Ex­otic Des­ti­na­tion

The Els 2900 Alpine Run An­dorra

Canadian Running - - DEPARTMENTS - By Ian MacNairn

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.”


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