After 38 qualifying events in 18 different countries, the reimagined XTERRA Trail Run World Series is set to culminate on the famed trails of Sugarloaf Mountain with the first ever qualification-only XTERRA Trail Run World Championship. Those with a place on the start line will have earned it the hard way. They are the Sugarloaf Trailblazers, and these are their stories.
Nestled near Barcelona, on the coast of the Balearic Sea, is the seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltrú. A fishing port with sandy beaches that stretch on for miles, there aren’t any mountain ranges in this area of Catalonia, Spain. And yet, it’s the home of an accomplished, young trail runner who thrives at altitude and excels on technical terrain- 29-year-old Lidia Ramos Palacios.
By day, Lidia is a lawyer, but her true passion lies outside the courtroom, on the peaks of the Pyrenees and the mountains of Montserrat. In 2018, Lidia did her first trail race. Over the course of just a few seasons, she’s achieved a UTMB index of 575 and broken the tape at 10 races.
“Except for the pandemic, where I was forced to run indoors, in the subway parking, do workouts at home, or walk on the terrace, my body has told me that it wants to run and feel the adrenaline of racing,” Lidia says. “I have four marathons and no less than 40 half marathons in my legs since I started trail running.”
On July 1st, Lidia set out from Barruera for the start of the Garmin Epic Trail Vall de Boí, a 42km run with total elevation gain of 2,800m in the Catalonia high-mountains. It was her fourth marathon.
“I have a lot of respect for long distance and, for me, it’s a real challenge,” she says. “I faced up to the race knowing it presented a hard elevation profile with technical areas such as two sustained climbs, crests, and peaks over 2,500m altitude on the spectacular Pyrenees.”
Lidia placed seventh overall and third in her age group, which secured her a spot for the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.
“Immediately after crossing the finish line, I was already thinking about the next marathon, and I began to prepare well in advance."
Over the last few months, Lidia has “lived very sweet moments,” having broken the tape at four races: Cros de Sant Pau 23K, Sitges Rock Trail 25.7K, Night Trail Duesaigues 24.6k, and Sobrepuny Trail 21K. However, this qualification for the XTERRA World Championship is a very special achievement.
“XTERRA has been a glimmer of light and my little American dream,” she says. “Immediately after crossing the finish line, I was already thinking about the next marathon, and I began to prepare well in advance. So, Sugarloaf isn’t just a World Championship, but a great manifestation that a marathon isn’t just 42km, but a long, intense road, made of perseverance and will.”
Lidia admits that she’s facing some challenges on the road to Sugarloaf. She will need to travel halfway across the globe to get to Maine, and it will be her first time in the United States.
“Given the complex logistics and lack of financial support from sponsors, I tried to convince myself not to go, and I wanted to settle for the result obtained and recognition of my modest career,” she says. “But you want me to tell you the truth? I started knocking on doors. Some of them haven’t opened, it’s true, but I’ve not given up. The real hard part is already done and Sugarloaf means just crossing the Atlantic.”
"The real hard part is already done and Sugarloaf just means crossing the Atlantic.”
Part of being a trail runner is having the ability to meet challenges as they come, with composure, grit, and a tireless sense of determination. In a way, the act of scrambling up boulders and navigating technical terrain can teach us about the need to adapt and overcome in life, as well.
“I think it's on the hardest days, when you think you haven’t done enough, that makes the difference,” Lidia says. “You get to the point of thinking that you will never get to where you want, because you know you have limitations, but limits are there to be challenged. There’s something that has hooked me beyond this, and that is the illogical purpose of running without any purpose.”
Why do we run? For some, it’s the adrenaline rush that comes from pushing boundaries and surpassing limits. For others, it’s the peace that can be found by exploring nature. Although the act of running can be brutal, the reward is complexly satisfying and has so many different faces.
“Magic mountains and wild paths discovered at a much higher pulse than when I’m lying on the sofa have hooked me on trails. You connect with the earth, leaves, trees, bushes, and stones at every step, feeling that each season has its own colors,” Lidia says.
There’s something poetic in the way Lidia talks about trail running. Perhaps it’s because, for her, being a trail runner is about much more than achieving a top race result or specific time. The kilometers she spends traversing trails are about sacrifice, dedication, passion, and discipline.
“One of my tips to keep on training on those days when I’m not so motivated is to remember that suffering is momentary. Satisfaction is forever,” she says. “It's not always about giving 100%, but just never giving up. My way to enjoy a course is to do my best, and yes, that means to suffer a little bit, but I don't hesitate. Trail running can teach us to keep following our dreams and learn to overcome difficulties.”
"Sugarloaf isn’t just a World Championship, but a great manifestation that a marathon isn’t just 42km, but a long, intense road, made of perseverance and will.”
For Lidia, it’s an honor to have qualified for the XTERRA World Championship Trail Run, and although she’s more of a half-marathon specialist, she is going to give it her very best.
“It’s an honor for me to be part of a big event like this,” she says. “The marathon is not the distance I have prepared the most, but I’m so used to the volume of kilometers that I strongly believe that training speed, endurance, strength, and mental preparation may lead me to a result on the top position of marathon women XTERRA qualifiers. At least, I will try!”
“The blessing of being able to run, and smell, is something I’m grateful for every day.”
One of the best parts of trail running is the opportunity to use all of the senses to connect with the environment around us. There’s nothing like pausing at the top of a summit to admire the view, breathe in the bracing air, and take a sip of cold water.
But for Adam Hawkins, a 47-year-old father of three from Leicestershire, England, much of that pleasure was taken away when he lost his sense of smell and taste.
He wasn’t always a runner. A few years ago, Adam might have laughed at the notion of being called an endurance athlete. For four decades, his obsession was football, but when he turned 35 and became a parent, family and work took over and he put on nearly two stone.
His life reached a low point when he developed asthma and was diagnosed with AERD, or Aspirin exacerbated respiratory disease. Also known as Samter’s triad, the condition is characterized by asthma, nasal polyps, and intolerance to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication. On a normal day, he might use his inhaler up to six times; on a bad day, 12 times wasn’t unusual. In 2017, he lost his sense of smell and taste.
“I would be lying to say I wasn’t consistently battling depression,” he says. “More importantly, it was my connection to the outside world. I felt trapped in a bubble not being able to smell fresh cut grass or cooked foods outside my favorite restaurant.” On some occasions, it became dangerous. “I had to put notes to remind myself to make sure the gas was off after cooking, and I gave myself food poisoning after eating bad mackerel.”
“I would be lying to say I wasn’t consistently battling depression."
Oddly enough, Adam stumbled upon running by accident. On a cool December afternoon in 2018, he set off on his bike for the 1.5-mile ride to his daughters’ school when he got a flat tire. So he decided to run. “I felt some relief in my sinuses, so I decided to take up running. Within a week, I ran 5km and after two weeks 10km. Then within 6 weeks, I went out for an 8-mile-run and came back 14 miles later.”
During 2019, Adam was gifted brief moments of hope when his sense of smell and taste would return during or after running, but only for 30 minutes to an hour at a time. “More importantly, my sinuses felt more open, and I had relief. Unfortunately, the polyp growth was very severe, and I needed endoscopic sinus surgery.”
Although there’s no cure for AERD, Adam says developing this condition was a blessing because it steered him down a healthier path. “It got me out of a very Westernized lifestyle as I’d just hit my 40s with a young family, a long-term relationship breakdown, being overweight, eating poor nutrition, and poor sleep,” he says.
After much independent research, a successful surgery, and incorporating the asthma drug, Montelukast, into his daily regimen, Adam was able to regain his sense of smell and taste in late 2019. He also completely changed his eating habits by adopting a diet that’s low in processed foods, high in omega 3 fatty acids, and primarily plant based.
“My version of plant based is that at least ¾ of my plate will be filled with vegetables and legumes and then a small portion of meat. My go to is bison, and I utilize a mixture of beans and lentils to increase the protein portfolio, fiber, and antioxidants,” he says.
"Within a week, I ran 5km and after two weeks 10km. Then within 6 weeks, I went out for an 8-mile-run and came back 14 miles later.”
Adam is running more than ever and dedicates his races to the Fifth Sense Charity in an effort to raise funds and awareness for AERD. Later this month, he plans to come off medication in the hopes that his significant lifestyle changes have improved his condition, but he will likely never be able to take NSAIDS again.
“Smell is a big part of my running. Why I love trail running is being able to connect to nature,” he says. “It’s the aroma during bluebell season or even the smell of the farm that gives me joy.”
As his run distances have increased, Adam has taken on bigger challenges. He ran his first half marathon in 1:35 and his first marathon in 3:32. He placed 22nd at Race To The Stones 100K and, this year, placed 13th at the XTERRA Snowdonia Trail Marathon and secured a spot for the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.
“I accomplished my ambitious goal of a top 20 finish under five hours and executed my race plan to run all of it, including the end,” he says. “I achieved 13th place in 4 hours and 56 minutes, including a tumble on the trails. I was a little grazed and bloody, but I will definitely be going back next year.”
Adam enjoys the technical terrain of mountain running. Running through unkempt areas with incredible scenery is stimulating, but the longer distances also provide an opportunity for an introspective journey.
"Why I love trail running is being able to connect to nature. It’s the aroma during bluebell season or even the smell of the farm that gives me joy.”
“Picking your way up and down mountain trails and scouring a path to pick your best line gives me a buzz,” he says. “Running is a major part of my regime to control my condition. I love nature, and the blessing of being able to run and smell is something I’m grateful for every day.”
Sugarloaf Trailblazers is an ongoing series, with more stories to come from those preparing to take their place on the starting line of the XTERRA Trail Run world Championship in Maine, USA.
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