“Donde estan los…toilettes? No. Banos?”
It had been about 14 years since I had spoken Spanish and there at that checkpoint in the middle of the night, I was struggling to remember the most basic of phrases. No surprise though – I don’t think I’ve ever asked for the toilets during a race even in English. You would be much more likely to find me indecently exposed, squatting beside the trail, than coming out of a proper bathroom. The clock is ticking, yo!
But this time, in Transgrancanaria, I decided to take a different approach. Last year, I pushed my body to some pretty hard extremes – and I paid for it (more on that later). I went into the race well undertrained, so I wasn’t going to be able to gun it ala 2017. For months after Tor des Geants, I only ran a few times a week, rarely breaking 30km. I didn’t hit a 100 km week until the month before the race, and my longest run had only reached 28km. I was honestly unsure of my ability to finish 125km, so I told myself that I was simply going to have to enjoy as many kilometers as I could. I was going to force myself to stop and smell the roses (or, more realistically, stop and smell the proper toilet facilities).
When I attempted Transgrancanaria before in 2015, the race started on the North-West side of the island at Agaete. In an effort to apparently reduce the traffic jams on the trail at the start of the race, the organizers moved it this year to start in Las Palmas on the North-East end of the island. On the bus ride over from Meloneras, I hooked up with my dear friend Amy Sproston and the legendary “Queen”, Meghan Laws (formerly Argoblast), with whom I had briefly chatted during the dying kilometers of UTMB in 2013. Chatting and laughing with these incredible women took away any nerves I might have had – if it wasn’t for the spandex, lube and immodium tablets, I might have thought we were
heading for a really fun Friday night out on this Spanish island, rather than a 125 km race. (Not to say that you can’t have a really fun night out with spandex, lube and immodium… but that’s for a different kind of blog. Ahem).
The race was set to start at 11pm against the backdrop of a rather amusing ‘yellow weather warning’. Let’s be clear: it was unseasonably cold and rainy, but as far as I could tell, the worst consequence was the lack of opportunity to get a fabulous tan. After wiggling our hips to some live music and oogling over the costumes of a pre-race parade, the three chicas headed to the start line on the beach. The rain had thankfully compacted the sand a bit, for which our achilles were audibly grateful!
The new course starts off with three kilometers along the beach. As the hardest-packed sand was closest to the shoreline, many of us spent those kilometers playing a game of chicken with the waves, to varying degrees of success. The old course had a rather challenging climb out of Agaete followed by some interesting trail sections, which offered some dramatic nighttime views of the island. The new course, I must admit, was underwhelming for the first 30-40km. It definitely favoured the speedsters as there were few climbs that were unrunnable (queue the dreaded douche grade climbs*) and much of the beginning part of the course took place on wide dirt roads rather than technical trails.
I chatted with quite a few of the other runners along the way. The course wasn’t terribly well marked in places, which made for a couple of wrong turns, but it was a great way to start getting to know the other competitors. Carrying a conversation also ensured that I maintained a moderate speed – I was determined not to let my stubbornness take over. I was surprised to see that I could still pass runners on the steeper uphills given my lack of training. I got crucified on the runnable flats and douche grade hills, but my climbs were relatively solid.
The section in which I really shined was the only really technical trail bit with switchbacks on the descent between Fontanales and Presa Perez. The trail was wildly overgrown, which definitely gave it a Jungle Book vibe – a much welcomed respite from the rocky terrain. Those who skimped on their head torches really suffered. Without a strong light, you ran the risk of tattooing your forehead with a bamboo branch or imprinting your knee with cactus needles. To supplement my head torch (Petzl), I switched on my waist torch (UltraSpire). The lower angle of the light helped to highlight any potential obstacles on the ground better than the head torch and it kept me flying downhill.
The sun started to rise after Presa Perez and I made it into the checkpoint at Artenara (63km) around 8:40am. I had told my friend Emma, who was crewing for me, that I had expected to get there between 9am and 11am, so I was well ahead of schedule. I couldn’t figure out why I was so off – at first, I thought I was just a complete ultrarunning genius who actually didn’t need to train, and I was nailing the course. I grabbed a plate of paella at the aid station and sat down to contemplate my amazingness. Then I looked at my watch and realized that the cumulative elevation seemed incredibly low. We were halfway through the course but yet hadn’t even completed half of the expected climb, and other than the climb to Garanon, there really wasn’t a ton of climb left on the course profile. Hmm. My indulgent self-congratulatory session was abruptly cut short. I chucked the rest of the paella in the trash and hobbled back out onto the course.
At this point, my hamstring was yelling at me. I’ve been experiencing some chronic issues with my hamstring at the attachment point in my glute, and lately it has spread to the other attachment point near my knee. I decided to take the race checkpoint to checkpoint from then on, and vowed to drop if the hamstring volume got too loud.
The 64km race started from Artenara just 20 min after I passed through, which meant that I got to see the leaders blow by me at lightning speed (very cool). But it also meant that I had to keep jumping out of the way of these fresh runners for the next few hours as they continued to pass me (not as cool). Everyone was extremely supportive though, which I appreciated. I suppose one look at my salt-stained tights or bleary eyes tipped them off that I was in the 125km race, and they offered words of encouragement as I trundled along! I tried to offer the same, particularly to the female runners. “Vamos chicas!!!!” I shouted, and tried to pull some stragglers along with me. “Venga!!!” they yelled back as we leap-frogged along. This was really starting to seem like a good time.
I saw Emma at Tejeda and happily wolfed down a piece of pizza. It felt so great not to rush myself through the aid station and take the time to sit down, eat and chat – and surprise, surprise, no nausea! Without the usual drama that follows me like a bad smell around the course, I set off again on the climb to Garanon.
This was really the only climb that made me feel a bit, erm, over it. My feet were really starting to ache with all of the rocky sections on the trail and I was looking forward to switching from my Salomon Wings to my Hokas. I winced at the sight of some of the other runners who had unwisely gone with the lightweight Salomon S-Labs… you could almost see the bruises on the balls of their feet through their rubber soles.
After Garanon, I knew the race was mainly downhill from there. I celebrated with a delicious avocado, cheese and tomato sandwich, thanks to amazing chef Emma, and gingerly hopped over the rocks out of the checkpoint. Much to my delight, I bumped into Debbie Martin-Consani, with whom I had chatted over social media but never met in person. We were obviously both hurting, but took a moment to hug and encourage each other on our ways. I love ultras so much!
The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. I met a really lovely father-son duo who were running their first ultra together in the 64km. One of the weird things that happens to me when I’m sleep-deprived in a race is that I can’t always recognize when people with accents speak english. After running behind them creepily for a few minutes eavesdropping on their conversation, I finally asked them if they were speaking english, which brought about a little chuckle. (This was a mere ten minutes after I asked a couple of women who were speaking Dutch whether they were speaking English…. which invited some funny looks!). I also ran into the very adorable local runner who lent me his poles in 2015 for the race – what a coincidence! I think he actually went in for a kiss on the cheek mid-race just as I blew past him yelling “vamos!!! You’re supposed to be running, not chatting!! No more talk talk talk!!” Ooops. It’s really a mystery why I’m single.
The little climb out of Ayagaures is, again, douche grade, followed by a severely punishing 7km on a rocky, dried riverbed. The rocks aren’t small enough to glide over, but neither are they big enough to comfortably hop on. Perhaps douche rocks is the most accurate term for this section.
Finally, I was on the homestretch. I checked my watch and realized if I really pushed it, I might be able to come in under 20 hours. VAMOS!!!! I picked things up a notch and started to sprint. I was double-polling my way over the rocks and across the pavement, determined to meet this arbitrary goal for no good reason. But it felt great to try.
I made it across the line in 19:58:37 – wooooohoooooo! It felt awesome. It certainly wasn’t my best race, but it was a solid one. Most importantly, I had fun. I reminded myself that racing doesn’t have to feel like torture, which was exactly what I needed to get my mojo back for the 2018 season. And I was so excited to get through the race without throwing up that I celebrated by drinking a beer at the finish – puking streak was over!!!
And then five minutes later I threw up the beer. Hey-ho, can’t win them all!
Huge thanks to Emma for crewing all day, and kudos to my amazing friends who nailed the course! If you’re thinking about doing the race next year, here are a few tips:
Course: The elevation ended up being significantly lower than advertised. My watch only clocked 5500m instead of the expected 7500m, and most of the other runners I talked to similarly measured 5500-6000m. Unless they change the course again, I wouldn’t expect to face 7500m next year, so plan accordingly!
Shoes: I definitely would not recommend wearing your lightest weight shoes – the rocky sections are brutal. If you really want to go s-lab-esque, put a meatier pair of shoes in your dropbag (and I promise I won’t say I told you so).
Lights: As a general rule, I would always recommend that you don’t skimp on your lights – I’ve been caught out too many times. In this race, the extra waist torch I carried with me definitely came in handy – the benefit it provided justified the additional weight, in my opinion. That being said, most of the course consists of fairly wide trail, so save for that one jungle-y section with switchbacks, you are probably okay with just one regular light.
Anti-chafing product: Chafex. Always, and at all times. Despite carrying a bit extra junk in my trunk thanks to a bit of winter indulgence, I didn’t have a single bit of chafing. I hopped into the shower after the race with ease.
Aid stations: I found the aid stations really well stocked, but it depends on your taste. Some of the American runners noted that they didn’t have a lot of candies and gummies like you might see in US races. For me, I found the standard to be higher than a lot of other European races. I’m used to facing tables of cheese, salami and bread over here, so I was delighted to see plates of avocado slices, tomatoes, oranges and other tasty ‘real food’ treats. The paella was also pretty bueno.
Race organization: Don’t expect a lot of hand holding. The race check in was a bit basic – no instructions or direction on the bus transfers to the start, the timing chips or the race bracelet. But hey, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. I had paid for the bus transfer from Meloneras, where the race expo was held, to the race start at Las Palmas, but unfortunately it wasn’t recorded on my bib… I was able to talk my way on to the bus when the time came, but had this been flagged during the check in process, it would have allowed me to address the issue ahead of time (yes, I could have asked :)).
Accommodation: A number of friends booked AirBnBs in Meloneras close to the race expo, which seemed like a great option. I opted for the official race hotel as I was hoping for a bit of pre/post race luxury and reviews looked good. It definitely wasn’t worth the price in the end, although I really appreciated the buffet! Just know that if you choose one of the hotels in Meloneras, you’ll be hanging out with a bunch of seniors tour groups. Which can actually be pretty fun, particularly when you want to attend the hotel’s live entertainment in the night disco. Erm….
*Douche grade climbs: Not too flat, and not too steep. Annoyingly runnable, but not the kind of grade you actually want to run. Estimated to be about 5.63 percent incline.