From an unyielding volcanic island to ‘true grit!’
Often, I find myself willing, embracing and enjoying elements of mother nature, that seem to have been put to test and pit against me – “Ross un point – Mother Nature nil point!”
“In the hardest moments of a long race, the athlete’s entire conscious experience of reality boils down to a desire to continue, pitted against a desire to quit. Nothing else remains. He is no longer a son or a father or a husband. He has no social roles or human connections whatsoever. He is utterly alone…The agony of extreme endurance fatigue crowds out every thought and feeling except one: the goal of reaching the finish line. The sensations within the body – burning lungs, screaming muscles, whole body enervation – exist only as the substance of the desire to quit…The desire to continue versus the desire to quit – the athlete is this and this alone until he chooses one or the other. And when the choice is made and he briefly becomes either persevering or quitting until, after he has stopped at the finish line, or God forbid, short of it, the stripped-away layers are piled back on and he becomes his old self again. Only not quite. He is changed, for better or worse.” – ‘Iron War’ by Matt Fitzgerald
At 2,426mtrs with a 30 degree heat, I found myself at Los Muchachos, flat on my back from heat exhaustion, high blood pressure and wired to a glucose drip – I look over and realise that I haven’t paused my Suunto. Smiling to myself, that’s when I knew things were going to be alright!
The taper week leading up to the Transvulcania Ultra was a beaut! I haven’t enjoyed a week more, with a bunch of likeminded trail running buddies. Each day had us heading out from our ‘Jimmy Bond’ villa, hitting the trails and enjoying the spectacular beauty that the island of La Palma has to offer in abundance, followed by a platter of fresh seafood delights…
…then, there I was, along with 2,000 other runners watching a projected countdown of the race, onto a sheer cliff face by the notorious lighthouse starting point. The ‘party vibe’ was in full flow, AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” blaring over the speakers, heart pounding, everyone bouncing and ready for the gun. After a few crazy moments of shoving and scrambling around on the initial volcanic sandy climb, I found a good rhythm and was enjoying the circus of events around me. Never before had I been part of such an inspiring display of lights, within a race. From studying the previous races, I was well aware of the spectacle that was occurring around me, where the early morning supporters and volunteers were engulfed in a vision of light, flowing like a river along the race route. Questions had previously been asked about the reason for the mandatory red ‘tail’ headlight that we all had to wear, along with the white for the front but, being in the thick of the ‘flow’, all I could imagine was how symbolic all of this might be in relation to the route we were all about to embark on across this, as it would turn out, blistering and unyielding volcanic island.
I had been training for a while to use running poles for this race, and was well aware of the ‘divide’ it causes with trail runner’s opinions. This was my first race using poles, as well as experiencing other runners using them. I’d like to think I was a considerate runner but became very aware, early on in the race, how annoying it can be to have poles battered off yourself from other users pushing in and scuttling along in the mayhem and, later on, through fatigue. I had assumed that with poles being readily used in Europe that most people would understand some form of etiquette with them, but I have to admit to falling victim to the odd ‘clothesline’ and toe stabbing takedown. On the focus of ‘use’ though, I loved them, yes many see them as an aid and therefore a form of cheating but with the culture the way it is in Europe, it makes sense to utilise the tools that you’re allowed to equip yourself with, in making yourself more efficient at covering longer distances, with less impact and more stability and speed. I did find my time on the hills and Munros back home to have been well spent and was able to maintain a rhythm when talking steeper sections, with a burnt out body! – following this race, for anyone that might be interested, my legs felt brand new. I haven’t suffered any muscle pain or cramps, it’s as if I had taken an iced bath directly after the race. My recovery here was a surprise and a delight! I’ll put it down to the fantastic training program given to me by Donne Campbell (http://www.getactiverunning.com/), as well as the use of my poles. However, this did not mean that I went without my own personal suffering…
Standing at the start line, in the dark early hours of the morning, you’re reminded of this island’s unique beauty. With such crisp clear skies, we’re all treated to a display of individual stars and constellations above, complimented by the deep orange burn of the moon.
The flora that this beautiful island offered was as diverse as the race route itself. Starting on barren moon-like volcanic sandscape, the odd sparse bush sprouting from the depths, led onto some of the most fantastic pine trees I have ever had the pleasure of running through. It was how I had imagined running in North America may be. The softer trail of pine, was a welcome change to the soles of your feet and the smell from the cooked tree sap, filled the air with a sweetness that invited you to open your lungs deep and enjoy the rhythm through these parts. Sadly this didn’t last too long and we were all back to running uphill on sand once more.
Although I was making good time and running light on my feet, I was beginning to feel the effects of the rising sun by the third water station at El Pilar along with the accumulative accent over 2000 meters of volcanic sand. Although the race had started chaotically in the dark, I had a positive, comfortable and enjoyable start. As the sun began to rise and the temperatures soar, I began to lose myself in a ‘darkness’ that was to linger with me for over 4 hours. This was not my usual form and I realised that something wasn’t quite right with my stomach. I had stuck to my plan of steady hydration, making sure that I was drinking close to 1ltr every aid station, a gel every hour and Percy Pigs as often as I felt the need. Somewhere though my stomach had other plans and wasn’t willing to play the game with the rising heat, continuous and relentless technical climbs and twisting switch-backs. The day began with a refreshing headwind that soon became drier and drier as the race went on. This mixed with the volcanic dust, kicked up by everyone on the trail, added to the impact where I found myself using my buff as a filter to breathe slightly cleaner air. Later on I would find some runners suffering from aggravated eyes and requiring multiple eyewashes to allow them to continue on in the race.
Having hit some areas that I had previously covered in recce runs earlier that week, I was able to mind map my own personal checkpoints and micro manage the route in smaller sections. I had the mindset that the areas I had not yet seen, would be other opportunities for the ‘odd’ photograph! 😉 This ‘treat’ was to appease ‘the inner chimp’ in me that had already began to fire self doubt at this race, the distance, terrain and increasing heat!
Running above cloud level, the views were spectacular where you could see the majority of the race route ahead, as well as the rugged spine you had just climbed. After climbing up and over many false summits, I joined the long, rocky undulating rim of the crater, which would eventually lead onto the quad pounding 2,440 meter decent into Puerto de Tazacorte. My focus now was on my Sunnto marking every kilometer to the next few aid stations, eventually having me on the opposite side of the crater, with the back of the race broken! The scale of this adventure became much more ‘sobering’ with the heat of the day pounding on you from above as well as radiating from the ground up. It was beginning to be spelt out to me, that this day was going to be a long and arduous one!
As I headed towards Los Muchachos, some runners, including myself, were taking any opportunity to take some time in the shade. I chose the odd rocky overhang and tree shade wherever possible. As time passed and my stomach began to resist against all efforts of exertion, I was again beginning to fall back into darker moments, where I had to work hard at keeping my head up and remain positive. It would have been easy to throw in the towel, that was a given but, more than that, it was a temptation that also offered comfort, shade, rest and no ticking clock… As a ‘Scot’, heat exhaustion is not something that I have ever been able to encounter, push myself into and out through the other end. Give me gale force winds, rain, and snow and I’ll run all day! – I’ll regret saying this for UTMB! 😉
Just as I had climbed yet another rocky lump, the first real sights of the observatories on Muchachos could be seen. Great, I’m almost there! Every step though seemed to take me further away, bending and twisting around the rocks and bushes, that also included further drops, dips and yes more climbs! I had noticed more runners trying to claim some form of shelter from the midday heat, by planting themselves at the roots of bushes and taking a moment to rest and cool down. By now I could hear the welcoming cheers form the aid station and the tents became clear to see – that though was a bitter sweet moment, as the station was perched on the top of yet another steep climb, where the trail in front would bend some more and then drop out of sight before tackling a steep climb. The runners ahead looked small and I knew that this was going to take some time in getting there.
By now, I was aware of being on the desired side of the crater for this ridge line route and I was able to appreciate seeing the distance I had covered, now knowing that the downhill was coming…! I entered Muchachos aid station, fairly week and was overwhelmed by the noise, heat and smells from within the ‘rest tent’ area. People were everywhere, all squeezed up on benches, lying out on the shaded ground and others pushing and shoving for whatever they could grab from the food tables. There was plenty to go round, there just seemed to be a panic to grab fuel and rest or head on… I sat down by a guy and tried to get some more drink in me along with a banana. No sooner had I sat down and I noticed that the guy next to me was eating a tuna and pasta meal. Right in front of me there was a production line of plates, pasta and tuna for anyone interested. This instantly turned my stomach and I was looking for somewhere to rest and possibly throw up.
Shade and fresh air was all I was now interested in. I got out of the tent and headed for the nearest shade which happened to be under the bumper of an ambulance. No sooner was my bum on the ground, resting and I was approached by a first aider to see if I was ok. I said yes and that I just needed 5 minutes and he disappeared and came back with a strange low looking chair. He gestured for me to get on, so I thanked him and went to rest my legs with this added comfort. Completely oblivious to the first aiders intentions, no sooner was my bum on the chair, when another guy approached and pulled two short handles out from under the front of this seat and I found myself being lifted and on the move. I was being carried like an Egyptian King up and towards the medic’s aid tent. After I had my blood pressure taken and my blood sugar level measured, the medic approached and said “Ah, you’re diabetic.” “No.” I replied. “Si, you’re diabetic.”, “No, no, I’m fit, healthy. Not diabetic.” The final words were from him – “Si. Today you’re diabetic. Very, very diabetic!” – Fiddle! What did this mean!?! Well it meant straight onto a bed, where they explained that I was suffering from heat exhaustion, high blood pressure and in a current state of self induced diabetes. I was getting a glucose drip to help with recovery. After five ‘nippy’ attempts at finding a vein, the assistant nurse called for the head medic. Some words spoken, she was adamant that she ‘would’ find a vein. O_O
With the drip in, I was instructed to not move a muscle. Annoyingly, I wasn’t taking in the glucose as quickly as I would have hoped and I was connected for a long 1hr 30mins… Many runners came and went, some suffering from severe leg crippling cramps, others with eye issues as well as others like myself. I had some time to think here, on the bed and at some point had assumed that this meant the race was over for me but I realised that the more defined and easier the option for quitting was, the more I no longer wished for it. Having taken some pointers from my recent book, ‘The Chimp Paradox’, I sat back to evaluate the situation and see what sense I could make of it. The easy option was to stop and get the bus back. But this would mean defeat and walking past the finish line, rather than running hard and strong up the red carpet. I had been visualizing that red carpet for close to a year now and I wanted to be on it. After all the hard graft I had done to get to this point, all the rough ups and downs and up, up, ups again, I wanted to cover that soft smooth textured surface.
As the medic was removing my drip, a race organizer had appeared and came over. He had a bag in one hand and snips in the other. He made a move for my trainer and then I realized he was in the process of cutting off my timer chip. “God, no!” This was when I instinctually knew that I wanted to run, not stop and end it here. I had lost count of the number of times I had wished for this hard day to end but not like this. I asked what he was doing and he explained that this aid station had a cut off point for 6pm. I asked the time, it was 5:20pm. I explained that that meant there was still 40 minutes, he agreed. So I asked for my backpack and poles and said I’d be out of this station in 2. Once on my feet, I felt remarkably better, my stomach wash’t causing any issues and I felt good to go.
Not long into the downhill section, and I was heading uphill once more! This was just crazy!!!! I had spotted a large crew of people, all in identical running gear, with a large banner being held up high on a staff, leading the group. My mind was already playing with me, ‘toying’ with me. “That’s the sweeper group. Somehow you’ve lost you 40 minutes of grace”. I panicked and worked hard to catch them up and pass them. This took sometime but eventually having caught up, I began shouting “Pasar! Para pasar!!!” They all stepped a side and let me fly by, only for me to notice that they had red race bib numbers on and were part of a charity team group running the marathon! Oh well, I was on my feet and moving – this was good enough for me!
My next frustration came as the downhill arrived. This was due to the course being incredibly steep, with switch backs that left you frustratingly slow at points and slipping around from time to time. I couldn’t allow for an error, one because of the unforgiving volcanic rock that would cut you deep and wide and the other being that I still worried about my broken coccyx. One wrong slip on that and my race would definitely be over. I eventually came to the penultimate aid station, this was a victory for me and I was again absolutely destroyed but elated all the same. There was a fire engine here adding to the depleted supply of water. I spotted a guy by a barrel and a hose, where he was pouring jugs of water over people’s heads – I was heading for him. He didn’t know it but he was getting the biggest ‘man hug’ ever!!! 🙂
Cooled off, I headed for the aid station tent for some water. Annoyingly the station was still waiting for water to be supplied, so was handed yet another blue powerade bottle. My own mind couldn’t stand the sight of these any longer and I knew my stomach wasn’t going to play ball with this either. It was here, though, where I bumped into my buddies Gavin and Mark. Both were having their own issues and battling with their own personal running demons. The three of us decided from here that we would head off together. This certainly lifted our spirits. Having been conversation-less for over 9-10hrs, it was great to talk and shoot the breeze with these guys. We took our time heading downhill, the route still technical and full of twists, turns and rocks. It was here where I lost use of my Suunto, which had up to this point been my only reliable companion for time and distance. I really relied on it to account for every half kilometer that I was battling to cover. Eventually the path joined some previously covered trail, from an earlier trail recce run that week. I knew it was opening out and bringing us to the ‘vertical kilometer’ route that dropped into Tazacorte. I made my excuses to the guys, I knew I was still strong in the legs and promised myself, if I could run, I would. This section was mine to take…
Having arrived in Tazacorte check point – or should I say the local ‘nightclub!’ The volunteers for this race were fantastic, this has to be said. At every point, there was a smile and supporting cheers given. But by the time I had got myself down into this aid station, I was again exhausted, drained and just wanted this bloody race to finish! The marathon runners finished here and there was a small ‘pick me up’, from having ran over their red carpet and through their finish line. No sooner were you through this though and you were hit with the bitter sweet fact that you still had a rather dark and technical canyon to run through and a cobbled 350 meter climb up towards Los Llanos. My recollection of this last check point was like a muted scene from the film Trainspotting’. I thought I had walked straight into a night club, people were dancing in front of me, singing and cheering, with a live band blaring off to my left. I was confused and a little concerned about binging up any water that I might have in me, and perhaps being pulled from the race. I had to get out of this nightclub and fast! I avoided the bar and headed on toward the beach. Once on the beach and heading into the canyon, I realized my error in heading off too quickly. I had left without any refills in my water bottles!!!! I didn’t care – I cared, but by this point, I couldn’t care any less… I was now cursing this new canyon route, that I had previously enjoyed running and playing through earlier in the week. I knew it well enough to know though, that it wasn’t long and I’d soon be on my final climb of the race.
The climb was steep, no surprise there, its switchbacks took you across three roads, where there were marshals with torches holding traffic for a collection of guys and girls that all resembled a group of Saturday night drunks. Sure of their intended route but wobbling, stumbling and getting nowhere fast. At this point I was feeling strong again in my legs and powered on up the cobbled paths, passing many guys that had, like me burnt out miles earlier… only 2km to go…! I asked one of the road marshals if he had any water for my last climb. He did and started filling my bottle. Just then he took a long drag on his cigar and blew into my face and that was me, doubled over and throwing up over the road barrier – twice!!! This time though, I felt great after it, perhaps this was just because of the distance left. I was able to see the trail and skyline from where I had just come down and knew that I only had a few more climbs and bends, before joining tarmac and finishing this beast! Legs strong, off I grunted…
To my delight, many of the locals were still out by the side of the main road strip, cheering us all on! “Venga! Animal!!!”
This lifted and left me cruising home, with one last right turn, then a left and onto ‘my’ red carpet! A couple of photos taken then a sprint finish saw me cross the line and receive my finishers medal!
One hell of a day – one hell of a race!
Not my greatest ever performance but most definitely one of my greatest achievements!
The morning after and friend of mine summed it all up, quite well: “Think I’ll take up cage fighting. It’s far safer!” – Donald Sandeman. Transvulcania 2014