In June I completed my first ever over-night long distance hike — I walked 62km from Barcelona to Montserrat. My general conclusion from that experience was that, while it was very nice to be able to finish such a hike, I should not attempt another one unless I had done some more serious training to get myself in a good enough shape that I could finish the hike more comfortably.
When a friend of mine suggested I should join him for the II Circular Pantà d’Oliana — a 81km hike from Oliana back to Oliana with a 6.200m elevation difference — that conclusion was for some reason forgotten. It did not take much convince me. I was up for the challenge.
In the week before the hike I wondered about what I could do to prepare myself. I had heard that some people quit drinking coffee for a few days in order to make the caffeine effect greater on the day of the hike. I thought about buying energy gels and energy bars to eat underway.
In the end, I decided to skip the coffee pause, energy gels and energy bars, but seek inspiration from Cliff Young — the Australian potato farmer who won the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon wearing an overall and gumboots, imagining he was running after sheep. I decided to address the hike as a seamless continuation of my every-day routine — at least to the extent a 81km overnight hike can be considered as a continuation of sitting in front of a computer all day.
Very well, I admit that my references to Cliff Young are perhaps misleading in several different aspects. First, if I were to show up at a race in my every-day uniform, I would be on the starting line with my swivel chair and a couple of journal papers to review underway. Second, while walking, I would imagine I was tracking down software bugs rather than running after sheep. Third, I am not an athlete who can compete with the best, but a computer geek who happens to be able to move around in non-virtual worlds for quite a few hours at a time.
Regardless of where my inspiration came from, it was I myself who stood on the starting line at 5 PM on September 4th, without my swivel chair and no journal papers in hand. I had said my seeya-towmorrows to my friend who was going to run the race. I was going for a walk.
My initial plan was to finish the 81km in 18 hours. The plan was partially based on wishful thinking and partially based on my previous long distance hike. I assumed I could do the somewhat longer and more difficult hike without the same exhaustion towards the end. I am not sure what caused this optimism — other than my general disbelief in reality.
I was very fresh at the start of the hike. I was optimistic about my form. Before the start I had decided that I would approach the hike using common sense, walk the whole way at a steady pace and not even think about running any part of it. When the first downhill slopes arrived I had forgotten about all common sense and I decided to try running. After the first 30 km I had managed a pace of 5 km/hour and started dreaming about finishing the race in about 16 hours.
After the 30km mark I arrived at a steep and narrow downhill forest path. I started feeling uncertain about my pace as I was wearing running shoes made for asphalt and lacked grip. At one point when a group of faster people were overtaking me I lost my grip, slid and had to use my already injured wrist to soften my fall (the original wrist injury belongs to a different story about an unfortunate meeting between a bicycle and an opening door of a car). The tumble was not serious and I was quickly back on my feet and walking.
Upon seeing me rub my bandaged wrist, one of the overtakers offered to treat my injury with heat cream. I accepted the offer and prepared to stop for the treatment. However, the overtaker told me to continue walking. He asked one of his fellow hikers to get the necessary equipment from his backpack and while we walked on he rubbed heat cream onto my wrist and added some more bandage on top.
I thanked for the medical treatment and parted with the overtakers who were maintaining a faster pace. I walked on in the dark, amazed by the rather surrealistic moment I had experienced. It reminded me of Tour de France moments where cyclists seek attention of the medical cars without stepping off their bicycles.
A couple of kilometers along the road, the next Tour de France moment was waiting. I met my medical man again by a fountain where he was picking up his headlight which he had forgotten there while refilling his water bottle. We walked on together and started chatting. After a few sentences he suggested that I joined his hiking group. I was reluctant at first, claiming that they were travelling at a faster pace. He refused to listen to such a lousy excuse. He gradually managed to increase my pace and brought me to his peloton.
I joined the group and walked with them for the next few hours. Despite being induced by a couple of unfortunate incidents, being adopted by the group was a fortunate stroke of luck. I had a fun company and got support in maintaining — if not increasing — my pace.
After about 63km of hiking I started becoming very tired and found it hard to keep up with the group. I gradually started lagging behind. At the 65.5km refreshment stop I had separated from the group and started having doubts about my ability to finish the race. On the positive side, the path was going downhill. On the negative side, my physical condition was also going downhill.
The last 15 kilometers were extremely difficult. I was completely exhausted. At some point I even became delusional. I got the idea in my head that maybe I should run for a while. I ran for a while. But soon I realized that I was too exhausted to run — I could hardly walk — and switched back to hardly walking.
At one point during the morning I found myself on one side of steep cliffs. The path went along the cliffs where an iron chain provided some minimum security. I thought it was ridiculous to expect the participants to cross these cliffs. It was too dangerous — particularly since most people would be fairly tired after about 70 km of walking. I took a deep breath and with the iron chain in hand I crossed the cliffs.
Once on the other side I started thinking — a rare but occasional event. I started to wonder whether I had lately seen any of the ribbons that marked the official route of the race. I realized that I had not. While I was certainly following a marked route, I was not following the official route of the race. After yet more thinking I could remember that before the race started, the organizers had announced that they had made minor modifications to the route to avoid some unsafe cliffs.
I could not but smile at my own silliness before taking on the more serious task of crossing the cliffs again and backtracking until I found a ribbon marking the official route. So I did. It did not take me long to get back on the right track after this short and — in hindsight — rather amusing detour.
I marched on along the official route — completely exhausted — taking one step at a time. One hiker after another overtook me. I admired them for being able to maintain a fairly normal walking pace. I travelled at the speed of a turtle.
At 11.20 AM on the morning September 5th 2010, I entered the sports hall of Oliana. I had done it. I had managed to finish the II Circular Pantà d’Oliana. I had walked 81km with 6,200m elevation difference in 18 hours and 20 minutes. I was more tired than ever before — yet very happy with my accomplishment.
Looking back over the past few months, I must say that it gives me a tremendous sense of well being having been able to complete two long distance hikes of 62km and 81km. What’s next? Will i do it again? Will i continue the trend? Is there a 100km hike around the corner? My common sense says no. My better judgment says that if I ever do another long distance hike it should be one that I can finish more comfortably. But then again, what fun is common sense and better judgment? I have not used it much in the past. Why should I use it in the future? We’ll see.