the lost art of having fun.
All I can say is thank you so much to Manu and to every single one of his merry bunch of helpers.

I am so glad I liked that Facebook page.

I am so glad Manu messaged me.


After 10 days rest, I went for a couple of short runs, and my groin/hip finally decided it had had enough. I now haven’t run at all for approaching 5 weeks, and am unlikely to do so before Christmas at best. There has been minimal improvement. Right now, I am feeling fairly pessimistic about my running future as I watch my fitness disappear and my belly appear.

But…if that happens to be my last ultra or my last competitive ultra, then what a race to finish on 

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely, in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride”
Hunter S Thompson

No comments:

Post a Comment