The Els 2900 Alpine Run Andorra
The Els 2900 Alpine Run may be the most technical and extreme trail race in the world, but by the end of it you’ll be able to say that you circumnavigated an entire country during the run.
The 70k race traverses nearly all the way around the small nation of Andorra, nestled between Spain and France within the eastern Pyrenees Mountains, in a single day. Its founders, Matthieu Lefort and Carles Rossell, are Andorran mountain runners. Els 2900 grew out of their adventures together on the myriad ridgelines and summits of their home range. Their creation is an ultramarathon that climbs 6,800m over the seven 2,900 m (and three bonus) peaks of Andorra by way of some demanding and exposed ridges.
The event is a burly and fun test of alpine running, an extreme take on skyrunning. Skyrunning, a mountain running discipline, began in the early 1990s in Europe pitting runners against difficult and steep routes. However, in recent years, the growing popularity of skyrunning has led to a transition towards tamer courses to accommodate mass participation. Lefort and Rossell’s vision is a return to skyrunning’s founding principles: traversing the most difficult lines wholly contained in the alpine with little aid. During Els 2900, runners are supported at only three points on course and must be semi-autonomous, carrying what they need for the duration of the event. Self-awareness, proficiency, humility and luck are all needed to finish.
In 2014, Lefort and Rossell put out a call and received applications from runners around the world. The pair spent weeks meticulously sifting through resumés, social media and past results. Their assessments were thorough and their selection exclusive. Mountain experience and racing pedigree formed much of the evaluation. The nature of the course, wildly technical and steep, necessitates the inclusion of those who demonstrate determination and strong will but also the skills required to stay alive. However, each applicant’s ethos weighed just as heavily. Unlike most large and popular ultramarathons, Els 2900 was to be small and intimate –a gathering of like-minded mountain-goers.
Thirty-six athletes from across Europe and me, representing Canada and the world outside of the EU, were invited to toe the line in the Andorran alpine. We shared a striking resemblance to one another despite varied backgrounds and homelands. Lean frames were filled out by marbled thighs, broad backs, strong arms and striated shoulders. Each face was thin; our skin weathered by high-altitude sun. No one had a typical runner’s build. Rather, we shared a hybrid embodiment of ultra-endurance and mountaineering. We also resembled one another in mind. We shared the language of moving in the mountains.
On Halloween evening, we huddled together outside the Refugio Estanys de la Pera on the border of Spain, ready to run. We climbed towards Portelleta, the first summit of the night, when midnight came.
This was my first trip to Andorra and my first extended trip in Europe. Surprisingly, the peaks felt like home despite Andorra’s foreign culture and context. The altitude of the summits and towns below, the lengths of the climbs, the colour, feel and quality of the rock, and the life living on the mountains are near identical to those near my home in the Rockies. Immediately, I had a resounding feeling of being home as the sun rose, illuminating mountain after mountain.
This was also the first race I have run that begins at night. I f lowed along with even energy and enthusiasm despite being unsure of what to expect beginning at midnight. And, after seven hours of alpine running through the dark, with a long via-ferrata course at 4 a.m., I found myself alone and content on the ridge between the summits of Estanyo and Serrera. We encountered ideal conditions throughout the entire day: a clear and cool night, strong moon and bright stars. A calm morning with welcomed sun followed by an afternoon and evening with warm valleys and dry peaks. Snow that had fallen in early October had melted with the recent warmth. Wind whipped through the alpine but I was comfortable all day. However, the shaded north faces meant ice on the steep talus fields. A mildly harrowing traverse after Estanyo meant the end of the day for a few runners. I fell as well, sliding through steep rock before stopping well below the faint trail. The fall wrecked my ankle, which had been severely sprained two months prior. The damage added insult to the inherent difficulty of the course. By mid-afternoon I slowed to a grouchy hobble. And, near nightfall, I was relegated to drop out at the third and final aid station.
In the end, the course consumed 15 others as well. Twenty-two crossed the finish line at Refugio de Coma Pedroa. Jokin Lizeaga, of Spain, won in 14 hours and 48 minutes. Only one woman completed the 70k: Sonia Regueiro Rodriguez, also of Spain, finished in 21 hours and 51 minutes.
Els 2900 was a resounding success. The 10 summits and interconnecting ridges, including the famous Cresta del Malhiverns, made for a literally breathtaking experience of alpine running. It was the most gruelling and exciting introduction to Andorra I could have had. Despite injury and unfinished business, I made new friends, toured the Pyrenees, and returned to Canada with emboldened inspiration to expand my own alpine-running at home in the Rockies.
Lefort and Rossell are set to host a second edition on Oct. 14–16, 2016 and I hope to be back to join the new band of like-minded alpine runners.
“The altitude of the summits and towns below, the lengths of the climbs, the colour, feel and quality of the rock, and the life living on the mountains are near identical to those near my home in the Rockies.”
DESTINATION PYRENEES MOUNTAINS, ANDORRAThe Els 2900 Alpine Run