Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Transvulcania: A lesson in persistance

All packed and ready to go
A few days ago I flew half way across the world.  The destination for this trip is Isla la Palma, Spain. It is not without significant trepidation that I make this trip, the intimidation of toeing the line with what will likely be the highest concentration of top level mountain and ultra runners that has assembled in one place. I will be racing the Transvulcania 84 kilometer Sky Ultra.  This year’s race is the opener for the new Sky Running Ultra World Series, and it has gathered some amazing talent.

I arrived on Isla de La Palma in the Canary Islands late Wednesday night after 4 flights, and more than 18 hours in the air.  I was greeted at the airport by one of the race staff, loaded into a car and along with a couple of other runners, we made the 45 minute drive to the hotel.  Our driver must have been a distant relative to Mario Andretti because he drove super fast and aggressive the whole drive.  I would later find out that everyone I rode with on the island drives that way! 

The section of trail near the start that I previewed.

Thursday before the race was mostly spent sleeping, relaxing and trying to recover from the travel.  Midday I bummed a ride with the media crew from TrailRunner magazine to the start.  After another white knuckle ride I opted to get my run in from the start and hitchhike back to the hotel.  I ran the first 7k of the course which consists of a climb of pretty close to 3000’ from the beach to the closest town Los Canarios.  At the top of the climb I was pretty quickly able to get a ride from a local who was running the half marathon on Saturday and was super fired up for the event. 

Who wouldn't pick up this guy?

Friday was another rest day.  I went for a 30 minute run with Adam Campbell before a nice dip in the ocean.  

Adam Campbell shaking out his legs the day before the race.

After lunch we had the athlete briefing, which was very well done, and to the point.  The hours quickly slipped by and at 10:00pm I tried to lay down and get a few hours of sleep before the 2:00 am wake-up call.  All of the runners would be taken to the start, and our shuttle was scheduled to leave at 3:00, for a 4:30 arrival at the lighthouse. 

The start of the race was one of the craziest starts I have been part of.  They pack all of the runners for both the ultra and the half marathons into a small parking area just below the lighthouse.  This turns into quite the spectacle considering there were around 2500 starters! Typical for what I have seen at European racers there was a lot of fanfare with music, lively MC’s and generally a ton of stoke.  When the start when off at 6:00 am I was surprised that the pace was fast but not ridiculous.  We did a quick lap around the lighthouse and then headed up the route I had ran two days previous.  The field settle in fairly quick and I found myself in somewhere around 25th or so.  One of my favorite memories from the race was being able to look back at the stream of headlamps working there way up the trail! It was incredible.  

I passed Los Canarios about 5 minutes faster than what I ran Thursday, and deeply enjoyed the energy of what must have been pretty much the whole city who had lined the streets to cheer for the runners. In contrast to the start and Los Canarios the forest we climbed into above town was quite and tranquil. It was a glorious morning on the Island, I was running near Joe Grant and had felt great.  

26 k into the race we arrived at El Pilar aid station.  The place was going off! There were tons of people there cheering the runners on. I grabbed a little coke and got out of there as quick as I could.  Not more than a kilometer out of the aid station I felt like a switch flipped and with it my legs went flat.  I tried to ramp up the pace, but just couldn’t find another gear.  I hit an extra gel and immediately my stomach protested.  As I fell off pace Joe went by and within a couple of minutes the leading women went past as well.  I figured I was just having a little bad patch, so I worked on staying positive, getting food and water in and moving forward. 

So stoked to be on La Palma! Photo: iRunFar

Unfortunately my bad patch would last the rest of the race. I was able to shuffle along, but never found the comfortable cruising pace that I had prepared for.  My stomach simply would not let me consume any more gels so for the last 50k of the race I fueled off of apples, water and coke.  The course was so beautiful and inspiring and it was very frustrating to be able to draw from that energy and run as planned.  I particularly struggled on the descent from the high point, Roque de los Muchachos all the way to the sea. It dropped somewhere around 8000’ in a relentless, quad thrashing, steep, technical descent. By the time I had hit the ocean I was super hot, tired and completely blown, but the race organizers have one last treat for the runners; a 1700’ ascent in about 6k up to the finish.  

I poured a bunch of water on me to cool off, ate a little chunk of watermelon, then put my head down and went to work at getting done. I was surprised to find that I could still run (shuffle) uphill and decided that I would run the entire ascent.  Surprisingly I was able to grind all the way up! At the top there is about 2k of flat running through the town of Los LLanos to the finish.  Much like the other large aid stations there were so many people lining the streets out cheering for the runners to come through.  It was quite hard to not get emotional from all of the support.  I crossed the finish in 9:20:01 completely spent and very happy to be done.  

Done! Photo: iRunFar

The finish area had kiddie pools filled with ice water to soak beat up legs, the school of Physioterapia was offering massages for the runners, and there was some great food.  I enjoyed the finish line environment for about an hour before heading back to the hotel to rest. 

This morning along with many of the other runners I am hobbling around, nursing sore legs.  I plan on spending the better part of the afternoon soaking in the ocean before I board a plane at 9:00 pm and begin my journey home.

I have to take a moment to thank the International Sky Running Federation and Transvulcania for putting on such a great event and allowing me to be part of it! I loved how well organized the event was and how difficult the course turned out to be.  It was my first Sky race and it will surely not be my last.  Also a huge thanks to Patagonia, Ultraspire, First Endurance, and Smith Optics for their continued support. 

Gear I used for the Race:

Most of the kit before the race

Shirt: Patagonia Airflow Tank
Shorts: Patagonia Strider Pro
Socks: Patagonia Lightweight Merino Anklet Sock
Shoes: Patagonia Evermore
Pack: Ultraspire Alpha
Sunglasses: Smith Serpico Slim
Hat: First Endurance Trucker


  1. Great write-up. Good to see you guys getting over here. Until next year!

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