It was January and I’d just learned that there was no space at the Pilgrim Challenge, I was a little annoyed at myself for not having booked in earlier but hey-ho. I therefore did what I always do and looked on the ahotu website for race listings and there right in front of me was the UTBCN. Interestingly I knew that Lynne, Anna and Nia) family of the GingaNinja were soon to be back full time in Barcelona and so I suggested we go see them at the same time as me taking part in what looked like a pretty tough ultra marathon.
As I was paying for flights the GN agreed and our hosts confirmed that it would be okay to crash out at their place for a few days and visit.
I entered and booked flights within minutes of confirmation that I had all the required green lights.
It seemed then like no time at all until I was stood at the back of the start line for the UTBCN with no expectations other than to start.
Although my training had been going reasonably well I really hadn’t looked at the fine print for this race and only noticed how up and down it all was in the days leading up to the event. However, as I put myself up for harder and harder races this felt like a good starting point for the real ultra season opener.
I managed to pass kit check by the skin of my teeth as my brand new Petzl Actik failed literally moments before the start line (more on that later) but I had both a spare light (low-lumens) and extra batteries. I dipped into the starting area and looked ahead to the large inflatable and the hundreds of bronzed runners ahead of me. At this moment I felt very out of place with my milky white skin and too many mars bars physique but it was too late to think about this as the countdown roared into life and we were sent on our way from Begues to …well Begues.
And as we left this small town just outside Barcelona I felt no fear, the rainstorm the previous night had abated (annoying as I’d reworked my kit for wet and cold weather) and the race felt like home and I knew that once I reached the trail this was set to be a bone rattling humdinger of a race.
From the off it was uphill, downhill but sadly nothing in her lady’s chamber! The UTBCN felt like there were no flat sections, you were either going up or you were going down and that was were the fun was to be had.
Over the 100km course there was nearly 5000 metres of upward elevation and it felt like it! I’d thought that my experience at Harris Extreme would adequately prepare me for this but it was a very different beast.
The nice thing about the route was that the elevation came via a huge variety of surfaces, there was mud, gravel trail, technical rocky trail, great big wet sections for that full foot dunking and even some tarmac (for those who like it simple). And each surface type tested you in new and often unexpected ways.
Much like the variable surfaces each of the climbs brought with it a unique view, a need to adapt your running style and a reminder to keep your wits about you. No two uphills were the same and no two downhills were either. This was a course that could easily chew you up and spit you out if you showed it anything less than total respect.
The run to checkpoint one was filled with so much of the above and at 16km it felt like a great leg warmer, the day was still cool when I powered up the hill to the tables of food of drink but I noted that I had drained my Hydrapak 350ml bottle as well as the 150ml bottle – despite it not being a classically hot Spanish day there was heat in the running and so I filled my supplies, drank Coca Cola (yes the real stuff) and pressed on.
Sadly for me the weather started to turn on the run up to checkpoint two and the UTBCN quickly warmed up to a something more akin to a summer ultra. I’d opted for heavier summer weight kit and carrying spares of almost everything as I expected to be out anything up to 24hrs and wasn’t sure how quickly I could get through the unknown terrain. With the change in weather though my pack, which was heavy, simply felt like a drain on my own reserves. However, I made some changes to how I was wearing kit – removing buffs, visor on, sunglasses on, top up on sun cream and ensure I was eating as well as drinking enough.
I started passing through checkpoints at a decent pace and anywhere that running was an option I did, even the inclines as I knew that many of the downhills were very rocky with only the most nimble of speedgoats being able to hammer their way through them.
With less than 7.5 of the 24 permitted hours gone I passed through the halfway point kicked on as fast as I could knowing that the next sections would start to get trickier. I passed over some very steep up and downhills that had been assaulted by mud and rain and was slow going as your feet needed care to pass through unharmed.
However, despite the harshness of the terrain I was about to hit the 67km checkpoint in great time and with 33km to go I felt strong and assured in my running.
It was clear to me I’d thrown caution to the wind in the cooler temperatures and had leapt into the second half with a great aplomb and hurtled through the kilometres looking to make up as much ground on the course before nightfall set in. At the 67km checkpoint I placed on my pathetic emergency head torch and headed out and less than a kilometre later the sun finally dipped behind the beautiful northern Spain landscape and I was in the dark.
My problems now accelerated.
As mentioned, at the start line about 10.5hrs earlier, my brand new head torch had died, new batteries wouldn’t solve it and nor would prayer. So I was left with my backup head torch, the Petzl e-lite, which while superb kit is not a replacement for the Actik that was supposed to light my way.
Sadly I could barely see a metre ahead of me and the trail was even more dangerous in the dark than it was in the sunshine, over the 4km I ran in the dark I stumbled a dozen times. I tried following the light of other runners but this was of no use (and I couldn’t really do that for the final 28km) and so at 72km I sat at the checkpoint raging at my head torch manufacturer (Petzl) and at myself for I knew I had to pull out. I sat at the checkpoint for about 20 minutes before I was willing to DNF racking my brain for a solution, attempting to get my main light working but it wasn’t to be.
A very sad end to a great race that I was actually running well!
- Distance: 100km
- Profile: Hilly
- Date: March 2017
- Location: Barcelona
- Cost: €95
- Terrain: Very variable trail
- Tough Rating: 3.5/5
Route As for the race route itself well that was beautiful, with stunningly lush landscapes in all directions. It took you high above Barcelona and it took you down to the beach, what more could you ask for? The course itself was absolutely brutal in places and highly runnable in others, i think it’s fair to say it lends itself to local runners or mountain goats who know what to expect but any decent trail runner would really enjoy the magic of this race.
Organisation and support The organisation was, I found, superb with multi lingual checkpoint staff, aid stations were all incredibly well stocked and tasty. The number collection was very easy (at a giant sports store in Barcelona) and it felt like a very inclusive race and drew people from all over the world and it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like me, would be very happy to go back and run this again. It’s fair to say that the support and organisation would be a key factor in luring me back for a crack at finishing this race. There was no of the manic feel that races like the UTMB have, it was so much more relaxed (but admittedly significantly smaller) but the intimacy and friendliness that was felt throughout the event makes you want to go back.
Additionally the website with a full English language version was much appreciated and easy to use.
Awards and Goodies For finishers there was a medal and a nice one, I did not get one as I only completed the LTBCN route and not the UTBCN route. However, I did get a goody bag which contained lots of lovely little food nuggets, a lovely neck gaiter/buff, really tasty t-shirt and some other random bits that will all get used.
Value for money? €95 for 100km? or you can downgrade elements like not getting a medal, t-shirt, etc and taking a cheaper package. I chose the all inclusive which pre-race I had thought was a little expensive but actually when you look at what you get, the stunning route, the amazing organisation, etc then actually this race looks like good value because it is. When you compare to say ‘The Race to the Stones’ or ‘The Wall’ or any OCR race then this really is good value and even when compared to its European race rivals this one stands up pretty well.
Lynne, Anna and Nia I mentioned earlier the people we stayed with, family to the GingaNinja and ultimately without them this wouldn’t have been nearly as possible – so my eternal thanks.
Petzl The failure of my brand new (fully tested) head torch before the race is unforgivable, I had to stop because of a failure created by someone else and that smarts. At the time of writing I’ve had no response from the company despite a number of messages (none of them abusive) but perhaps they simply don’t care about their customers – something to think about when you’re next considering a head torch purchase.
Conclusions This is a great event and if you looking for an easy to reach, tough as old boots ultra in nearby Europe then this should be high on your list. The course was beautiful, the scenery stunning and the atmosphere upbeat. I doubt this race is on the radar of many of you but it should be and I hope you’ll at least look up the UTBCN for future consideration.