LA PARRA BACKYARD ULTRA 2022 – “Mental, it’s all mental. Awesome!”

C“Mental, it’s all mental. Awesome!” These are the words of a resident in the small town of La Parra in South-Eastern Spain. The words were spoken around 5am on the sleepy streets where the last remaining runners of “LA PARRA BACKYARD ULTRA 2022” (Edition I) were moving.

I was and I still am impressed by the experience I had in Spain in mid-March 2022 during the Backyard Ultra race held on the streets and hills of La Parra. The people, the atmosphere, the town and the race itself got very close to my heart. And it seems they feel the same about me (the organizers and the locals).

The story of this adventure starts quite a while before the actual start of the race. During my intense search for a nice  Backyard Ultra race during the first part of the year, LA PARRA BACKYARD (1st edition) in the Extremadura region (South-East Spain), caught my eye.

As soon as I got in touch with the organizer (as I usually do every time I go abroad for an ultra) I felt his warmth and care, but also an unbridled desire to run on the hills of that area. I signed up right after Christmas and the time was running very slowly. I kept in touch closely with Fernando Garcia (the organizer of the competition whom I now consider my friend) and followed the Facebook page of the event for news every day.

Fernando was incredibly patient to answer every time even though he didn’t speak English and I couldn’t understand everything in Spanish (obviously with Google Translate I got everything sorted out). I asked him for help with logistics including transportation from Madrid to the competition area and he assured me that everything would work out.
And he really helped me with everything I asked for. I still don’t even know if I deserved it. I was planning to go to Spain on my own and I was a bit worried about the support part during the race. I was convinced that I would find support on the spot, but it was already too much to also ask for that to the organizing team. Then I found out that an old friend of mine was living in Southern Spain (a couple of hours from La Parra). His name is Emanuel Trandafir.

Together with his fiancée, Cristiana, Emanuel agreed to take part in this little madness of mine and gave me a lot of peace and confidence before the competition. They didn’t know it yet, but they were going to go torough a lot before joining me. I can’t thank them enough for that! As in mid-February I missed a backyard ultra in Norway (a race I discovered before the one in Spain), the last weeks passed so slow. That’s because the mental and logistical preparation period (which I seem to need before a “Last Man Standing” race) is about 6-7 weeks. And I’ve been waiting for this race for about eleven weeks. Physical training wasn’t really a priority, but I had two trail run workouts of 60 Km in both January and February. With all Fernando’s goodwill I didn’t quite get  full details of the route.

Before my backyard ultra madness I had never studied the route of a competition at all. Now things are different. I need to know the route well in order to set myself mentally. For this race I’ve studied every picture and detail found on the their Facebook page, plus the information I received directly from the organizer. There was about a 150m level difference during those 6,7K (this is the standard distance for the backyard ultra format). The route included stretches of asphalt and slabs (through town), narrow paths on hills and a 1 Km stretch of unpaved road (some sort of gravel).

Being unaware of the route difficulty especially in rainy conditions I went to Spain with big plans about the number of laps. Over 30! Maybe even more than 33 (my PB at that time)! I was dreaming. Fernando probably didn’t want to scare me and presented the loop as being very approachable. And it wasn’t quite like that. After the race I was a little affected about this. That feeling vanished quickly anyway.
Actually getting to the town of La Parra was no piece of cake. With the help of the organizer I found out that I could go from Madrid with one of his friends, Marcos Richi de Zavala. Marcos spoke very good English and he was very patient with me. He waited for me in Madrid downtown for more than one hour. I was late due to a chain of events: it took me a long time to get out of the airport, I took a long detour by metro and train and I had no internet on my phone. Without the help of strangers it would have taken even longer. They either walked me to the right station or offered me internet on my phone (Hot Spot). I even received a prepaid card as a present from a Romanian man living in Spain. I met I met at Otopeni airport before the flight.
From the moment Marcos picked  me up everything was simple. I arrived in La Parra around 11pm. The base camp for the competition was a kind of multi-purpose hall in the small town of La Parra. However it seems to be new and very well equipped. I had insisted on sleeping in the hall itself so Fernando came to greet me and to provide me with two mattresses and four blankets to wrap myself in. These were from Fernando Soriano, the legendary Spanish runner. By the time of the start the hall was all mine. Despite of felling asleep very hard as usual, I have rested well. I wasn’t 100% calm because my support team hadn’t arrived yet. Emanuel and Cristiana actually didn’t have enough time to get to La Parra from Seville at night time.

With all that had happened I was ready for the race. I didn’t have much food with me. Still I could rely on Marcos and Fernando Soriano for that. Learning from previous races I placed my “bunk” close to the starting point near the toilet and water source. I also had several chairs and benches (from the grandstand) next to me.

Somehow I felt like a special guest right from the start. In fact I was the only one who had come from afar. Besides the Spanish runners there were two Portuguese (husband and wife) among the about 50 participants. David and I had quite a lot to talk about during the race. My support team was still on the road. I was set to make it alone for the first few hours. What mattered the most was for them to get safely to the race spot.

In fact I was already in good hands and even before the start I received encouragement from volunteers and other competitors. Many of them knew each other which created a festive atmosphere. I couldn’t communicate much. Still, a smile and a handshake were enough to put me in a good mood!

Finally, after a very long wait we took off on what was to become a special race. It was like a kind of release, but at the same time I went into a kind of positive physical stretch that kept me going until I wasn’t actually able to run. The route was as beautiful as it was challenging. Physically and mentally. In fact the 6,7K loop turned out to be quite spectacular and also technical: tough climbs, a steep section, extremely narrow paths, rocks, roots, and the final part consisted of a steep descent through the city streets.

The first lap was a reconnaissance lap. And the next one were good enough for settling in and rethinking strategy. I realized from the beginning that the route will not allow me to complete more than 30 hours in the competition. And I wasn’t even thinking about the rain. The time-outs between the loops were passing slow enough. I managed to eat, to refill the bottle and to rest a little. Initially I could end the loop in a little bit more than 50 minutes.  I think I managed to go below this limit only one time. Every time I tried to gain time by putting a strong effort effort on the final descent.

After six hours from the start Cristiana and Emanuel were finally there. We were a 100% Romanian team. I was really happy to see them,. I was even more happy to realize that they immediately understood what such a competition is all about.

Besides helping with food and water they managed to give me important information about the race and the competitors. It was vital for my mind to know in real time how many competitors were still in the race. On round number 8 I had a first difficult moment. I felt really sick. I finished the loop in 57 minutes. Before that lap I had eaten too much and too fast. A volunteer had tried to warn me, but I thought I knew what I was doing. I managed to recover myself entirely two loops later. And then the rain started.

It was a little rain and stopped from time to time. Nothing to be scared about, initially. And it was during that time of the race when I started to notice something fantastic. In the center of the little town a few locals were gathered. At first I thought they were just a few guys out for a beer, just curiously wandering the streets. They turned out to be more than that. The shifts were passing, the rain was getting darker and the boys were still there. And they were getting more and more vocal and enthusiastic about what was happening.

I was enjoying the atmosphere and my spirits were rising as the number of runners was dwindling. We were approaching 10 hours of running and the light rain continued. I was still managing to finish the laps in decent time becoming increasingly restless instead.

My support team was there and giving me such great confidence. At the end of each lap they were waiting for me 200m before the base camp. There was a straight line on a gentle descent before the end of the loop. After pulling hard through the city my heart would come back when reaching them. We would had time to get organized before I actually arrived at my “camp”. Emanuel and Cristiana seemed to have been doing this kind of support forever. And they put up with my moods with an overflowing silence.

Although it was raining and getting late in the evening the supporters in the city center on the spot and seemed to be more and more energetic. They looked like a football brigade. I even got into their game and “chanted” along with them. I don’t normally do this, but I did take a little video shot of those fantastic supporters. Basically meeting them gave me enough strength to tackle the climb that awaited me as soon as I left town.

Apart from the incident in the eighth hour I was doing well with food and drink mainly thanks to my team. I had paid more attention to food than I used to in the past. I even made a little “shopping list” with Emanuel. I didn’t put any meat in my mouth at this contest and that counted a lot.

After twelve hours of racing my stops were getting shorter and shorter. Many of them lasted only 3 or 4 minutes. And it wasn’t fatigue or physical issues. The problem was the difficulty of the course. The rain was stinging and the trail section was becoming extremely hard to be covered. On some stretches water was puddling on the trail. On others we were slipping at every step. In some places running itself became particularly dangerous.

Despite the rain and darkness the town was really alive. Apart from the fantastic guys downtown the runners were supported by locals which came in the from of the the door or at the gate. Some of them brought also the children. I couldn’t believe it. I was downright excited and grateful. And the icing on the cake was waiting for me at the end of the loop. Organizers, volunteers, supporters and DNF athletes were all together cheering and applauding the moment I entered the hall. After 14 hours from the start there were still a handful of people in the race.   And everything that was happening gave me strength for another lap and another lap.

With the help of my team I managed to stay dry and even get rest (no sleep though) in the few minutes I had to stop. I wasn’t physically relaxed at all. However mentally I was relatively calm. The rain and the mud made the movement along trail feel like a chore. For some time I still enjoyed it and could handle. Then we were off on a new loop and got back to “my boys”. As I was always at left behind by all runners immediately after the start the gang in the center got used to that. So they and shouted from afar when they were seeing my silhouette in the rain. And I marveled to see them standing still, even though it was already past midnight. Even some of the residents dressed in their pajamas were still up at the 12o’clock in the night.

And if it wasn’t already all too complicated and adventurous for me (a guy who prefers asphalt and flat) in the middle of the night, I made my life hard. I set off on the 18th lap feeling tired but focused. I didn’t notice that after a few hundred meters on a certain street I had lost m head-lamp. I didn’t realize this until I needed the lamp as I was starting up the hill. There was nothing left for me to do or I didn’t have the strength to look for solutions. I continued on in a daze.

On previous laps I had lost a lot of time on the trail area anyway and had pushed so hard on return to make up time. If somehow I would have managed to get to the flat area in one piece through the darkness, it seemed impossible to make up the wasted time this time.

I couldn’t see anything anymore and was sliding in all directions. I was holding on to trees and plants and even crawling. I was scared to death of falling and I think I avoided a very nasty one. I was already diving forward when  luckily I managed to grab a little tree from behind.

God was there looking out for me. It was more than adventure, it was torment. I wondered if it was really worth it. But there was only one solution: to keep going. As I neared the halfway point of the loop, the end of the trail, I was heard rather than seen by the volunteers. They knew it was me and they even knew me by name. One of them offered me a head lamp although I didn’t need it that much from that point on.

I finished that nightmare half of the loop in 40 minutes. But I couldn’t believe I got there. I was usually finishing the first half in 32 minutes on average and the second half in 22 minutes. Now in that state of exhaustion and frustration I had less than 20 minutes. I had nothing else to do but try. I already knew the route with my eyes closed and I did the calculations. Except that the return stretch to the Hall had a few small climbs. I still had energy, thank God! I think I managed the fastest final descent (200m) of all.

I reached the finish after 59 minutes and a few seconds. Unreal! I managed to sit for a few seconds and which mattered a lot. There were four runners left in the competition. The other three looked like Spartans to me. I couldn’t physically compare to them. But mentally I was doing very well. The initial plans (to win or pass 33 hours) had disappeared from my mind. However, my goal is to finish every backyard ultra race in the Top 3. So I still had some work to do in the city of La Parra in that wet night.

As I started on a new loop I couldn’t believe that some of the guys in the center were still “on duty”, even though it was well past midnight. But they seemed fascinated too. They were impressed by the fighting spirit of the participants left in the competition. They could imagine the conditions in which we were running on the hills.

Around 3 o’clock in the morning the rain stopped. And the course seemed to dry out extremely fast. After a lap without rain the trails were no longer flooded. After one more it seemed drier. Only then I felt the fatigue and the traces of the previous effort.

Before the 20th lap I was thinking of stopping. Obviously my wonderful Romanian friends encouraged me to continue. After all I like round numbers. I sat down for a new start when I realized that another man had dropped out of the race. So I was in the bottom three. Goal achieved! So I left slightly motivated to run one more round to the end. At 4am the guys in the “gallery” seemed to have “given up”. Somehow their support was still felt deep in my soul.

Lap 20 was a very difficult one in terms of effort. The energy was low. I was struggling to run flat. I pulled hard again to finish in time, only 1 minute before the 60 minute limit. I wasn’t exhausted. Still I felt like I couldn’t run anymore. Just by walking it was impossible to fit in the time.

Out of respect for Emanuel and Cristiana I decided to go for a new run (on the 21st hour). I told them I might come back. Most likely the decision was already taken. Only that my mood was floating. I set off. After a few hundred meters I tried to run. No chance! When I got close to the city center I had a big surprise. One of the guys who had been there for more than eight hours was back on the route. He was actually holding a couple of bottles of energy drink in his arms and was repeating excitedly: “Mental! Todo es mental! Impressionate!”

I also impressed. More than impressed. I continued walking with a smile. For a few moments I forgot about my fatigue. As I was approaching the exit of the city I tried to run again. I didn’t succeed. Then I decided to stop. I called my support team and asked them to come to mee me.

In the few minutes I walked back to the Hall I quickly remembering all the great moments of the race. It had been 20 intense hours of struggle, of focus, of emotions. When I met up again with Emanuel and Cristiana I felt a release. I felt somewhat guilty towards them for not trying even harder. I thanked them and hugged them. Without them I wouldn’t have made it to 20 hours! At the same time I was at peace with myself. Under the circumstances I felt I had come a long way. In fact I think I went further than I would recommend to a runner in my condition and shape to try.

At the start/finish area it was quiet. And there was Fernando, the friendly organizer. I hugged him too and thanked him. I also told him something about the route. And I asked him to change it partially next time. But what’s difficult it’s also beautiful! In a very short time I changed my clothes and packed my things. I ate everything I could find on the organizers’ table. I was pretty much fed up with my food. For some time I warmed up next to Emanuel and Cristiana.

Then I lay down to sleep in a sleeping bag. In that moment the future winner of the race (with a 24 hours run), finished another lap. His name is Dani Corvo. He looked so relaxed and strong. He was alone at that time of the race with no support team. When I woke up later I spotted Angel, the Assist (with 23 hours). He was covered in mud from head to toe and looked knackered too. Dani Corvo had just left on the last lap which he finished in about 35 minutes! Impressive!

From all the people who cheered and supported me throughout the competition I particularly noticed a special lady, Valentina. I had noticed her since the start of the race. At he beginning of one of the laps she greeted me and asked to take a picture together. Then we started talking. She was enjoying the run to the fullest as she had overcome a serious illness (I hope I got that right). I was impressed by her joy of movement and the fact that she was full of life. In turn she seemed impressed by my presence in La Parra even though I hadn’t managed anything special until that point of the race.

From that moment until the end she encouraged me shouting “Campeone! Campeone! This gave me even more self-confidence and made me feel stronger. Mrs Valentina remained in the competition area for many hours after her withdrawal.

I  finished my race earlier than estimated. It was Sunday morning and my return flight was not due until Monday evening. However I needed to keep my trip make to Madrid simple so I asked Marcos to give a ride that morning. He had been sleeping for few hours. He’d managed to run for ten hours which was his target. Ready to go was also my support team. It had been a new experience for them too.

I didn’t leave before thanking Fernando Garcia once again not only for the contest itself but also for the huge help and attention given to me. I even received a souvenir from him: a ceramic acorn (the size of a quince), a local symbol.

Because I try to use every opportunity to meet dear friends, I visited Ana Cristina Constantin in Madrid. She was kind enough to host me. Thanks Cristian and to all the spare time I was able travel home clean, fed and most important: not tired. I mention these things because usually I try to get home as soon as possible. That’s why the way back home becomes a torment because I don’t have time to take care of me. Besides sometimes I cannot a minimal rest not even after I reach home.

My participation in LA PARRA BACKYARD ULTRA 2022 was an adventure and a powerful experience physically, mentally and emotionally. I felt like I was among friends and got overwhelmed by the attention I received. I believe  I didn’t disappointed no one either. I gave it my all. The organizers, the volunteers, the supporters, the locals, they all became close to my heart. Several months after the competition I was happy to learn that they still remember me as they like me and appreciated my fighting spirit. I know they are waiting for me to come back. I wish the same.

The only thing that got me into a bit of trouble was the difficulty to communicate in English or any other language. But we managed.  I like to say that I used all the Spanish vocabulary I knew and I’ve even made up words.

From the four backyard ultra races ran by that moment the one in La Parra was the one with fewest loops for me.  However I considered it to be my best backyard ultra due of the conditions technical and weather. I only the compare to myself. After other races I had a lot to improve. Not here though. I don’t know what else I could have done in La Parra Backyard Ultra.

If I’ll have the chance to come back to La Parra Backyard Ultra in the future the target will be to run even more yards! Hopefully there won’t be so  much rain. But I know I will feel the same big joy!

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