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Mallorca Coast to Coast – Matt Duckett

Grab yourself a cuppa and take a seat, you're about to go on another exhilaratingly, exhausting adventure with Matt Duckett...

This wasn’t my first Coast to Coast running-rodeo, see previous C2C exploits here, however it was my first self-organised multi-day trip of big distance. The main purpose of the trip was a cycling holiday with friends – we were meeting on Tuesday in Pollenca (the East coast) on Tuesday, and I decided to take Monday and the weekend to do some exploring on my own. Whilst most people would look to the beach-side towns or indulge in Catalan culture – for me this undoubtedly meant some degree of running.

The Plan

Whilst there’s probably something deeply philosophical about moving from one coast to another (some symbolisation of completeness, travelling between boundaries or the ability to observe nuanced changes in landscape over a country) my route selection was purely practical: I flew into Palma, on the West coast, on Saturday and needed to get to Pollenca by Tuesday, giving me ~2.5days to ‘play’ with. Whilst there’s a very good public transport system which could do the trip in a couple of hours, there’s also an alluring set of mountains, the Serra de Tramuntana, and a national trail, the Gran Recorrido 221 (GR221), named the ‘Drystone’ route, which passes through the mountains. A bit of reading showed that the GR211 is 150km long, passing mainly through coastal towns and typically hiked over 11 days – I saw this as a perfect distance to fit into a couple of days running, with opportunity for regular re-supply points, allowing me to pack light.

I planned a route broadly following the GR211, deviating slightly to come in-land to pick up some of the larger mountain ridges. This cut some distance, but I extended it to finish at the Fermentor lighthouse, the dramatic easterly point of the island, with the final distance around 143km. I wanted to stay in mountain refuges to minimise time away from the trail, and didn’t like the idea of bivvying (I wanted at least a little ‘comfort’!). Whilst I was booking with plenty of time, the refuges are small, low in number (there are less than 10 official refuges over the whole trail) and get filled quickly.

Crucially a key refuge was not available for my trip, which meant in the middle of the island I was quite limited, and had to plan my first (proper) day running as an 85km day – slightly longer than I would have liked, but by no means out of capacity for a good days running! N.B if this does tempt anyone to plan a running/hiking trip along the GR221 do get in touch, as hindsight is a wonderful thing and once on the ground I discovered there are definitely other ways to break the route down…

The Prologue

I started in Sant Elm - a lovely little town, bustling with groups of holidaymakers on the beach, in the bars and restaurants. Whilst it was very tempting to enjoy a cold beer on the beach, or nose around the shops I knew I had distance to cover and was keen get started and get to know the quality of the trail. Following the GR211 out of the town the paved path quickly turned to dry and rocky trail. It was early evening, and hot, but the trail was clearly quite popular with local tourists as I passed a few groups out walking. The trail thinned and eventually turned to an awkward scramble for the initial ascent up Puig de ses Basses. I passed an American family who were clearly struggling – the mum in tears and her son asked me, as I passed, whether there was an easier route. Unfortunately all I knew was that the path we were on was ‘the most popular’, based on my route-planing via Strava heatmaps, which offered little consolation!

After the ascent the trail improved to dusty single-track, passing ruins of an old monastery at La Trapa. After 12km and 570m climb I arrived at Refugio Finca Ses Fontanelles. Whilst the accommodation was a basic mixed dorm, the vibe was very friendly, with the guests generally European hikers, and the owner provided beer and wine whilst serving us a three course meal in a chic outside dining area overlooking the farm. After dinner I finalised route planning for the following day. I was nervous - having taken 1hr40mins to run the first 12km I knew the rest of the run was going to be slow going, and it would be important to get away early for my 85km the following day!

Views up the north coast around La Trapa and Rifuge Ses Fontanelles

Day 1

I donned the head-torch and started at 6am, before sunrise, with the initial climb up Mola de s’Esclop in darkness. The path was poor under foot, however I was rewarded with stunning views of sunrise along the north coast of the island as the sun rose. Evening temperatures were warm, and I ran past several groups of people bivvying on the way including Zoltan, a runner from Orion Harriers in East London, who awoke as I passed and joined me for 10km as we ran towards Estellencs. The trail became more runnable, and as the sun rose the temperatures increased it was steadily getting warmer and I was already dripping with sweat. I stopped for a quick espresso and water top up in the only café I could find open in Banyalbufar, where most of the shops were closed as it was a Sunday. The descent into the town and back-out made me realise how well set-up the GR221 was set up for hikers – towns were well-positioned for 6-8 hours of walking. Great for water and food topups, however as a runner there could have been efficiencies by skipping some of these coastal towns to avoid the descent and ascent, so long as I had sufficient food and water.

Sunrise after Mola de s’Esclop (left) and Mola de sa Comina,

the peak of a climb just before the town of Valdemosa

The trail continued through the town of Esporless and over several large forested climbs to reach the town of Valldemosa, a popular mountain town, by midday. This section was fairly runnable, with remnants of old abandoned ‘ice houses’, structures historically used to store snow during winter, along the trail. I reached Valldemossa, topped up water and stopped at a local patisserie for lunch – consisting of a traditional Spanish empanada and what I thought was a custard tart, and turned out to be a cheesecake! As my stomach was feeling unsettled it quickly got stashed into my pack. 

Empanada and cheesecake - a true athletic lunch

After Valldemossa I deviated from the GR221. I preferred to pass through the more mountainous inlands to take in some additional mountain peaks than follow the coastal route. I’d planned the route via strava heatmaps and could see travelled paths up to the top and along the ridge-line before the descent into Sóller. This made for a long 18km stretch with a lot of climbing, and not a lot of opportunity for water or food top-ups. 

Sweat rate was high and so I made sure I filled up on water, both drinking a lot whilst I was in the town and filling my 1.5L camelback to the brim. The climb up the valley towards the Puig del Teix was stunning, but quite exhausting; ~650m of climbing in the heat after ~5hrs of running already. At the peak I continued along the ridge line, but progress was slow going – pathless and hopping between rocks, with legs getting scratched to pieces with bracken along the peaks. I knew I was losing time on the day, and spied an opportunity to drop down early onto the main road. Route changes on the hoof tend not to be a great idea in my experience, unless they’re backed by absolute certainty, but my legs were cooked after the climb and I needed to recoup time so I rolled the dice and decided to take the risk! 

The initial sliding descent down scree did nothing to help the legs, and further shredded my hands as I held onto the bracken to help traverse the scree slope. Sliding led to toe stubbing as rocks became firmer, and I eventually made it onto a good gravel track heading towards the road. However – before making the descent I should have heeded the heatmaps. It was clear that not many runners used the road, and I could now see why – there was a padlocked gate, with a sign scribbled ‘Private’ on the front. My GR221 guidebook told me that private land was rarely heeded to, paths and walkers often passed through, however some landowners did get irate. If I was to turn back now it would be another 400m climb, which was definitely not happening, so I jumped the (waist high) gate and continued.

One gate led to another, higher, gate which also got jumped and I eventually found myself in an industrial estate for a water bottling plant (beautiful!). Unsurprisingly the plant had a very big locked gate (probably twice my height) which also needed traversing. There was no sign of security guards or friendly locals I could ask to open the gate so I found a friendly local wheelbarrow to give me a leg up and help me over. I breathed a sign of relief, as I checked google and the maps showing me not far from Sóller.

Clearly I had a bit of descending to do (woohoo – downhill running) and on the map the distance didn’t look huge – however bad luck was coalescing and I’d landed on the Col de Sóller, a series of winding switchbacks, highly picturesque and popular with the cyclists. Whilst on the map it only looked to be 4km into town by the time I’d traversed the switchbacks this turned into 8km of running. To be honest, it was beautiful, and I was happy just to be on the road so I gladly plodded the 8km, taking advantage over the cyclists to cut the switchbacks where I could!

Ridgeline of Puig del Teix

I descended into the town around 5pm, low on water (I’d been conserving it) and quite exhausted after running only 55km of my 85km day. I popped into a supermarket to top up on electrolytes and water and took a 10minute break in the main square to rest, guzzling more water from a public drinking fountain.

At this point something truly terrible happened. A problem any exercise enthusiast could sympathise with, but any member of the public would think is quite stupid – my Garmin froze. I’d uploaded my GPX into the mapping function to navigate, but  the file was large and (hindsight again) I should have broken it into smaller chunks for easier electronic digestion. I’d stopped the course to save power coming down the Col de Soller, and now trying to reload the route for the final 30km the watch had frozen.

Whilst I wasn’t worried about navigation – I had the guidebook and the rest of my route followed the GR221, which had sporadic signage –  I was worried about the record of my toils, the perfect line dissecting the island, the proof of my barmy Balearic boundary bimble being lost. Silly as I write it. Anyway – I had to restart the watch and press-on whilst Garmin was having a fit - I had no time to waste. 3km later, after resigning myself to losing the activity, garmin had calmed down and, thankfully, the activity was still running. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The sigh of relief quickly turned to exhaustion, and passing by the small town of Biniaraix I was starting the 800m climb around Puig de l’Ofre. It was late and I knew I had a decision to make to be able to reach my next Refugi, in Lluc. Based on the pace I’d been running the final ~30km with 1500m ascent would take ~5hrs in failing sunlight.

I was exhausted, physically and mentally, my legs were trashed and what was meant to be a fun day out was turning into a slog - the enjoyment was fading with the daylight. I knew that if I stopped in this small town I could get a hotel here, or a bus to my next Refuge, but I would be leaving a massive task for the following day if I wanted to complete the coast to coast.

The ascent to Puig L’Ofre

I took a couple of minutes, sat at the base of the climb, ate my stashed cheesecake (incredibly still intact after the scree-slide into Soller) and persuaded myself that continuing was the best option. I plugged my headphones in and started the 800m climb past Puig de l’Ofre. I knew I had enough energy to push through the first climb (the stretch to Lluc comprised on an initial 800m climb, with a descent to the Cúber lake, followed by a second 700m climb) and saw that if I could make it to Cúber lake before 8pm there would be an opportunity to pick up the last bus, and still cut the day short but leave a slightly more manageable chunk for the following day. Slightly risky as the busses didn’t always run per the timetable – but it was the carrot I needed.

The climb was a slog. Slow going, seemingly never-ending, but music and cheesecake helped. It must have taken an hour, and just before reaching the summit I passed a group of French students joking and taking pictures at one of the viewpoints. I passed them, a trudging wreck, and mused at the contrast of our emotional states - how could they be so happy at the end of a big climb at the end of the day? I took a wrong turn at the summit, and joked with them I just took the path to get a picture, before correcting myself. But their happiness helped me to put my gloom into perspective – whilst they were probably stopping in Cúber for the night, and didn’t have the pressure of trying to get to Lluc, they were clearly not fazed by fading light and were enjoying the moment of happiness at the top. 

The descending shuffle to the Cúber lake was a welcome relief to the hamstrings. The lake sparkled blue and Puig Major (the highest peak on the Island) made the whole landscape look pretty awesome. I also was in time to catch the last bus to Lluc, leaving me close to Refugi Son Amer, my bed for the evening. At this point of the evening it was an easy decision, I caught the bus, and arrived around 9pm. Legs like empty tubes of toothpaste - devoid of power, shredded with bracken and crashed for the evening, only managing one glass of the (unlimited!) rio tinto offered to me by the guy manning the refuge. Final stats for the day were 65km running, with 3,360m climb taking around 13 hours.

The descent to cuber lake

Day 2

I laid in until 8am to maximise recovery, had a quick breakfast and got a taxi back to the lake. Legs were tired and sore, but motivation was high. I’d tactically left my rucksack in the Refugi to reduce weight, which was a big mental boost and the 700m climb went like a dream, drinking in the unheralded views around Puig de Massanella and the Mirador Lake.

At this point I’d reached the highest point on the route – 1200m – and as I crested the peak and Port de Pollença (my finish line for the day) came into in my sights. 

The 8km descent flew by, starting with panoramic mountain views from the top quickly turning to cobbled forest trails as I reached the monastic town of Lluc and collected my pack from the Refuge I’d left in the morning. 

Cresting Puig de Massanella

The following 20km stretch into Pollenca was generally lowlands, with dry gravelly trails feeling similar to the South Downs Way passing through fields and small sections of forest. Albeit the running was slow-going, I was at a definite ultrarunner shuffle, and exposed in the sun. I reached the outskirts of Pollença, didn’t have the effort to go all the way into town, and crashed on the pavement outside a local deli with 2L of water, a baguette and an ice cream.

I’d 7km remaining until I reached Port Pollença – the end of the GR221 and the finish line for the day, mostly on road. I employed my best run-walk strategy, and made it to the port, crashing on the beach: dusty and tired after 40km running before checking into an actual hotel - sorely needed after two nights in mountain refuges. 

Port Pollenca – the end of the GR221


Whilst I’d completed the GR221 I wanted to finish the run at the Fermentor lighthouse - the most Easternly point on the island and a Mecca for cyclists (the real reason I was in Mallorca!). The route followed a windy road through some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ran in - rock faces reminiscent of Iceland or the Skye. The road made for easy running, as did chasing cyclists up the climbs and receiving cheers of encouragement and the odd high five as they returned from the lighthouse. 20km later I’d made it, celebrating in the café with genuinely one of the best croissants I’ve ever eaten.

Momentary agony hit at the bus stop when I realised that the bus back to Pollenca wasn’t running – and I thought I might have to run the 20km back to the port! Thankfully there were plenty of people who’d driven to the lighthouse and a young Swiss couple kindly offered to give me a lift back to the port!

Overall it was a cracking experience, though not the most ideal warmup for five days’ cycling! Final route stats: 139km run and 5,340m climbed over four days.

Finishing at the Fermentor Lighthouse


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