Authors: Lisa and Megan
Following a busy year of structured training and hard racing (Lisa in her preparation for Dragon’s Back and Megan for the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan), both of us were ready for a bit of a reset; taking some time to unwind, have a laugh and refocus.
We have a large list of racing goals for next year, both individually and as a pair (edit: unfortunately this has now been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic), but we believe that before chasing after such ambitious targets it is important to take some time off, do something a little different and unstructured, and meet new people who inspire you to do more in the sport that you love. Transitioning straight off the back of a jam-packed summer and into a winter of base training without a period of ‘down-time’ can risk burnout before the next season even gets underway.
You might think of a reset as exclusively a time of rest, but although rest is a very important component of such an ‘off-season’ period, it’s not the only thing. We believe that an off-season should recharge you physically but also mentally. In order to achieve the latter, running or racing in an unstructured way with no pressure and an emphasis on fun can refresh the mind as much as the legs.
The Eurafrica Intercontinental race
When Lisa got an invitation for the Eurafrica Trail we jumped on the opportunity. The event loosley follows the format of a multi-stage event with four races from iconic regions surrounding the Strait of Gibraltar; the first a 22km technical mountain race up Jbel Musa in Morocco, the second a 43km linear trail in the heart of Andalucia, the third a 50km race in the cloud forests of Los Alcornocales National Park, and the final a 5km race up the rock of Gibraltar! Your times over each of the stages were cumulative, and the individual with the smallest total time at the end of the four stages would be the overall winner. Neither of us had any prior experience racing on mainland Europe and we were excited to run on new terrain and amongst new competition. The days were also getting shorter in the UK, and the colder weather swooping in fast so we were also enthusiastic about running without multiple layers and head-torches. Whilst we were excited to race hard in a new environment we were hoping this would be somewhere between a race and an end-of-season running holiday, which is exactly what we got.
The Europeans do things differently
Fell racing in the UK is a notoriously relaxed, no-fuss affair, with competitors dawdling to the startline and perhaps someone blowing a whistle or gesturing that the race has begun.
In Spain they are all about the pre-race hype, and it was on a different level to the UK. Upon arriving at our accommodation in Morocco before the first race not only were greeted by an extravagant Gnaoui musical display, but we were then treated to an atmospheric opening ceremony performance by local traditional musicians and heard passionate speeches from several members of the race team and local community. The start line of the first stage was a similarly spectacular affair, with local children cheering and lining the starting pen and loud upbeat 90’s hits blasting from the speakers to get our heart rates up. On rocking up with our club vests and British bum bags, we couldn’t help but compare ourselves to the compression-clad, euro polished athletes – were we out of our league?
The European trail runners also don’t seem do old-school paper maps and navigation, but are instead rather big fans of the GPS. Being used to recce-ing race routes, or at least having a map, compass and a good idea of where we’re going, we were naturally a little nervous at the prospect of heading off into the mountains to follow flags with just a rough idea of distance and an ascent profile printed on our race numbers. Fortunately the courses were marked generously and it was oddly liberating not to have to navigate and simply focus on running hard. Nonetheless is was a bizarre feeling to finish a race unsure of exactly where you had been for the past few hours! Although fans of traditional methods, we agreed this style of mountain no-need-to-navigate- race is much more accessible for runners with less experience and in that way Eurafrica was a very inclusive race. Throw in near-perfect weather, generous aid stations every few kms and post-race massages, all you needed to do was turn up, run and have fun!
The Europeans competitors did love a good post-race photo for ‘the gram’, and the volume of media and interviews at the end of each stage took a bit of adjusting to, especially as we ended up doing rather well. We’re not sure we could get used to late night live TV interviews and podium photo shoots, but the sheer contrast to the UK made the whole experience rather amusing. One of the race organisers even excitedly exclaimed one morning on the bus that “…your pictures are in Marco newspaper, MARCO!” (this is a big deal in Spain apparently, we were none the wiser).
We got that Intercontinental feeling
Whilst the ‘differences’ seemed strange at first, we settled into the swing of things over the course of the week, and even got to learn some Spanish lingo. As we got to know everyone better we came to realise that the organising team are intensely proud of the event they put on and with good reason; it is fostering relationships between diverse communities and cultures; it encourages respect for nature by raising awareness of the unique Intercontinental Biosphere Reserve of the Mediterranean (IBRM) the races are run within; it is a feat of logistical planning ferrying 200+ runners across borders, particularly many of whom speak little Spanish and are prone to wandering off (us).
The organisers really went out of their way to make us feel part of the Eurafrica family. And not just us, but the families of those competing too, through their ‘companion programme’. There was always someone on hand to help us translate anything we hadn’t understood, make sure we had everything we needed, and to roar cheers of “¡GANEMOS!” (you winners) at us when the racing got hard.
It was also really special to have a race with such a range of competitors. Local, international, amateur, elite, young, and old. We were inspired to be shouldering up to female athletes of such high calibre, and even more inspired by the knowledge they shared from their experiences and the encouragement they gave us to do as well as we could. The woman that left us the most awestruck was Lilian, the animated (and ridiculously bendy) Argentinian veteran who wasn’t going to let age get in the way of her conquering some gnarly trails and steep summits. Lilian also didn’t the language barrier get in the way of us having a good old chat, even if we were talking about different things.
Lessons from the trails/memorable moments
Megan: I remember being overtaken on the final descent of the first stage race in Morocco by skyrunner Silvia Puigarnau. She was wicked at technical terrain and seemed to not notice the rogue rock fall around us as she danced down the scree towards the sea. I thought I wouldn’t see her again, but when we got to the final more runnable stretch of the route, I managed to spy her on in the distance and found my legs kicking hard to close the gap, resulting in an exciting final 500m sprint to the finish where I edged ahead to take the win. It showed me that in longer races, the race really isn’t over until it’s over.
Lisa: While I love a good sunny holiday, I re-discovered that I find running in the blazing heat pretty tough so I was very excited when it was forecast to rain all day for stage 3 in Alcornocales National Park. It absolutely POURED, but unlike in the UK it was warm enough to just embrace it rather than hide within the bubble of your waterproof hood. The Europeans found it crazy enough that we enjoyed swimming in the sea here at this time of the year and they must have found me really quite strange as I excitedly splashed through puddles and slid my way through the muddy woodland and thick, spiky thorn-scrub with a big grin on my face, so happy not to be overheating for a change.
Megan: Prior to setting off on our Eurafrica adventure I remember Lisa and I jokingly putting bets on how we would do relative to each other. So, with a pair of dashing yellow Rab shorts – “Los Pantalones Cortos Amarillos” – on us, we decided to set ourselves a Tour de France esque competition between us. Each stage, she who finished highest in the ranking relative to the other would get the honor of prancing around in the golden garment for the remainder of the race day! With Lisa well versed in multi-day racing I was convinced I wouldn’t have the shorts at all, but three tough stages later and the yellow shorts were somehow still mine. This clearly made Lisa jealous enough to leave me in the dust in the final vertical race up Gibraltar rock, and most impressively to squish the 57s gap between her and Catalonian Maite Maiora to take 2nd overall in the event.
Lisa: As usual, my legs warmed up throughout the course of the event and I gained a place in the ranking each day. In the earlier stages of Eurafrica I enjoyed the short time I could keep up with Megan, and we would push each other on until she burned me off on the next uphill. By stage three I managed to lead the start of the race and then we ran a large chunk of the course together, working hard together to keep UTMB 3rd place Maite Maiora behind us, but again I lost her on the later climbs of the race. Usually prefering longer events and definitely a lover of downhills, I was dreading the final stage, a 5km vertical race up gibraltar rock… although, the way things turned out I needn’t have been. Perhaps I am a short distance runner after all…?
We want to say a massive GRACIAS, to the organisers of Eurafrica for having us along last year. For anyone looking for an end of season holiday or a final race to finish off their season while enjoying a festival atmosphere and an awesome variety of trails we cannot recommend Eurafrica enough. Although things are looking a little uncertain for this year, the organisers hope to be able to go ahead if restictions are lifted. The dates for this year are: 27th Oct – 2nd Nov 2020. Whatever happens this year it is definitely an event worth bearing in mind for future years! There is a discount for group entries, perfect for a club trip away! Find out more here: https://eurafricatrail.com/?lang=en