Oh no, more stones, when the hell does this stop? It felt like I had been struggling through this dried riverbed for hours. Stones everywhere, of all sizes and none of them lying stable. Every time the path turned I would get hope to run on some better surface but it would quickly turn back into the stony area.... It seemed never ending: I was stuck in this hell after having run about 115 km of the 128 km course. Stopping here was not really an option, even though all of my body was begging for that and I seemed completely alone in this dark and stony valley. But let's go back to the start.
This is Transgrancanaria 2018, a 128 km trail race that starts in the north east end of Gran Canaria in Las Palmas, passing all the way down the mountain spine of the island to conclude in the south at Maspalomas. Something like 6000 vertical meters are included, even though the organisation claims it exceeds the 7000 vertical meters.
Transgrancanaria 2018 race profile
I ran it last year, but my approach to the race was very different this time. Last year I thought that it would be my last ultra trail, which instead turned out as a too great race. And my ultra trail running life was extended. This year, with the UTMB 2018 bib waiting for me in Chamonix, I was sure this would not be my last race. Rather I increased my ambition level and wanted to do better. However what is 'better'? The course is different than the one I ran in 2017. Based on the race profile I made a conservative plan, resulting in a finish time of 27 hours, however a small voice in my head whispered that a finish time below 24 or 25 hours would be fantastic. So 'better' got defined that way.
The start this year is in Las Palmas, which is very different from Agaete, the small town in the north west of the island, which was the 2017 start location. I love Agaete for its small town charm, so was not too happy about the change. But Las Palmas was actually very nice as well, though much louder and bigger. The buses with the runners, and me in one of them, arrived 2 hours before the start, and I killed the time trying to sleep on a bench and watching the band's and carnival parades. It was quite a party. A lot of tourists looked like they had no idea what was going on.
The day before and even during the bus ride it had been raining quite a bit, but it nicely stopped when arriving at Las Palmas. Also there was no rain during the entire race despite the warnings: quite a relieve. Half an hour before the start I moved into the startbox and I positioned myself right in front of the second box behind the elite runners: I had plans for a fast start. Faces around me were rather tense and so was mine, knowing it is going to hurt rather badly. Counting down and off we were. Normally I hate running on sand, but knowing the first 3 were the only kms which are flat (except the last two), I went out very fast. Fireworks in the sky, crowds three layers deep, what is not to like? Passed the 3 km mark below 15 min...on sand... Hmm, for a 128 km race maybe a bit stupid, but one never knows what is possible if one doesn't try.
Right in front of the second startbox just after the elite runners
After 3 km we turn left, and a little later we hit a dirt road with the slope getting increasingly difficult. As I am rather in front of the field everybody runs, so I run as well, whereas normally I prefer walking most the inclines from the start. However my speed is rather low, so I get passed by many people here. Happy to see some people walking at the steepest part, as it allows me to do the same.
First hill done and down we go. However the path is a bad surprise: stones of different sizes, hardly runnable, but now I am stuck in the 'running snake'. If I start walking I will cause a queue, so I follow the runners in front of me as good as I can. I reach the first depot, which is at 16,5 km in little less than 2 hours, which is more than an hour gain on my conservative 27h schedule. This was my hope and worked well. At the depot I refilled my bottles and took off to the next depot in Teror, while eating one of my clifbars. To get to Teror another climb and downhill. I don't remember much except for a lot of barking dogs in the dark. Reached Teror ahead of schedule, now having 1,5 h in the bank. I must say that I deliberately make my schedules easy in the start to create the positive flow of being ahead of it. In this case I made it easy until Teror, so now the goal was to keep as much of the time gained in the remainder of the race.
In Teror quick refill of my bottles and off again. In the following climb, I started to suffer. Legs felt tired and every time I went a bit too fast in the steep parts I went into the red zone. That's a bit early, but on the other hand I had already covered 30 km in rather few hours, so I kept positive. I also kept moving rather ok, as I reached Fontanales still 1,5 h ahead of my schedule. Here a ham cheese sandwich saved my 2017 race (see here), and they had them again ! So ate one, while changing batteries in my headlamp, and took another one with me. As always when tired real food helps and I moved more positively out of the aid station. Right after the aid station I followed two Swedish girls, where one was just running in a short-leave top, while I was wearing about all clothes I had with me, and yet it felt not that warm. While wondering about how can it be she is not freezing, I did not look at the course markings and we got off course. We made a quick return and after 100 meters we were back on the right course. This next section includes a very steep and technical downhill, but it also started to become light, so my spirits were rather high. I reached Presa Perez 1h15m ahead of schedule. Beautiful place, where we could see the cave houses, this area is known for.
There I made a major mistake. I just refilled my bottles and drank some coke. No food... before one of the biggest climbs which was next. This I realized half way during the climb, hanging in my poles trying to more or less crawl up the 1000 m climb. Negativity all over in my head. I will not finish, why the hell don't I have a normal hobby (I could take care of the garden at home as a hobby? or buy a mountain bike? ) and I definitely should give up that UTMB bib ( I know this is like cursing in the church and if I had spoken that out loud, some other runner may have just pushed me in that ravine). Somehow I however kept moving and I reached the top and got down again to the next aid station. Only lost 30 min on the schedule to my surprise. I ate some food, trying to correct my mistake, called my wife on the way out of that aid station to warn her I would likely drop. She just listened to my complaints and told me the split times looked good. Just after that call I realized I may have worried her, so called back to say that I would continue and it would go ok (split times were looking good, I was ahead of the schedule, so nonsense to say it was not going well). So that phone call made me commit to finish.
Next stop was Tejeda, one of my favorite places; this also added to the renewed energy. Was needed as this part of the route was cold and very windy. We were running on the edge of an old vulcano crater, which was supposed to be beautiful, but as we were running in the clouds not much was to be seen. When arriving at Tejeda the sky cleared and it got rather hot. Still 45 min ahead of schedule. As the next major climb to Roque Nublo was ahead, I ate plenty, changed to a dry shirt, and left with Rammstein in my ears. I was reborn. The climb was still tough but felt easier than last year. Great to see the Roque again, especially as it means most of the uphill is done.
Reached Garagnon nicely, where I had some terrible pasta, which I made worse by putting extra salt on. When almost finished, somebody from the organisation went around asking who wanted to join the bus to the finish. Did he really asked that out loud? I quickly got out of the aid station. Last year after Garagnon there was a terrible short extreme steep climb, which I feared a lot, but I had heard some runners earlier mentioning that that part had changed. I did not dare believing it, but hoped it severely. Very relieved to see it was true and down we went to Tunte over the very bad 'cobblestones road'.
The 'cobblestone' road
Last year I could not run this part, but this year I did it. Key was now to get as far as possible in the daylight, as my night sight is not too good. During the way to Tunte I met a French guy, Maxime, and we run together. I could not follow very long though. So I reached Tunte alone 2 hours before my conservative schedule! This aid station was great. Loud AC-DC and was welcomed with high fives from all volunteers. A girl asked if she could fill my bottles and they had ham cheese sandwiches. Only some Prosecco missing 😀. When Maxime, who I met again in the aid station, left, he asked me to join. Getting a bit too relaxed in my chair that seemed a good idea, so we went off together. 30 km to go. We had a good chat on different runs and training. Good distraction up to the next hill. He left me shortly before the top and intended to run the rest down, which I would not be able to. He did well finishing an hour before me. The downhill went ok for me, but when it got dark, my eyesight is simply limiting me. I started kicking many stones. My toes felt completely blue (afterwards this was only true for my big toes), so it got rather painful, but I reached Ayagaures 2h15 ahead of schedule. Another great aid station: got a plate of the best paella ever, said no to the offered beer, even though tempting.
Last climb and then the infamous dried riverbed. I struggled in the dark, kicking stones everywhere and moved very slowly. No option to quit here and I knew I would finish. A sub 25 h seemed feasible in the last aid station, but when I passed the '10 km to go' sign at 22:45, I was far from sure I would make it. It was like being stuck in a bad nightmare, it felt like running in circles in the dark, twisting my ankles over stones...... But finally we got out of this valley and I could run again. 4 km sign with one hour to go. YES! The last 4 km I ran and walked and I finished in 24:36. Sub 25h!, first time I do a mountain ultra faster than 5 km/h ! I felt terrible, everything was hurting, but was and am damned proud of this one!
Far from perfect though. I can do better on many points, which is another positive outcome. And definitely I need to work on the following points before UTMB:
Finish in 24:36
- Food. I need real food and need a good strategy for this and stick to it.
- Shoes, as getting blue toenails are a limiting factor at some point. But how do I test shoes on steep hills in Denmark??? Any recommendations as alternative to La Sportiva Ultra Raptor? I like the stiff sole but I feel I would need a softer top.
- Running glasses for the night. I use glasses normally but run without.