Styrkr’s Alex Billson took Badlands on in the summer of 2021, alongside long-time friend and Styrkr MD, Christian Sanderson. It was their first ultra-endurance race together. Though written by Alex, this is very much their journey.
Saturday 4th September
The preceding day of kit preparation, bike building and test riding was completed. We had a structured approach, but in reality everything had a sense of “ad-hoc”, including last-minute darts to the local bike shop to pick up essentials we'd not yet sorted. This escalated into a fault-finding session and gear cable replacement for Christian Sanderson just hours before we were due to join the start line.
What should’ve taken probably two hours to organise and pack, took us the majority of the day, with countless circular discussions and conjuring up eventualities which were probably never going to happen. A quick trip into town to collect our race trackers, prove we had insurances and everything suddenly became very real. We called time on packing and kit preparation around 9pm, unsure if we were prepared or not, it was time for the Last Supper.
We joined another rider, shared some thoughts, but kept the mood light and ambitions low. After a shitshow in finding a reasonable venue, we doubled back to a reasonable joint next to our hotel: clocking up extra steps wasn't on the agenda. Several starters and a large sharing paella. A hovering waiter second-guessed our appetites: we didn't like that, we ate the lot, dessert included.
Retired to bed around midnight, content in the knowledge it was an air-conditioned room, double bed a piece and blackout blinds. These were certainly privileges we wouldn't have for the next few days.
Alarm set, it was almost time to race.
Sunday 5th September
We arrived on time at the start line, checked out the other riders’ kit selections while simultaneously questioning our own. Good job we didn't have enough time to do anything about it.
We made a move down onto the grid nice and early for a photo and to secure a good place. We nearly got pole position. Among other big riders near us, just a couple bikes over is Alastair Brownlee. Strange feeling to know you’re in a race with a bona fide Olympic champion and other elite athletes.
At 8:00am, some 240 riders rolled out under police escort. This was another personal first, up towards the front of the only peleton I've been in. I held Alistair at bay for the better part of 1.5km (albeit in the neutralised zone). The pace felt to me like more of a 100km time trial, not a 750km ultra race.
The first 40km of the race were, by anyone's standards, brutal. If I had any doubt what we were in store for, this first section had answered it quite vehemently.
Originally, I had planned to have afternoon siestas to escape the afternoon heat. Forecast 35 degrees in the shade, it seemed sensible. Nobody else appeared to have any intention of a siesta, and we quickly decided not to bother either and 'grow a pair'.
Only a couple hours later did we and many others pay for that short-sightedness. Going through Hoya de Guadix desert plains at 44 degrees in the sun. Pedalling up a dried sandy river bed, just faster than walking pace we sought any shade anywhere en route big enough to hide in.
We later learnt after finishing, a lot of the 'DNF' scratched from the race around this time from onset of sun stroke. Both professionals and amateurs, the heat got to everyone.
We limped to a restaurant which had been raided by the riders ahead of us. It was a situation similar to panic-buying before the first national lockdown.
A little taken aback by the difficulty, we didn't move for at least an hour to cool down.
We then rolled out for the evening into a 100km loop around the Gorafe desert, this was the first place specifically outlined as being dangerous by the event organisers.
We took one of our last-minute buys in hydration salts, I think it was the key to us being able to continue. Making good ground, we called it a night at 3am, going 47km further than planned and stopping in a quiet olive tree farm. Our alarms set for 5am.
Monday 6th September
It was a terrible sleep, swatting mosquitos and ants for the 2 hours we spent lying down, you couldn't call it rest. Never below 30 degrees, our survival foil sleeping bags left us to stew like Uncle Ben's rice. Quite grumpy, very thirsty and generally uncomfortable, we scratched the idea of a lie-in and packed up.
We still had just over half the Gorafe desert loop (53km) before reaching Gor, a mountain village with a shop and spring. We needed to reach Gor before the heat of the afternoon.
Although it was relatively short distance to cover, this section took us ages. We woke up rather surprisingly in 2nd place in the pairs. We soon dropped back, as our efforts from day 1 took their toll. It was the first time I can recall the mental aspect outweighing the physical. It was a long shallow ascent that looked flat and played on the mind. Much later than anticipated, we arrived in Gor.
After a bath in the old Roman-style wash house stone basins, we left Gor for the next onslaught over longest isolated section: over 115km, climbing to the highest point (at 2,168m altitude) past observatories used as the high mountains. Even without the telescopes, as dusk settled, this was a beautiful place. A phone camera cannot do it justice.
The weather had a slight break, but we were running on fumes. We made regular stops, but without making much ground. Maybe I was comparing this too much to our first, unsustainable day.
I was rationing my water, but even still with a good 50km (mainly descent) I had less than half a litre left. I did have a mountain spring in mind just 3km off route at the summit. We diverted off knowing we had to climb back to rejoin at the same place as per the race rules. Unfortunately, the spring and mountain refuge was decommissioned. We didn't have time or energy to complain – not very much at least – but this setback did have its mental and physical affects. I don't think I've ever been in a situation where water is pretty much your only concern, not in this environment at least.
With no other obvious options, we pushed on. We hit a huge stroke of luck, spotting a catering van washing pots in an unmarked water spring just after starting the descent down. We could of easily flew past without noticing as it was now dark. Delighted is an understatement.
Problem 1 resolved, we next needed food. We continued to Gergal and made it just before 11pm, the options were cheese and ham baguettes, or nothing. We took two, one for breakfast too.
Learning from night 1, we stayed in the village play park. Away from bugs, on a soft rubber mat.
Tuesday 7th September
Apparently there was barking dogs, random drunks and other disturbances during the night, but for a solid 5-and-a-half hours, I was out cold.
Tinfoil bag out, silk liner in. I woke up confused as to where I was, but amazingly refreshed.
Bizarrely, energy levels seemed to be recharged back to max capacity. Our mood was excellent as we entered the Tabernas desert, the only official desert in Europe. Still in darkness at 6am, we were going down descents as if riding an unloaded full suspension bike.
I got a quick reminder we were not, bouncing off a rock, my shoe unclipped and I raked my shin down the pedal. If it wasn't being littered with bites that had grown into extremely irritating lumps from our accommodation on night one, this would have had no benefits. As it happened, I immediately forgot all about my bites.
The pace didn't really change, and only 20 minutes or so thereafter, Christian bounced off a rocky outcrop and sealant started spraying out. Stopping to assess the repair, it wasn’t good news. His tyre wall had a gash from tread to rim almost, roughly a third of it was clean through. Just shy of 10mm.
Our morning plan to get over the final climb to see the Cabo de Gata coastline and beyond the final desert looked shattered.
Angry at ourselves for being stupid, we tried several repairs such as sealing the cut with plug inserts: each failure just eating away at our time and patience. What should have been a quick ride through the desert in the cool early morning, soon transcended towards midday. Each kilometre, the tyre pressure was unrideable, the mini-morph hand pump had its work cut out. So did we.
Stupidly, we only had inner tubes for my bike (29") and not Chris' (27.5") wheels. Never again. It left us in limbo, my tube would probably pinch in his wheel. We tried big plugs, several small, a combination of the two, more sealant, several plugs in series, even magical duct tape didn't fix it. After about 5 efforts, we were planning a taxi to Almeria, best part of a 4-hour round trip to a bike shop. I would have sat and enjoyed the desert town we were aiming for.
Finally, on either repair 6 or 7, a combination of a stitched worm plug, and the biggest metal plug we had, we precariously made it out the desert covering around 3km unscathed.
After some of the nicest fruit I can ever remember eating (only an orange and apple) we thought strangely the 3km repair was satisfactory to hold out for the remaining +350km. Without really saying it, we both really knew going to Almeria was going to kill the race mentality.
We set off into the second part of the Tabernas, through a valley in a massive solar farm, it was scorching.
I'm not sure how or why, but something seemed to click into gear for the next 100km at least. A combination of anger at the morning, a good night's rest and some nice food and we seemed to race to the coast with surprising speed and ease.
Any planned stops for the afternoon were cancelled, we just plowed on, only picking up water and ice cream when we could, eating some tinned mackerel we had picked up previously.
Several hours later, nearly at almeria, we stopped at a pizzeria, which was beautiful.
Then I had my first real wobble.
Stopped long enough to realise I was a shell of a man, my bites causing me real grief, I was ready to throw in the towel carrying my bike along the sandy beach that was impossible to ride.
Only the fact we arrived in Almeria around 1am, and there was no hotels avalable, did I begrudgingly move on. Big shout to Christian for getting me out of my frankly shitty mood.
Tuesday 8th September
Two hours out cold felt like 30 seconds. I managed to get up to my feet first; the first 5 minutes of the day not usually being my strong point.
There was only one aim for today. Finish the race at any cost. I knew it was a mega day of climbing ahead and tried to play it down a little. Somehow, I was in a good mood from the get-go.
Draining the power banks, I climbed to the only playlist I had downloaded from Spotify: a motivation mix, coincidentally. It worked a treat.
We had some long stretches of road in the morning, it felt like riding an E-Bike. Slowly climbing through the Sierra Nevada mountains, I was really enjoying myself. I even picked up some bite-soothing cream.
We slowly but steadily made it over the Dos Hermanos gravel climb, the penultimate drag. It was euphoric near the top, I was bursting with energy. Less than what could be said for Christian who was starting to flag. It was my turn to drag him along to the finish, at least 10 hours up the road.
The descent down was more painful than the climb. Our feet, hands and arse were in bits. We stopped more going down than up; Christian was nodding off in the saddle. We had to stop for coffee, food and some sugar. Making it to Berja, we panic bought a stodgy hamburger, the last thing we needed to stay with it. It was served in a hard baguette, a cherry on the cake.
Several espressos after, we rolled out searching for the finish line some 80km away. From here to the line, it was a fairly consistent climb to the finish.
We had company from other riders, but the race mentality we had on the previous days was non-existent.
I found pleasure knowing this was the last afternoon I would be exerting myself in the sun. Along another soft dried up river bed, we hit a sharp climb that had us both pushing up to Cádiar. Running low on water for a change it was real deja vu.
We had our only dot watcher cheering us on at the top, a local man inspired by the event. What a hero he was!
I don't really recall a great amount detail in the final day, it was just about grinding it out. Our ETA was 2am, 21 hours after getting up.
Into the last 50km and final 1500m of climbing, the stars were out guiding us home. Nearly literally as my GPS died and I'd wasted my batteries listening to music earlier in the day. I was relying on the half-asleep Christian to guide us in.
For about 3 hours, I was badgering him with anything I could think of to try keep him awake. Knowing how bad I am at fighting sleep, I could see his pain. Good job it wasn't the other way round, it would have been bedtime.
Into the last 10k, we both knew we were going to make it. What a feeling. It didn't matter what happened at this stage, we were going to make it. We tried our best sprint finish.
Arriving just after 2am, some 90 hours 16 minutes later. We were presented with finisher’s medals and congratulations – thanks Javi & Jacob for the reception!
Comprehending that it was over, mentally rewinding through the challenge allowed it to sink in. We sat talking for the better part of an hour letting it sink in. Before checking into our hotel for a much-needed shower and real bed.
Elated is probably the right word.