Mallorca: Fastest Known Time on GR221

Shooting for a Sub 24-Hour Traverse

“I’m like millions of other athletes on Strava. I live in London and work in an office. If I can get 20 meters of elevation gain in a lunchtime run, I’m lucky,” says James Poole. “I’m not Kilian Jornet dashing out the back door to dance across the Norwegian sky. But I do like to push my limits.” His love of running has driven him to compete in some of the biggest races in the world like UTMB and Trans Gran Canaria. But he also relishes in testing himself with special projects outside the arena of racing. “I ran Mallorca’s GR221 dry stone trail in three days during December. That planted the seed to attempt to run the length of the island in under 24 hours.” Every athlete has an edge. Poole does too, and he set out on this adventure to once again push past it and see what he found on the other side.

Aim High

Unlike the French Alps or the Colorado Rockies, the GR221 path never climbs much above 1,000m (3,000ft), but the entire route has more than 6,000m (20,000ft) of vertical gain. It follows the coastline for large chunks, going up and over numerous, short, steep climbs and descents. “The important thing in any long run like this is to start easy. But of course easy is relative, and with the sun shining and fresh legs, I went out like a man with a mission.”

Running on the Moon

“The charm of the 221 is that it’s raw. The terrain is predominantly soft limestone which dissolves and cracks and at times creates this moon-like surface which is incredibly hard to walk on, let alone maintain a decent running pace.”

Burning

“From the get go, I knew it was too hot to be running something this long and hard. We had chosen to start at 9am but hadn’t fully accounted for the intensity of the May sunshine. Within an hour of the start I could feel the sweat running down the backs of my legs from my soaked shorts. A welcoming breeze coming off the Tramuntana mountains would cool me every so often. But with sunset not until 9pm, I braced myself for a long day of suffering. I knew it was coming. I just hadn’t expected it to start so soon.”

The Perfect Storm

Poole covered the first 50k with relative ease and his sub-24 hour goal looked reasonable. “At this stage I had no idea the impact that the heat was having on me. I was slowly roasting like a turkey at Christmas.”

Blow Up

“I felt good until around 60 km into the run. I’d been eating and drinking well and I thought I was on top of my nutrition. As I came in to Valdemosa the nausea started and pretty quickly I was doubled over emptying the contents of my stomach onto the trail. Over and over again this happened. To the point where it was no longer unpleasant and I began to appreciate the relief the evacuation provided.”

Cramps

“My calf locked in agony. I fell to the ground, teeth gritted in agony as the muscle rippled and bulged like an alien trying to punch through the skin. Then my hip flexors went into spasm. I had to lay prone on the trail paralysed with discomfort. It was beginning to get dark and I knew I was in serious trouble.”

Hard Decisions

With more than two hours lost to cramps and dehydration the sub-24hr attempt was disappearing at the same pace as the setting sun. “I’d been laying on the trail wrapped in a foil blanket for what seemed like forever. Tears had run down my face and at times the desire to simply curl up and die were real. To make matters worse, it was still dark and I knew that some of the hardest trails lay ahead. Yet something deep inside me compelled me to drag my sorry arse from the path and move on.”

“The hardest part of the GR221 is undoubtedly the stretch from Soller to the monastery at Lluc. It passes some of the highest peaks in the Tramuntana and is less travelled than some of the more touristy trails. I kept missing turns and finding myself teetering on the edge of cliffs having mistakenly followed a goat path. At one stage I even found myself scrambling straight up past some bolted climbing protection.”

Just Keep Going

As the sun rose on the second day of running, the possibility of a sub-24 attempt faded. “I regretted going out of the gate so fast and had plenty of time to analyse my poor decisions: the rapid pace, the overly casual stops for coffee or drinks, the lack of respect for the mountains. As I reached the refuge on the outskirts of the town I was pretty much ready to call it a day.”

No Easy Mile

“The thing about this type of run is that there is no crowd of supporters at the end. There are no high fives from complete strangers, no medal or fancy finishers gilet. All those things that spur you on the final miles of a race are absent. It’s you against the elements. I would have given my right arm for a cheerful shout of ‘venga’ from one of the passing vehicles.”

Life's a Beach

"As I ran through the back streets and onto the beach at the Port of Pollensa no one had the faintest idea of my journey. I’d missed my goal, but I’d pushed past my edge. I waded into the water still wearing my clothes - washing away the salt deposits and stale sweat. It had been me against the mountains. They had won. But they’d taught me a lesson I’ll forever carry with me.”

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  • Nick Strugnell

    Great story and lovely writing. The Tramuntana is obviously better known as a cycling destination to most of us, however it’s great to learn of another side to it.

    Out of interest, why did you not use a hydration pack? Did you have enough water stops planned you could get away with just a bidon? If I had been doing that route on an MTB I’m pretty sure I would have taken at least 3 litres with me! (but I drink, and sweat, like a horse…)

    • James Poole

      Hi Nick. Thanks for the kind words and taking time to comment. Agreed, most people know it for cycling and I have spent many years riding the roads around the island. The GR221 trail is a real gem and a big part of me wanted to make more people aware of these stunning trails.

      The pack in the photos [Ultimate Direction Fastpack 15] is a hydration pack. It’s fairly common for runners to prefer water bottles over bladders and this is my preference too. You can’t often see but I used a 600ml bottle up from and then 1.5l in the rear of the bag. With 6,500m of vertical gain on the run I was always mindful of the extra weight that more water would have meant. Being self-supported I was able to buy water from shops and I did this whenever that was possible. I’ll admit that I wasnt as well prepared for the heat as I would have liked and perhaps should have taken more water. And therein lies the beauty of these sorts of challenges – if it was simply a case of ‘colour by numbers’ it wouldn’t be half as interesting.

  • James Brewster

    Wow! A great write-up on what sounds and looks like an immense mental and physical challenge. Kudos to James for finding the strength to get himself to the finish of the trail when his main goal had fallen out of reach.

    • James Poole

      Thanks for the kind words!

  • I understand this is a Huge commitment but it’s worth doing it. But I really have to say, I love the pictures. They are very eye-catching.