I took this photo on the journey to La Palma and the Transvulcania Ultra. Thursday last saw me leave Bristol at 4am for a flight to Tenerife, a taxi with a great bunch of Irish from the South airport to the North airport and a flight from there to La Palma island. We rented a car from here and drove to our destination of Los Llanos. To cut a long story short it was a long days travel and boy was I glad I had a days recovery in between before the race on Saturday. Shaun and I had accomadation just outside Los LLanos where we would eventually finish, all going well, on Saturday afternoon.
Friday was a chilled out day, with coffee, croissants and plenty sunshine. We did a few last minute bits of shopping for some things for the race and registered along with 1,680 other people. Owen Boyhan joined myself and Shaun for some grub and we soaked up all he had to say about the race, having finished it last year. He is great for remembering all the minor details and alot of his knowledge would stand to me on race day. An early night, a few hours sleep and up at 2.30am to get on the road to the start line. This epic journey of finding the start line of Transvulcania almost complete!
We parked the car just outside town so we had an easy route home after the race and started to walk to catch the bus. I realised after a few minutes walk that I still had my glasses on. A quick dash back to the car and then back to Shaun had the heart rate flying and it was only 3.15am. The race would kick off at 6am from the Lighthouse at Faro de Fuencaliente, right on the most Southern tip of La Palma. Our bus was quiet with some tension but as always the ultra running community tend to be a pretty chilled out bunch. One thing that stood out to me was the incredible style of these european runners, looking so fit and no doubt the standard of runners was extremely high, way above anything I have ever experienced.
Before I really kick off this story I would like you to see the route that lay ahead. Here is a link. Zoom in on the map for an idea of the terrain and the distance covered.
So the real story starts from about 5.15am. Myself and Shaun decided to start together and hopefully get a little ahead of the big crowds. We had heard there can be bottlenecks on the narrow trails if you get caught at the back and thought it better avoid these. We hung around at the lighthouse in the dark, with a gale blowing dust around the 1700 competitors waiting to make their way down to the corral near the cliffs below. As we sat and ate a little we noticed a woman coming up from the cliffs covered in blood. It turns out she had fallen off the cliff to a area of rocks below, breaking an arm and some ribs as well as other bad bruising. The volcanic rocks had taken their first runner, before things had even kicked off. A harsh reminder of the type of terrain we faced ahead.
We made our way into the starting arena at about 5.25, a kit check on the way (very strict that we had our phone, foil blanket and both from and back lights). Once in the starting area we realised we were 600 athletes from the front of the line. It doesn’t seem like far but when you have the thoughts of being stopped for a time as the trail narrows we wanted to move forward. It was so tight this wasn’t gonna happen. The race had a Space Running theme this year and our man above was dancing at the start line (to thunderstuck) as the announcer interviewed the pros and asked their thoughts on things. Mr. Cody Reed, one of the favourites was asked. “are you a favourite today?”, his answer, “Yes”. You have to love this honesty, confidence and also the fact that the guy didn’t beat about the bush.
All of a sudden it was countdown and we were off. Shaun sprinted on ahead and I tucked in behind him. We weaved in and out of the crowd before finding some clearance along the right had side. I’m not sure what sort of numbers we passed to get to where we wanted to be but before long we were running alongside people of the same speed and started to settle into a rhythm. Let me also explain here that this was all winding uphill. The first few kilometres was incredible with crowds of people out cheering and fireworks on both sides of the course. Within a kilometre or two we turned right onto a steep sandy climb which took us straight up at a right angle until we hit more road.
This was like a forestry road, minus the trees, and it felt like running on mars. Little did I know this was the nicest terrain of the entire race, underfoot that is. According to the trackers we found ourselves in the top 50 by the time we reached Los Canarios. It was about 6.45 in the morning and the place was alive. There were hundreds of supporters out and I must say I think it was the best buzz of the day. A phenominal atmosphere to say the least. We were only 700metres into a massive climb and only 7km into a 74km race but it felt amazing to have this many people cheer you on.
As you can see above the next 10km would be a relentless climb. The headtorches were soon off and the sun began to rise, along with the mountain. The trail was very sandy and soft in sections, as well as rocky and it was beginning to get more technical. Shaun soon began to peel away from me around the 12km mark and I knew I had to race my own race. It is easy to get taken into someone elses race. I had said to Shaun before the race to race his race. Your own plans are the ones to stick to in a race this long. We had both come to La Palma to give it our all but this meant sticking to our own plans and mine was to go by how my body felt. In saying this I felt really good early on and decided to fast hike all the hills and run anything in between.
Anyone that climbs mountains understands the term false peak. Coming to where you think is the top and realising the top is still far away. This would happen a lot today, however I had semi memorised the distances to each summit as well as the elevation so most of the time I knew exactly where I was. The sun was just up at Las Daseadas summit and the views just amazing, looking back down on the cloud in the hills below.
The next checkpoint was at the finish of the half marathon route at El Pilar. This came after a fast descent from Las Daseadas through the foreast and some good runnable trail. I ran into the checkpoint in just over 3 hours and felt considering the mammoth climb we had already put behind us that I was moving well. I stocked up on food and water, the aid stations being pretty fantastic by the way, and off I went. The crowds here were electric as the half marathon would finish here soon after I went through. The next 10km was mostly along a flat muddy road across the peak to El Reventon. This is one of the only flat sections all day. My legs were not moving like I wished on the flat and I started to lose a few places on this section. I wasn’t in any way worried about losing a few places as I knew I was well ahead of where I thought I would be. “Race your race”.
A quick pit stop in the woods for a toilet break and back on the trail feeling a lot better, to say the least. The last 10km had been wet and almost cold with a strong wind as I was down in the cloud line. The course soon began to climb again and we would climb small peaks, descend off them into forests before climbing again into the sun and the heat. I was drinking more water than ever in a race but knew this was the key to trying to finish. I fueled almost entirely on Tailwind. This product is incredible when it comes to long distance. I had a few jellies, a few bits of fruit and two gels as food all day. Apart from that I fueled solely on Tailwind in my bottles all day. Thank you Tailwind.
The next checkpoint, that I can remember at least was at Pico De La Cruz, at 2294metres elevation. The 10km before Pico was tough, winding through very technical trail, fast descents. sluggish climbs and the heat was starting to ramp up. I jogged into the checkpoint. I noticed I was starting to tire a bit as I couldn’t fill my bottles too easily and I needed a minute or two to gather myself. A woman poured two jugs of water over me which was amazing and I would make sure to get this at every opportunity as the day went on. My little Irish body was at melting point and the watch was reading 25 degrees. I left Pico and the climb began instantly as we crawled up the side of a steep hill. It was about 4km from Roque de los Muchachos, one of the famous checkpoints and highest point on the route. At the top of this steep climb I could see Muchachos in the distance but this 4k would be the toughest section of up and down running all day. I had been passed by quite a few but had reeled one or two of them back in again. It really was amazing racing. The scenery was just incredible. Imagine racing but also seeing views like these.
I summitted peak after peak, dropping two or three hundred metres and then back up again, the heat sweltering my bones as I watched the ground for any rogue rocks that might appear. The terrain was totally unforgiving. Sharp rocks, loose rocks, oh and did I mention, ROCKS everywhere. I had one or two hairy moments as I tripped but I never actually fell. It was more like stumbles and oh crap that could of been a disaster sort of feeling! At one stage, just after one of the pros had bombed by (Kelly Wolf, who would take third lady, finishing the last quarter of the race in emphatic style), I stumbled and was catapulted forward coming into a bend. I barely kept my balance and took the bend without falling. Thankfully so as there was a huge drop off the edge of the trail on that corner. It all goes to show how careful you have to be on these trails.
I eventually arrived at Roque de la Muchachos in serious need of more water and food but not wishing to hang around either. I knew there was basically 20km of downhill ahead and the downhill at this stage of a race is extremely tough. I stood under some nice cold water as some guys showered me down and after a bite to eat, some jellies stashed in the pack, I was off and moving again.
The downhill was relentless. It went on and on, rolling down the valley. The terrain became harder to navigate with so much rock and loose ground. A few athletes bombed past me, clearly having more left in the legs, plus I’m sure the heat was starting to impact my performance. The last 7km of the descent was the same 7km as the Vertical Km race which took place on Thursday from Tazacorte, the town you can see below me in the photo above. This 7km was steep, with small sections of road and sections of slab rock as well as loose rock. My legs were slowing down more on this section. I actually felt great on the first 10k or so after Muchachos and had ran some of the downhill pretty fast. It was the Vertical Km course that smashed me up. I zig zagged down the cliff face and eventually came to the bottom in Tazacorte. This was the finishing point for the marathon, some of which had passed us in the last few hours. More water and coke top ups here, a quick stop for a dance with some kids in the water shower and away once more. I met a nice spanish guy with good English who said it was only 5km to the finish and only just up and over that hill. He pointed to this massive cliff too the right hand side of the dry river bed we were running up.
I managed to run most of the river bed (which was entirely composed of loose gravel and shale), but by the time I stepped off it my legs were dead and my body overheating. Once again some locals stood on the side of the trail and they gave me cold water and a glass of ice which I threw down my back. I stopped, leaning on my poles and told my body to cop on, I’m only 2.5km away now and I want to finish, maybe even in under 10 hours. One foot onfront of the other and move your ass. I climbed so slowly but I climbed. I met two medics with a guy who wasn’t going to make it at the halfway point of the climb. I told myself that I have legs and they can move and that I’m so lucky to be where I am, don’t blow this now. At the top of the hill I was met by a woman with her garden hose which she was cooling people down with. I got a full shower and turned the corner to see the finishing straight. An almost 2km of a straight but it was the finish and I was going to make it. I ran along past cafes and pubs with people cheering and kids running alongside. Animo, Animo, Animo, was the shout of the day, meaning go for it or come on. As I passed one of the Cafes a guy held out a small glass of beer. My eyes opened wide and I laughed as I grabbed the beer and chugged almost all of it before pouring the rest on my head. The cafe erupted into cheers of laughter. No doubt they saw the flag on my bib and realised I was only doing it for my country!!
The finish was incredible with lots of people still cheering us on, even though the winners were in over an hour and a half before. I met Shaun, who looked just like I felt. He had finished 20 minutes before me in a time of 9.28, in 62nd position and had definately left every ounce of energy out there. He mentioned very similar feelings to mine, with the last quarter of the race really hurting. In fairness we did go out hard, but I still think that downhill in the heat would zap anyone. Try running downhill in the heat on a training day, you will sleep that night.
So I had finished 93rd position overall, a top 100 for my first big international race. I couldn’t be much happier with that. The journey had come to an end in Los Llanos and considering a few toe cramps I actually started to recover pretty well after food and a nice cold beer. An epic race and one I will remember forever. We had done ourselves proud and all the training and hard work was paying off. I hope to be back some day, for now I’m not sure when that will be but I would recommend to all trail ultra runners to take on the mighty Transvulcania Ultramarathon.