I don’t recall when I first head about the Transvulcania Ultramarathon, but I was immediately drawn to it. The name alone envokes a challenge of epic proportions. The crossing of an entire volcanic island on trail is not an easy task, let alone when the race touches two seas, accumulates close to 14,000 feet of climbing and topping out near 8,000 feet along the way. Mix in an exotic location in the Canary Islands off the coast of Western Africa and I was sold.
The 73 Kilometer ultra version of the race kicked off this year’s Skyrunner World Series which helps attract some of the top talent in the sport. The dramatic starting line was electric with loud classic rock music reverberating into the pre-dawn darkness near a lone lighthouse on the southern tip of the island all while winds whipped around and waves crashed hard into sheer volcanic cliffs. I took my place near the front of the field in anticipation of almost 2,000 runners set to race a scant 200 meters to the awaiting single track trail. I couldn’t help but feel the excitement and tried to soak up the experience as hundreds of headlamps illuminated the scene.
The start was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in an ultra. Instantly, the entire field was set into a forward moving frenzy of arms and legs. I couldn’t see my feet or really anything other than a few feet directly in front of me. I held my arms out to feel for other runners and keep my balance as we sprinted up a short hill before a hard dog leg right around the lighthouse. Two quick turns and we were heading directly up to the trail. It was pure mayhem as runners jockeyed for position, not wanting to get stuck behind a long train of people heading up into the cinders.
I settled in about 100 runners deep, not wanting to get too excited this early. I began a mix of running and power hiking my way up the winding trail. The trail was wide enough for two and snaked its way up through volcanic sand and gravel, crossing the only winding paved road that makes it this far South on the island. Settling into a pace with Montana’s Kristina Pattison, I tried to keep things really easy and for the most part it was. We reached a flatter dirt road section suitable for running and soon Colorado’s Brendan Trimboli passed me looking strong and fluid. A short grunt up some switchbacks brought us to the town of Los Canarios where a party was awaiting us.
The entire town was out on the streets blasting music at 6:45 in the morning, cheering wildly and giving high fives to all the runners. Such a cool experience. This got me pumped up and I was jump started to maintain a running pace through the steep winding streets. We soon hit a trail that instantly gave way to an amazing pine forest and first light. We’d already climbed close to 3,000 feet at this point but I knew we likely had at least 4,000 to go in this initial ridge climb to the top of the island. The entire first climb features deep sand and volcanic cinders that give way with each step. It is extremely frustrating and requires extra effort and energy. The sunrise hit us along this next section and it was nothing short of spectacular. The bright orange sun peeked above the clouds as we weaved in and out of trees over 4,000 feet above the ocean with views of Teide peak on Tenerife Island.
I tried to keep pace with Kristina throughout this section, but she was a beast! I had to resort to hiking to keep my systems in check and not overdo it. We still had a long way to go. The trail weaved up and around many cinder cones and the views were amazing in all directions. I wish I had more time and energy to devote to soaking up and remembering all that I was seeing. After many false summits, we finally topped out and began the fun descent into the El Pillar aid station. We were deep into a pine forest at this point and the aid station was packed with screaming fans and crews.
I jogged through and was looking forward to being on the only part of the course I previewed ahead of race day, a 3 mile section of dirt road where I hoped to cruise. As I turned off the short asphalt section onto dirt, Anna Frost appeared and after a quick hello decided to join me for about a mile. We chatted about Hardrock coming up so soon and how we both needed to “get in shape” quick. I was moving forward ok through this section and knew I would need to fill all my bottles at the next aid station since there would be about 7.5 miles to the next aid which was half way around the exposed caldera section of the race. Temperatures were rising and even though we were up high, the sun was brutal.
Bryon Powell was at that aid station and commented “Doesn’t get much better than this” as he snapped a photo. I looked at the ocean on both sides of the ridge and the caldera ahead and agreed. This next climb up to the rim of the caldera was quite challenging for me. I started to feel the effects of the heat on my body and climbing on my legs. I watched as a lot of runners pulled away from me as I tried my best to keep an honest hike going. It was through this section that the lead marathon runners who had started at El Pillar began to pass by me. I finally topped out along the rim of Caldera and was a bit taken back by the time into the race. I was going much slower than I imagined at this point.
The caldera was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in an ultra. The trail generally follows the outside of the rim, climbing up and down along ridges and cliffs. Once in a while we run right along the edge and can peer down into several thousand foot drop offs that lead right into the inner basin. I’m pretty sure it took me the better part of half the race to make my way all the way around this thing! Things were getting rough for may along this section as a water stop that was part of the race last year went missing, meaning a lot of runners ran out. Even with my 2 liters through this section, I went dry the last 20 minutes. I actually caught Timmy Parr here and shared a little of my reserve with him as he had been out for well over an hour.
I hit the next aid station and soaked my whole body in water, a ritual that continued all the way to the finish. At this aid station we could finally see the top of the climb and high point of the race at the Los Muchachos aid station off in the distances. I made my way around and actually passed a few runners at this point. As I entered the aid station all I wanted was Coca Cola and chips. With no chips to be found (really?!?!) I had to settle for a big bowl of pasta which was actually quite welcome at this point.
From the high point I knew we would have to descend all the way to the sea meaning an almost 8,000 foot downhill. I’d heard stories of this being extremely steep and technical. I was envisioning the descent starting right away, but it was quite drawn out. After a few miles of generally down hill but rolling single track, I was still at 7,000 feet and now beginning to be quite frustrated. I just wanted to get down to the beach! Soon the steep descent began and I kept an eye on my altimeter as the feet melted away. The trail was quite techincal, expecially for how I was feeling at the time.
With about 3,000 feet to go we began criss crossing through grape fields and hillside neighborhoods. Local residents were out in full force with running hose water to cool us off and other unexpected refreshments. So cool to have them take part in the race! With 2,000 feet to go we entered some nasty steep asphalt sections running through banana plantations. I was soon happy to dip below 1,000 feet to go where I could see the deep blue water of the sea and hear the music pumping from Tezacorte beach directly below the cliff I was running down. After several dozen switchbacks I was there and so happy to be making my way through the final aid station. This doubled as the marathon finish and it was crazy with lots of cheering spectators and additional excitement.
We were led down to the beach and then up a dry river bed and through a slot canyon. Looking up to the top of the Caldera towering almost 8,000 feet above it was reminicent of my running down in the Copper Canyon of Mexico. The combination of heat, river bed and vertical cliffs above were impressive. I knew there was still 1,000 feet of climb up to the finish in the town of Los Llanos and I watched my altimiter slowly creep up. After 2 miles we climbed out of the river bed and up a series of steep switchbacking roads to the outskirts of Los Llanos. I was in really rough shape at this point and just wanted to be done. I had a rock in my shoe that I refused to stop to take out that really added to my unpleasantness. Walking at this point was impossible with the hoards of cheering fans lined up in front of restaurants and kids looking for high fives. I grimaced and tried my best to wave and greet all of the kids.
Two quick turns and the finish was finally just ahead. I ran down the red carpet and crossed the line in 10 hours 7 minutes. Not exactly the result I was looking for on this day especially since I felt like I ran as hard as I could. I was greeted at the finish by Chris Vargo and most of the American contingency who was still hanging out at the finish.
All in all it was an incredible experience to run and finish Transvulcania. The course is absolutely incredible from start to finish and highlights the entire island along the way – not only its scenery, but its towns, people, culture and industry.