Running the Toughest Marathon in the World
By Brent Weigner
About the author: Brent Weigner is 66 years old and a retired teacher who lives in Cheyenne, WY. He has run 269 marathons and ultras in 108 countries. He has run marathons and ultra-marathons on all the continents a record ten times. He is a member of the Country Club and Marathon Globetrotters.
Andorra Ultra Trail Vallnord Marathon
Marato Dels Cims
July 16, 2016
Having run several extreme marathons and ultras over the years I was curious why this particular marathon (42.5 kilometers) had a 14 hour cutoff time. After checking results from the previous two years I was amazed that my age group (Veteran 3, 60-69) was won in the 8 hour to 9 hour range. I only had to average 3-4 miles per hour to be in the hunt. How hard can that be? I have run marathons/ultras at the geographic South Pole, the geographic North Pole, Mt. Everest, Leadville, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Western States, several 150 mile self-supported stage races, and even a couple of snow shoe races up and down Mt. Elbert—Colorado’s highest Fourteener. However, the Andorra ultra-trail marathon was by far the most difficult in terms of terrain. I dare say it is the toughest marathon in the world. Let me know if you find any other marathon with a 14 hour or greater cutoff time. If you want more of a challenge than the 42.5 km race you can do an 83km, a 112km or a 170km! The 170 kilometer Ronda Dels Cims covers a giant route around the whole principality of Andorra. The course includes 27,000 meters (88,582 feet) of elevation change with traverses over 16 peaks or passes. The cutoff time at the last checkpoint is 60.5 hours. The 42.5 kilometer Marato Dels Cims only includes 6,000 meters of elevation changes and the cutoff time at the last checkpoint was 10.5 hours. These statistics will help you pick your poison. I saw several runners fall and others being treated for cut knees, hands, etc. One of my friends without trekking poles fell three times. Fortunately he sustained no significant injuries. The falling danger was significant. I have been trying to prolong my running career by eliminating dangerous activities. However, the only marathon in the country of Andorra was this difficult event.
If you decide to do any of these “fun runs” be sure to do your homework and read all the instructions prior to your trip at the race website.
The organizers provide a list of required and recommended gear. Be sure you bring the required gear or you may be disqualified. The compulsory gear is as follows: thermal blanket (space blanket), whistle, waterproof jacket with hood, elastic bandage for wrapping, mobile phone allowing use in Andorra, half liter water, food reserve, head protection (buff authorized), long sleeved T-shirt, long leggings, waterproof trousers (pants), and gloves. They also recommend walking sticks (trekking poles) and sunscreen. The race officials were doing random spot checks before allowing you into the starting area. If one or more of your items was missing you were not allowed to start the race. I would require trekking poles as they seem to be a safety item for sure. I would also recommend carrying more than half a liter of water. I think you need more as some of the aid stations are far apart with the first one being at 13km. I checked in with a time of 2:17:06. Half a liter of water for two hours plus is not enough
The course itself is brutal. The 26.4 mile course includes 1.8 miles (3,000 meters) of elevation gain and 1.8 miles (3,000 meters) of elevation loss. The race departed the mountain town of Ordino at 8:00 am Saturday morning. The steepest slope was 21% (210 meter climb in one kilometer) from Coll d’Arenes to Casamanya Nord Peak. The longest ascent was 6 kilometers (800 meter climb with a gradient of 13%) from Sorteny River to Casamanya Nord Peak. The average altitude was 1,928 meters. There were only a total of four aid stations on the course. Eighty six percent of the course was single track or no track as you bushwhack to markers. Overall, it was the most challenging terrain I have ever experienced in a marathon. It was extremely rocky in places (loose scree and boulders as well as large fixed rocks).
Running in the forest areas required close attention to the numerous tree roots, water hazards (springs, creeks, wet grass, and logs to traverse over some rivers). Rock climbing in some exposed areas included chains attached to the rocks to help you summit without risking a free climb and potential death. The technical nature of the course required great concentration and very little time to sightsee.
Sue and I flew into Barcelona, Spain. There are many coach services operating into Andorra. We took a Novatel bus to Ordino. The three to four hour bus ride was quite scenic. We stayed at the Hotel Ordino located about 400 meters from the race start/finish.
If you’re considering giving the marathon a try you should take your average marathon time from the past 3-6 months and double it allowing plus or minus 30 minutes. The winning time was 4:31:40. The last official finisher had a time of 13:24:35. The 14 hour cutoff seems excessive but is utilized by many. Out of approximately 700 starters, only 579 finished. On the bright side two Veteran 4 runners (70+) completed the course—one male (11:11:44) and one female (10:43:37). I placed 500th with a time of 10:28:54.
Footnote: For a different perspective on this challenging marathon, you may want to read a detailed race report written by another Country Club member, Anton Reiter, from Austria. Anton describes the race and course as he progresses through the many challenging obstacles.