We all think we know what Spain is like right? You get on an easyjet flight to Malaga, and suddenly you’re in pre Brexit hell. Stag do’s, hen do’s, ex-pats, night clubs, the great British public wrecking horror and devestation at every turn whilst dressed in ironic lime green thongs and unadvisable bikinis. It doesn’t seem like the dream location for a sea to summit mega adventure. Turns out that Spain is actually massive, beautiful and brutal. Organising a 3 day running event there is possibly one of the smartest moves Rat Race have ever made.
For those not familiar with this blog, I’m a Test Pilot (TP) for Rat Race. That means that they send me and a few other suggestable (read ‘stupid’) people out to test events that they’re thinking of putting together for public consumption. In the words of Alan Partridge, technically, my life’s not worth insuring. I’ve travelled to Mongolia, Panama and Namibia with them. I’ve “run” up the 3 peaks in Cape Town and crossed a 100 mile frozen lake on foot. I’ve tackled the jungle and the desert with them and all 3 have gone on to be sell out once in a lifetime events. This one is just as epic, just a little closer to home.
The idea is pretty simple. Sea to Summit. Does what it says on the tin. You fly in to Malaga airport and travel 1.5 hrs up the coast to La Rabita where you run from sea level to the top of Mulhacen.
Standing at 11,400 ft above sea level, it’s the highest peak in Western Europe outside of the Alps. Then you come back down again. Weeeee! It’s a 3 day event taking in (around) 75km of running/hoofing it up a mountain. I was a bit blasé about this, wondering if we could just slam it all into a 24 hour period. Turns out you can’t really slam it all into a 24 hour period unless you’re Killian Journet or a Deer-Goat-Dog (more on them later and your skin is made of Teflon.
Let’s start with problems. I am a bit scared (fucking terrified) of mountains. I don’t particularly like ledges or drops or massive heights. I once had a panic attack on Arthurs Seat, which is technically a hill and I cried climbing the chimney at the UTA last year. Also weather. Jim really does love to arrange adverse conditions for these adventures, and the headlines the week prior to the trip told us we were all going to die in a 40 degree heatwave that was sweeping across Spain. The air was on fire. Then we have the matter of elevation. It’s a lot, innit? Not a fan of up. I like down more. Down is easy and comforting. That said, I love a challenge, I don’t know Spain that well and it’s a lot closer than the other side of the world stuff, so fuck it, let’s gooooo!
Because easyjet are shit, I had to fly in the day before the team were due to RV at Malaga airport and stay an extra night in a hotel down the road. The man in the hotel hated me. I blame Boris. Already. It was there that I bumped into Gill, a Rat Race regular who was crewing this trip, and we travelled back to the airport on Friday morning to pick up cars and meet the rest of the TP’s. The squad were as follows:
Gill – Rat Race regular and driver for the weekend.
Andrea – Rat Race volunteer and driver for the weekend
Alice – Veteran ultra-runner training for Race to the Wreck in November.
Ian – Rat Race regular new to the TP scene. Speedgoat.
Naoko – Ian’s long-suffering wife and volunteer, who had come along for the LOLs
Simon – Rat Race regular and all round lovely human. Knows Mr Kipling.
Jim – Rat Race owner and inspiration wrangler. Likes setting fire to things.
Ross – Owner of Raw Advenures, mountain leader, very tall. Has an excellent dog.
Maia – Ross’ right hand woman, ultra runner and mountain goat.
My pal Sarah (Do-Badder, extreme Spartan champion and designer of all things graphical) and her husband James (Actor, writer, chief of LOLs) were joining us later that day on a different flight, which would ultimately mean they got a total of no hours sleep before they started the run on Saturday.
We picked up the cars and took the 90 min drive from the airport to La Rabita. We were staying the night at a hotel right on the beach, so we pretended to be on holiday for abour 2 hours. I got in the sea and had a beer. Now, I say “staying” and “for the night”. The reality was that our wake-up call was to be 1.30am on Saturday morning. Yeah you read that right. ONE THIRTY AM. FFS. I thought that was a half marathon time, not an ACTUAL time.
When it comes to dinner, the Spanish don’t do shit before 8pm at night, so we used the time before dinner to have a briefing with Ross and Mara. I’m no expert on mountains. I don’t really like them and my research for this trip has consisted of me making up some funny puns about Spain and googling what the bestest beer was. The briefing was a bit of an eye opener.
Ross took us through the 3 days, and made sure we all had the routes on our watches/phones/written on the back of our hand in biro. Then he started to talk about what happens when you go up a big mountain. You know, fun stuff like pulmonary and cerebral edemas. WAIT WHAT??? I honestly hadn’t even thought about that. This was a big old mountain and altitude sickness was apparently a real threat. Because he’s great, Ross took us through how it happens, why it happens, then told us it wouldn’t happen. Basically, we were going to take it super easy on the way up and down so that our tiny heads didn’t explode.
The days broke down like this. Saturday’s run was about 26 miles (hahahahahahah more on that later), starting at 2am to beat the heat. This was the big day – around 9,000 ft of climb in the boiling sun. We would finish at Trevelez for the night, and set off for about 13 miles up to the base of the mountain at 4am on Sunday. From there, we would climb up to the top of Mulhacen, stand on it, do a little dance, make a little love and then get down. We’d stay at a mountain refuge that ight and then, on Sunday, we would make our way back down the hill for about 7 miles to RV with our crew and spend the night in a nice villa in Grenada drinking wine and eating paella and slapping each other on the back heartily. Sounds pretty easy right? WRONG.
We ate our dinner of unidentified meat and chips, and headed back to the hotel for about 10pm. After packing all the stuff I needed in my UD pack for the next day and getting changed into my running kit, I went to sleep and managed about 2 hours before my alarm went off at around 1am. Sarah and James had arrived from the airport an hour earlier and looked thrilled to be there. It was James’ birthday. This is what he had always wanted. I could tell. We were all very quiet getting ready – I don’t think any of us could believe what time it was. After a quick breakfast of pastries and fruit that Ross and Jim had cobbled together, we headed out along the seafront to the base of the river bed that we would start running along. 2am came, head torches on, toes dipped in the sea, and we were off.
It was very, very dark and the first part of the run wound through a dried up river bed. The ground was made up of soft, energy sapping gravel, but I felt weirdly awake and managed a decent-ish 10 min mile pace for the first few miles. I was running at the front with Ian and Simon. Alice, Jim, James and Sarah were just behind us. We met Ross at the support vehicle after 3 miles, and he directed us up a hill towards the first part of the trail.
We soon found ourselves in what appeared to be a huge gorge. It had high rocks on either side, and the darkness made it feel like we were in a cave. Bats flew over our heads as we trotted on, keeping a close eye on the route on our watches. We kept on running and chatting and having a lovely time until we literally hit a wall. We checked our nav and tried to go back and re-find the route, but the little arrow was telling us we needed to go through this wall. It was about 20 foot high. I felt like Jon Snow. Fair seeing as I literally knew nothing about nav. The wall had two pieces of rubber tubing and a rope hanging down from the top. At this point, the rest of the group had caught up with us and we bumbled about looking for the trail. But the trail was the wall. We were supposed to go over it. Winter was coming. (Sadly it wasn’t. It was still boiling).
The wall was too smooth to get any hand or foot grip on, so Ian bravely grabbed hold of the tubing and tried to pull himself up. After a bit of arse shoving from us, he managed to get to the top without dying, so we took it in turns to climb and be pushed up and over. This was the first of maybe 5 of these type of ‘fun’ obstacles. I’m really glad we did that part in the dark, because I may have had a sense of humour failure if it had been light. At the bottom of one of the boulder scrambles was a dead goat that had obviously lost the will to live at this point. Some absolute classic moments included Jim laying face down on a ledge and shouting “just use my body however you want!” and “whale it!” as we flopped up onto the ledges like to professional athletes we are.
Once we were finally out of the gorge, the track became a lot more runnable. It was about 5am and we had covered around 10 miles before we saw Gill waiting with snacks and water at the bottom of what appeared to be a sheer cliff. A scramble up through thick brambles and thorns ensued for about a quarter of a mile, leaving my legs looking like I’d been attacked by some sort of wild cat. Blood everywhere, but it was still so dark that I failed to notice. I literally looked like I had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Except it was forwards.
The sun was starting to come up. The world was silent and beautiful. The group had spread out a little more now, and I had been on my own for some time. Times like this, alone with nothing and nobody but the natural world and your own two feet are so, so precious. Light slowly trickled over the never ending hills and vineyards. The human world was asleep. It was just me and the birds and the light. The views were ridiculous. The photos don’t do them justice. Jaw dropping as it was, there was a sting in the tail of this perfect morning. That sun was making quite aggressive advances. And it was going to get vicious. I decided to try and run as much as I could while the temperature was still manageable. If I could get to the halfway point before it was properly blazing, it would make the rest of the day a whole lot easier.
I reached halfway at about 8am and it was already 23 degrees. I was hungry and tired, even though I had been eating ALL the snacks and drinking ALL the water. The gravel trails had given way to long sections of winding road and I seemed to be permanently going up-hill. That’s because I was. It was mental. So many false summits. But what goes up must come down, and down it went. I managed to get a good few 8 min miles in on the downhills, but had to keep remembering that this was day one of three, and I didn’t want to destroy my little legs. I whizzed down the hills, making friends with some lovely doggos and then strode back up the tarmacked roads on the other side.
I was feeling pretty fucking tired. 11am came and went. The temperature was 33 degrees and the sun was bouncing of the tarmac and trails onto my scratched legs. It was stingy and it was really sucking the life out of me. The 2 hours sleep I’d had in the last 28 hours was starting to affect me. Today’s elevation for you stat fans was the equivalent to twice up Ben Nevis. That’s not a normal thing to do on a Saturday in 30 odd degree heat. I was very aware that some of the symptoms I was feeling were those of sunstroke. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I was finding it really heard to regulate my heart rate. So I slowed right down and took tiny breaks in any shade I could find. The Rat Race driving crew were ace, constantly driving past and offering water and salt. We were very safe and very supported, but self-management was key.
My tiredness manifested itself in stupidity (as usual), and I went wrong nav wise. I just wasn’t paying attention. I wasted about a mile of leg power going the wrong way up a road, and when I did go back to find the right path it was up and down and up and down. Some nice ledges thrown in too, and zero shade. The sun was relentless and bounced off the gravel. I was burning, but my sun cream was trickling off every time I put it on. I was on my own and missing my pals. I needed someone to talk shit to. Relentless Forward Progress. Just keep going
The hardest section of the day was the last third. The terrain looked a bit like Exmoor but with Spanish 1pm sun banging down on it. There was nowhere to hide. 26 miles came and went, and I realised that the day was going to be a LOT longer than I had thought. More like 30 miles. The boys, who had been in front of me, had made a major nav error and suddenly appeared behind me. They did not look happy. We marched up the mountains in silence, all of us suffering, all of us trying to regulate our body temperature. The day topped out at 37 degrees. I wanted an ice cream and a sit down. I could have neither.
Eventually, the beautiful village of Trevelez came into sight below us. We were almost there. There was a pool at the hotel we were staying at, and it was all I could think of. After what seemed like forever we found ourselves marching up the road towards that delicious pool. Straight into a shop, full fat coke, beer and ice cream. Yes. Food of champions. Into the hotel, shower and straight into the pool. Bliss.
I spent most of the rest of the day waiting to go to sleep! We stayed awake to see the rest of the crew in, had a power nap (which had the opposite effect to what I was hoping for) and ate. The alarm was set for the next morning. I was waking up at 3am. I was in bed at 10.30pm.
Saturday came waaaay too soon. We had to take a slightly bigger bag for the mountains. We would be staying in a mountain refuge overnight, so only needed to take the basics for mountain survival (whistle, gloves, windproof etc) plus food, a change of clothes and a sleeping liner. I was exhausted when I packed my bag the night before, and didn’t do a great job of it. I defo should have taken more food. Or at least had breakfast. Breakfast would have been a good idea……
We met in the lobby at 3.30am. Nobody was talking. We all wanted to go back to bed SO badly. The march out of the hotel was a bit like a death march. A slow, silent death march, just the noise of our poles clicking on the concrete. Running mountains is SO FUN kids!
We were now heading towards Mulhacean. The elevation for the day was pretty intense so we were taking it slowly, stopping for water and food breaks around every 300m of ascent, and sense checking the whole time. The first few miles were pretty much vertical uphill. Make no mistake, you cannot do this route without poles. You simply won’t make it. We got our heads down and marched upwards, and, after a couple of hours the sky cracked and the sun began to rise over the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking. We sat on flat rocks and stared into the still early morning light, all slightly dazed from lack of sleep. It’s hard to know what is genuine tiredness and what is altitude tiredness. The plan was to reach the mountain refuge and dump some of the overnight weight from our bags and refuel. Then we would head to the summit.
We reached the refuge at about 8.30am, and it was buzzing with other climbers and hikers getting their breakfasts in. We dropped our evening kit off and bought a few bottles of water and snacks before setting off on the ascent proper at about 9am. It was already 27 degrees.
Because we were heading up to the summit, there was a nice little wind, and gradually the air started to cool down. The ascent took us along a small river and up towards the huge scree hills. The sun had given us all new energy and we were moving at a decent pace, stopping occasionally for water and to adjust to the altitude changes. At one point Jim almost started a bush fire, but I’m going to leave that story to tell people in person, mainly because I think he has better lawyers than me.
The journey to the summit was hard. It was pretty much vertical from the start of the scree and wound upwards in a zig zag. It was a Sunday, so there were all sorts of people about – walkers, runners, mountain bikers, all of them looking fitter and more capable than I had ever felt. It took about 2 hours to get from the bottom to the top. The thing with mountains like this, is that you lose all sense of perspective. What looks like a ten min hike is actually a 90 min hike. I felt utterly exhausted and kept having to regulate my breathing. But something was different. I didn’t feel scared on this mountain. It’s the first time I have been able to look down and not feel afraid. I put that down to the company. The whole team made me feel safe just by being there. If you ever want to get over fear of mountain then get up there with Ross. He’s absolutely brilliant at making everything seem normal.
Eventually we reached the summit. It was amazing. The top is relatively large and flat, with enough room for a good few tourists to dick about. Legend has it that the penultimate Muslim king of Granada was buried up there in the 15thcentury. I can’t see why anyone would want to drag a carcass up here, but there you go. There are run down huts and dilapidated half built stone walls. Deer Goats and tourists lay behind the walls out of the sun. A small shrine of flags and ribbons had been constructed under the trig point, left there for no apparent reason. There are hundreds of butterflies up there, making the experience all the more surreal and magical. I manage, with a bit of help and encouragement from Ross, to stand at the top by the trig point and take it all in. It’s the first time I have ever done that without being terrified. We had reached the summit of Spain, having started at the sea that lay far away in the distance.
We spent 20 minutes at the top, sitting and chatting, taking pictures and eating snacks. We then started to make our way back down to the refuge and the promise of beer, which is harder than it sounds on tired legs. I’d say it’s definitely runnable for a decent fell runner, but I had my army boots and a pretty sizeable backpack on, it was boiling and we were all knackered, so that wasn’t happening today. As we descended, it got hotter and hotter and the wind stopped. I’d run out of snacks and felt really rubbish. I had to resort to gels which is just gross. It took a good few hours to get back to the refuge. When we got there we ordered coke and beer and pizza. Some of the team napped, some checked emails. I ate pizza, drank beer and tried to make friends with an animal that looked like a goat and behaved like a dog but was also a deer. Goatdog Deer was brilliant.
That night we ate basic meal in the refuge and had 8 whole hours sleep. The next day we were up, grabbed breakfast and started the 7 mile hike back to Capileira where we were meeting the driving crew to head back to Grenada for all the food and wine. That night we stayed in a villa just outside Grenada town centre and sat round the pool drinking beer and eating crisps. Later on, we headed out to town for celebratory dinner, making sure to take in the sunset over the Alhambra.
So there you have it – Rat Race Sea to Summit done. Topping out at about 80km with around 16,000ft of elevation over 3 days. As usual, when I get back from stuff like this the rose-tinted spectacles are straight on, but this time I think that they are deserved. Don’t get me wrong, this is a hard event. I’d advise people thinking about taking it on to have done at least one hot marathon or ultra, and you need to have on point admin skills and be sensible enough to keep hydrated and fed, or you won’t get back in one piece. But it’s also extremely accessible. You’re well supported and it’s almost part event, part holiday – as long as you’re sensible. We stayed in some lovely hotels and the villa at the end was ace. The mountain refuge has the comfiest beds ever and the food was generally pretty amazing.
We were lucky to have a brilliant team on this recee. Everyone got on well, nobody was a dick and we had amazing support. This shows a totally different side to Spain – one that I think tends to be ignored in the mainstream media and one that I felt extremely privledged to see. Spain is huge and beautiful and pretty much empty of humans in places. It can be other worldly in its beauty. One of the things I will never forget is the silence at the mountain refuge. I will never forget sitting outside with my beer and the Goatdog Deer and it’s baby deerdog in total silence. It’s so hard to find any pure silence nowadays. No roads, no airplanes, no people. Just the very occasional cow bell and bird wooshing past. Maybe the distant sound of water, but that’s it. That’s living.
The other thing is that unlike some of the other destination races that RR are putting on, this one is easy to get to flight wise. It’s a long weekend doing something epic but totally achievable. It’s definitely the sort of thing I can see people doing as a group of mates. You’ll get the groups doing it and the super good fell runners doing it – the long day could make for an amazing competitive race with the right participants. This event hasn’t yet got date for 2020, but if you’re interested in signing up, best thing to do is head over to the Rat Race facebook page and give it a like - or you can sign up for the waiting list here.
I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in the next half of the year – next up with my Test Pilot hat on is the Maltese Falcon – a run/kayak traverse of tall three Maltese Islands in one day in August. For now, I’d best get packed for Man Vs Coast this weekend where I will be doing a talk in the main tent at 7.30pm on Saturday (post event) on all things Bucket List and Test Pilot. Come along if you have any questions at all about either of those things.
You can read more about Rat Race Bucket list here (mention my name in the drop down when booking to get $150 off the price).