The AlAndalus Ultimate Trail is a 230km 5 day stage race in the mountains of Andalucia near Granada in Spain. Now in its 6th year, it is organised by Team Axarsport. The event is not designed to be for mass participation. This creates a more intimate race atmosphere and has a minimum impact on the environment. I'd been recommended the event by a number of people but nobody had mentioned quite how tough it was going to be. One of my first memories on arrival was overhearing a discussion on how much tougher than the Marathon des Sables it was. Unlike MdS, you only need to carry a small, day pack and you can get cleaned up in the evening and eat some proper food. However, the temperatures in Andalucia in July are usually higher than at the MdS and the trails and climbs are much tougher. I'd been injured in the early stages of the Thames Path 100 and had missed nearly a months training, so I didn't really want to hear this!
After a day of relaxing at the Hotel Manzanil in the sleepy town of Loja, we set out on Stage 1 (39km, 1300mascent). Our welcome to Andalucia was an 11km climb up a mountain! Most of us had to walk a fair bit of this stretch but we were rewarded by a long downhill section before an undulating mix of trail and road into the finish at the Alhambrade Granada Municipal Pool. The pool was very refreshing and we all had a pleasant evening getting to know each other a bit better.
Stage 2 was a longer day (48km, 1640m ascent). After a gentle start, allowing the stiffness in my legs from Stage 1 to ease a little, I got going o.k. until Checkpoint 2.We then came to a scenic, technical, single track. I suffer with vertigo. I don't have a problem with heights as long as the path is wide enough so I don't have to look over the edge, but this goat track was definitely not my cup of tea. It was also getting very hot and I was feeling nauseous and couldn't face drink or fuel. I eventually made it to the next checkpoint, but my body and brain were in a bad way. I stayed at CP3 for nearly an hour, drinking Coke,cooling down with cold towels and even having a short nap! The support crew were great and I managed to get going again. Eventually, I made it through to the finish. It had been a tough day.
Stage 3 from Jatar to Jayena was supposed to be something of a recovery day (only39km and 980m of ascent), but I was still feeling unwell and hadn't been able to eat, so it was going to be another challenge. The scenery was lovely but I wasn't taking much notice of it. I was just trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other. After a very slow day with a lot of walking, I eventually made it to the finish. The good news was that I began to regain my appetite and managed to get some food down. The bad news was that the next day was the Long Day!
Stage 4 was the big one (67km, 2031m of ascent). I can't pretend I was looking forward to it but I was feeling a little better and was beginning to acclimatise to the heat. I started very steadily. We went through some lovely forest trails and round the beautiful Lake Bermejales. I was beginning to feel mentally and physically much better but didn't want to get carried away. After a couple of tough climbs, I had a nice run down into Cacin, whereCP4 was outside a bar at the 40k mark. I was very tempted to have a beer but thought better of it.
After another long climb to CP5, I knew I was going to be o.k. and I was finally understanding this course (i.e. expect a hill around every corner and be grateful for anything less than a steep one!). I was almost disappointed when the day was finished (maybe that's going too far, but this had easily been my favourite day). We all then visited another pool and had a very pleasant meal together. It almost felt like the end of the event, but we hadn't finished yet.
Stage 5 wasonly 37km with 1120m of ascent! Overall, there were more downs than ups and alot was on more even surfaces and roads, but it wasnt exactly an easy jog into the finish. It was a very hotday (a shop sign as we came back into Loja, which was admittedly in the sun,showed a temperature of 50C!). With a token sprint into the finish, I'd made it. That evening we all enjoyed our celebration dinner and awards ceremony. Charlie Sharpe, first man, ran a very impressive race. Sonia Furtado, first lady had actually been in the overall lead for the first 2 days. With a mixture of ages and abilities, everyone was very supportive of each other. There was a mixture of relief and almost anti-climax that things were over and that we would all be going our separate ways again the next day.
My overall impressions were very positive. Team Axarsport put on a tough but very well organised event. There were plenty of staff and volunteers and nothing was too much trouble. It was also incredible value for money. For 900 you get all your race entry and support, 3 nights in the Hotel Manzanil and most of your food. Apart from your flight there's almost no other cost. The fact that numerous people go back and do the event again is testimony to the atmosphere. Next year's race is 6th - 10th July (details at www.andalus-ut.com if you're interested). I would definitely recommend it.