Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Al Andalus Ultimate Trail 2012, SPAIN : 230km

After my recent experience at the Atacama Crossing in March 2012, I was looking for another stage race where I can combine running with a little bit of sight-seeing on the side. I have had enough of carrying a heavy rucksack while running and not having proper meals and sleep through most of the stages. These, I feel, were the few factors which contributed to making my experience at Atacama a not very pleasant one. In other words, I did not really enjoy my running, which is what races are all about. 

I found in Al Andalus Ultimate Trail (AAUT) just the kind of race I was looking for. The Race Itinerary on its website gave me an insight of how the race is to be (the amazing Andalucian landscapes are a big plus factor!) and the various locations where the stages will end but what attracted me most was the fact that firstly, it encourages and accommodates the presence of spouses/partners and friends of the participants throughout the race and secondly, it is a semi-supported race. I travel to all my races around the world with my wife, who is a photographer. For most of my other races, she had to find her own way to hitch a hike from other supporters to ‘catch’ me along the routes with her cameras. AAUT, on the other hand, offers not only to accommodate her but also to transport her along the routes for this purpose. We signed up right away without any hesitation! 

From my very first communication via email with Michelle Cuttler, one of the Race Coordinators and Paul Bateson, the Race Director, I have already formed a very positive opinion about how the whole race is managed by them. What made this race so special is the fact that it is limited to only 100 participants. This, I believe, enables a more personalised attention to be given to each one us by the organiser and in addition, creates a cosier atmosphere which, in the process, encourages easier interaction among the participants from all over the world, who come from very different cultural and professional backgrounds. 

So, it was from May 2012 (after our trip to India and the Psiloritis Mountain Race which I participated in Crete) that we have been anxiously anticipating our trip to Spain for the AAUT. The horrible British "summer" with the highest level of recorded rain in years certainly made us yearn even more longingly for the heat and blue skies which are awaiting us in Andalucia. My only concern and worry about my participation at the race was the fact that I had not done as much training as I should have, in preparation for a race of this magnitude. Due to the wet weather, I have missed several long runs which I was supposed to do. In addition to that, I have not done a single training during a 10-day family trip we took to Cornwall/London in mid-June, which was the period of time when I should have reached the peak of my training. In all honesty, I have never been so unprepared for a race before in all my years of running. In the midst of this nagging guilt, I reminded myself to take it easy and to remember that it is more important for me to concentrate on completing and enjoying the race instead. 

With this positive attitude, we arrived in Loja 2 days before the race and checked into Hotel Manzanil. From the balcony of our room, we could see an amazing view of the mountains beyond a small village with a running stream. The temperature was perfect and the cloudless, blue sky added a unique touch of contrast to the whole scenery, making it all so Mediterranean, just as we had expected it to be like. Despite feeling very tired from the continuous daily shifts I have done at the hospital weeks before departure, I could not resist the adrenaline which was building up in me in response to the warm weather. So, I headed off from the hotel for a short run of 10 km. Not having done any training the previous week, I was feeling very guilty and I tried in vain to convince myself that I will be fit enough for the race.

Me doing my pre-race training

The following day, I did another 10 km and was feeling better with myself. We attended the race briefing and were introduced to the Race Crew and had a glimpse of all the other participants. We were informed that there were 41 participants this year, coming from 20 different countries. Up until that moment, I had not an inkling of the background of my fellow participants and ‘potential rivals’ ;-). The organiser was telling us that unlike previous years, this year’s race is going to be an interesting one to follow because there is not a single runner whom they can say for sure will be most likely to claim the first position on the podium. 

Here is my day-to-day account of this amazing race, made more exciting for me by the other top 3 runners who managed to constantly keep me on-my-toes and out-of-breath!! 

Monday 9th July (Stage 1)
Loja- Alhama de Granada 
39 Km - 1400m ascent 

The big day has finally arrived. My dream of running in a dry and sunny place, without having to wear any restrictive thermal layer and raincoat is coming true!! After having our group photo taken, all the 41 runners  officially started the much anticipated 4th edition of the AAUT race. I had planned to take it easy on this First Stage to enable me to find out who the strong runners are. 

Group photo of runners & staff

Me & other runners at the Start Line

From the very beginning, Timo Meyer from Japan/Germany, was leading in a fast pace despite the steep uphill of the first 10km, and I was trying to stay as close to him as possible. 

Me & Timo enjoying our run

Timo & me running through beautiful trails

Victor Garanto from Spain, which I later found out had participated in the race the previous year and hence, had the privilege of knowing the routes, was 500 m behind me and Tommy Chen from Taiwan, was following closely behind Victor. 



Little did I know at that time, but these three great runners, who were totally unknown to me up until then, were the ones who contributed hugely in making my whole experience at this race a most memorable and unforgettable one, in terms of their friendly competitiveness and generous camaraderie through all the stages. 

All the 4 of us were to spend many precious moments of running together in the days to come, where we pushed our bodies to limits unknown even to ourselves.

Me running through the amazing Andalucian landscape

Timo soldiering on
I found out at this stage that Timo is a very strong runner and one who is very hard to beat. At the end of Stage 1, he had already gained an advantage of 11':36'' ahead of me, while Victor was 6' and Tommy, 13' behind me. These timings assured me that these three are not going to leave me in peace for the remainder of the race :-)

Us with the Mayor of Alhama (far left)
The finish line of Stage 1 was in a quiet medieval village called Alhama de Granada, with several nice restaurants on its main street. We were later driven to a Sports Center nearby where we camped indoors for the night. A dip in the very inviting swimming pool allowed me to enjoy some precious relaxing moments and served as a perfect therapy for muscle recovery, both of which were well needed before the start of Stage 2. 

Later that evening, we attended a prize ceremony for the top runners (men, women & group) for the day and briefing for the following day’s race before venturing into the village for dinner. With that, we called in a day and looked forward to the adventures which await us the following day!!

Me & Hannisze at dinner

Our campsite after Stage 1

Tuesday 10th July (Stage 2) 
Alhama de Granada- Jatar 
48 Km - 1640 m ascent 

After the dry landscape of yesterday, we started our run today through the spectacular Alhama gorge, which later brought us through sections of the GR-7 footpath, where we climbed up a very scenic but technical track in the amazing Sierra Almijara mountain range. 

The Alhama Gorge

Me & Victor

We then did some fast running on  large downhill tracks, always in very remote areas.

The remote areas where we ran through

The remote areas where we ran through

It can be a long and lonely run out there...

While we were in the heart of the National Park, we heard some noises and saw a group of wild boars running in front of us. What an awesome experience!!

Since the start of the race today, every one of the 4 of us (Timo, Victor, Tommy and myself) was trying to stay at the front. Despite Timo’s and my attempt to break away from the group to stay ahead of Victor and Tommy, we did not succeed in doing so.

Me & Timo trying to break away...

Tommy & Victor just won't leave us alone :-))!!

Both of us would be thankful for this later on because at one point, we all got lost along the route, but thanks to Victor’s Garmin watch (where he had downloaded all the routes), we managed to find our way around quite speedily and return to the right track, unlike other runners (which we later found out), who had to spend a lot of time looking for the 'pink ribbons' to get them back on track. 

About 15 km before the end of today’s race, Timo once again unleashed his powerful strength by speeding away from our group. Tommy, on the other hand, had stopped running due to his gastric problems, leaving Victor and me to run together for the rest of the race. I know it was the most unlikely place and time to do so, but during this last phase of running together, Victor and I were actually getting to know each other by talking about our running, life and dreams. I found out that we had so many things in common for discussion, which was quite expected, as we are, after all, Mediterranean guys.

I did not put any pressure on myself to push a lot at this stage. I told myself that we have another 3 days to go and anything can happen between now and then and I did not want to risk having any injury or strain. As a result, Timo gained another 10', while Tommy lost 10' from me and Victor, who decided to finish the stage together. We finished at our campsite (El Nacimiento) just outside the village of Jatar, which is the birthplace of the famous local mountain spring water. Nearby the campsite, there were many fields where the locals used to cultivate tomatoes, the fresh aroma of which filled the air around us. A freezing stream passed through the campsite and it was here that I pampered myself with 20 minutes of cryotherapy.

Campsite after Stage 2

Open air shower

To be honest, I was rather surprised by the fact that up until then, I had not felt any muscle aches due to acid lactic, like I always feel in all my other races. The only reason I could think of for this ‘phenomena’ was the precious massages offered by my wife so generously on a daily basis. I am sure that made a big difference. Thank you babe!

At the prize ceremony that evening, the top 3 in all categories received some wonderful local products (cheese, honey, olive oil) as awards from the organiser, who never failed to surprise us with interesting awards sourced from the locals.

Us with the Race Director, Paul Bateson

The local ladies with their cheeses
For our dinner, we walked to the village nearby and had another delicious 3-course meal at a special pre-arranged (by the thoughtful organiser and the local restaurants) price of only EUR8!! It was also at dinner that we celebrated our new friend, Alwaleed’s birthday, where he was surprised with a birthday cake by Kira.

Dinner at Jatar

Alwaleed & Kira
I really enjoyed being in the village of Jatar, which, although is small and in the middle of nowhere, has its own natural charms. When we were having dinner by the village square, we witnessed scenes from a bygone era. Women gathered at the square to catch up with one another, children running wild and creating their own simple games, men sitting in circles, taking slow puffs from their cigarettes and watching the world pass by. It was such a pleasure for me to be at unique places like this one, which is still so original and unaffected by time.

I had another good sleep in the tent despite the drop in temperature that night...

Wednesday 11 July (Stage 3) 
Jatar – Jayena 
39 Km - 1000m ascent 

We have been informed that today’s race is going to be a fast one due to the terrains of the route. I felt surprisingly well and kept a fast pace on the first 10 km, which started on a scenic tarmac road which eventually led to a farm track. My strategy for the day was to try to get a bigger advantage of time over Victor who was only 6' behind me.

Start of Stage 3

The 4 of us with Jose (in red)
I was leading for the first 11 km when suddenly, Tommy overtook me in a very fast pace.

Me keeping up with Tommy

Still feeling well and strong at that point, I decided to change my pace to keep up with him. Timo was staying close behind me, while Victor was further behind him, trying to keep up with the fast pace set by us.

Me keeping up with Tommy

The route today was very lovely, with alternating uphills and downhills in the midst of a forest. While running through the amazing landscape and being close to Tommy, I could sense his disappointment of losing so much time yesterday due to his gastric problems and I hazarded a guess that he was trying to compensate for that loss today.

Amazing landscape and clear blue sky

The 3 of us were running a very fast pace together and I was beginning to wonder whether this was a wise thing to do, given that it was just one day (or rather, a few hours) before we were to run the long stage of  67 km. As I was contemplating whether or not to keep up with this pace, Tommy made another attempt to widen the distance between us towards the last 5 km. Timo decided to keep up with him while I decided not to take any risk of over exerting myself and to just stay behind them and keep them within my vision at all times. 

As we were nearing the finish line, both Tommy and Timo graciously urged me on to finish together with them but I declined and told them to finish ahead of me because I truly and honestly believe that both of them deserved to share the first position for all the tireless effort and steely determination in their flawless performance today.

So, Tommy and Timo finished together with a small difference of only 10'' between them and me, while Victor finished 7’ after me. 

Timo & Tommy finishing Stage 3

Me finishing Stage 3

Our campsite today (El Bacal) is on the mountains, almost 1000 m in altitude, set among a beautiful forest of pine trees, just outside a town called Jayena.

Campsite after Stage 3

Campsite after Stage 3
A little cold stream ran through the site, conveniently providing another relaxing session of cryotherapy for me and the other runners. 

Tommy, Jose, Victor & Jiri (CZE)
At the prize ceremony that evening, the organiser again surprised the top 3 winners in all categories with another unusual award. This time, our efforts were appreciated with offers of free sessions at a roman bath, which include free massages as well!! We were all delighted with the generous offer, but, the highlight of the day, as I am sure the others would agree, has to be the "Paella Party" held at our campsite that night, which came with abundant portions of delicious paella and salad, with cold beer to wash them down.

One half of our Paella serving :-)

Me, Paula & Stuart (UK), Linda (AUS/JPN), Maria (ESP) & Daniel (DNK)

The lovely locals who fed us their delicious paella 

What a bliss!! I slept another good, dreamless night, which I knew was necessary and much needed, in view of the most important race of the week, the long 67 km run tomorrow!!

Thursday 14 July (Stage 4) 
Jayena-Alhama de Granada
67km- 2030m ascent

The big day has finally arrived!! For me, this is the day which is going to determine the overall classification of the runners in the race. So far, Timo is steadily maintaining his supremacy with a 22' advantage over me, who is fighting to keep the second position with my 13' advantage over Victor.

Before the start of the race, I found myself trying to figure out the probable strategies which will be adopted by Victor, who by far was the closest in competition with me. I was very sure that he is set for a big "fight" today, trying to maintain his third position. He may even probably put my strength to a tough test to secure the second position from me.

The 4 of us at the start of Stage 4

The fastest group
We started in staggered stages today and I was with the fastest group, which started last at 09:30.

Start of Stage 4
With my prediction of Victor’s strategies in mind, I was not at all surprised when he came "flying" past all of us in the first 5 km, in his attempt to obtain a big distance from the rest of the group. Contrary to Timo and Tommy who decided to take it at a slower pace, I decided to follow Victor’s ‘crazy’ pace, hoping that he will slow down sooner or later. 

However, after the first 10 km, we were still running at a fast pace together, along an amazing path following the coast of the Lake Bermejales.

Lake Bermejales

Me & Victor 

The green waters and rock formations surrounding this beautiful part of the route gave me the feeling like I was on an island and it made my whole experience so unique. I forgot all the tiredness or stress related to my running. I was really enjoying my run with Victor and every now and then, we turned back to check for signs of Timo and Tommy. When we did not see them, we assured ourselves to keep up the same pace which we had been doing and not to over exert ourselves. 

After the second check point, the landscape changed dramatically. From the nice, flat and shady footpaths through the forests, we were now exposed to a long, hard uphill with little or no shade at all from the very strong sun. Our pace seemed to slow down at this point, due to the steep ascents but we were relieved to know that there was still no trace of Timo and Tommy behind us. 

After 45 km of running together and being relieved with the thought that Timo and Tommy were not within ‘vision’ distance from us, we were given some not very good news by an unknown driver in a car that Timo and Tommy were then just 3' behind us.

Tommy & Timo still going strong

Timo & Tommy still going strong

What a disappointing piece of information that was to us ;-)! Up until then, both of us have been enjoying our lonely run, convinced that we have a safe difference in time from Timo and Tommy. Out of a sudden, and at the most critical moment of the race, with the accumulation of tiredness in us and the unbearable heat of the day (37 Celcius), we were jolted into ‘action’ mode again and we suddenly realised that we have lost our so-called acquired ‘comfort’ zone. With this new-found information, Victor changed his pace instantaneously and I did the same, despite my body not being very happy with it.

Victor & me speeding up

We were still leading the race for the next 10 km and just about 8 km before the finish, Timo came charging and overtaking us in his true flawless style, without any obvious sign of tiredness. We found out later that Tommy was not with Timo because he had experienced another unfortunate bout of pain in his stomach as he did in Stage 2 and in the process, losing more precious minutes from his overall classification. 

Tommy being attended to by Dr Encarna

We finished at the El Motor campsite in Alhama de Granada with Timo emerging as the winner of this long and difficult stage, proving once again, how difficult it is for us to beat him. With 1’ of difference in time behind him, Victor and I finished together in a jubilant mood. 

Tommy finished about 35’ later, looking totally devastated and understandably disappointed. 

Overall, it has been a very difficult day for me today. For the final 6 km, I was struggling to keep up with Victor on the steep uphill. My right knee was in pain for first time in the race and only the endorphins were helping me to ease the unbearable pain. We were again given a pleasant surprise by the organiser after the race, where we were driven to a nice swimming pool nearby and treated to a delicious buffet meal. I, in addition, had the privilege of my wife’s special massage to ease my muscle aches. 

Hannisze & her special massage ;-)

Me & Tommy reflecting on the day's event 

Dinner after Stage 4

I could see that all the runners were very excited today because the end of the race was drawing close. Every one of us has by then, overcome our own limits and all of us have own story to tell. It was obvious that we were celebrating the near-end of our Andalucian adventure.

Friday 13 July 
Alhama de Granada-Loja 
37km- 1120m ascent 

 Despite the general superstitious belief that Friday the 13th often brings with it bad luck and misfortune, I think I can speak for all the other runners of AAUT 2012 that today was a magical day for all of us, packed with raw emotions and beautiful memories which will remain with us for many years to come. 

After 37 km of run, we finally reached the finish line, the same one from which we have started just 5 days before. Tommy gave an unbelievably amazing performance today. Every one could see that he exerted himself to his highest limit, spending every ounce of energy he has in him and running against himself for the entire distance, gaining, at the end his amazing feat, a difference of 18' over Victor and me. 

Timo finished right after us, knowing for sure that the first position was already his and wisely deciding not to exert himself too much like he has marvellously done on previous days. Here is the final overall classification of the race : 

1) Timo Meyer 20:03:20 
2) Argyrios Papathanasopoulos 20:24:40 
3) Victor Garanto Fajo 20:37:27 
4) Tommy Chen 21:04:16 

Personally, I am very satisfied with my own performance and happy that I managed to secure the second position without any untoward injuries to my body. In addition to that, I have truly enjoyed the race tremendously. After my unpleasant experience of suffering mentally and physically at the Atacama Crossing, just so that I could maintain the third position, I was not prepared to go through the similar process in Andalucia. 

Before embarking on AAUT 2012, I have told myself that I will participate in this race for the sheer joy of fast running in a unique Mediterranean environment with a small group of runners from all over the world. It is  also to be a touring trip for Hannisze and myself, where we can discover new places and make new friends. Well, I am glad to say that our mission was certainly accomplished! It was all made so smoothly possible by the amazing organising team of AAUT, who has a great vision about running. They gave all their best to make us happy and despite the fact that they are only a small team, they admirably managed to ‘run’ the whole race in high standards. I think a lot of it has to do with the camaraderie among its administration unit, which is the core of it all. 

I normally do not encourage other runners to participate in any particular race because I always believe that the choice of races is a very personal one. However, I will end my blog this time by inviting you to join this very unique race if you want to combine your passion for running with a little bit of tourism (with your spouse/partner/close friends/family members in tow) in one of the most isolated areas of Andalucia. You will never regret this decision and you will walk (or limp ;-P) away with an experience of a lifetime!! Here’s the link to the race for you to find out more about it : http://www.alandalus-ut.com

Until we meet again in my next update, hasta la vista!!
Here are some photos from Stage 5:

Early part of Stage 5

Early part of Stage 5

Victor & I enjoying our run together

The incredible Tommy pushing himself to his highest limit

Victor, Timo & me keeping close to one another

Victor, Timo & me keeping close to one another

Me, pretending the race to be an easy one, when surely it was not!!! 

Finally, at the Finish Line!!! 

My amazing running compatriots!! Thanks guys, for your driving/'flying'  force!! 

The unbeatable Timo Meyer

Me, Paul and Juan (Loja Town Hall)

The gracious Victor

The Top Four and Tim Harman (sponsor)

The BRILLIANT Film and Camera Crew !
James, Jose, Jovi & Hannisze


  1. Did you do the Round Rotherham race? If so, look forward to seeing you again. You should defintely look at the 60 mile Fellsman race in the UK for a local race that has some history and character. It is in April 2013.

    I would be very interested in seeing any photos your lady friend took at the Round Rotherham race.

  2. Hi Duncan,

    Yes, you found the right person!! It was great to run with you on some of the parts in RRR although I must say that I am not entirely satisfied with my performance. Running a race which requires map-reading is certainly not my cup of tea :-)However, I am glad I achieved my target to qualify for the registration of the Western States Endurance Run 2013.

    My wife did manage to capture some very nice photos of you and some of the other runners at the race. If you will give us your email address, we will send you the link to the photos.

    I look forward to running with you again in the future - but it will have to be a well-marked race next time :-)