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Rocking three finish lines at Transvulcania

by kirsty
Monday 12th May 2014

Race report: Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade takes the rocks (and rock'n'roll) in her stride, as she runs towards an unforgettable finish at Transvulcania

Like all good trips this one had a soundtrack. Unfortunately it was provided by a local band at the expo belting out rock covers to make your ears bleed at 11pm the night before the race. We had to be up at 2am to board a bus to the start at 3am. How I was regretting choosing that oh so convenient race hotel now. So with 'We Will Rock You' still reverberating round my head I dragged myself out of bed, tried to force down some toast and climbed on the bus. 

La Palma is a spectacular island, formed of volcanic rock, with beaches of black sand, interesting looking flora wherever you look and lots of big hills with enough beautiful trails criss-crossing them to make grown runners weep. It's just a perfect venue for a race and, like many of the European trail races, it's a huge deal here. While I wasn't crazy about the late night live band it was great that the expo was a big party, complete with a choreographed running-related mass dance routine in the afternoon. It was more like 'Britain's Got Talent' than a running trade fair.

The start takes place on the southern tip of the island at a lighthouse. We got off the buses at 4am and stepped into a gale force wind. I followed other runners in diving for cover in the only building I could see, which was at the bottom of the lighthouse. This was essentially a dark hallway and runners were crammed in here in a fairly unpleasant way. Here we stayed for an hour. My morning up to this point is probably summed up by the word bleak. But then it all got so much better. The organisers get you onto the start line at 5am, ready for the 6am start. While this gave my bladder cause to panic it actually created a fantastic atmosphere. La Palma is a famous spot for astronomy as the skies are so clear and glancing upwards I saw the brightest stars I've ever seen. I don't know why but it made me feel really emotional all of a sudden. It could have been sand in my eye though. The compere whipped us all into a trail running geek frenzy by interspersing music with introducing the big name elite runners (Kilian, Sage Canaday, Anna Frost, to name a few) and interviewing some of them. How could they possibly top that? With 'We Will Rock You' of course.

Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade takes the rocks (and rock'n'roll) in her stride, as she runs towards an unforgettable finish at Transvulcania

Photos © Pete Aylward

The big countdown was complete and then we were off, uphill! The running gods and goddesses disappeared off the front in a way which really emphasised their status and then us mere mortals basically queued up the first hill.

The early miles were very frustrating as it was a narrow path and as it was really windy and whipping sand up I really wanted to move. The first mile took half an hour. My legs were itching to get going but with 3000 runners you just had to be patient. Incredibly, even though it was still pitch black and fairly unpleasant conditions, there were still plenty of supporters on the hill. Wherever you were on the course, even in really inaccessible spots, there seemed to be somebody yelling something encouraging in Spanish. 

The first third of the race was on sandy trails, which were hard-going because you sank into the sand but the climbing wasn't too bad. My favourite part of any long race is when the sun comes up and this race was particularly spectacular. Not long after the sun rose I found myself running round the top of a volcano, looking down at the volcano's crater with clouds below me in the distance. It was a definite highlight of the race for me; just an incredible sight, though there were plenty more to come. 

The course continually rises until around the 50k point and you certainly felt it. There really wasn't much in the way of flat or downhill to run in some parts. You'd run for a bit, then climb and have to walk, then run a bit more. When you got a good stretch you could run it was bliss. You were making progress and it felt good. There was a fantastic stretch in woodland down to El Pilar which I loved. There was a half marathon which set off half an hour after us and finished at El Pilar so you had to run through their finish line but were rewarded for this psychological distress with a great aid station (there was coke!) and loads of people. This was a big boost and, even better, there was a long runnable stretch after this. 

From here on it just got harder and harder. I focussed, well, ok, obsessed, on two things. Coke and Roque de los Muchachos. The first because it was getting really warm and my hydration bladder was doing its favourite trick of turning any contents into the flavour 'burning plastic'. I was feeling sick from the heat, struggling to drink, and burnt plastic just wasn't doing it. Coke was the only thing I felt like (though I was getting down as much water and electrolyte as I could too). Roque de los Muchachos was the highest point on the course, after which it would be, as they say 'all downhill'. Ok, that's got to be Muchachos up ahead. No? Ok, that next big rock in the distance. No? Ah, there's a big observatory at Muchachos, I can see it! This is it! Still no. It was at this point I considered mugging a small child spectator for their bottle of coke.  

Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade takes the rocks (and rock'n'roll) in her stride, as she runs towards an unforgettable finish at Transvulcania

Photos © Pete Aylward

The heat really became a problem into the afternoon. It sapped your energy and made you feel pretty terrible. There were dustbins of water at the aid stations and marshals poured buckets of it over you to cool you down, which was great but you were dry again 5 minutes later. If the heat was relentless the climbing was even more so. It was a big psychological step to get past Muchachos but there was still a lot of climbing after that and when you did hit the big downhill (about 15k in one stretch) it was rocky and technical, which I find really hard. This was the toughest part for me. The finish was 20k away, my legs still wanted to run, but the difficulty involved in picking your way down loose rocks and, in some places, boulders made for frustratingly slow progress. If I could improve one aspect of my running it would be this. Oh, and speed.

The relentless descending finally brought you down to the sea at Tazacorte and through another finish line, this one for the marathon. Man, they were determined to break the ultra runners with these false finish lines. But from here it was only 5k to go and it was just a case of digging in. One more rocky path, one more 350m climb, then a blissful couple of km flat run into the finish and this was the stuff of running dreams! Every single person along the street, outside bars and restaurants, yelled encouragement and I got my own personal Transvulcania pacer, a lovely young woman who ran alongside me for about 5 minutes saying encouraging things and playing the crowd on my behalf. She was so nice that I at no point had the heart to tell her I hadn't understood anything she'd said. I rounded the corner to a red carpet finish, high fives all the way! It was the most incredible experience and I was just a middle of the pack runner. An unforgettable finish which just rounded off an awesome race.

Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade takes the rocks (and rock'n'roll) in her stride, as she runs towards an unforgettable finish at Transvulcania

Photos © Pete Aylward

While my time wasn't what I'd hoped for (still need to work on that descending) I took loads of positives from this race. My climbing is really coming along and I felt really strong, thanks to my coach Marvellous Mimi Anderson and her love of tyre-pulling training. I felt really positive all the way through with no thoughts of walking when I didn't have to or quitting. This is also down to Mimi and to the Berghaus Trail Team Day I attended a week ago, where I met lots of other inspirational runners and heard some fantastic talks. These were going round my head while I was running. It's hard to hear about running the length of South America or listen to Stuart Mills talk about goal setting and not be incredibly motivated by it! I'm surprised we didn't all leave the Trail Team Day, drop our bags to the ground and go all Forrest Gump. 

I was really pleased I had two bits of kit with me. The first was gaiters, as the sand would have driven me bonkers and played havoc with my feet, and the second was poles. I know poles divide opinion but if you don't have them in many of the hillier European trail races then you're in the minority. A lot of the early climbs weren't steep enough to need poles but I definitely benefited from them on the later ones and they saved me from quite a few tumbles when I was descending too. 

All in all this race was a good stepping stone towards the UTMB for me. Kind of sobering to think that I'll be doing double that in Chamonix in August but it showed me what I still need to work on.

If you're looking for a tough ultra in a spectacular setting then I couldn't recommend this race highly enough. It will indeed rock you. 


About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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