Animo! Animo! Venga Venga Venga!
Crowds of people seemed to line the trail at every turn, sometimes shouting from places I couldn’t even see. I heard ‘animo’ and immediately assumed they were calling us animals, which seemed rather accurate. I figured out that probably wasn’t what they meant, but every time I heard it I still nodded. Yup, we are animals. Rawr.
There is an intensity to Transvulcania that I am not accustomed to in ultras… and I’m not sure I entirely liked it. European races tend to start off with a lot of fanfare, but with a long enough race things usually calm down once you get into it… not so with Transvulcania. The race resembles more of a roller derby meets Spanish fiesta, with crowds cheering you on at every turn and someone constantly on your tail. It is thrilling and exhausting at the same time.
It is a 74km skyrace with 4350m of climb, following the GR131 trail on la Palma and connecting up with the GR130. Being a skyrace, there is a good portion of the race that runs above 2000m, offering incredible views of the island and even nearby Tenerife.
For such a popular, well-organized race, the start is nothing short of ridiculous. I wouldn’t be surprised if the race directors were hiding behind a rock at start, evil laughs emanating from their upturned mouths, waiting for the carnage to ensue.
At 6am, the race began and 2000 glucose-fuelled ‘animos’ set off into the dark, whooping and cheering under the light of their head torches. I was fairly near the front, but still a few hundred people back from the lead, so I knew I’d still have to claw my way forward. Within the first 50m, I caught my toe (I really need to find smaller shoes) and fell right on my knees. (My knee had JUST healed from Madeira!). My friend Greg was beside me and helped scoop me up before I got trampled by the hoards of runners behind me. I glanced down to survey the damage and saw blood start to poke through the dark volcanic dust that now covered my knees. It hurt, but it was manageable. Well, I knew I would fall, but didn’t think it would happen in the first minute… At least I’ve gotten it out of the way! I tried to take a couple of deep breaths and continued fighting for my place in the pack. The trail quickly funnelled onto a narrow trail just steps from the start line, which caused an immediate bottleneck. I had a head in my armpit and I’m pretty sure I violated a runner in front of me when I was scrambling to hold on to something tangible. We were the definition of ‘animo’.
The trail at the start is dark and sandy, but covered in sharp rocks and little boulders. It can be quite difficult to pass runners ahead on the trail, so if you want to make a move, you likely have to step off to the side and employ some fancy footwork over more technical terrain. I was successfully starting to navigate my way up the pack when I hit a flat section and BOOM, I caught my toe again and bailed. Hard. I felt the ground scrape the side of my left calf and thigh and a hard rock slice into my right knee. Another runner behind me scooped me up again and I immediately started running again, convinced I could just ‘run it off’… but I felt it was more than just a flesh wound. The knee cap got knocked pretty hard and it was throbbing. This is going to be a long race…. I resolved to check it out only once the sun rose and kept focusing on maintaining my pace, praying the pain would work itself out. I pictured the left side of my Salomon skirt shredded to pieces and wondered if I was flashing the crowds (I wasn’t – skirt was fully intact. Thank you Salomon!).
The first 16km is a steady climb uphill to 1800m. Poles are banned during the first 7km, which is probably one of the main factors preventing more serious casualties! By the time I got to the first checkpoint at 7km, the sun had risen and I greeted the mass of crowds with my trademark bloody knees. I kept waiting for the pack to start to thin out, but no dice. I simply had to become comfortable with having my nose in someone’s butt for the first three hours of the race. Nothing like the smell of farts in the morning to get you going! (Seriously people, was it the altitude? What are you eating for breakfast?) I actually felt a bit left out of the gassy party and tried to squeak out a few of my own, but failed miserably.
At the top of the first long climb, the course then gets quite fast with very runnable trails connecting the next few aid stations. This is where the runners vs the climbers can really make up some time (and where I started to fall back into more of a plod). The trails are not super technical and some sections are quite wide dirt roads, opening up the way for some quick kms. The numerous Spanish runners around me were chatting cheerfully and loudly, providing a constant narrative on the trail. There was a sense of bravado that seemed to swirl around us, getting kicked up by the runners in front and bouncing off the others further down the pack. Venga venga venga!! Animo!
The first two aid stations didn’t provide any food, so I was happy to have some snacks in my pack. I shoved a bounty bar in my mouth, eager to get rid of the chocolate before it got too hot and saving the salty chips for later in the day. At around 31km, the course then starts climbing again to the highest point at Roque de los Muchachos. I was worried it would be cold at the top so I had a light windshell with me, but it wasn’t necessary at all. The ‘coldest’ part was actually when we were running through the cloud layer, immersed in the fog. Once we broke through, the sun provided ample warmth and we got to enjoy some pretty incredible views. The cloud layer below was pristine white and frothy, like a perfect bubble bath. I looked out half expecting to see a couple of rubber duckies on the horizon, but instead caught glimpse of the towering 3000+m peak on the nearby island of Tenerife.
Despite the cumulative elevation, you are never really hit with any steep climbs – it is ultimately still a very fast, runnable race. At the top of the final big climb, volunteers were standing by at the checkpoint to take runners’ poles, which they would transfer to the finish, which I thought was a nice touch. We had almost 2500m of descent ahead, so there wasn’t much use for that extra weight! I threw mine into my Salomon quiver, which I was testing out for the first time (and looooooved).
The descent is where things really started to fall off the rails for me. I had taken two Tylenol during the race to help keep the throbbing in my knee down and it was manageable on the climbs. But the flats and descents were brutal. When I hit the 30km mark I started trying to convince myself it would be smart to drop out, but there was no easy way to do it – we were running across the island in the middle of nowhere, so it seemed simplest to just keep moving forward… by the 60km mark, I was really hurting.
The downhill is long. Rocky. But nothing terrible. I was not the biggest fan, but that is because I was concentrating on each step. Had I not been injured, I think I would have found it relatively painless. If you are a downhill runner, this is REALLY where you can shine…. So go for it! I was just trying to hold on by a thread. The last bit coincides with the start of the vertical km race, which takes place on the Thursday before. As I zigzagged down to the port of Tazacorte, gingerly but steadily, I was hit with a wave of garlic emanating from the string of restaurants below. Whoa! First the farts and then the garlic. This race was full of smelly surprises. The crowds were once again ready to cheer all of the runners through the giant finishing arch… but it was a false finish for us sorry souls. While the port acts as the finish line for the marathon race, the ultra competitors have to continue on for another 5km and 400m climb to the finish. Cruel and unusual punishment if you ask me!
I had been passed by dozens of runners on the downhill so I vowed to pick up a few on the climb – and I did. I gritted my teeth and ran under garden hoses that the locals were holding out in the street to help cool us down. A little girl on the side of the road started to clap and cheer as I approached until she saw the state of my leg, which immediately prompted her to clasp her hands over her mouth and shriek. Todo esta bien!! It’s okay! I’m fine! I said in a panicked way, struggling to plaster a big smile on my face while I was mentally preparing for amputation. I gave a wincing apology to her mom as I limped away. This animo is starting to scare small children… time to finish this sucker!
The last kilometer through town was a blur. I didn’t feel the elation I felt in Madeira three weeks prior – only a dogged determination to finish this race as quickly as possible so that I’d never have to do it again. I crossed the finish line and went straight for the nearest step to sit on, resting my head in my hands to have a good cry of relief. It was over!! No sooner had I given myself permission to have a nice little sob did the medical team swoop in to carry me off to the medical tent. I insisted I could walk by myself without assistance, but the medic didn’t let go of his death grip under my arm until I danced around like a fool just trying to prove I was perfectly mobile (I know, I’m a nightmare). I wasn’t interested in getting stitches or staying for a massive painful cleaning of the wound, so I stubbornly only let them do the basics and then signed myself out.
Battle wounds earned, finish in the bag. It was a very, very fast race and a good challenge – all things considered, I am very happy with my finish (10h50min in 20th place). But it has highlighted to me how much work I need to do before Western States, which is also a very fast and runnable course compared to what I’m used to. Time to stop focusing on climbing, and concentrate on actually running. Hmm, sounds painful.
Transvulcania was a good experience for me, but it was definitely a one-time deal. I much prefer the course, views, and feeling of MIUT. The fanfare of Transvulcania was exciting, but ultimately a bit too overwhelming. But hey, how many times have I said ‘never again’ before and proved myself wrong…we’ll find out next year!
Congrats to Ida Nilsson, Salomon athlete, who smashed the course record and finished just a few minutes after 8 hours. Astonishing time!
And thanks to Chafex for keeping me chafe-free the whole race. Hmm, maybe I should have put it all over my knees too… (Use SCASE discount code on their website and you get 10% off and free shipping in the US! They will ship internationally too. If you order in May with the code and don’t like the product, they will refund you 2x once you send it back, excluding shipping and handling. Sounds nuts, but they are just trying to save yours, ha! Love these guys!).
- Try to get to the start line early to get close to the front. My friend Belinda started somewhere near the back and was blocked to a standstill more than once, and sometimes long minutes at a time. She reckons this actually made it quite hard for some to make the first time cutoff, so if you are usually a plodder at the back, beware. If you want to try to do a good time in the race, try to (safely) gun it early to get ahead of the bulk. Starting near the front of the line will provide you with a huge advantage.
- Pack a super light head torch. The mandatory kit is extremely minimal, but does require a head torch. However, if you are aiming to finish in under 15 hours (time limit is 17), you’ll really only need a light to get you through the first hour of the course. The race starts at 6am and by 7am the trail is fully visible. Some runners brought only a very light emergency torch, which is doable as you can try to benefit from the light of other runners around you. However, if you are planning to try to pass the crowds on the side of the trail, at least a basic petzl is probably advisable. No need, however, for anything substantial. It stays light until about 9pm, so unless you’re planning on squeaking in in the final two hours of the race, you’ll only need one hour of light.
- Check the weather and dress accordingly. Other runners informed me that it can sometimes get cold on the course when you are running above 2000m, especially if it is windy at 2420m at Roque de los Muchachos. I brought a very light windshell just in case, but with the sunny skies and minimal breeze, it wasn’t necessary. Arm warmers would be another good lightweight option to bring along if the weather looks potentially chilly. I found a buff to be really handy to keep the sun off my neck and to dunk in water at aid stations to cool down my head.
- Watch your fluid intake. I carried two 500 mL bottles, which was sufficient so long as I drank at least two or three cups of fluid at each aid station. I carried an extra empty soft flash just in case, which I’m glad I had with me. If the weather looks hot, make sure you are prepare – the length of the climbs can catch you by surprise and you don’t want to get dehydrated.
- Bring your own food. The first two aid stations only had fluid – no food – so there was no opportunity to refuel until El Pilar aid station, 24km into the race and after 1800+m of climb. The aid stations had the basics – fruit, some basic ham and cheese sandwiches, and pre-packaged cakes – but some were better stocked than others. If I didn’t have food with me, I would definitely have been struggling.