Some men get a motorcycle for their 40th birthday, others buy a sports car and others run 230 kilometers under the burning Andalusian sun. We spoke with a man who chose for the last option: Diego De Doncker, Site Inspector at Pauwels Consulting. An incredible story!
Diego, two weeks ago you told us that you would participate in the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail, a 5-day ‘ultrarun’ in Andalusia. Can you briefly tell us again why you set out on this adventure?
Diego: Sure. I didn’t want a typical midlife birthday present for my 40th birthday. That’s why I decided to participate in the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail, a 5-day endurance race of 230 kilometers in Andalusia. It was my goal to explore my limits one more time.
You are back home now. So… How did you experience the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail?
Diego: It was an incredible experience! It was a hard but beautiful trail. I have seen nature at its finest and I have met many wonderful people.
Sounds great Diego. And pretty intense. And if I heard correctly, you even started with an injury?
Diego: That’s right. Three weeks before the start I got an infection in my right knee. As a result, I had to rest until the start of the trail. A few days before the trail I traveled to Andalusia to get accustomed to the heat. Apparently the combination of rest and heat had a positive effect on the injury. I only got into trouble in the fourth stage. After 45 kilometers my knee started to hurt. At that point, I still had 22 kilometers to go, but a painkiller from the medical team has kept me going.
What did a typical day look like?
Diego: Our days started around 6.30 am. There wasn’t any other choice since we had to prepare and eat breakfast with lots of carbohydrates first. After breakfast we started preparing for the race: we filled our Camelbaks and we did some stretching exercises. The trail usually started around 8.30 am or 9.00 am. To my surprise, I was part of the leading group, so I was amongst the last to start every day. After the race we always got water, coke, energy drinks and fruit. And there was always a bucket with ice water to help us recover faster. The day always ended with a great massage, a briefing for the next stage and supper. Most of us were knocked out around 9.30 pm. At that time most of us were sleeping in tents that were way too hot. (laughs)
What was your most difficult moment during the Ultimate trail?
Diego: Day 2! After the 20K mark, I was facing a steep ascent. I had to follow a steep mountain path with the mountain on one side and a ravine on the other. That took a lot of focus and it was not easy in temperatures exceeding 42 degrees and without any water left in my Camelbak.
What kept you going when things got rough?
Diego: With this trail I wanted to explore my limits one more time and I wanted to go above and beyond. So in difficult times, I thought “Well, this is what you can do. Let’s take it up a notch now. Buckle up and keep going!”
What was the hardest part? The physical or mental game?
Diego: Apparently I was well prepared for the trail. I grew stronger every single day. On the first and the second day, I came in 36th, on the third day 33rd, on the fourth day 29th and on the last day 12th. The mental game was more difficult. It is hard to prepare yourself for a heavy stage if you get up with sore legs and blisters on your feet. And during the race, you are on your own because everyone runs at his or her own pace. Since we didn’t cross many villages, there was little distraction during the stages. Quite a challenge!
Have you ever thought of giving up?
Diego: Never! My preparations for the race have taken a considerable amount of time. That was hard for me and my family. Going out in the weekends? Nope, dad has to go out running. A game of football? Nope, dad has to go running and then to the physiotherapist… I just couldn’t give up. That wouldn’t have been fair to myself or my family.
What were you thinking during the different stages of the trail?
Diego: I always ‘clear my head’ when I am running so I didn’t think a lot. (laughs) I had some regrets though that I couldn’t share the beautiful scenery with my family and friends. But I never had the time to think about that for too long. I had to keep moving forward!
What was your best moment during the trail?
Diego: I really got a kick after finishing on ‘the longest day’. That day I ran 67 kilometers. Before that, I had never run more than 44 kilometers in one day, so I was pretty anxious regarding that stage.
What did you think and feel when you crossed the finish line?
Diego: The last stage was my best stage. I came in between and before guys that were way better than me in the previous days. I was particularly proud of the fact that I was still quite OK after 5 hard days. After the finish, I got really emotional.
What will you always remember about this trail?
Diego: There were many different people and nationalities amongst the runners. I ran with construction workers, nurses, top bankers, top engineers (who make skyscrapers in the Middle East), factory workers… At that moment at that place everyone was equal. Everyone had the same goal. Everyone suffered. And everyone helped and comforted each other. A wonderful experience!
Have you already set any new goals?
Diego: No, I haven’t. I think my body will ache for the next few weeks. But I must say that I really liked the experience so I think that I will find a new extreme challenge at some point in time.
Do you have any advice for people who consider taking part in such a ‘crazy’ challenge?
Diego: If you really want to do something like this, choose something that really suits you. And of course, if you really want to go for something, give it your all!
Those are inspiring words, Diego. Thanks for sharing your story with us and all the best of luck with your future challenges and projects!