As the dawn light of day 4 crept across the sky I struggled into action. The next turnpoint was only a few miles away and I set off down the road fueled by granola bars and hot coffee. I could tell my right leg was in trouble. My thigh was really tight and my knee hurt with each step. It was IT band pain, like shin splint pain that most people have experienced sometime after hiking down a long steep trail but involving the larger muscles of the thigh. IT stands for Ilio-tibial, referring to the group of thigh muscles connecting the hip to the tibia bone below the knee. These muscles hold your weight as you set your foot down after taking a step. When running or going downhill they’re under more stress than normal. When the big group of muscles is severely overworked it tightens up, for me it usually causes a sharp pain on the outside of my knee with every step. I had dealt with this kind of IT band pain many times before in races, or after pushing myself too hard running. Often it gets better if I slow down sometimes it takes weeks of rest to recover. Now after pushing too hard finishing off the previous day I was worried this could slow me down a lot with rain in the weather forecast and likely a full day of walking ahead of me.
Once I crossed the Rio Cinca by the town of Laspuna my path followed smaller and smaller roads up around onto the north flank of Pena Montanesa, turnpoint 4. It was a peak at the end of a wall-like ridge that ran off to the east towards the paragliding town of Castejon de Sos. The turnpoint was a 1 kilometer radius around the peak so fortunately I didn’t have to climb up to the summit which would have been very difficult. At the base of the cliffs on the north side I looked at my phone, saw that I was under 1000 meters from the pin on the map, and pushed my check in OK button on my tracker and I was done with turnpoint 4. Next, turnpoint 5 lay beyond some of the tallest peaks in the Pyrenees across the range to the north in France.
The sky was cloudy and rain was forecast. I had been holding out hope I might be able to find a launch and fly a little. I’d flown over TP 4 several times training for the race but my aerial reconnaissance had shown me that the terrain in that area didn’t have any promising launch sites. I hiked up in the saddle to the north of the turnpoint and found an area just big enough to lay out the glider that had lots of dead bushes and sticks. With no sun in the late morning sky I was simply hoping to fly back down to the valley and save my knee the painful downhill hike. At first there wasn’t enough wind to bring the wing up and pull the lines free from the snagging sticks. Then as the first wave of rain arrived it got gusty and I decided to pack up my glider before it got soaked and heavy with rain.. As I expected my knee hurt more and more as I hiked down the steep switchback road to where the van was waiting with lunch at a little village. I heard Maurer had finished the race and I felt the excitement of the race fade a little as looked ahead to a day of walking down paved roads.
I thought about trying to find short cuts down to the valley or look for another place I might fly down but as the rain increased and along with the sharp pain in my knee, I knew I had to play it conservative and work on nursing my leg back to health. I followed the main road down to to the bottom of the valley and wound north into the higher mountain. I’d dealt with IT band pain like this before in races and I’d been able to get through it by slowing down until I wasn’t aggravating it but now I really had to slow down to keep it from hurting. I walked slowly and sometimes even had to stop briefly to keep it pain free. I wasn’t pushing my muscles at all and it was frustrating to be confined to an unnecessarily slow pace. As the day went by I plodded along narrower and narrower roads that clung to rock cliffs above the river which had cut the opening in the mountains.
Towards evening the road got even narrower and began to climb in earnest, the cliffs towered above and the valley floor far below as the road went into long tunnels where there was no place for it to cling to the sheer rock. The rain had been light and intermittent through the day keeping me comfortably cool but as darkness fell lightening flickered closer and closer and soon I was walking through torrential rain with thunder cracking every few seconds. Sam and Pavel managed to feed me dinner before the storm and as the end of the day drew close they scouted a bar in a little resort town that rented rooms and suggested we stop a half a hour early so we could have a dry place to get organized and plan for the next day. We could all three sleep in the van but getting the gear organized and making the switch from day mode to sleep without getting everything drenched in the rain would have been impossible.
At the bar we were able to get out our maps and use wifi to plan for the next day. The weather looked windy as usual but otherwise good for flying and we were already high in the mountains. There were a few route options heading over the crest of the mountains. I thought I should head for the lowest pass even though it was a little further west away from the direct course line. I knew if I could get airborne I could fly past the other routes in a few minutes. The landlord showed us up to a nice room and I crashed into a deep sleep for the few hours that I had.
I drug myself out of bed shortly before 5 and was hiking through the mountain darkness. The end of the road came quick and Pavel and Sam had to hurry to pack up everything we’d need for the day and join me as we followed a jeep track that climbed gradually up a pretty valley filled with a mix of forests and pastures. My knee felt a little better but I was being very careful not to push it. The dawn turned to sunny day and we crisscrossed a beautiful river that turned into more of a stream as we hiked up the final valley approaching pass at the border. Popcorn cumulus clouds dotted the sky telling me there were lots of thermals working already and I needed to get in the air. The clouds were also skittering across the sky quite quickly and this told me I would be dealing with a lot of wind. At least it would be pushing me North towards the turnpoint in France but I knew there would be lots of lee side turbulence on the downwind side of the mountains.
Just before noon I got set up to fly right before the pass through the border crest on a sunny slope that was catching the wind nicely. I got in the air easily and was able to soar in dynamic lift created simply from the wind striking the hill and deflecting up. I backtracked into the wind a tiny bit so I could duck off into a side valley where I could soar up the windward face of a peak much higher than the pass so I’d be able to shoot through the gap with a little extra clearance. My flight app on my phone confirmed the strong south wind I’d seen in the clouds and I knew when I went through the pass I’d have a strong tail wind. I knew the other side would likely be a wild ride and it was. Once I was through the pass the air poured down the other side of the steep mountains like a waterfall, with me in it. My sink alarm made noises I hadn’t heard before and I pushed speed bar trying to get through the sinking, churning air as fast as I could with my wing folding and flapping every few seconds.
I headed towards the first mountain side that faced towards me and into the wind. As I approached it I was scared to fly close to the terrain in such shitty air but once I got close the air smoothed out. I was back in dynamic lift, a smooth layer of air that was forced upwards as the wind struck the mountain in it’s path. There were thermals in the rising air and soon I was in a nice steady climb trying to relax and regain my focus after the thrashing on the way there. There was still plenty of turbulent air to deal with as I began to work my way east towards Cicere, a low grassy mountain that was turnpoint 5, just north of the high rocky border crest. I worked my way towards the turnpoint in a mix of sinking turbulent air and twisted violent thermals that were forcing themselves up through the descending airmass. There were several ridges to cross to get to the turnpoint and I really didn’t want to be stuck hiking over them so I fought on to the turnpoint but I wasn’t flying with good strategy. I was pushing forward too quickly and not focusing on climbing as high as I could in the thermals. I made it to the turnpoint and quickly tried to jump to the next ridge without much altitude where I got stuck, flying back and forth maintaining my altitudy but unable to find another climb up high.
I could start to see the signs of a cloud layer below me caused by a cooler airmass being drawn into the mountains from the French countryside to the north. I skimmed by horses as I flew back and forth trying to find a thermal on the big grassy ridgeline but eventually I sunk out and had to stuff in a landing in the last patch of grass before the mountainsides became completely forested. I packed up as fast as I could and charged back up the hill past ferns, wild flowers, and cow pies. In an hour or so I was back up where I’d been soaring and I took off again but I was still stuck. Now there was a distinct cloud layer below me and I could see it was thickening and rising. It undulated, ebbed, and flowed in slow motion as the upper level winds from the South side of the mountains crashed down on it. I never found a thermal and I was only able to work my way a little bit west following the ridge before I landed low again.
It was only mid afternoon and I was determined to get back in the air to make some distance. The next flight was even shorter though and I was once again scrambling up the steep grassy slopes. Only now did I realise that I might be trapped above the cloud. Flying down through cloud was against the rules and not safe either. I could now see down into the next valley ahead and it was filled with cloud too. The winds had calmed, the cumulus clouds were going away and my hopes of finding a thermal to take me high were being replaced with thoughts of frustration that I’d have to hike down because of the cloud blocking my way. I tried one more flight and found no lift. I flew a tiny bit further east before I landed on a steep grassy slope just above the cloud. As I began packing up the tendrils of the cloud atop the rising airmass began creeping up past me and soon I was surrounded by mist. This was especially frustrating because usually in these races you can use your altitude at the end of the day to take a “sled ride” and glide down to the valley floor covering a few miles and avoiding the downhill pounding on the legs. Now I had to descend several thousand feet with my improving but still tender knee.
The slope was very steep and after slipping and falling a bit I gave up and sat down and slid down the wet grass on my ass. It was bumpy but it saved my legs until I got to the tree line a few hundred feet below. I slipped and slid through the steep forest eventually finding a trail and then the road that would lead me out of the side valley up to the main highway I’d follow. My knee was feeling good and I had to resist the temptation to try a little running. Sam and Pavel had been hustling all afternoon, first to hike the 15 or so miles back to the van from my launch, and then on a massive drive around to the south, so they were just catching up to me when I got to pavement.
I found out that the Juraj Koren, an energetic young Slovakian, had used the strong south wind to catch up and sneak ahead of me, finding a hole in the clouds to fly down and land in the valley. I was simply happy to have my knee feeling better as I hiked along the highway towards the mountain town of Vielha which I had passed through many times training for the race. There was rain in the forecast again for the next day so I anticipated following the highway on foot as it was the most direct route through the mountains towards tunpoint 6, far away in the Cadi Range. With the van parked by the road on the edge of town we all climbed in our sleeping bags and fell quickly asleep.
Photo credit: Sam Thompson