TransVulcania 2013 – Life experience in La Palma
I am sitting at the Madrid airport with Timothée Nalet, waiting for the third flight of the day on the way back to France from what was one of the most exciting week in a long time at La Palma.
The TransVulcania Race is one unique event that takes place in the Canaries Island. 83km long for 4 100m elevation gain and loss, up and down the volcanic spine of the island called La Palma. One hell of a race going through landscapes as breathtaking as diverse, and supported by the Inernational Skyrunning Federation as the second race of the Wold Skyrunning “Ultra” series. A must for any ultra runner looking to get a life experience out of a race.
OFF TO A GOOD START
After traveling for the past 5 years to races around the world, I feel extremely lucky to know a few of the current world’s top athletes in ultra running. This is how Tim (Nalet who’s part of the Goodpeoplerun.com co-founders) and I had the chance to come few days earlier to explore the Island and share a flat with no other than Kilian Jornet, Emilie Forsberg (this year’s men and women winners), Timothy Olson (WS100 2012 champion and course record holder) and Anna Frost, last year’s TransVulcania winner and course record holder.
Needless to say, it’s very humbling to find myself in presence of such accomplished runners. Yet, the atmosphere was friendly, laid back and aside from all running shoes laying around, a total stranger to our sport wouldn’t have seen more than a bunch of friends on vacation.
First morning and first run to shake the legs to see the last part of the course: gnarly switchbacks hanging off the side of a cliff and dropping town to the beach of El Porto de Tazacorte. Those would be the last strides downhill of a 2 500m descent over 18k.
I was running stride to stride with Tony Krupicka, Joe Grant and Timothy Olson. People surely will have a hard time figuring out who was that 4th musketeer – and only one with a shirt on – on all the pictures they took of us during that run!! I am nowhere near the level of those guys, so it was inspiring to be part of this smiling group trotting up to the ridge overlooking the bay, on a sunny morning in La Palma.
Social media plays a key role in helping us stay up to date with race coverage thanks to great resources like TalkUltra (Iain Coreless) and Mud Sweat and Tears (Matt Ward) in the UK and Irunfar (Bryon Powell) for the US, as well as reading our friends’ race reports and simply staying in touch.
Yet, there is nothing like a global event every now and again to meet up with this ever smiling and enthusiastic crowd, and that we did. Consistently.
What is this last product? Have you heard of this race? What do you think this runner will do on race day with such a deep field? Interviews and live twitter updates were on like Donkey Kong at the main hotel where most elite athletes and media were staying. We are a long way from the low key trail races we part take on weekends in the neck of out woods, but this is the result of a growing sport that draws more and more attention. To me this is a good thing. Plus, let’s be honest, we are running geeks and we love every bit of gossip we can read & watch! Here is an example, ITW of Kilian before the race by Iain Coreless.
The alarm goes off in the tent. It’s pitch black, 4 o’clock, and I’m feeling good. The Tims (Timothée Nalet and Timothy Olson) are already moving as I pull myself out my sleeping bag. I get out and the already warm breeze augurs nothing but a hot day coming up.
The waves are still asleep after their furious crushing dance last night. Meanwhile, massive traffic action is taking place behind us. Buses and cars are crossing on the narrow and windy road that goes down to the start.
Anna, who’s not racing, drives away to get on the course at the aid station at 34k, as we walk down to the busy start area. Depa is already full on at the mic, getting runners more excited than they already are. Few handshakes and best wishes to fellow runners. It’s pretty quiet though, top runners are starting to get in their zone.
Meanwhile, I took on my 20 years old pre race routine routine. Warm up, take a shit, last gear adjustment, take a shit, head to the starting line, do I want to take a shit again? No I think I’m good… oh shit I’m not! Few minutes packed under the arch and 3,2,1, we’re off.
I remain extremely calm while what felt like a herd of thousands of zebras chased by lions carried me for the first flat section. People pushing, yelling “venga venga”, breathing dust, way to kick start full swing a day on the trails!
First climbs and the pace of the pack is set. I know I need to move up, so I crank it up, quick words with Timothée, and I’m off on a mission to find Emilie F.
Anna told me she’d be running it around 8h, so she would be great pacer for the start of the race. With no experience in this distance, it would be great help, not to mention she’s very good company. There she is with Nuria. I ease up and stick with them until we reach the first aid station, at kilometer 7. It felt like Le Tour de France at a mountain pass. Ecstasic! You can hear it as many times as you want, you don’t know what it’s like until you experienced it. It gave me goose bump, seriously I was so excited I almost forgot to fill up my water bottles!
Emilie and I carried on together for a while, and witnessed what was for me the most magical and surreal sunrise ever. Running on a single track across a pine forest, with horizontal light yellow, orange and red stripes covering the dark blue ocean. We were in awe for a while, and charged up the final first climb.
Few kilometers before the aid station at km 28, I stopped to pee and noticed it was also going from yellow, to orange and then to red. I was much less amused by that!!! But I didn’t feel any sort of pain and was actually still feeling pretty fresh, so I decided to carry on. Meanwhile, Emily and Nuria had dropped me and were never to be seen again.
I flew by the aid station, gave hi fives on the way filled up my water bottles, ate watermelon I was really pleased to find there, and was out again.
I was cruising on the he flat 4wd road that followed as I saw a familiar stride. No doublt I was feeling good but I couldn’t be feeling that good to catch up with my good friend Luke Nelson.
I asked him if he was all right, and he just replied with his big smile “Yep, happy as a clown! Now I got over the shame of having a bad day, I’ll try to enjoy this run” he joked. “It’s still a long way to the finish”.
“Damn right, so I’ll see you when you’ll catch me” I replied moving on.
I saw Anna and Bryon Powell at the next aid station. They mentioned Emily and Nuria only had 90 seconds on me. By then though, I had no plans to catch up with them. I was in my own space and felt good about it. So I carried on, on what was to me the most beautiful part of the race. Single track winding around the crests, under pine trees, and over cliffs, it somehow reminded me of Corsica.
I passed few aid stations, where I always filled up my water bottles, kept taking down gels and bars, and started passing runners. Another of them was Joe Grant, who like Luke I clearly wasn’t expecting to see there. We chatted for a bit, and he mentioned he might have caught Tony’s bug. What a shame, but that’s the way it is and he was still very positive. I carried on.
On the final climb before El rocque de Los Muchachos, I caught up with Adam Campbell. Another good friend I was saddened to see there, obvious sign of racing issues. When I saw his face, I realized it was an understatement. He sounded like he had nothing left in him, which apparently was true as he had been sick for the past 20ks and not able to take anything down. I was a bit worried, but he mentioned he’d drop out at the aid Station at El Rocque de Los Muchachos. He wasn’t too far away and there were people on the course, so I figured he’d make it safe and sound. (He happened to get there, pass out, get up and finish the damn race in over 12 hours. This man is a beast, and I genuinely hope that he’ll get back on his feet and have a good race sometime soon, without getting sick, without getting lost. Because when he does, he’s going to do serious damage!).
Final climb to the aid station, where I’m chasing a group of three runners who won’t let me catch up with them. I’m still feeling good and haven’t been in the red zone yet, so I figure I might push it to pass them before the climb and that’s what I do.
The 18kms descent starts and I feel strong. For the first time of the race, I start pushing the pace, and run faster on the flat sections. I feel that I’m moving as I’m now quickly catching up runners here and there. I caught up with a fellow French New Balance runner, Sebastien Couchaud. But no time to chat, I’m on a mission to that damn finish line.
On the second half of the descent, a funny thing happened. A runner who I had passed, comes back on me and overtakes me, and vanishes ahead.
It took one good minute for my tired mind to react, “wait a minute, being passed wasn’t quite in my plans, how did that happen?”
Pride and competitiveness were still here so I charged down the hill, forgetting about the pain in my quads and trying to keep drinking and eating well. 5 or 6 minutes later I caught up with The North Face athlete Zigor ITURRIETA RUIZ. I was on his heels for a few hundred meters until he realized I was going faster. He moved to the side, and off I was.
Yet I paid the price of a surge to drop him, and I lost focus long enough to let one of those lava rock catch my toes… 1”, 2”, 3” [this is me counting the seconds while flying fists ahead in the air]. With a steeper grade this might have taken me all the way to the bottom of the hill. It didn’t.
I crashed hard laying on my water bottle and left knee. I got up straight away, it took me few steps to be able to breathe again. “You’ll hurt another day buddy, because right now, this guy could come back to you any minute” I said to myself. I’m back at it, and as I try to evaluate the damage on my hand and dust off my water bottles, WHAM! I’m on the ground again! I let out a loud “PUTAIN!!!”, and it’s now anger that covers the pain of my bleeding knee.
I try to keep it together, stay focused and soon enough I find myself on the final switchbacks down to El Porto de Tazacorte. A place I know well, since I ran it earlier in the week with Joe G. Tony K. and Timothy O. I’m over heated, bleeding and tired, but never been that close to the finish. I quickly get to the aid station, where the people were as efficient as F1 crew. They filled up my water bottles, watered down the dust and blood off my knee, tapp on the butt and I was off right when other runners were coming in.
Here it is, the final climb, 2kms on a 5% road before to hit the steep switchbacks. I had to run this first part, no questions asked. I unplugged my brain, took a deep breath, opened my stride and got it done. I did grunt out loud as I hiked those switchbacks one after the other to reach out the top of that hill.
The last stretch was pure bliss. A long 1,5k straight road at the end of which I could see the arch, 400m away from the finish line. I sucked in every bit of it, giving hi fives to all people cheering on the side of the road, passed the first arch, more people cheering, I turn right, and then left to finally see that finish line. The intensity peaked there as I saw the time on the clock.
Because what I forgot to mention is that at the 35th km, the wristband of my watch broke (thank you for nothing Garmin…), and I had to store it in my belt, where I left it for good. Which means I literally had no idea of what my time could be, nor what my ranking was. What an extra burst of joy on top of all the cheering, 8h24 and counting !
Depa was here to welcome me home, as well as François, Cameron, Emily and Anna. It did make a difference, because those moments are so much more intense when shared with good friends. 8h24’59” official time and 21st overall. Objective reached. Overjoyed.
RED WINE IS GOOD, EXCEPT WHEN YOU PEE IT
After I got a massage and iced my legs for a bit, I went to the medic, as I had peed red two more times during the race and I felt like I needed to get it checked. Impossible to get me an IV to flush it all down, my veins are so compressed by the effort that they can’t put a needle in it. They tried three times, in vain.
So after I peed in some kind of jar 300ml of what looked like red wine, I was taken to the hospital… pretty fast !
A lady from the race organization came and picked me up to bring me back to our flat, where all the fast folks were gathered, celebrating with well deserved drinks. And let me tell you those weren’t energy drinks!
This was probably the most humbling part of the whole trip. They all had an amazing race, Emily and Kilian had won, Timothy took 4th, François was 6th, Cameron 7th, Philipp 12th and yet they all cheered to my much unexpected “fast” time. Only ultra running has such champions.
Beyond a solid race for my first 50 miler, I’ll remember all the good times with a global trail running family. Those world class events attract some of the best ultra runners in the world and are the opportunity for some catch up, laughing, training runs and tough racing in what remains an extremely humble and friendly atmosphere.