It’s 87 miles long, racks up over 20,000 feet of ascent and is normally tackled by hikers over 10 stages as described in Paddy Dillon’s excellent guide book, Trekking in Mallorca. It’s not a trail I was aware of until one of my friends suggested we run it and Mallorca was not a destination high on my list of places to visit. To my mind the island was the place to go for two types of holidays; Boozing and cycling. I was soon to be put right.
My companions for this trip would be Jeremy and Dan. Both are members of my local running club and handily, Jeremy had family living in Mallorca, so not only did he arrange free transfers to the start and finish of the route, but had had a chance to recce some of the trickier sections on previous trips. The flights were booked for Friday and Tuesday, giving us 3 days to complete the run. A couple of weeks before the trip we convened in a pub in Hereford and with a beer in one hand and a series of maps covering the table we hatched a plan. The run would comprise of a 31 mile run on day one, 21 miles on day two and 35 on the final day. To make sure this was achievable, and more importantly fun, we’d have to travel light so a lot of discussion was had about what kit to take and after agreeing who would carry what, we were ready to go.
Day 1 – Port Andratx to Esporles
The first day was arguably the toughest. We had to tackle 31 miles and 7,500 feet of ascent over a section of the GR221 that was largely unmarked. Using a combination of the maps in the guidebook and Jeremy’s memory, we made our way out of Port Andratx and up the first hill of the day. This was a shock to the system. All our training for this adventure was done during the cold British winter and our late start meant that the temperature was already high, so it wasn’t long before Jeremy was asking out loud “who’s idea was this?” “Your idea Jeremy, it was your idea” we replied. Before long though, we were up high, running well and soaking up the remarkable coastal views. Incredible steep sided mountains rising from the dark blue sea as far as the eye could see.
Our fresh legs and the excitement of finally starting a challenge that was long in the making meant we made short work of the first 6 miles, so our planned rest and re-fuel in Sant Elm may have seemed a bit unnecessary. However, the next chance to stock up on water and food wouldn’t be for another 17 miles and as I never pass on the opportunity to have 2nd breakfast, we made time to neck back a sugary drink and a chocolate croissant before heading off.
Those 17 miles were probably the most challenging of the weekend. Navigation was tricky, with only infrequent cairns to follow and even less frequent little red dots to show we were on the right track. The ground was making things slow going as well. It was pathless in many places and un-runnable in many more. This was more than compensated for by the stunning scenery, so the miles ticked over comfortably and eventually we reached the village of Estellencs. The long leg we’d just completed meant we were always going to be having a late lunch, so at 3 in the afternoon we found a table at the shady end of a restaurant’s sun terrace and eat well.
The heat had built over the afternoon and with our bellies full of food, we struggled to get going. So much so that only 4 miles later, with empty water bottles, we staggered onto a hotel terrace for another break. This hotel was rather more salubrious than our lunch stop and I don’t think that three sweaty runners were their normal clientele. The waitress was very friendly though and after giving a wry smile at us for ordering two drinks each, Coffee and Fanta were consumed as we looked over the crystal blue Med and summoned the energy for the last 8 miles of the day’s run.
The combination of sugar, caffeine and the cooling of the evening air did wonders for us. We walked the next hill and enjoyed running the descent to Esporles. The rough untamed mountains now replaced by the feature that names the GR221, the drystone path.
We reached our destination as dusk fell, checked into our hotel, showered, eat and slept.
Day 2 – Esporles to Soller
Two big mountains needed to be negotiated to get to Soller, but with only 20 miles to cover we decided to take our time over this one. 20 miles would normally count as a long run for us, but it’s amazing how quickly our minds re-calibrated to the new challenge, so we called it our ‘rest day’ and split it into three manageable sections.
We had a quick snack for first breakfast, before setting off early to make the most of the cool morning air. Valldemossa was our breakfast destination. Fried eggs and chips were the obvious choice on the menu and we scoffed them down among the thousands of cyclists having their morning coffee breaks. The Mallorcan mountains are hugely popular with the lycra clad brigade. The smooth ribbons of tarmac winding their way over the hills and the perfect weather are a real draw, and we didn’t see a stretch of road without a cyclist on it all weekend.
The next 5 miles were all up hill. We walked every one of them, but they quickly got us above the 3000-foot mark for the first time. Then followed one of the highlights of the whole weekend. A 2-mile descent dropping us 2500 feet down the mountain, with the path snaking its way down an unlikely looking route between crags, zig-zagging through forests and finishing through roman built terraces to reach Deia and lunch.
Deia is surrounded by the high mountains on one side and steep cliffs down to the sea on the other. We strolled through town to find the restaurant with the best view from the terrace and found an idyllic spot to sit and relax, soak in the views and rest the legs
Again, the heat meant that the post lunch running was tough, but luckily the afternoon’s stretch was only 8 miles of largely flat or downhill running and we were in Soller nice and early and were happy to be in the shade of the towns narrow winding streets.
Soller is yet another town surrounded by high steep sided mountains and was pretty much cut off from the rest of the island before the tunnel beneath the Serra de Tramuntana was built. It has a lively town square, where we had our dinner out in the still warm evening air.
Quite a tough ‘rest day’ but we were all looking forward to an early start in the morning and the big mountains to come.
Day 3 – Soller to Port de Pollenca
We were up at 06:00 and on the road by 07:00. Thankfully there was a little café open catering to the town’s early risers and a bakery next door, so after a breakfast of Ensaimada and strong coffee we were heading out of Soller and towards the Biniaraix gorge, the only visible weakness in the wall of mountains surrounding the town.
At 34 miles, this was the longest day of the trip and the first 15 miles were all up hill with the section up the Biniaraix gorge being an especially steep but formed of the immaculately laid drystone path. With those 15 uphill miles behind us, we crested the Col des Prat and for the first time we could see the end. We were open mouthed at the views surrounding us as we stood at the high point of the GR221, looked back at the mountains we had run and then down towards Port de Pollenca, our finish line, 20 miles away and 4000 feet beneath us. This was going to be one hell of a descent.
None of us had run these sorts of distances over three consecutive days before, so we really didn’t know what to expect from our legs. They did us proud though and the path down to Lluc was a joy. A drop of 2000 feet in 4 miles, taking us towards our lunch at speed.
After a leisurely lunch and a short climb out of the valley we were descending again, and with the end of the route a comfortable distance away we let the legs fly down the last section of technical running, before hitting the valley road and the long gradual drop to the sea.
We stopped off in Pollenca itself for a couple of ice cold Fantas in the town square. Pollenca looked like a beautiful town full of winding narrow streets, market stalls and little squares full of people relaxing, eating and drinking. We didn’t loiter though as the sea was calling and we had 4 miles of pan flat road to cover. This was the least inspiring part of the GR221 and if I was walking it, I would have called it a day in Pollenca, but we wanted to finish with our feet in the Med so we put our heads down and covered the ground as fast as we could. It turned into a race. The traffic on the Ma-2200 was witness to three tired runners, with 83 miles in their legs, trying to do a tempo run. It can’t have looked pretty, but we covered the last couple of miles 15 minutes, which hurt like hell, but gave us a laugh. Jeremy went from barely being able to walk in Pollenca, to
striding into Port de Pollenca at 6:45 min/mile pace. It’s amazing what the body can do when the end is in sight.
Kicking my shoes and socks off after three days of dusty trails and letting the cool Mediterranean water chill my feet must be one of the greatest ways I’ve ended a run, and the perfect way to wrap up the adventure.
We decided it would be more fun to travel light. It was only 2 nights on the road and the weather was forecast to be hot and sunny for the duration of the trip, so this was quite easy to achieve. This is what I took;
Hoka Speedgoat 2’s. These have lots of cushioning and decent grip. I’ve been wearing Hokas for 3 years and find them very comfortable over long distances. Even after running the 95-mile West Highland Way race, my feet were comfortable (the rest of me wasn’t).
2 pairs of Quecha (Decathlon own brand) running socks. I wear these for all my long distance running events and I’m yet to have a blister.
One pair of 2XU two in one compression shorts. These are a bit warmer than other types, but I find the liner reduces chafing considerably and gives a bit of support.
2 Ronhill long sleeve wicking tops - Long sleeves might sound like an odd choice for running in 25-degree heat, but these are a very thin material and I stay cool in them. They have a collar to protect my neck from the sun and are also good for wearing under a race vest/rucksack, as the seams are very low profile. Unfortunately, the ones I wear are no longer available but there are loads of similar products out there.
High Gear running Cap – An essential item for someone follicly challenged such as myself. This cost me about £10 and has survived a couple of years of abuse. Not only does it keep the sun off my head and the sweat out of my eyes but wearing it after dunking it in a stream is a great way to cool down.
Ultimate Direction PB adventure vest. This is a great piece of kit. It has 11 litres of storage so held enough kit for the 3 days (just) and was comfortable throughout. Don’t be tempted to do something like this with a mountain bike rucksack. One of our party did, and it was ok for the first ten miles, before rubbing the lower part of his back sore. The running specific ones are expensive but worth it.
Garmin Fenix 2 GPS watch. It has good battery life, loads of features and I’ve used it for all my ultras and training for the last 3 years.
I also carried the following;
* Light weight waterproof jacket
* Compass and whistle
* Mini first aid kit
* Towel (These were provided in the hostels so wasn’t really needed)
* Light weight walking trousers (to wear in the evenings)
* Thin hoodie (to wear in the evenings)
* Silk sleeping bag liner
* 2 half litre bottles for water
* Phone/Garmin charger
* SIS Go Hydro tablets
* Head torch
* Water proof bags
* Phone (we had a good signal on most parts of the route)
We also had a set of maps, one container of shower gel, P20 sunscreen and a mini tube of toothpaste between us.
We decided to eat out for all our main meals. This saved a significant amount of weight and meant that the food stops were a highlight of the trip. All the villages we stopped had restaurants with terraces offering stunning views and served excellent food. We’d usually spend 20 euro’s each per stop but a lot of that was drinks. Soft of course.
For the trail I had some SIS gels and Pit Stop bars. I find I can eat these quite easily when I’m exerting myself and they don’t make me feel sick like some gels and bars do. I only discovered the Pit Stop bars recently as they were handing them out at the Ultra Tour of Arran the week before this trip and I really rate them. They can be eaten without much water and most of the other bars I have tried leave my mouth very dry, but these go down a treat.
The key thing we learned on this trip is how important it is to re-hydrate at lunch time. The first two days on the trail were particularly tough just after lunch and the higher temperature at this time of day combined with the salty food we eat, made us very thirsty. On the last day we had lots of water with our meal and it made a big difference.
We took the Alpina 1:25,000 Serra de Tramuntana map which covers the whole mountain range. It comes in two separate sheets printed on both sides. It’s great for planning but we didn’t use it during the run as the little maps in the guide book were easier to follow.
We used the Cicerone book, Trekking in Mallorca, written by Paddy Dillon. This came out in 2017 so has the most up to date route descriptions and gives several options for alternative starts and finishes to the route. The locals are still working on the GR221 and several sections are unmarked due to disputes with landowners, so I’d say this was an essential item to take. There are other guides to the GR221, but these are translations rather than original works so are a lot harder to follow.
This route is not to be underestimated. Our trio went into this with different levels of training. I’m not a fast runner but have been running and training for ultra marathons for the last 3 years. I had raced the Ultra Tour of Arran the weekend before, so my legs were in good condition, if a little tired. Dan and Jeremy are both quick runners and are keen fell runners so have completed several mountain races over 20 miles. While the mileage we did was more than they are used to; they were well suited to the terrain. None of us had run these distances on 3 consecutive days before though, so it was a bit of a step into the unknown for all of us on the third day.
We all had moments where we found it tough, but we weren’t racing so stuck to a nice easy pace. We walked the steep hills and ran the descents and the flat sections, so all made it to the end without injuries.