In a different kind of world. That’s where I have been. For more than a week. A week where a shaman cleansed my soul and my tired feet. A week under a burning sun. A week where we faced an icy mountain wind while pushing ourselves from ribbon to ribbon, from dot to dot, in near-zero visibility. A week where I did some of the loneliest stretches in my life, though never feeling alone…
Playing with the massive silver object between my fingers. This way, it represents a mask. The mask of the ultra-runner pushing through despair. I turn it upside down, and it becomes a phoenix, rising from the flames of pain. How many times did we go through this transformation that week?
When I signed up for this race, it must have been the name. Legends, Heroes, Cathares, impregnable strongholds and remote massifs … I seem to have a love for mythical themes and magical places.
Somewhere in January, I liked the Burgos Ultra pages on Facebook. It did not take long before Manu Pastor contacted me with a personal message. He’s a legend in his own way, but little did I know then. We seemed to have some friends in common, and Manu assured me that the Burgos Ultra would be something for me. I confirmed my interest, but somehow, I felt it would not have been appropriate to sign up before finishing the infamous Legends Trail I planned to do early March. A non-stop 250 km, 7700 D+ ordeal in the wintery Ardennes. Once I bagged that one (see Legend After All), I contacted Manu again and told him I definitely was in.
And then almost forgot about The Way of Legends. Until late September, that is. After my sandal shod DNF in the Ut4M XTREM, I had to finish The Great Escape 100 Miles. Literally had to this time, because I announced my intent to complete the 4 races of the Legends Grand Slam and didn’t want to wait until the 2019 season. Even put on my Vivobarefoot running shoes just to make sure. It all worked out and I secured the first one in the series… So far so good, but now I had this thing called Way of the Legends coming. Only three weeks away…
I arrived in Burgos feeling overweight and tired. With only 23 km in two training runs over the last three weeks. The 25-kg bag represented my unpreparedness. Knowing Burgos as the coldest place in Spain, I threw in all of my winter gear. And all of my foam rolling tools, knowing I would need them if I wanted to survive for more than a couple of days. Even managed to take my laptop. Pretty useless in a stage race, where life consists of running, eating, sleeping and preparing for the next stage.
Arriving in Trasheado
The pick-up at the Burgos bus station by Luis is warm and friendly, so I relax somewhat. Arriving at Casa Rural La Bernarda in the village of Trasheado about 45’ outside the city, a bunch of participants has already gathered there.
They all seem to know each other from previous stage races across the globe. Some damn good runners too. My objective is to survive and finish. And although technically it does not make much of a difference, my announcement that I will be running this entire race on sandals seems to put some additional pressure on my shoulders.
After an excellent meal, a couple of beers, and some chatting with colleague racers, the prospect of a good night of sleep calls me to bed. Before I drift off to sleep, wonder if shared rooms and dormitories will be my thing.
Next morning, I feel glad I didn’t travel last minute. Today will be a perfect day for relaxing, stretching, foam rolling, talking to other participants and who knows for a short excursion to warm up muscles a bit. Thorough medical and kit check. Briefing followed by another excellent meal. Final packing for tomorrow’s stage. The massive pile of stuff that remains, goes into my oversize drop bag. Tomorrow breakfast at 6 AM.
From Peña Ulaña to Sedano (48 km 1645 D+ 2045 D-)
Reportedly the toughest stage. You will notice where the start line is, Manu announced the night before, somewhat mysteriously. Curious. After a rough and bumpy ride, the bus drops us on a stony plateau. This is as far as it can get. In the distance, the sound of banging drums and a horn blowing. Two druids. Torches burning. We find ourselves in the middle of one of the largest Celtic fortifications in Europe. It took the Romans 7 years to conquer this area. When they finally did, the defenders sneaked from the plateau each of them carrying a poisonous tree branch. In case they would get captured, one of the druids proclaims in an ancient language. Each of us receives one. To be used in case of DNF, our translator jokes. Makes one think….
We run down that crazy path into a brilliant sunrise. Somewhere in the back of the pack, I try to find a sustainable pace. Marking is excellent, no worries. The sandals feel good. The first checkpoint, a marvellous plateau. After a while I have an immense déjà-vu… the dwarfish oaks… the rusty rocks… truffle hunters… suddenly I know: Grand Trail des Templiers in the French Causses. Getting hot. The second check point… bingo. I run straight to the bar across the street and order a cold beer. Estrella Galicia. Heaven for a moment.
Beautiful tracks come and go, but I am getting tired. Finally, the finish. Ice cold beers. Shower, massage and an excellent meal. Prepared by a fantastic cooking team. They take care of everything. I even found my heavy bag carried up to the bedroom. Briefing. Tomorrow a staggered start. I have the choice, but I decide to start with the early party. Day two is usually the hardest one for me.
From Sedano to Poza de la Sal (51 km 1330 D+ 1450 D-)
Another day another legend. From Celtic warriors to Visigoth kings. Slow start, tummy plays up. Fortunately, it calms down. Nice landscape with canyons. I know at one point we’ll climb onto a plateau and will run a seemingly endless stretch on the flats. Windy and probably under a burning sun. It is beautiful in its own way, Manu stated the night before.
Once up, past the dolmen, it really starts. The faster runners have passed me by long time ago. Alone as far as I can see. This is a mental test. A checkpoint brings some Coca Cola and some cheers. Then again, another lonely stretch. One foot in front of the other. Under that burning sun. Eventually everything will pass. An apple at a last checkpoint and yes, a last ascent and there is the fortress of Poza del Sol, an ancient salt mining town. Only downhill from here. We sleep in an old Franco times boarding school dorm. The 20-minute massage feels good. The food tastes better than ever. Knowing myself, tomorrow running should feel better. If I manage to sleep well in this dorm… I will.
From Poza de la Sal to Olmos de Atapuerca (47,5 km 1060 D+ 775 D-)
The start is tough. I am slower than ever. This will become a long day. I run with Nora, who tackles this race with her dog Lily. This race attracts different types of runners. Some with impressive track records. But it is not only about speed. Some are fast ascetic runners, some are even speed hiking and others are sturdy beer drinking plodders like me. When Peter, the current leader in the ranking, overtakes me with his near perfect gait, I decide to adopt his smaller steps in higher cadence and suddenly… Yes! There it is, I am running faster than before. Time to push on.
Rolling hills, I start to enjoy it. At some point, I hear a buzzing sound behind of me. Manu and Laura-the-race-doctor are behind me in that little yellow Fiat. They overtake me just to get bogged down a couple of hundred metres further down the road. We leapfrog each other again and again. This is fun. Makes the kilometres fly by. Then an endless gravel track, a decommissioned railway. The last stretch is incredibly windy. Today I am in early and grab two ice-cold beers at the finish. We are in a town on the Camino de Santiago. Sleeping in a small agricultural museum, in great luxury. Tomorrow the mountain stage and bad weather is announced. Manu is stressed and ponders about switching to the alternative route.
From Olmos de Atapuerca to Pineda de la Sierra (52,5 km 1995 D+ 1735 D-)
The high route it will be. Extra markings have been applied. Today is about Saint Millan, another Legend. The first 10 K we move upstream against the pilgrims on the Camino. Then into the woods, where sticky mud slows us down. It has started to rain and it won’t stop. Today’s overtaking session is way later than usual. I like plodding in difficult conditions and keep up the pace. The last over taker, Richard, winner of the first stage, seems to have a terrible off-day. I meet him again at the last checkpoint before the mountain. Next door, there is a bar where I order two beers. He munches something that is clearly not vegan. It rains hard now and mist is coming. We have a long climb ahead, and I join forces with Nary, ex-Olympic marathon runner I was told.
Just before the mountain hut, I really have to put on my Montane Spine Jacket. The Icebreaker merino did an incredible job so far, but this getting serious. No visibility anymore and icy gusts of wind. Manu waits outside and looks tense. In the hut, I find Nary back. And the race doctor with coffee. And a stove. And some staff looking in disbelief at my bare hands and feet. Strange but true, my hands and feet are warm. I decide to leave fast and push on. Nary joins again. We move from paint dot to paint dot while the wind blows rain in our faces. The ridge is long and finally we reach the highest point at about 2150 m. Time to get out of this mess. The lower we get the more comfortable things become. I want to be in early and set off towards the village where we’ll spend the night. That was fun. And today I shifted up in the ranking. Just a little. Sleeping in a dorm again… Everybody is very tired now. Me too as the mountain adrenaline ebbs away. But sleep does not come easy today.
From Pineda de la Sierra to San Pedro Cardeña (42 km 615 D+ 865 D-)
The last major stage. A marathon distance to go. Strange, I remember a time when people lived up for 6 months towards a marathon. Now it has become “only a marathon”. And a relatively flat one. But as I expect, it feels long and tedious. For a starter, we have a 26 km old railroad to follow. Almost flat, although the landscape is very beautiful at times.
Experiencing some digestive problems, I have to let go of Matt, who runs about the same speed and occupies a similar spot in the ranking. Score some beer at a CP and decide to plod on until the next one, where I find Richard happy as a baby taking selfies with some ice cream he bought at a local bar. His dip seems to last another day. He doesn’t know yet, but –maybe it is the ice cream after all- tomorrow he will find his mojo back and win next stage. I start to despair. Will this stage ever end? I see Stan and Lucja about one mile behind me. For hours, already. They don’t come closer. I think about how I once did the distance of this entire stage rage in one go and I don’t understand how this was ever possible. Suddenly I find myself in front of the Cistercian monastery. Yay!!! Nice single room. Impressive environment. Cistercians in Belgium are responsible for what I consider the best beer in the world, Orval. Respect for these entrepreneurial hard working guys. Another the curious thing. The internationally recognized artist who created and handcrafted our medals, Oscar Martin de Burgos, wants to meet us individually in the woods. This artistic world traveller turns out be a shaman. So a couple of hours later, I find myself alone with a medicine man at a campfire in the woods. Medicinal drumbeats race through my body, rattles swish around my ears and induce some slightly altered state. After my feet are cleansed and anointed in the small fountain, I pick a piece of the offered fruit from the bowl and return feeling light and rested. Strange. Take some more wine with the excellent paella and sleep like a baby. Or like a monk…
From Pineda de la Sierra to Burgos Cathedral (13 km 215 D+ 325 D-)
In the morning, I am not that hungry. Decide to eat the fruit from the shaman, foor good luck. We leave later in the morning. Taking it easy now. I will try to be fast, but I don’t know if I will be. Horribly slow that first mile. Then I finally manage to crank up my speed and keep it above 9.5 kmph. What an explosion of relief at the gates of Burgos. Many happy and proud faces. And I sandalized it, for 100%.
Have a coffee with Matt. Take some group pictures on the steps of the cathedral. Wander through the city in the afternoon with some of the others. Bump into an Orval. Paradise in a glass. Take a Chouffe. Belgian quality beers in Burgos. A lucky day.
The closing diner and award ceremony are simply fantastic. And emotional. We became a tight knit bunch. Organizers, volunteers, medical staff, markers, runners, … This type of small scale stage races can be marvellous. The one of Manu Pastor certainly is. Driven by a passion for running, for the region, for its history, for people, for excellence…
I enter the hotel at 5 AM in the morning. This has been a perfect week. Strongly recommended.