7th November 2017, 9:00pm
It was a fairly easy sell, as far as holidays that happen to coincide with races go. “Fancy a trip to Menorca? There’s a 50 miler Saturday, then we can crash out for a few days in an all-inclusive.”
“Will it be warm and is there a beach?”
“Sounds good then. I’m in.”
19th May 2018, 04:30am
An early morning alarm, and breakfast with three other runners in the hotel – two Spanish, one Italian-Swiss. I can’t understand everything, but I pick up on one of my fellow CdC débutantes asking the only veteran among us why the course seems to take so long to complete (eight hours even for the winners) despite the relatively benign elevation profile. He replies that it’s not so much the hills but the ground itself that slows everyone down (more on that later). I eat as much ham and cheese as I think I can get away with before the others begin to ask questions, down a couple of coffees, and take another up to my room.
It’s still dark outside, but the Mediterranean air feels warm and thick with anticipation. We’re only a few minutes walk from the start line at Es Castell Football Club so I busy myself with my final kit checks, then nervously watch a few YouTube videos to kill the time before we need to set off.
The departure point of the 85km is situated at the major 100km aid station of the weekend’s longest distance (185km), and even at 05:45am it’s a hive of activity with tired runners arriving and being seen to by their friends and crews. I’ve read so much about the party atmosphere of assistance points in the big races such as UTMB and the Western States 100 and it was so exciting to be a part of something similar for the first time in my life.
I do some final kit checks and relieve myself, and before I know it the timeless start-line Europop is turned down and the race organiser is conducting his pre-race briefing (it was n Spanish, of course, so I didn’t understand a word – but then I rarely do in the UK either, over the din of excitable runners and murmuring spectators. As an aside, my favourite pre-race briefing of all time came at the start of one edition of the lovely and freezing cold Stoop Fell Race: “Right, you lot – I’m sure you all know where you’re going. But if you don’t, just follow Rob Jebb. Off you go!”).
The countdown comes and goes, and we jog out of the football ground and into the morning. A group of around twenty runners shoot off into the distance never to be seen again, and I settle into the most relaxed jog I possibly can given the circumstances. I go over the plan in my head – start slow, don’t panic when things start hurting, and enjoy exploring the island without being greedy to eat up the kilometres. Try to keep a lid on it to the first aid station at 15km and don’t be too cocky; enjoy the ride to the second at 29km; then aim to reach the half way point feeling as fresh as possible and preferably a few minutes ahead of schedule.
I’m very pleased to say I achieved all of the above without any real trouble. The path wound its way round the rolling green coastal headlands, inland through shady woodland, and along seafront promenades, and I enjoyed every step of it. I felt great, was fifteen minutes up on my ‘Plan A’ schedule, I’d seen my superstar girlfriend where we’d planned, and she was ready for me at Cala Santo Tomas (44km) for a nutrition restock and sock change.
So far, so good. But what was the plan for after half way?
Well, there wasn’t one really. How can you plan to cope with an experience you’ve never had? I’ve read books. I’ve watched videos. I’ve listened to more podcasts than I can remember. All of them seemed to offer variations on the same advice: It’s going to hurt – a lot – but don’t panic, keep moving forward, eating, and drinking, and you’ll get there. That’s the best plan you can have. They also said that something would inevitably go wrong.
The ten kilometres after half way were the first real challenge of the day. In and out of multiple steep-sided valleys with rocky switchbacks, I saw Plan A get further from my reach with each passing minute. But all things considered my legs still felt alright and I hoped I’d make up some time on the final flat 20km run in. I arrived at Cala Galdana after 55km with a sense of relief and hope that the underfoot conditions would improve.
No such luck. Was the ground getting rougher, or was I just struggling to pick up my feet?
It was definitely the ground. As we continued to head towards the exposed southwest of the island, the trail slowly changed from good forest paths and gravel tracks to a kind of abrasive volcanic rock which really got into the soles of your feet and made forward progress at any kind of speed quite tricky. By the 65km aid station at Son Saura my legs and feet were completely shot and I was unable to run, and my new and eternally cheerful friend Rhianon @rhianonruns (who I first met and passed within the first 3km) had caught up with me and with her local knowledge declared that there was at least 10km more of this surface before the finish. It was a pretty disheartening piece of news, to be honest, but it was delivered with such charm that I somehow still felt better about myself.
The miles ticked by very slowly, but it was a joy to see Helen once again at Cap d’Artrucx (73km). She helped lift my spirits for the final push up the final long section of nasty lava rock, into the outskirts of Cituadella, and the suburban roads leading to the finish line. Every house seemed to have a small swimming pool in the front garden, looking increasingly inviting as the afternoon wore on!
As I crossed the line of my first 50 miler, all of the feelings I had anticipated in the months leading up to the big day bubbled up: Pride, relief, exhaustion, emotion. I was pleased to limit myself to only a little cry once reunited with Helen, and after a sit down and some delicious paella we were soon headed to our hotel and began the serious business of abusing the all-inclusive bar at our hotel.
Although my finish time of just over 12 hours was some way off what I had originally hoped and planned for, I am happy with my preparation and performance for my first shot at the 50 mile distance. Naturally, had I known of the rough surfaces in the latter stages I would have taken the first half much more slowly – but I couldn’t have done any more research than I did and no photo I found could portray the reality of the terrain in those final miles. I’m excited to see in the future how I feel after seven or eight hours on my feet over more runnable paths,and I’m sure it won’t be a long time before my next ultra – but right now I’m enjoying some rest and recovery cycling before attempting London to Paris in 24 hours by bike in July – a very different challenge I’m sure, and of course variety is the spice of life.
So many thanks must go to the excellent Iffley Road Running Wear (for whom I am an ambassador) for the really great kit – I didn’t have any chafing at all – and also the race organisers and the army of amazing volunteers on the island. And the biggest thanks to my amazing
girlfriend fiancée Helen for putting up with me and looking after our puppy in the months of training, for crewing for me on the day, and for saying yes to the most important question I’ve ever asked.