A Wild and Wet Cavalls del Vent

story and photos by Ian Corless

It always amazes me how a small town can be transformed into a bustling and thriving race headquarters in the space of 24 hours. I had arrived at Baga in the Spanish Pyrenees a couple of days ahead of the ultra Skyrunning Cavalls del Vent. A race billed as potentially one of the races of the year.

Not for the first time in 2012, the ISF (International Skyrunning Federation) and Salomon had pulled together an incredible field of elite runners to take part; Anton Krupicka, Tofol Castanyer, Miguel Heras, Philipp Reiter, Joe Grant, Terry Conway, Dakota Jones and of course, the mountain man himself, Kilian Jornet. The women’s race had equally impressive status but not the depth. Ultimately it would come down to a head-to-head battle between local legend Nuria Picas, Anna Frost (Frosty), Emelie Forsberg and Emma Roca.

In the days before the race I was fortunate to hang out with the runners, get out on the course and experience what it’s like to chase Kilian up a mountain… Unpleasant! The combination of altitude, ascent and technical terrain meant that this Brit had his hands on his knees and his lungs on the floor. But would I change anything? Of course not!

Kilian had recently had a VO2Max test. He told me that he had consistently hit 89.5 and maxed at 92.

Kilian is not a runner, he is an Alpinist; a mountain man. Running is just one aspect of what he does.

The team hotel had a great atmosphere. Chatting, eating, relaxing and preparing for the challenge ahead. It is what I love about ultra running. The mutual respect, appreciation and a love for what we all do transcends competition; it’s a lifestyle.

Race day came and although it was grey, temperatures were mild. Rain was expected to arrive at 11:00 a.m. and although it would be persistent no storms had been predicted.

From the square in Baga, the runners funneled themselves through a narrow gap in the walls of the town and they were off. Careering along damp roads of tarmac and cobbles before heading onto the trail, 84 kilometers to go and a 6,200-foot two-hour climb to the highest point of the course to start with.

Covering the race, our fun began with a run out of the town to our car strategically parked for a quick escape. A 20K hairpin-curves drive up the mountain to the highest point by road. As we ascend the mist comes in and visibility is reduced. One hour after the start we leave the car and start our own run/hike to a vantage point in the mountains.

The stunning views and vistas I had experienced in the previous days was now gone. Someone had pulled a huge grey blanket of fluffy cloud over us and in the air, a damp grey mist. The wind was up and then suddenly the rain came. Temperatures plummeted and with the arrival of the first runners, Jornet and Castanyer, conditions deteriorated. Cresting a ridge, bouncing over the terrain they passed us. Heras followed. Jones came into sight and then a good 15 minutes later we saw Krupicka with a jacket on and his hood up. As someone closeby said, “Jeez, it must be cold.”

Anton gives a wonderfully descriptive account of the climb. “Hands-on-knees, nose-on-the-ground, Euro-death-grunt that will have you dreaming of douche-grade. Then it starts raining.” The women were neck and neck. Emelie Forsberg running her first 50-miler had a minute on a closing Frosty; just behind her, Nuria Picas looking relaxed and calm on home ground. We are in Cataluña and the flag inspires a passion within. The locals cheer at Nuria with encouraging words “Vamos,” “Venga.” She smiles and winks as she passes.

The heinous conditions on top of the mountain at this point don’t seem to be dampening the enthusiasm of the runners or the assembled supporters. I can’t feel my hands…!

Word comes through that the women are all together; Frosty and Picas pulled back Forsberg at the summit. Jornet, Castanyer and Heras are still forging ahead up front but slowly and surely Krupicka is moving through the field and taking some scalps with some top notch descending. The terrain now eases and becomes rolling. At checkpoint 4 Jornet is in the lead with Castanyer behind, followed by Heras and Jones.

Minutes later Krupicka and Philipp Reiter. The lead women are in formation, alternating the lead, working with each other, talking to each other and encouraging each other. It’s great to see the bond they have. They have a desire for all of them to do well and race well.

Refugi de Prat d’Aguilo at 44K proves to be a decisive point in the race. Castanyer is pulled from the race with hypothermia, Heras and Grant drop with hypothermia and so the story continues. Persistent rain, cold temperatures and the race was suddenly becoming so much more that just a run. It was survival.

Joe Grant, in a post-race interview for Talk Ultra, explained, “I had an issue with my foot which caused me to reduce my pace. As soon as I wasn’t generating enough heat through running my temperature dropped and the rest is history. The medical teams at the checkpoint were superb. I was ready to run but they made the correct decision.”

From 44K it was Krupicka and Jornet with Jones trailing some 10-15 minutes in arrears. Ascending a steep 400-meter climb they arrived at the ridge together. At the summit news came back to us that conditions had become very difficult with increasing winds, heavy rain and icy temperatures. The addition of slippery terrain possibly made this one of the hardest sections of the day. Jornet had picked up a puffy mountain jacket at the aid station and ran with his hands in the pockets to keep warm. Krupicka ran ahead dictating the pace, and then, the drop down… At the bottom they ran a stretch of dirt and gravel trail, making haste to Refugi Lluis Estassen at 55K. Over an hour back, the three lead women – Forsberg, Frosty and Picas – are still working together, alternating the lead but moving as one…

Frosty would lose some time on the descents but then pull it back on the climbs. After the race she said, “Nuria and Emelie are just goats running downhill. They don’t touch the ground. They glide over it!”

A 3K descent from the Refugi is steep and through forests. Runners slipped and slid down the trail. Post-race we heard that many described this section as almost like a waterfall.

Jornet pulled away. At this point I stood on a climb within a thick forest waiting for them to arrive. Jornet arrived and I asked him how he was. “I’m good. I’m having fun. It was cold earlier but now I feel good.”

Some two minutes later Krupicka appeared, hands on knees, bent over and powering up, “How are you, Tony?”

“Yeah, I’m good… to be honest though, Kilian is just playing with me…”

At the summit Kilian leads but Tony nails the descent and joins forces with him at the bottom. They start the run to the finish together. Jones arrives on the climb now 20 minutes back. He looks cold and wet but is still moving well.

At Refugi Jordi, 72K, Jornet executed his move and pushed to the finish to take the win in a new course record, 8:42:22. A quite incredible run when one considers the conditions.

Krupicka arrives seven minutes later in 8:49:56 and looks on fire running around the final bend at speed. He doesn’t stop on the line but runs through it… almost 18 months out of the sport due to injury and he is back. You can see the elation on his face. He high fives the crowd and Jornet greets him. They embrace, laugh and congratulate each other. Dakota Jones completes the men’s podium with a top quality run 23 minutes back in 9:26:25.

At the finish, a buzz was beginning in regard to the women’s race. News came in that Forsberg had moved ahead and was being chased by Frosty and Picas. However, in the final 10K they all came together. Picas pushed and finally opened a gap over Frosty. Frosty, pursuing Picas, dropped Forsberg.

But Picas had done it. She had smashed her own course record by over an hour, 10:34:42. The local Cataluña crowds went crazy. Frosty arrived just 42 seconds later in 10:35:24 and Forsberg bounced over the line with an incredible jump in 10:39:51. The top three women spread over just six minutes and placing eighth, ninth, and tenth overall.

On Sunday we awoke to celebrate a great day’s racing, but were confronted with somber faces and tears. During the night a female runner had become hypothermic and although looked after by the medical teams and rushed to the hospital, she had died after a cardiac arrest. Words cannot express the mood and sadness presentation would take place but at the stroke of 10:30 a.m. we would all congregate and offer a minute’s silence to the honor and memory of 48-year-old Teresa Farriol.

We all appreciate that running in the mountains can be a dangerous sport. We accept that risk and I guess when we take part in a race we always think, “it won’t happen to me.”

I am not sure what can be learned from Farriol’s death at Cavalls del Vent but statistics show that only 20 percent of the starters finished the race. Ultimately, it’s only a race. No race is worth a life.