Crying at the end of a race became a tradition for me in the last couple of years, so after a blub free Hardmoors 55, I was kind of expecting Transvulcania to result in tears. I was not expecting to be brought to wobbly chin territory during the race though, and certainly not from the splendid view…
Transvulcania is an iconic race in the international Skyrunning calendar, drawing huge names in the world of ultra trail running, with Anna Frost, Emilie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet being regulars. Almost 74.5 kms long, with 4,350 metres of gain and almost the same amount of descent, it is also on par with the CCC, the race that ate me up last year. And it’s hot. After leaving teaching, I was finally able to sign up for term time races, so Jayson and I gleefully entered before thinking about logistics. Luckily, one of our running club rivals from York Knavesmire, Giles Hawking, is an authority on the race and not only arranged our accommodation, but also gave us a detailed account of what to expect on the course. Both of us intended this to purely be an ‘experience’ as Jayson wasn’t fully fit and Skyraces are not exactly my forte.
Staying up all night so we could drive to Gatwick for the one direct flight a week from the UK made for a tiring first day. We played ‘spot the runner’ at the airport and sighted Niandi Carmont who was heading out to meet Ian Corless for the event they both love so much. Niandi – not a fan of technical terrain either – assured me that most of the course was runnable but that the final long descent was tough.
Looking out of the window as we started to descend, a fellow passenger pointed out the lighthouse at Faro de Fuencaliente where the race started. He asked me if I had done the Vertical Kilometer the year before: he’d confused me with the English lady that won because I had similar specs on!
La Palma airport was a breeze to get through and we headed out to our beautiful accommodation just outside El Paso. Giles had found a fantastic spot. We had a three bedroom lodge in private woodland with only one other house on the premises. It even had goats, chickens and budgies! Greeted by the lovely caretaker, Mike and his dogs, Blackie and Fox, we were told we had fruit, beer, wine and eggs left for us. It was so peaceful there but we all needed a bit of air after the travelling, so Giles suggested we drive up to one of the race checkpoints, El Pilar and have a little run. The marathon also started there, four hours after us, and our other roomie, Barry, was doing it, so it would be useful for us all. This turned out to be another slice of paradise. Up a long, winding road we went and came to a secluded wood with a refuge and lots of picnic tables. Being a Tuesday afternoon it was very quiet, so we trotted out backwards along the route. We only went a few miles and got stalked by a very large, bold crow but it was a good leg stretch and reassuring that the course seemed runnable.
After a Hiper Dino pit stop for supplies, we crashed for the evening, Giles and Barry having the first of three nights of spag bol.
Wednesday was a leisurely start, then another run out, this time with a bit more purpose. We headed up to El Pilar again and went in the other direction, not before chatting to a couple of guys who were setting up the checkpoint. One of them told us he was planning on visiting England; the Scottish and Welsh parts! This section of the course is a wide fire road and comes about 13 miles in. We were running it really comfortably and it was a bit misty so just like being at home. We got to a checkpoint where the route started to climb again and while Giles wanted to go ‘just around the corner’, Jayson suggested we turn back and do a little tempo session of 4×3 minute efforts. Giles and Barry kept going and we turned back, this time taking the little single track routes off to the side. I was struggling a bit on the slight ups – the altitude was making it hard to breath deeply – but felt better for it.
Registration for the event started that day so we went and got it done that afternoon. There was a big marquee in the middle of Los Llamos where the race would finish and we’d done the right thing as there were no queues. The goody bag was awesome too! We came away with a pretty brash t-shirt, sleeves, socks, honey, cereal bar and some Spanish newspaper. I was particularly pleased about the honey 🙂 More lounging that evening and more spag bol for Giles and Barry.
On Thursday, we went out to the start, a pretty long drive to the bottom of the island. This would be done in the dark and we’d heard the horror stories about the tiny track you have to fight your way up. We parked up at the lighthouse and ran a couple of miles up along a very soft, black sand track which eventually gave way to slightly rockier terrain. This was what I thought of when I imagined a volcanic island; very barren and dark. We ran back down again, discussing how we could get off the track to the side in some places and hopefully not get too stuck in the traffic jam. Later that evening, we went out to watch the VK race. Once again, Giles’ local knowledge paid off and we got a prime spot to see the racers climbing up about 5km, or halfway, into the race. It was interesting to see the varied approaches to this event. The majority were power walking but the eventual leader ran, and looked very strong. We saw Luis Alberto Hernando – the ultra record holder – taking part in some kind of crazy warm up for the marathon on Saturday. I didn’t realise who he was but he was using poles so effortlessly: they just seemed to hang in his hands. Using mine in the Alps last year, I got handache from gripping them so tightly!
Friday was a rest day. I did some stretching and made sure I drank plenty, including a big glass of Precision Hydration 1500 to ensure I was properly hydrated beforehand. The stupid o’clock time of day we had to get the bus – 3.30am! – meant a very early night and a 2.30am alarm. Jayson’s phone had done something weird though so we ended up getting woken at 1.30am, started getting up then realised it was an hour slow. An extra hour at that time seemed luxurious.
Breakfast would have been tough at that time, so we all prepared something to eat on the bus there. We managed to buy some little throwaway boxes and did overnight oats with chia and nuts. Going to the loo was also going to be an issue: your body just doesn’t want to at that time! Surely there’d be something at the start though? The bus journey was not as quiet as the one to the CCC start, despite being much earlier, so there was no catnapping on the way. Once we reached the snaking road to the lighthouse, we were at a standstill. There were so many cars, people and other buses lighting up the road. Some of them were even spectators. This was a real taste of things to come: the locals love the race so much, they’re prepared to get up that early to see it start! We all filed off the bus and walked down to the lighthouse. Giles had told us that it had been cold down here before, so I wore my windproof (even though you only had to carry water, survival blanket, torch and phone) and Jayson had found a 7 Euro fleece that he was going to ditch at the start. It was very mild though and the mass of people made it seem warmer. I started queueing for the FOUR portaloos for 2000 people (!) when Jayson and Giles discovered there were a few more at the start line. We got through the fairly minimal kit check, where one of the marshals swooshed my ponytail, and went down to the start, where I walked straight into a portaloo that other people just hadn’t noticed. That was one pre-race concern dealt with!
For the first time, the race was attempting to section people off. The elites were in box 1, Jayson and I were in box 2 and Giles was in box 3. This only seemed to work at the front end though as we all stood together off to the left of the gantry. Half an hour later and with a lot of ACDC belting over the speakers, we were off. I really had to work to run up the first little climb to the lighthouse and not get barged too much. A loop around the lighthouse was probably intended to thin the crowd, but it didn’t do much. I got a bit stuck behind a couple that were trying to stay together, but she was slower than him and it wasn’t really working. I elbowed my way through people, sometimes running in the sand at the side of the trail, leaping rocks and foliage and thanking the organisers silently for banning poles for the first 7km. It started to spread out fairly quickly and I was able to run comfortably up towards the first checkpoint along a wide and winding path. It was also somewhere here that I realised I hadn’t started my watch, so when Giles appeared at my shoulder, I asked him how far we’d come and spent the rest of the race trying to calculate where I was! We stayed together up to Los Canarios, the first checkpoint.
Coming off the trail and onto the road into town, it was already starting to get light. I noticed that I was passing some box 1 ladies here and felt pretty chuffed with myself. The crowds pushed us on through town, with shouts of ‘vamos chica!’, ‘animo!’ and ‘venga!’ I think I topped up my bottles here and had a quick drink, then kept on out of the town and onto a wooded trail. As I walked, I took my torch off and stashed it in my pack, then started thinking about where I could go to the loo. There were people everywhere, not just runners, and the only option was to go off the course slightly. Giles was very encouraging about this decision, not because he wanted to get ahead of me I’m sure! After a quick pit stop, I ran on towards Las Deseadas at about 16km. I don’t remember much about this section, apart from seeing the sun colouring the sky through the trees and feeling pretty happy about what I was spending my Saturday doing.
This section is a bit fuzzy, but I certainly knew when I was about to hit El Pilar at 24.2km. The poles were out in force now, even on the flat sections, which wound me up a bit. I kept ending up just behind a guy with Walter written on the back of his t-shirt who was flailing his poles around without a thought for anyone. From then on, anyone with poor pole control became a ‘Walter’ so I could chunter about him in my head. We started on a nice easy descent down to the checkpoint, the start of the marathon and the end of the half. Having been there during the week, seeing the familiar trail was great, especially as I knew how easy the next section was. I had lots of sand and grit in my shoes though, so decided to empty them out here once I’d gone through. Following the slightly odd theme of the race, there were about 4 or 5 ladies at the checkpoint dressed up in aboriginal clothes, dancing around. They seemed very happy about it though, so it made me smile as I ran through to much cheering. This was the first checkpoint with food, so I grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich and some melon, and shoved a few orange segments in my skort pocket for later. I was about half an hour ahead of the marathon start, which is what I had hoped for. I knew if I could motor on a bit, I wouldn’t get engulfed by hundreds of speedies. After emptying my shoes out – which felt like a little reward – I encountered a gang of young blokes evidently out for a bit of a forest-race-party-Saturday. They were very vocal in their encouragement, and were shouting for me to vamos, so I thought I would. I did a little fake sprint, complete with grimace and they went absolutely mental. A bit of showboating obviously goes down well at Transvulcania!
The next checkpoint, El Reventon, was just a few miles later but was the last one for about 7 miles. This was the place to top up fluids rather than the bustling El Pilar. I got topped up, then started the long trek up to the high point of the course. It was here, on quite a narrow wooded track, that the lead marathoners came by. There was loads of shouting behind me, so much that I thought someone was arguing or something terrible had happened! I worked it out though when Hernando passed by me, striding away with his relaxed pole action, speaking to everyone that he passed. I got an ‘allez, vamos’: so thoughtful to cover French and Spanish for me. The next guy to pass was running but not moving as quickly as his rival. Amazing what practised walking can do.
The next couple of checkpoints have sort of blurred into one but this for me was where the real beauty of the island revealed itself. I also caught up to Giles and gave him some encouragement. We got into a checkpoint together and he took a couple of pictures of me, then I didn’t see him again. I think he was lingering in the checkpoints longer than I was as he was feeling the heat. The next section up to Roque de los Muchachos was what nearly brought me to tears. This is a weird metaphor so bear with me. I remember seeing The Lord of the Rings in the cinema for the first time and feeling like this was the best thing I was ever going to see and nothing else would compare. I was utterly blown away. I went to see it a few more times, but nothing – nothing – came close to that first experience. This was like that, only in real, actual, surround sound, 4D life. There were white clouds below me, with a blue sea peeking through in patches. The sky was the bluest I have ever seen, without an imperfection. I was surrounded by greenery, yellow and purple flowers, with swallows swooping around my head, chattering. I’m not joking when I say I nearly cried three times. Then, then! I saw this mass in the distance, sitting on top of the layer of clouds. I practically shrieked at some poor Spanish guy behind me, ‘Is that an island?’ He nodded. I shrieked again, ‘Which one?’ I think he said something like Gado Gado, then the more familiar Tenerife. You could only flippin see Tenerife! Stunning doesn’t cover it. While I was fully able to appreciate my surroundings, I had started to struggle in the altitude. I was approaching 2500 metres and all of the little climbs were taking it out of me. I was going well on the flats and descents, but had decided that I would enjoy the occasion rather than beat myself up about it.
The checkpoints at Pico de la Neive and Roque de los Muchachos were amazingly stocked and staffed. The marshals filled bottles and put them back in packs, chucked water over your head and tried to force feed you. I was eating and drinking well, tucking into sandwiches, melon, orange, cola and sweets, and stashing more for later. I was pleased with my speed in and out of checkpoints as we were now getting to the stage where the tents were looking like battlefield hospitals. Looking around at Roque de los Muchachos, there were some very broken looking people and I don’t think it would have been a good idea to linger.
Now this was where the 10 mile descent was supposed to start. I had been picturing nice, flowy switchbacks through trees but I got the polar opposite. For one, it wasn’t downhill all the way, as they say. There were some small climbs, then flats, downs, then climbs again. I started to wonder if the descent would ever really happen! And it was technical. There were loose rocks and very steep sections that I couldn’t get going on and I was getting overtaken, or standing aside. We did eventually get into the trees again and it started getting misty as we headed down through the clouds. Feeling quite comfortable, I was able to run well here in parts, but then I fell twice, once just sliding down some loose dirt, the second time, bashing my knee and my hand. I felt well ‘ard when a guy asked if I was okay and I just sloshed the blood away with some water and kept going. Ida Nilsson had two bloody knees at the end so I was in good company.
Coming down into El Time was the last time we were on really nice trails. This was where we had seen the VK on Thursday and it was quite urban. The path was very rocky here and really difficult to keep a pace on so I was stumbling, and it was getting very warm in the early afternoon. Some of the locals were well into their parties by this point too. There was one corner where someone had put bottles of beer and wine – I think they were for us! A lovely lady had also set up on impromptu aid station at the side of the road before the last drop down into Tazacorte with cola, Spanish omelette, sandwiches and cakes. I felt bad that I only wanted cola! Leaving El Time with only 7km to Tazacorte, it really was all downhill but not the positive I had expected. The surface was a lot of tarmac and very steep in places. I actually started zigzagging to try and preserve my legs a bit! The final run down was not really a run at all, as the switch back path was made up of slanting cobbles. From the town, it looked like a sheer cliff face and it was made harder by the now pounding sun. Finally reaching Tazacorte and sea level again, my breathing was back to normal, but I felt pretty ropey running up to the checkpoint and the end of the marathon route. Town was buzzing with amazing support and the checkpoint was great again. I poured some water over my neck, downed some cola, stashed some sweets and ran along the seafront eating oranges, ducking into the makeshift shower someone had set up. Then I had a little strop. It was only 5km to the end and I knew we had to run though a dried up river bed for a while, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so tricky. I ended up walking along the whole thing, even though it was flat, because of the boulders and sand. I also tried sharing my frustration with some fellow runners but I think they were either too knackered or too foreign to respond. Reaching the end of the riverbed, it was a relief to start going up again. The route weaves through the zillions of banana plantations on the island and crosses roads all the way back up to Los Llanos. I felt good here, just trekking away and passing people again. For the first time, someone spoke to me in English, a South African guy who I mistook for a Brit. He was pretty fed up and we agreed that this was a pretty evil thing to do after running down into a happy little seaside town where the marathoners were allowed to stop. I left him to his suffering and soldiered on. A bit more showboating at a road crossing – pretending to crawl up some steps to much cheering – and I was nearly there. The road flattened a little and some girl in a first floor window nearly dropped a bottle of water on my head. I did find it funny, so I knew I wasn’t feeling that bad. Rounding a corner into town, one man told me it was a km to the finish, another said a mile. Whatever: I knew it was close.
The final straight is fantastic. I thought running into Chamonix was incredible but this is very cleverly done. The route takes you up a long, straight road on a bike path, lined with bars and cafes. There were people everywhere shouting the familiar encouragement and children desperate to get a high five. There were some lovely signs that I won’t forget too, that I think summed it up. They said ‘You are a finisher’. To the people on this island, that’s just as praiseworthy as being a winner. A little turn at the top of the road and I could see the line, the big orange arch with the timer above it. Up until now, I hadn’t been able to work out how long I had taken because of the watch incident but I thought I would duck under 11 hours. The clock read 11.04! I was determined to not get over 11.05 though, so I picked up the pace, ruthlessly ignoring the little outstretched hands to cross the line in 11.04.55. Jayson was there, taking my picture as was a very eager cameraman. I laid on the floor for a bit (this is my new thing; try it, it’s great) and he shoved the camera in my face. I pointed him towards my bloody knee which he zoomed in on too, then proceeded to film Jayson and I hugging and chatting for about 5 minutes as there was no-one behind me. Little did either of us know that it was being broadcast live and is now on YouTube!
A couple of blisters, the grazed knee and hand, and a hole in my new socks were the only real war wounds so I took advantage of the free massage and then we waited for Giles and Barry. Jayson had done well, coming 88th in under 9.5 hours. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted but I think both of us suffered with the altitude. Giles took an hour off his PB and Barry was 2nd Brit back and top 100 in the marathon. I came 24th lady which was pretty amazing considering I was 3 hours behind the winner and new course record holder Ida Nilsson. There are lots of lessons to be learnt here but I think the most important is that wherever there are clouds, they’ll pass. The blue sky is always there, just waiting for it’s moment to amaze you.
I wore Injini socks and Hoka Challenger ATRs. These always work great for me and the two blisters were just from nasty hard skin that I need to get hacked off.
I used my UD pack which again was good, as we didn’t have to carry much. It is a bit on the small side for me though, so in hindsight I would get a bigger size.
Precision Hydration are definitely my go to drink now. I felt good all the way round in terms of digestion and thirst, after using the 1000 tablets. I did run out after a while though, so need to sort out my system for carrying more. I used a few of their salt tablets towards the end as I was really hot, which seemed to see me through.
Real food as always! I had a Chia Charge chocolate PB flapjack before the start and half of one a few miles in but then could only face fruit, sandwiches and sweets. I also had a Honey Stinger and Gu gel towards the end to give me a little kick.
Skort. That is all 🙂