I have just finished running the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail. This was my first five-day stage race and it was also my first long race in a warm climate. It was a great experience, and I have learned lots that will make my next race more successful.
A stage race is a long-distance race where all the competitors, each morning, start together. At the end of the race, their time is added up for each of the days. The runner with the shortest total time is the winner. The Al Andalus Ultimate Trail starts and finishes at Loja in Spain, about 70 km North of Malaga. I certainly recommend this race and will describe at the end of this post what you need to do if you are interested in running it in 2024.
Due to flight delays, I arrived at the event hotel in Loja at about 2 am Saturday morning. The race did not start until Monday morning, but I wanted to arrive early to get used to the weather and check out the conditions. Over the weekend, I did a couple of runs (including a recce of the first bit of the race), registered, and attended the Sunday evening briefing and dinner.
From the registration and dinner, it quickly became clear that the runners in the event comprised two groups. The first group were people like me, running this race for the first time. The other group were people who had run it lots of times before. These regular returners were amazingly inclusive in their approach to us newbies. This year 28 people were running the race; this was slightly down from their normal number (40 to 60 runners). The relatively small number of runners meant we were able to quickly get to know everybody.
On Sunday, one of the returning runners took a tumble on his recce run, about 50 metres from the hotel and broke his wrist, meaning he was unable to start, and we were now 27 runners.
Day 1, a good day, but some key lessons about nutrition in the heat
The route started across the road from the hotel, and it was an immediate climb of 13 km (about 8 miles), with just a few sections that were downhill or flat. This meant I walked most of the first 13 km. The temperature was in the range of about 33C, and most of the terrain was desert-like, with little shade. There were water stops at 10 km intervals, which was a good frequency, and the supply of ice at each checkpoint was plentiful. For me, the running, the heat and my clothing all seemed to work well, and I was happy to finish 16th out of the 27 starters. Unfortunately, one of the runners had tripped and was now in hospital, having broken her arm. I am glad to say that this was the last accident of the race.
I made one major discovery about running in the heat. My snacks included Nakd fruit bars and Nature Valley biscuits – both items I regularly use in the UK. However, in the heat of Andalusia, the Nakd bars almost melted and the dryness in my mouth made the biscuits almost impossible to eat.
We started running at 9:45, and I finished nearly six hours later at Alhama de Granada. We ran 38 km and climbed 1244 metres (about 24 miles and 4080 feet).
Monday through Thursday nights, we slept in tents that were moved each day by the support team, along with our drop bags. At night, the tents were warm until about 2 am – so sleeping was not too easy, but at least they were single-person tents. After showers, chatting and snacking, we walked into the town, I bought some better snacks, and we had a great Spanish meal. Compared with a non-stop race like the Pennine Bridleway Trail Challenge or the Spine Race, one of the great things about a stage race is that all the competitors spend the evening together and start together in the morning. It also means you spend more time with all the helpers, seeing the same faces for five days and five evenings.
Day 2, the wheels start to come off
Day 2 started with a very different terrain, running through the Alhama de Granada Gorge, which is relatively flat and shaded. This was a longer day. We ran 48 km and climbed 1572 metres (about 30 miles and 5160 feet). At about the halfway point, I could feel both of my heels starting to hurt. At 30 km, I stopped at a checkpoint and let the medic check my feet (the race had three doctors, so we were well looked after). He could see a problem developing, more bruising than blister, but at that stage, he could not do much about it. I changed my socks and kept going, but even though the last 18 km were mostly downhill, I could feel my heels were getting worse and my pace was becoming really slow. I only just beat the cutoff times. From start to finish, it took me 9 hours 15 minutes to cover the distance. It was a tough, hot day, and five of the 26 people who started the day did not complete it.
At the campsite, I spent quite a bit of time with the medics I had spoken to earlier. He lanced, drained and dressed both of my heels, which now had a pair of crossover bruise/blister affair going on. While chatting with him, I learned a new term, haemoserous, a mix of blood and the normal clear liquid you get in blisters. Most runners headed into town to get a meal, but I stayed in the camp to rest my feet (I had dehydrated meals in my drop bag, so I ate one of them).
I have not had problems with my heels for many years, so this was a new problem to deal with. I am not 100% sure, but I think the problem with my heels was caused by a combination of running on very hard and rocky ground, the wrong shoes, and perhaps the way I plant my feet on hard rocky ground. Nearly all my races and training are either on soft boggy ground or on tarmac (in which case I wear cushioned running shoes). In this race, I was running in the same sort of shoes I would wear on a wet day on the British moors. To get rid of the problem of sore heels (I think), I need to do more running on hard rocky ground and get a pair of shoes that are more like a road shoe (with grip) than a fell shoe. The final two possible causes of the problems were that the heel of the insole in my shoe was worn and non-supportive, and I was wearing a much warmer sock combination than most of the runners, so perhaps my feet were sweating more than they should.
Day 3, Wow, those were really big blisters
This should have been a relatively easy day, only 38 km and only 895 metres of climbing, but for me, it was not an easy day. I could feel the blisters on my heels expanding from the start, and the downhills were a real challenge. My speed down the hills was about the same as my speed up the hills because of the pain. The run took 7 hours 23 minutes, which meant I was checking the cut-off times all through the day.
When the medic got to work on my feet there were knowing nods from several of the runners who happened to be around. On both heels, I had a blister that was the full size of the bottom of my heel, and they had expanded up the outside of each foot. Luckily neither of the two blisters had split, so he was able to lance* them on the side of my foot and massage the haemoserous out through the hole before dressing it and taping it.
Dinner was a big paella at the campsite, which was very communal and very close to my tent – so I walked as little as possible.
*Note, in general, you should NOT lance blisters. The blister is your body’s protection against infection. However, if you run on a blister, it will split open, and all sorts of bad stuff can get into the wound. So, in the ultra-running context, blisters are typically lanced, drained, dressed and strapped. Normally I am happy to do this to my own feet, but I can’t see or access the underside of my heels (because I am not flexible enough), so it was fantastic to have a professional tackling them.
Day 4, running out of time
Thursday was always going to be a challenge; it is the longest day, 67 km with 1300 metres of climbing. There is a time limit for each day (the cut-off), and there is a cut-off for each checkpoint on the route.
I set off with my plan A. Plan A was to try to be just fast enough to beat the cut-offs with a sort of jog, shuffle, wince approach. However, I missed the cut-off of Checkpoint 2, and I was out of the race. I had run 23 km (just over a half marathon) and climbed 452 metres, but I was too slow. I was sorry to have timed out, but there was a sense of relief from the pain. If the organisers had permitted me to keep running, I would have needed another eight hours of shuffling to finish.
Because of the good job the medic had done on Wednesday night and because I had been very careful about how I put my foot down and only run a half marathon, my feet were no worse on Thursday evening than they were Thursday morning. As an example of what I mean by being careful, on the downhill sections, I was using my hiking poles to reduce the weight going through my feet and choosing routes that avoided the sharper, rockier bits where possible.
Day 5, plan B and redemption
One of the good things about the race rules is that if you fail to complete one (or more stages), you can still participate in the remaining stages (but you don’t count as a ‘finisher’ in the official records).
Since I did not need to race or run a long distance on Saturday, I decided to change my strategy for the last day. I did not use my poles, resolving to lean forwards as much as possible to get my weight further forward and to really attack the first half of the race (which was mostly uphill). When going uphill, getting your weight onto the front of your feet is easier. The last 13km was the same route as the first day, but this time it would be 13 km downhill (followed by washing my feet in the shower and resting in bed before the end of race dinner).
About an hour before we started, I had some paracetamol and had some more four hours later to help me cope with the discomfort. Like many people, I find that if I run on blisters, they only hurt badly for about thirty or forty minutes, and then the brain seems to get a stimulus overload and can ignore them (except when you step on a sharper or large rock).
Basically, Plan B worked; I ran the 41 km and climbed the 1064 metres in 5 hours 44 minutes (the 13th fastest of the 24 who took part in the fifth stage). Yes, I had raised blisters on both heels again, but since I was not running the next day, I had a chat with the medics, and we agreed to leave them alone.
Because of my plan B and the fact it worked, I felt reassured that other than my feet, I was fully capable of this sort of event.
Success and Failure, but mostly Success
I run for two reasons, to have fun and to learn things. During this race, I had a tremendous amount of pleasure (the areas we visited, the camaraderie of the runners, the fantastic helpers, and the two wonderful people (Michelle and Eric) who put this event on). I wanted to see if I could run in higher temperatures than I was used to (up to 40C at some points) and find out how I would function in a five-day stage race (I functioned fine).
I was disappointed not to have completed every day of the race. But I can look back and say I ran between 23 km and 48 km, in the heat, in the mountains, every day for five days, covering 188 km and climbing 5227 metres (about 117 miles and 17,150 feet). From the ankle upwards, my body is 100% OK, with no sunburn, no fatigue, and no injuries. So, I think there are a lot of positives, along with something to work on for next time.
I am adding all the photos at the end of the post with captions.
Do you want to Run the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail in 2024?
I certainly recommend this event. The route is excellent, and the people are great, as is shown by how many people go back year after year (the helpers, as well as the runners, keep returning).
If you are used to multi-day stage races, that is probably enough of a recommendation. If you are new to this sort of race, here are a few tips from my experience of this race. You will need to run for about six to eight hours a day for five days, with one long day when you will need to run for about nine or ten hours. When I say run, you can walk up all the hills, but you will need to at least jog on the flat and downhill sections. (Some people can ‘fast walk’ the whole distance, but I think you would need long legs and be used to hiking that fast). You are going to be given masses of encouragement and support, but you are going to do it in the heat (our midday and afternoon temperatures ranged from about 32C to 40C – but it could be hotter next year). But, even if you don’t complete the required distance in the required time each day, you will be allowed to run the next day’s stage.