Thursday, June 27, 2013

Microstates: a race report, of sorts, of the 2013 Ronda dels Cims

It is 11am on Saturday, about 28 hours deep into the run, maybe around mile 90 (distance and time are smeared at this point), and I’m descending a steep and muddy drop to the river just north of the town of Soldieu with Jared and Ty.  The day is warm.  We’ve now run together as a trio for 12 hours and I’ve been running with Jared since the start- although at this point my contribution to the strength of our team feels minimal.  In fact, I feel embarrassed at my lack of current ability.  And then embarrassed again at this self-consciousness.  Due to the sustained trauma in my quadriceps my downhill running is uncoordinated and wincing- increasingly reliant on the bracing support of poles which I plant outstretched in front of me in an octogenarian shuffle.  Whenever I close my eyes I am bombarded with garish, blasting colors.  ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round.’  One of Ada’s favorite songs, the refrain has played continuously in my brain for hours now.  Two confident pole placements and almost immediately my feet slide out from under me and I’m on my back, both carbon fiber poles shattering simultaneously in a succinct and strangely satisfying ping.  I elbow my way up and immediately fall again.  And then, improbably, in perfectly scripted physical comedy, again.  I hear people on the road above call out in Catalan, concerned- or amused, I'm not sure which.  I have no emotion.  I’m not even startled.  There is only the acceptance that this - like every other step in the preceding difficult 12 hours, and every step still to come before I will somehow finish this strange, disorienting journey- happens: happens in a way that is fundamentally no different from any other moment; a wave of temporal infinitesimals rising up and then instantaneously vanishing.  I sit in the river but am still coated with mud.  This does not help my chaffage.

4:30pm Saturday, 33 hours and 33 minutes after starting, Jared, Ty, and myself cross the finish line in the narrow, Romanesque streets of Ordino brimming with spectators, all three of us hand in hand, the crowds screaming.  We place 7th, 8th, and 9th.  But beyond the immediate (and long desired) relief to stop moving, a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction eludes- or rather, seems somehow beside the point.  I have survived perhaps the most intense intersection of physical, mental, and emotional challenges I’ve faced but doing so has seemingly extracted something vital, leaving me shelled, vulnerable, exposed.  I curl up on the pavement in a patch of shade.  I realize for neither the first nor the last time that this undertaking is not a race, not an athletic contest, but an existential tool.

It is Tuesday, 6/25, several days after the race, and I’m trying to write about the experience.  It is difficult to think about.  I’m falling short.  There seems to be a certain dishonesty at play, an evasion- or at least a re-writing.  When within days (or weeks) after a long and difficult endurance pursuit the memory traces of suffering lose the associated darkness that at one point felt inescapable and omnipresent, what is it that we allow ourselves to forget and why? What is it in this process of subsequent revision that ropes us in to the strange repetition-compulsion of doing the same thing again?  

It is 4:30am, about 70 miles into the race and Jared and I leave the small, warm shelter of Refugi de Illa (with its ample if inedible surplus of chorizo, cheeses, and tuna salad) back into the sub-freezing alpine granite expanse that extends over the southern portion of the country.  Ty leaves shortly after and catches up to us.  I'm grateful to have these generous and solid friends with me.  The moon is so bright it almost hurts on direct gaze and I look away at the scattered illuminated mountain lakes and towering surrounding peaks- Roca Sibaneja, Alt de Gargantillar, Tosseta de Vallcivera.  The names are as foreign and inscrutable as the rapid Catalan that meets us at each aid station- the only identifiable linguistic fragment being the refrain of 'Animo!' that greets us every several hours.  Small logs are placed over torrential streams and they are frosted and frictionless in the cold.  Virtus unita fortier: "a united action is much stronger" - it's Andorra's official motto.  We enact it silently, unknowingly, automatically, making slow but steady progress.

It is 6am and I drag my body into el Pas de la Casa at 128km into the race.  I’ve fallen hard twice on the long, technical descent and I’m burning straight ketones having not eaten any significant calories since 9:30pm the previous night.  I can’t recall ever feeling this poorly.  My dad is there, hands outstretched with a bundle of gels, none of which I can eat (out of the 90 total I presumed to consume during the event).  He has a look of pity and concern on his face.  I remember seeing him as I would circle the oval in so many of my highschool track races.  Thirty-five years old and a father myself I'm nonetheless conscious now as I was then of wanting his approval.   

It is 7am on Friday and we are lined up in Ordino to start the race.  Next to me are Ty and Jared, Roch just behind us.  I watch, perplexed, as Dave James lines up shirtless and with only a handheld water bottle- this despite the extensive mandatory gear list (tights, long shirt, gloves, hat, waterproof pants, jacket, safety blanket, ace-wrap, headlamp, extra batteries, water, food).  Within 50 feet Ty drops a flask of fuel and it skitters across the crowded road.  From the get go Jared and I run together at a very controlled pace, Ty just a little behind.  Somewhere in the first 15 miles or so Jared suggests we run the whole course together.  It sounds like a fun idea to me but I am aware that I stand to benefit more from this arrangement than he does and am concerned about limiting him- a worry he shrugs off easier than I do. 

It is 1:30pm, 6.5 hours into the race, and Jared and I have run every step together to this point.   We do a brief out and back within a majestic, snow-filled amphitheatre rimmed with steep coloirs and graceful ridges- Refugi del Pla de l’Estany.  We glissade the gentle slopes.  I suddenly get goosebumps and am overcome.  The joy is deep in my belly- hard, fierce, exquisite.  I squint tears out of my eyes.

This year’s version of the Ronda dels Cims was a 177km (110mile) mountain route encircling the Pyrrenean country of Andorra- the 6th smallest nation state in the world- with cumulative vertical gain (and vertical loss) of over 40,000 feet.  Because of historically unprecedented amounts of snow in the high country the original course was slightly rerouted, avoiding dangerous terrain on the northwestern aspect of the country that traverses the 2938m Pic de Comapedrosa.  To compensate for this adjustment, the race directors added mileage, the majority of which was over wet, excessively muddy, rooted, technical terrain that climbed and descended relentlessly.

The country of Andorra, a roughly triangular core of land nestled in the heart of the Pyrennees, covers only 468 square kilometers on the border between France and Spain.  From the high points on the course one can easily look across the whole country into its bigger neighboring sisters.  (However, if one were to pick European microstates to encircle on foot I would suggest the even smaller nation states of Monaco, of Liechtenstein, or even the improbably diminutive Vatican City, the circumnavigation of the latter taking only a few relatively painless minutes.) 

Co-ruled by the Bishop of Seu d’Urgell and the President of France, Andorra surrounds one long main valley- the Valira- at the foot of which is the densely bustling capital: the duty-free shopping mecca of Andorra La Vella.  However, quickly disseminating from this modern and over-developed mercantile center are a huge number of lush side valleys with pristine mountain landscapes punctuated with stone Romanesque architecture and ‘refugis.’  Narrow ridges link up the surrounding rocky peaks which rise up from deeply trenched, serpentine valleys.  The terrain surveyed by the course (all of which horrifyingly difficult) was enormously varied, from the shale/slate scree surfing of Alt de la Capa on the northwestern aspects to the predominantly granite peaks and boulder fields of the southern aspect of the country (the latter of which we traversed by night under a luminous and cold full moon).

The density of precipitous peaks in the region has shielded Andorra from the ravages of world wars.  As Thomas Eccardt points out in Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe: “microstates don’t make history, they are affected by history.” But the cumulative effect of traversing this neutral sanctuary on foot has left its mark on my body and mind.  The climbs and descents are breathtakingly steep, technical, and relentless.  For denizens of the Wasatch, think the west face of Grandeur with no trail and much more loose rock.  Fixed ropes were commonplace on the higher passes to help negotiate steep scree or snow fields.

The earliest historical document of Andorra, the Carta de la Fundacio d’Andorra, establishes the independence of the (co)principality and was allegedly written by Charlemagne to his son, Louis the Pious, in AD805 as a reward for the courageous help the local inhabitants gave to his armies in the wars against the Saracens.  In fact, it was actually written many years later by Andorrans to justify their independence and fend off claimants to their territory.  The deception as both self-justification and self-realization: a careful revision, maybe a necessary one, folded into the national narrative so as to be eventually indistinguishable from truth, the difference forgotten. 

To truly forget is to forget that you forgot, to forget the act of forgeting itself.  I can’t tell if my writing is an attempt to remember or an attempt to erase.  Maybe both.


Church in Ordino.

Roch and Catherine at the finish line.

The crew at the start, photo courtesy of Ian Corless.

Jared and I headed up Alt de la Capa in the fog, photo courtesy of Ian Corless.

Around el Pas de la Casa (?) 128km. Photo courtesy of Mindy Campbell.

Finishing, hand in hand. Photo courtesy of Mindy Campbell.

Post race, still alive. Photo courtesy of Mindy Campbell.

Visual metaphor of the state of my mind and body after this adventure.

Post race.

Thanks to the tireless and generous support crew!


Took a little too much Ronda...


Wednesday, June 19, 2013


After a brief stint in Barcelona I've been here in Andorra for the last several days with a great crew of folks- Jared, Mindy, Teresa, Steve, Roch, Catherine, and my dad Craig.  We're all getting pretty excited for the 106 mi Ronda dels Cims that starts Friday AM.   The 44k ft of climbing and 44k ft of descending in addition to an unprecedented amount of snow this year will ensure a good long struggle on surely the toughest run I've ever attempted.  With fairly limited internet access I'll limit my post to the following images for now.

Course reconnaissance. Inexplicably right on the GPS track.

 "What the f*%@ was that?" - Roch Horton.  Barkley style.

The Grandalla: the national flower.

Roch and Jared.

Big climb up the other side to Alt de la Capa.

Refugi les Fonts.  Storm rolling in.

The crew.

Craig Lewis, above Soldeu.

Getting excited.

Snowfield at about 147k into the race.