La Palma - 'La Isla Bonita'; the gem of the Canary Islands - a lush, fertile but volcanic island, home to acre after acre of banana plantations, black volcanic sand beaches, and soaring rocky ridges. In many ways it's an island of contrasts - comforting cafes serving fantastic Cafe cortados in Los Llanos de Aridane, to the unforgiving, barren slopes of the Caldera; from the dense rainforests of the northern island around Los Tilos, to the windswept cliffs and crashing seas of Fuencaliente in the south; trendy bars and tapas restaurants in Santa Cruz de La Palma, to simple eateries in San Andres. Each May, this contrast is starkly highlighted by the onslaught of over 2000 runners, photographers, and Europe's mass assembled running paparazzi for skyrunning's big show - the annual Transvulcania ultramarathon.
The once quiet and seemingly sleepy guesthouses and villas, are filled wth anxious, over-energetic, hyperactive runners. Talk turns from Canarian politics, and the year's banana crop, to whether Kilian can repeat, how Dakota and Luis Alberto are looking, and whether Frosty can pull off her comeback. Since it's beginnings, a few years ago, Transvulcania has rapidly become the first big 'must-do' race of the year. A race that attracts the world's best and where the big guns can show their form.
Last year Kilian Jornet, 'wunderkind' from Catalunya took the win, with fellow spaniard Luis Alberto Hernando in second. The US runner Sage Canaday, held on for third place; in 2012, the US triumphed with an in-form Dakota Jones able to drop Jornet and take the win, a move which he admits has granted him lifelong celebrity status on the small island. On the women's side, Anna Frost from New Zealand was back from a year of injury, and held the course record after her win in 2012; and last year's winner Emilie Forsberg of Sweden, had dominated the middle distance ultra scene in 2013. All were back to test themselves on the 73km course, which packs in a quad busting 8525m (27,969ft) of elevation change.
The course follows the hiking trail of the GR131 in its entirety; it climbs from sea level at the lighthouse in Fuencaliente in the south, through the forested trails of El Pilar and onto the island's highpoint at Roque de los Muchachos at 2426m (7960ft). Its a 50km climb, starting right out of the gates. On the way one circumvents the central crater of the island on dizzyingly exposed trails, and with 360 degree ocean views. From the astronomic observatory at Los Muchachos a brutal descent ensues, technical, loose and 19km in length. It's guaranteed to test the nerves, beat up the already fatigued quads, and loosen the toenails. The descent ends at sea level again in Tazacorte, a beautiful little port town, with a handful of shops and bars, and a scorchingly hot black lava sand beach. From here, the sting in the tail is the final grind along a technical rocky, dried up creek bed, followed by an insanely steep and taxing 600m climb up to the finish in Los Llanos.
I lined up in Fuencaliente at the southern tip of the island this year with a raucous crowd. It was windy, and the breeze from the sea made it seem far colder than the 20 degrees registering on the hire car thermometer. It was 5am. The previous 2 weeks spent exploring both the trails of Gran Canaria, and La Palma, had me well acclimatised to the warmth. Despite the chill in the air, race announcer Depa was able to whip the assembled masses up into a frenzy of excitement and anticipation! ACDC's ‘Thunderstruck' blared loudly, and Queen's 'We will rock you' threatened to wake the whole island! It was a start the likes of which I have never seen!
And then at 6am we were off, and it was a sprint! Jostled and pushed from all sides, it was a crazy spectacle! I was lined up 6 or 7 rows back, in front of me one of the most stacked ultra fields ever assembled, with 30 or 40 fast guys who would vy for the podium. We raced around the lighthouse on pavement, then the reason for the sprint became obvious as a bottleneck formed and 2000 plus ultramarathoners squeezed themselves onto steep, sandy singletrack. And then we were hiking up, up and up. It was almost impossible to run, not from the grade, but because of the loose terrain and the sheer volume of runners. People fell, and I feared for their lives in the stampede! Rocks were knocked down the edge of the trail, runners swore at each other, tripped on hiking poles, and no doubt got their heart rates up way too high this early on. I stayed out of trouble and kept it as conservative as I could, though my Suunto would later confess that it wasn't that conservative. I glanced back as we crested the first hill. A snake of lights was winding it's way up the slope and it was an incredibly beautiful sight.
Despite the sleepy hour of the day, it seemed like the entire island was out to witness our efforts. Los Canarios, 7km in, was lined with residents, 3 or 4 deep in places. It reminded me of a Tour de France mountaintop finish. They banged pots and pans, cheered and clapped - 'Vamos! Vamos! Ánimo!' And then, a slight respite, as the grade eased, we left the crowds behind and we entered the forested section that would take up across the Ruta de los Volcanes towards El Pilar, and the first major aid station. I ran easily, chatting for a few km with Krissy Moehl from the US, one of the pre race favorites. We slowed to a hike again as the trail deteriorated to deep, black, volcanic sand. Hands on knees steep, it was almost a relief to be walking, as the sun was rising, and as the trees thinned, the views opened up. It was an opportunity to take it all in. We were above a sea of cloud, far below. I contemplated stopping to take snaps, but heck, it's a race!
The trail wound it's way across volcanic cones, runnable in places, but mostly a hike. I passed Emilie Forsberg, the women's champion, who was holding up a bandaged hand, and who later abandoned the race due to a deep gash sustained in a crash in the chaotic start. We reached a small summit and then we were descending. It was great to stretch out the legs, on a stretch of trail I was familiar with, having done a recce with the family a few days earlier. It was a fast 4 minute/km pace down into El Pilar, site of a small Refugio, and the first major aid station at about 24km. My son was there to hand me gels, my wife stuck in a parking gridlock a few kilometres down the road! This is not an easy race for travelling spectators or support crew.
El Pilar is also where the marathon race begins, and I was happy to get through before that race began, as I can only imagine what chaos ensues as the marathoners sprint out onto the course!
After a short jaunt along a rough road, where I was passed by Uxue Fraile, who would ultimately finish in third place in the women's ultra, we began the rocky, exposed traverse around the Caldera. This was a steep, rocky and technical trail, winding over and around numerous rocky outcrops and summits. Much of it was runnable, and nimble feet were an asset. I was glad my home trails of Canmore provided the necessary skills to dance along the ridge, but I still took care not to fall.
Up until this point the breeze had been keeping my body temperature comfortable, but things really started to heat up here. Fortunately water aid stations kept cropping up at regular intervals to refresh, perched on exposed cliffs, with dizzying drops on either side. The aid stations were staffed by eager volunteers, and the crowds of onlookers on this trail continued to amaze me! It seemed that rapturous applause followed me along this entire section.
By now, the space age buildings of the observatory at Roque de Los Muchachos were visble in the distance. Apparently the lack of light pollution makes this one of the premier places on earth to observe the stars. The ridge continued to weave a twisty and convoluted path, but slowly I made headway to the aid station at Roque de Los Muchachos. The wind had died somewhat and the heat was uncomfortable. Fortunately, ice was on hand, as were keen volunteers ready to drench me with icy cold jugs of water. I eagerly accepted their offers; revived by the cold jolt to the system, I started down the dreaded descent to Tazacorte. 2500m of descending on technical, rocky trail, over 19km. Undoubtedly the biggest single descent I have ever done.
I felt great to begin with. After 50km of climbing it felt good to be using different muscles. The enjoyment didn't last long. The trail was unbelievably steep in places, and I kicked numerous rocks. I felt my big toes swell, and the all too familiar sensation of toenails loosening started. And so I tried to gingerly tread my way down the trail. I expected to be passed by numerous runners, but it seemed that everyone was in the same predicament and surprisingly I didn't see many others. The water that had revived my senses had also drenched my shoes, and with the constant braking of the descent, a blister began to form on my left heel. I tried to ignore the discomfort in both my toes and my heel, but it became unpleasant. The heat was almost unbearable - now in the high 30s as the altitude faded, and I found my concentration wandering, but this was not a time to switch off a fall here could be disastrous. I made a point of stopping to knock back a few gels and I think this helped, although by now the sugary, sticky gu was less than palatable. As I came to a particularly steep paved section of road, I came across a spaniard hiking backwards down the hill, at times jogging backwards. It seemed that his toes were in a similar state! I joined him, and for a few minutes we descended backwards together.
The cheers and applause continued as we passed through the town on El Tine, the finish to the Vertical km race held a few days earlier. The whole town had converted their balconies to cheering stations and unofficial aid stations! I was offered a cold beer, an offer it was hard to resist, and local kids took great delight in showering us with hose-pipes. Through El Tine, down through sections of banana plantation, interspersed with difficult to run cobble stones. I contemplated how I could improve my training for this race, and decided that lots of hiking up sand dunes, followed by breakneck descending over the steepest and worst cobbled street I could find, over and over again, would be ideal.
The cobbles seemed endless but suddenly I was on the final 400m of descent to Tazacorte beach. I rounded a headland, and was greeted by a cooling sea breeze, and the almost impossibly steep zigzags down to the port. It was a party atmosphere in Tazacorte; the marathon finishes here, and I was envious of those who were done, but after a couple of cups of ice cold cola, I was off again down the red carpet on the final stretch.
It's a stiff climb to the finish, but it was a relief to my toenails and blistered heel, and after more hands on knees hiking up incredibly steep side streets the final, long straight up the Main Street into Los Llanos was upon me. And what a finish this was. If the start was an incredible spectacle, then I don't know how to describe the final kilometre. The street is closed and lined by supporters. Patrons of local cafes and bars had spilled out onto the streets. Children ran alongside me and every child wanted a high-five! More high fives, more applause and more cheers. 'Vamos! Vamos!' And then my sons were running alongside me and I made the final left hand turn onto the finishing red carpet. High fives on both sides, the whole way down. My wife was there cheering! Music was blaring, the announcer whipping the finishing crowds into a frenzy again - how he didn't lose his voice I don't know. If you've watched the video of Kilian Jornet finishing this race last year, you will be able to picture the scene, and it really is like that. Anna Frost said it's the best finish of any race she's ever done. I couldn't imagine a more incredible finish.
When all said and done, I had as good a race as I could have wished for. My final time of 9 hours and 21 minutes was good enough for 67th position in the men's field. Luis Alberto Hernando was able to finally beat his rival Kilian Jornet, in an impressive time of 6h 55m. Anna Frost broke her previous course record in a new fastest time of 8h 10m capping off an incredible comeback.
This is a very difficult race, make no mistake, with 50km of climbing, 8525m of elevation change, and a brutally difficut descent, but it traverses some of the most beautiful trails you could ever wish to run, with vast panoramas across the small island. Over 1500 people managed to limp into Los Llanos this year, and at almost midnight, there was as much a party happening at the finish as there had been all day.
Well done La Palma! 'Vamos!'
Shoes: Salomon S Lab Sense Ultra SG
Shorts & vest: Salomon race clothing
Recovery: compressport compression wear
Pack: Salomon race belt
Drinks: water in 3 x 500ml Salomon soft flasks (2 would suffice)
Nutrition: gels - 2 per hour for 6 hours, then coke; bananas and melon at aid stations. 2 x Nutrisport bars
Mandatory gear: cellphone, headlamp (front and rear), survival bag (Salomon)
Thanks to my sponsors - Salomon Canada, Compressport, Muscle Milk AB, Suunto Canada