Chasing the perfect trail (cont'd I)
Mountains are one of the best places on earth to take a break and refresh your mind in my eyes. It really hit me when we were crossing the Alps last year and I wanted to repeat the adventure and will most likely try to do that every other year or so.
Since we were in the Alps last year already we decided to go for the Pyrenees this time and run part of the GR10 – the footpath that goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates France from Spain.
Please, don’t try to do this without proper training, planning, equipment, etc. but feel free to ask me any question about this trip or the other trips.
The equipment I took with me was very similar to last year as you can see in the picture (and compare it with last year). We took 1-1.5l of water with us and filled it at every mountain spring we came across. The temperatures varied quite a lot – from 5 to 34°C, so you need a lot (!) of water - if you can carry more, do it.
The route and the journey
The night before I had a lovely dinner at the Lake Constance finished by a beautiful sunset. Early in the morning I took the train to Zürich and flew to Toulouse where Lucas waited for me, coming directly from Berlin.
We took the 3h train from Toulouse to Lourdes where we arrived at 21.45 - still 23k to go to our starting point and hotel for the tour. We headed out of the city and thought about hitchhiking at a big roundabout but after 5min with no results we decided to run on a small path next to the river. It was a warm evening with little clouds so the moon gave already enough light to see the way but we still used one of our headlamps. The atmosphere was great and we paced quite fast for one hour along the river until we arrived at Argeles Gazost. It felt good but we didn’t want to get to the hotel in Aucun too late for the start tomorrow and the first guy we approached took us directly to the hotel in his car. In the end, we made it before midnight to the shower and bed – more than 320km away from San Sebastián.
Day 1 [ca. 40km, 3000hm]: Aucun - Gourette - Gabas
Compared to our tour in the Alps, the start would be more modest with 40k and 3000m of altitude on the first day. Still a lot but not as crazy as last year where we were in the mountains for 13-14h. We were not completely wrong but it took us less than 10 hours including a few breaks. We had four bigger ascents with the last one being the longest and steepest. If there is something you cannot train in Berlin it’s running uphill ... but we had to get used to it pretty fast.
The weather was great, quite warm and the views really beautiful from the top of the mountains. I’m still amazed by the amount of people who were camping in the mountains there - way more than we saw in the Alps. And boy, there have been beautiful camping spots if you are into this.
We took a longer break around noon in Gourette which is a small ski village in the mountains where we ate Crépes and Galettes and had to go up the mountain on the other side. As you can see, we were directly going into the storm but it wasn't so bad in the end, only a some rain and wind.
The long downhill was a small trail and it made a lot of fun running down to the valley, we even passed some isolated snow fields on our way. After arriving in Gabas I was positively surprised about the all the different beautiful landscapes we have seen on our first day.
Day 2 [ca. 33km, 2300hm]: Gabas - Etsaut - Borce - Lhers
The day started with what I would call a “typical French breakfast”, baguette with marmalade and coffee - a bit too less for us to start the day but nothing we could change. On our first big ascent we passed three beautiful mountain lakes. A quick shower stopped us from taking a bath there and disappeared a few minutes after we hiked up - too bad.
The way down to Etsaut was a very long and small trail. At the end, this trail is carved out of the stones and is a famous hiking destination called Chemin de la mature à Etsaut. I think next to the small path it's going down like 50m or so - so you better watch where you want to place your feet.
After the break at Etsaut, we started going up the mountain again and passed by Borce which is a cute little French mountain village. From there it was about 1000m to the top of the next mountain until we had to go down again. Just before the top, I saw a big sheep heard (we saw lots of sheeps btw) but suddenly there were two big white Pyrenean Mountain dogs running towards us. They didn’t do more than barking but I was quite surprised when they suddenly were standing in front of us. It took a few minutes until they gathered all the sheeps and then our way to the top was free.
We finished the day already at 4.00pm so we had quite some time to relax and put our legs into a small cold mountain river while eating ice cream. After a great French family style dinner with Mousse au Chocolat we went to bed early again. Life could be worse :)
Day 3 [ca. 60km, 2700hm]: Lhers - Lescun - La Pierre Saint Martin - Logibar - Gorges d'Holzarté - Larrau
The third day was supposed to be the hardest of all stages so we started early which means 8.00am for us. After reaching Lescun already after an hour we bought a sandwich because we didn’t want to waste time going to a restaurant. That was a good choice because there were literally no restaurants on our way later.
When we started the weather was quite good but it changed fast. We hiked towards La Pierre Saint Martin and it started to get very foggy and rainy. The rain made it impossible to run fast and all the stones didn’t help either so it really took long until we reached the small ski village. The wind got stronger and on top of the mountain we were freezing quite a bit and were completely wet, so we tried to run down as fast as possible during these conditions even though there were some really slippery paths.
After we came further down it stopped raining at least and the visibility increased. We ate our sandwich while continue walking. I think we came across all kinds of animals on that day - cows, sheeps, eagles, frogs, marmots and even wild horses. After we had already 40k in our legs we did another quick stop and Lucas pulled out a nectarine and muffin. It's amazing how good these things can taste and how they can increase the motivation again.
After around 10 hours we reached Gorges d'Holzarté and its famous bridge called Passerelle d'Holtzarté. The last kilometers were along the river in the valley until we had to go 3km uphill to reach out final destination at Larrau.
Day 4 [ca. 55km, 2400hm]: Larrau - Iraty - Esterencuby - St. Jean Pied de Port
After the long run and hike the day before we had sore legs. The day started with a 3km downhill, exactly the way we went up the day before, not the best warm-up. From there, we had to go up 1000m of altitude. The start was rather a bit slow but we got faster over time. On top of the mountain we had to follow a small trail for a while until we got to Iraty where we filled up our water at a local restaurant because we found no mountain springs on our way. From there it was a very nice downhill through the forest of Iraty. This was a lot of fun since the trails were good and easy to run.
After ca. 35km we had to run down 600m of altitude within a few kilometers on asphalt towards Esterencuby. I think we paced a bit too fast and slightly killed our legs because the last ascent of 400m of altitude took quite long and we could both really feel that our legs are tired. Quite exhausted we arrived at beautiful St. Jean Pied de Port which is also known as a pilgrim village where many people start the Camino de Santiago. On that evening, we had pasta for the first time but I was still feeling hungry after the menu. The amount you can eat during such a trip is simply crazy.
Day 5 [ca. 36km, 2100hm]: St. Jean Pied de Port - Saint Etienne de Baigorry - Bidarray
Since the breakfast at our hostel was quite small we decided to go for a second breakfast at the local supermarket - cheese, yoghurt, fruits, muffins. That was really needed and since this stage was a bit more modest again we also had enough time.
It was a hot day and the ascent to the top of the first mountain was extremely steep. On top of it Lucas couldn’t walk anymore, the pain in his foot that he was feeling already in the last days got simply too strong (I can tell you, it also looked really, really bad). After a break on the top, we decided to continue separated - I would run the whole route while he would go down and hitchhike to today‘s final destination. The trails down to Sain Etienne de Baigorry were nice and I was quite fast but could really feel the heat. I filled up all my water bottles there and hiked up again on the other side of the town from 155m of altitude back to over 1000m. The sun was burning. I had to go on top of several summits, down and up again all the time and was wondering where all these wild horses drink while my water got empty quite fast. At some point, I luckily reached a small well, could drink a lot and fill up my bottles.
Then, after going up several summits, I finally reached the last summit and could start going down to Bidarray. Quite exhausted and thirsty as hell, I arrived at our chalet where Lucas waited already. A sandwich, cola and ice cream later I found myself in the jacuzzi. Now it started to feel like holidays (again).
Day 6 [ca. 35km, 1100hm]: Bidarray - Ainhoa - Sare
Lucas managed to get some more rest. His foot did not get so much better but somehow good enough to continue. The start was really nice, we were running along a big mountain river called Baztan where people were going rafting and you could do all sorts of activities. After following this river for a while we had to hike up to Artzamendi from where we could see the Atlantic Ocean, incredible. On the other side we saw the Pyrenees behind us - if the wild horses didn't cross our views.
From there we went down to Ainhoa. The small town is known for its chili but we were more after the local cake (Gâteau Basque) and ate a whole cake for lunch. We thought we didn't have to run the whole way to Sare but it turned out we were wrong. Unfortunately, we couldn't find the hotel because the address on Google Maps was wrong. So we asked a few local people and found out that we had to run for three more kilometers until we finally reached the hotel. The burger for dinner didn't compensate that but the food in Sare was quite good.
Day 7 [ca. 60km, 2000hm]: Sare - Irun - Pasaia - San Sebastián
The last day came fast, ca. 60km were separating us from our final destination. We didn’t sleep well but tried to start early because we were not sure how long it will take us. Lucas foot hurt a lot and the first mountain was quite steep but the downhill really fun.
I must admit that the landscape was not as fascinating as before, it didn’t change so much anymore and was less diversified but we saw the coast many times. That said, it took us really long until we reached Irun where the GR10 ends and where we would have half the distance in our legs. Lucas foot hurt again so much that he was not able to continue and decided to take the train from there.
I continued alone, first a few kilometers through the city until I had to run over a small mountain chain. I knew this was the last big ascent and managed to hike up fast. To my surprise, the good weather changed. There was nobody on my way, it was foggy and in the distance you could hear the thunder over the sea. I reached the top after less than an hour and started running downhill without stopping. Then I had to cross a fence and suddenly I could see the Atlantic Ocean close in front of me from the mountain. Now I knew, I‘m nearly there and nearly made it - I will probably never forget that moment.
I reached Pasaia and was running along the street until I had to go up Mount Ulia, a small hill (243m of altitude) from where you can look down to San Sebastián. We agreed to meet at the viewpoint there. I was trying to text Lucas before but without success and couldn’t find him so I wanted to call him. Exactly in that moment he was sitting there on a stone observing the beach of San Sebastián and wanted to pick up his phone (no joke). We finally made it and took the long-awaited picture with San Sebastián in the background.
On that journey, I started reading Grit by Angela Duckworth and it's one of the best books I have read in the last years. The following quote really got me:
Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.