The passion of Andalusia

Ultra Trail Spain

Sarah Whittington, one half of the husband-and-wife team behind Ultra Trail Spain, shares her fond experiences of the Andalusian running scene and the fiercely passionate running community she’s discovered in their home region of Moclín, Granada, Spain.

Spectator support

It’s the closing stages of the Seville marathon and we runners are flagging. Heading out of the old town it’s mid-morning and the temperature is rising, but passing the 41K sign, we get a much-needed boost. The noise is deafening. ‘Animo!’ the thronging crowd shouts. ‘Courage!’ they cry, as they pile onto the course.

Like a Tour de France hill climb, the spectators are eager to support every competitor. It doesn’t matter that the elites finished hours ago, and not one runner currently passing is going to be standing on the podium. Here, everyone is a champion! We’re forced to run in single file. It’s impossible not to have a big smile on your face.

Andalusia is a passionate place. It loves the underdog, it loves the brave and, above all, it loves a fiesta. Times can be tough, so when there’s an opportunity to celebrate and party, people do.

Spectator support for road and trail running here in southern Spain is immense. Towns grind to a halt for race day, shops roll down their shutters and offices close. Everyone gets involved, whether running or not. There’s never a shortage of volunteers.

Running in Spain

My husband Steve and I live permanently in Moclín, Granada. We’re keen runners of all distances – anything from 5K to 100 miles, with a definite enthusiasm for the longer races. We’ve combined our interest in running with our love for the area, and put together running holidays and training camps for visitors. Sometimes these too include a race.

One of our favourite local CXM (cross mountain) trail races, usually held in mid-May, sees the whole town come out in celebration, which like all trail races in this part of Spain ends with a community paella. As the runners leave on their race, the townsfolk fire up an enormous paella dish or two and start chopping onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes… They chill down the beers and slice wedges of bread, ready for the impending feast.

The offer of a free celebratory meal encourages everyone to stay and socialise and, most importantly, support the last person over the line. Of course, the generally sunny weather helps to keep people around too.

Ultra Trail Spain

Like the local folk, CXM races are hardcore. It’s a massive achievement to reach your ‘meta’ (goal) and cross the finish line. Races typically notch up 750m of ascent for every 10K run. You literally traverse the mountains.

I can still remember Steve heading out on one such 20K outing a couple of years ago, with a carefree, ‘See you in a couple of hours!’, to finally show up on the finish line a good three hours later, throw himself onto the ground and mumble: ‘What just happened?’ It seems this particular race included a vertical kilometre, a narrow cut under ledge, and a steep shale drop-off down a cliff.

Born to be tough

People are definitely reared to be tough. We regularly pass kids out on family expeditions while we’re out on some of the many trails around Moclín. They grow up hiking, mountain biking and running around the mountains. Fearless and fit – and clearly putting us to shame. I can recall doing a trail race that involved a pretty harsh descent early on in the course. I’d hung back (being a bit of a scaredy-cat about running fast downhill) and ended up with some of the teenagers doing a shorter race, but following the same route as us to start with. One young lad, about 13 years old, was bravely trying to make his way down the course in road shoes. Down he’d slip, up I’d pull him, and off we’d go again. He slid most of the way down the mountain, explaining that he really wanted to do the race but only had road shoes. I saw him again on the finish line, big grin on his face, and the none the worse for his ordeal.

There simply isn’t a mapped network of rights of way here. Routes are rarely marked. Grandparents pass on the knowledge of different tracks and trails through the generations. We’ve spent many hours out scouting, asking about routes at local bars, perhaps finding out how Juan reaches his olive grove via Pepe’s track.

Shepherds are also a great information source. Since grass is limited – there aren’t fenced fields as in the UK – sheep and goats are kept in small milking herds. The flocks are stabled at night and then walked out onto the surrounding mountains and olive groves each day. The milk goes to very local dairies for small-scale artisan cheese production. Cheese, like many locally-produced food items, is nearly always on offer as a race prize. We’ve won jamon, olive oil, honey, peaches, wine, cherries and asparagus.

Ultra Trail Spain

Never a dull moment

And ironically it was a herd of sheep that very nearly won their weight in fresh asparagus at a 10K evening road race a couple of years ago. The shepherd was out with his flock oblivious that he was on the race route. The lead runners came flying round the corner, spooking his sheep who decided to join in. The shepherd ended up in hot pursuit, legging it down the road in his sandals, dragging his crook behind him. The sheep made it the 3K to the finish line flanked by runners, where quick-thinking volunteers knocked up a makeshift pen out of race tape and barriers before the sheep entered the finishers’ chute and collected their race t-shirts.

As is always the way here, no one seemed particularly concerned and the race fiesta carried on regardless, with the lead man and woman home being presented with their own weight in fresh asparagus (yes, we’re not sure what you do with that amount of asparagus either!) The shepherd dually enjoyed a few complementary finish-line beers before rounding up his flock and heading home.

Never a dull moment!

Sarah Whittington and Steve Farnham of Ultra Trail Spain put together bespoke guided running holidays and training camps for runners of all abilities on the roads and trails around their home in Moclín, Granada, Spain.