Twenty eight miles through the Pyrenees mountains would be enough to break all but the strongest of athletes. But on crossing the finish line, invariably bloodied and bruised, the change in demeanor of the elite athletes who had just completed the Salomon Pirineu Marathon was almost imperceptible. The 2400m of climbing, the treacherous descents and the absurdly fast pace was not enough, it appeared, to tire these seemingly superhuman runners.

There is something of a screw loose in every elite athlete – and I mean that in the most positive way – but there is something quite exceptional about this breed of runners who take on some of the world’s most intimidating mountains at a pace that few could manage on a track.

Trail running remains a niche sport in much of the world, but in the mountainous regions of Spain, the best trail runners enjoy a status that is reserved in Scotland for Old Firm players. Kilian Jornet is the superstar of the sport, with his ascent of Everest without oxygen and in record time earlier this year helping to push his star even higher. That he is from this region in Spain, near the Cadi Moixero Natural Park in Catalonia which the race snaked through, meant that the crowds began to flock to the start line before the sun had even risen.

The start of the race was in Bellver de Cerdanya, in the Lleida province of Catalonia and it was noticeable how many Catalan flags bedecked the buildings ahead of the Catalan independence referendum on Sunday. By the time gun went off to signal the beginning of the race at 8am, hundreds of spectators, as well as a good few residents on their balconies in their pyjamas, swarmed around the start line.

The couple of dozen elite runners were focused but what is noticeable in comparison to the majority of Olympic sports is the camaraderie between the athletes. There was no "getting in the zone", nor was there any attempt at intimidation. Rather, the runners passed the half hour between arriving at the slightly chilly starting point and the gun being fired by chatting and laughing together. It is likely that this friendly atmosphere is a sign of the respect that athletes have for each other, as well as the fact that a trail marathon such as this is as much a test of oneself as it is a competition between the runners.

The race began with a steady climb before the field hit the major ascent, which reached an altitude of almost 2500m. The endurance capabilities of the athletes are hugely impressive but what is even more remarkable is their descent of the mountain. Imaging running at full pelt down the side of a mountain steeper than Arthur’s Seat, then imagine doing that on ground so unstable due to the stones and vegetation, it is almost impossible to stay balanced even at walking pace. The elite runners are travelling at such a speed that if you blink when they are passing your vantage point, you will miss them. If you didn’t look at the terrain, their speed suggests they are running on Tarmac.

It was the pre-race favourite, Jornet, who took the win ahead of Nicolas Martin from France and Nepal’s Bhim Gurung while Glasgow-based Tom Owens finished in an impressive eighth position following on from his appearance in the Glencoe leg of the series last weekend. “It was a really hard race – but this was my last race of the season and I was really happy to make top 10, particularly in a field of this strength,” Owens said. “The scenery on the ridge line was absolutely stunning, we had fantastic weather up there and I was able to take that in and really appreciate it, which was great.”

It is hard to understand where the drive comes from within these runners who push themselves to their absolute extreme limit. This is a skill that is as impressive as any technical or tactical nous that Roger Federer or Lionel Messi possesses, and one that only a tiny percentage of the population has. And it is not, I would argue, an attribute that every Olympic athlete has. But for Owens and his peers, the challenge of reaching into the very depths of one’s physical reserves is one of the primary attractions of this sport. “I think one of the things I really enjoy about this sport is pushing myself to the absolute limit – it’s nice to really test yourself both physically and mentally,” the Salomon team runner said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking out there because I knew I was being chased the whole way and so I was conscious that if I slipped up even once, I’d lose a few positions. So it’s about just staying calm when you’re in that situation although that’s easier said than done. The more hill and trail running I do, the better I get at that and it helps not only with this sport but it helps you in every day life I think.”

The conclusion of the 2017 season gives Owens and his fellow runners a chance to rest and reboot in time for the start of next season, during which it is mere formality that they will push their bodies and their minds even further than they did in the Pyrenees.