In September 2016 I ran the inaugural edition of the ‘ The Way of Legends ‘ stage race through Northern Spain. Steeped in local history, culture and gastronomy, this fantastically-supported event is a first-class example of boutique ultra-running, and is set to become a regular race on the must-do multi-day lists.
By Thomas Watson
Run this race if:
You want a tough supported race through a beautiful region of Spain with awesome food and accommodation after each day’s running.
THE WAY OF LEGENDS – KEY POINTS
- A 6-stage, 254km / 158 mile race through the Burgos region of Spain.
- The format is similar to existing stage races – the first five days were all 42 – 52km in length, with the 6th day being a 15km route that ends in the centre of Burgos. The longest day was a modest 5km. Typically the stages were broken into sections of 10-15km, with water and drinks available at check points.
- The course takes in the best scenery, buildings and history the region has to offer – we ran through sweeping vistas of hills, mountains, fields, around traditional villages, past Romanic churches, castles and more. The first section of day 5 involves running along the renowned Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s trail. Each stage is based around a different historical ‘legend’, which Manu the race director imparts during the briefing.
- The course is on the harder side for a race of this type – as there is no ‘long day’, most of the days are around 50km. Additionally, there are a lot of hills, especially in the first two days. Not being much of a hill guy personally, I found myself walking up and down many of the steeper sections. Day 4 has a mountain (2000m climb) right in the middle of it.
- Trail-wise, the route is mainly off-road or on single-track trails. There are some short road sections, but only when required to move you along the path. There are a lot of very nice forest trails, and a couple of long stretches on converted railway-lines. The good news is that it’s very scenic, so even in the longer and flatter sections (of which there are relatively little), you’re unlikely to get bored.
- The weather was cool and damp for the first couple of days (apparently this is unseasonal) then cheered up for the rest of the week – we got a lot of good sunny days. In the evenings the air is cool and refreshing.
- Manu, the race director and mastermind behind the whole event, built in a strong sense of community – intentionally keeping the field small, there were only 33 runners throughout the race, and around 15-20 support staff. Many of the runners, and staff, were joining the race through knowing Manu’s work on the Global Limits races – so it felt like a big reunion to see so many familiar faces.
- Post-run, the ‘apres-ski’ element of this race was the best I’ve experienced. Each night we stayed in comfortable and varied accommodation – be it in a house, an old school, an albergue, or…I’ll leave some of the surprises out of this report. Needless to say, each location was fantastic, well planned and interesting. Some of them were in villages, so you could explore a little bit. The race was completely catered, from breakfast through to dinner, by a dedicated team that travelled with us and managed the camps. When you finished racing each day, there was a huge spread of home-cooked Spanish food, beer, wine and Coke awaiting you. All runners would gather together for the nightly dinners, which were a journey in gastronomy themselves. Besides the food and drink, two masseuses travelled with the group, so most of us factored a massage into our post-race routine. It was very relaxing to know that everything was taken care of for you – all you had to do was to get through the run each day!
- The race ends in the centre of Burgos, under an arch by the Burgos Cathedral. After the finish line, the runners stay in a nice hotel nearby and we all went for a first class lunch together, followed by dinner and awards ceremony. It was a great wrap-up to the week and a fantastic way to relax with each other after having completed the race.
Note: some of the best highlights of this race are the places we got to stay, the things we got to see and the food we got to eat after running each day. I am usually pretty detailed in describing the race environment, but feel for this particular race that it’s better to leave some of it’s best features to be discovered by the runners rather than shared online. So, I’ll tell you how great the food was, and give an idea of the kind of places we stayed in – but I think it’s best to just leave you with a sense of what you’ll experienced, rather than a blow-by-blow account.
Way Of The Legends, Stage-by-stage breakdown:
Pre-Race / Check-In
Although Burgos is the ‘host town’ of the race, the actual starting point and base for the first couple of nights is in a tiny village called Trasahedo. To get there, I flew into Madrid then got a bus up to Burgos – I met a few other runners on the bus. When we arrived in Burgos, Manu and his team picked us up and whisked us off to the first ‘camp’ – a very comfortable house in Trasahedo, about 30 mins outside Burgos.
Arriving at the house, I was greeted by a bunch of familiar faces from previous Global Limits races, and a huge spread of food – something that we would get more and more used to as the week went on. Throughout the race, the food was provided by Maria Gonzalez and her team, a chef who runs a vegan restaurant in Burgos, and was consistently fantastic. Most runners arrived two days before the race began, giving us plenty of time to eat, rest, catch up with each other and have some fun.
The day before the race began, we did the formal race check-in – this is the normal stuff of having a quick chat with Laura the race doctor, going through all the mandatory forms and getting your mandatory equipment checked. Given how well this race was supported, and that food was provided at each camp, you could really fill your ‘camp bag’ with extra clothes and nice things (this is the bag that gets transported from camp to camp). A few people took this opportunity to take along two pairs of running shoes – not a bad idea, especially if you can’t decide which shoes to wear. Manu intentionally keeps the ‘mandatory’ equipment list low, meaning you don’t have to be carrying anything really unnecessary with you all day while running.
STAGE 1 – 48km
The race got underway with a touch of the theatrical – we were up early and bussed, in the dark, the short distance to ‘Castro Ulaña’, the site of the largest Celtic hill fort city in Spain. This was where a local clan were holed up, resisting the Romans’ persistent attacks – until one day, to the Roman’s surprise, they just vanished. The truth was, they escaped the hill fort by a well-disguised path down the steep side of the hill – and this is where the race route took us on that first morning.
Arriving at the start line at first light, we were greeted by two druids playing drums and a horn and warning us that the Romans were coming. After a couple of foreboding speeches, we were off – running along the top of the hill and greeted by sweeping sunrise vistas, before descending the slippery and technical short trail down the side of the hill.
The day’s course then took us through rural Burgos, winding over several hills and through very undeveloped and remote areas.
Having done not much training at all, and zero hill-training for the previous year or two, I enjoyed the day but found the gradients to be tough – not being a hill guy, I decided to conserve energy and hike up any hill I came across.
The route passed through several nice medieval, picturesque villages – we passed a couple of taverns and shops where you could stop and hang out if you wished. I ran with my friend Stan Lee for a while at the start of the race, then later with Liz Wiggins from England (who ended up 1st woman) for a short while then Helen Mearns – a cool ultra-runner from South Africa. It was nice speaking to them all but in then end I let them all go ahead of me – I wasn’t feeling too powerful, and decided to take it easy as it was only the first day.
The first day finished in the very picturesque town of Solano – before reaching our accommodation, we ran a loop of the town and passed a very scenic Romanic church. Our accommodation for that evening was a big tourist centre, where we were greeted with the now-standard humongous spread of food, drinks and of course – massages. Most runners agreed that the first day was tougher than expected, and felt ‘long’ – mainly down to the hills. Still, we all made it in and agreed it was a fantastic first day.
Stage 2 – 51km
Stage 2 wasn’t the longest day, but was probably the toughest day – at least in my head it was. And that’s how Manu had described it to me that morning. There were more ascents and descents than day one, and it ended with a long, long section through a windfarm.
From day 2 onwards the race had a staggered start, meaning the slower half of the group started one hour before the rest.
We kicked off by running out of Solano and spent the first 10km or so running through leafy forest trails, all flat and good running. I ran with Matt Lister from the UK, Helen Mearns and Ash Mokhtari. Ash is one of the best known guys in the multi-day community, having ran the 4 Deserts Atacama race about 10 times already, as well as many more (a week after the Burgos race finished he flew to Chile to take part in the Atacama race again). He’s also pretty funny.
After the first checkpoint we encountered the first hills, and spent the better part of the day traversing them. I stuck with Matt for a good portion of the day, before we gradually drifted apart. One of the positives of having a split start is that you come across more runners throughout the day than you otherwise would if everybody started at the same time – at some point during the day, the faster runners will catch up with the slower runners – so it means everybody has a bit more company, and you get to see people (even for a couple of minutes) that you otherwise don’t see all day – regardless if you’re in the faster or slower camp. Around half-way through day 2 it started to rain – not hard, but just the right kind of drizzle to soak through your clothes. It never came on heavy enough for me to stop and put my rain jacket on – I maybe should have, but a waterproof layer makes things pretty hot and sweaty when you’re running long distance.
Helen and Ash appeared behind me somewhere around the 30km mark, but I pushed on and kept a gap until somewhere around 35km, where my boredom got the better of me and I walked for a bit so they’d catch up and I’d have some company. We caught up with each other and Ash shared his salted sunflower seeds, which tasted much better than the energy gels I had packed for the day. The three of us entered a long, grey, flat and monotonous windfarm together – the mist meant we had no idea how long it was going to go on for. I was getting pretty bored by this stage so was very glad of the company.
We ended up inventing a game between the three of us, using the pieces of marker tape as distance markers – we would run together for 10 pieces of marker tape, and then walk for one. To make it more interesting, each time we would try and count in a different language. This probably went on for 30-40 minutes through the cloudy wind-farm, and definitely helped pass the time.
The final few kilometres were a steep-but-runnable downhill trail into the village of Poza De La Sal. Ash and Helen are more accomplished down-hillers than me, so I let them forge ahead and met them in the third camp, an old school building outside of the village.
STAGE 3 – 47.5km
Day 3 was a much more enjoyable day for me – the clouds from the first two days finally lifted, meaning we spent the day running through sunny – and relatively flat – countryside.
After the usual huge breakfast, we set off back through the village and then into woodland trails, passing through a couple of little villages. Gradually the woodland turned to countryside, then we spent much of the day running through farm-land. The second half of the day was along a reclaimed train track.
I was very fortunate to run along with Stan Lee for a lot of the day – even when I was starting to flag towards the end he stuck by me and we kept each other company, chatting and catching up.
When the stages are long and flat (and hot – it got pretty hot towards the end on day 3) it can make a big difference to have some company to run with. Stan and I came in to the finish line together in good time, in the village of Olmos de Atapuerca.
On a side note, my left ankle started to flair up on day 2 and was bugging me throughout day 3 – my lack of training was catching up with me and I was getting a little bit of Achille’s Tendonitis. Thankfully it never got much worse or affected my race very much, but was a good lesson that even with good residual fitness, it’s pretty dumb to just ‘turn up’ to one of these with next-to-no real running training.
The accommodation for this night was split across 3 or 4 different houses. A few of us spent the afternoon in one of the gardens, before we had the big group meal then went to bed. A couple of people were suffering from over-exposure to the sun – and I think I got a bit of it. I started to get really cold so went for an afternoon nap and was shivering for a while, but the rest did me good and I was ready to go after an hour or two in bed.
I was sharing a bedroom with Ash and Stan, and we’d somehow managed to leave the windows open during the day – so at night the room had about 50 flies in it. From my bed I watched as Ash spent around half an hour killing flies with his flip flop. I’ve no idea what the cleaner thought the next day, walking into a room with squished flies all over the walls and roof.
STAGE 4 – 52.5km
Day 4 was the longest day, by a couple of kilometres, but was easily the most enjoyable, scenic and rewarding. It starts off with 20-25km along the famous Camino de Santiago trail (a walking route from Southern France to the West of Spain, trodden by thousands of ‘pilgrims’ every year), then takes in a mountain with 1000m ascent followed by 1000m descent, before finishing in a picture-postcard village.
We set off from the village of nd joined the Camino de Santiago straight away, heading against the flow of pilgrims. The weather was fantastic for a second day – open blue skies and plenty of sunlight. We ran past many pilgrims on the Camino, and passed through a few small villages that were clearly catering towards the walkers – lots of guest houses and small taverns, and the shell symbol everywhere. The pilgrims were of all kinds of nationalities and shapes and sizes – but there seemed to be a lot of Americans. They all seemed to be a happy bunch that would have stopped and chatted if we’d had the time.
After the Camino, we passed through a stage of woodland for about 10km, before hitting the base of the mountain. Despite the big climb ahead (1000m ascent over 10km) and the fact I barely ever run on hills, the mountain was a lot of fun. I met a few people along the way, including Daniel Meyes, Lizz Wiggins and Deborah. The first half of the path to the summit was through woodland trails like in the photo below – really nice and scenic. The second half was above the tree-line, and was 4×4 trail underfoot, in exposed, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky Spanish heat.
At the top, Manu and Laura were waiting to greet me with a Coke. The mountain had been the ‘feature’ of the course that everyone had been discussing and anticipating for days, so to reach the summit in good spirits and with good weather was a great feeling.
After reaching the top, the next section involved a short crossing across a ridge from one peak to the next, weaving along stoney trails and up and down hill paths. At the final peak, one of the race volunteers was waiting with water. From there, it was 10km of steady downhill to the village of Pineda de la Sierra where the next camp was, in a large stone lodge.
I hadn’t seen anyone for the last two hours of the day, so it was great to get to camp and catch up with Joao, Daniel and Stan – all of whom had come in not too far ahead of me. After some food and a 15 minute massage, I went for a short walk along with Stan and Jo Petersen – a great guy from South Africa, via New Zealand, who was in 2nd place overall. Like many of the runners in Burgos, I’d met Jo in the Global Limits Sri Lanka race in 2015 so was always excited about catching up. We found a local bar and got an ice-cream, and sat outside where the runners passed us on their way to the finish line. Later I had a wander around the village and took some photos. At times I totally forgot I was in Spain to run a race, the feeling was more like a cultural tour with a group of friends.
Stage 5 – 42km
Stage 5 was a very welcome shorter and easier day, something to look forward to after the long and hilly stage 4. The first 30km or so was through picturesque woodland, and along an abandoned railway line – so was completely flat.
I ran along with Joao from Portugal and Lizz for the first couple of sections – Joao and I were close in terms of overall timings, so were effectively in competition during this stage. Luckily, Joao is good sport and doesn’t take timings too seriously so instead of being competitive we both had a good time on this stage.
I pulled ahead of him around half-way through the day, and didn’t see him again for a couple of hours – I assumed he had fallen back. Anyway, around 4km from the end he appeared out of no-where, sprinting up behind me and chasing me with his walking pole. I wasn’t going to be beaten by a guy with walking poles, so put in my iPod and got my head down, putting some space between us. This gave me a burst of energy – after trudging through 35+km of flats, it was nice to have an incentive to push on a bit, even if I wasn’t truly fussed about beating Joao.
Stage 5 ended in a very historic and beautiful location, and once all the runners were in we got a private tour of the building and enjoyed a fantastic meal of paella.
Stage 6 – 15km
The final stage was basically a fun run through the countryside and along the river, leading into Burgos city centre. The group had agreed the previous evening that while stage 6 would be timed, nobody was going to take it too seriously – fortunately, there wasn’t really any two competitors whose timings were close enough for the last day to make a difference, so everyone was relaxed and enjoyed the weather and scenery as we weaved our way along the river’s edge into central Burgos.
The route took us right into the heart of Burgos, where we crossed a bridge to finish under the famous arch near Burgos Cathedral.
Everybody got ice creams at the finish and once we were all in, we headed for some tapas and a beer in front of the historic Burgos cathedral.
After checking into the nice hotel, the remainder of the day was well spent drinking and eating with the other racers. The awards ceremony was held that evening, and included a cultural music performance and, in typical Burgos Ultra style, some top notch food.
Manu Pastor has created a race which showcases the best of his region and serves as much as an all-inclusive cultural showcase as it does a challenging stage race. This inaugural event marries the best elements of any stage race – a comprehensive tour of a region’s history and cultural highlights, interesting people and a challenging but rewarding and rich course.
Pack – Innov-8 5l vest with 2 x 750ml water bottles
Shoes – New Balance Leadville MT1210 D V2
Date: 15 – 21st September 2016
Overall Time: 33hrs 20min
Position: 6th overall
Race Website: The Way of Legends – Burgos Ultra Stage Race
Photo Credits: all photos are my own