Ultra Race | Doñana Trail Marathon Diaries


By Lee Grantham

Doñana Trail Marathon Diaries

The gun went and the initial pace was uncomfortably slow. There was a timing car in front which seemed to be orchestrating the speed so I tried to pass it but was shouted back by the other leaders. I was confused but they explained that the initial 5km was a controlled zone through the city where the whole race ran together.

It was painful, around 6 minutes pace. The course record was 5 hours 22 minutes, around 4 minutes 20 per kilometre so I spent the next five minutes recalculating the pace I’d need to run to dip under.

Getting Into The Race

Five kilometres turned into around seven, and as flags waved out of the car to suggest the race was now on, a runner shot off the front. I wasn’t sure if his pace seemed so quick in comparison to the pace we’d just crawled for 7km but I kept an eye on my GPS and held a pace around 4.15/4.20.

The increase felt like being awoken from an unusual dream.

Start Donana

A pack of us formed and we passed the 10km and 15km marks comfortably, without issue. A mountain biker, part of the organisation came back to us and relayed information on how the man up front was getting on. “He’s 2 minutes ahead”, “3, 4”. I think it was around the 18km point where we were told he was 5 minute ahead. That’s no picnic to make up and I was concerned if we let it grow further it’ll become the winning  margin.

I felt good and focused so I asked, “Hombre delante, rápido o loco?” (The guy up front, is he fast or crazy?). “No se.” (Don’t know) was the answer. We were moving at 4.20/4.15 pace which meant that at 18km, factoring in the 7km controlled, he was running 3.50 kilometres which I figured was doable for a flat 73km race so I upped the pace and left the group.

I started to receive better news from the, now two mountain bikers, I was pulling him back. It felt nice running alone again, left in my own thoughts of how’s my body feeling?

When did I take my last gel?

Am I drinking enough?

And of course the maths:  7 x 6 minutes = 42. 5 hours 22 minus 42 = 4 hour 40 minutes, divided by the remaining 66km = 4 minutes 15 seconds per km average.

I was now running 4 minute pace, and feeling like I could hold this for 5 hours. Just after 30km I took the final gel I was carrying and at each check point I filled up my carry bottle with water as there wasn’t any sports drink.

On the morning of the race each of the competitors gave a bag to be dropped at the half way check point around 35km, mine contained another 5 gels, enough to last until the finish at intended race pace plus another for “back up!”. You know you’re in trouble when you’re back up plan is a 32 gram sachet of sugar!

Reaching 35km

The thirty five KM check point came with many surprises. Firstly I finally caught up with “the man up front” who lo and behold was running the first of a two leg relay. Fucking funny no-one had mentioned it but even funnier I’d been chasing a ghost for nearly the past 3 hours. The next curve ball was that my drop bag hadn’t arrived, after a 2/3 minute search I took off, knowing that it could be an issue pretty soon.

I kept up the same pace, now joined by two mountain bikers who provided good company and conversation.

50km endurance

The serious concern was not having enough sugar or electrolytes to finish the job but at the time my only solution was to get to the finish as quickly as possible. I remember passing the 52km mark at just over the 3 hour 30 minutes mark and thinking, only half a marathon to go; which meant for the first time I needed that finish line.

As mad as it sounds within hindsight, it never occurred to me to slow down. The information I was getting from the mountain bikers was that I had a solid 15 minutes cushion, but I continued to hold pace, thinking I could comfortably run a half marathon within 90 minutes and dip under the 5 hour mark.

Reaching 60km…


60km came at 3 hours 58 but in those 20-30 minutes I’d developed cramp in both quads. I was struggling noticeably.

One of the mountain bikers offered me a gel, “man, I thought, where the hell has he pulled that from?!” It was too late. From memory there was a check point with 11km to the finish, so at 62km with sport drinks, water and medics. I poured water on my quads to try to cool them down and a medic offered me ice spray.

I took what I could get. It didn’t work. Within 500 metres I was reduced to a walk, frustrated with myself for the mistakes.

I’d failed but I was already clutching at silver linings. “A 60 kilometre long run at 4 minute pace”. I threw in the towel to the disbelief of the organisation, I had such a lead, why give in? Dropping out doesn’t bother me. I hear people fear the dreaded DNF (Did not finish) and wonder why. I came to do run a certain race and didn’t make it, whether 1st or last, despite obstacles etc, my plan had failed.

I got in the lead race car, got a lift to the finish, watched the winners cross the line, ate what I could and then searched for hours for a bus back to the start.

endurance race

All credit to Raul Delgado Herrero who won for the second consecutive year in a time of 5 hours 26 minutes, he had timed his race to perfection.

Learning points

1) Read the rules, guidelines and thorough information on the start, races, what’s happening on the day. If they’re in a different language get someone to translate them properly.

2) Don’t rely on your drop bag. Pretty poor on my side, you train for an event for weeks and then trust a person or people you’ve never met before to deliver something so crucial for you to execute your plan. There’s no need to blame the organisation, 90+% of bag would have arrived, I got unlucky but shouldn’t have left myself open.

3) I could say, “always stick to your race plan” but I don’t believe in that either. If you feel great push on but keep in mind the miles and hours you’ll be out there. I’m still happy I played to win, I’ll just be slightly smarter next time.

lee grantham

Take Home Message 

Keep moving forward, learn from your mistakes.

Fitter, faster, stronger!


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