A running challenge in the Mallorcan mountains

Its sheer peaks rise over 1,000m heavenward; its trails conquer the world’s fittest athletes. In Mallorca’s treacherous – and beautiful – Serra de Tramuntana, Charlie Norton goes for one of the runs of his life

The author (right) with his running guide Anthony Cassidy on top of Puig de l’Ofre
The author (right) with his running guide Anthony Cassidy on top of Puig de l’Ofre | Image: © Reinhard schmid/4corners images

For me, the holy grail of an adventure weekend isn’t only about reaching a remote and tranquil setting with stunning vistas. It has very specific parameters: finding accessible but challenging mountains, right by the sea.

I’d long heard great reports about the harsh and spine-tinglingly beautiful landscape of the Serra de Tramuntana in the northwest of Mallorca, where the mountains rise up from the sea to heights surpassing any peaks in the UK. The past couple of years have seen an increase in middle-aged men in Lycra following in the footsteps of Bradley Wiggins, who trained on climbs there for his 2012 Tour de France triumph. But I am unencumbered by bike paraphernalia; I’m going instead for a trail-running challenge and will be giving the cycling crowds a wide berth. As my running guide, Anthony Cassidy of RunMallorca, says, “You can follow all the same routes as the cyclists, but you can also get to the real beauty of the island off the beaten track.” I’ve decided to do a recce and swim on the first day, and then on Sunday, the real deal: a north-to-south crossing of the Tramuntana range, from Soller to Alaro – at least five hours of full-on movement and over 1,100m of ascent.

Friday 20.00

I order a tea on the Gatwick flight and read a little more of Run or Die, Catalan mountain runner Kilian Jornet’s account of running in the natural landscape.

00.00

The Castell d’Alaro trail in the Serra de Tramuntana
The Castell d’Alaro trail in the Serra de Tramuntana | Image: © Reinhard schmid/4corners images

It’s an easy 40-minute transfer to the Jesuit Monastery-turned-boutique hotel Son Brull on the outskirts of Pollença. I can make out a mountain looming behind in the moonlight, but quickly check in, skip upstairs and stretch out my nervous legs in bed for some sleep.

Saturday 08.00

I stumble down to the ornate dining room for deliciously sweet local orange juice, Spanish coffee, yoghurt and a ham omelette, knowing I’ll need all this fuel for the mountains.

10.00

Anthony and I arrive at the Mal Pas bay area outside Alcúdia – the start and finish point today. We load up our light rucksacks with bananas, chia-seed gels, energy bars, windproof shells and lots of water, and set off at a decent pace, jogging out past the famous Alcanada golf course. We hit the first gentle incline and within minutes I am breathing too heavily to hold up my end of the conversation; no training in London can prepare you for the lung-busting mountain routes here. Soon we are on a sharper slope; pampas grasses are sprouting up around the limestone as I inhale the smell of pines. I struggle to find a better rhythm. We are striding purposefully, putting our feet wherever we can and clambering where it gets too steep. A herd of tawny-coloured wild Mallorcan goats caper effortlessly ahead.

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11.15

We come to a wildly precarious path with a stunning view: below is a sheer 30m drop to the azure waters of Platja des Coll Baix. The sun is on my face and I’m completely exhilarated; 24 hours ago I was crammed into a Tube carriage, knowing that only a grey London day awaited above ground.

12.30

Huffing hard, we creep up along a final spine of rock to reach the peak of Sa Talaia and its refuge hut, a preamble to the mission tomorrow.

14.15

The author with Platja des Coll Baix
The author with Platja des Coll Baix | Image: © Reinhard schmid/4corners images

After a fast, rocky descent, during which I take a nasty fall right onto my face, we arrive at Manresa beach. Between the workout and the scenery, I’m dying for a swim against the backdrop of Sa Talaia. I strip down and plunge into the Med. Given the mid-spring season, it’s more ice bath than pleasure dip, so I scramble back into my clothes for the kilometre-long hike to the car. We’ve done 16km of mountains – and that was just the recce.

15.00

Nothing blowtorches calories like mountain running; I’m famished. Back at Son Brull I head to the extraordinary bar, converted from an old olive press, and order sobrasada (a kind of fried pork) with fried potatoes and fried eggs, before I head to my room for a late siesta.

18.25

After a sauna and Jacuzzi I manage to consume gluttonous amounts again – this time tuna ceviche with avocado and chilli jelly, followed by half a roast chicken, a lemon soufflé and a large glass of red from the Son Brull vineyard. The last relaxes my mind – a little – about the prospect of the near-vertical kilometre that will kick off tomorrow’s run.

Signposts on the GR221
Signposts on the GR221 | Image: © Reinhard schmid/4corners images

Sunday 07.00

I wake early to get all my kit together in my rucksack and wolf down an omelette, yoghurt, banana and some pineapple – plus a very strong coffee.

09.00

We drive over to Biniaraix, a hamlet on the outskirts of Soller, and marvel at the panorama around us. It’s an ancient mountain place nestled in a spectacular gorge on the northern side of the Tramuntana – steep crags and rock faces rise up spectacularly on all sides, barring the road in. Anthony says that some people get so claustrophobic here they have to move out. But it’s a dream spot for mountain runners, who work the famous route of the GR221 – the timeworn dry- stone path used by the Moors and Christians in the 12th-century crusades, and our route today up to Puig de l’Ofre and across to Cúber and Alaro. It’s also the first time Anthony has run this particular way across the range, which is punctuated by citrus groves on the lower slopes, while vultures circle the peaks.

This morning, as the sun peeps through the cloud cover, there’s a mysterious grey light on the rocks and the scent of burning olive wood and jasmine. I feel butterflies in my stomach as I consider the rising cobbled path ahead. There’s a brooding atmosphere of latent power here; somehow you know the mountains are in control. A team of Spanish runners in their smart, matching Salomon kit blow past us while we are taking photos. (Route GR221 is also the route of the excruciatingly tough, 105km Mallorcan Ultra, which starts in late April). Suddenly, I’m galvanised: for those guys my path would be a light training run.

The hamlet of Biniaraix
The hamlet of Biniaraix | Image: © Reinhard schmid/4corners images

10.30

We’re off. Glittering streams flow over lichen and thread through the terraced levels of olive trees and mountain ash. The path leads across small wooden bridges as we zigzag over and back. A vertical sandstone face looms before us as my legs start to feel the gradient.

We stop to refill our water bottles. But then, soon after, we’re weaving seemingly straight up into the air; I start to genuinely gasp for breath. Abruptly, we encounter a trail of blood smeared across the stones – it looks like one of the Ultra runners must have fallen badly. That’s how treacherous it is underfoot.

But we dig in with our quads, up and up through the thinning trees and finally to the Coll de l’Ofre, where the knifing icy breeze makes my eyes water. This is the final steep ascent; my calves are on fire and my breaths are so deep, they feel like they’re lacerating my lungs. I am almost in my red zone; there is absolutely nothing in the world right now except the next step ahead, and then the one after that. Trail running like this is transcendental: it feels like living in its purest form.

11.30

The swimming pool at Son Brull
The swimming pool at Son Brull

Then we’re done: the summit. We sit on the top of the Puig de l’Ofre (1,093m), enjoying the nectar of a local orange and the views out across Mallorca to the highest mountain, Puig Major (1,445m), just in front of us, with more mountains all the way to Alaro and the sea beyond.

12.30  

Going down we pick up our pace; Anthony lets me lead. I scramble over the rock trying to intuit the best line down the mountain. Once down, I linger a moment to drench my face in the cool waters of the Torrent d’Almedra. We cross a longer bridge and then rise briefly again into the mountains, donning our head torches to enter a series of dark canaletas – 100m-long tunnels through the mountains. The contrast to the bright sun is surreal – and mildly unnerving.

13.30

We meet Anthony’s wife Alexina – another Ultra trail runner – who has run up to meet us after the canaletas. We have better terrain now and can move more freely. We eat up the final 8km down to Solleric and then the final push on the tarmac – bounteous tarmac! – back to Alaro, right under the shadow of its famous castle. We cross our finish, our wide staring eyes and heaving chests betraying our mini physical epic. The crossing was only 22km in distance, but around 1,050m of ascent.

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15.30

Anthony takes me to a little vegetarian restaurant called Eco Senalla, where we elatedly raise a beer and feast on parsley soup followed by crêpes with cheese, asparagus, tomatoes, spinach and peppers. We discuss Tramuntana’s appeal. “I think it’s the mix – ease of access, views, varied terrain, plenty of vertical,” says Anthony. “Plus the fact that you can finish at the beach.”

21.00

After lamb chops and grilled prawns at Son Brull, I hop on a late flight back to Gatwick, my legs still fizzing with pain and nerves. I’m back in my own bed in west London by the early hours of Monday morning – in slight disbelief that I traversed dozens of kilometres in distance, over a thousand metres in ascent and many hundreds of years of history, all in the course of 36 hours.

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