Vertical Famara Total 2018 – a bloody steep mountain race. In the dark.

For anyone that hasn’t ever raced in Spain, I heartily recommend it. How else could you find yourself running up a mountain in the dark, in strong winds, following some reflective markers at sporadic intervals and wondering if mountain rescue is covered on your holiday insurance? The lady in front, having been sharing Spanish words with another runner since I caught them reverts to her native tongue as she stumbles and nearly disappears off the edge of the path into the inky abys “Oh my god, shit”. I’m relieved I’m not the only one Brit stupid enough to enter this race.

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Finding races abroad can be tricky. The bigger events like marathons are easier to find but if you’ve got a two week break in Lanzarote, trying to find races around during your stay is not simple. With luck I stumbled on the Famara Total race series. Over the weekend they have varying length races up to 45km and also one earlier in the week, a 5k up a hill “Famara Vertical”. Our holiday coincided with the shorter event so I began to do some digging. Whilst the site has an English option, the race rules were solely in Spanish and in a slightly shoddy PDF that couldn’t be copied and pasted to aid translation so had to ask a Spanish colleague to assist which helped enormously. I learnt vital information such as it being at night, up a mountain and a time trial event (not mass start) along with where to collect the bib etc.

Having signed up online I left the family on a Tuesday evening to finish off their Chinese and drove to Caleta de Famara, a surfers paradise on the Northern side of Lanzarote, famous for big waves and strong winds, the latter of which is ideal when halfway up a precipice.

Spanish organisation takes some getting used to. The race instructions clearly stated to collect numbers (dorsal) from the towns sports and social club (Centro Socio Cultural de Caleta de Famara) which I duly turned up at. The helpful lady who spoke as little English as I do Spanish agreed this was the correct place and I was bang on, but had no idea what I was on about as she’d never heard of any such race. Luckily a random Spanish stranger asked if I was here for the vertical race (we both ran on the spot and pointed upwards as a mutually agreed mime for the race) and directed me to the sea front where randomly an outside spin class was taking place under the start gantry as pre-race entertainment.

Having registered and being given a bad of goodies I wandered off to get changed. For my 15 Euro I got a tech tee, arm warmers, a buff and a bag to hold it all in, along with an updated list of rules in Spanish that I recycled, hoping nothing important had changed.

Registration closed at 8:30 and the event started at 9:30 with runners setting off 30 seconds apart in a time trial format so I had an hour to kill which I mostly spent starting at the massive mountain with cloud around it and listening to the DJ set that was playing out. They’d set a bar and video screen up in the square and it had a great carnival atmosphere. A far cry from a few dozen cold runners in a soggy field in England.

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See those clouds BELOW the level of the mountain?  Yeah….

I’d accidentally entered a similar time trial event previously in Spain, a 1km run up sea steps and had no idea what was happening. Only due to gesticulation and a helpful Spaniard physically inserting me into the queue did I realise we set off one after the after, in a pre-defined gap, with the fastest time rather than first home being the winner. If you’re not in place for your start time, tough. The clock has starting ticking. Run 10 minutes for the event but turn up 3 minutes late then sadly you’re beaten by the chap who ran it in 12 minutes and turned up on time. At the time I wasn’t even sure if you were allowed to overtake which sounds obvious now but in a confused, and slightly drunk state (I was taking the pre-race hydration seriously, and an evening start meant lots of hydration) it wasn’t so clear.

Come 9:30pm it was properly dark and they started to assemble runners. Given I was number 13 (just the number you want for climbing a mountain at night) out of 100 I was expecting to go early. It didn’t seem to be the case and the numbers being called appeared random. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise they were working in reverse. Unlike the previous event where starts were solo, they also set runners off in pairs, meaning I would be one of the final few runners out with numbers 1 to 12 only a maximum of six minutes behind. Given I’ve struggled with much more than a gentle slope since a summer of flat ultras I was in real danger of being last on the course and lost forever.

The Spanish may do a poor job of arranging the bib collection address, but they do a great race start and each pair is taken up to the arch to entrance music and set off in a cloud of smoke like a boxer entering the ring.

I was paired with a Spanish lady who fortunately spoke perfect English and we set off across the beach, vaguely aiming for small reflective marker posts across the sand. The start of the race is flat so other than a few diversions over and around beach formations we made good time. Then came slippery rock pools, dense shingle and tangled bushes before diving into a dried up stream bed and clambering inland towards the mountain. We kept up and mostly kept upright with the faster runners behind catching and leaving us for dead. Running in complete darkness at relative speed over technical terrain is a new experience. Winter training runs are normally on proper footpaths or roads, whilst night stages on my ultras are more about keeping moving. I’m sure Kilian Jornet has nothing to fear from us as we hurtled into the dark, shrieking with nervous laughter and fright as random rocks and shapes popped into the bubble of light from the head torches. It was really, really dark.

Eventually my buddy fell back and urged me to push on as we joined a wide vehicle track and the climb began. To begin with it was gentle and very runnable, mostly compacted rock and sand. The gradient increased and brought me to a walk at times as did the sheer unrelenting climb. I recalled from the race instructions it was about 800ft of ascent. On the one side was the town, the twinkling lights already dwindling into the distance, on the other was the presence of the mountain – invisible in the dark, the only clue to it’s presence being a zig zag of head torches ascending into the clouds.

All of a sudden the track stopped having been seemingly washed away by a landslide and I realised I’d missed a turning and needed to retrace my steps to find a small footpath ascending even steeper up the mountain. Annoying this lost any lead on the slower runners I’d managed to gain and ensured the faster ones got further ahead. The path would have been runnable but in current condition I had to walk a lot, still managing to pass the odd runner at times. Then it got silly. The path became more of a goat track, a twisting route through the least obnoxious of the boulders and more taking the more stable sections of the climb. Despite the slow pace I was hot and glad of the mandatory water I’d taken as per the race instructions which 90% of the other runners had ignored as per their Spanish ways.

I gained on a group of three runners who made no attempt to let me pass, and as the goat track downgraded once more into a general indication of where you might wish to go I was unable to pass, simply avoiding plummeting to an early death was all I could focus on. Not having a head for heights I was mostly glad of the night staging of the event as I had no idea the depth of the drops as I slid and clambered up, holding back where forced to by the even less impressive climbing feat of the local in front. Occassionaly as a strong gust blew we were forced to turn away from the wind and hunker into the terrain. This near death experience was amazing fun for all!

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The finish was a welcome sight

Finally we could see the lights of the finish and I managed to squeeze pass the obnoxious Spaniard who’d refused to let me pass and take him before the line. Surprisingly they handed out medals at the end (Spanish seldom do medals I’ve found) whilst we gazed down at the town far below before boarding the coach journey back to the start which seemed to take nearly as long as my 53 minutes to run 3.6m. It felt a long way up and I realised the 800 or so foot of climb was actually metres, and I’d ascended 1818ft. Curse the Europeans and their reasonably priced races in metric units.

For the record I finished 48th out of 87th and was the first Brit (only two of us though).  The winner did an amazing 33m48s, the final runner 1h35.

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