Since spending a week training for Hardrock 100 in the Pyrenees 2013 during a break between work trips to London I have wanted to get back to the Pyrenees to run the GR11 trail (this is part of the Grande Randonnee long distance trail system in Europe). Emily and I started to plan a run across the GR11 over 10 months ago. Or original plan was to run the entire trail (when we thought it was ~500km during initial research). After more detailed research, and learning that it was an 800km trail, we planned to run the best 500km from Candanchu in the west to the Mediterranean Sea. With help of local Catalan friends Gemma and Jordi, we put together a great route utilizing a combination of huts and villages for an 11-day running adventure. As winter and plans progressed, Emily was sidetracked from training with a pulled hamstring from skiing. Plans were once again modified and reduced to a 300 km and 8 day run that would start further west, but be equally beautiful. Since we were no longer covering as much of the GR11, we also modified plans to visit some key locations off of the GR11 (like visiting friends Marta and Gerard who run the Refugio de Colomina a 1-day run south of the GR11). Spring work schedules were busy, Chad’s work travel schedule was unrelenting, training was not what it should have been, Emily’s hamstring was not healing, and the day before leaving my back went out once again leaving our trip and all of our running plans in question. Some good drugs for Chad, a change of plans for Emily to do fewer running days and do some biking with Gemma and we decided that we would see what happened on the GR11 and best case I would do 250-300km and worst case we would have to bag those plans and just have a good Spanish holiday.
I had visited Gemma’s home village of Guils de Cerdanya in 2013 and could not wait to return to the village. It is a small place of ~100 homes on a hillside overlooking the town or Puigcerda and the beautiful mountain valley.
A couple days were planned in Guils to recover from travel. Gemma treated us to amazing hospitality, a rapid adjustment to Spanish time (dinner at 10PM), and a reminder that we are not as young as we used to be and just can’t party till 5AM any longer.
After a short night sleep after the Puigcerda festival, we were on our way to Gavernie, France where we would spend the first day running to the GR11, but also get to take in some great Tour de France history as Gavernie is at the base on Col du Tourmelade one of the famous TdF climbs.
We started out climbing past the highest waterfall in Europe (Le Grande Cascade) to Refugio des Seraradets, Passamos de la Brecha, Collado del Descargador and finally to our resting spot of Refugio de Goriz.
I continued from Goriz to the summit of Mt Perdido while Emily and Gemma went on a shorter run.
We were all tired after a lot of climbing on day 1
Day 1 Recap:
- Route: Gavernie – Refugio des Seraradets – Passamos de la Brecha – Collado del Descargador – Refugio de Goriz – Mt Perdido – Goriz
- 24km, 2720M ascent, 1790M descent, 2 passes, 1 summit
Gemma returned to Gavernie and Emily and I continued to Parzan. Gemma was going to pick up Emily in Parzan for a couple days of road biking in the Pyrenees with her friend Enrique. It was day 2 where I realized how slow going the ‘running’ was going to be. The ascents and descents were all very steep and there would not be much running on these. I also quickly realized that I did not want to move fast as I wanted to stop and enjoy the amazing mountain scenery and take photos.
Day 2 Recap:
- Route: Goriz – Collado de Goriz o de Arrablo – Collado de las Olsd o de los Maquis – Collada de Anisclo – Refugio de Pineta – Collodeta Plana Fonda – Collata las Coronetas – Parzan
- 33km, 1560m ascent, 2600m descent, 5 Passes
I would spend the next 2 days covering long distances alone. I was looking forward to some mountain solitude. My back was doing ok. I was able to go a little further each day before the pain and sciatica started. By day 3, I was up to 4 hours pain free (which meant 5-6 hours in pain). My legs were tired and I didn’t have the ‘pep’ in my step that I had hoped for. It was also very hot and the heat was taking a toll on me and preventing me from sleep. I was going into day 3 with about 10 hours of sleep in 3 nights.
Day 3 Recap:
- Route: Parzan – Collado de Urdiceto – Refugio de Biados – Puerto de Chistau o de Estos- Puen de San Chaime
- 42.5km, 2460m ascent, 2140m descent, 2 Passes
Emily spent the day biking and had an amazing time riding TdF cols.
Day 4 would be my hardest day. I caught a 5AM bus to get 4km of road out of the way. I was exhausted with another night of 4 hours of sleep and since it was still dark when I got off the bus, I curled up on the side of the road and slept for another hour. Waking up at sunrise freezing cold, I started the ~1800M and 10km climb. I just could not get moving and for the first couple hours had a hard time staying awake on the trail. I continued to slog upwards trying to gain motivation from the mountain beauty. I never really got moving this day and what I thought would be an 8 hour day took over 10 hours to get to Refugio dera Restanca where Emily was meeting me. I slogged in and started the normal ritual of stretching, eating, drinking, and attempting to recover. I realized that this time that I had 2 huge days of over 50km and 3300M ascent planned and that there was no way I would be able to complete these days. We did some re-routing and I decided that after day 7 I needed a rest day and since Gemma had left her car for us by Espot, Emily would drive me to Andorra and I would cut out about 75km of difficult terrain.
Day 4 Recap:
- Route: Puen San Chame – Collado de Vallibierna – Refugio de Cap de Llauset – Collado de lid Ibones – Refugio de Conangles – Port de Rius – Refugio dera Restanca
- 40km, 2702 m ascent, 2053 m descent, 3 Passes
I awoke on day 5 feeling good and felt like I had probably gotten over the ‘hump’ of big days and I was starting to get into the rhythm of my days. We left Restanca for an amazing day to Colomina. The terrain was challenging with lots of scrambling, and steep descents, but I was happy to have company again and we would spend the night in the presence of friends. It was great to see Gerard (Marta was doing an adventure race and was not there) and spend some time catching up with him.
Day 5 Recap:
- Route: Restanca – Coret d’Oelhacrestada – Refugi Ventosa i Calvall – Coll de Contraix – Refugi d’ Estany Llong – Collada de Delluir – Refugi de Colomina
- 27.5 km, 2150 M ascent, 1750M descent, 3 passes
With the re-route, day 6 would be my shortest day and Emily and I would drive to Andorra to enjoy a relaxing afternoon and a much needed good night sleep in a hotel. The weather forecast was for afternoon storms so we got an early start and decided to summit Pic de Peguera on our run to Espot. This turned out to be a pretty bad decision as the storm moved in 3 hours early and we hit the summit as the clouds blanketed us. We had a difficult time down climbing off the summit in minimal visibility and hit Collado de Monestero just as the lightening and hail started. We started down the steep col as quickly as possible and finally found a large rock to escape the now marble sized hail and put on rain pants. We spend the next 10km running through a torrential downpour. We were able to easily hitch a ride with a couple other runners from Espot to la Guingueta d’Aneu where Gemma had left the car and after a short lunch stop we were on our way to Andorra.
Day 6 Recap:
- Route: Refugi de Colomina – Coll de Peguera – Pic de Peguera (2982M) – Collado de Monestero – Estany de Saint Maurici – Espot
- 18.6 km, 670 M ascent, 1750M descent, 2 pass
We had an early start in Andorra La Vella where Emily planned to run the first 2 hours (all uphill) with me, then return to the car and drive to Guils. The climb out of the town was over 20% and was slow going. I would spend this day running almost the entire way across Andorra and ending at Gemma’s house. It was amazing terrain and scenery, but on and off rain, strong wind, and cold temperatures until the afternoon. I enjoyed the run through the cattle pastures and was excited to see Emily and Gemma as I approached Guils.
Day 7 Recap:
- Route: Andorra La Vella – Refugi de Fontverd – Refugi de Riu dels Orris- Refugi de I’llla – Coll de I’llla – Cabana dels Esparvers – Portella d’Engorgs – Refugi de Malniu – Guils de Cerdanya
- 38.5 km, 2450M ascent, 2075M descent. 2 Passes
Gemma had invited us to her friend Chavi’s birthday party on Saturday night and while being tired, we couldn’t pass up the invitation and this turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. We arrived at normal Spanish dinner party time (show up at 9PM for 10PM dinner) to a long table set for 28 people. There was traditional Catalan foods (salad, meets, bread, olives, chips, wine, beer) and a group of amazing people that treated us like old friends and loved the chance to practice some English. The night was capped off with Zac playing accordion for the entire group. This was like something out of Bon Appetite for both of us. We capped this night off with another festival in a small village of just a couple dozen houses that had drawn about 400 people. Another 4:30 AM night and we had mixed emotions of if we could really make good Catalans or if we were too old for this.
Sunday was a rest day with a long hike through the hills around Guils followed by late Catalan lunch with Gemma’s parents and grandma (none of whom speak English). Gemma’s mom taught us how to make Paella (which was amazing) and we had a traditional salted code salad (also amazing). It is too bad the Norwegians cured their cod in lye and not salt as if lutefisk tasted like this salted and reconstituted cod, I would be much more eager to eat it at Christmas.
The last day of running became a short day on the GR11 with a focus of running 4 of the peaks and ridge line visible from Gemma’s house. This also took us into the ski town of Nuria named after the virgin Nuria that so many Catalan’s are named after.
Day 8 Recap:
- Route: Puigmal de Llo (2801M) – Pic de Segre (2843M) – Coma de Finestrelles – Puig de Coll de Finestrelles (2827M) – Nuria – Puigmal d’Err (2909M) – Tossa del Pas dels Lladres
- 21 KM, 2050 Ascent, 3 passes,4 summits
We did our last laundry, packed up, had an amazing last meal with Gemma and on Tuesday morning we were on our way to Tossa de Mar for the next stage of our trip. Looking back, we had such a wonderful experience being taken in by friends and friends of friends. We met so many people and truly go the experience we strive for when traveling (to be able to live like a local). This is something that will always be a highlight of this trip for us.
I have done a few 2-3 day fast pack trips, but never a long trip with refugios and villages so it took some planning to figure out what to take. We wanted to pack as light as possible while still being able to be semi-self-sufficient if things went bad. In the end, we decided that we would pack a space set of running cloths and a mylar bivy so that if the shit really hit the fan, we could survive a night out although it would most likely be type 3 fun. My total pack weight was around 6Kg.
- CAMP Raid Vest (20L): A 15-17L pack would have been ideal, but I didn’t want to purchase something new
- Pearl Izumi N3 Shoes
- 2 x Drymax Socks
- Dirty Girl Gaters
- The North Face Better Than Naked Shorts
- CW-X Pro compression shorts
- 2 x OR Echo tech shirt
- Nike Dry Fit long sleeved shirt
- Light gloves
- Black Diamond Gore-Tex Paclite ultralight shell
- Sierra Designs light weight wind shell pant
- Black Diamond Primaloft puffy
- Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z Pole
- Patagonia hat
- Julbo Zephyr sunglasses
- Suunto Ambit 3 Peak watch
- Suunto M-3 compass
- iPhone with GAIA GPS app with all maps downloaded
- Joby iPhone tripod
- 500ml Hydroflask
- 1L Platypus soft flask
- Sea to Summit ultralight cotton/silk sleeping sheet (needed for refugees)
- Watch and iPhone charging cords
- Emergency and first aid
- Adventure Medical Mylar Bivy
- Black Diamond headlamp
- 1” blade Swiss Army knife
- Small packet antibiotic ointment
- Ace bandage
- 2M duct tape
- Hydrocodone pain killer
- Flexiril muscle relaxant