Running 21:17:30  100.0 km (12:47 / km) +8848m 8:51 / km
Canfranc-Canfranc. Well that was off the scale. Survived just barely. The bonkers route breaks down into five sections, each across a different set of hills.
Section 1 ~3hrs
Start at midnight outside Canfranc Station, blissfully ignorant of what is to come. Lamp fail during the brief run-out through the streets put me in a mild panic, but quickly solved. At least that put me safely back in the lead group, avoiding the temptation of going out too hard. No chance to overtake on the switchbacks up VK no. 1, so cruised along feeling nice and easy and fantasising about a comfortable day ahead. Soon hit the fellside and a very steep tussocks climb to some fixed ropes and scrambling, nothing too serious. First downhill was in a gully on bleached white jagged limestone boulders, the first hint of things to come. Nice and quick through aid station 1 followed by a km of descent on nice rolling switchbacks. Tucked in with a couple of others in 4-7 place. All in all, a fairly gentle start.
Section 2 ~5hrs
Straight into a V2K. I have never run up a hill that big before, so took it cautiously, but still pulled away from my company and quickly found myself in 3rd. The climb soon ramped up into a steep scramble up some rocky gullies which led out onto a more gentle open fell side. The view ahead was pretty spectacular with the reflective markers stretching up into the clear night sky and a red flashing dot marking out 2nd place a good 10 mins up the hill. Felt good and pushed on a bit, eager to open up the gap behind, particularly as I knew they would be able to see me up ahead. Reached a summit, had a brief celebration, then realised that there was no CP. Turns out that this was merely a small hill that didn't even register on the route profile. Down to a col and then I could see the reflectors stretching up another massive wall above my head, red dot still well ahead. Such moments of optimism followed by crushing reality would become a feature of the day. The final section of climb was very tough up to Pena Collerada at 2883m and I felt as though I was going in slow motion to avoid blowing up. No ill effects from the altitude, but I was eager to plunge back down to some richer air. Another jagged limestone scree gully ensued, ripping feet and shoes to shreds.
Through the aid station quickly and up the next big climb to La Moleta, red dot pulling further away in front. No sign of light from behind though. Guts not behaving, and struggling to eat enough with yesterday's food heavy in my belly. But dawn was breaking on the summit ridge with orange skies revealing the surrounding peaks. That, and a really fun descent down some more runnable trails to the next aid station put me in a good frame of mind.
Section 3 ~4hrs
The next climb was on tussocky grass up a remote boulder-strewn valley that felt a little like the Highlands, apart from the odd limestone formations towering above. I was feeling good, but scared of being caught as I sensed that the good feeling was superficial and could easily be shattered. I could see the aid station below me for a long way and eventually spotted a runner around 20mins back. Good. Purposeful to the next ridge, where I glanced back and caught sight of the runner again, now not not more than 10 mins back. Not good. Ran as fast as I dared to the next aid station and managed to stay in front, but the gap was definitely dwindling. Only when I arrived, opened my drop bag and started repacking my food did I realise that I had joined the route of the 75km race and a handful of the leading runners came piling in to join me. Phew. That was not to be the end of my paranoia though.
I ran with them for a bit to the start of the next valley, where we started a long climb up to Vertice de Anayet on a rocky and well used GR. The valley was red hot with no breeze, and I was concerned about water with a good 2hrs+ to the next aid station. A steep climb up the jaws of the valley took us to a plateau, where I got a shock, realising that the peak was much further away than I had hoped. The landscape had turned to spectacular red rock, but with no surface water anywhere to be seen. Decided to ration my supplies, but was feeling parched, and a brown pee near the summit confirmed my fears. Ran out of water soon after and couldn't face eating without any fluid. Only thing for it was to run the V1.5K descent fast to get to the river far below in the valley. Hammered it down and filled up at a dodgy trickle near the bottom before a few more kms to the aid station. Now feeling decidedly jaded.
Section 4 ~4.5hrs
Straight into another VK and fearing the scale of what was still to come. Against all the odds I felt pretty good on the switchbacks climb and managed to run bits of it. Now running with 75km and 45km runners, so plenty of company and lots of slower marathoners to catch, which was encouraging. Once onto the fellside it got steeper, but I was still moving OK and the summit seemed to come and go relatively painlessly. This part of the race is a bit of a blur to be honest, so perhaps I was just zoning out. Once up, water, or lack of, became an issue again and I was reduced to the occasional sip to help get some food down. My capacity of 1l just wasn't enough for the 2hr+ gaps between aid stations on a hot day. I had been looking forward to a gently rolling ridge on the next bit, but it was nothing of the sort. Instead it was rocky, scrambly and the ups and downs were far steeper (and bigger) than I had been expecting. Progress was slow.
We dropped off the ridge to the next aid station, before rejoining it for more rock hopping along some knife-edge sections. Having the company of a drone put a spring in my step for a while. Eventually we made it to another VK of descent on steep grass and rock. Up until this point, my legs had been relatively well behaved. In fact, I was amazed not to have felt anything untoward from my knees or quads, but this was where things started to get a bit sore. Still moving OK though and even managed to enjoy a short rolling bit of runable respite to the next aid station.
Section 5 ~4.5hrs
The reality was hitting home that I was going to be out well over 20hrs and would be finishing in the dark; not a prospect that I had anticipated. But at least I knew that if I left this aid station I would finish one way or another, the options for dropping out distinctly limited beyond this point. I knew we faced another VK, which loomed over the ski resort, where I was busy trying to stuff watermelon into my face. 'What's the climb like?' I asked the marshal. 'The most technical of the race. But it's very beautiful.' Was the answer I really didn't want. On the plus side, I managed a glorious full-blown poo on the way out of the resort. Hauled myself up a fairly gentle first section (now relying completely on poles) before hitting some 45-degree limestone pavement, a chossy boulder-strewn scree gully and finally a steep scramble out and back to the summit, the marshals blowing a whistle to make sure I didn't miss it out. Back at altitude again and all feeling comically slow motion. The paranoia was kicking in again and I kept stopping to scan the slopes behind me, desperately fearful of being chased down.
The summit came and went and I plunged down another rocky gully for the first of two VK descents divided by a final 400m climb. My quads were smashed now and it was a real struggle to maintain form to keep rock hopping. Eventually heard a whistle behind and calculated that I had about 25 minutes gap. With 11km to go, that should be enough, surely. Dropped down to a river valley before facing the final wall of the race, which looked impossibly high. The feelings of elation were starting to kick in, which got me so far, but the final steep scramble was pretty desperate. Not helped by the fact that I had spotted a runner in the valley, now not more than 10 minutes behind me and closing fast on the climb. Surely I wasn't going to lose my placing after more than 15 hours alone? By the ridge I could tell that the gap had closed further and I was now running scared with a final VK switchbacks descent remaining. I resolved to do everything I could to hold on and set off hard, every step now hurting my poor quads. Head torch on as I came into the trees and I kept pushing as hard as I could, hearing the occasional clatter from above. I stacked it quite hard at one point, but no damage done. The massive station, illuminated in bright purple far below, just would not get any closer. The switchbacks just kept on coming relentlessly and I decided that I was stuck in a kind of loop that would never end. I was straining for every sound from above, trying to work out if I had a big enough gap to hold on. I had given up hope of ever making it to the bottom, when the trail ended and deposited me on the street. A final few hundred metres to the station and it was all over. After a couple of minutes a 75km runner came rolling in, my ghost pursuer, who I had been running scared of for the past two hours. Oh well, at least he kept me motivated to the very end!
Crashed badly after the finish and got the shakes. Had to huddle over a kerosine stove for a while and then abandoned plans to camp by pleading my way into a closed youth hostel for a shower and a bed. The shakes continued into the night, but eventually settled down and felt a bit better in the morning. Never been so completely smashed by a course!
That was quite a race. Fantastic organisation, great marshals and volunteers and a nice relatively low-key atmosphere. Definitely recommended!