Running has always been a sport of simplicity. It requires very little ‘equipment’ and utilises a range of motion that can be most economically described as ‘put one foot in front of the other; repeat.’ However, rather than being monotonous or boring, the simplicity of running engenders a sense of freedom – an experience that can often feel like a tonic in today’s complex, technology riddled and attention demanding world. In my experience, this sense of freedom is only enhanced with trail running: being out in the open air, running over mountains, through woods or across moors, exploring the landscape and connecting with nature. Just over three months ago I left the rolling green hills of the South Downs in Sussex, to explore an altogether wilder, more rugged landscape – the Sierra Nevada of Southern Spain.
Situated in the region of Andalucia, the Sierra Nevada National Park lies less that 30km from the south coast of Spain. Rising to a height of 3,478m it contains not only the highest peaks of the Iberian Peninsula, but also the highest in Western Europe outside of the Alps. The incredible diversity of its landscapes, geology, flora and fauna alone would be enough to make the Sierra Nevada one of the most spectacular arenas for trail running in Europe, but in addition to all of that there is the weather (300+ days of sunshine a year and average winter temperatures of 15oC), the charming Spanish mountain villages, and the rich cultural history that pervades the entire area. Combined with a network of well-kept and varied trails, the result is a unique trail running destination that provides unmissable opportunities for training and exploration.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Sierra Nevada is its accessibility. If you’re visiting Granada city then you can easily explore the western end of the mountains, literally running out from the city into the picturesque snow-capped hills that provides its backdrop. Or, if you’re interested in heading further afield and exploring more, a simple bus journey will take you to some of the nearby mountain towns and villages from which you can venture higher into the Sierra.
For trail running, perhaps the most attractive of these bases is the village of Capileira. The highest of the three white villages in the Poqueira gorge, the trailing running opportunities that lead out from here are almost endlessly varied and exiting: run along technical trails that follow the river at the base of the gorge; skirt along the ancient water channels (acequias) that tell stories of the Moorish influence on the area; run across high ground and descend into the town of Trevélez in the adjacent gorge, glimpsing the coast of north Africa on the way; or head out into the high peaks, potentially summiting the Sierra’s highest mountain (Mulhacén) in a day. If you’re looking to really increases your fitness and stamina then this is also the place to start. At over 1,400m, Capileira is higher than any mountain peak you’ll find in the UK, and heading upwards from there brings all the challenges and rewards of altitude training. For those looking to really boost their stamina, guarded mountain refuges that provide a bed for the night, along with food and showers, make multi-day high altitude runs here a real possibility.
All of this would put you in good stead for the many trail races that are hosted in the Sierra Nevada. I may be missing something, but the Spanish seem to have a love for running uphill that borders on the masochistic. Take for example the Lanjarón Cañon Trail race – a pleasant 16.5km into the countryside surround the spa town. There’s just the little matter of the 1,100m of climbing involved. Or for something longer, consider the Ultra Sierra Nevada which takes you from the sublime surroundings of the Alhambra palace in the city, to the equally beautiful peak of Veleta (the second highest in the Sierra Nevada), over a distance of 100km. The course has a little over 6,000m of climbing, and 4,500m of descent. If your thighs weren’t made of steel beforehand, they will be afterwards.
However, if you prefer towns and culture to alpine wilderness and relentless uphill, then the area has something special to offer you too. There are numerous well-maintained trails that link the towns and villages of the Sierra Nevada together. The most famous is probably the GR7, which in its entirety runs all the way from Tarifa in the southwest, across Andalucia and up the east coast into Andorra and then France. In the Sierra Nevada you can use it to connect towns and villages like Trevélez, Pampaneira and Lanjarón, on single or multi-day itineraries. One of the most appealing aspects of these routes from a trail running perspective is that each town almost certainly has a ‘fuente’ or spring, providing fresh mountain water for free to passers-by. These welcome refilling opportunities frees up a long run from the burden and weight of carrying vast amounts of water.
However, just as important as the ‘big’ features that make running in the Sierra Nevada so enjoyable – the high mountains, the incredible views, the fantastic wildlife – it’s the little details that give you the feeling of running somewhere unique and special. Figs grow well in the climate of the Sierra Nevada, and a local delicacy is pan de higos, which roughly translates as fig bread. This delicious and highly portable energy supply is ideal for fuelling a day’s trail running, as the shop keepers who sell it will willingly attest. And after a run, what better way is there to relax and recover than sitting on the terrace of a café or bar in the sunshine with a drink and some tapas? These small portions of food are still provided for free with drinks in Granada province and provide welcome additional calories to the post-run recovery.
However, perhaps the best things about trail running in the Sierra Nevada, is that despite the quality of the landscape and trails, it still has the feel of being an undiscovered secret. In the three months I’ve been exploring it, I can count the number of other runners I have seen on one hand. Which can’t help but give you the feeling that you have this wonderful natural playground to yourself to discover and explore.
If you’re interested in trail running in the Sierra Nevada, Spanish Highs now offer guided trail running trips and holiday itineraries. Visit https://www.spanishhighs.co.uk/trail-ulta-running-sierra-nevada.html to find out more.