Transvulcania Ultramarathon

Transvulcania is not really just a race. It’s a phenomenon. Here’s what makes it so special:

Location on the tiny island of La Palma in the middle of the atlantic. There are only 86,000 people on the island and it’s quite remote. There are no big hotels or mass tourism. The island is just simply amazing, with the southern part being basically desert with volcanic black sand, which makes for totally surreal landscapes. When you climb up, usually you have a sea of clouds on the other side of the island and perfect sunshine on the other. In the middle of the island, there is an enormous caldera that rises from the sea to nearly 2,500 meter. The northern side of the island is lush rainforest. In the middle, there are beautiful pine forests and smooth trails. The race goes through most of this. It’s really breathtakingly beautiful and there really are moments that even in the middle of the race make you stop and dig out your phone to take some photos.

sage jordi saragossa

True skyrunning. Photo by Jordi Saragossa. 

palma green

Sample of palma greenery from the north. Photo by Katri. 

People are special here. They are some of the kindest people I’ve seen. They will always greet you when you walk by, with a smile on their face and they will always help you out no matter what you need. Out of the 86,000 people living here, probably half of them work as volunteers during the race. This event is really important to them and they are really excited about it. Anyone participating in the race is a hero in their eyes and the elite runners are superstars. We rented a small mountain house for the race and the owners were thrilled to have someone running the race staying in their house. I’ve never seen such support and participation from spectators. In the first town the race goes through, just before 7 AM on Saturday, there are thousands of people lining the streets, singing and clapping like crazy. During the race, there are spectators everywhere and they are not just sitting there watching, they are really supporting you and if you just smile, maybe wave a hiking pole or say anything to them, they’ll go twice as crazy. My arm literally got tired of waving at them. It’s great. When you run in the final straight, it’s not just the kids that want to high 5 you, it’s also the adults. The bars lining the street have big speakers and their own announcers explaining what’s going on.

palma terrace

View from our terrace. I guess living in a place like this helps you be nice. Photo by Katri. 

palma horse

This is from the north … Even the donkey is happy, running alone and free, going who knows where. Photo by Katri. 

Organization of the race is excellent. They do an excellent job of creating a great atmosphere for the race. In the local radio, the race is the only thing they talk about. The water bottles are branded with the race logos. They attract top runners from the world, the line-up here is simply amazing every time. The elites also keep coming back, for all these same reasons. There are thousands of people working to make the race happen and most things are perfect. The aid stations during the race are staffed by 30 super excited volunteers and are the best I have seen anywhere. When you arrive into a station, there is usually a little kid that runs to you and asks what you need. They will then grab your water bottle from the pack, run to fill it or deal with whatever other needs you might have. They have constructed makeshift showers in the middle of the mountaintop, who knows how. When you exit the station, they all cheer you on. There are some 4,000 or so people racing in the events, so it’s a big job to handle and it’s done really well. There are some little issues of course, like the 4 toilets set up in the start line. That’s about 1 toilet per 500 people in the ultra and I’m not sure who did that math…

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Transvulcania water. Makes you run faster? 

palma winners

Nice touch from the organizers – “The victory wall”, with the winners and ALL of the times from the previous results, including my problematic time of 10:32 from 2014. Photo by Katri. 

So how did my event play out? Well, the going-in position wasn’t that great, as you can read from here.

Start of the Ultramarathon is at 06:00 from the Fuencaliente lighthouse. We had to get up at 02:15 to make it to the organization bus that took us there. The start itself is very complicated, with 1,700 runners starting at the same time and going around the lighthouse and then into a narrow, about 2 meters wide trail that goes uphill in the heavy volcanic sand. So everyone will sprint to the start of the trail, where there will be massive traffic jam and everyone who is not in the first 50 people, will get stuck for a long time. We planned the start well with Eetu and decided to get into the start line at the very last minute. We just walked into the elite area at the front, where all the pro runners were. I think everyone just assumed we’re also pros. We started right next to the stars, Sage Canaday, Luis Alberto Hernando, Miguel Heras, Anna Frost, etc. We sprinted with them and were in the elite pack and got excellent positions on the trail. My knees worked well here, the uphill was not a problem at all. However, I did not really want to keep going at the elite pack pace, so once we were on our way on the trail, I backed off and people started passing me. Eetu on the other hand continued with the elites all the way into the first aid station at 7kms. He eventually finished 33rd, an excellent result in this field. My left knee, which I had hurt a couple of days before the race was quite full of fluid and it left like it was sloshing and I went very easy, prioritizing trying to save the knee and I had no idea whether it will hold up all the way. It wasn’t too bad in the uphill though and everything was going quite well.

ultra startultra start Jordi

There are loads of great pics from the start. I can’t decide which one I like more. You decide. Photos by Jordi Saragossa. 

Mid-race was strong, considering my circumstances. I had taken the beginning very easy, just conserving my knees and holding back in all the fast slightly downhill sections. My time in El Pilar, at 24km was 3:10 and this was after a lot of slow climbing (1,900m+), so I was quite happy with that. I was thinking that maybe I could somehow do close to 9 hrs overall. From El Pilar, there is a bit of a boring section of quite flat dirt road, until we start climbing again to Roque de Los Muchachos, the highest point in the race. The flat sections were ok, I was staying in the group I was with, but it certainly wasn’t fast. Things started looking better when we started climbing and I started passing people. In fact, I felt very strong in the climbs, using my poles hard and legs were responding fine. I thought that a lot of people went out very hard in the beginning while I was going easy. I was now catching all these people and I actually went from position 136 to 82 in the 16km section. That’s 54 people! All this gave me quite a confidence boost too and I kept attacking. All was going very well until Pico de la Nieve, which was the beginning of some harder times. There is a hard climb coming out of the Pico aid station and I started to realize I had not been taking in enough energy. This was after 6+ hours of running. The underlying reason for this was that since I didn’t have a support crew (Katri was also running), I only had 1 500ml bottle filled with gels. This was now almost gone and while I was carrying some extra gels, they were in the backpack and not easily accessible. I was going with a good flow, so I never bothered to stop and sort out easy access to energy. I really started to feel this towards the end of this section before Roque de Los Muchachos, at 2,400m+ of altitude where I was getting really dizzy and the strong climbing was just a distant memory. Once I got to Roque, which is a big mid-way aid station, I could hardly stand up. I needed to stop for 15-20 minutes, I ate two plates of pasta, some coke and candy and just had to wait for a bit for it all to get into my bloodstream so that I had energy to stay focused in the massive and complicated downhill to come. I had now dropped from 82 to 107th position. Lesson: Energy needs to be easily accessible and must be a priority.

I stopped just before Roque, took out my phone from the backpack and shot these photos. In reality, they don’t tell even 1/10th of the story, with the 1000m cliffs dropping straight down with clouds far below us … but it was still a great excuse to stop for a little bit to recover some energy 🙂

THE downhill from Roque to Puerto Tazacorte is of enormous importance in this race. I’m not aware of any ultra in the world that has anything similar. The route drops from 2,423 meters to zero in 18 kms. It’s also mostly very technical. This is where the race is won or lost almost every year, as happened this year as well. Sage Canaday, a very fast american trail runner had been leading the race all the way here, but he lost 15 minutes in this hill to the eventual winner Luis Alberto. In the end, Luis won by 10 minutes over Sage, who actually ended up dropping into third. In 2014, I had a fabulous moment in this hill and flew down like crazy fueled by a massive runner’s high. I overtook lots of people, but then took a very hard fall that destroyed my race and I ended up in the hospital. I had already fallen once in the same hill on this trip and banged up my knee. I knew this was going to be the hardest part of the race with my knees only semi-functional and also very little downhill training in my legs in general. It did turn out like a bad dream and I was slow beyond belief and suffering. Runners were passing me left and right and there was nothing I could do. My agility and confidence totally shredded into bits, I just kept hopping on like wounded rabbit. To put it into perspective, the winner only needed about 1h 20 min for this section, but for me it took 2h 15 min. It was also very painful (and not just to my ego), but this is where my knees took the worst beating and I wasn’t sure if they’ll hold up until about half way. This is also where all my hopes about a good time evaporated and I was starting to have some dark thoughts. I entertained myself by starting to come up with curse words to describe this hill. I won’t repeat them here. I wasn’t the only one having trouble here, there were a couple of people being bandaged after taking a fall, one girl was being carried on a stretcher wrapped in a space blanket and crying hard and another guy who was holding his chest / stomach and the firemen were going up the hill probably going to pick him up. I could hear the race announcers down in Tazacorte from far away and this helped mentally and I just kept going, repeating my race mantra “Stop thinking and dance”, that I used every now and then to get my focus back on trail when my mind started wandering.

palma downhill

Part of the endless downhill. It would actually be fun to run, if it wasn’t infinitely long and with properly functioning legs. Photo by Katri. 

Finish was very good for me. The positive outcome of not being able to run the downhill properly meant that physically I had recovered and had a lot in reserve for the final 4,5km or so section from Tazacorte to the finish. There is still 350m of climbing left and I remember that in 2014 it felt very hard. I was so pissed off from the downhill that I could not wait for the flatter / uphill section to be able to push again. There is a big aid station in Tazacorte and a lot of people stop here for final fueling and rest, but I surprised the volunteers by just sprinting through the station telling them I’m fine and I have a race to finish. I also checked the clock here and realized I have 37 minutes until 10hr race time, which means that with the climb and the difficult terrain, I would have to run hard to make it. I got down to it and the legs moving again. The first part was in a very technical and annoying riverbed, which didn’t go all that well, but I was certainly still catching everyone else. Then I got into the uphills, which I pushed hard, running up most of the hills and if not running, I was powerhiking with the poles as hard as I could. It felt really good to really put everything I had down on the trail. I passed and surprised a lot of people by running hard up these hills. All these people had just passed me in a sad state in the downhill and probably didn’t expect to see me back. I made it up the hills and into the long final straight, about 1km long with 5 min or so to spare. I wasn’t sure exactly how long it was to the finish, so I hard to keep going hard. I was pushing with my poles, running in the flat asphalt and still putting in everything I had to make it. I told all the runners I passed that we all have a chance to finish under 10 hrs and I tried to cheer them on to also push. The finish line is really fun, there’s loads of people that all want to high5 you, but I didn’t have the time for that, plus I was going hard with my poles so I had no hands to do that anyway. I made it to the orange carpet before the finish in good time and saw that I had made it, with still about 1 minute left in reserve. I made a nice sprint through the carpet and then just collapsed in the finish. There was a lot of cheering going on, but I was pretty dazed so most of that escaped me.

sage finish

Since I don’t have any photos of my finish yet, here’s one of Sage Canaday, 3rd place. Photo by iRunFar. 

In the end, my experience of the Transvulcania felt like a really good one. Three days before I told Katri and Eetu that my chances of even starting were probably 10%. My race execution was good, I did the best I could with what I had to play on that day. Of course it would have been great to really compete and see what I can do in this race, but my biggest worry was not being able to complete the route. I wanted to experience the route and FEEL Transvulcania and you can’t really do that from the sidelines. I certainly met this objective and really, I’m very happy with the outcome.

palma tree

Giving my love to La Palma. These trees are amazing btw, they have very thick bark that makes them resistant to forest fires. 

I really, really highly recommend this event to everyone. La Palma is also amazing and is now officially my favourite island in the world. I encourage you to visit, but please do not ruin it.

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Focus

I’m writing this post 2 days before the other big focus race of the year – Transvulcania Ultramarathon in the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands. However, my race is already over.

People say that you learn most from your mistakes, not from your successes. I’m pretty hard headed and sometimes it takes a few beatings for me to learn my lessons. I believe I have now learned one.

So what happened? Back in 2014, I did the same race and fell very badly in the gigantic downhill that drops down 2,500 meters in 18 kilometers. It’s the longest downhill in any race that I’m aware of. It’s fast and it’s technical and I love it. So on the first day on the island, I go for a nice little shakeout run to test the legs and I was lucky enough that we’re staying just 1km away from access to this massive hill. The run goes great, legs feel strong going up and my knee that was injured seems to be good and I feel agile. I’m dancing on the rocks, taking it easy and avoiding any falls. It goes so well I start to think about what to tell my friend Eetu, who is also racing. I’m thinking how well this hill suits my abilities and how him and myself probably have an advantage over most other runners in this hill. I’m kind of lost in my thoughts and take a wrong turn. I notice this quickly and trace back. I’m almost at the end, happy as ever to be back in La Palma and enjoying the beautiful trails on a great day. Then I fall down, hard.

I quickly see there is damage everywhere. Hands, elbows, both knees. I curse loudly. I’m 20 meters away from the end of the trail where the asphalt road begins. I limp back into the house and tell Katri that I fell again and I’m very angry at myself. After some time, it turns out the other damage is superficial, but I have banged up my left knee very bad and it’s swollen to the size of a tennis ball. After a couple of hours, it becomes pretty clear that it’s in no shape for racing on a course like this.

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The knee, about 2 hrs after the incident

So what’s the lesson I learned? Well, I have been very worried lately because I have been taking lots of falls. My other knee just got better after a similar fall about three weeks ago. In the last ultra, I fell twice. I’ve fallen a couple of times in easy training runs. ALL of these falls have happened in easy sections of the trail. I NEVER fall in the hard parts. Now I think I know why. Whats common to pretty much all of these falls is that in the easy sections, my mind easily starts to wander and I start to think about irrelevant stuff like what will I do when I get home, some work issues, etc. I’m no longer present in the trail, not giving it the respect it deserves, lacking focus.

easy trails

Sample of some of the easier La Palma trails. Dangerous stuff. 

So from now on, when I’m on the trail, I’ll take care to make sure my mind is also with me.

palma katri

It can be easy to be distracted in a beautiful place like this

And the plan for Transvulcania? The knee is a little better and I have been able to do some easy hiking today. Downhills hurt, uphill is ok. I will start the race and see how it goes at the first checkpoint. I can then decide to drop, continue or wait for Katri and run the rest of the half marathon race with her. Any serious racing is not going to happen, which is a damn shame because things were finally starting to look good after all the problems so far this early season.

roque

People sitting well above the clouds at the 2,500m peak, Roque de Los Muchachos, watching the race in 2014. 

tazacorte

Puerto de Tazacorte, at the bottom of the monster 2,500m- hill. Probably won’t get to see it again in the 2016 race …

2015 race video.

2016 race preview.