“Well I’m walking. Less than 500m into the biggest race of my life. Walking.” And not by any choice of mine. Frustrating, but expected. As my mind raced through those thoughts, my body wasn’t; racing that is. Forced to a painfully slow walk, by the conga line of bodies making the way up the steep climb that carries runners all the way up to almost 2000m above sea level, on our journey across the island of La Palma. It was barely past 6am, and Transvulcania had well and truly begun. The vibe was crazy, a word I heard and would use myself, multiple times, to describe this incredibly beautiful and unique race. With over 1500 starters packed deep into a section of road, the start was insane. Lots of European style lycra, and the iconic lighthouse situated at sea level at the Southernmost Tip of La Palma, Faro de Fuencaliente. Minutes before I was standing next to Maggie, one of my first training partners, waiting for the race to start. We were probably 10-15 metres behind the start line, and had 20 or so metres of people crammed in behind us. Mostly men. We were waiting to start, chatting, and I was at that point I have only found ultra-marathons bring out in me; a calm yet determined energy, waiting to unleash. AC/DC blared, a tradition I would later be told that signifies the beginning is near. And then the countdown, and then madness. 1500 + people running like it was the start of a 5km, knowing that in only a few hundred metres, the road would very aggressively funnel everyone into single track, for the 10 mile climb up to 1800m of elevation. And sure enough, after pushing ahead as much as I could, narrowly avoiding being taken out by a reckless member of the media running across the road, I was walking. Hundreds of people were ahead of me, and like most races, many would fade quickly, gas tank blown very early in the race. Unfortunately for me, I was firmly stuck and unable to pass anyone. A stream of headlamps snaked up this steep climb, as the leaders ran up the volcano, and the rest of the 1500 followed. With harsh volcanic rock and ash surrounding this narrow path, desperate runners took to the sides trying to get past slower runners, all jockeying for position. My plan was always to try and get as far ahead as possible, but with a frustrating acceptance that I would likely be forced to climb at the pace of the pack, significantly slower than I would have liked. Whilst that was challenging, it also saved my energy. I tried moving up along the side, but it was utter carnage. With people getting taken out, falling, and a ton of sand filling my shoes, I relented back to the slow moving path. Neither was making any more ground, and after remembering the horrific deep to the bone cut the 2015 female winner Emelie Forsberg received in 2014 (after getting knocked off the side), I went back to my plan. Stay out of trouble, and get to the top, where you can get down to racing. I made myself a promise though. A deep and powerful promise. Run. Any opportunity you get to run, you run, and you run HARD. No matter how steep, how challenging, you RUN. You can’t run now, so the second you get that chance, you get after it. I don’t know what compelled that deep and binding agreement, but whatever it was, it meant something.
Do I sort out my shoes now, I thought. I was running hard, finally up near the first checkpoint and aid station at 7kms, the town of Los Canarios. People were everywhere. It was early, but the entire town was out, and going nuts for the runners. I could see the main town up ahead, the first major spectator point in the race. I ducked to the side, sorted out my laces that were bugging me, and then hit the gas. I checked my bottles, and they were good. Well, guess I’m blasting through this one. I was pushing a fast pace, and absolutely hammering past people. As the aid station approached, I picked up the pace. Threading the needle, I hit the timing point (my splits would later show I was in 653rd place at that point) and just hit the gas trying to get out of the aid station as fast as I could, and make up time. I nearly got taken out again by runners moving indecisively, but kept moving, soaking up the incredible atmosphere. The crowd appreciated my intensity, cheering my name as they saw me just run straight past the beverage station, and up into the mountain. Immediately, I noticed that most runners had pulled out their trekking poles, which were allowed to be used past this point. I took off my headlamp, gambling that it was light enough to see, and that once back on the single-track, I could focus on my run. I moved off fast, and it was at this stage that I could see some of the simply stunning views. The sun was rising, and what a sight. Looking out over the ocean, it was spectacular. We continued climbing, and whilst better, there was still a conga line of runners. I passed where I could, but the narrow trail and treacherous drops off the side, made it difficult at times. In addition to the majority Spanish speaking runners (thus trying to signal I wanted to pass in English was mostly ineffective), trekking poles were a problem. They were swinging everywhere, with sharp ends meaning I had to be very careful how I approached. Whilst some had the understanding of how to run with poles in a race environment, most seemed to have zero concern or idea of how dangerous they became. Maybe this is part of the European racing scene, I don’t know. But I was really getting aggravated with the poles. Trying to pass on already narrow and dangerous trails, was made that much harder, by the swinging and erratic movement of poles. Something I would deal with for most of my race. But, I kept my promise. I power-hiked hard, and the moment I could run, I did. I would be the only person running up a big climb in many sections, to the disbelief of those around me. But I was passing people, and making ground. And more importantly, I was feeling strong. This was undoubtedly helped by the indescribable views. Just gorgeous trails, panoramas and sights everywhere. As we climbed up, we were running above a sea of clouds. The beauty of this race was unlike anything I had ever seen, and during the forced slow periods where runners bottlenecked, I would relish the opportunity to take in the views.
I hit Las Deseadas, the second aid station (at 16kms) feeling strong. It had been aggressive climbing all the way here, but the course had opened up a bit and allowed me to run. I wasn’t to know, but I had jumped over 300 positions to be in 317th by this stage, after a period of hard, consistent work. We were up high at altitude now, just shy of 2000m. Which meant in 16kms, I had climbed A LOT. Both my energy levels and my body felt great, and whilst I was feeling confident, I knew it was a long race and that there were very few sections that weren’t aggressively climbing or descending. I pushed hard and continued moving through these gorgeous trails, and hit El Pilar at blazing pace. This was the 24km point, and where the marathon runners would start. I rolled in at 930am, and hoped to see my crew of Becs, Weronica and Sophie, all due to start the marathon at 10am. I was in 271st place by this point, and this was the first time I really stopped for more than 15 seconds at an aid station. I drank a few cups of coke, re-filled my bottles with water, and ate a bunch of watermelon. Being the marathon start, there was a crazy party atmosphere happening. Just an unbelievable energy. I hadn’t seen my crew, but was ready to move on, and after maybe 90 seconds in the aid station I was flying out again. The road had opened up to a fire road, and I ploughed on, past spectators and runners waiting to start the marathon. I was feeling decent, and remembered my promise to myself. In parts where I may have power-hiked, I just ran. I kept running and running and running. Conversations in my head would suggest a quick respite, but a firm retort would remind me that I got a long walk at the start, so keep on moving. There would be plenty of power hiking to come.
Transvulcania is one of the toughest ultras in the world. For a ‘shorter’ ultra of only 74kms, it packs a ridiculous 8000+ metres of elevation. With about an even spread of descending and ascending, it amounts to the equivalent of half way up Everest, and back down again, in 74kms. The entire race you spend most of your time either doing big climbs or big descents, with the final descent being a nasty 10 miles where you drop from 2500m to sea level. From El Pilar, it was mostly climbing. I ran where I could, power-hiked, and never spent more than a few minutes in any aid station. I got into an aid station routine, which would be bottles filled, drink some coke (it was ice cold, refreshing, and my ‘treat’ for hard work), and eat a ton of watermelon. I love watermelon in a race, and whilst I’ll always go with what my stomach feels like, watermelon was all I wanted. It was refreshing, easily and quickly eaten, and delicious. I re-tied my shoes at a few points, as for at least half the race they were bugging me, but other than that, I just pushed on. I built on my Tarawera lessons and took that extra 30 or so seconds to ensure I was reset and ready to go hard for the next section. I was consistent and steady, and continued to run sections that 12 hours ago I would have planned to power-hike. I had a strength and confidence about me, and whilst I was feeling the effort, I kept pushing. I still had absolutely no idea how I was going, but to anyone watching my timing data, I was moving up the field. I worked hard all the way to the the highest point on the island, Roque De Los Muchachos. The terrain was unforgiving and incredibly technical. For majority of the race. But I was steady and as I was making that final big climb, I began preparing for the descent. A descent that all the elites had stated was terrifying. An absolutely brutal death drop down to sea-level, on ankle-breaking, skull-crushing terrain. Total unforgiving, quad-destroying madness. For 10 miles. This would be the point that showed whether or not my training had been on point. Whether or not I could in fact train for a skyrunning race of this nature, living in London. The make or break point. I was confident in my abilities, yet I knew I had never come across anything remotely like this. Game time. I hit the aid station, drank a lot of coke, and then I was off.
I started flying down the trails, mentally ready (as best I could be) for the brutality that awaited. And nothing….Yet. It was decent trails, and no sign of a crazy descent. I kept running, knowing that it would come, but somewhat surprised it wasn’t obvious. In my head, (and not ever having run or recce’ed the course) I expected the drop to start right from the aid station, so whilst partly relieved, I knew that this comfortable rhythm wouldn’t last long. I ran hard, as I didn’t know what would happen when I started descending, and wanted to make the most of the better running. After some undulation, it eventually started to go down. And there it was. The descent. Narrow trails, varying terrain, and winding down, flattening out at points, then continuing to wind down again. There were big rocks all over the path, tree roots, and there were very few sections where you didn’t have to be absolutely careful with every single step. And it kept going. This wasn’t even the worst part either, and it was barely denting the elevation profile that sat way above 2000m. A few guys passed me, and I was fine letting them go. I just kept running. The descent continued, seemingly forever winding and dropping, as I ran fast, but with a measure of caution as a single mis-step would result in a dangerous fall. The speed of which I was descending meant I was strained emotionally trying to process every step. Whilst I was feeling ‘good’ (good being a relative term at that point), multiple kms descending so aggressively was tiring mentally. But I kept going, and kept pushing as best I could. I chose to be here, and I absolutely knew this descent would be terrifying and horrific. But I chose to do this race, and the faster I got it over with, the faster it’s done (obviously). That dialogue played over and over in my head. “Just get this next part done. And the next part. Shoot, nearly tripped. But you didn’t, so stay focused. Keep going. You knew what you signed up for. Watch that step. Wow this is nuts. My toe is hurting. Yikes that was close. Wow this is crazy. Shit. No, all good, hang in there.” On and on and on and on. Kms ticked by, and the descent went down, slowly but surely. And then I went over. Caught a lone rock on a rare smooth patch of trail, and as I have done before in races, fell forward, half-rolled, and ate dirt. I wasn’t dead (an actual reality of a fall on parts of this course) and as with Tarawera, I was covered in dirt, and my trademark bloody knee was back in the game. At least I’m being consistent with big races. But I got up, walked a few paces, and realised I wasn’t even half way down. So I cracked on. The relentless descending continued until after what felt like forever, an aid station appeared. Which meant I was over half way done with this descent of doom. I took a moment to wash off all the dust and dirt my fall had collected, drank about six cups of coke to sort myself out, and dived back into the fray. I hadn’t been passed by anyone, and had overtaken all the runners that had passed me in the initial phases of the descent. Whilst I was feeling pretty drained emotionally, I was physically strong, and saw more runners moving out. Whilst the descent was having a good crack at kicking my butt, I was safe at the knowledge that EVERYONE was in the hurt locker with me. So I kept moving. From El Time, I still had over 1000m to descend, and 7kms to do that in, taking me to the finish point of the marathon. From here, it was steeper, and far more aggressive. Big cobbled sections, and terrain that was so broken up, it meant fast descents, but with very little rhythm. Treacherous and incredibly challenging to run, especially at this point in a race. But I kept moving forward. I caught up with a guy, and we seemed to run most of this section together. I wasn’t quite ready to pass him, so we found some camaraderie running it together, sharing the pain and the suffering as only ultra runners can. Down and down. We ran around peoples houses, and as we got closer to the final section of descents (the switchbacks that form the vertical km course), we were moving fast. Coming out of those sections was a relief at first, until we had sections of steep (at least 18% grade) road to fly down. Whilst the thought of flat running seemed good, the tarmac gripped my shoes, meaning toes would be slammed into the shoe, which after such a traumatic descent, isn’t good for the feet. My right toe was hurting badly, and in serious agony (I would eventually lose that toenail a few weeks later) . But I felt I could move faster on these sections, and my feet were thrashed anyway, so I just cranked it. I passed and gave a farewell nod to the (I think Portuguese) runner I had shared the last few kms with, and just screamed down the tarmac passing people who were clearly in a world of hurt. I briefly thanked Swains Lane in London, for the hours of running fast downhills, starting at 18% grade. I hammered my body down those sections, ignoring the searing pain that was party to that sudden explosive effort, whilst in my head thanking my yoga teachers back in London for all the tough classes that had given me strength in my legs. My quads, knees and calves whilst sore from the days efforts, were strong and in good shape. I had joked pre-race that I would fondly remember having functional quads after the race, but my training and preparation had thus far kept my running strong. I was hurting, but I was strong. And then finally, the ocean, and the final aid station before the finish…….all the way down below, still kms away. I hit the switchbacks and kept going. Winding down quite aggressively, so much so that if you took a turn too fast, you would either blow out a knee or go completely over the cliff. Winding down, down, down, on slick cobblestones, at a really steep grade. Relentless. Unforgiving. And seemingly endless. Down I went. And the marathon finish/final aid station, seemed to be still so far away. I kept going down. Slowly, it got closer. I could hear the noise of the loudspeakers, the crowd. Faintly. And it slowly got louder. And I kept going down, still having to watch every step. And then the rain came. Making every step incredibly slippery. Like I was going down a childrens slide in roller-skates. I adjusted my tactics and ran slower, near the sides (where it was a rougher surface), and kept going down. I passed one, then two people in stretchers. Yikes, there is some serious carnage here, I hope they are ok. I would find out after that one of those runners on the stretcher was Salomon Team Runner Anna Mae Flynn, who had only weeks before earned a spot in Western States. A seriously badass runner, who had gotten so nauseous she had lost vision, and had to pull out her emergency blanket and sleep on the side of the trail. Holy shit, this race is freaking crazy. And I still had to keep on running. After what seemed like hours, I made it to the bottom. Gloriously. Amped up by the crowd, I ran hard into the finish chute for the marathon runners, smiled and high-fived, and then straight into my final aid station. I drank more coke, and was entertained by the aid station girls who were doing what looked like a choreographed cheer for me. Absolute champions. The energy in that aid station was just insane, and being the only one there, it was hard not to be lifted.
I had not even considered or pictured anything further from that descent, in all of my mental preparation going forward, so to have gotten that done, I was in a state of both pride and disbelief. I probably spent a minute longer than I needed at the aid station, but soon enough it was time to finish this thing. On to the beach, a hard left and then several kms through a quarry. Big rocks everywhere, uneven footing and absolutely no way to get any rhythm or momentum running. I was taking a bit of a mental beating here, and at one point I saw someone up ahead, looking beaten and battered. And in that moment, I reminded myself that I needed to keep pushing, keep working, and that just ‘getting by’ to the finish, isn’t what I do. I knew everyone else was hurting, and I knew that I needed to give this race my best, for every single second I was out there. So I ran, as best I could. I got out of the quarry, and straight up the first of what would see another 500 metres of climbing in the final kms of the race. I power-hiked up, and caught another runner. We power hiked together, and then as we passed an official, realised we both spoke English as a first language. He was on his third Transvulcania, and said we had a couple more big climbs, and then a mile or so straight down to the finish. We worked together, running and power hiking and just made our way up and up and up. I was close to empty at that point, shattered from pushing so hard all day, and ready for it to be over. I just needed to get this last part done. We finally climbed up and out, and began the final run in. All the way down the street, I saw a big banner across the road. What I thought was the finish. The streets were packed, and everyone was out watching and cheering. We both encouraged each other, knowing we could run sub 10 hours. And then I hit the gas, a final burst of energy and aiming to drain every ounce of speed and effort left in my body. I ran the straight hard, and as I neared the big banner, realised that I still had at least 700 or so metres left to run. So I did everything I could to hang on, to push. I high-fived as best I could, but my arms were just limp when I made any effort to raise them up. I ran with everything I had, turned the corner, and saw the crowds. I saw the finish chute. I ran with all my heart, ‘sprinting’ (a relative term considering I’d been running for over nine hours) into that chute, as the crowd went nuts, and that euphoric finish I had dreamt of and pictured, came true. I crossed the line, slowed down, and took it all in. Relief washed over me. I couldn’t stop smiling, Stood and walked off to the side. I had done it. I had conquered the volcano, and even surprising myself, had run an incredibly strong race. I didn’t know at the time, but I had finished in 110th position overall. A stout effort, considering this is one of the worlds toughest races AND one of the most competitive races, drawing a large field of elite competitors. And running sub 10 is no joke. Running and finishing this race, time aside, is no joke.
This was absolutely, the hardest race of my life. My proudest finish. My most satisfying finish, and a race where I can undeniably say I left everything out on the trails. It challenged me, pushed me, hurt me, and tried to break me. That final descent, is freaking insane. I have no idea how to describe it. Two hours of running down the most technical, and dangerous terrain. Two hours of having to watch every single step, to ensure that I don’t fall and quite realistically, die. The brutality that this course gives out is unlike anything I have ever seen. It’s mean, it’s terrifying, and yet it is simply divine. It is one of the most incredible courses in the world. The sheer beauty of the course, the island, the raw energy of the locals, and the spirit of the race, is just mind blowing. Even minutes after finishing, knowing how punishing and unforgiving this race is, I knew that I would absolutely come back. I have the upmost respect for any person that finishes this race. It’s crazy.
I learned so much about myself during this race. I gained a huge amount of experience, confidence, and felt like I belonged. I raced my arse off, and gave so much more than I realised I had in me. The support from friends, family, NRC and my crew (who all ran AMAZING races too, and made me so damn proud), made this race an experience I will hold onto forever.
I know I can come back and run a better race. I am confident with how I prepared for this race, and I showed myself (and others) that if you do it right, you can train for a legit mountain or skyrunning race in a city like London. It just takes a lot of effort, creativity, and hard work. I learned that I always have more to give, if that is what I choose to do. I was reminded that I am absolutely abhorred with giving anything less than my best. I learned that I have already grown so much since my last ultra back in February, and that my capacity to flip the switch has been further sharpened. I learned that regardless of the result, it is the experience I crave the most, and that even knowing that, I love the thrill of the race. Even if it is only myself that I am competing with. I learned that I love this sport, and the people that take part in it. I don’t know many other sports in which elite athletes that competed would be so quick to congratulate other runners (thanks Chris Vargo, Alicia Shay and Nike Trail Manager Pat Werhane). Or a sport where an elite athlete that wasn’t even at the race, would comment and genuinely congratulate someone they had never met or really engaged with (thanks Caroline Chaverot, you’re a champion). It blows me away, how incredible this sport is, and I am so thankful that I have been exposed to it.
1557 starters in the Ultra-marathon
Finish: 110th place
9 hours, 58 minutes, 13 seconds.
Congratulations to Luis Hernando Alberto for his third year winning, in a time of 7 hours 4 minutes, and Ida Nilsson for taking blazing the women’s race in 8 hours 14 minutes, just 4 minutes outside of Anna Frost’s Course Record. Impressive running!!!!
Elite results thanks to Irunfar.com: http://www.irunfar.com/2016/05/2016-transvulcania-ultramarathon-results.html
Nike singlet, shorts and socks
Nike Wildhorse 3 shoes
Ultimate Direction Jurek 2 Hydration pack
Ultimate Direction Bottles
Suunto Ambit3 Run GPS watch
Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp
Tailwind all day in my bottles, for nutrition. Plus coke and watermelon at aid stations.
To my crew: You all ran with grit, heart and courage. We all had different experiences out there, but I am so dam proud of you all. Maggie, Becs (B1), Weronica and Sophie (you crazy pizza loving superstar), what a freaking unreal effort. Thanks for being here and sharing this experience with me
Transvulcania organisers & volunteers: For the most incredible experience, and a flawless race. Volunteers were just AMAZING, and couldn’t have been more willing to help and make everyone smile.
Tailwind Nutrition UK: Since racing Tarawera, we have an agreement where you take care of all my nutrition needs for races. After a logistical issue stopped my product reaching me in time, you (Mike) went out of your way to ship product to my hotel in Madrid. Tailwind is my go to product for a reason, and I would have had a very different day without you ensuring I had my product. Thank you, and thank you Tailwind for once again, keeping me energised and happy throughout the race. Not once was energy or nutrition an issue, and that is why I have so much confidence in this product.
My friends and family: What can I say, the support was just insane. Again. I race a lot and I have a bit of a reputation for being a little crazy, but my god the support has been unreal. You all know who you are, and I am truly thankful for you all.
Alicia Shay: Not only did you throw down and get 4th female two years running (go Nike Trail) , but your kind words pre and post race, have led us to now working together, as Coach and athlete. I’m honoured that you want to work with me, and I look forward to letting you Coach me as I continue to grow and evolve in this sport!
Yogahaven London (and particularly Evie Adams, Adam Husler and Helen Russell Clark): Yoga gives me many things, but on the purely physical side, is my sole strength, conditioning and stretching program. My body is stronger, recovers better, and is far more in tune, balanced, and functional, and thus adapted to the high mileage and nature of the races I run, largely part to what I get from these classes. Thank you, and I look forward to many more classes in the future.
And finally, thank YOU for taking the time to read this essay of my race. It really does mean a lot!