It’s too easy to sign up for races based on the one dimension of distance from start to finish. That’s usually what I do anyway and leave the second dimension of ascent as something to think about when I am there. So when I signed up for the Trans Gran Canaria race many months ago, excited by the stunning views promised, the warm and some birthday beers at the end I just thought “well, 123k isn’t even 3 marathons is it? Should be no bother”.
The closer the race came the more I came to realise that this was not the case. The winning times are over 13 hours, the cut off is 30 hours. Why would it take nearly a day and a half to run three marathons? My quick glance at the profile of the course did not raise any alarms either. From sea level it goes generally up for the first 2 marathons up to only around 2000m and then the last marathon is down. Does not sound much worse than a single climb of the UTMB. However I had overlooked the total elevation that was clear on the website, 8400m. That was almost the entire UTMB (9500m) of elevation in a much shorter distance, 17k, almost a half marathon again purely up and down, like going up and down Everest. And I have not climbed a hill since August.
It was approaching midnight, we were in Playa Inglise on the south of the island enjoying some of the local entertainment outside the street bars. On a stage we were treated to a rendition of “In the Navy” followed by some comically stereotypical Spanish guitar playing (with sombreros). I almost expected Manuel to stagger through the tables and chairs and throw Paella at some large woman shaking maracas.
Half of the audience were just enjoying a Friday night on their holiday, the other half were loitering, faffing around with kit, lubricating themselves and scanning for toilets. I sp[otted Mark Collinson who I have chatted to at a few races recently when he got off one of the coaches. We were all really excited about this.
On the stroke of midnight we all squeezed through a narrow archway and onto the beach where we had to run 5k to the next town. Again I had no idea about this bit and looked unprepared as most of the other runners had duct taped bin bags to their feet to protect their feet from the sand. I remember how badly blistered my feet got in the MDS and worried that I had to start of with this.
The beach section was actually very pleasant. The noise of the start died down and the waves crashing against the sand were very soothing. Jen and Jany sang “Happy Birthday” as we ran quite quickly over fairly flat sand. Every now and then a big wave would creep towards us and everyone would swing to the left avoiding the water like squealing little children. No one wants to get sand or water in their shoes at such an early stage.
After 5k we reach Maspalomas and take a right and head into the mainland. There are some people cheering us already as we enjoyed a few kilometres along some tarmac and then into a dry canal. This was a bit odd, a dried river/canal bed which was really hard to run on in the dark and only the glowing of dim head-torches to help guide us from spraining ankles.
Thankfully we were out of this soon and onto a wide track where the runners started to space out. The long slow uphill had stared and the dreaded walking poles came out. The path was wide enough for this not to matter and I got into a good rhythm of powerwalking up the hills and running any downs and flats. Occasionally I saw an ambulance race up or down the path with sirens blazing. Some people had run into trouble early.
Around 20k I started to regret not making the most of the toilets at the start and as we were running along a valley that had us flanked by a wall and a cliff there was nowhere to go. After a while of uncomfortable shuffling I finally found a great spot only to discover that there was already a guy there with his dog. He was the one going not the dog. I just pitched up a few yards away and did the same. It felt better, there is always the great feeling after relieving yourself on a run such that you are almost strutting the next few miles. I like that, I’m going to chase that feeling.
What on earth must the dog have felt like? The chap ran on ahead and his dog was obediently following except to take many detours to smell bushes (adding distance, don't think he was wearing a garmin collar). He could not have any idea about what he (I am assuming it was a he, I did not get that close) was setting out to do. Perhaps that helps. Idea for a race – keep the race distance a secret (say anywhere between 100 meters and 100 miles) and tell people to bring as much or as little with them.
The first 30k were quite easy and I covered them is around 3.40. The first checkpoint was merely a lorry full of water to re-fill on. I only spent a minute there before heading on up some more hills and onto the proper hardcore part of the race.
There were very few non-Spanish in the race I found. There were about half a dozen Brits, a few Germans and Italians (did not see any French people though the usual winner is French). This race seems quite a well kept secret for them.
Around 4am it started to piss it down. I seemed to bring bad weather to the MDS and UTMB in recent years and though I was expecting a little rain in this one I thought at least it was going to be warm and the rain might be a blessing, however as we climbed I felt the cold a lot, despite 3 layers. The terrain did not help either, it reminded me of Bovine in the UTMB where I just seemed unable to get up the mountain. It was very rocky and on trying to stagger over the rocks I would often lose my balance and slip back down.
Even though I was struggling I thought about Jen and how she was doing since she really was not wearing much for this race, just a short sleeved top on. I wasn’t sure whether she was ahead or behind me as I last saw her about 5k but I figured if I was cold and I had an extra layer (not including significantly higher body fat) then she must be freezing. Afterwards she said that a kind runner lent her a rain jacket which probably stopped her from freezing on those mountains.
It took a long time to get to the top of that climb and it was impossible to tell whether I was at the top since it was dark. Shortly after the peak there was a steep decent that was to be a characteristic of the entire day, down through a small village and into the first “proper” checkpoint at 42k. It was gone 6am, those last 12k took nearly 2.30 hours.
The checkpoints have a UTMB feel to them, there is Pepsi, meat, cheese, bread and all sorts of hot food in a large medical style tent. It was still raining and still dark and the canvas beds in the medical tent did look tempting but I decided to try and spend as little time as possible at the CP’s. I just went indoors to re-fill my water, grab some chocolate and then head on out. 1 marathon done, 6 hours.
The rain stopped as day broke and I was climbing up some steep but technically less demanding inclines. As the sun rose I could see around the amazing views and the great path I was climbing, it was like a great paved street moving upwards, surrounded by a small wall.
I have recently bought a sports cam with the intention of taking footage of races like this where words can’t describe what I see or when I forget stuff which is more likely. I have attached a few videos here and I hope they show some of the beauty of the race as well as some sound of me sounding knackered. I am quite impressed with the camera so far though not so much with my own camerawork or my inane drivel as I try to think of something interesting to say while beasting myself up a hill.
Shortly after daybreak the two routes split, there are the yellow bibbed runners doing a simple south to north run of 96k and us green bibbed runners who do this plus an extra loop of 27k in the middle of the island where it is hilliest. The start of this loop was quite high already and took us winding around the top of a ridge where I was treated to the spectacular sight of pine trees growing on harsh volcanic rock. In the middle of the island you could easily see for miles and pick out the paths carved into the sides of the volcanoes where perhaps we were about to run (or had already run, I had no idea).
Around 50k and there was the first proper steep and technical drop which I took to with my usual grace and dignity. I am really really bad at this and at times would not even move forward. This is where races like this are won and lost. Although I never expect to win such a thing I know that the fast guys make very quick time racing down the hills with seeming little regard for their own safety and a complete denial of gravity. I imagine that the elites always make sure that each step propels them forward (sound obvious) so that no foot strike is wasted. However I seem to move sideways as much as I move down and hence will probably take 3-4 times as long on this kind of stuff than those guys. My downhill goes something like forward-forward-side-forward-side forward-forward-forward-side-side-forward-side. I put a lot of effort into not actually moving anywhere.
Finally at the bottom there are some flat bits across dams. There was an odd section across a sewage pipe. There were some great views here, I was in the middle of the island with only mountains to look at. It was wonderful looking up for a change.
Around 9am I was doing up my shoe laces as Jany skipped past me. Again I was not sure whether she was ahead or behind but it was great to see her and she explained how she managed to go the wrong way at the split point and follow the yellow bibbed people. She was on much better form than I was at the time and is a much better hill climber than me and I was determined to stick with her for the ups that we were about to undertake.
It was not even 10am and the cold I had been suffering from during the night was quickly replaced by sudden feelings of overburning. It would turn around quite quickly, when the sun was out I was too hot, when it went behind a cloud I got cold. The higher we went the colder and windier it was though the work rate made me very hot. My body just flicked between feverish hot and chills. Jany seemed fine with it and was chatting away as I tried to get my mass up the verticals.
The section between 42-63k was really quite nice and good time can be made on it. Plenty of gentle downs and though the ups are steep there is not too much technical about them. Jany was convinced that we had not even passed the 42k point when we met but I was sure that the checkpoint was the 42k and we were well past it. In fact we were both surprised to hear that the next checkpoint we arrived at was 63k, more than half way. The checkpoint was just another water lorry and we did not stay there long but we were both quite pleased with the progress, around half done in about 10 hours. Just another 20k of the ups and then according to the profile we had a nice easy downhill marathon.
Feeling pretty good about the time we were making we jogged on and into more climbs. Though we had done lots of ups and downs thus far I knew we had not done anywhere near the 8400m we had paid for and so expected this section to be pretty brutal. It did not disappoint.
We marched up and down the same kind of terrain for a couple of hours, enjoying the views and Jany suffering my brief interviews on the camera. I don’t think we said that we would stick together but it seemed that we were going to run near each other until this whole thing was over. Extrapolating as a runner always does we thought this would be around 20 hours, less if that downhill marathon was really easy. This all seemed very well until we got to another checkpoint about 2 hours after we left the 63k point and were told that it was 69k.
6k in 2 hours? The maths is quite frightening. We weren’t even going slow. We thought there must be some mistake as it is incomprehensible to move that slowly. There sure was a lot of climbing it that 6k but not that much? I had a quick snack at the 69k point and pressed on, convinced that we would reach the 82k stage in not much time at all.
On leaving the checkpoint a lady there told us that it would start “going up” now. I don’t know how she would describe what we had been doing for the last 40k. She was right though, this is where the “up” really started.
Some of the inclines were 45 degrees as the sun played peekaboo behind the clouds, tormenting us with hot and cold. We were exposed to the fantastic and bizarre rock formations that make this island look so amazing. Higher up and in the middle of the island the vegetation becomes more baren and the rocks are harder. After another 2 hours of climbing up and down we ran into a few tourists as we were approaching Roque Nublo, a natural symbol of the island. It is basically an 80m tall lump of rock right on to of an already significant hill. Stood just in front is a chap with a chip mat that we have to run through. I was optimistic thinking that this was the 82k point and that the 69k quoted earlier was way off (By the way niether of us had Garmins, they spoil the exitement). He said that this was not the major checkpoint and that we just head over the next mountain, up and down into the next CP and it was about 8k away.
So by my reckoning that was about 5k in 2 hours. Shit. This was not going to be finished in the daylight for sure. Then it got really silly.
On the climb of "the next mountain" I tried to picture us reaching the top and being able to say that this was the end of the hardcore climbs. This one was not too bad. Steep and long like most of them but on fairly even trail. On reaching the top there was a long gentle downhill, a road crossing and then back up again? On reaching the second peak (which was harder, it was slippy) I looked around and thought that there is nowhere higher than where we are and so could not possibly have any more but then we went down at up again. SIX times in total and one of those being climbing on boulders with climbing ropes.
This race would obviously compare well with the UTMB. It's 43k shorter but packs in more climb per mile. I would say the terrain is a little more technical here and the support is the same. There is much less crowding here too and the weather conditions would be similar. However I think the key difference and the root of much of the torment and frustration here is that you never know when you are at the top of something. The individual climbs in the UTMB are bigger but at least when you get to the top of one you know you are at the top and have ticked off one of the eight big climbs. Here there is no knowing how much further you have to go up.
SO on the 6th climb (a very steep one on a pine trail) I saw at the top a dome and could hear a road and the occasional beep of a chip mat. Fantastic, it looked like it was the highest point we were going to go and after about another 2 hours we thought we were making great time to get there. We reached the top of the climb went over a railing onto the road to see the chap there with a lorry and a timing mat. "Where is the checkpoint?" I breathlessly asked. "About 3k down there" he pointed.
At least it was "all down". Very steep in some places. It was a still beautiful and it was around 3pm when the sun should be fairly strong but on getting finally to the 82k checkpoint it was actually quite chilly. It was exposed on the side of a ridge and despite blazing sunshine it was still cold.
Matt had come to meet Jany and this was the point where you can leave a frop bag. Seems silly to leave it so late into the race given that down was the "easy" bit, a downhill marathon. I did not have much in my bag, just a replacement for the nuts and sweets that were still in my rucksack uneaten. Jany looked like she was suffering a little and we stayed at the CP for about 15 minutes where I had some nice pasta and ate some of the greasy meat on offer. You think eating from a bowl of nuts in a bar is hazardous to your health you should avoid eating meat and cheese from a plate 80k and 17 hours into an ultra.
Jany wrapped up in all her layers and we started the nice shallow descent along a great path, the first nice bit of running we got to do for a while. It go warmer and I got thirstier for a post race beer and thought I was within grapsing distance of it now. Today was my birthday and I thought what better way to spend it than running a race then drinking. I was hoping to have at least a few hours of beer time at the end before midnight. With 8 hours do do the last marathon this seemed quite likely.
Not long though I was part of a conversation I thought I'd never have. Jany was lagging behind a bit and I was suprised by this until she just yelled "My uterus is about to fall out". I really didn't know what to say. My initial reaction (in my head) was that there was space in my rucksack if she needed it. I had no idea what to do here, why do girls have to be so complicated? Matt rescued her with some things to help with her "women's troubles", not sure what it was, looked like a lip balm. Pretty soon she was right back on form, bounding up and down with a smile on her face. Would have made a great TV commercial.
Actually Jany was doing phenomenally well given that Easyjet did not put her luggage on the plane. Whereas the rest of us spent the Friday lounging around and sleeping in preparation for a midnight start Jany was filling in forms at the airport to get her suitcase and then had to sort all her stuff out, getting little rest. I had never done a midnight start before and it's hard to know what to do in terms of rest in the days before. Jen was trying to get up earlier and earlier each day and try to force some sort of jet lag on herself. I got up around 9am on the friday, had a big breakfast, faffed around for a bit and had a big lunch and a couple of beers and then snoozed again between 3 and 7. I was at the start line feeling quite fresh and at no point in the race did I feel sleepy.
It was getting cooler and there were still a large number of hills to climb. Nothing as bad as the middle third of the race but now the terrain was getting earthier and muddier. The downhills were steep switchbacks on slippy soil and there was no way of getting any proper momentumn. Even if I was in the mood for racing down hill the amount of turning back on yourself made it very hard. As with all downhills Jany was much faster at them and within minutes she'd look like an ant and then disappear. Even though we were going down a lot we were not making up much time.
The 100k checkpoint is annoyingly the 99k checkpoint. It's in a small town and we got there around 7pm giving us 5 hours to get the rest done in under 24. The race cut off is 30 hours but I didn't fancy another section in the dark. It would be nice to finish, go to bed and have a fairly normal day tomorrow of lounging on the beach and eating squid. We heard here that Jen had been pulled out of the race at 82k for having a blue face. It was a great shame as it wasn't going to get any colder from here as we were heading down but she wished us good luck with the "downhill" marathon and said to meet us at the end.
About 100 out of 300 starters pulled out (or were pulled out by the organisers). It's easy to see why with the weather so variable and the terrain so hard. Last year's winning time was just over 13 hours, amazing in this. This year it was a bit more than that which I think refected the less than ideal weather we had. We didn't stay at the 99k checkpoint for long. This was where Gemma's 24k race started and she did that in about 2.40. We had about twice that long and it was probably going to take that long as it was getting dark. We set out and unsuprisingly we started off by going up a hill.
The sun disappears suddenly as we were covered in forests but the long uphill was at least level so we got a great powerwalk going. Then it was pitch black as we ran over some muddy sections which were generally down or flat. Jany and I took tunrs to run in front and made sure we were both looking out for the ribbons. arrows and reflectors that marked the route. The route markings were actually very good, there was something every few yards it seemed and it would have been hard to get lost though I am sure some of my London based running friends could manage it somehow. Having spent the last 10 hours getting gradually overtaken by other runners on the ups and downs (remember they were cheating with sticks) we managed to overtake a load of people here, about 20. It was dark and everyone was walking but Jany and I were running quite strong. The finish will come in no time.
Nope. After about 10k of making good progress in the mud and watching Jany nearly run into a goat we entered a dry river bed full of rocks. Actually it was not dry as it had started pissing it down again and we were sliding all over the place and had to slow to a walk and stagger. It was dark and we could not really see much around us except the walls of what once could have been a river. This is probably not the most scenic part of the race and there was a feeling of being trapped.
The path went on and on as we slowly staggered forward, kicking rocks and feeling the occasional sharp one go into my blistered feet. Jany and I had done well to stay in good spirits throughout the race but we both fell silent in this stage, this was no fun at all. Switchback after switchback meant that we had no idea how far we had to go or had travelled. Jany fell a few times. The rain came down harder and threatened to make this a river again. Gemma texted me to say that Marky had finished and was currently wrapped up warm in my clothes. For the first time I was just wishing this whole thing was over and wanted to be wrapped up in my warm clothes.
Every now and then there were some lights up ahead and I said that it could be a checkpoint, surely there must be one soon that marks the 10k to go point. It never was, the light would just be a house or a farmhuose or something. I thought this would be how it as for the rest of the race and that it would take till 30 hours to complete. I told Jany that if we are not at the next CP by 9.30 we can kiss goodbye to 24 hours. Paranoia hits you like that when you feel you have such a long way to go and don't appear to be making any progress. You start thinking and seeing things that not there and thinking up problems that don't exist. I thought my uterus was going to fall out.
Gemma texted me to say that the last 10k were mostly on tarmac and lots of downhill which meant we could still make it. We arrived at the CP at 10, giving us 2 hours to do the last 10k which was possible if it were on road. The guy there said it was actually only 8k to the finish which now made it sound like a breeze. However true to form this "downhill tarmac" was actually mostly uphill mud.
We agreed to run anything that was flat or down, even if it was only a few yards. We did this but soon found ourselves wading up in the mud again. Still, 8k in 2 hours is not much wuicker than we had been going over the really hard parts and now at least that river bed was behind us.
The last few K seem to wind through peoples back gardens and you have to be on the ball with the arrows. We went wrong a couple of times by sticking to the roads when in fact we should be in the mud. Around halfway in to the last section we could hear the finish, back down on the beach where we registered the day before. We could see the beach we were going to finish at but frustratingly the route kept turning back away from it. I considered just making a straight path to the beach which would have probably invovled jumping off a cliff. Finally on a bit of downhill tarmac there was a painted sign that said "3k to go", then we started some proper running again.
2k to go, 1k to go, seemed to take longer still but we did not care. Soon we were met by people pointing us into a finish shoot which involved running around the finish and then back round and up a ramp. The ramp was easy and we pegged it up to finish this off. 23 hours and 44 minutes.
That was the hardest 24 hours of running I have done. The torment and frustration of putting in so much effort and not going very far was incredible. I don't even need to do this kind of thing in preparation for the Trans US (a slightly bigger country than Gran Canaria) but was very happy to have done it. There was an all you can eat buffet at the end as well as beer. I manage a bottle in the 16 minutes that remained of my birthday and then staggered back to the taxi stop to get a cab home.
Though my legs did not feel too bad during the race I could not walk for 2 days, that's as bad as I remember being after a race since my first Spartathlon.
Video of the elites. Much better camera work than mine but no footage of anyone falling over.
Here are the race photos of me