In 2012 I saw a video of the Transvulcania race for the first time and immediately said: I have to do that, it looked absolutely stunning. In 2013 there was a bit of a buzz going round a number of Scottish Ultra runners about a group of us heading out to La Palma in the Canary Islands to do this race. I wasn’t prepared to enter until I had successfully completed the West Highland Way race. So after June 20, 2013 I completed the online entry.
In the build up to the race this year there were a number of factors to consider that I wouldn’t usually have to think about when racing in the UK, namely heat, altitude and the amount of climbing/descending. I tried to cover these in training as much as I could with long distance runs in the highlands and the Pentland hills and 5 heat/altitude sessions in the chamber at Napier University in Edinburgh.
Even with all that it felt very much a step into the unknown with a race that would have 5000m of elevation gain. Also it has been a number of years since I have really raced in the heat, the last time being Ironman France in 2009.
We got to La Palma on the Tuesday before the race and I checked out the flatter section of the race course at El Pilar with Caroline McKay that same day. It was warm. The following day I did a recce run at the highpoint which was stunning and gave me a good idea what to expect. I also thought this could be the hottest part of the course. I wasn’t far off. Registration on Thursday followed by watching the vertical kilometre and again a glimpse of the course, the switchbacks into Tazacorte.
Heat and wind were the telling factors in the days leading up to the race with forecasts suggesting we could have up to 35 degrees on the day and I felt the strong winds could cause some issues over the top.
The race starts in the south of the island, climbs initially for 16kms to an altitude of 1900m before dropping down to El Pilar at 1400m. From there it is roughly 7 flattish kms before we start the ascent up to the rim of the Caldera which we initially reach at 1900m above sea level gradually climbing to the highpoint of Roque de los Muchachos at 2426m. Then it is a 20km descent back down to sea level and a final 340m climb over 6km to the finish in Los Llanos.
In contrast to the ultras I have done so far I didn’t need to prepare any drop bags as food and drink was going to be available at check points. I only packed what I felt I may need between checkpoints. This together with a very short mandatory kit list – head torch, tail light, space blanket, container to carry up to 1L of water and a pack to carry some food – meant for a much lighter pack than I am used to, an added bonus.
There was a bus service provided to get us to the start which initially we were going to take but the 3 am departure felt ridiculously early and Donnie Campbell kindly organised an 8 seater taxi which meant we could spend an extra hour in bed. The start was at 6 am and there was a lot of traffic heading down to the south of the island, so we weren’t the only ones that didn’t take the bus. As we got close to the start though the traffic got rather grid locked but we had an awesome driver who said something about ‘profesionales’ in Spanish to the official. Next thing we found ourselves dropped off just next to the start. The Scottish Ultra running Pros had arrived. What a guy!
With this I can start my race report proper:
When we got out of the taxi it was quite chilly due to the wind (although it was still nearly 20 degrees), but with just over 30 min to go standing around in the crowd at the start quickly warmed us up. I was surprised how many runners seemed to be wearing long sleeve kit which they’d then have to carry for the rest of the day once it got a bit warmer. Them southerners don’t know what cold means 😉
I walked down to the start with Craig McKay and we followed the funnel round to join at the back. By the time we were ready to go I felt we were possibly around midfield. It didn’t look too far from the start gantry. This was one of the few mistakes I made on the day as we were in hindsight placed too far back. There was a clock displayed on the rock wall and we were off bang on 6am.
Faro de Fuencaliente to El Pilar 24 km:
The start was mental with an initial sharp climb, a short flat and then a gradual continuous ascent for 400m vertical before flattening out onto a dirt track. The ascent zigzagged and runners tried to scramble between the zigzags to find some space. It was ridiculously congested, hence my suggestion that I was placed too far back. We got occasional bouts of running for 50m at a time but nothing meaningful. At the time I didn’t really think much of it but just got on with things. I’d lost Craig but he suddenly came running past me in one of the flatter sections complaining about the lack of running others were doing.
Our first water station was at Los Canarios and the support there was immense. The whole town must have come out. They did also shut down the main road for us to run across. Although I’d walked a lot of the first section you just had to run through Los Canarios with that support. This was at 6km into the race and the first 700m of climbing done. Over an hour for this! I grabbed a quick drink and pushed on hoping for a bit more open space. Headtorch was off by now too and the sun would be out soon. The morning wind was still cooling us down nicely.
Why all this congestion? This is a huge event with more than 2000 running trying to find space on the narrow trails of the island. Amazingly this is only the 6th running of the event and it very much has an Ironman event feel to it with the number of volunteers, big registration area, number of professional athletes taking part and a rather impressive finish area, more on that later though.
I was feeling pretty strong and if you look at the trail as having two lanes then I was mostly in the overtaking lane. I caught up with Gavin Bussey soon after Los Canarios and the sun had just come up giving us fantastic views over to the impressive mountain of El Teide on Teneriffe. As most of the runners were Spanish I was gradually getting an idea of the lingo and shouting ‘paso’ at numerous runners meaning, I am coming through. I was getting shouts from behind though sounding like ‘media’ which I couldn’t figure out initially. Every time some chap with less kit than me came sprinting past.
30 min after the ultra the half marathon starts and these guys were the half marathon (Spanish: medio maraton) leaders. I felt for them because they had to make their way through all the ultra runners until they reached their finish at El Pilar. The half marathon winning time is slow and that obviously has a lot to do with most of it being up hill. Having to pass hundreds of people doesn’t help though.
At this stage we were running/walking through lovely pine forest and constantly gaining height at roughly a rate of 120m per km. I stayed in the overtaking lane where I could, although the overtaking lane is the harder place to be, the place you don’t want to be as it has less of a trail, a bit like in Formula One where moving off the ideal line means moving onto the dirty side of the track. For me the overtaking lane meant softer volcanic sand as opposed to a slightly harder trail but I had to keep moving so the overtaking lane it was. Soon we were over 1500m and I caught Craig again. He joined me in the overtaking lane for a few paces. As we were getting closer to the top we were going up and down these volcanic cones so the occasional bout of running was possible. We topped out at 1900m after 16km and over 3 hours on my feet. I was looking forward to the next bit. A 500m drop over 6km into El Pilar. It didn’t disappoint, I flew past Lorna McMillan and pushed on all the way to El Pilar really stretching out my legs. After we had left the volcanic cones behind us we were running through lovely pine wood with the trails covered in pine needles making them nice and soft to run on, bliss!
Arriving in El Pilar was fantastic as it was the first real support point of the course. Here the half marathon finishes, the marathon starts and the ultra goes through so there was a lot going on and the crowds were massive both on the last few km into the checkpoint and on the way out. Great boost! I stopped there briefly to have my bottle refilled and to grab a bit to drink and eat – juice, sweet potato snack and some dried fruit. The helpers were fantastic in sorting out your needs.
El Pilar to Roque de los Muchaachos – 25 km:
I was looking forward to the next flat section from El Pilar to Reventon where Fiona would be waiting for me with Dawn, Matt Williamson’s partner. Caroline and I had run most of this section before. Sadly the race route stuck to the wider path which I didn’t like as much as it was more hard packed but I kept a good pace up and got to Reventon in good time. Congestion was much less of an issue now. Reventon did seem to take a long time to show up although I knew exactly when to expect it as it would be at 31km. Somehow I was wanting it to arrive sooner.
Got there and handed my bottle to a helper again for a quick refill while chatting to Fiona. It was great to see her there and we then walked together for a bit while I sorted a few bits out including having a couple of paracetamol and a couple of pro plus to help me up the next section. Once I left Fiona behind I had a bit of a chat with a chap form South Tyrol. As he started faffing to get his poles out I pushed on. This was now to be the main ascent to the caldera rim. Still on fantastic trails and the views were opening up in all directions. It wouldn’t take long to reach 1900m again and then we seemed to be yo-yoing between 1900m and 2000 for a bit before making a concerted effort to get over 2000m and look down into the caldera. Should you be wondering: Caldera is a large crater. We are about to run 10km around two thirds of a volcanic crater rim. Going up onto the rim I was back into the overtaking lane and still feeling strong. Legs were good. I felt I had eaten the right amount mostly and hoped I was drinking enough.
Somewhere around the first of the caldera rim peaks there was a water station and we got our first water shower. It was awesome as the heat was starting to tell. There were many more of these to come. As an unintentional thank you I left my sunglasses there. Oops! I had already left my visor somewhere in the first kilometre. Now my pirate look was complete with only the bandana left, see pictures.
Every time we hit a flatter section or a section with less incline I’d run and I’d powerwalk the ups. I felt many around me walked too leisurely for this. I was looking forward to getting to Pico de la Cruz as this was where Fiona and I had been a few days before and I’d be running a part of the trail I already knew. As with Reventon it seemed to take ages to get there. Again I knew from the Garmin how far it was so my head was playing tricks with me. The water station there was welcome again and then I had a very strong 6k run across to Roque de los Muchachos and was really glad I had run this before as some of the exposed sections didn’t faze me this time around. The 1500m drop to the left is a bit stomach turning at times.
In the meantime we had another set of runners with red numbers overtaking us. The half marathoners had red numbers, we were wearing yellow. They just called permisso instead of media. I figured they must be marathon runners but couldn’t understand why as I thought they should have set off before we had come through El Pilar. I only found out later that they’d set of 90 min later.
Ah well, something else to keep my mind occupied.
Finally though I reached the climb up to Roque de los Muchachos. The field now had thinned out and I could focus on my own running and walking. I was being pursued by a marathon runner who wasn’t closing all that quickly though. I was looking forward to reaching Roque as I was looking forward to the descent off Roque although I was daunted by this too, 20km of vertical descent! Ouch!
Quick weather update: From seeing this part of the route and knowing the wind direction I knew we’d have some sheltered areas which would get quite hot in the midday sun. It was now just after 1pm. I thought the morning wind would stay with us. There had still been some around Pico de la Cruz but then it seemed to all of a sudden drop to a dead calm and that was it: Midday, 30 degrees and no wind. Great!
I walked strongly up to Roque and in a short flatter bit dropped into a run which I held all the way to the feed station to the joy of the supporters on the way up. There were an impressive amount of cameras stationed on that final climb. Once I entered the feed station (tented) I felt rather light headed and that sprint suddenly felt like a really stupid idea.
I proceeded to feed as much as I could, drink coke and juice, refill my bottle and head out again. I was surprised to see lots of runners sitting on benches eating pasta and chilling out. I just wanted to push on. Out the back door I went, to be greeted by a guy with 2 huge jugs of water. Both of those went over my head. That felt fantastic as the heat was starting to get oppressive. I was hoping that the heat situation would get better as I descended.
Roque de los Muchachas to Tazacorte – 20 km:
2/3rds of the route was done, 7:30 hrs completed. We now had effectively 20km of descent. This would be hard on body and mind.
The first 3-4 kms though still ambled along at quite a high level with some short climbs before we then eventually started to descend properly. I actually struggled with these short climbs, feeling rather breathless. Was this heat situation getting too much? I walked if necessary and poured more water over my head. Finally we started descending and I started having fun, mostly passing other runners who were descending more steadily than me although there were some real mountain goats flying past me too. The altitude metres on my watch were counting down quite nicely. As long as I was moving well enough the heat was bearable. I eased back occasionally to pour a bit more water over me. Only a bit went in me. The little shade we got from trees was pretty useless. Most of the upper section of the descent was steep, rocky in places but often runnable switch backs. You had to keep your wits about you at all times though as volcanic rock is extremely sharp and I neither wanted to land on it nor go flying off down the hill side. Some of the drops were still pretty far down. Before I’d got to the top of Roque I’d had another 2 pro plus. They seem to help me keep a sharpened mind and my thinking was that they’d help me stay focused on the descent. I think it mainly worked. I did come a cropper once just as the trail opened up and I therefore opened my stride length too. Next thing I found myself on the floor. Easily done but also if I had to do it somewhere this was a good place for it as I basically belly flopped onto a bed of pine needles. I got away with some grazes on my lower arm and elbow and both hands, thankfully nothing more. A fellow runner checked if I was OK and we both headed off pretty swiftly again. It didn’t slow me down initially but my brain was getting tired from the descending and the further down we got the rougher the trail seemed to be getting. With rough I mean rocky and harder to run on if your concentration was going. As much as I enjoyed the top half I hated the bottom half. I just wanted to reach sea level at Tazacorte. I was delighted when I had finally got under 1000m and then come through the El Time feed station which meant fresh cold water over my head and in my bottle (incl. ice cubes) and a piece of water melon. Soon after, the trail flattened which was nice to run on but I was getting frustrated as I knew we still had to descend another 700m. We came past a water trough and one of my fellow runners proceeded to chuck water over our heads, a bit later a family had the hose pipe out and more water went over the head. All this was hugely welcome as the heat was relentless and my bandana which got soaked every time was dry within minutes.
Finally the trail angled downwards again and I was hoping that I’d reach the famous Tazacorte switch backs soon. I didn’t actually know at what elevation they were. I got there just as I caught up with a couple of Austrians who were discussing how far it still was. I didn’t hang around for long and the switchbacks were possibly one of the nicer bits of the descent as they weren’t all that steep. At the bottom a very welcome sight: Fiona, waiting for me there shouting encouragement.
Tazacorte was a bit like El Pilar as it was also the marathon finish but, I found it a bit confusing that we were actually running through the marathon finish line. Feed station again with water over head, water in bottle, drink of coke and some dried fruit.
Tazacorte to Los Llanos – 6 km:
I expected to turn straight left out of Tazacorte to head up the valley instead it was along the promenade and then onto the beach. Where were they taking us?
From the beach it was left under the road and up into the canyons that if you keep going would take you all the way up into the Caldera, a place where Fiona and I walked a couple of days later. The canyons were very hot and as it had been for the past 2 hours no wind. The clock had now ticked past 10 hours of running and we were getting close to the 70km mark with only a short climb left. Fiona popped up again to take more pictures after hurdling some road barriers or something like that. We were out of the canyons pretty soon and onto the final switch backs up to Los Llanos. They cut across the main road at regular intervals and the traffic was kindly being halted for every runner coming through. This final climb felt miserable and unnecessary. Another family kindly hosed us down here and another again a bit further up. Although we only had 6km from Tazacorte to the finish in Los Llanos I wasn’t sure how fast I could do this in so decided that the target should be sub 11 hours. As I finally hit the tarmac roads of Los Llanos and the clock was only just hitting 10:30 I knew that target was safe. I got onto the longest finishing straight I have ever seen, more suitable for a bike race as I think I could see the flamme rouge marking the 1k to go sign in the distance. It was a cruel final straight with a huge Transvulcania banner at the end of it teasing you to sprint finish only to realise that that isn’t the finish, keeping you guessing where it might be.Luckily the people lining the street and sitting in the bars were a welcome distraction. I took it easy up here high fiving kids and adults alike who were all out enjoying the spectacle. Finally I went under that teasing banner and made a right turn soon after, 200m later a left turn and onto the red carpet, more high fives and over the line!
10:39 hours on the clock for 73km over a 2400m high mountain with a total of 5000m of ascent and nearly the same amount of descent. The toughest part of the day was the heat! I was happy with the way I dealt with the course and actually pretty pleased with how I dealt with the heat too. Although it didn’t take long after I had finished for me to feel rather unwell. I had just caught up with Donnie who had spent the last 90 min in the medical tent and then I had to lie down myself with my feet up. It took a long time to feel normal. Lorna came in 30 min later and looked far too chirpy. I finally did get up, gave my feet a cold bath in the finish area and then got a massage too before heading off for some free paella and to meet some of the others for a catch up. I did elude earlier to the Ironman style finish area which I felt was pretty well set up here with free food and drink (except beer), an area for attending people feet (blisters etc.), a huge massage area with over 20 beds and an area to just relax and stretch. At the back there was also a fairly sizeable medical tent. Alongside that I got 2 t-shirts and a medal for my efforts.
Congratulations to the rest of the Scottish contingent who came out to race:
Donnie, Caroline, Craig, Lorna, Gavin, Donald and Elaine Sandeman, Matt, Mark Howlett, Ross Lawrie as well as Bob Alison and Bob Steel! Sadly 2 of those didn’t make it all the way to the finish line.
Huge thank you to the supporters James, Dawn and especially Fiona! Thank you for the company everyone!
Overall I am very pleased with my run as I felt strong throughout most of it, basically powered up the climbs which is where I overtook a lot of people moving from a position just inside the top 500 at El Pilar to a final finish position of 191st out of around 1700 finishers. Considering the mayhem at the start I possibly could have placed notably better if I would have seeded myself closer to the front in the first place. Lesson learnt here. Sandra McDougall did rightly point out at one point that the hold up at the start may have helped later on. Considering we powerwalk uphill either way I am not sure how true that is except if I had been right at the front. I’ll find out next time I do a race like this though.
Going into the race I was not sure how well prepared I was but I felt good in the week leading up to it and felt strong on the day. Nutritionally I did OK making sure I had something at all feedstations and a bit in between too. I didn’t have the best hydration system but it worked. I ran with a waist belt as I wanted easy access to the pockets which my Salomon S Lab backpack wouldn’t provide so had a 900 ml bottle of water with me. 2 smaller bottles next time in a different belt! I’d go with a belt again though as it leaves the back freer for sweating.
Looking back it was an awesome experience, my first ultra marathon with the organisation of an Ironman but still a degree of a personal touch with it. The sheer number of people running, the scale of the mountain and the beauty of the island all made this something special. I’d go back!
This race has done something else for me. I put my name down for UTMB 2014 at the end of last year but didn’t get in through the ballot which is what I wanted (increasing my chances for 2015) as I didn’t feel ready for such a mountainous race. Transvulcania has shown that I am ready for such a mountainous race! Fingers crossed for a successful entry into the 2015 UTMB.
A quick word on La Palma: What a beautiful island this is. We didn’t just enjoy a great days racing here but also had a lovely holiday, walking in some beautiful landscapes which seem to change all the time. This was all topped off with the great holiday apartment we were staying at, the Finca Primavera which had a really nice garden with lots of flowers, its own chickens for our breakfast eggs and a pool to rest our legs in. And I got to talk German with Katharina who looks after the place. 🙂