The finish of the Transgrancanaria Race was exactly how I had pictured it would be: stumbling along in front of crowds of people with all the grace of a newborn baby giraffe, grinning giddily with equal measure of relief and delirium. A glorious finish by all accounts. Only it wasn’t the finish – it wasn’t even halfway. It was the 57km mark into the 125km race, and I was dropping out.
Before last weekend, I wore the fact that I had finished every major race I’d started like a badge of honour. My only DNF in eight years of racing was a relatively unknown 50km race in New Jersey in 2009, and the reason I pulled out was because I had broken my pelvis. Yes, I had run to the point of pelvic fracture. At that moment, I decided that the only valid excuse for failing to finish a race was breaking a major supporting bone in my body. Broken arms and toes would not justify a DNF.
All this changed last weekend at the Transgrancanaria. At 125 km in length with 8500m of climb, the Transgrancanaria is an epic challenge even for the fittest of runners. Most of the elevation gain is within the first 80 km, making it almost double the climb of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (which is 9600m of climb over 167 km). Logically, I never should have started the race. Not only was I seriously untrained, but I was also battling a nasty hip/groin injury leftover from the Hong Kong 100, which prevented me from running – or even walking normally – for weeks on end. However, logic rarely comes into my decision-making process when it comes to races and there was no way I was not going to try. I pushed aside my nerves and told myself that I could rely on the magic of race day to get me through to the finish.
At 11:00 pm on Friday night, I lined up with hundreds of other runners in Agaete, Gran Canaria, ready to run through the night and all of the next day across the island to the finish in Meloneras. Having not even tried to jog more than a few meters in weeks, I had no idea what was going to happen when the gun went off. I convinced myself that if I could just make it through the first few kilometers then I would be fine for the rest of the race.
The course immediately took us up a steep, rocky climb, covering well over 1000m of elevation before the first checkpoint. I pushed myself up the hill as confidently as I could, fighting back the panic that was rising in my throat. I was able to keep up my speed with the pack fairly well at the start, even overtaking a few people on the climb, but I could hear how much heavier I was breathing than everyone else, which was a major red flag. I wound up in a pack of runners that was admittedly probably too fast for my level of fitness, but as we were on a single-track trail on a hillside, there was no easy way to drop back. My pride prevented me from stopping and letting a bunch of runners pass, so I just kept pushing myself to keep up.
I quickly rushed through the first checkpoint and breathed a sigh of relief as the trail widened out slightly to a forest path covered in soft pine needles. This gentle break was short-lived, however, as the course took a steep turn downhill, forcing runners along technical switchbacks. There were quite a number of times when my poles* were the only things that prevented me from hurtling headfirst down the hillside. It was well past midnight at this point and I was already feeling exhausted (although that also may have had something to do with the pre-race beer I had with Bryon Powell and Ian Campbell of irunfar.com, who were covering the event). Dry dust flew up from the trail, which created clouds of light in the beam of my head torch, obstructing my vision. I think I must have been holding my breath for large sections as I would find myself suddenly having to gasp for air while frantically zigzagging my way down the hill. After a final rope section down a rockface, it wasn’t long before I could see the second checkpoint ahead, just under the 20 km mark.
My legs were shot already. True to the expression, I really did feel like someone had fired bullets into each of my quads and one in the left groin, and it would only be a matter of time before I bled out. I decided to try some M&M therapy, noisily crunching on the chocolate candies as I reached the aid station.
The next section of the trail was another steep climb up and that is where I really started to fall apart. My muscles started to seize up, twitching and cramping in protest. I replaced the M&Ms in my mouth with salt tablets, biting down on the pills to speed up absorption. Other runners started to flow past me as I struggled along, cursing the head torches ahead snaking their way up into the night sky. It was the climb of false summits and I was getting really tired of being lied to. I would have thought that the pack would have thinned out more by this point, but I was constantly sandwiched between other runners, which was wearing me down.
Once at the top, the trail continued along a single-track trail through wooded areas and exposed hillside. Bursts of hot and cold air whipped across my face and sand blew up into my eyes, making me feel even more tired than I actually was. The constantly changing temperature gave me chills and a fever at the same time like I was battling the flu.
At some point in the night, I hit a major runner’s ‘low’ and couldn’t get out of it. It was as if I had entered a darkened room with no windows and I couldn’t find the door. I willed myself to keep moving forward, but I felt weighed down by a sense of complete loneliness and despair. All I wanted to do was call my parents in Canada, but I had no mobile signal nor enough credit on my Spanish SIM for a long distance call. I kept telling myself I would come out of it, but hours went by and I was still fumbling around in the dark. When I was just about ready to break down and cry, I looked up and saw three volunteers in the dark, cheering people along their way. I couldn’t help myself – I walked straight up to the first volunteer and wrapped my arms around him saying simply “I need a hug!” He was lovely. He laughed and asked me where I was from. I have no memory of this, but apparently I said “I’m from Canada and I have no idea what I’m doing here!”** He cheered me on and told me to keep at it. It didn’t solve my blues, but it bought me enough energy to convince myself to make it to sunrise. Surely seeing the sun would lift my spirits, I thought….
It didn’t. Once the sun rose, I became overwhelmed with feelings of wanting to go to bed. I was having major difficulties bending my legs and had started running peg-legged, relying on my poles to pull me along. At the fourth checkpoint (43 km), I stuffed some bananas into my mouth with tears forming in my eyes (and a camera shoved into my face, capturing the ‘drama’ of the moment, sigh). I looked over to see hundreds of fresh-faced runners lined up just a few meters from the checkpoint. They were getting ready to start the Transgrancanaria Advanced race, which was around 83km over the same course as us to the finish. Unfortunately, that meant that I would spend the next few hours constantly being passed by runners on fresh legs, which did nothing to help the morale.
Shortly after the checkpoint, I started to finally admit to myself that I wasn’t going to make it the whole way. I decided to try to get to the 80km mark, which is where my friends were going to meet me. This quickly became a moving target. Every kilometer felt like ten. I talked myself through yet another checkpoint, bleary-eyed and in pain. I called my friend, I cried some more, I sang, I ate, I swore. At 57km, I hobbled into the checkpoint and laid down on the ground. Come on Caser, let’s get to 62 km and then at least you can say you got halfway. I stood up, walked a few steps, and realized that I was dealing with more than just tired legs and a foul mood. My hip/groin injury felt like there were knives jabbing deep into my body, which I suppose had been masked as long as I was moving. It was time to drop out.
Much to my surprise (and delight), once I had made the decision, I was overcome with joy and relief. There wasn’t an ounce of shame, regret, or feelings of a lack of self-worth that I had always assumed would follow a DNF. I felt pride for having made it 57km and awe for the sport of ultrarunning. I hobbled up to the race officials, grinning from ear to ear, and proudly announced I was dropping out. I then called my friend to come pick me up and wrapped myself up in my emergency blanket, falling asleep (finally, thankfully) on the steps of a church in the town square.
Honestly, I needed that DNF. As ultrarunners, we are conditioned to believe that anything is possible with the right amount of stubbornness and luck. Races are 90% mental and the rest is all in your head! Pain is temporary but quitting lasts forever! But actually, while that makes a good sound bite, it completely downplays the importance of hard work and training. I was simply not ready for a race of this magnitude and I should not have been able to finish. Same goes for the Hong Kong 100. While a big part of me was delighted that I had done so well, a small part of me questioned how I could have done so well while being so unfit. If we can breeze through these races without putting in the time to prepare, then what is the point?
The more of these races we do, the more of a tendency we have to become blasé about them. It becomes cool not to be phased by a 125 km race. But seriously? It is tough. Really, really tough. And my DNF reminded me to show a bit more respect for what is required in this sport. Yes, mental strength is required, but let’s get real: you cannot rely on mental strength alone. If that were really the case, we would all be sitting on the couch eating potato chips and then winning ultramarathons with our hands tied behind our backs.
Mental strength I had; physical strength I did not. I got cocky after my last race – this DNF humbled me in a way that was completely necessary and appreciated. I am looking forward to returning to the transgrancanaria next year… I am only too worried that I will want to DNF again. Because this year, the DNF rocked.
*Huge thanks to local Gran Canarian runner, Octavio, who generously lent me his Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z poles for the race! Couldn’t have hoped for a nicer (or hotter, ahem) runner to help me out 🙂
**Also a giant shout out to Juan Eugenio, the volunteer who comforted me in the middle of the night. Thank you for looking me up afterwards and sending me a message. I will see you next year!