I was tense when I woke up on the morning of Saturday June 12th 2010. I had not slept well. I was nervous about the challenge ahead. There were many unanswered questions circulating in my head — questions that had been circulating there all night. Why did I sign up for this thing? Should I wear running shoes or hiking boots? How would I find my way in the dark? Was I fit enough to walk this far?
The sign-up had been a last minute decision. A few days earlier I had seen the event advertised in the local newspaper. I had heard about this event before and thought it was crazy. It was the kind of craziness that I find charming — an endurance challenge. It appealed to me. I signed up.
After some online research — looking at pictures from previous editions of the event — I decided for running shoes. Furthermore, I convinced myself that there was no reason to be afraid of the dark. I would have my head-light and there would be over 500 people walking with me. There would be plenty of lights around me to find the right way in the dark.
As for the last question, I could not give myself a convincing answer. However, I came up with some arguments to calm me down. I had plenty of time to finish the hike and if I was not in a good enough shape I could always stop somewhere along the way and take the bus back. At some point, at least. There was no reason to worry. I worried.
In a timely manner I headed for the Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia. I was so preoccupied with the challenge ahead that I walked past the square. Given my worries about getting lost in the dark, loosing my way in my own neighborhood on a sunny Saturday afternoon was not the best of starts. However, I quickly realized my error and altered my course. It turned out that I was not the only one lost in town. On my way to the square I picked up another lost hiker and guided him in the right direction.
At the square I picked up my registration package and waited for the start of the event — XXIII Marxa Gràcia – Montserrat. Awaiting me was a 63km hike from the Gràcia neighborhood in Barcelona to the Montserrat monastery — 4,620m elevation difference (up and down) — and according to my rough calculations, somewhere between 12 and 15 hours of hiking. If I could manage to pull this off, it would be the longest and most difficult hike I had ever done.
At 5 PM a firework was shot from a neighboring rooftop — marking the start of the hike. The crowd flowed out of the square, into the streets of Gràcia, heading out of town toward the Collserola mountain range.
I was surprised to see how people seemed to know the right way through the city. I wondered if everybody was following the same strategy as I was — following the next person in front of them. Every now and then there were wardens pointing in the right direction. I and the people in front of me were on track.
Following the crowd, I soon reached the Collserola Natural Park. The paved sidewalks of the city were behind me and I was on to forest paths and gravel roads. I felt good and time passed quickly. Before I knew it, I had walked 16k and was at the 2nd refreshment station.
Every now and then during the first few hours of the hike I met the hiker I had shown directions earlier. We seemed to be following a similar pace. At some point we started chatting. Even if we did not discuss it explicitly, we came to an implicit agreement to keep each other company during the hike. And on we walked.
After about 5 hours of walking the sun took its seat below the horizon. We, however, continued walking. The trail was marked with reflecting ribbons tied to trees, fences, traffic signs, or whatever was most convenient. We put on our headlamps and navigated from one ribbon to the next. I was surprised to see how sparse the the crowd had spread. For long stretches there were only the two of us walking together in the dark. I was very glad that I had teamed up with a hiking partner. I would not have wanted to be alone in the dark. I was glad that my absent mind had lead me astray earlier and given me the chance to bump into my eventual hiking partner.
As the night went on, we marched on. My hiking partner listening to his music. I lost in my own absent mind — thinking about everything and nothing in particular. Looking back, a large part of that night is a black hole in my memory. I remember bits and pieces. I remember time slowing down. I remember getting tired. I remember, trying to devise a scheme for closing my eyes for five seconds at a time and then opening them again to make sure I was not walking into a tree. My argument was that my brain might get some rest if it was spared some image processing tasks — even if it was only for a few moments at a time. Placebo or not, it worked — I felt less tired.
At about 3 AM Sunday morning we reached the 49 km mark and reached yet another refreshment station. I was amused to see the offering of bourbon, candy and chocolate. Although my body and mind were tired, I could reason that the bourbon was not a wise choice at the moment. I argued I needed a different kind of energy for the road ahead. With that road in mind, I briefly glanced at the elevation profile of the remainder of the hike. Although the glace was brief, it made me think twice about whether I perhaps needed a shot of bourbon to get over the shock of realizing what was ahead of us — a steep ascend and steep descend before yet another steep ascend to the final mountain.
Without bourbon, we started the second last ascent. It went along an old gravel road and was not as bad as it had looked on the elevation profile. So it went for a while and before we knew it, the ascent turned into descent. Was that it? Was the frightening second last ascent simply as easy as this? It wasn’t. The downhill road did not last long. The trail took a turn into a rocky hiking path with many ups and downs and slippery rocks. At every peak I said to myself that this must be the last one — now it must surely continue downhill. It usually wasn’t the case.
Eventually, we came to the final descent. It was fairly steep and down a narrow path. I slipped and got a small cramp in one leg. Nothing serious, but at this point I was so tired that I could not keep up with the partner I had teamed up with in the early part of the hike. I was completely exhausted and made my way down very slowly — extremely slowly — yet I moved in the right direction.
At 6 AM I arrived at the last refreshment station, located at the foot of the Montserrat mountain range. After a tough downhill struggle it was good to get some energy for the final uphill struggle to the Montserrat monastery.
As I started walking the last part of the hike, I could not help thinking about the impossibility of the task ahead. I was exhausted after walking for 13 hours. I was limping. How was I going to get to the top? In the end, I argued I would get there using the same strategy that got me so-far — taking one step at a time.
I ascended the mountain — slowly but surely. With every step I moved closer to my target. At 7.20 on the morning of June 13th I was standing at the top of the stairs that lead to the square in front of the Montserrat monastery. I had accomplished my mission. I was there. I had walked the 63 kilometers from Gràcia to Montserrat in 14 hours and 20 minutes.
It is hard to describe how I felt at the time. My legs hurt. I was exhausted. I had blisters. My legs were stiff as rocks. My toes were numb. I could hardly walk. I felt great. I had set myself a target that was beyond my reach. I had accomplished it. I truly felt great.