With so many incredible races around the world to chose from the challenges for distance runners never end. Take the Bob Graham for example, the same run can vary from a hot crystal clear day (rare) to zero visibility, strong to insane winds, torrential rain and subzero temperatures (time to call it off). The world is a natural playground full of mountains to climb, deserts to cross and conditions to thrive or risk death. These days you name it and somebody has put a race around/ up and over it; who says we are sensation seekers!
The trip to Transvulcania started when I saw this YouTube video after last year’s race.
I immediately posted it to Facebook stating it should be on the list. With normal friends this would have been fine, but Tin Wilcock picked up on it and next thing I know I’m in Croydon away on business phoning Laura to see if a trip would be authorised through fear that the race would sell out!
Fast forward to 5am Friday 10th May and I find myself sharing a cab with Tin and Sam Robson to the airport. Armed with hand luggage, a cardboard box, 2 bin liners and a roll of parcel tape we met with local ultra legend Richie Webster and manufactured our shared hold luggage. Not realising we only had a 6kg hand luggage limit we frantically had to ditch weight before the bags were weighed and then put it all back in on the sly. Yep it’s sneaky and against the rules, but it found us on the plane with no extra charges.
Friday we spent travelling and registering only to find that (a) we didn’t have a seat on the bus, and (b) our Spanish was not good enough. It had been a planes, trains and automobiles day (albeit taxi, plane, hire car, plane, hire car) faffing aside we got to bed with about five hours before wake up.
Walking down to the lighthouse at Fuencaliente there was no doubt this was going to be a special event. I’ve never experienced a big European razzmatazz style event, in the UK it’s usually turn up in a field and somebody says; “off you go then”. Here we found warm up compares and music, a remote controlled flying camera to take in the enormous crowd of 1600 runners ready to take on the 83KM course along with a bit of pushing and shoving. The results from the flying camera can be seen between 3:18 and 4:20 here:
My plan was pretty straightforward, I’m terrible for nervous energy and adrenaline surges at the sound of the gun so getting as close to the front as possible for the first climb as the narrow tracks would make it very difficult and risky to pass was critical to me having a good day and conserving energy.
I also wanted to get as much of the course completed before the sun came up as I knew heat would be the biggest enemy of the day.
Headlamp beams illuminate the start from Fuencaliente lighthouse. Transvulcania 2012 © Transvulcania/La Palma
Knowing heat would be an issue I’d dashed out a rush order for a batman style utility belt arriving on the Wednesday I’d had time for one run with it before the race… it’s good to try new kit on the day though right? Luckily I’d made the right decision and the Nathan Trail Mix 4 and my Nathan hand held was all I needed. My Review is here, but in summary it was stable enough to be comfortable, lightweight, low surface area and everything was easy to access – recommended kit!
We were off! (see previous YouTube link) Adrenaline surge and the usual frantic running around people (why go to the front if you are not going to go out fast?) on and off the trail probably using up far too much energy, but it made for a lot of fun. The surface was a nightmare to run on; black volcanic sand and mini football sized sharp volcanic rocks just sap energy but I sound found a rhythm. All i had to do was keep going on the incline (average 10%) to 2000m and I’d have the main climb and almost ¼ of the overall distance in the bag.
The first village the race hits is just over 7KM in and the streets of Los Canarios are lined with people – Tour de France style. It’s fantastic how proud the people are of their island’s race and how they cheer on the runners – it’s no exaggeration to say they genuinely make you feel like a super human and look upon you with heartfelt admiration… inspiring stuff! I never tired of hearing “Venga, venga, venga” despite that nagging feeling in my mind that Venga may be a reference to the Venga boys! The other shouts of “ánimo!” were also constant (I translated this in my mind to “Animal!” as for some reason that motivated me well).
Sam overtook me at the village and was cracking on. I was happy in my rhythm and not looking to push myself to the red just to keep up. Good sign that my ego was firmly in check! Sam has been putting in a load of impressive performances – the last being a second place snatched from the jaws of victory through a series of navigational errors during the 147 mile Viking way. He’s been going out hard and, whilst I feel I’ve got my fell racing speed back, I’d not run really long for quite some time.
I necked a drink and cracked on surrounded by people that either have money to burn (£120 on a pair of shorts anyone?) or were sponsored. Whilst the Spanish economy is struggling, the ultra runners certainly are not! It was hard not to put a huge smile on my face as we broke into the woods. The sand and soft moving ground was still underfoot, but the trees made a change from the moonscape and provided cooling properties.
The sun rise was beautiful and energising. Golden rays penetrated the trees and the sweat started to increase. I realised that I’d forgotten to tape my nipples – a huge error when only running in a vest. I started to panic a bit as rubbing is one of the few things that can take me out of the game.
The incline was runnable in most places and I was picking off runners – the fells certainly helped in this respect, if only I was a little further on in the season and had not been out so long post Dragon’s back. I found I was taking big chunks out of people on the downs and the flats until I finally saw some medicos and stopped for some tape. Charades ensued – note to self, save yourself 5 minutes and 50 places by knowing the word for tape in Spanish.
Checkpoint 2 done and I still hadn’t drained the 1.2 litres I started with in my belt. At the time I wasn’t too worried as it had been dark for most of the time. I filled my handbottle with a zero tab and a homemade powder (Maltodextrin and Fructose 2:1) and 2 of my belt bottles (300ml each) before finishing the first big climb. 2 hours 40 minutes into the race and I’m feeling good.
Ahh, descent at last, I’m flying past people and I think I’ve finally taken back the places I lost getting tape. The paths begin to roll and there are some fantastic single track sections. The views last for miles and it’s mostly in the shade. Every couple of minutes I pass a random spectator encouraging me to speed on, but my mind is on my feet and the sand I can feel in my shoe. Do I stop and empty or risk a blister? The first rule of long distance events is to manage any rubbing as soon as it is identified or, preferably, before! Muscular aches/ fatigues, bonking, etc. are all things that can be managed, but the most seemingly innocuous of rubs can take you out of a race as you just can’t take the pain; It’s why boxers target any open wounds. I stop, loose countless places again, but at least my feet are free from the irritant and a quiet confidence returns as my mind relaxes again.
Up ahead I can hear the next aid station, it’s probably 1KM away in the end, but what a ride! The path has varied from great runnable downhill single track to wide, steep, sandy uphill but coming into that aid station is the memory that will linger. Beautiful single track, overtaking people, anticipation of the baying crowd set up Tour de France style along the edges and then the reality of all those elements intensified through the realisation it’s for you was just epic. (7:03-7:45 on the YouTube video gives you a taste as do these:
***Video to be uploaded***
For me it was worth everything just to run into El Pilar. What a highlight.
I raced through El Pilar, grabbing a couple of powerbars and some fruit, encouraged by the crowd I didn’t stop for fluid as I still had plenty. Mistake. Firstly I was to find that powerbars are truly disgusting. Secondly I’m just not drinking enough. Charging out onto the wide dusty path I felt the adrenaline subside and the heat take it’s place. As the sun punished me I was left taking stock of my food and fluids. I’d planned to take enough food to get me to the aid stations and a few spare gels, but I’d assumed powerbars would be edible. I also knew I’d made a mistake by not forcing myself to drink. Too late, done now, move on.
From El Pilar to the Observatories at Roque de los Muchachos I started to struggle. I knew I didn’t have the miles in my legs to keep going with real strength and the heat was beginning to get to me. The paths go up and down on steep switchbacks, but it’s mostly up as the shade is slowly stripped away. My GPS was also showing that I was less than 2/5thinto the run. Something I now know not to be true (for some reason all our GPS readings came out very short). Psychologically I dipped thinking I had more to go than I did, combined with the expectation of how I would feel not matching how I actually felt.
Richie Webster is a true Ultra veteran having run almost every race I’ve heard of and a truck load that I haven’t. His experience really counts and one trick I’ll take away is that he carries with him a laminated course profile. If I’d have had this I’d have known I was closer to the 25 mile mark rather than 20 miles, but I’d also have known where each future aid station was. All I remembered was that they were about every 8KM apart.
I was drinking much better now, but it was too late. A big group of middle packers passed me and I struggled to respond or even keep up. I then made another mistake at a check point where despite stopping for a couple of minutes and taking on fuel I didn’t double check I had everything before I left. In my head I’d filled all bottles, in reality I’d just filled my hand bottle. Luckily they put on an extra aid station 5KM later which I reached pretty quickly. The fear of running out of water still haunting me and preventing me from draining what I had. My downhill was still good though and I would catch up/ overtake countless people on these sections. Knowing there was a big long downhill coming meant I stabilised psychologically and just dug in. I can churn out miles and it’s really all about constant forward motion – that’s what I did.
When I race I never take a stereo – I prefer the sounds of the race and the natural environment; the bird song, the creaking of trees, the sound of my progress through long grass, the silence. Most races I’ll get chatting to somebody for a period then find my own space again – a conversation helps the miles fly past. Here I felt really quite alone; there were no audible natural sounds, no birdsong, conversation was sparse/ none existent when I craved it and… well, I found myself wishing I had my stereo as I slogged out the mid-section. I even resorted to singing to myself (in my head mind, I’m not a loony). I guess the lack of English speakers surprised me and my interaction of “mucho calor”, “Si, Si” wasn’t cutting it – if I ran it again or a race like it I’d take an emergency stereo to help with any tough miles; it was just the lack of natural sounds I found really eerie – It took me a while to put my finger on it but I think that was it.
I finally arrived at the observatories. There was a classic series of false summits and “it’s just around this corner” thoughts as the sound from the aid station travelled for miles. I ran the final switchbacks (showing off to the crowd… ego still in check?) much to the rapture of one particularly vocal spectator. My Spanish is limited but I picked up that I was the only person foolish enough to still be running at this stage.
Mentally I was ready for the downhill. I’d spent the last 30 minutes on the bring of cramp and still hadn’t had a wee yet. Considering how much I felt I was drinking now this unnerved me and the constant mini cramp episodes when in a certain position told me all I needed to know. Flashbacks of the agony I felt whilst climbing Trefan on the DBR haunted me but I managed to put that experience to good use and kept it at bay.
This is the major checkpoint en route. Food ranged from fruit to pasta and the drinks from water to coke to powerade (why drink something blue I thought as I finished my bright green drink – the irony). I tried to cool off and many people had stopped for an extended break here. As I had an improvised shower and dunked my buffs (full one for my neck and 2* ½ buffs around my wrists) my temperature did come down but not for long. I faffed around, torn between sitting down and cracking on. I triple checked my water position and how far to the next aid station then headed out.
My expectations of immediate downhill were shattered as the path continued to climb, eventually the descent began. I’d thought this would be the time to make some places up but my legs weren’t working properly and certain positions triggered the cramp. Oh dear! Out of nowhere all the people that have been poor descenders had suddenly turned into gazelles, skipping past me – how did that happen?
My temperature was soon up again. I drank my electrolytes and tried to enjoy the down, but with the temperature soaring with every meter of altitude lost I was struggling.
Every now and then I’d pass somebody in a worse state than me, but they were few and far between. This section did have some very runable gradient and usually I’d have made some real time here. It wasn’t as technical as I’d expected and the forest surroundings were very welcome – without this shade it would have felt like I was descending into Hades.
I’m inadvertently making this run sound horrific – it wasn’t, I loved it, it was just very hard to really run despite it being runable in most sections. A lack of acclimatisation and simply being too white to be there was the real problem, the other part was failing to keep on top of my fluids – the trail is beautiful and I’d recommend a visit and trek to anyone! The race organisation, atmosphere, marshals, medics, etc were absolutely first rate. I couldn’t fault it at all – it’s definitely a race to do!
I finally reached the aid station at Torre Forestal de El Time and having decided a long time ago that the race was over for me and it was now all about enjoyment, I stopped to cool off. I must have been there 20-30 minutes just sat there in the shade getting dunked in water every now and then. Several causalities came and when in this time – a Spanish lady arrived with double vision which was a shame as she had been going really well, but any race like this is not about doing well for a period, it’s about finishing well overall. Many people ran better than me at the DBR, but they didn’t manage the overall race and thus didn’t finish. In that case it’s about knowing that you’ve got to get up every day and do it all again. All of these races are experience and you learn more from a fail than a finish, but it is nice to finish! Does this make me run too safe and within myself? Probably, but I don’t fear a DNF, I don’t think it is an embarrassment or anything like that. Frankly there is enough machismo in ultras as it is. People are out there doing amazing things; e.g., running 50 miles, yet the conversation will quickly turn to 100 miles and beyond, or not needing water/ food for super human distances or people taking a ridiculous event and doubling it or more. At the end of the day there is always someone, somewhere doing something crazier than you, so the trick is to get over it, not get involved and find what you enjoy.
Back to the race. Whilst I was at the Torre Forestal de El Time aid station I saw a bloke being stretchered off to an ambulance. He looked British but no words of English were spoken so I didn’t feel right to approach him. I’d had a friend request on Facebook just before the event by Ant Bethell and we’d agreed to try to all meet up for a beer after the race as he was going out on his own. Seeing this guy had nagged at me, for some reason I was convinced it was him, but it just didn’t feel like the right time to ask as he was being put in the back of an ambulance, in my mind it would go something like:
“Erm, excused me, are you Ant Bethell?”
“Why yes I am, but I’m a bit busy right now”
“Quite right, sorry. Toodle pip!”
I left it. Turned out it was him – a real shame as he had spent almost all of the race in the top 50 (given that there were something in the region of 50 elite runners this was no mean feat! The heat had got him and chronic cramp had set in).
Time to get going, I couldn’t sit here all day, but the going was slow! Keeping the cramp at bay meant I couldn’t put my legs in certain positions required for downhill movement. At one point I cramped, yelping out and scaring the life out of the guy in front. It was just about survival now.
I’d got running again when a bloke collapsed 20 yards in front of me. He got back up with the help of four Spaniards and I’d figured I’d leave them to it until I got closer and could see he was an English speaker. He was Canadian and I took him on. A Belgian guy with fantastic English also stopped so we helped him to the next road crossing and the medicos.
It was such a sad sight. He was determined to keep going and we couldn’t get him to stop. I suspect he won’t remember any of it and was just on auto pilot. In his mind he was so close to the end and just wanted to finish. He was desperately trying not to cry which he just about managed but I almost didn’t. Flashbacks to day 5 of the DBR put me in his position emotionally in an instant. Exhaustion removes any mental defences against extreme emotion, but I just about managed to pull myself together. The Belgian chap kept telling me to go on and I know a crowd is not wanted so once he was with the medicos I cracked on. Happy knowing he was safe and my explanations of ‘Calor’ had surely helped
The very final section down to the beach was a cruel set of steep switchbacks. With a good set of legs it would have been ok-ish, but on tired legs it was torture – it went on forever and the heat just intensified with every step. It was worth it for the final aid station though – loud music, incredibly attentive and helpful marshals and shade! I had been contemplating a detour for a dip in the sea all the way down, but there was a young boy who was delighting in pouring water over anybody who wanted it.
I made another long stop to try to cool down, probably 15+ minutes just enjoying the atmosphere before finally setting off again. My legs felt fresher and I started taking places; gaining upwards of half a mile on some people before hitting the incredibly steep cobble switchbacks to the finish. At one point near the top a family had a hose running and from 20 yards above our heads we had a tremendous cold shower. Never has this been so welcome!
Shortly after the shower the road pretty much levelled off. Leaving about a mile to the finish. Closing in on the finish the streets side cafes were full of people drinking in the sun and cheering on the runners. Shouts of “ánimo, ánimo” and “Venga, venga, venga” intensified. I took another place down this road before entering the final corners begging for the end. The red carpet finish was great – high fives everywhere and a feeling of having really achieved something. Managing to keep the cramp at bay, finishing strong rather than walking it out and having really enjoyed it – despite the struggles. I confess I crossed the line with my arms in the air as if I’d won – there were cameras about and besides I was saluting the crowd as much as anything else.
The finish was decked out with cold paddling pools, showers, masseurs and medicos. Massage I think!
I tried to get my shoes off. Folded in half at the waist, having to immediately straight ever 2 seconds as some part of my legs cramped making comedy viewing for the spectators. After several attempts I got them off, showered my legs and got in line. I saw Sam just as I got on the table. He’d finished in 11:03:35 (158th) See his race report here. In the end this was just 14 minutes ahead of me rather than the several hours I’d expected. Seriously surprised given my torrid middle to end – we agreed to catch up later as my masseur was ready to go.
The first attempt… ok, the first touch and my foot spasmed into cramp. I gritted my teeth and tried desperately to translate cramp into Spanish. My toes were locked in different directions so it was pretty obvious. She tried again, the agonising cramps immediately started again and her actions of stretching the foot to stop the cramp caused cramp in my shin, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her. After the third time she disappeared off to the medico tent. I was asked to stand and immediately my whole left leg spasmed. I was there, teeth gritted, whilst they casually discussed what to do. I pointed to my leg which was quite literally dancing – the muscles were contracting involuntarily back and forth as per this video from Ant Bethell I’d never seen anything like it before. I was told I would go on a drip and a stretcher was wheeled over. I felt a total fool.
I passed Sam – his shock apparent and his concern touching, but I just felt like a total idiot for getting into that state. As I lay waiting for an IV my legs went through wave after wave. I gripped the drip stand and gritted my teeth trying not to scream. To my surprise the tent was full with a number of local (ish) runners taking up the beds. I apologised to the medico who casually replied; “Don’t worry, it’s normal” brushing it off as if they expected to treat every runner.
Fair play, the Medicos were fantastic. After it was determined that I had no allergies and that I was not sikh (felt a little random given my shaved head!) I got a bag of saline and a bag of muscle relaxant – combined with 3.5 plates of the finishers Paella and some cola it’s the best recovery package on the market! Next day I could have run again. Bonkers.
Turned out it had been eventful for both Sam and Tin too with Richie the only one to escape unscathed. Sam had similar cramp issues and had fallen over as a result a couple of times on the way down cracking his knees at one point. Tin ran off a cliff (I’m not joking!) after slipping on volcanic dust, thankfully bouncing to within an inch or two of safety – his knee bleeding badly it looked worse than it was but mixed with his Union Jack rock tape (strapping for his knee) resulted in plenty of extra shouts and gasps at the ‘crazy English’ running the race. He also provided the best story having lost his hat early on in the race. Running without a hat, his head had boiled. Near the observatories a camera man in front stumbled and Tin helped him. Turned out he was a Channel 4 camera man. To cut a long story short Tin agreed to stop and have an interview in return for the bloke’s cap. After babbling incoherently for a bit the chap asked him if he could describe what it was like to be a part of the race. The camera recorded as Tin replied; “It’s like running up a volcano… and it’s f***ing hot!” The camera stopped, Tin got his hat. Despite summing it up in what has taken me almost 4500 words to do, I doubt it will make the show!
Distance: 83.3 km (51.8 mi)
Cumulative elevation gain of 4415 meters, and elevation loss of 4110 meters