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A Triumph For Team GB at the 2011 Al Andalus Ultra Trail (AAUT)

>>29 July 2011

Race Report

The Al Andalus Ultra Trail (AAUT), 11-15th July 2011

International ultra distance athlete, Sharon Gayter and her fellow ultra runners, Robert Treadwell and Paul 'Motty' Mott, formed the trio 'Team GB' for this years Al Andalus Ultra Trail (AAUT) race and proudly achieved first place! Sharon also placed 2nd woman in the race.Here, Sharon gives us her personal account of the race, including the highs and lows and how she led her team to victory....

“After a run around Hardmoors 110 in June there were around 6 weeks left to complete some hard consistent training leading up to The High, to fly out for acclimatisation on 30th July. I wanted to run some hilly events to prepare as best possible for the long climbs that I would encounter as well as use the equipment from Alto-Lab to prepare for the low levels of oxygen saturation to be expected at The High. Having been abroad for a couple of races already this year and with India not being a cheap place to travel to our expenses were low (trying hard to save for a new vehicle, both our car and van are 10 years old now and becoming unreliable) and had to content myself with some local hilly races and had my eye on a couple in the Lake District that I thought would be a good challenge. Then, after an interview on www.runabroad.com a wonderful email came through from Paul Bateson about the Al Andalus Ultra Trail, 220km of hot and hilly trails over 5 days. It was very tempting and Paul Mott (a tent mate from the Marathon des Sables) had also emailed me to tell me his plans on running this in preparation for the Spartathlon. What would my husband Bill think? Dare I tell him? I love the heat and love multi-stage events. This looked like a nice size field of around 70 athletes, running to different places every night, semi-supported so that I didn’t have to carry a heavy bag and was just what I wanted.

I tempted fate and told Bill that night. He knows me well. There was no way he wanted to come. Paul had told me it was currently around 40 degrees in Spain and Bill hates the heat and with most of his holidays already committed with The High and other events he would have to stay home alone. As always, he saw the smile on my face and knew I wanted to run and knew it would be good training for me and would never stand in my way. The flights to Spain were very cheap, the deal for AAUT included 3 nights in a hotel, 4 nights camping, and there was little extra to pay on top of this other than any additional meals you required. I was in! I just had to sweat it out and hope my passport would come back in time now as I had just sent it away to get the visa for India!

Time flew by and before I knew it I was on the flight to Spain. I had a relatively easy week leading up to the event, only a midweek 10km race at Croft Circuit (42 mins 42 sec) and one last parkrun in the rain the morning before flying out 20 min 32 seconds. As my flight arrived in the evening I had been teamed up with three other athletes arriving from Germany and we were to take a taxi together. I was going to be the last to arrive and at 4pm when my flight was due to leave it was announced that there was nearly a two hour delay. I immediately emailed Michelle to see if there were any more later arrivals as it was unfair to make the men wait another two hours for me and would make them late to the hotel.

My flight was due to land at 20:05 and eventually landed at 21:50, but as I only had hand luggage ( I travelled light with 10kg) I got through customs pretty quickly and wasn’t quite sure now who I would be travelling to Loja with. I barely stood for a few seconds pondering where to go when I was greeted by Matthew, a fellow competitor that travelled from Germany and introduced me to Arend (from Holland) and Frank. They had waited for me! My message had got through that I was delayed but these three men had thought it unfair to leave me alone (sometimes it’s good to be a female) and had all agreed that we should travel together. How nice, I felt very privileged that they should give me so much respect and was a great relief to travel with them. The poor taxi driver had a long wait too!

It was warm when we arrived at the Manzanil Hotel and was immediately greeted by Paul Bateson and allocated my room. Motty was also there on hand for a big hug too, looking greatly slimmed down since our last meeting. It was around midnight and decided to unpack and go to bed.

Breakfast in the morning was 8:30am until 10:30am, so no rush to get down in the morning. After breakfast it was registration and a great goodies bag including suecos (kind of flip flops), race t-shirt, buff, elete (concentrated electrolytes) and a mule bar (liquorice flavour!) and UK Gear promo card. I took a walk out into town to experience the heat and was surprised just how warm it was. In the afternoon I couldn’t resist having a slow jog out for 45 minutes to feel the sun on my back, it was great. I knew this would be a hard race in the heat though.

AAUTteamGB.jpgAt 6pm was race briefing, plenty of photos showing last year’s competitors out on the trails. There was nothing to worry about, the route looked well marked with pink paint or pink tape and patrolled by motorcycles almost the entire way. Checkpoints would be manned with water, ice and elete and spray bottles for keeping cool with plenty of medics around. At the campsites there would be hot and cold water available at all times for those making up dehydrated food, showers and toilets, kit bags were transported every day, tents provided (put up and dismantled by the crew) and there was always somewhere to get a hot meal too. Bags were provided to take overnight kit to the sites and all that was needed was a light bumbag or backpack with the compulsory kit for the day.

After the briefing I met up with Robert Treadwell who had made contact about being in a team together. Three athletes were needed to make a team and not really knowing anyone else there other than Motty we decided to see if he would like to join us to make a threesome. He was delighted and so were we, so we became Team GB. Dinner was later that evening and I was in bed by 11pm, all bags packed and ready for the morning.

Team GB from left to right: Paul 'Motty' Mott, Sharon Gayer and Robert Treadwell.

11th July, Stage 1, Loja to Alhama de Granada, 37km.

Race start time was 9:45am. Breakfast was from 7:30am. The sun was beating down for the start right outside the hotel. So what did I wear for this one? Well I had only brought one pair of shoes due to travelling light and that was UK Gear PT-1000 road and trail running shoe, which were the recommended shoes by Paul Bateson for this event. I had got a pair through the post just two weeks prior to the event to test during the race. The few runs that I had run in them had shown no adverse affects with me and so was happy to wear these every day. They are supposed to be tough shoes to stand up to 1000 miles of running – that’s a good couple of months wear for me! I had a light blue technical t-shirt and running shorts as opposed to cycle length shorts. The other goal for this race was to even up the tan lines on my legs, since running in the heat of Athens in April I have been left with tanned lower legs that stand out every time I put running shorts on. I also had a sun hat with neck piece to protect me from the sun. I doused the hat, shirt and my head in water before the start every day to try to keep cool. I had heard there were 67 starters from 23 nations competing in this event – quite an international field! Although the majority were UK athletes.

We soon lined up and had a police escort for the first part out of the town. We had been warned the first 12km was some of the hardest climbing and was all up hill and to take care. In terms of drinks it was compulsory to carry containers for 1.5 litres of fluid. I had two bottles, a 500ml bottle with sports drink (perpetuem) and a litre bottle as backup that was half filled with plain water. I carried my usual bumbag with the compulsory equipment which was simply the maps allocated, compass, whistle, signalling mirror and food for the day, which in my case was three zip bags with perpetuem and a small bag of jelly beans. For first aid I had some small plasters, ibuprofen, immodium, anti-acid tablets and my asthma pump – plus a supply of tissues for the obvious!

Start of stage 1, outside the hotel at Loja.

There were to be three checkpoints on the first day of running of approximately 37km. With the first checkpoint at 12km this made the next two checkpoints significantly closer together. The start was reasonably slow with just a couple of athletes sprinting off in the distance. The tarmac soon gave way to a dusty track, with motorbikes streaming up and down creating clouds of dust. I didn’t count how many people were ahead but was aware of one female that had gone ahead in the first kilometre and was content to just settle down and run my own race. There really was only one goal for this event, and that was to have a week of being a full time athlete, having some good hard hilly training and finish in good shape ready for The High. The idea was not to beat myself up, push to my limits and stagger out each day for more punishment; it really was like a training camp and some great organised running.

The climb soon materialised and was a steady affair. The whole of the day’s route was good enough to navigate a four wheel drive vehicle over and underfoot was like a rough farm track with rocks and dust. The climb did get steeper and noticed a few people around that were walking, so decided not to work too hard while still acclimatising to the heat and walked too. Robert was around the same pace and had got some walking poles out to help on the hills. I don’t possess any and many races in the UK do not allow the use of poles, but am sure they were of help under these conditions. I had anticipated the climb taking around 75 minutes and was surprised as I rounded the corner to the checkpoint and glanced at my watch to see it had taken 88 minutes! My rough estimate of the day was that it would take around 4.5 hours of running as it appeared that each stage was about an hour slower on average than road marathon times. I refilled just the one 500ml bottle and added some perpetuem and the route continued on a great downhill section. The wind got up a little and felt much cooler now and even caught up with a couple of runners just before the next checkpoint. I took my hat off to take advantage of the breeze and that section was mastered in a mere 51 minutes!

There was a right turn at the checkpoint but had not seen the pink tape for quite some time. It seemed that on the long straight sections were there was no way of going off route that the markers were quite spaced out, but when you did come across a turning point the markers were plentiful. The route now gently undulated but was more downhill on wide dusty trails with easy running and came across a clean black tarmac section where the heat seemed far more intense. Apparently this tarmac had not been there two days ago, freshly laid to add to the challenge! The runners were well spaced out now and only now and then glimpsed the odd runner ahead or behind. It was shortly after this section a runner called Danny overtook and forged ahead looking strong. This was his daily routine, a slow starter and very strong finisher. By the third checkpoint I felt I was beginning to fade a little. I couldn’t face drinking any more perpetuem and simply filled my bottle with water, and drank a couple of cups while at the checkpoint. It was 7km to the finish now, the previous 9km taking 57 minutes.

The last section started on a wide track with more undulations on approaching the village. The last section took 39 minutes finishing in 3 hrs 57 mins and 02 secs. It was at a sports centre and on finishing there was ample cold water, coke, sprite, freshly cut oranges and water melon and ice available. The coke tasted great and water melon went down a treat. I sat around the corner where there were bowls of cold water to cool our feet. Absolute luxury! Robert arrived just minutes later and promptly emptied out his stomach, he had told me he didn’t go too well in the heat but he timed this to perfection! No time wasted out on the road and was back smiling again. It had only been two weeks since he had won the Cotswold 100 miles in record time, in very different conditions! It was great sitting around and catching up with the stories of the day. Richard Webster was there and it was only then that I realised we had been together earlier in the year in the Frostbite 50 in January and remembered the conversation we had while running along. He had also run the Osmotherley Phoenix the week before in a sub 5 hour performance which is a good time for that course. Riel Carol had won the event, his partner Helen Taranowski was second, just pipping ahead of Richard into third place. I was 10th person and 2nd lady.

Finish of Stage 1: Cooling down.

Inside the large sports hall all the tents had been erected in lines and bags allocated next to the tents. I found my number 30 bag and it was next to Helen and Riel. I had a protein drink, took a shower and had some couscous and tea to recover. There was an outdoor swimming pool that we could use and there was a presentation at 6pm. The first man, lady and team were presented with wine. Team GB were the first team, but Motty missed the presentation! We then walked into town to have a meal.

I had a great meal with a bunch of lads including Motty and Arend and it was getting dark by the time we returned. It was hard to sleep in the sports hall as it was so warm – and the music was still playing from the spinning class nearby. I took my mat and sleeping bag and went outside hoping there would not be too many biting insects outside. I didn’t need the sleeping bag but really struggled to sleep; it was a warm night and was pleased when dawn arrived.

12th July, Stage 2, Alhama de Granada to Jatar, 45km

AAUTsharon2.jpgDespite some lightning overnight and an overcast start to the day the sun was working hard by the time we started at 9:30am. I struggled to eat my porridge for breakfast, not usual for me and hoped it wasn’t a sign of things to come. I had perpetuem in my bottle for the first stage but before the start decided that I really couldn’t even face this right now, all I wanted was water, so I tipped it out and eventually found someone with a bottle of water to replace it.

Running through the gorge at the start of stage 2.

The water in the sports hall had dried up, a minor technicality, probably not used to so many people using the facilities. My legs were feeling good after an easy first day and was anticipating a strong run today, but had been warned it was a tough day with some technical climbs and there were to be four checkpoints today with the course being longer. I started in the exact same kit as previously, the only change was a pair of clean socks. The start was fantastic, immediately into a gorge with high sided rock formations, the route jumping and twisting over rocks below and ducking and weaving between bushy bits. I soon found myself with Robert again and the route unwound and we arrived at the first checkpoint, only 67 minutes for the first section today and then off onto some more gently undulating trails. Checkpoint 2 was reaching some 66 minutes later and then the real climbing began. I was now using the elete electrolytes in my bottles and was pleased that this was totally tasteless but still added something to replace what I was sweating out. This had been supplied in the goodies bag at registration and was very easy and practical to use and was to go on to use this for the rest of the week.

There was now what was classed as a single lane track, in real terms this just meant that it was too narrow and technical for the motorcycles to follow, but it was the best part of the route so far and more of the terrain that I am used to. The path was generally upwards with some small undulations but opened up some of the most magnificent scenery so far. Although the single track was supposedly only 7km long it seemed to go on and on and just when I thought it was coming to an end there was the steepest and most prickly section yet, brambles and bushes left their impression and at one stage had to pull a thorn that had lodged in my forearm. By the time I hit the top of the climb I was out of water and my breathing was deteriorating. I had now eaten a few of my jelly beans for the first time. As I had given up on the perpetuem there was no energy going in. The route was now downhill to the next checkpoint, but I was struggling to run. My breathing was turning slightly asthmatic and despite taking my medication I had to walk much of the route to keep my breathing under control. The motorbikes were also back in action again churning out clouds of dust again.

It was a great relief to reach checkpoint 3 which had taken me 1 hr and 45 minutes to reach, no wonder I was out of drink. I drank well at the checkpoint and refilled all my bottles for the 10km stretch to the next checkpoint. I was told it was all on the same track, impossible to go off route and there would be no markers as it was so easy to follow. The heat seemed more intense now and could barely run more than a couple of hundred metres without my breathing deteriorating too much, so I progressed as well as I could while it felt like the entire field was overtaking me.That downhill 10km section took me 1 hr and 26 minutes to show how badly I was moving.

Running toward checkpoint 2.

The last checkpoint was a great relief, a mere 5km to the finish now and a wonderful cold stream to cross. I stopped and knelt down to wash and cool down and soak my hat and head while another competitor took his socks and shoes off to cross the stream to avoid getting them wet. What a contrast! It was at the checkpoint that Christine overtook me putting me down to third lady for the day and could not even try to chase, just continued almost walking the entire way. Christine was saying that her GPS was already recording 42km so the route was well long and was similar to what others reported. Robert took me just half a mile or so from the finish. I had last seen him on the big climb before checkpoint 3 but was one of several runners that missed a right turn on the route down – so my slow descent had paid off in some ways as I was glued to the ground and saw the turn off.

AAUTsharon3.jpgThere was a wonderful cold stream running alongside the campsite at the finish and as Robert dived in and looked to be having fun I joined him. I walked most of the last 5km that took me 53 minutes and I finished in 6 hrs 19 mins 41 secs. By the time I crawled out of the stream I was covered in goosebumps and Robert was still revelling at cooling down. I bypassed the rather open showers tonight, a kind of makeshift assembly of plastics sheets over a framework with cold water. My tent was easy to find yet again, a much better set up in shaded woods with picnic tables and water boiling away for yet more couscous and recovery drinks.

Cooling down in the steam – it was COLD!

July 13th Stage 3, Jatar to Jayena, 43km

There was to be a staggered start to today’s run, the twenty faster runners starting 30 minutes behind the rest of the field. Despite such an awful day previously I was still in the top twenty and had only dropped to around 15th or so. The start times were around 8:30am and 9am. I wore clean shirt and shorts today, a white technical t-shirt and navy shorts, along with clean socks of course. I had no new blisters after yesterdays long run, my feet felt good but my legs were a little jaded today and topped up with my asthma medication to prevent any more breathing difficulties. The only other problem I had was with the ants. I had left my bumbag outside the tent and one of the bags of perpetuem had burst and it was infested – they had even got into the zip-locked jelly bean bag so needed a through scrub out in the stream.

It was a fast start with much of the first 10km being on tarmac and downhill. Motty was going for it today; his weakness was the hills and so wanted a good performance. We started and the field just disappeared ahead and was left hanging in the wake of Motty, he was hard to catch and only just made it onto his shoulder on each small incline before he blasted off again. I hate to tell you but Motty is 6 ft 3 inches and 16 stones, Robert is 6 ft 4 inches and 14 stones, between them for the team photo is this midget called me at 5 ft 4 inches and nearly 8 stones! The first checkpoint was 11km into the run and just the three checkpoints today with the route being shorter and easier – still a marathon at 43km though! The first 11km were passed in 57 mins and still Motty was ahead. The off road section now started and with it a few climbs, but still Motty wasn’t giving in and by reaching the second checkpoint some 43 minutes later there was little to separate us. The next section was again excellent running winding up through some woods with a little shade every now and then and on reaching the checkpoint and refilling my bottles who appeared right behind me? Motty! I just could not get away from him today and I didn’t think I was running badly either! There was a wonderful downhill section now that certainly increased the leg speed although the heat was quite intense. A few kilometres from the checkpoint and the route turned into a short single trail track with overhanging bushes again. My breathing immediately deteriorated and now realised that it was this undergrowth that must have had some kind of pollen that was affecting my asthma, similar to the previous day, but at least it was barely a couple of kilometres from the campsite now and my overall performance would not be too affected.

I walked this section and then it opened up into a wide track and the finish line at the campsite was a welcome sight. More cold drinks, bowls for the feet, there were even crisps on the recovery table today – and was kindly served by Jan, Robert’s partner who had travelled out and helped at some of the checkpoints. As I sat with Robert replenishing with food and drinks and cooling our feet again I noticed the state of Robert’s shoes. They were disintegrating with two gaping holes in each pair near the little toe and big toe and I hardly dare mention the state of his socks! Running these trails was certainly taking it out of his kit. The UK Gear shoes were standing up well to the trail bashing. The route was reported to be a little shorter than 43km, compared to slightly longer yesterday, but that run was completed in 4 hrs 11 minutes and was barely a couple of minutes ahead of Motty. Another great Team GB performance that saw us easily head up the team positions.

The campsite was shaded by trees again, but moving tents was the key to keep in the shade and I ended up next to Robert for the night. The ants weren’t so plentiful tonight, but the ones that were about were monstrous! The showers were an experience! A kind of circular concrete wall, with three openings for the cubicles. The method appeared to be strip off to leave dry kit on grass outside, step through the gap, shower, then back onto the grass in the open to dress! The water wasn’t exactly warm either, so it was a case of get on with the job and then relax. There was a river further down and spent some time cooling my legs and feet down here. Paul Bateson had returned later that evening, it was obvious he had been out running somewhere. Every day Paul set off a couple of hours before the event began and ran the entire course we were to follow to check everything was as it should be and to add any new markers that were required, that evening he had marked out the first 10km of the next day’s stage, that’s dedication!. That is some commitment for an organiser and he is pretty fit too for a 60 year old! Paul also took the time to meet and greet as many runners as possible and am sure he knew each and every single one of us on first name terms.

To be continued...