Where to begin with Emmona?? They say a picture says 1000 words, well the picture below tells you a lot of what you need to know about Emmona, it's steep, it's high, it's relentless.
This was my first major objective of the season, the first of the 3 Alpinultras races I will compete in. The race starts and finishes in the beautiful town of Sant Joan de les Abadesses in the provence of Girona, Catalonia, covering 130km and climbing more than 10,000m along the way.
I spent most of the week leading up to the race in the Guadaramma mountains close to Madrid and arrived in the Pyrenees feeling really fit. My training has been different this year, I've been managing a torn calf that seems to reoccur anytime I run hard on the flat so I've had to focus much more on quality mountain runs and a lot of strength work in the gym. I've been unable to run any reps or tempo runs for quite some time but I've found a recipe that seems to work and as a result I've been climbing better than ever before and my endurance is good thanks to some pretty big training weeks like the 230km with 11,000m+ in Mallorca a few weeks earlier.
As I stood on the start line waiting for the 10pm launch I was really happy with how I felt, injury free and in good form. The organisers put on quite a show for the start of Emmona with huge crowds lining the streets out of town, music, fireworks and torches giving the runners a great send off. As soon as we left the town a group of 6 or 7 of us formed at the front of the race and thats pretty much how things stayed for the entire night. We were really lucky with the conditions, a beautiful clear sky, a bright red moon and comfortable temperatures.
I felt great all night, the mountains and terrain are very similar to the Scottish mountains so it felt just like home, albeit a little warmer and higher. We got the first 4 major climbs out of the way without incident and arrived at the 55km checkpoint, Vallter, just after sunrise. It's always a great feeling when the sun comes up during a race, it seems to shake the fatigue out of your body, for a while at least.
From Vallter the race really begins, we were already at 2000m altitude but we were about to go a lot higher. I left the checkpoint in the lead but it was way too early to be striking out alone so I waited on a couple of Basque runners and we tackled the boulder field climb together, climbing straight up to 2500m. This is where I first started to feel the effects of the altitude, my heart was banging in my ears and the effort was much more than it should've been at that pace. It was really stunning being high up in these really rugged mountains at first light, also pretty cold the higher we climbed and the wind was getting stronger making the narrow ridge sections a little interesting.
This high ridge section continued for 10 miles, all at high altitude and somewhere along this section I lost contact with my Basque companions, I was really suffering, trying to keep calm and continue to eat and drink but it was a struggle. I have a mixed relationship with running at altitude and today was certainly the worst I've ever felt up high. The only thing I could do was try to maintain a decent pace and get back down to the lower slopes as quickly as possible. In this 1 section alone we crested 4 peaks that were above 2800m and another 2 that were over 2700m, it was really brutal. I tried to remember all the reasons why I was there and some of the messages of support I'd had from friends and family before the race, anything to try to remain positive but it was tough, really, really tough. Without doubt, physically, the worst I've ever felt during a race and there was still half of the race to go. Eventually, after an eternity, I summited Pic de l'Aliga at the end of the ridge and from here it was a 700 or 800m descent into the checkpoint at Nuria. I was still in 3rd position but feeling really wasted and in all honesty I don't remember too much about the descent, I just remember catching the 2nd placed runner just before the checkpoint.
I decided to take my time in Nuria to eat and drink well, I lost a few positions as runners arrived after me but left before I got moving again. From Nuria we had a 1000m climb straight to the highest point of the race at Puigmal. It was a pretty soul destroying experience, as the higher I climbed the harder it got with the altitude again and it was really difficult not to think of how far we still had to go. I tried to just focus on getting through the next couple of hours until I could get back down to lower altitude. This section of the race was my lowest point mentally, a real sufferfest. Lot's of personal reflection and promising myself that I'd never race again ha ha ha.
From the peak of Puigmal we dropped around 1900m in a little over 10km, a fairly steep descent with some really rough, technical terrain but thankfully as I arrived at the checkpoint in Planoles I began to feel half human again. I met my friends Albert and Sergio here, we laughed about how terrible I'd been feeling, I ate some food and Albert told me the closest 2 runners were together 20 minutes ahead of me. There were 43km left with 2 big climbs but neither of them went above 2000m. I had the hunger back to race again and set off to see if I could make up some time. I was still suffering but nothing like the way I felt up high. Towards the top of the penultimate climb I caught sight of the 4th placed runner, it gave me a real boost. I caught him by the top and passed him on a fairly flat section, he tried to go with me but I was moving really well and as we started to descend I dropped him fairly quickly. This was one of the best descents I've ever had in a race, I felt really fresh and was moving really free, it certainly didn't feel like I had 100km with 9000m+ in my legs. That's the amazing thing with Ultra trail, you can feel like death 1 minute but if you just hang in there and do the right things your body can come round.
When I reached the checkpoint at Campdevánol with 21km left they told me that 3rd place was now only 12 minutes ahead. Again this gave me a real boost. I set off to tackle the final 1000m climb and then the long descent into the finish determined to make the podium. My excitement was short-lived! After around 10 minutes of climbing hard I exploded again, I had to really slow down, get some caffeine and sugar into me and ride it out until I recovered some strength. I did begin to feel better again before the final summit but any realistic chance of the podium had slipped away. I still pushed as hard as I could, made more difficult by the torrential rain that arrived with an electrical storm.
It was such a welcome sight to see the town again as I descended down through the forest. It had been a long, long night and day but it was almost over. The final couple of kms into the town were really enjoyable, I knew I was finishing 4th, not what I had wanted before the race but given how I'd felt I was satisfied and more importantly I was still very much alive in the Alpinultras series.
It's safe to say I was pretty happy to reach that finish line and hold the famous shield. It was great to meet my friends and simply to stop running what was without doubt the most difficult race I've ever ran. I even timed it right to have some dinner and get home in time for the Champions League final! I didn't quite conquer Emmona but just as importantly, Emmona didn't conquer me. Congratulations to Ion Azpiroz for his win, he ran a great race. Nos vemos en Valls d'Aneu!!!