101km Ronda (May 9th) Superb Ultrarunning in the heart of Andalusia, by Mark Woolley
The Ronda 101 kms in 24 hours trail race
Organised by the Spanish military in the foot hills surrounding the ancient Roman town of Ronda, this has become the largest ultra-running phenomena in Spain. The race was originally conceived as a public relations exercise between the elite Spanish Legion IV regiment based in Ronda and the general public.
The Legion wanted to bring the forces closer to the public and improve its image in the public eye. At the time of the first edition of the race the longest single stage race in Spain was 100 kms and being Spain’s elite fighting force, they had to better that, hence the 101 kms.
Whilst there are harder and more demanding ultra-trail races these days in Spain, the Ronda 101 is by far the most popular and it would not be a bad comparison in terms of its social status to that of the Comrades in South Africa.
The race is massively popular and even though there are some 7,000 places for participants between runners, walkers and mountain bikers, the race is sold out in a question of seconds once the inscription is activated on line.
It wasn’t always this way, in the early days there were barely 300 runners with a mix of military and civilian personal and the atmosphere was more that of a big family gathering than that of a hard, in your face ultra-running race. But the excellent organisation and the deep Spanish flavour of the race changed all that and today it is the most popular ultra-race in Spain.
There are 3 categories to the race being on foot, on mountain bike and a duathlon that mixes the two. In the past there was even a category on horseback but that was abandoned as the train simply became too crowded.
The races starts at 10:00 AM for the cyclists and 11:00 AM for the people on foot in the Ronda football ground where the general of the Legion salutes Spain and the King, followed by a loud canon shot that signals the start of the race.
Out of the football ground and into the ancient city of Ronda, passing the bull ring, over the ancient Roman Bridge that spans Ronda’s famous city gorge and then out into the hills. The start of the race is a frenetic affair with people jostling for a place as everyone leaves the football ground, but once out on the trail, the race extends pretty fast and there is space for everyone.
The first 50 kilometres of the race run through a delightful area of oak trees and wheat fields with a gently rolling trail that is not too demanding in itself, although after the first couple of hours the heat starts to become the issue of the day. Ronda is in the very south of Spain and on a clear day, from the highest points in the race you can see the north coast of Africa. The race is celebrated in the first week or 2 of May and temperatures are typically in the high 20s to low 30s at this time of the year. In isolated spots, where the wind doesn’t really get to it can easily reach the high 30s in the mid afternoon. This clearly represents a big problem for all of the athletes and those that don’t slow down and manage the heat soon find themselves on the floor with heat exhaustion.
One of the more delightful aspects of the race is that it takes in a number of local villages where the locals are all out cheering on the athletes; some even get out their garden hoses and spray the athletes with water as they pass. The atmosphere in the villages is warm and friendly and more like a massive party than a hard endurance race. Everyone it seems is here to enjoy the spectacle of the runners and cyclists push themselves to the limit.
At the 55 km point in the village of Setenil the athletes have access to a drop bag. The faster runners won’t stop here but many of the people that plan simply on walking the distance in the 24 hours will leave a small ruck sack here with their night gear. Although it is hot during the day, the night is still a cold affair and warm clothing is necessary.
The gently rolling hills continue right up until the military barracks at the 78 km point where the participants can even stop for a hot meal, served by the military personnel. It is a bit of a trap as leaving the barracks, especially if it is now night time can require a lot of self-discipline.
The last section of the race enters the only truly mountainous section of the whole race and with it are a couple of hills that even the front runners will power walk as they are so steep. But the limestone scenery is spectacular to put it mildly if you are fortunate to pass this section with daylight.
The rail arrives at the foot of the huge cliff upon which Ronda is perched and then skirts around the bottom. A small river runs alongside the trail and in the hours just after nightfall the river is full of the sounds of nature. The last hill up into the town is a real beast, and with tired legs you suddenly have to climb some 300M vertically in just one kilometre. It is a real killer, but you know that the end is in sight now and somehow you find the energy to climb.
Finally the road through the town, leading up to the park where it all finishes is lined with thousands of people, all cheering anyone who finishes. The atmosphere is electric as emotional runners and cyclists, having given it their all, cross the finish line where they are greeted by a military official who hangs the prized finishes medal around their necks.
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