Cinc Cims Corbera: The mind wins the race

“Ok, but when you get to the finish line, you do feel like throwing up, right?” – that’s what the world famous trail runner Pau Capell asked another runner who had told him he really does push in the races.


Of course, probably the second guy never finishes a race feeling like throwing up, and nor do most of us.


But Pau obviously does and ever since I heard that question in his story it really got me thinking and kept buzzing in the back of my mind.


I have been told before that I don’t run as fast as I could. That I arrive too “rested” (this sounds absurd even in writing). That I sometimes go faster in trainings than I do in races.


And for the past weeks I’ve been thinking: is this what makes the difference? Is this what separates average runners from performers? Not specifically the sensation of throwing up some mix of gels, but just the grit and drive to just push through the pain, whatever it might feel like.


It’s true that some races have higher stakes than others and giving 150% in each one is not a wise thing to do. However, in those that do matter, will I have to throw up to prove to myself that I really did my best?


Pushing myself past my comfort zone is definitely my highest satisfaction regarding last weekend’s race in Corbera, Cinc Cims. A really fast 26k with over 1200m elevation gain that attracts a lot of strong trail runners. So fast that most runners in the first wave had a below 4min/km pace at the start.


I was the first in my category and fifth women overall, ranking a nice 99th psychological position among all +900 runners.


Not bad for the first trail race of the year, after being injured last season.


Zero planning


I heard about Cinc Cims Corbera from a group of runners I was training with and it reminded me a lot of Semimaraton Gerar in Bucharest. Even if Gerar is an asphalt half marathon, they have something in common: in both of them I pushed so hard that when I got to the finish I thought my heart would explode.


When I signed up for the race, I didn’t know it was so famous. However, the closer the race date got, the more often I heard that it’s a very well known, loved and also competitive event. It was very well organized and having so many people cheering for us on the route was amazing. So I had chosen well 🙂


And a few days before the race I saw that a great deal of very good runners were on the list.


Seeing all those famous names, and everyone warning me that the competition would be fierce, I kind of relaxed a bit. I knew I wasn’t trained enough to fight for a top position, since like I mentioned, this was my first trail race since my injury break last season.


Add on top a few weeks of very little training (the week before the race I only ran once, on Monday) combined with the stress of finding a new flat and moving, and you can imagine I had absolutely no time to plan the race. The evening before, at about midnight, I was looking at the profile and trying to remember the distances between the checkpoints.



Ups and downs


Cinc Cims literally means Five Peaks. They’re not the kind of peaks we’re used to in Romania, so not a lot of elevation. Actually I almost missed one of the peaks, I was on it but didn’t realize I was on a hill 🙂 It seemed pretty flat.


From the distance and elevation profile I could tell it was going to be a speed race. And I’m not trained for fast. Fast means high heart rate, anaerobic effort, pain, cramps, all the goodies in the world. And this all means that your mental has to be at least as strong as the physique. 


We were a group of three Romanians running this race, and I think that on the results list I also saw some other Romanian names, so the team was bigger than I thought. I was lucky enough to have some supporters also at the start, fellow runners and training colleagues, and enjoyed a lot having them there. Before the start I was thinking that it’s one of the few races where I wasn’t feeling nervous. Still wondering if that is something to worry about.


But no time to worry, because the start was close and I wanted to leave with the first wave, to make sure I have time and space to run with the pack that had the same pace as I had and not be forced to either stay behind or run faster than I should (could).


The first few hundred meters of the race are downhill and oh my god, did they sprint! I think most runners in the first pack were below 3min/km. But the enthusiasm was soon curbed by a steep hill, just asphalt, the kind you just wish would end already, but always lasts twice as long as you’d expect.


Actually, if I were to name one of the challenges in this race, it’s definitely trying to run uphill, as much as possible. It’s a runnable route, but it’s so tempting to switch from running to fast hiking.


I did my best to run, sometimes feeling that I was being a bit too fast for the first part of the race, when my plan was to save some energy. Other times, I was behind runners that I couldn’t overpass and I had to go slower that I wished.


Going mental


The killer part started at about km 15, when a runner I didn’t know joined me and started encouraging me to push harder.


Si, que puedes (Yes, you can)
Let’s catch that girl
Don’t stop now
Push push
Amazing descent (I was like “Really?! Best. Compliment. Ever.”)


That’s all I heard up until close to the finish line.


And that’s what I did, tried to push as hard as I could. I had the next girl one minute in front of me but couldn’t catch her. Maybe I could have pushed even harder, but right then and there I was worried that I had been running at 150% for a while and I wouldn’t be able to keep up the same pace until the end. That I would hit a big ugly concrete wall and my body would say “fuck you Carmen, that’s enough, time to faint”.


And yes, this time I did feel like I was about to throw up.


It had been such a struggle all along and finishing with a sprint made me end the race with a heart race that felt like 1000 bpm. I didn’t have my HR monitor with me, another thing that I forgot home in the mess I called planning.


What I learned once again is that the satisfaction you have at the “meta” is proportional with how hard you pushed. It really doesn’t matter that you’re just the 4th or the 300th, as long as you know that you really gave everything and also finished the race in one piece.


First place in category and 5th in women’s matters to me, but there are things that matter more. I could have also been the 100th if all the elites of the world had been there. Ranking is something we have limited control over. The real issue is the thing we can control, and that’s our drive to really give as much as we can if we decide to do so.


And that’s when the mental comes in.


I admit I’m not that well trained from this point of view. Actually, compared to most runners I know, I have some of the biggest confidence issues.


I can train consistently, eat right, have the best context ever, but in a race I often find myself doubting my strength.


Will I be able to make it?
Am I still enjoying it?
Am I supposed to enjoy it?
How can I make friends with this pain?
And, of course, will I have to throw up to prove to myself that I really did my best?


But you know what’s the paradox? As much as it hurt, pain was temporary. And even when it kicked in, my first reaction, after such a long forced break from competitions, was


God, I’d missed this kind of pain so much!”



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