Natalia Roman Lopez
The making of a Pyreneean tiger
Everyone has a place where it all started – whatever your ‘ALL’ is. My love for mountains started in the Spanish Pyrenees as a child. When non-spaniards ask me where I am from, ‘Zaragoza’ doesn’t tell them much. Therefore, depending on the person I add one of the two following descriptions:
- Draw a line between Madrid & Barcelona. Mark the middle point. That dot is Zaragoza
- Zaragoza is the closest big city (apologies to Huesca!) to the Pyrenees. Ironically, located in the middle of a desert. However, there a long-standing tradition of skiing, rock climbing and mountaineering.
My first contact with these mountains was at 7 years old. My school organized a 2-week summer camp in Benasque valley every year. I don’t remember much of that first summer camp – although I have countless memories of the years that followed. My parents always tell the same story: when I got home back, I didn’t speak for several days (veeeery rare). They were really worried that something bad had happened to me. I was so tired that only managed to nod when they kept asking if everything was OK.
Summer fun turned into winter adventures. Skiing became my BBF almost instantly. Soon I joined the school for the winter ski week at Cerler ski resort. My year literally turned around this event: 7 days of ski lessons, apre ski churros, flying mandarins, Robin de los bosques, broken helmets and some other 4676452 anecdotes. As a teenager I enjoyed bringing friends together and organizing weekend trips to Benasque. Also, my ‘saving unit’ was the 35$ a private freeride ski lesson cost at the time.
In the summer of 2008 a friend and I were supposed to attend the biggest music festival in Spain. I had – not without effort – saved the money for the tickets. But the tickets sold out! What seemed to be a very unlucky surprise, turned out to be a stroke of luck. I decided to re-invest those savings in a week of cannoning and rock climbing lessons. The former wasn’t really my cup of tea; the latter, oh boy!! I was really bad at it – specially compared to my friend who moved on the walls with innate graciousness. So what? My lack of skill only made rock climbing more attractive. Unlike any other sport I practice, rock climbing is all about HERE & NOW. That wall doesn’t care if you forgot to pick up the laundry or send an email. When we climb the world stops. It is you, the wall and your dance.
Between 2008 and 2018 I pitched my tent in Benasque every July. The happy memories make me smile as I write about it. We didn’t have electricity, shops or restaurants, hot water or a car. Instead, we had each other (it takes a village!), as well as plenty of rivers, a 6k run to the village, +100 years of collective mountain stories, and hunger, hunger for mountains. I was learning how to become a holistic mountaineer from the dad of a friend. He, at age 76 now, remains a true inspiration. To this day his eyes shine like those of a kid when searching on the map for the next peak.
Mountain running ‘happened’ in 2014. I ran my first mountain marathon in Switzerland and got hooked. So I made some plans for the 2015 racing season. These plans included Gran Trail Aneto Posets (GTAP) – a weekend of mountain racing of partying. That year I ran the marathon distance. I made all the mistakes a rookie can make: took off like a rocket, neglected nutrition, got stunk by a bee (!!)… a cure of humility!
Prior to any race, every runner sets a minimum goal, an ambitious goal and… a secret goal!
GTAP consists of several events, being its 108k loop the true gem. I came back to the race in 2016; This time for the 60k distance and with the goal of scouting the route in preparation for 2017. Yes, I dared to toe the start line of the monster a year later. Even though I crossed the finish line of my first +100k, I had mixed feelings. The stomach problems, very common in female ultra-runners, had limited my performance. I knew I could do better; I just didn’t know by how much.
In 2018 I did not only beat my secret time goal, but did so having the time of my life. I won the race and set a new female record. I promise you a separate post to describe the physical and emotional journey racing my home mountains has been.
‘Can I actually improve my 2018 performance?’ ‘What if I had the day of my life?’ ‘I should be content’. All those thoughts crossed my mind during my winter training. As if it mattered! It clearly didn’t. On April 2nd 2019 I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. As much as the human capacity to adapt to change is close to infinite, I am thrilled I didn’t have to give up any of my mountain fun. After completing some other long races in the months leading to GTAP, I knew it was possible to deal with the glucose ups & down during exercise. It was invariably messy at first. However, after about 2h of effort my body transitioned to fat burning. From then on, I was liberated from the glucose variability burden – to a certain degree!
See? The questions about performance became insignificant in 2019. My goal has always been to enjoy the ride and I was glad to put things into perspective – even if the immune system did it the brutal way. I was wearing a Freestyle Libre glucose monitoring sensor at the time. This device does not share glucose data automatically. Therefore, I was running based on ‘feelings’. I also ate whatever I felt like or came across at the aid stations. The glucose curve stayed kind of flat but high flat for the 22h of race. I didn’t improve my race time in 2019. But something magical happened: I realized it is feasible. So that was my fuel coming into 2020.
With the race cancelled due to the pandemic, I took it as an opportunity to: explore new and remote summits, test the wonders of a low carb nutrition, and log back-to-back long days without worrying about tapering or recovering. Just before I headed to Benasque, I got hold of some regular (R) insulin. I had achieved superb glucose control but the fashionable ultra-fast insulin meant needing as many injections as units for a given meal i.e. 5u = 5 injections over 3-4h - ouch!
Here some of the insights I gained over 3 weeks of MASSIVE running/scrambling: 78h moving, 340k, 25k vertical meters.
- R insulin is a blessing to cover protein-rich meals. Each person seems to have a different ‘sweet timing’ for it. Mine is about 40’ before the start of the meal. We simply can’t afford such luxury at every meal. So I started combining the main R bolus with 1-2u of ultra-fast. It works for me!
- Focusing on protein was also a game-changer. Fat yes, whatever comes along. I would have a very small breakfast and hit the butcher right after my run – or a friend’s pub, who prepared eggs, longazina sausage, and salad without even having to order it!
- I was so deep in ketosis (but with low ketones!!) that a couple of spoons of plain yogurt before leaving for a 5-7h run would spike my blood glucose to 7.0 mmol/L and trend flat for hours. It turns out breakfast is my BG’s least favorite time of the day to have dairy.
- During my runs I would eat if hungry – besides treating hypos with dextrose (which almost never happened). My trail food included nuts, cheese, salami and LCHFHP cereal bars. The crazy thing was the slightest amount of protein would raise my glucose – even if I had a bite of cheese after 4h moving! This was quite annoying to be honest. I didn’t find a solution back then. Now I always carry with me a pen of ultra-fast and inject 1u when/if that happens. Always reacting, not as prevention!
- Another learning in retrospective is the amount and timing of basal insulin. Since I was not running low during the day I assumed basal was dialed in. What about the night hypos? I had plenty!! In the middle of it I couldn’t connect the dots.
I took a tons of learnings, peaks, vertical meters, scars and memories from 2020 in Benasque.
Every single time I put on the running shoes these days I can’t help but wonder what the future holds. The potential of a low-carb nutrition for ultra-racing. Not just in terms of diabetes control, but also the steady levels of energy, the reduced stomach issues, the faster recovery… don’t tell anyone!
See you soon, Benasque!