Written by Ian Gallimore - http://ninearms.blogspot.fr
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.” - Alice In Wonderland
When I started running in May 2012 I didn't have any particular aim in mind. I had no desire or need to lose weight, no particular interest in "getting fit" (fit for what? as Dan John reminds us - I was a weightlifter and you don't need to run to be fit for weightlifting), no race I'd decided it would be cool to run. I'd been to Thailand after a pretty shoddy performance at the British Masters Weightlifting Championships, and somehow I'd ended up reading Bryon Powell's "Relentless Forward Progress". I'd not run for quite a few years, but for whatever reason I just thought it would be good to run, just a little bit, because it kind of felt "right". I had no long term aims beyond running 10km (because that's the first distance I considered you actually have to train for) and "maybe doing the odd race". However, my training log for that period makes it quite clear: "No, I'm not going to start doing ultras."
To this day I'm not sure how I decided on reading that book - I look back at my training log for that period and there's no mention of any interest in running. What there is is a sense that I needed a change, a change in approach and maybe even a change in goals. I suspect it came about as part of that desire to just do something different for a while that often occurs after a period of intense focus on a single goal. I'd moved away from my weightlifting club and was now training alone, in my garage, with none of the peer support and heckling that makes putting weight overhead more enjoyable (despite being a solo sport on the competition platform, training for weightlifting works best in a team environment). I'd not been lifting well since the move, my training seemed to flit around between programs in attempt to relieve some of the boredom of these new solo sessions, and was finding myself trying to come up with ways of training that minimised the actual competition lifts. (Although I'd also read Dan John and Pavel's "Easy Strength", in retrospect I was training in almost entirely the opposite way to what they were suggesting; instead of spending most of my training time practicing my sport and the rest on preparing for it I was spending the vast majority of my training time getting stronger and very little on practicing the competition lifts). Eventually I came to the realisation that I wasn't really training for my sport at all any more. I was still doing the lifts, albeit intermittently, but I had no competitive plans nor any real desire to be back on the platform again.
Predictably, those first runs were horrendous stop-start affairs as I struggled to even manage 500m, but eventually I figured out a few different loops and set about making them feel more comfortable, and eventually making them longer. Before long I was going out for a run because I was actually enjoying it, and that original 10km target started to look a bit redundant. I started frequenting the kind of places on Facebook populated by people who think that "100 miles is not that far". And so the distances started to creep up: first the half marathon, because that's how runners do things - you move up a recognised race distance, in the same way that weightlifters and powerlifters like to only count sets of 1, 2, 3 and 5 (a new 4 rep max is apparently just a failed set of 5, or a triple that was too light) - and then towards the end of the year I started to think I might try my first race. "Hmm, no interest in a road marathon; how about a "short" ultra? That sounds like it might be kind of fun." So, in January 2013, 9 months after I started running, I signed up for the Ennerdale Trail Race, a 50km outing in the Lake District in October that year. A few months later I went out and did a 45km training run (an intended marathon plus another 3km tacked onto the end because my route was slightly longer than planned), so inadvertently popping my ultra cherry. Shortly after I, along with my friend Dan, made the wise decision to enter a second ultra before we'd even completed our first. Not only that, but we'd decided to enter a race 50% longer but with about 4.5 times as much climbing, because it looked good on the telly. That race was Transvulcania, a 73km mountain ultra on the island of La Palma with over 4500m of ascent. (When it came to my first race Ennerdale wasn't exactly the most enjoyable day of my life - race day norovirus coupled with camping-induced hip pain, poor weather, the awful South shore of the lake, and simple inexperience left me hobbling round with cramp for the last 33km, for a finishing time of just over 7 hours. That was fine though - it had long since become a training run, and a chance to learn from the mistakes that might finish me off in La Palma.)
Fast forward to May 2014 and I'm sat on a plane at Leeds Bradford airport about to begin the first leg of a 16.5 hour journey to La Palma via Tenerife. Eventually we arrived in the town of El Paso, just a few miles from the race finish, where we'd be staying for the next 10 days. From the door to the bungalow I could see a vast, long sweeping ridge, dotted with pine trees, gradually descending right to left before plummeting towards the sea at Tazacorte. From the pool I could see a big, black cone rising above the trees, an enticingly smooth path snaking its way down the hill's nose before disappearing into the forest below. These were my first glimpses of what lay ahead for us an just under a week's time. "It doesn't look that bad from here. Looks pretty runnable."
My training leading up to this race had started off well, then stuttered from February onwards when I started having to deal with niggle after niggle. Peroneal tendinitis in my left foot, medial knee pain in my right leg, then the beginnings of medial tibial stress syndrome in my left leg, and then finally, on my last long run before flying out, the beginnings of ITB syndrome. Not exactly the best build up to the race, but I'd been very aggressive in dealing with these issues, had made what I considered to be sensible adjustments to my training, and arriving on La Palma I was feeling about 95%. I'd also stepped up my non-physical training, and mentally I was feeling very good about the race. 5 weeks out Dan and I drove up to Keswick with the intention of doing 5 reps of Skiddaw to get some good climbing in our legs and as a confidence builder. Weather conditions on the day meant we pulled the plug after 3 reps and went off to trot around the awful South shore of Ennerdale water, but it felt pretty clear on the day that we were in good shape. The climbing was comfortable, the long descents didn't trash our quads, and we came away thinking that bigger climbs would mean more fun.
After consulting the map we decided that our race week would consist of a 2-3 hour run on Sunday along the high point of the course, a short but steep descent and ascent on Tuesday, and an easy forest run along the flattest section of the course on Wednesday followed by a trip to the race start to see what the terrain was like. Thursday we'd trot part way up the Vertical Kilometre course to watch the race, and Friday we'd spend constantly repositioning our race numbers. That way we'd have a pretty good idea of what to expect for most of the course - the only section we'd be going into somewhat blind would be the descent from the high point at Roque de los Muchachos to El Time, and Youtube had given us a reasonable glimpse of what to expect of that section. The rest of the time would be spent either in the pool or in the sea.
Recce 1: Roque de los Muchachos to Pico de la Cruz to Roque de los Muchachos
"Recce" 2: Tijarafe to Poris de Candelaria to Tijarafe
Recce 3: El Pilar
Recce 4: El Faro
Around 4.30am we were dropped at the end of the road just a couple of hundred metres from the lighthouse. Lots of people crouched behind walls sheltering from the wind, and the temperature was much colder than back at the house. We chose to spend the next hour in the entrance of the nearby tourist office, keeping warm and availing of the toilet facilities in the hope of avoiding the need to drop a trailside curler (judging by the whiff just past the El Pilar checkpoint I suspect plenty of runners were not so wise).
By 5.40am we were waiting at the start, the atmosphere starting to build as more runners arrived (atmosphere then ruined by the DJs decision to play one of the worst Black Eyed Peas songs, no mean feat considering how awful all their songs are). The obligatory AC/DC, headlamps on, the countdown, and we're off. For about a minute. Round the lighthouse, across the car park, then 2100 people all tried to get up the same piece of metre wide trail at once and everything grinds to a halt. I knew this would happen, and there was no point getting annoyed about it. Just go with the flow, try not to fall over or get impaled by someone's poles, enjoy the support from the locals, and eventually things will open up.
There wasn't much running over this first section, but eventually I hit a dirt road where I could actually run for more than 10 seconds at a time. Shortly after it was back to more deep sand and switchbacks, before finally reaching the top of the hill just outside the town of Los Canarios, about 7km in, where the first aid station was located. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to power up the hill into town like I was racing at Zegama or something, whilst others made the strange decision (in my eyes) to casually amble through the town on what is really the most runnable section of the course, only to immediately resume running the moment they were back on steep, unstable volcanic sand.
The next section of the race had more runnable sections as the sandy trail wound its way through pine trees, slowly gaining height, before eventually bringing us out onto a fantastic balcony-esque track where the still snow-capped mass of El Teide, Tenerife loomed on the horizon. Another aid station and a short ascent before we started dropping down towards the first major checkpoint of the day at El Pilar. The 500m of descent was really welcome at this stage as my hamstrings had started to cramp from the constant climbing, and I was really in need of some sustained running. I bombed down a big sandy slope accumulating half a volcano's worth of sand in my shoes in the process, and then it was a longish (~5km) semi-technical descent through the forest before finally appearing at the recreation area of El Pilar where there were crowds of people to spur on the ultra competitors and congratulate the half marathon runners whose race would finish here.
I was about 30 mins behind my anticipated schedule, but my timing chart for the day suggested I could be out for a whole 2 hours more than I thought. Oh well, it takes as long as it takes. I refilled my bottles and grabbed a meagre piece of watermelon (a piece of bad timing on my part as a fresh one was in the process of being carved up) and headed out towards the trail. The next few minutes involved me fumbling around on the floor attempting to empty my shoes of the sand which had shrunk them by a full size whilst simultaneously trying to avoid my hamstrings and adductors cramping up. This was not successful.
Unfortunately (but understandably) the next section of the course used the broad forest roads rather than the narrow, pine-covered single track, but this was one of the few opportunities to really run for an extended period. The temperature was getting hotter by now and I tried to stay on the shady side of the track in order to keep cool. I knew I should be running all of this section, but 4.5 hours of climbing had taken the spark out of my legs and I was already doing the run/walk/shuffle.
On paper this section of the course looks really flat, but in reality it's full of undulations that sap your strength and summits that never arrive. It is, however, a fantastic piece of terrain to run, full of narrow ledges and blind corners. Eventually I reached the aid station at El Reventón, refilled my bottles again, and prepared myself for the long drag up to the main ridge. In reality this section is less than 9km, but in my head it felt like I was moving for hours and not getting anywhere. I was starting to suffer in the heat too, feeling nauseous on the climbs and dizzy. My Clif Shot Bloks were now a chore to choke down and I was slowly running out of fluids. Every so often I'd sit down at the side of the trail thinking I was going to empty my stomach down into the abyss below, but nothing happened. No vomiting, no relief, no progress. Other runners would check I was OK and I'd give them the thumbs up (I really was OK, it's an ultra and they tend to make you feel a bit rough from time to time - it's all part of their charm). I'm pretty sure the same woman must have checked I was OK about 5 times during the course of the day as she passed me, I repassed her, and so on.
Conventional ultra wisdom says the best strategy for dealing with the distance is to run from aid station to aid station, breaking a race down into manageable chunks so as not to be intimidated by it. With Transvulcania you cannot do this. The route is always there in full view, and it's a view that really should be appreciated as a whole, not deconstructed into its component parts to make it easier to stomach. It's a big route: embrace it, enjoy the immensity. After Skiddaw I was excited about hitting some really big, sustained climbs, and now here I was. 50km of almost non-stop climbing. How incredible is that?
We'd already recced this section of the course on our first full day in La Palma, a fantastic twisting and undulating ridgeline trail full of hidden climbs and false summits to trick the mind and punish the legs. On Sunday I was looking forward to this section, but now I just wanted it over with. I was starting to fall asleep on the move, my legs were cramping again (proper leg crippling cramps that left me hobbling along like the Tin Man), and every climb brought a new wave of nausea. When I finally reached the checkpoint, after a tortuously slow final climb that must have looked like I was clambering up the Hillary Step, I'd been on the move for 11 hours and just wanted to lie down for 10 minutes and have a nap. I'd seen someone napping on the 2013 race video and thought it would help clear my head before the big 17.5km descent. Except there was nowhere to lie down unless you wanted to be pulled out of the race by the medics. The tents were crammed full of people, some eating actual food, some getting out of the heat, some making the decision whether or not to pull out. I sat down on a bench outside, rested my head on my arms, and almost instantly nodded off, the fatigue clearly getting to me. It was too warm outside so I went back into the tent, grabbed a cup of Coke and managed to find a spot to sit. I'd not been sat for more than a couple of minutes when suddenly Dan's stood in front of me - he'd been sat outside ready to go to the medical tent. We both agreed that this was tough going, and had this checkpoint not been such a pain to get to and from we might have pulled the plug. As it was we decided to stay there for another 30 minutes, get some fluids and calories in, and then see how we felt on the 10km down to Forestal El Time. If we still felt bad there it would be much less of a hassle to get back to Los Llanos if we decided to pull out.
On the way out we let a guy pour jugs of ice cold water over us, and I soaked the 3 buffs I had (they'd be dry in about 5 minutes, but the temporary relief was worth it). I stopped briefly at the roadside to remove the gravel from my shoes, stumbling around with cramp again and barely able to get my now swollen feet back into my shoes. Then the big descent began. Except, for some reason, this descent seems to spend an awful lot of time going up! Eventually I lost sight of Dan who was now feeling much better, and I carried on alone. Eventually I start losing some height and the trail gradually changes from the rocky technical stuff to dusty, gravel and pine covered forest tracks, tracks which my fuzzy head, battered feet and less than grippy S-Lab Sense were clearly not coping well with. On fresh legs and with a clear head these switchbacks through vineyards would be superb running, but 60km in it was all I could do to stay upright. At this point I started to seriously consider dropping when I got to the next aid station - I was dizzy and stumbling and had already fallen a few times. The prospect of making my way down the switchbacks at Tazacorte in this state didn't exactly fill me with excitement. I texted Dan to let him know what I was thinking and he said he was going to try and finish. Still the negative thoughts swirled round in my head. I passed another runner sat at the side of the trail and told him what I was thinking. He suggested I try and have a nap at the next aid station, or at least take my time there, as I had plenty of time to get to the finish.
Before the race Dan and I had decided that 14 hours would be a reasonable finishing time. And now here I was considering pulling out of the race no doubt massively influenced by my inevitable failure to meet that essentially arbitrary target time. That would be a stupid decision and I would regret it.
So I sat down at Forestal El Time, ate some watermelon, drank some more of the isotonic drink they'd been serving all day, and texted Dan to say there'd been a change of plan: I was going to finish, however long it took.
I grabbed another drink, filled my bottles, and got out of there. I tagged along with another couple of British guys before losing them as the descent got more technical, and then suddenly I found myself powering along at a good rate. Not running yet, but hiking fast and hard and feeling better both physically and mentally. A voice called out from behind me, telling me I was looking good all of a sudden. I turned round and it was Wayde, the guy who'd talked me into taking stock at El Time who I'd somehow passed and not noticed in my suddenly urgent march towards Tazacorte. We ran together for a while, yes ran, down rocky walled tracks towards the final descent. It was starting to get dark now so on went the headlamps, in theory more than practice in my case as I'd forgotten to change the batteries before the race and they were now on their last legs.
Eventually, after an inordinately long flat section during which we seriously thought we'd gone wrong somewhere, we finally started down the switchbacks that made up the first third of the Vertical Kilometre course a few days ago. In daylight this is superb technical running, but at night lit only by a flicker of torchlight it made for slow progress. Wayde would stop at the end of each switchback and shine his torch back along the path so I didn't stumble down the vertical cliff face or trip and smash my face on a sharp volcanic boulder. We could see and hear the final checkpoint far down below, and before long it was clear that they could see us too as a chorus of "Vamos! Vamos!" sailed up the cliff face. We hit the last switchback, turned the final corner and we were on the sea front, running towards the checkpoint as the aid station volunteers cheered loudly, spurring us on for the home stretch.
Onto the beach, under a bridge, and into a boulder filled dry river bed. It's slow progress but we're moving. 300m of climb left. 300m of climb in about 3km, at the end of a 73km race. It's a cruel twist, a final sting in the tail that weaves up though banana plantations along stupidly steep paths and roads. The plantation spits us out onto the road and a marshall stops the traffic and gestures up another hill. More zig zags. Wayde reminds me to drink as I've drunk about 300ml in the past 2 hours. Out the other side. More climbing. Wide, steep, long roads that only maniacs would drive, a house visible far above, never getting any closer. We're powering on though. We've lost the 3 or 4 others we went through the canyon with, our climbing through the plantations clearly stronger than theirs despite my sorry state. We reach the house, turn left, a marshall says something about how far to go but I'm not really paying attention, left again, up the hill, and suddenly we're on the final straight.
The road through Los Llanos that leads to the finish is a long one. Although only about a kilometre long it seems infinitely longer, like you're running the wrong way along an airport travelator, the finish line cruelly hidden away around a corner, a corner you can't see until you're stood on it. Wayde started to run harder and I gestured for him to go on ahead, in part because I knew I would finish and in part because I thought he deserved his own finish, at his own pace. I walked that last stretch at a leisurely pace, savouring the cheers, shouts and high fives from the locals who were still on the streets, watching from street corners, bars and bedroom windows and congratulating every runner like they'd won the race. I turned the penultimate corner and then picked up my pace to run the final 300m down the red carpet, still lined with supporters as raucous and rowdy as they'd been all day. Barriers were rattled and kids were leaning over to high five me. And then it was over.
If there's one thing about Transvulcania that everyone seems to talk about, it's the supporters. No matter where you are on the course, no matter what time of day, the chances are there'll be someone there so cheer you on. The winner had ran along that final kilometre some 10 and a half hours earlier than I had, and yet as far as they were concerned I was just as worthy of their applause, even though I was just some guy who'd somehow managed to scrape round just under the cutoff time. But that's the thing: I'd got round in 17 hours and 36 minutes. That's a stupid amount of time to be climbing up and down mountains. What sort of an idiot does that for fun? Me, apparently.
Yes, I said fun. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, but the course is superb and it was massively fulfilling: I'd do it again in a second. Only this time with poles, different shoes (Salomon S-Lab Sense were not the best choice in retrospect, but you have to try these things in order to find out what works), and without the temptation to DNF when things got tough. Begin at the beginning, and go on till you get to the end. Then stop.