Last year I made my first attempt to run over the Sierra de Irta mountains. I ran solo and had to DNF returning back due to a virus infection, making it my most miserable run in my life. A year later, I got the opportunity to complete my adventure, this time together with my running mate.
Even though it is not (still) an official race, I felt the same kind of nerve as last year. It would be furthest distance I’ve done in one shot, and with traveling involved, you’d need to be in good health and form at that exact time. The memory of the two hour serum infuse on a hospital stretcher was still fresh in mind, though.
The Sierra de Irta mountains have been whispering to me all my life, but I have just been tagging along the coastline. There were a couple of wild excursions in my young life, hiking to the heart of the range, and some mountain bike safaris too, but never had I made the attempt of skyrunning the ridges. Picking up on running later in my life, the Irta mountains’ call became clear.
Thus, the idea of the Ultra Irta materialized in 2015.
I carefully planned a route so it would contain different challenges, stunning views and pass the ancient ruins of castles, watchtowers, chapels and remains of settlements among the natural scenery. It’s as much a historic and cultural experience as it is a test of endurance.
The start is located at the foot of the Templar Knight castle of Peñíscola, a true landmark on a rock in the Mediterranean Sea. It has recently been made famous being the shooting location for the city of Mereen in the Game of Thrones series (season 6).
We took off just after sunrise at 08 am with an easy run to the official starting point at the Font de la Petxina spring fountain, some 2K from home. Maybe it was the tension of race nerves, or the exceptionally strong morning coffee, or the fact that the toilet procedures didn’t go as expected (there was nothing), but I noticed a higher than usual heart rate. Decided to ”ignore it with caution”, and proceed.
From the great walls of the castle, the journey takes off on the same route as used by locals when they march in religious processions to the chapel Ermita Sant Antoni, where the saint patron madonna of the village, La Mare del Deu, is kept. The way to the chapel is steep but it doesn’t take long to get rewarded with a view of the sunrise over the calm sea.
The first section speeds over tarmac, gravel, and finally single track paths. At the Ermita Sant Antoni, there is fountain with natural freshwater. While not recommended to drink, it serves to freshen up after the hillwork.
Just behind the chapel, the yellow-white striped marked trail takes you around the corner for the first taste of the Irta mountains’ interior.
A protected nature park, Sierra de Irta is unique in its location by the sea, whereas most of the Mediterranean coast is now littered with first line hotels and resorts. Suddenly the buzz of the tourism industry and the busy roads go silent. The smell of rosemary and other herbs erupt as the first sunrays paints the ridges with warm light.
Coming up the next ridge, we close in on the steep descent down to 343m, to the old Templar ruin of the Santa Magdalena de Pulpis castle.
As with many old castles, they were extended on previous works. The Moors originally constructed the Pulpis castle to supervise the important trade route and farm lands in the valley of Alcalá below, but some ownership transitions later it’s final real use came around the 16th century, when it protected citizens from raiding barbarian pirates. Nowadays most people notice it when driving past on the highways below.
This was our first spot to meet our small but dedicated support crew. They’d brought a bag up a trail from the village below, containing water, a few snacks and some first aid stuff. We didn’t expect to need much, just shy of 15K. My running mate took the opportunity to take care of his feet. I noted a blister building up but decided to see if a just an adjustment of the sock and re-lacing would suffice.
We embrace the views across the plains to the opposing mountain range Serra Talaies, take a sip of water, and move on. Got a long way to go.
Coming back up the ridge, the path ondulates, beginning down a concrete forestal fire route, then back up again onto a scenic single track. This takes you past a couple of remote settlement ruins, and a stone shelter refugio still in use by shepherds and hunters.
The vegetation is now less forgiving, many will scratch bare legs as bushes and trees close in tight. Loose stones and sharp edged rocks on the narrow path will keep you busy and concentrated.
While very tempting, the current edition of the Ultra Irta course does not carry on all the way to the peak top hill, the Campanilles (575 m). Just before reaching it we dive sharp right to descend into a valley. The forest here is more dense and green, and offers more shadows – protected in three directions by ridges.
At this point my running mate is in a low, with a slight nausea, but still carries on. He’s an awesome guerrero! It is November 24th but temperatures rise above +20C. That takes its toll, especially on Johan. He performs better in colder conditions, but I notice the heat too. Sunglasses and cap is on.
Having descended, wider gravel roads linger and gently ascend toward the big ruin castle of Alcalá de Xivert. This castle’s impressive walls and towers offer wonderful views to the south, south-west of the Alcalá valley. We have covered more than a Half Marathon and have the second opportunity to meet our crew.
Now it is my turn to care for the feet. I change from warm, sweaty socks and fix the blister that did form. In retrospect I should have dealt with it already at the Pulpis castle, but at least it wasn’t too late.
From the castle, a shorter technical and fun descent lands at the Creu del Frances – a stone cross erected in the early 19th century to commemorate Spanish men executed by french troops during the uprising of the French invasion.
Here on, a paved road with soft slopes reach across the the south entrance of the valley, taking us to the foot of the main Irta ridge. Farm lands with rows of orange trees, lemons, almonds and artichokes stretch to our left and right. We need these easy kilometers to prepare for the main ascent of this ultra; the infamous Barranc del Carrer.
This hill segment stretches 1,4 km’s with an average climb of 15%, until it reaches the ridge. Protected from the sea and sun, trees surround us at all times, it is hard to get a sense for how far we have reached uphill. The unforgiving trail mainly consist of loose rocks and some dirt track, with no place to sit or rest at all. The bastónes really are helpful here.
I felt surprisingly strong. On last year’s attempt I bonked out at this wall, and could hardly put one foot in front of the other. This time I went steady, pulling my mate who usually is the stronger one of us uphill.
At the end of the Barranc del Carrer segment, we are quite glad to have survived. We can roll on an easy downhill, with a few grandiose viewpoints of the Mediterranean to the left.
We carry on along the top ridge gravel path until a small paved ascent on the right takes us toward the big communications antenna we’ve seen for some time. Instead of going to it, we drop left on the gravel path to the Torre Ebrí watchtower. A small mistake as we pass the tower some five meters below.
Erected by the Moors, it formed part of a communication system stretching along the Valencian coast. Each watchtower kept guard from the dangers of the sea; enemy troops, looters, smugglers and pirates. Danger approaching, they’d light a fire to warn all.
From the Torre Ebrí it is just a few kilometers continuing down to the white chapel Ermita de Santa Llucia i Sant Benet. Like it’s brother in the north, this chapel offers an absolutely amazing view of the sea, the plains to the south, and to its patron village Alcossebre below.
Having some 30K and steep hillwork in our legs, we are happy to meet our crew again. Feet are good, we refuel with some Coka Cola and snacks but not too much, as the next stop is in the hill just a couple of K’s below. At this point Ihave to remind myself to enjoy the views and experience, not just focus on the essentials. I should have picked this signal up as the warning sign of me going into a down period, but thankfully my running mate has the opposite, as he does a comeback to feel-good-land!
Here begins the most technical descent that requires a steady foot and high attention to the path. It’s hard to run, albeit walk even using the ropes suspended along the track. We tread carefully, but now I have to push to keep up with my partner in crime.
Just like gravity we do make it down, down to civilization. The coastal village of Alcossebre welcomes us. The steep descent becomes an easy downhill on roads, leading all the way to the sea level.
Refueling at a restaurant by the harbor, we prepare for the the last big stretch. The restaurant owner remembers me from last year and treats me with a complimentary pintxo; crusts with wail eggs and chorizo!
Our hardworking support crew takes the opportunity to do lunch. I steal a mouthful of beer from my aunt, and we head off again. They’ll catch up at the next appointed station, the Casa de Carabineros at Platja Pebret.
We head off for our next waypoint, the light tower of Alcossebre, north of the village.
It looks so easy on the map, flat and just follow the coast to the north. But don’t be fooled. The course remains difficult with rocky calas, a cross-cross of intersecting paths that forces you to make decisions at all times. Sand and stones and just those 1-2 meter edges at the calas suck the muster out of the legs. This segment is physically rough but require the most from your willpower.
Body is OK but my energy is drained. My turn to feel nauseous. Johan pulls me along at an easy, steady pace. We feel lucky the crew decided to stop at an earlier point to check us out, where the gravel road meets the single track path. We rehydrate and I take a Salt Stick pill, much too late but better than nothing. I stuff some raisins in my mouth even though I’m not hungry. We drop some unnecessary equipment and carry on.
The course has kept a small treat for you, with a short but steep ascent to the Torre Badùm at some 50-60 meters up. The iconic watchtower of the northeast shore. But again the reward is instant. The goal is now very near at Peñíscola, just below 6K away.
These last kilometers will feel like the longest, but they are the last. We’ve passed the marathon distance and the point where I finally DNF’ed last year. My nausea let’s go, I even have the strength to climb the steep ascent to the Torre Badùm instead of following the longer serpentine gravel road. Johan struggles with sensations of cramps but hangs in tough. My head is clear and the body is just tired, not broken.
We take the photo op at the watchtower, but make the stop short. We want to finish our journey before the sun comes down and in time to enjoy the Finisher paella!
Leaving Torre Badùm we can see the Peñíscola castle clearly, even make out windows and other details. We’re close, but there’s still some 5K away… Always those longest kilometers, but our spirits are high.
Back at the castle wall, and the Font de la Petxina, we are officially done! Finishers of la Ultra Irta 2016!
Our GPS watches stop at 58K, but it was probably around 57, considering the GPS flowers created at the crew pitstops. Some 2K home from the castle I ask one final time if Johan wants to take it to 60K, but he’s fine with what we got. I don’t argue much at all.
It starts to sink in: We did it. We can go home and treat ourselves with a Cava toast, thankful to our wonderful support crew and family. It was a good adventure, ¡bon aventura!
Some hours later we find ourselves featured on the biggest local Facebook group – the Photoblog Peñíscola. I hope some people find our Ultra Irta experience inspirational, and not just crazy!
- Distance: ~57-58 Km and 1600 vm’s
- Time: 9:24 hours
- Avg. Hear Rate: 128 bpm. Too high initially, but it got sorted.
- Blisters: 1 – it was small.
- Shoes: Inov-8 TrailTalon 275 – Good absorbation of the hard tracks, but perhaps the higher drop affected my achilles’ tendon slightly?
- Strava links, result fly by, activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/779888920