A couple of weeks ago I participated in an event that made me think about my motivations for hiking and undertaking physical exercise. I participated in an event called Marxa Gràcia Montserrat, which is a long distance, overnight endurance hike from the Gràcia neighborhood in Barcelona to the monastery in the slopes of the Montserrat mountain range.
Marxa Gràcia Montserrat is an annual event and is part of the Catalan Endurance Championship. The course is 63 kilometers with 5000 meters of accumulated elevation difference — about 2850 meters uphill and 2150 downhill. The starting point is at the Vila de Gràcia square at 5 pm on a Saturday afternoon. The participants run or walk into the evening and night. The fastest participants arrive at the square in front of the Montserrat monastery shortly after midnight while the ones who opt for a normal walking pace arrive there after sunrise on Sunday morning.
I belong to the latter group of participants who do not participate in the competitive aspect of the event, but look at it as a fun challenge that tests the endurance limit of the body.
The organization of the event is very good. The route is marked with self reflecting ribbons allowing participants to navigate in the dark using a head-torch. Along the route there are seven stations where participants cat get food, drink and, if needed, medical attention.
The first stage of the hike exits Barcelona and traverses two “peaks” in the Collserola mountain range that marks the north-west boundary of the city — Vallvidrera (386m) and Turons de Can Pasqual (472m). Having traversed the Collserola Natural Park the course continues to the north-west, away from the Mediterranean shores and into the Catalan heartland.
The route passes through the towns of Rubí, Castellbisbal and Ullastrell, following old roads and forest paths. After Ullastrell we leave the urban areas for good and head again into natural areas, following narrow forest paths and partially dried riverbeds.
The 50km mark, at Coll d’Olesa (252m), marks the beginning of the final and, to me, the most difficult part of the route. First there is a moderately difficult ascent to Creu de Saba (587m), followed by a long descend down to the foot of the Montserrat mountain range (136m). The final stage of the course is a steep ascent up to the Montserrat monastery (718m).
This year I arrived at the Montserrat monastery shortly before nine on Sunday morning after 16 hours of hiking. My pace was an hour and forty minutes slower than when I did the same hike two years ago. Then I could barely finish the hike due to complete exhaustion. This year, I was able to finish much more comfortably. Of course, I was extremely tired after walking all night, but I was in a notably better shape than two years earlier. It is hard to point at some one thing that could have affected this difference, but with lack of concrete evidence, I allow myself to believe that walking slower and taking longer refreshment breaks contributed to the fact that I was able to finish the hike more comfortably. If I do this hike again, for sure, I’ll opt for a comfortable finish over speed.
The hike is a lot of fun but very tough at times. It inevitably leads me to the following question: Was it worth it? Both during the hike and when I look back I oscillate between two answers: Yes and No.
Yes, I like the thrill of pushing my body to its limit. Yes, I like a long hike in good company. Yes, I like to be surrounded by the happy vibe generated by a group of people that are all experiencing the the thrill of pushing their bodies to the limit. Yes, I like to occasionally do things that are outside my normal routine (Yes, I don’t normally spend my nights walking a marathon and a half). Yes, it was worth it.
Well, there is actually only one “No”. No, I don’t enjoy walking down steep, water torn, fairly dangerous, narrow paths in very crappy condition — in particular when I am very tired. Even if this is only a single “No”, it is a repetitive one that popped up in my mind again and again during several stages of the hike. It was particularly strong in the two hour long descent from Creu de Saba down to the foot of Montserrat where the path is in a particularly bad condition. At several points during that part I promised myself that I’d never do this hike again. I’d had enough. No, it was not worth it.
Looking back, if forced to give a definite answer I am tempted to let the oscillation come to a halt on the positive side. Yes, it is worth it. While it is true that large parts of the route are neither interesting nor rewarding, due to dull landscape and paths in very bad conditions, this is outweighed by joy of accomplishing a challenge, the fun of stepping out of the normal routine and doing something completely different, with a group of people all driving toward the same goal. Last but not least, it is always nice being able to say: Yes, it was tough … but I was tougher … I did it!
Now to the real question. Will I do this hike again? Yes or No. I am not sure. We’ll see where the pendulum is in its oscillation in June next year.