Ever looked at your neighbour’s rockery and had an overwhelming urge to run up it? For 3 hours straight? If so then Transgrancanaria is the race for you. The race may ‘only’ be 80 miles long but the terrain makes this far more
challenging than could be expected. At several points throughout the race the unrelenting monotony of various sections forces you to just accept the situation as the new norm; “I’m running along a river bed, scrabbling over loose rocks the size of bowling balls and stubbing my (ouch) foot (ouch) every few (ouch) steps. This is all perfectly fine. This is now my life.”
On a bit of a whim I’d entered the event just after Christmas as it coincided with a family holiday. Sadly it meant I needed to compress months of training into about 6 weeks.
January, I managed 360 miles due to a silly local challenge on Garmin and the Country to Capital race.
February the plan was one big week (100 miles ticked off including an easy paced 3:30 marathon) followed by two lower weeks. The first of these lower weeks didn’t go well. The marathon and preceding month had taken its toll and my legs were stiff. The nagging hip pain I’d been successfully ignoring for months came back and I just about scraped 30 miles with a slight limp rather than the planned 50 and most were painfully slow.
Getting there –
Flying out to Gran Canaria on Monday, with the race at 11pm Friday the plan was 2-3 runs of around 6-8 miles each to acclimatise to the 20˚C from the 5˚C we had at home. I managed a painful 4 miles where hip wouldn’t allow me to run faster than 10min pace and a slightly faster 3 miler when I ran down to watch the runners on the Transgrancanaria 360˚ start. Things weren’t looking rosy and I started to wonder if this would be my first DNF.
The expo didn’t help. Spanish people as a rule seem to be in better shape than us Brits, runners even more so. I looked like a fat pasty desk jockey in a sea of toned and tanned locals, with some equally intimidating French and Portuguese thrown in. Not for the first time I started to think that entering a very hilly 80 miler was not the best Christmas whim.
Giving up any thought of running for a while I went for a leg massage from the spa at the hotel which stopped my hip hurting but did give me awful calf cramps that made even walking fun. It was going well so far.
Friday I tried to lay in as long as possible, a disappointing 8am. We spent the day relaxing at the pool and I sneaked back to the hotel room for an unsuccessful attempt at an afternoon nap. 11pm race starts are hard. My body is normally shutting down by then.
As a measure of the slightly Spanish mañana laid back approach to organisation, the 8:45pm departure of buses from Maspalomas to the start at Las Palmas was rescheduled for 8pm. They notified this by email at around 6pm. For those near the Expo it meant a slightly rushed dinner. For anyone staying further afield it could have been a lot more problematic.
I managed to share a taxi from the hotel to the expo with another runner. In common with many people I’d talked to at the expo or throughout the holiday, he was returning for unfinished business having been forced to drop the previous attempt when he became so dehydrated, he “pissed the colour of coke”. How hard was this race?
Hanging around the expo waiting to board the buses I met Simon and Michelle, friends through twitter. We shared the bus ride to the start and a beer as we waited for the race to commence. The downside of the early departure was a full 2 hour wait the other end on a fairly blowy and chilly beach. Las Palmas is in the North of the island and clearly a lot cooler. I wished I’d brought a throw away hoodie to keep me warm. As the hours drew on, I was getting more tired and cold and wishing I was in bed, not about to start an ultra.
Race Start –
Just before 11pm we assembled on the beach (I hate running on sand) and the organisers introduced Luca Papi, the winner of the 360˚ 264km race who had finished just hours earlier and was now undertaking this as a cool down lap I presume. Finally, the fireworks were set off and we started our little jaunt across the sand.
Stifling a yawn, wishing I’d had a coffee, and wondering if this was the worst idea I’ve had in a long time, I ambled off, keen to keep the pace slow, balancing the opportunity to bag fast miles whilst cool and fresh against burning out early or upsetting my complaining legs, so recently restored to some sort of working order by the hotel masseuse.
My pathetic 7 miles of running since arriving was not enough to acclimatise to the expected heat that tomorrow would bring. I tried to remind myself of the furnace conditions of the Thames Path 100, Milton Keynes Marathon and Grand Union Canal 145 and that I’d run in far hotter weather than I was expecting for this event.
If you’re stood on the start line with intentions of a competitive finish then you need to get to the front of the pack as the route alternates from sandy beach to paved beachfront for the first few miles, each time bunching up as 600-700 runners try to squeeze through narrow steps.
Finally, we leave the sea front and start to climb on some rather unimpressive paved roads around warehouses. The road is gradually replaced by broken concrete and rocks, then mostly rocks and dusty trails. We’ve left the lights of the town now and up ahead all that can be seen are headtorches snaking up into the sky, the hill behind them as black as the night sky and indistinguishable. There are a lot of people ahead of me. Looking back there are far fewer behind.
Later the path breaks out onto a dried river bed. It sounds picturesque. It isn’t. We’re passing along the bottom of a ravine, balancing on rocks and seemingly seconds from sustaining broken ankles at any point. Hope that this is just a short section soon fades as the river bed meanders on, the monotony only broken by the odd puddle that makes the rocks slippery and even more exciting. So early into the race we are still quite packed so last minute course alterations to avoid the worst of the route are trickier than expected and I’m constantly adjusting route to account for catching slower runners or being passed by quicker ones. Mostly I’m wondering how the hell I could have trained for this terrain without breaking into a local quarry and running hill repeats on their stockpiles.
We reach the first aid station in a local town of Arucas Santidad Alta (295 metres elevation, 10 miles), set up in a playground. The area is huge but the tables are jammed together in the middle causing a crush of bodies as people fight to get to the food or water, turn away and find their escape blocked by a sea of ultra runners. The melee is worsened by most swinging their trekking poles around wildly with points either at groin or eye level. Food is mostly orange segments, bananas and some cereal bars.
Keen not to hang around and cool down I top up bottles with a 50/50 coke and water mix and head on with a handful of oranges. Constant forward momentum is the goal. Judging by how many runners are seeking medical attention to cuts and grazes staying vertical may be a more important target. I’ve covered the easiest and flattest part of the course but it still seems hilly.
The first big climb comes after we leave the town and I finally pull out my cheat sticks (trekking poles). Other than a quick go in the local woods I’ve not used them before and have little idea what to do. Judging by the swooshing noises as points whisk past ears, I’m not sure anyone else does either.
As the gradient climbs I start to rely on the sticks. Not only are they taking the load off my dodgy hip and hopefully extending the period before it gives in, I’m also overtaking people. A lot of people. I’ve suddenly become great at ascending hills. I’m going to smash this race. Then we go back down a steep switchback path and I realise I monumentally suck at descending slopes. The pattern continues for much of the race, regaining any lost places on the climbs but losing again on the downs. Using the sticks to aid my cautious steps is little help and mostly I’m glad I can’t see the enormous drops and falls I’m narrowly avoiding. Darkness is a handy coping strategy for vertigo it seems.
The second checkpoint at Teror (588 metres, 17 miles) is again in a town and despite the lateness of the hour there is a full disco going for the runners, with thumping music and lights. The locals are loving it and join in, leaning from balconies to cheer us on. It’s a stark comparison to UK ultras where marshals are on route to (quietly) ask you to keep the noise down as you filter into and out of the church halls in the sombre silence reserved for funerals or impending root canal surgery.
I sustain only minor cheat stick injuries from half-witted runners and head out, sucking on more oranges. Pace so far is pretty good. I had goals of 20 and 24 hours at the start and currently ahead of 20 hour target and feeling good.
Coming around a corner on the trail I see two blokes ahead rummaging in the bushes. It appears they’ve found a competitor who’s left the path at some speed leaving only a leg and pole protruding. With a combined grunt of effort they release him from his botanical bindings to much delight and declarations of “now please go, no waste time” from the horticultural hostage.
The path breaks out onto a road and we enjoy a long section of smooth downhill tarmac before disappearing into the undergrowth and down into a valley. The route marking is excellent with large arrows, reflective tape and flashing markers throughout which have been essential in the darkness.
Aid stop three at Fontanales (996 metres, 24 miles) is in an underground parking garage. Food in, drinks topped and I’m off with a handful of sweets and chocolate again. There’s some more fast road sections and I’m coaxing life into legs and trying to make a decent time before we again drop off onto trails towards El Sao and a challenging descent during which I’m forced to step aside several times and let the locals thunder past. My brain just can’t compute how it’s possible to go that fast on terrain like this.
Towards the bottom of the valley the first glimpses of sunrise are seen and worth taking in. The sides of the gorge are steep and tower ahead, resembling a scaled up Cheddar Gorge from Somerset. Except with more cactuses. And some bamboo. The altitude gives the area a climate unlike you’d expect from the relatively barren and arid coast.
There’s a hint of Jurassic Park opening scene where the chopper drops through the valley before everyone gets eaten by disappointingly animated dinosaurs. Also disappointing is the next section of the race as it cruelly twists and starts to climb straight back up the other side of the valley with barely a metre of flat as reward. I’ve fallen into step with a couple of Spaniards. He’s old and wiry with a determined pole use. She’s younger and one of the few competitors I’ve seen to attempt this without poles. On the downhills she’s lighter and faster but severely hampered on the climb. Finally, we reach some semblance of civilisation and pass a pub, still closed from the previous night. We pass it, only to return 10 minutes later when it appears some runners ahead have gone wrong and I’m one of 20 people to blindly follow. This may be fate reminding me the futility of running past rather than to a pub.
The route follows a road down to a dam and the first checkpoint I’ve reached in daylight at Presa Perez (832 metre, 31 miles). There’s a row of chairs with runners huddled under the sort of blankets reserved for disaster relief efforts and make you itch just looking at them. Given we’re still relatively early in the race it seems foolhardy to be sat getting cold. “Beware the chair” is the mantra of ultra-runners who want to finish an event with a medal not a lift back to their dropbag. It’s 8am now (2.5hrs ahead of cutoff) so time for a power march out and a call to check on the wife and re-assure her I’m not dead. My pace is dropping but I feel like I’m keeping up with the general herd and looking back at results see I’ve gained 100 places since the first checkpoint.
We’re at 800m and as the elevation increases the views are amazing and the camera phone simply can’t do it justice. If I was every silly enough to return (why am I even contemplating this?) I’d be tempted to bring a decent camera.
Gradually the scenery shifts to pine trees and it resembles an alpine forest. Or Wales with sunshine and without the Welsh. These are the sections featured heavily in the advertising for the event. It was this that kept me going through the endless boulder strewn night section where every attempt at pace was thwarted. Sadly 30+ miles have taken the shine from my legs and I can’t muster the youthful abandon to skip gaily through the sun dappled paths as I’d have liked. It’s more of a consistent trudge with the occasional swear word whenever a drainage ditch cuts across the path, lined either side with vertical rocks to create trip hazards for unsuspecting runners.
The morning coolness has been replaced with strong sunshine and the shady path is needed. Buff is swapped for a cap and runners gradually pull up along the zig-zag climbs to shed clothing and apply sun cream. The mandatory kit included a breathable jacket which has stayed safely in my pack and probably will for the rest of the race.
We come into Artenara aid station (1232 metres, 40 miles) after navigating some roaming dogs. They looked friendly but given I didn’t know Spanish for “Who’s a good boy then?” or even “Please take your teeth out my leg!” it seemed sensible to give them a wide birth. Barking dogs have been a constant soundtrack throughout the night as the preferred local security device.
This aid station has hot food as well and I delight in a plate of plain pasta with some cheese squares on top. I’ve had more appetising pot noodles but it’s infinitely more appealing than the alternative ‘soup’ which resembles used brake fluid and smells similar. There are abandoned cups of it littered across the hall as even ultra-runners have standards.
Once again there seems to be general reluctance for runners to get moving, many are resting on chairs and one is fully asleep. We’re nearly three hours ahead of cut off but I don’t feel ready for a nap.
On the climb back out (it’s always a climb it seems) I can look back and appreciate quite how far we’ve come. Surrounded by mountains the very idea of a coast, lapped by a warm sea seems a million miles away. Given the way my pace is dropping it might as well be. I’ve got ice cubes liberated from the banana bucket under my hat and one on each wrist, held in place by a rolled down arm sleeve.
I fall in with an American runner called Greg and we chat for a while. I’m shocked he’s not only heard of Milton Keynes, but also popped in a few times for work. This seems incongruous. We lose each other before the next aid station and it’s several hours before I realise nobody had been around to corroborate my story and I may well have imagined the whole meeting in a Fight Club style. I’m left with Milli and Vanilli (my cheat sticks), and Jordan (my cheap plastic cup).
Coming into town of Cruz de Tejeda are the first pubs I’ve found open on route but both are heaving under the weight of tourists. The street is pack with stalls and locals offering donkey rides. Unsure if that would count as cheating? There are also many chickens on the loose, wandering into traffic and generally having no fear for their own lives. The alpine feel is reminiscent of the Troodus mountains in Cyprus where my Dad loved to take us. He’d have been keen for a hike in the woods but back then I was a lazy salad dodger who would have needed paying to exert himself that much. Fast forward a couple of decades and now I’m a dad, paying for the privilege to run so far my legs give out, in some sort of weird self-flagellation.
Some of the later climbs are deceptive as peaks glimpsed through the trees that promise to be just around the corner never get closer or suddenly side step to reveal their even bigger sister behind. The top of most of the hills are marked with little more than a view point and some rocks. Whilst not keen on rampant commercialisation would it kill them to have a pub on just one of them? A McDonalds? I’d settle for an ice cream van. The next hill has a definite structure at the top which brings a glimmer of hope only to be dashed when it’s found to be a mobile phone mast and base station. Bastards.
Finally I reach Tejeda town itself and the checkpoint (1034 metres, 46 miles). This one is outside in the courtyard of a hall. It’s now baking and what little shaded seating is available is occupied by families and well-wishers. I’m sorely tempted to demand they move but instead trudge up the steps to a petrol station and notice some toilets so douse myself in water before the climb to Roque Noblo, the iconic rocks on top of the mountain that features on the race logo. Oddly this is the first wee I’ve taken inside all day. The rest have all been overlooking breath-taking views across the valley, equipment in one hand and phone in the other to capture the sights (the mountains not the contents of my other hand). I’ve never had such inspiring urination vistas before and may start a blog of best places to water the undergrowth.
There are a lot of other hikers in town, either making the ascent to the peak or returning from the top. Some are fully kitted with hiking gear, others appear to have taken it upon themselves to march their family up a mountain in little more than flip flops and vests. The competitors stand out from the hikers, mostly because we all smell so bad they’re giving us a wide berth.
After a lot more climbing, I’m finally near the summit at 1718 metres. The pinnacle of the race. There is a small out and back from the route to reach the rock itself, with an extra checkpoint to ensure people undertake the full course. The views are once again indescribable and worth spending some time to appreciate. I’m convinced this is the highest point of the race and it’s largely downhill from here. I’m wrong on both counts.
There follows more sections through the woods and it’s relatively fast running for those that still have the legs. We climb again (more climbing eh!) and break into a camp site of wooden lodges reminiscent of something from a Yogi Bear film. The profile puts this lower than the Roque Noblo but it feels higher.
Although there is barrier tape making a strict route through the park I can see vending machines to one side and risk the wrath of marshals to duck under the tape and purchase an off-brand version of that running essential – a Calippo ice lolly. It’s as good as imagined and I wander forward to the main hut on site and aid station Garañón (unknown elevation, 53 miles).
Just a marathon left –
Garañón marks a landmark point in the race. It’s the start point for the marathon race and follows the same route. Other than two short climbs the marathon is downhill throughout. It’s also where we finally get our drop bags so can approach the home straight with fresh kit and whatever treats we packed away. I stick my Garmin on charge. My optimistic plan was to reach my charger pack and cable before it went flat. I nearly made it but have a disappointing couple of mile gap in my Strava trace.
The food is pasta, sauce and spuds. It’s sort of appetising. I sit down to eat then immediately switch tables as next to me is a bowl of warm sick regurgitated back up by a previous runner. I try to pretend it’s not sick but unless they’ve been serving chilli with grapes and chopped up Haribo there’s no other option. It did have a fork in the bowl but I suspect that is coincidental. Ultras are really classy aren’t they?
Mostly I feel pretty good, tired but no chaffing or other issues. A small blister on my foot was dealt with earlier so I mostly eat and run. Lets do this!
Leaving the aid station it’s beautiful and flat. We start a small climb which I’d been expecting. It doesn’t stop. Three bloody hours later we’ve climbed the last massive peak and my sense of humour has gone. This would be a horrendous marathon course.
They’ve thrown in a switchback descent that could have been beautifully fast had it not been cobbled by a blind man. It’s like running on lumpy concrete. There have been better laid ornamental arrangements around garden ponds. I’m running with my imaginary friend Greg again and he’s ringing his father for some motivation “You got this son, you got this!”, “Thanks Dad I’m gonna get it done.”, “Damn right son, do it!”.
At the bottom of the hill we take a left turn and start to climb again. This is becoming depressingly familiar. For a while I run with Greg and some others. I hope they can see him too. A couple of Korean runners have fashioned cheat sticks from bamboo poles they found on route. It seems very fitting and they make a more pleasing sound than the ping-ping of Milli and Vanilli. Although even their namesakes couldn’t make a good sound. Greg is stopping to collect litter as we run. This confirms my thoughts he probably exists, otherwise I’m also imagining litter and that would be a low point in mental health.
Gradually we split up as the path continues. I’ve had to stop to put my headtorch back on, which whilst expected is still demoralising. I’ve run all last night. I’ve run all day. It’s night again. I’m still running. It sucks. This is meant to be an easy downhill marathon section. It’s horrendous and my feelings are rapidly shifting towards dropping out, going home for a shower and a beer.
Eventually I hit Hierbahuerto aid station (1226m, 63 miles). It’s dark and bleak on the summit of the millionth bloody mountain I’ve climbed today. Even the supplies have been carried up due to it’s remoteness. This would be a shitty place to drop. There is only 17 miles left and 9 hours before cut off. I could pretty much crawl to the end.
Salvation Arrives –
Coming down from the checkpoint my ears catch the dulcet tones of two Irish competitors, deep in conversation as only those with the gift of the Blarney stone can manage. They gradually reel me in and catch me as I stop to check route on a tricky section.
I fall in behind them and the company after so long with just my imaginary litter picking American is welcome. They introduce themselves as Tom and Joe and we chat about everything from sport to family and work as is the way of trail runners. They’re alternating run and walk sections faster than I have been and it’s a struggle to keep up at times.
There’s a moment of panic as Tom slips on a loose rock and nearly disappears off the edge of the path. He’s made of strong stuff and is back on his feet instantly whilst I’m still midway through attempting to bend and help him up. We’re joined by a fellow Brit, Francis, and have accidentally assembled a group of English speakers alone on the mountainside. Our clan of dusty and sweaty travellers is reminiscent of The Lord of The Rings only with less Orcs and hopefully no extended directors cut. After 20 hours of running we’re hoping not to destroy our rings.
Sticking together the group begins the descent down to Ayagaures and the prospect of seeing my wife and Zaid who have come out to support me. I’ve fallen way off pace so the planned 7pm arrival is likely to be closer to 10pm. We are still at a high altitude with only around 14 miles left before the coast so need to drop quickly. And we do. The next section is so steep and sketchy it has extra warning signs in places advising that whilst the previous deadly drops were merely having a laugh, these ones are properly going to kill you. They use slightly less dramatic wording such as “Danger Very Technical Trail, Take Caution!” but it’s obviously a suggestion to check your life insurance is up to date.
The group of four initially check back with each other as sounds of slipping and tripping are released. Eventually it becomes evident that almost falling to your death is pretty much the standard state of affairs and presume any serious issues will be accompanied by a plummeting scream or snap of bone so continue on in silence punctuated only with swear words. I fall flat on my arse at one point and it feels good to rest.
Finally hitting the road into town I’m met by my support crew, more than a little concerned how late I am, and by the seemingly impenetrable darkness to heaven that we’ve zig-zagged down. Standing at the bottom I can share their concern. It looks more like a sheer cliff than anything even a mountain goat should attempt. We’ve dropped nearly a kilometre of elevation in just six miles since the last checkpoint.
The aid station at Ayagaures (313 metres, 69 miles) is a rushed affair. Tom and Joe are keen to push on and I’m certain I’ll be better with them than alone so have to keep my time with Cloë and Zaid short. We set up in the extra tent for support crew (just in case they do something unseemly in the main tent worse than vomiting in a bowl) and top up bottles, dumping any unnecessary gear with Cloë (I ran out of pockets so the battery pack for my Garmin has been stored someplace even a wife shouldn’t have to deal with). I’m presented with the beer I’ve been craving since the sun came up, kiss everyone goodbye and march after the Irish.
Cloë has said the road route from Maspalomas took them up and over a huge hill. I’m confident we’re mostly downhill from here so must be going a different route. We are. It’s up and over a completely different huge hill. Bastards. The climb is on a wide dusty and level road so we make good progress. The descent is more lumpy and slower. Finally we hit the dried up river bed that will lead us all the way into town. It’s as rock strewn and evil as the first river bed at the start of the race.
Tom and Joe have the knack and make incredible time, catching up many that have overtaken us. By a combination of luck, scrabbling and short runs I keep up and we power through. Each time the rocks run out and the route turns to dusty path I’m hopeful it’s the end. It isn’t. At one point I drift off into a daydream and find myself nearly crashing into the back of Joe who has changed his entire outfit, grown a few inches and also become Spanish. It’s not Joe. He’s ahead with Tom as we’ve caught up a group of stragglers and I’ve just blindly followed a random runner for a period whilst my mind was off someplace else dreaming of warm baths and cold beer. I scrabble to catch up, noting that’s a further four people we’ve passed.
Eventually the river bed ends and we’re on a wide dusty section. Tom and Joe have decided it is time to push it for home. I’ll happily admit they had the run on me and I resolved to stick with them as long as I could. Gradually the ‘oh god I can’t sustain this’ changed to ‘ok this feels fast but I can manage this’ and we drop down onto the canal that runs through the town. It’s dry and lined in a Spanish version of crazy paving. After the bastard rock sections this feels like nirvana in comparison.
We continue to push the pace and past the walking dead of ultra-events the world over, all marching with blank faces, dragging limp legs and smelling like decay and blind hope.
There’s a checkpoint on the footpath of the canal so all runners walk/run/climb the steps up and back down to pass through. This is the final checkpoint, Parque Sur at 28 metre elevation and 78 miles. We run down the steps back to the crazy paved canal and I can’t help but feel sympathy for one forlorn guy attempting to climb back down without his knees or legs co-operating. He might still be there as you read this. If only he knew I was completely broken as well but just too desperate to keep up that I couldn’t give in to it.
After a little more canal we divert onto the road and can just about see the Expo hall and finish line. Tom is still pushing and we receive confused looks on competitors faces as we whip past either side, breaking their inner daydream. One runner manages to regain composure and pass us back, it’s Francis from the deadly cliff section.
Rounding the final corner Tom grabs all our hiking poles and launches them into the grass so as not to ruin the finishers photo. He’s a pro. We’re passed an Irish flag by their families and we cross the line together. I’m holding hands with two fellas I didn’t even know 20 miles ago but who have saved my race and kept me sane.
It’s taken over 26 hours to finish. I’ve gained position throughout, especially since meeting the Irish greyhounds, which shows quite how laughable my original 20-24 hour goal was.
After collecting medals (and hiking poles) we share a complimentary beer before retrieving drop bags and bidding farewells. I feel great, a bit stiff maybe so decide to jog the short distance back to the hotel, cheering on the finishing runners as they pass.
Transgrancanaria is properly brutal but epic. The beginning and end can be soul destroying, but the middle makes it worth it. Like a sandwich of the finest cheese and ham made with stale wholemeal bread. Sipping champagne at breakfast the next day, replete in my finishers top I feel amazing even though I waddle like someone who’s pooped his pants.
Next time I decide to run across a volcanic island I’m going to the Maldives.