Monday, 2 June 2014

Transvulcania report

I thought it was time to put pen to paper, well fingers to keys in today's modern times! A lot has happened since my last blog but the biggest event has been a trip to this little Island called La Palma. The trip was due to a not so little race called Transvulcania! It had been almost a year in the planning. We entered the race back in July 2013 and we booked the hotel in Nov 2013. So with nearly a year to get ready for it you would expect me to have been prepared but that really wasn't the case. The last two days before the trip were a little bit hectic to say the least. With all the kit packed off we went to the airport to catch our flight, the adventure had begun! As we flew nearer to the Island we started to get the first stunning views of the Island but what the view also did was show us how crazy high and how super steep the Island really is.

After a heavy landing (and I mean a really heavy landing!) we boarded the coach and made our way to the hotel. As we drove away from the airport all we could see was this road winding its way up to the top of this very steep hill and it wasn't too long before we were right in the cloud line. Having made it to the hotel on a pretty epic road, we checked into our rooms and went for a look round the hotel. As we walked through the hotel and into the reception area I couldn't believe my eyes, sitting there have a chat were two of trail running's biggest super stars (Anna Frost & Timothy Olsen). Being to good an opportunity to miss I passed my phone to Liga and got her to take a picture of me with two of my trail running heroes.



I know I can waffle on in some of my blogs so this time I'm going to get straight to the good stuff! The alarm went off at 02:45am and up we jumped, the hotel had been amazing and they had opened the restaurant at 02:30am for anyone staying there doing the race that wanted some breakfast. Last minute kit check and off we went to get something to eat before the bus turned up to take us to the iconic start. Myself and Liga were pretty nervous but we still managed to eat a small breakfast before we left. We went and joined all the other nervous looking people in reception and then boarded the bus for a short trip to the start. The nerves were ok as we sat on the bus, it was more excitement than nerves. All I wanted to do was get started and get running. The bus crested the hill and there it was the famous lighthouse (Faro De Fuencalente), the start of Transvulcania! I had been warned by people who had done the race before that the start can get a bit crazy, what they didn't mention was that you get dropped off by the buses at the top of the hill and you have to make your own way down. So there we all were trying to make our way down to the starting area without falling over and injuring ourselves. The wind was really howling and all the volcanic sand was being blown up in our faces. So walking down a steep hill of soft sand and sharp rock, with hundreds of people all over the place, sand getting blown in your eyes and this was just to get to the starting line. That's what I call a TOUGH race!

With the wind getting stronger we thought we would try and find some shelter so we made our way down to the toilets (all 7 of them!) yes 7 toilets for 2300 people!! I'll leave the condition of the toilets to your imagination :( The holding area was filling up quickly and race time was fast approaching. Liga's race, the Half marathon (well 14.5miles!) started half an hour after the ultra so I waited with her till there was 10 mins till the start and then made my way into the masses. Pushing my way through I managed to get about 5 rows from the front. Having run the first 7km of the route a week before I knew the race route went really narrow quite soon after the start and I didn't want to get stuck behind slower runners! Time was flying and we only had a few minutes to go, a couple of Mexican waves later and it was 3,2,1 GO! we were off.

What followed next can only be described as total and utter chaos - no room to run, runners pushing, running poles hitting you in the shins, trying not to trip and then we got to the narrower path! It seemed like so many of the slower runners had made their way to the front of the start line for some strange reason, so when we got to the narrow path the whole race just slowed to a walk. I know we were going up hill but my legs where fresh and the hill wasn't that bad. It was just too slow so I came off the path and decided to run up the side to try and get some space and get away from all the hordes of runners. The plan was working and I was flying past hundreds of runners and just trying not to trip on the odd random rock as I went. Once up on the wider path I grabbed a chance to have a look behind and the view was mind blowing, just one massive long snake of head torch lights winding its way towards me. The path got wider as you went up and the field had really thinned out by then so running was much easier by now. Knowing that there was a super steep hill coming up at about 6km, I decided to push on because I would get a bit of recovery walking the steep hill.

I was fast approaching the first aid station at Los Canarios at 7.5km and 705m. I could hear people clapping and cheering, but when I got there I couldn't believe the amount of support in this small village. There were people lining the street the whole way through the village, everyone was cheering and giving you high fives and for some reason all the amazing support made me really emotional and I was fitting back the tears! I stopped at the aid station and filled both my bottles up and gave my face a good wash to get all the dust off my face from when the sand was blowing up at the start. A quick stop and I was off running again, from here on wards was uncharted territory so I was a little bit apprehensive. As I push up to 1922m on really soft volcanic sand the sun started to show its face. I was feeling great and fast marching the steep bits and running the rest, trying to get as high up before the sun got hot. Reaching the top of the first big climb at Las Desadas (sea level to 1922m) I started to see the totally stunning views that everyone had been telling me about, I was up high looking down on a big blanket of fluffy white cloud, it really did give you the feel of sky running! And even though I was racing I just had to stop and have a good look and take it all in.

Still in good spirits and feeling strong I started to make the descent down to the half Marathon point and the next aid station at Del Pilar. The descent was about 5km and quite steep and technical, the terrain had changed from soft volcanic sand to hard compact trail with big rocky step downs. It was great to get off the sand but the big step downs were pretty tough on the quads! Once again like when I was coming into the last aid station I could hear the massive crowd that had gathered to cheer every runner on. The aid station at Del Pilar is quite simply one of the most amazing aid stations I have ever been through and probably ever will! It was like a little village, lots of tents with all kinds of goodies for us to drink and eat, lots and lots of tasty fresh water melon! My race plan was to go through the aid stations quite quickly so I didn't waste too much time. I got my two bottles filled up and mixed another bottle of electrolyte and shoved several juicy wedges of water melon in my mouth and I was off, full speed ahead! I was bang on race schedule and past through Del Pilar at 3hrs 25mins which I was really happy with, the legs still felt good and it was onwards and upwards, or so I thought?

Del Pilar was at 1400m so as I left the aid station I thought I would start to climb steadily back up to the highest point at Roque De Los Muchachos 2426m but this was definitely not the case! Leaving Del Pilar I started to drop down and I couldn't stop thinking that the further we drop, the further we will have to climb back up. Having just climbed 1900m, dropping down to give us more to climb wasn't really what I wanted :) Having dropped down another 200m from Del Pilar it was time to climb again and climb we did. The climbs were different than before, no volcanic soft sand but lots of rocks and lots of very high step ups. Up and up we went, hands on knees just trying to grind it out to the top. The sun was quite high by this point and the higher we went, the less shade there was so the temperature was starting to go up quite quickly. Sticking with the race plan I kept pushing hard to make it to the highest point as fast as I could. 1000m of climb later I had made back up to 2200m and the first of the summits that lead us around the crater to the highest point. The view was very deceptive from this peak because you could see the highest point and you could also see the town of Tazacorte which was only 4.85km from the finish! Unfortunately I wasn't 4.85km from the finish and there was still a long way to go and I had just started to feel the first twinges of cramp coming on! Telling myself to stay calm I pulled out my bottle of electrolyte and had a really good drink hoping that this would settle down the twinges and stop the onset of cramp.


As the twinges got worse I couldn't help thinking how stupid it was to forget my salt tablets! Oh yeah, I've forgotten to mention that, the one race that I would really, really need salt tablets I left them at home, what a MUPPET! As we dropped down and climbed up, dropped down and climbed up, the cramp just got worse and worse to the point where I was having to stop every 5-10 mins to stretch it out, never mind, only another 25 miles to go! Every runner who has suffered with cramps will know it's not the most pleasurable experience in the world but there was no way I was stopping because of a bit of cramp. Pushing on to Los Muchachos the cramps got stronger and I got slower - run, stretch, run, stretch and so on, very frustrating because apart from the cramps I felt quite good, plenty of energy in the tank but my bloody muscles wouldn't let me use it!

With my last big push I had made it to the top, Roque De Los Muchachos at 2426m, the heat was pretty intense by now so I made my way to the big tent to seek some shade. Once again this race amazed me, I was at 2426m and the aid station was awesome. Lots of drinks and food, even a big bowl of pasta if you wanted it! The guys at the aid station couldn't have been more helpful, running around helping to fill your bottles, getting you food, but the best bit was when they came over and tipped a liter jug of nice cold water over your head. Who would've thought that something so simple could feel so good :) It was at this point that I remembered I had put a small bag of salted peanuts in my bag just in case I need something savory and salty. Two handfuls of peanuts later I was up and back into the heat of the mid day sun! After having a bit of a rest at the aid station I realized how stunning and strange this place was. Even though you're high up and the sun is really hot, the top of the mountain is really green with vegetation and wild flowers. It's also dotted with some of the biggest observatories in the world!

The sky is so clear in La Palma because of the low levels of light pollution, so a lot of countries have built observatories at the highest point on the Island. It wasn't long before I stopped taking in my stunning surroundings because I noticed I was about to come of the trail and hit a nasty ROAD SECTION! You would think that after all that tough steep trail I would look forward to a nice smooth road section :) That's not the case, anyone who has run trail ultras knows that if you hit a section of road well into the race, it's not that pleasant and pretty hard on your body! What made this section even worse was it was super steep and there was lots of people cheering you on. I'm not being negative about people supporting us while we were running and I really appreciated their support but when you hit a steep road section it's very, very painful to run down when your legs are battered. With all the support you feel you need to run, so as the crowd cheered  "ANIMAL, ANIMAL!" ( I'm not sure what it meant but I think it was encouraging) I gritted my teeth and ran down the road trying to smile at the same time and show no pain.

The road section wasn't too long and we were soon back on the trail and it was all down hill from here, the only problem was it was all down, very steep, technical hill from here! Soon realizing that it wasn't going to be the lovely, soft, smooth, flowing descent I had imaged, I settled in for a bumpy ride! The best way I can describe it is, if you take the most technical parts of the Cornish coast path and make them a 1/10 descent for 20km then you are somewhere close! As I tried to make my way down with a combination of running, walking and hobbling, the pain in my quads just got worse and worse and it was becoming hard just to walk down the descent. All the way through this race I had re-valuated my race plan, to start with it was push hard to the top and then enjoy the long descent and finish in sub 10 hrs. Then once the cramps kicked in it was to keep pushing up the best I could and when I get to the descent make the most of it and run hard all the way to the finish and break 11hrs. At this point of the descent it changed again, it was now just hang on and try to get to the finish in one piece!


One painful step after another I made my way down to Tazacorte. The sun was really starting to heat up now and it was the first time I had felt a little bit too HOT! Once again the Island and its supporters came to our aid. Every now and again there would be some old farmers or a family outside their house with buckets of water, either to fill up empty bottles or just pour it over our very hot heads to cool you down :) This was a massive help to me and if they weren't there it would have felt a lot longer coming down! Finally reaching the last steep part of the descent to Tazacorte, lots of short switch backs down a near vertical rock face. As I started the descent, all I could hear was the party atmosphere coming from the bottom in Tazacorte which gave me a very much needed boost of energy. The volume was getting louder with every foot step and as I rounded the corner at the bottom of the descent the party was in full swing. The music was at full volume and there were hundreds of people clapping and cheering you on, a pretty special moment in the race! As I ran into the aid station tent the sign hanging above said 4.85km to go, it was a very welcomed sight. Not sure I was that impressed with the positioning of the aid station right next to the stage and its loud speakers! With the music banging in my ears and only 4.85km to go I filled up my bottles and grabbed a couple of  bits of watermelon and off I went on the final push.

As I ran off down the sea front I couldn't help but think how nice it was to have some flat running :) However, that thought didn't last long because it wasn't long before we were directed on to the beach and then on to a dry rocky river bed! The river bed was awful to run on, it was made up of big pebbles which weren't big enough to run on but small enough to smash your feet to pieces. I hobbled my way along the river bed with each step feeling like my feet were being hit with hammers. Finally we were off that terrible river bed, but the elation was short lived as I climbed the steps to start the 320m climb to the finish! My legs and energy levels were both in a bad way by this point and it was taking all my efforts just to walk up the climb. It looked like I wasn't the only one really suffering at this stage because everybody around me was moving very slow. With my hands on my knees all I could do was try to summon up the energy to put one foot in front of the other. After several good talking's to myself I made it to the top of the 320m climb and it was one of the best feelings I have had since I started ultra running. From this point it was only 3/4 kilometer to go and no more bloody hills to climb! Turning on to the long high street that lead to the finish I was amazed at the support that was still there waiting for the runners to finish, I thought they might have all left after all the super stars had finished :) All the way down the street there was people cheering and clapping, I lost count of how many 'high fives' I did. All the little kids where holding their hands out and I think I 'high fived' all of them. With each meter I got closer to the finish the crowds just got bigger and bigger and by the time I made it on to the red carpet the support was unbelievable. As I slowly moved down the red carpet I was fighting back the emotions, every runner reading this blog will relate to this. When you have had a hard race and really dug deep to get to the finish, emotions can go sky high! I had seen the amazing finish of Transvulcania on the TV many times and it wasn't a let down. It looked awesome on TV but to be there in person was breathtaking. I had DONE IT! 73.3km, 4,400m of elevation, 13hrs 12mins of running (well sort of running!) and temperatures of 30+, it was over and the medal was round my neck and no one could take it away from me.


I must finish this blog on a positive note, well lots of positive notes actually. I know I had some really low moments in this race and the cramps that I suffered where the worst to date. I had to dig super deep just to make it to the end and I was a bit (a lot!) disappointed with the time that I did. All this aside, I had had one of the most amazing race experiences of my life so far! The Island, the people, the race, the views, the support, everything about this trip was brilliant. If you are involved in the ultra running scene and you are looking for a really special race then look no further, Transvulcania is a one off! It should be on every aspiring ultra runner's bucket list, so put this date in your diaries 6th June 2014 (11am) that's when registration opens for next year! Thanks for the memories, La Palma! :)

Watch my short film from Transvulcania 2014

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