Friday, May 15, 2015

Transvulcania - The World Skyrunning Stage Tests Me

I straddle the trail with my hands on my knees. I zone out on the chunks of banana dusted in volcanic cinders mid-trail that my gut just expelled 3k past the aid station at kilometer 30. Ah relief from a grumbling stomach sapping my strength. I push on happy to be on the recovery side. Perhaps now I can regain my pace and work back up to Emelie Forsberg, Salomon professional athlete from Sweden, who just passed me 5 minutes back.

Still recovering my strength a kilometer later I spot Tim Olsen, North Face professional ultrarunner from the U.S., ahead laying back against the slope with his hands on his head. He doesn't look good I think.

“You ok?” I ask. Tim groans. “Here walk it off with me” I respond and hold out a hand to help him up. “Go on, I’ll be fine” he responds, “just an upset stomach.” I continue along and a moment later I hear him hurl violently just as another American, Josh Arthur, comes trotting up the path. I expected Josh to be well in front of me and am surprised to see him.

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I met Josh at the Madrid airport on the way to La Palma. Josh, based in Boulder and running for Altra, is traveling solo and joins up with Jamil and myself on our way to La Palma Island for the Transvulcania race. We spend our first day in La Palma scouting some of the course, picking up our race packets, scope out the finish line, and grab dinner. Through the long weekend I meet, hang out, and get to know several other American runners as well as notable personalities in the ultrarunning community. Our shared moments at Transvulcania forming bonds which will be recalled with a smile or laugh some unknown time in the future. I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to join them this year.
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I make a decision to not let Josh out of sight and attempt to get back into racing mode – not merely survival mode. We conserve our remaining drops in our bottles and question how long to the next aid station. I estimate I lost time over about a 5-6mile stretch smack in the middle of the longest section between aid stations, which also turns out to be ~2 miles longer than advertised. I find myself out of water with just a bit of my CarboPro/HydraC5 mix left. Josh seems to be fully out and suffering from the heat and dehydration more. Perhaps it is the desert rat in myself that keeps me feeling ok. We push along.

Finally, near to the aid station to replenish our parched bottles we come up on Mike Foote, co-director of The Rut from Montana and a North Face athlete.  He has also been having a rough day. A few words of encouragement pass – solidarity among us Americans – and Josh and I continue on. This course has not been kind to many of us.

Transvulcania is a 77 kilometer (45.5 mile) race with over 14,400 ft of climbing up and around volcanos and a caldera on La Palma Island off the coast of Morocco. Over 2000 runners started at the windy southernmost tip of the island just above sea level. Elbowing for place we stampede up and out of the starting gates and pierce the dark with thousands of LED headlamps. Volcanic dust gusts and swirls in and around us. This race is spectacular!

Lining up for the start - a mad dash up a hill and onto sandy singletrack.

The near-correct course profile found on a forearm.
The energy exuded by spectators lining our passage through towns and even dotting remote trails throughout yell words of encouragement, “Animo” y “venga ninos”, as we cruise by. I have never done a race like this. This is leagues beyond any major, big city marathon in the U.S.

The first 11 mile we ascend up and through the clouds with over 6000 feet of climbing. An hour into the race we are warmly welcomed by a glowing sunrise peaking above a sea of clouds below. The views are astounding and the ever changing plant communities and coastal views over 6000 feet directly below us are breathtaking.

The race takes us further up and around a giant caldera topping out at just over 8000 feet elevation. Once we are up on the rim of the caldera we scramble up and down steep jaunts. A few opportunities afford views down to the finishing town below and we realize how far we still have yet to run and descend.

Nearing the final climb up to the 51 kilometer aid station I have recovered and decide to push the pace up and over to get a head start on the 10 mile descent (and over 7000 feet) back to the ocean below. I expect Josh to come whizzing by any moment yet my legs seem to gain energy as I enjoy bombing down the technical, rocky trail. I feel I am making up good time as I catch a few tired souls. Then OOPS! My toe snags a root and I fly down the trail with my arms and chest leading the way rather than my feet. I screech to a halt and pause stunned. I slowly peel myself up checking my vital systems. A few scrapes on my hands, hip, and a banged knee. My knee throbs. SHIT! Is all I can exclaim.

I hobble forward as I dust myself off hoping to work out the knee pain through continued movement. Josh comes by just moments later. Encouragement is exchanged briefly as he hauls past. He looks strong. I begin losing hope in finishing in the top 20. Several more runners come flying by. My knee pain slowly subsides and I resume running just a bit slower than my previous pace as it will take longer to regain my confidence.

I pass a couple more runners that look heat stricken. I thank Tucson for keeping me somewhat heat adapted naturally. I come up to the final switchbacks descending steeply into the town of Tezacorte and the final aid station along the beach. The noise of the announcer and music below bellow up the trail. I dance down the rough cobblestone path when again I fly forward. I slam the same knee again! The pain seems to be magnified than from the previous fall. A Spanish runner comes up on me quickly and tugs at my arm. “Solomente cuatro kilometros mas. ¡Lev├íntate! (get up)” he proclaims. At this point I would rather lay awkwardly on the stones and forget about the race. The challenges and demands throughout the course have been almost too much for me. I am out of reach of the race goals and targets I set. I feel like giving up, kicking off the shoes, and going for a swim at the beach just a few meters away.

But, I peel myself up – yet again – and I hobble down to the crowds below. The announcer goes crazy announcing me – something about “el Americano de Arizona y de el Run Steep Get High equipo”  – as I  run through. I pull my hat brim low to hide the pain on my face. At the aid station I refill my bottles, get hosed down with water, and trot off for the final 1000ft climb to the finish.
Folks dot the way offering encouragement to me. I look up ahead and behind and see that I am well by myself and decide to just run it comfortably in. My knee pain subsides yet again and surprisingly my legs and lungs feel pretty good. I just lack the motivation to push myself hard.

I top out the final climb and turn onto the near final straightaway about 400 meters from the finish. Barricades line the street with folks lining both sides. A police motorbike pulls in front of me to lead me in. Hands line the way looking for a return hand slap from me. Kids take turns running with me for 50-100 meters each. I look back to ensure no one will overtake me at this late moment. Seeing no one I melt into the satisfaction and enthusiasm of the swelling crowds and of completing a tough, grueling race. I finish 23rd of 1488 finishers in 8hrs 40min.

The finish after hundreds of hand slaps the final kilometer.
Photo credit: Bryon Powell, iRunFar.com

Los americanos que representan.
Photo credit: Bryon Powell, iRunFar.com
This is how I will remember Transvulcania. It offered me the highest of highs for ultra Skyrunning and forced me to face some of my lowest of lows and rewarded me with sharing that finishing moment with thousands. For that I am thankful to my team Run Steep Get High for helping make this experience possible.

After a short recovery this week my training continues for heading to Chamonix, France for the Mt Blanc 80k June 26th.



The volcanic coast near where we stayed with the volcano in the background
which the race took us up above the clouds to 8000+ft elevation.

Cruisin' Cancajos streets on La Palma Island.

Post race fun on the island. Scouting out cliff jumping options.

My splits through the race.

2 comments:

  1. That's awesome, Catlow. Thanks for sharing. Can't wait to read about your next adventure. - Jeff Hale

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  2. Thank you for a great write up. I have read several blog posts on Transvulcania. It seems like such a magical place and though missed your top 20 I imagine you are extremely happy for the experience.

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