Trail Running in Spain

Trail Running in Spain
by Ed Martinell of TrailRunningSoul.com and Traiectus, a group that leads trail running tours in the Pyrenees and Spain’s Costa Brava

The Scene
Although trail running is not as popular as road running (for now), trail running has a long history in Spain. Between 1923 and 1925, a series of mountain races known as the “Iron Cup” were run while in 1928 the “March of the Three Refuges,” a race of about 25Km, was held in the Sierra de Guadarrama, Madrid. However, it has been in the past 20 years that mountain racing has solidified due to race continuity and outstanding organization.

Spain is a country known for its love for mountain climbing and everything surrounding the mountain world. The Pyrenees and other major formations throughout the country have influenced many aspects of sports. And running is no exception. That explains why there is no “trail running” in Spain. Instead, there is “mountain running” or “mountain racing.” Accordingly, many of the competitions are held at high elevations in the mountains. However, little by little, the popularity of what others call “trail running” is growing, as more and more runners opt for any type of off-road terrain from forest trails to back country roads to coastal trails. Thus, “trail running” may be a fitting name for the sport given the evolution of the sport within Spain.

The Runners
Spain has a long tradition in long distance running with great Olympic athletes and marathon specialists. “Off road” running is no exception. We all already know Kilian Jornet, double winner of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, among many other mountain victories, but there are other great runners with similar international renown. The Skyrunner World Series has seen the likes of Mireia Miró, Tòfol Castanyer, and Agustí Roc. Spaniards have also fared well in “adventure” ultramarathons, such as Salvador Calvo in the 4 Deserts, Sergio Fernandez at the Libyan Challenge, and Jorge Aubeso at the Marathon des Sables. Many other Spanish runners have recorded outstanding results at trail events of all kinds.

The Races
There are many trail races and championships held in Spain throughout the year. They range from as short as 2Km (1.25 miles) up to stage races longer than 250Km (155 miles).

The official mountain racing championship series organized by FEDME (Spanish Federation of Mountain Sports and Climbing) represents the greatest title you can earn as a trail runner in Spain. It includes 6 races held during the year with races distances of around 30Km (18.5 miles) and always with an important climb to overcome. Another competition worth noting is the GORE-TEX Series – Vertical Running, which includes two events containing a vertical kilometer climb over a distance of between 2 and 5Km (3 miles) and the grand finale up the Collserola Tower, Barcelona, in which runners climb the tower’s 115m (377 ft) of stairs.

Fedme Montsagre Pauls

Trail Racing on Montsagre Pauls. Copyright fedme.es.

While short trail races are alive and well in Spain, ultramarathons are seeing the greatest growth in number and popularity. Such races are often called “ultra trail,” after a barely known race in the Alps. ;-) Ultra trails often take place in mountainous terrain which, with distances up to 200Km, are capable of bringing together crowds of runners. Here is a small sample of Spain’s ultramarathons:

Ultra Trail Aneto: 64Km (40 miles) and 3,700 meters (12,140 feet) of vertical drop that takes the competitors around the highest peak in the Pyrenees, Pico Aneto.

Transgrancanaria: 123Km (76 miles) and 7,000 meters (23,000 ft) on a course where runners attempt to cross Grand Canary island within the 30 hour cut off time.

Al Andalus Ultimate Trail: 230Km (142 miles), 5 day stage race through Andalusia in mid-summer with hot temperatures in the 35-40C (95-104 F) range.

Costa Brava Challenge: 100 or 200Km (62-125 miles) in 3 days that follows the coastal Costa Brava trails formerly used by smugglers.

These are just a small sampling of the many events held in the country. In addition, Andorra (Andorra Ultra Trail) or the French Pyrenees (Le Grand Raid des Pyrénées) have other important events affordable (by proximity) to those staying in Spain.

The Trails
Spain is a country well suited for visiting trail runners. Is has good communications, is tourist friendly and, at the same time, has a wide variety of trail running environments from snowy mountains to coastal areas, extensive forests and national parks, large areas in near-desert conditions or even volcanic environments. One advantage is that the entire territory is traversed by an extensive network of trails that allow you to reach into almost every corner. Although not all trails are properly maintained, many are part of the European network of trails GR (long footpath), which means they are well mapped and will guide you relatively easily through the most beautiful spots.

These are some of the best places to enjoy the Spanish trails:

Pyrenees:
This mountain range that separates Spain and France is the ideal place to enjoy trail running in the mountains. 415Km (260 miles) from coast to coast means a lot of trails! With a maximum elevation of 3,404m (11,168 ft) at Aneto and many peaks above 3,000 m (9,000 ft), there are many fantastic areas high elevation runs.

In spring and summer, a network of huts offer an endless set of possibilities for running through beautiful montane and alpine settings. The trails seem endless. The most famous one is called GR11, which crosses the entire range from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. If you prefer some assurance in an unfamiliar area, consider a guided trail running tour (available soon) through the Pyrenees!

Mediterranean Coast:
The regions of Spain’s East Coast are among the most active in terms of mountain races. Its mild climate in both summer and winter and its peoples’ huge love for hiking make it easy to find both inland and coastal trails. Although real estate over-development has damaged many coastal areas, there still exist areas with great beauty. In addition, the local natural parks area abundant with wildlife. If you’re in the area don’t forget to visit the Balearic Islands, which host many events in a very special environment similar to Corsica or Sardinia.

Costa Brava Xtreme Challenge

Running on the beach at the Costa Brava Xtreme Challange.

Southern Spain:
Andalusia has a climate closer to a north African region than that of a European one. Temperatures of 40C (104F) in the dry summers, extensive coastal plains and desert areas make it a suitable spot for those looking to run under extreme conditions. Yet it also has mountain trails in the Sierra Nevada and an area of subtropical coastline. You can’t ask for more diversity of trail running terrain in fewer square miles.

Canary Islands:
This volcanic archipelago lies southwest of Europe, but is much closer to the African coast. The Canaries have a pleasantly moderate climate with average temperatures of 25C (77F) all year round. Still, the islands have a range of climates from subtropical to desert/volcanic mountains. Its climate and tourist-friendly orientation make it ideal for active vacations, whether on land or in the water. The different islands hold many extreme events, most notably the Ironman Lanzarote triathlon.

TransGranCanaria

The TransGranCanaria full of beautiful landscapes. Copyright by Ivan Leon.

To Wrap Up
Spain is a country in which trail running is booming. That means there’s a steadily increasing number of events, that are more diverse and internationally recognized every year. This, mixed with the fact that it is one of the most important tourist countries in the world (thus, lots of lodging and non-running leisure options), makes Spain a perfect place for a competition or to simply discover the beauty of the country’s trails.

Questions/Comments
Anyone who has run in Spain, either as a local or as a visitor, please share your thoughts on trail running there.

Likewise, if you’re considering taking a Spanish trip that involves trail running, ask away. Hopefully, someone will be able to answer your questions.

[Below is the second article in a series that profiles trail running in various countries around the world. We’ve recruited local experts for each of the articles. Please get in touch if you are interested in helping develop a profile for your country.]

There are 22 comments

  1. Natalia

    Great idea Byron! I love reading about running in other countries, and this is very useful too, as it provides 'local knowledge' of where to run – when one goes to another country. The links of the trails are super, thank you!

  2. Stu

    I was fortunate enough to attend a conference in Barcelona exactly 3 years ago and spent a couple of extra days running and being a tourist in the area post tradeshow. Beautiful weather, amazing culture and some fun trail running combined for an enjoyable way to take in a new city and log some miles. There are trail systems around the Olympic center and Parc de Montjuic that can be mined for some nice running, rich history and scenic views. Barcelona is an amazing city, full of incredible architecture and friendly locals. Definitely put it on your list of places to visit and get in some nice runs.

    ~stubert. http://www.runsturun.com

  3. Emilio (Spain)

    Spectacular inform:
    For your information, I order you a link of a new initiative that goes away to celebrate this summer for the first time in the South of Spain. It's a question of a meeting trailer in format free-running.
    67 Kms. and 6.000 m. In Sierra Nevada, Granada
    75 % over 2.500 m, and more than 50 % of the tour over 3.000 m.
    We hope for everything that it wants to come.
    http://granadaultratrail.blogspot.com/2010/02/que

    Excuse me for my english, it's very basic.
    Regards all trailers.

  4. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Hello — great post, thanks for the info! Our family will be in Barcelona March 21 – 31 and Costa Brava (town of Begur) April 1 – 5. Any chance you can recommend trail (or even road) races of a shorter distance near there on the weekends of March 27/28 or April 3/4? I have a hard time navigating the websites, even with some knowledge of Spanish, since they tend to be in Catalan.
    What would your number-one recommendation for a relatively short (2 hour or less) trail run near Barcelona and near Begur?
    Muchisimas gracias!
    Sarah

    1. Ed

      Hi Sarah,

      Check out the links below, a couple of races near Barcelona you could try:

      Cursa nocturna dels mussols (Sant Quirze del Vallès) – Night trail race, 11Km info

      Mitja Marató Montornès-Montmeló-Vilanova-La Roca (Montornès del Vallès) – Road race 21Km/5Km info

      Not much near Begur for those dates, though. Hope this helps. Just shoot me an email if you need further info.

      Cheers
      Ed

  5. mayayo

    Good job at summing it all up, Bryon. :-)

    Yet, you left out another trail running paradise where even Kilian comes often to train: Guadarrama Natural Park and mountain range.

    It might be second only to the Pyrenees in quality and quantity of the adventure races available as well as scenic beauty. (Plus home of the original 1923 "Iron Cup" you mentioned at the beginning, a competition still alive today)

    For potential visitors: Barely 50km from the Madrid Airport there is a wonderful natural park raising up to the 2.430 meters high of Pico Peñalara, with two ski stations included. Access by public transport takes 1 hour from downtown Madrid (1h15m from the Airport), with buses and traings available just about every 1 hour.

    Feel free to check or ask for further info on trail running in Spain at http://www.carrerasdemontana.com
    or send an email.

    PS: After twice visiting UTMB at Chamonix, this year my trail team is heading up to Colorado for the Leadville 100 run. Any suggestions on lodging there and/or LT100 race tips will be most welcome :-)

    1. Bryon Powell

      Mayayo, Thanks for the extra info on trail running in Spain. I hope readers will take you up on your or others' offers for more info.

      As for Leadville lodging, try the Leadville hostel. It's well kept and clean. It's also full of mountain biker and runners and then just runners in the two weeks prior to the Leadville 100 Trail Run. Any even less expensive option is the Sugar Loafin' Campground only a few miles from town. If you and a group are going to be there for a week or two acclimating to the high elevation, consider renting a house for the week. There are many cute, quaint options in town. I did this once and loved it.

      For training, all you need to do is be able to run on the flat for a looooooooong time and walk up hill. :-) Practice these two, particularly the running on the flat for a very long time.

      1. mayayo

        Thanks a lot for the LT100 advice, Bryon. :-)
        We will put ourselves to it: Long sustained flat running + altitude acclimatazion. Coming from such a sandbagger expert as you, it is most welcome

        Lodging: Guess we´ll go for the house rental if possible. Dropping us an email with any agents/contacts you might feel like recommending would be most welcome.

  6. Saul Lovatt

    Hi,

    A great article, Thanks. Im looking at going to spain for a month or so when I finish my studies in May next year to train. I want to be somewhere with decent altitude and great trails to train on and i would also like to enter some races while Im there. It is mentioned that the mediterranean coast is one of the most active, any ideas on where is best to go, Im interested in mountain running really and will be camping all summer as my budget is very tight..

    Thanks for your help, Saul.

  7. Chad Brackelsberg

    I just returned from Spain and learned about http://www.runningcostabrava.com from Peter's post above. At the last minute, my wife and I decided to do a 40-50km run in Costa Brava. We contacts Cristina and Pablo on a Sunday night asking if they could put together a route for Tuesday. They were amazing! Cristina arranged our lodging in Girona and Cadeques (as well as some help later with lodging in Barcelona) and Pablo had a 45km (which we turned into 50km) route all mapped out for us. Pablo picked us up at our hotel at 8:30 AM and we were running by 9:30. We were provided with a Garmin Oregon 450 GPS unit with our route loaded. We simply followed the GPS route and Pablo met us with water and food every 6-10km. Pablo also ran 10-12km with us which was very fun. The route they plotted was fantastic. It started at the beach on Portbou, then would climb up into the mountains past monasteries and castles that were hundreds of years old, then drop back to the next coastal village. I would highly recommend contacting Running Costa Brava if you are looking for a great run through the Costa Brava area.

  8. Svein Øen

    Hi

    I wondering if there is someone who know about some mountain running clubs or nice trails in Albir in spain.

    Thanks

    Svein Øen

  9. Carl

    I have just spent two weeks in Ronda, Andalucia and found lots of running opportunities. The area is spectacular and there is so much scope around the Serrania de Ronda and Sierra de las Nieves. The most amazing thing was I seemed to have the place to myself, there were plenty of people running on the roads and road cycling.

    Was I just avoiding all of the good spots where the best trails are or has the mountain running scene not caught on in this amazing area?

  10. Mike Papageorge

    I live on the South Eastern coast of Spain, in Alicante, which is 1.5 hours south of Valencia. The latter is quite a hotbed for ultra (and shorter) distance mountain races, and then further south to Malaga and inland to Granada is also a real hotbed of running and races. Just west of Granada is the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail which you linked up above, and there is a lot of good running and racing from that area down to Malaga.

    The nice weather helps too :)

  11. David

    Carl,

    Try http://www.lalegion101.com

    It's a great 101km race held in May each year starting and finishing in Ronda. It is excellently organised by the Spanish Foreign legion.

    Also the 166km ultima frontera around Loja nearer to Granada. Andalucia has great trails and the popularity of trail running is growing all the time.

    I am lucky enough to live on the Andalucian Atlantic coast and get up into the mountains whenever I can.

    As we all know there is nothing to beat the the spirit and camaradery of trail ultras

  12. JimC

    In case Mayayo's reply didn't make it clear, the area to the west and north of Madrid is very mountainous, with an active trail running scene. Ultras of note are the Madrid-Segovia (100km) and Grand Trail Peñalara. There are also a number of decent shops around, my personal favourite is GR10 in Moralzarzal, but it's by no means the only one.

  13. Anna

    Hi!
    I am going to El Campello close to Alicante next week and would like to go trail running during the days (I will have a car). Do you have any suggestions of where to go?! Thank you so much!

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