Monday 13 May 2013

Transvulcania de La Palma Race Report - May 2013

This weekend I was lucky enough to head over to the beautiful island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, to take part in one of the top races in the world ultra calendar; Transvulcania. Last year, this was very possibly the biggest Ultramarathon in terms of media coverage, with the combined forces of iRunFar, Ultra168 and Talk Ultra to allow us to follow along from home. But this year, I would actually get to be there.

After a fantastic week away in the Peak District (just as a sort of acclimatisation to hills between Cambridgeshire and La Palma) with my wife and daughter, I left to meet up with Chris Baynham-Hughes, Martin Wilcock and Richard Webster to begin the rather convoluted journey to the "Isla Bonita". A very early 4am start, a taxi to the airport, a flight from Manchester to Tenerife, a hire car to the airport on the other side of the island, another flight to La Palma, and another hire car for use on the island itself, and we were there!

Resistance training
We drove directly over to the registration point at the finish line in Los Llanos, collected our numbers and timing chips, and tried to decipher what we needed to do the following day. There was a whole lot of Spanglish going on on our parts, with Chris as our designated translator. He knew the Spanish for right, but not for left, which was good enough. Although he didn't know the word for "veruca sock" unfortunately.

After soaking in a little atmosphere, working out logistics for meeting up afterwards, and a bit of difficulty in finding the place we were staying (we ended up popping into a hotel to find out where we were going only to find that was the place - it was just helpfully called something different) we finally made it to our apartments. After a quick dinner of paella and a beer, we finally got to bed close to 11pm, with a 3am wake up planned to get sorted and out to the start at Fuencaliente lighthouse. An awesome way to prepare for a race like this!

Team Onada - 'No Kōfuku!' (no surrender)
In the morning I was pleased to see that I had no ill effects from the previous night's paella (those prawns looked a bit fishy to me), and got myself ready. I was trying a few different things for this race, using an UltrAspire Isomeric handheld combined with my UltrAspire Impulse waist pack (with only one empty bottle in it just in case I needed more fluids) instead of my Salomon pack, my Salomon Sense Mantras instead of my Speedcross, and some X-Bionic gear that had been sent to me to test (review to follow). Not really the best plan to try new things on race day (particularly not, y'know, everything!), but I think it was the right call.

We drove to the lighthouse that would be the start for the race, leaving our car in a random patch of brush along the winding mountain road that led to the bottom. We had noticed on the way that the petrol situation was looking pretty dire - never mind whether we would make it to the hotel; we weren't sure we would make it back up the hill! Oh well, we would worry about it later. I'm sure we would be fine to push it back after the race...

The start was a mass of people all gathered for the off. There were apparently 1,650 people registered, although I'm not sure how many actually ran. Two notable DNS's were Anna Frost (the previous year's winner) who decided to avoid running to allow herself to recuperate, and Anton Krupicka who unfortunately came down with the flu just days earlier. We were not too far from the start line, although there were still a huge number of people ahead.

I think there's a guy on the left who doesn't have any Salomon gear on at all. How did he get through the checks?!
There was a real party atmosphere, with commentators saying many inspiring things (I think - I have no idea really) and an odd UFO in the sky taking film footage. If it really was an alien, I'd hate to think what kind of skewed opinion of humanity they might take away from it. I suspect that they would probably assume that we were all sponsored by Salomon... Or owned by them. Ah, the wisdom of Salomon.

At 6am, still under the cover of darkness, we were off! Well, sort of. The road quickly narrowed past the lighthouse, and narrowed further to a single track path back up the hill, causing an insane amount of bottle necking. It's always very frustrating when this happens and it must be so nice for the guys in the lead to not have to deal with it! The four of us battled our way up the hill, finding ways whenever we could to get in front of the people ahead of us. It was steep, but it was far too early to be walking darn it! I couldn't help thinking to myself, "I'm only racing myself here, but you're in my way!". After dodging poles to the eyes and groin, other people attempting to get through the throng (one of whom sent me sprawling quite impressively), and a giant boulder rolling down and hitting me in the ankles (probably kicked down by Kilian when he heard I was closing the gap), I finally reached a point where I could get running.

The race profile looks pretty scary, with the first 20Km taking you up above 2,000m, meaning a 10% incline. But there were actually some pretty runnable sections, and I was able to maintain a pretty good pace as we went. Of course there were also some bloody tough climbs as well, including one where I went sprawling right as one of the (many) cameramen on the course caught me. Look out for that great picture soon.

Note the speed blur...
Richard and Martin had started out roughly together, and I bumped into Chris as we came into the first aid station at Los Canarios. All 3 are amazing runners and we had no idea which us would make it to the finish first, making the decision of who should keep hold of the car key difficult! After running into the aid station with Chris to the rapturous applause, cheers of "Vaya! Vaya!", and cowbell ringing of the locals (you don't get that sort of thing at the Grand Union Canal), I headed off on my own.

I was running on feel rather than pushing for anything in particular, and was keeping up a tough but manageable pace. I wasn't sure if I was going too hard only to blow up before the end, or if I was being overly-conservative on the hills. I'm not overly great at hills, but cope okay considering I live in the flattest part of a pretty flat part of the world. The terrain for the most part was volcanic ash up the first major climb (excitingly putting me in danger of developing one of my favourite diseases; pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniconeosis), opening out into a forest path as the sun came up. The route follows two long distance 'Grand Routes; the GR130 ands GR131, which are well sign posted with markings along the way painted on the rocks. There was never really an opportunity to go wrong (and believe me, I tried...) and anywhere that there could be an error somebody was posted to direct us.

I'll be up there soon
As the sun rose and the cloud burnt off, the heat began to rise. For the first few hours it wasn't too bad, but as the day went on it rose towards the 30 degree mark. Being a very white, overly hairy guy from England, I wasn't overly prepared for this weather - particularly given the winter we have just had. A combination of regularly dipping my head in water buckets at the checkpoints, my new X-Bionic Fennec shirt to keep my core cool, and using a waist pack rather than a back pack seemed to do the trick, and I was never more than just uncomfortable. Others weren't quite so lucky, and lots of the first aid points along the way were filled by people suffering from various effects of the heat. I dread to think what the attrition rate was for the race, but it looked quite significant. I believe fewer than 1,000 finished but don't know how many started.

My nutrition and hydration were going well. I was using a gel every 1.5 hours (a combination of TORQ and GU), slightly more regularly than my usual 2 hour approach. I was careful not to over-drink which meant that electrolytes weren't too much of an issue even in the heat. Most of the time I had almost half a bottle remaining at the next aid station when refilling. The next checkpoint at Las Deseadas was at the summit of the first long climb. We had figured that a 10 hour finish would mean getting in here in about 2.5 hours. I came in in 2:27:10 which was a good sign.

Easy to spot!
After this, the route dropped again towards the Refugio El Pilar, allowing some time to be made up in the descent. This was the first "full" aid station, with food as well as just water like the previous two, so I took the opportunity to shotgun a whole bunch of fruit before carrying on again.

The next third of the course didn't look so bad. Well, on the course profile at least. On the course profile it was a long ridge run giving fantastic views of the island, generally uphill, with one very steep significant climb in the middle up to the highest point of the course at the observatory of Los Roque de Los Muchachos. In reality it was fooking tough all round! The terrain was very runnable in places, but there were a lot more steep climbs than I had anticipated. Not quite the speedy ridge run that I had envisaged, but hot damn if the views weren't stunning. The route followed a horseshoe shape from the south of the island, travelling over the highest point in the centre then West down to the coastal town of Tazacorte. We could see all of this ahead of us and it was stunning.

Now this is running
In the ever-stifling heat of the day, the glittering sapphire-blue ocean off in the distance that marked the end of our adventure was already a welcome beacon to our tired minds. But there was a long way to go yet!

And so is this
By this point things were looking and feeling really good. My choice of gear selection was working brilliantly with no issues, hydration and nutrition were going well, my legs felt strong, and I was comfortably sat in the top 100.

Well I don't think that the poles are Salomon branded
Being so open, the aid stations could be seen (and heard) from quite a distance away. In some ways this was bad as it could give you a false sense of perspective for how far you had to go. Sometimes it was weird as you could hear the cheering and shouting but couldn't see signs of the aid station anywhere in the distance. But in other ways it really brought the race alive for me, particularly as for a lot of it I was running alone. This was the first long distance race that I have ever done without my iPod, and it was nice to have the varied shouts of the race to fill the void usually filled by rock music and Stephen King books.

So near yet so far
The aid station near the observatory by Roque de Los Muchachos that marks the highest point of La Palma was visible/audible for a long while in advance, and the final climb up the hill was pretty steep and rocky, occasionally requiring hands for balance. Not quite scrambling like something like Cavalls del Vent, but not far off in places. This was to be (for the most part at least) the end of the 'up'. From here on out it was pretty much downhill all the way.

Rocks! \m/
For some reason, I seem to cope quite well with downhills and am usually able to make up time with an aggressive approach. Up until now I had been losing a few places here and there on the ups, but gaining a lot of places on the downs. This was therefore the section that I had been looking forward to as I was planning on really starting to cook here. I decided to have a quick refuel as I was not planning on eating much more on the way to the finish about 25 Km away. With over 2.5 hours to go to finish in 10 hours I should have been laughing, although it was insane to think that the winners had already finished by that point. The elites really are in a completely different class. I had about a mouthful of pasta, then changed my mind and stuck with the watermelon!

I set off onto the descent, which was a combination of incredibly rocky technical terrain, terrifying sheer drops, and sloping volcanic ash flows, but opened later into a series of large wooded land masses leading down to sea level. I was doing well and making great time, when I suddenly felt my left calf muscle twitch and cramp up. This has happened to me before, and I believe is a recurrent problem since the Piece of String last year that I obviously haven't quite fixed yet, which was exacerbated by the climbing. I stopped to stretch it but ended up just having to run a bit slower than I really wanted.

A few Kms from the aid station at El Time, my calf suddenly spasmed at a rather inopportune moment and I went flying forwards on the rocks and cracked my knees. Nothing too serious, just a bit of a scrape and some bruising, but as I started to run again I couldn't get my feet to land where I wanted them to on the rocks which wasn't ideal. I carried on even slower down towards the aid station through the woods. Running in general was fine, but running on anything in any way uneven was proving unnerving as I kept nearly going over. Before I got to the checkpoint I had already stacked it 2 or 3 more times. One time a very nice man behind me just jumped over my corpse, cursing me for getting in his way. Charming!

I got into the aid station, refilled my bottle (which had emptied when I landed on it face first), then went into the First Aid tent to get somebody to quickly check me over. Inside, I found Forest Bethel who had been crushing it in the top 50, only to suddenly come down with unstoppable leg spasms (great band name) and be pulled from the race with a bag of "happy juice" stuck in his arm. He was pretty disappointed as you can imagine, but after a trip to the hospital was okay and should hopefully be back to full fighting force in no time.

Any excuse to sit down. Lazy bastard!
I headed out on the final descent down towards the coastal town at Tazacorte. Unfortunately I was still unable to run the uneven sections so was stuck walking anything where there was a chance I might go over again. Which, y'know, was all of it. Despite the gorgeous weather, the most glorious coastal vista imaginable, and the fact that I was approaching the end of this amazing race, that was the most depressing 6 mile walk of my life! It never seemed to end, and when the route got closer to the sea, winding down an almost crazy-paving style path, only to switch back to head in the opposite direction I almost lost my shit! At one point, we hit the road (about 2 minutes after my final fall) and I thought I was saved, only to be waved back onto a rutted and dilapidated trail. I swear I would have hit the marshal that waved me off the road if it hadn't have been for the man out with his family offering ice cold refreshments to the runners just beforehand. Never has a gigantic bearded Spanish coke-dealer been more attractive to me. I could have kissed him! When I sheepishly told him I was English and didn't understand him, he bellowed something to his family and they all laughed and chanted at me. I think they were being friendly, but quite frankly he could have said whatever he wanted and I would have just smiled and said, "Grassy arse"!

I stopped briefly on the seemingly never-ending switch back down to the town and called Jen to let her know why it was taking about an hour longer than it should have done so she didn't worry too much, and it was really nice to just sit there in the sun chatting to her.

I set off again, resigned to a slower time than I expected and having lost about 50 places on the descent, but newly determined to finish things out as strong as I could. As soon as I hit the bottom of the pavement with fresh Tarmac under my feet, the game was back on. I hopped in and out of the final checkpoint at Tazacorte quite quickly, stopping to gnaw on some more fruit and to get some ice cold water over my head from some very eager kids (soaking the Englishman obviously seemed like a fun game!). In my haste I created a new cocktail of water, Powerade, and Coke. Interesting taste, but it got the job done!

Right. Home stretch now, but this was the section that took Kilian out last year. There as about 1.5 Kms running along pretty flat Tarmac which was great for getting my legs working again after 2 hours of walking, but then we turned off the road to head up an incredibly steep 350 m climb up a cobbled street to the town of Los Llamos above us. This was a straight up hike, and I was actually able to pull in a few people here. When we reached the top, we could hear the cheering at the finish line. There were about 5 people in my sights along the long straight road ahead of me before the turning onto the main road, but I was only able to pass a couple of them. I turned the corner onto the finishers strip that we had seen the day before, and ran through giving high fives to all of the kids who seemed to really enjoy being a part of the race. This feeling is so awesome (in the true sense of the word) and it's so exciting to be a part of something so inspiring and to be inspired by those around you. Whilst I love the smaller nature of some of the races I enter (I got clapped into a fifth place finish of my first race by only one person), there really is nothing that beats that kind of atmosphere.

My final time was 11:03:35, an hour outside of what I had hoped for but still a respectable time (and I think second Brit behind Richard's brother in law, Rich Heath). I have a habit of never being happy with how I do, but really it's just that I know I could do better. It's my competitive nature, but I'm competitive with myself more than anything else. If I set a goal and don't achieve it, but know that I could have done, I feel like I have failed. Not in a depressing way - I just move onto the next thing and try and improve things that need improving. It works well for me, and it never affects my enjoyment of the races themselves; one of my favourite experiences ever was my slow 10 Km John Wayne death march into Chamonix at last year's UTMB after suffering pretty serious chaffing. It's always something eh! I'm not sure what I'll do if I ever have a perfect race and have nothing to moan about...

It says 149th male, but I prefer to think of it as top 10 female
I passed through the finish and into the finishers' area which was kind of odd. Paddling pools and showers were set up for people to use (prior to the masseurs having to touch them I guess), but they were right next to the sides were people were staring in and... just kind of watching us. Oh well, when in Rome! Not being one to miss an excuse to get naked, I whipped off my top and shoes and hopped in. Luverly! Due to the change in my running gait, my feet had become pretty shredded so I got them checked over by the doctor and had my legs seen to as well. It was just a couple of minor bumps and scrapes, and hardly seems worth all the fuss now!

War wounds. They look a bit pathetic in this picture...  Although my feet aren't nearly as bad as this makes them look!
I grabbed a quick massage to crack into my calf and also into the new twinges which had come about due to the change in running, but nothing a bit of prodding didn't fix. As I finished, Chris came through the line (3rd Brit I think?) looking very strong. He'd had no interesting incidents along the way and had run a corker, but had to get in on the first aid action by severely cramping up during his massage and needing to be put on a drip. Always got to go one better...

He's just too hardcore to relax!
Martin was next in, and boy did he look like he had some stories to tell! Sporting a giant gash on his left knee, a smashed phone, and a haunted look on his face, he regaled me with his story of falling off a cliff and just about managing to avoid breaking anything (other than his phone of course), losing his hat in the process. Luckily he was able to obtain a new one from a camera man who wanted an interview:

Cameraman: "Describe Transvulcania in a couple of sentences."
Martin: "It's like running up a volcano, and it's fucking hot"

And yet people kept asking if he was British.
Somehow I missed Richard coming through the line, and found him relaxing with a beer after a great run considering a slightly dodgy ankle. He bucked the trend for Team Onada by coming away entirely unscathed! His brother in law Rich Heath also had a great run with very few negative signs, coming in first Brit (we think?) third Brit and nicely set up for taking on the Grand Union in a few weeks along with Martin. Not too many cliffs to fall off there!

Soaking in the Transvulcania atmosphere.
We polished off some free paella and Cokes (awesome service from the helpers) and began the real ordeal of getting back to our car in the middle of nowhere and making it back to the room on nothing but fumes. Luckily we made it, and were out for a celebratory pizza and beer by 11pm. What a day!

The race itself was won by Kilian Jornet in a new course record of 6:54:09, playfully crossing the line with a pocket full of flowers in a nod to last year's 'flower gate' incident when he was beaten in the last few miles by Dakota Jones, who jokingly placed a flower on him as he crossed the line and collapsed.  The idea that people can run that course that fast is insane! Closely behind in 6:58:31 was Luis Hernando, with Sage Canaday coming in third in 7:09:57. First in for the ladies was Emelie Forsburg in 8:13:22, with Nuria Picas following closely behind in 8:19:30 and Uxue Azpeitia in 8:44:48. Both the women's and men's races were very closely fought battles right until the very last minutes. It's a shame I missed it!

That was to be the end of our whistle stop trip to La Palma, and we began our journey home early in the morning on Sunday. I didn't get home until 5pm Monday to give you some idea of how fun the travel plans were! Don't get me wrong, they were awesomely organised by Martin who spent a lot of time working out the best options for a short trip over, but if I was to go over again I would take the family, make a holiday of it, and find a direct flight from closer to home.

But on the plus side, we did get a few hours free in Tenerife before our flight home to spend in Siam Park, an awesome water park with some absolutely amazing rides! Shame they all involved long walks and climbs to get to, but hey nothing beats a bit of rehab!

Yeah, climbing up that will be dead easy.
So what a weekend! Now I'm just glad to be home with my girls. Next up is the South Downs Way 100 miler in 5 weeks, so I just need to get my feet sorted again (I hear greyhound foot cream is good for it...) and get ready for race day.

No Kōfuku!

1 comment:

  1. Always looking for drama, Sam!! What will you do when everything just goes to plan?!? :-) Great report, and a great effort on the day mate. It was brilliant keeping track of you online as the live-tracking worked pretty well! It looks like a stunning race. Maybe one day


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