Category

Race Report

Jamil running across a volcano with sea of clouds in background

Transvulcania 2015

By | Race Report, Thoughts | 4 Comments

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 main ridge of the island of La Palma

The main ridge of the island of La Palma

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.

IMG_3605

Starting line of the 2015 Transvulcania

Start line with teammate Catlow Shipek

Start line with teammate Catlow Shipek

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.

Jamil running across a volcano with sea of clouds in background

Sunrise on La Palma (Photo: Jordi Saragossa)

Kristina Pattison cruising at sunrise

Kristina Pattison cruising at sunrise

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.

Coming into El Reventon at 28K (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

Coming into El Reventon at 28K (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

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.

Running atop La Palma. (Photo: Ivan Briones)

Running atop La Palma. (Photo: Ivan Briones)

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.

Beach

1000 feet below me is the beaches of Tezacorte and the 68K aid station.

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.

The finish! (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

The finish! (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

Most of the American contingency. (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

Most of the American contingency. (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

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.

Loop 4 Demons on Indian Knob – Barkley Marathons 2015 Part 1

By | Race Report, Thoughts | 2 Comments

I woke up frozen. I was shivering and unaware of how long I’d been out.

Where was I? I couldn’t move or feel my feet. Everything was soaked. My clothing, the ground, the air itself. As I turned on my headlamp to look out from where I lay, a dense fog permeated the the beam of light piercing through the eerie night. Was this a dream? If I just closed my eyes would I wake up?

No. This wasn’t a dream…. but a living nightmare. I was losing my mind and sleeping away loop 4 of the Barkley Marathons. I was defeated and huddled under a large overhanging boulder that was providing a meager amount of shelter from the rain and cold moving in on me like tidal waves.

In the previous 3 hours I had moved a scant 1/2 mile and yet to collect my 3rd page from the top of Indian Knob. I simply couldn’t stay awake and alternated from napping while laying against a tree, sitting down to snooze, to just plain falling asleep face down on rocks… all the while the skies rained down upon me. I simply didn’t care and couldn’t pull myself together mentally to get up this climb.

Rewind another five hours and I had left camp around 10:00pm. I had completed my second consecutive Barkley Fun Run, this one 7 hours faster than last year and I had a 90 minute buffer before the 36 hour cutoff by the time I left camp for loop 4. I was fired up and ready to go after the full 5 loops. I was a man on a mission. I bolted out of camp at a jogging pace, into new territory. I was the lone wolf taking on the much respected and feared loop 4. A place only few have seen but many have lost their mind. Many 5 loopers have said that loop 4 is the crux. Going through the second night with no sleep leaves the mind vulnerable and primed for error. I didn’t think much about this as I headed up the first climb up over Rough Ridge. I was alert, hiking strong, even running the flatter sections of trail. I had sweet caffeine running through my veins and I was ready to unleash my “late in the game ultra surge” on the Barkley. After all, I’ve had a string of great comebacks in my ultra career and this could be my finest yet…

Heading up towards Chimney Top, I crested the ridge where we make the final ascent up to the Capstones and was met with a ferocious wind howling and ripping through the trees. I knew rain was in the forecast, but this was sending fears of last year’s challenging weather all the way through my bones. I had been enjoying the dry course and now feared for the worst. A 4th loop mud slog would not help me now. I almost missed the turn to the first book, but recognized my mistake 10 feet past the trail. I made my way across the ridge top and ripped out my first page of loop 4 and taking my bearing, headed down towards the Birch Tree. There was no turning back now – in my mind I was committed to Loop 4 at this point.  I wanted to just be efficient and nail my navigation of this section, one of the most difficult on the course (the nighttime reverse loop 4 is historically difficult for the few that reach this point). Terrain is less familiar, and the way ridges fan out going down hill, if you pick the wrong one in dark, you may end up a half mile from your intended point.

I knew at some point going down Big Hell I’d have to veer left onto one of the long finger ridges in order to hit the correct confluence of streams where I would find book 2 in this direction. I lost some time here since I didn’t quite have a gauge of where to turn left (I didn’t have a discernible landmark in my mind, but still found the book without wandering around too much. I reached book 2 right around midnight and felt like I probably lost some time here. I was a little hard on myself and let the small mistake get to me mentally. I tore out my page and knew I had to cross the stream above the confluence and then find the old jeep trail. I stuck a little too close to the river at first, but then found a small narrow path that led to a wider trail that began to climb. I went over a couple of downed trees and was on a very clear path.

Then things started to get weird. I was climbing steeply now and the “jeep road” was now very narrow. The river was now a hundred feet or more below me to the right. This didn’t seem right. I seemed to be WAY above the river and there were thundering waterfalls below me. But I had only been going a few minutes up the trail past the confluence. I had recalled from loop 1 (descending down this way from the opposite direction) that I had chosen a path too high and I ended up seeing the Abbs  & company way down below me. I thought I was somehow back on that path and no longer on the jeep trail. I though the jeep trail paralleled the river and that meant I was definitely off path. The flow of water also just seemed too great. Had I already reached the “waterfalls” which were a sure sign that I should have turned off on a side stream then I should be making my way directly up hill. I was now full on second guessing myself although I had most definitely crossed the stream at the right spot after the 2nd book and then found the correct “jeep road” almost immediately. My mind was tricking me. Barkley was doing what it does best.

I pulled out my map and compass and this only further confused me. I now believed I may not even be following the correct stream. I could be anywhere in this giant dark bowl. I decided to back track. I went all the way down to the river confluence at book 2 and then up again to where the jeep trail crosses the creek above the confluence – the part where we aren’t supposed to go because it was much easier than the “correct” route. I now knew I had to be on the right path (which I was on the entire time). I again went up and the trail again steeply climbed WAY above the stream below. As I went higher I again looked down to see thundering waterfalls. I simply don’t remember ever seeing these before this low down on the trail. I had confirmed I was on track but now I didn’t know how high to go before cutting across the stream. I began to doubt I was even on the right stream again. Maybe I had taking another confluence. No I just double checked myself. My mind was wasting away. How would I ever climb up the right slope and how would I find the top of Indian Knob? It was pitch black and I knew it would start to rain soon. I recognized now how tired I was. I sat down for a minute and set a watch alarm for 10 minutes. I would try to clear my head. I nodded off and when I heard my alarm, I “snoozed” it. But it didn’t go off again. I woke up 45 minutes later. Shit.

Time I couldn’t afford to lose. I didn’t feel any more alert or that I knew any better if I really was on track. I don’t quite recall if I napped again here or if I pressed on. Eventually I though I reached the correct spot to cross the creek since the jeep road had now come back close to the water at a higher elevation. I vaguely recognized a part of the creek where I could easily rock hop and thought I saw a familiar “trail” or set of footprints. It was here that it started to rain.

It was light at first but I pulled out my rain jacket. Then I laid down. I was sleepy still. Just a few minutes. I woke up to rain coming down and I was soaked. I don’t know how long I slept, but I stumbled to my feet and began climbing. I knew I had to go up and I then confirmed I had crossed the stream at the proper spot. I just need to follow my bearing and I would make it to the top of Indian Knob and be able to find book 3. But I was so tired. I lay face down on a rock. It was raining. I didn’t care. I was warm from the effort of climbing and already soaked. I slept for some time until my body heat dispersed. I stumbled to my feet again and repeated this process until the fog began to roll in and I reached the small trail that traverses across below the Indian Knob capstones. I made my way over but the cold and sleepiness would not relinquish their grip. I succumbed to their immense pressure and found a nice overhanging rock to get out of the cold. It was here I fell into a deep sleep curled up on the cold damp earth. When I awoke my feet were frozen and the fog of defeat had closed in around me. Now in survival mode and desperate to get warm, I pulled out my space blanket and wrapped it tightly around myself hoping for the best. The next thing I remember is waking up to the light of the morning and my loop 4 failure. I knew instantly it was over. The Barkley had won.