It’s been a couple of days since I stumbled across the finish line on a real ultra trail marathon. You know, the kind of ultra race where you reach beyond what you thought you were capable of. This was the Trans Gran Canaria 128K (TGC), across a beautiful island.
I don’t feel any post-race blues, I feel great and I am still marveling at my achievements: going further, and higher, and for a longer time than ever before. That’s pretty ultra to me. And I didn’t even get a single blister on my feet! (Hmm, that would not be so ultra?). In fact, for the whole 29 hours I felt good, save a mid day dip during the climb to the highest peak Roque Nublo under the scorching sun. I recall being in worse shape during and after a 50K that I DNF:ed just 2,5 months ago, than after this race.
But let’s rewind the tape a little longer.
”Purple Haze all in my brain,
Lately things don’t seem the same,
Actin’ funny but I don’t know why
Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”
– Jimi Hendrix
My wingman Johan spent a family holiday about a year ago on the Gran Canaria over the New Year’s eve. He heard about the race from locals and quickly planted the idea that we should do it. As usual I said something like ”Hell yeah, that sounds cool!”, with no idea what he was talking about. We made it through our first 50-miler only some months earlier so I needed a new challenge, and I’m usually up for adventures.
When I started to read up about this race I quickly realized this was going to take a lot of effort to prepare for. Officially it’s 7500 verticals meters. Unofficially, it seems to be a little less: 6180 according to their own GPX file, but perhaps closer to 7000 as seen on ITRA.run – whatever the case it’s was more than enough for a flatlander like me, I knew that much about running in the mountains. But I put on a brave face and both Johan and me signed up together, almost a year before the start. This was going to be our A-race, the big one. From that moment on, any race or training was more about progressing to this race than anything else.
The months passed and we kept up our normal dose of training. It wasn’t really until August we started to target hill training. There was just one problem: where we live there are no hills. So what’s a boy to do?
We did a couple of things that made a big difference:
- Stairway repeats in a 20 floor high building, for hours and hours, up to three days at week at the end of the period.
- A 24 hour hike with no sleep, to understand what happens in the body and mind after a long time on the move, without destroying the body as much as when running.
- A 3 day training expedition to the Tramuntana mountains on the Mallorca island; trail adventure running that included total distance and verts similar to the TGC, but spread out over a weekend with plenty of recovery between each stage.
- Consistent and varied training – not too much, not too little.
- In general focusing on verticals and duration, rather than long distances and speed on training runs
And we dared to break up or change our training program when needed. The DNF I mentioned was on a 50K race that was supposed to be a good long run in the preparation, which we had already taken down from the 50 miles distance because it happened too close after our Mallorca expedition. Good recovery is just as important as good training, is something I’m beginning to learn. Or rather: recovery is also part of training.
All our training and practice prepped us a lot, it gave us valuable and relevant experiences in how our bodies and minds work under long endurance sessions, what to expect from equipment and gear, and nutrition/energy intake. For me it was probably what made all the difference between a tough DNF and finisher success. Monotonous stairway sessions paid off well.
Yet when I flew in over the island, arriving for the race, I was so humbled and scared. I saw the whole island from above and recognized places I would run. 90 percent mountains, if not more. The flat parts were seldom and long apart.
Johan and his family arrived a day earlier than me. I came by myself and took the ’Guagua’ bus 66 to Maspalomas. The LPA airport isn’t that big so it didn’t take me long to find the bus station. The buses didn’t exactly come and leave on the schedule, probably due to the many passengers with big bags and trunks. Once the bus was full it left before the hour. I came onboard as one of the last people and had to stow my big yellow The North Face travel bag inside the bus. At the very first turn all the bags inside the bus fell down towards the doors, because people had put their stroller cases beneath with the wheels down.
It was only me and another guy that apparently gave a shit about our luggage, and we started to rearrange the bags. Oddly, we had the exact same bag model, size, color etc, and what do you know: he and I were both in the same race! Vincent from France, my brother-in-bag, If you read this hope you had a good race, chapeau!
I had no idea what the bus stop was called but I knew the address to the AirBnB place I was staying at and could use Google Maps on my phone to get off at the right stop. This was very close to the place where I finished a recce run a month earlier.
The AirBnB host was charming. It was the first time I used this service. I stayed in a private room inside his tiny bungalow in the Campo Internacional borough. I got instructions to get in by myself, getting a key from a safety box. We met briefly in the afternoon, then I was left to my own devices and pre-race nerves on high tension. The anxiety hit hard, hands were shaking. Later on the first night he came back home and had sex with a dude while I was watching Netflix in the living room next door. I wasn’t sure this was the kind of “feel right at home!”-vibe he meant, and raised the volume on the TV thinking I wasn’t the only one with an excess of lube in my room. Anyway, the movie was fine, and I’ll give my host 10/10 points for clearing my head from ALL pre-race anxieties!
Maybe not all. But on the day after I did feel a big lump of it really let go when we left our dropbags at the Maspalomas Expo. In the morning I walked back and forth to the Expo, where the check-in and finish line were located. A good body wake-up activity and a final recce of the last 3K’s. It was flat but not without struggles if you have +125 kilometers in your legs already. Some stairs had awfully high steps and the ground was full of potholes and uneven stones.
Closing in on lunch, Johan and his family arrived at my place and we went back to the Expo together.
While the race was very well organized in general, the check-in did leave room for improvements. For starters, I wasn’t on the list, so I was taken aside to an officials room and had to wait while they got things sorted. That fixed, I got back to the check-in and got the official dropbags; one with black print for the finish line ”Meta” – which neither me or Johan understood existed from the pre race info. The other bag had a blue print for the dropbag at km 86/mile 50 at the Garañón Aid Station. We didn’t get consistent info from the volunteers but I know Spanish so I could overhear conversations and ask questions to get things straight(er).
The plastic bag for the dropbags wasn’t of great quality and they weren’t that big. My Altra Lone Peaks size US12,5 I planned to use for the last third of the race took up more than half of the space. Adding a complete change of clothes, a charger for the phone, gels & Tailwind packs, a spare head light etc. there wasn’t room for any nice-to-haves, like a Bluetooth speaker, spare GPS watch, extra cap, a spare pole etc. In hindsight this was for the better: the fewer the choices at the dropbag location, the less complexity, the easier it would all be where I usually struggle with all my things and in what order to do them. But it was frustrating to not know what amount/volume I could bring, and have to do all choices at the check-in.
Well well. Choices were made, and both me and Johan felt relieved from having them done. Que será, será from that point.
Because of the fuzz at the check-in we didn’t get a close look at the shops and exhibitions. I would probably have bought some nice gear and kit there. Instead we opted going with Johan’s family for late lunch and beach time at a lovely place they had found last year. Very cosy, this kind of tapering is my kind of tapering. Got home at sunset and felt a small fatigue from being in the sun, but ready.
Steady breakfast. Buses leaving for the start in Las Palmas would leave at 20:45 in the night, so plenty of time to check the gear and get ready. Perhaps too much time, the clock went really slow and I longed for the start. I’m not having much recollection of what happened mid day, but then it was around 17:00 and Johan would show up. We were going to do a meal and then calmly find our way to the buses in good time. I checked the phone for the the time and noticed that I had gotten an email from the organizers:
The bus departure had been moved 45 minutes early, and they gave us this notice just hours prior. I wondered how many runners would miss this info, and what the race direction had to deal with to do such a drastic change? We were still in good time, ate our spaghetti bologna and took a taxi to the Expo.
The temp was a bit chilly. I used the new nice arm sleeves we got from the generous check-in goodiebag content, which also included a black pair of Altra gaiters, an official technical shirt – we saw many use it on the race. I don’t usually want to use new and untested gear on a race, but the arm sleeves felt better than my own.
Another time to wait but then the buses finally arrived. Big queues at the buses, a bit chaotic, but I guess everyone got onboard. Of those who were there.
When we left at around 20:15 or so, there was a group of runners with jaws down at the roundabout near the Expo, watching as the train of buses left them behind. I suppose the organizers did manage to get them to the start in due time, because we had plenty when we arrived, almost 2,5 hours to kill before the start. The wait, again.
Air was fine at the Las Canteras beach in Las Palmas, but it was windier and a bit of a chill so we found a nearby restaurant. So did a lot of other runners. We had a sandwich, a coffee, some potato chips – and a beer! Ok, it was a low alcohol beer with lemon flavor, but still, it felt pretty relaxed compared to others in the bar that nervously jumped their legs, meddled with their packs, and had that busy look on their faces.
Fifteen minutes to go
Bathroom, last lube-up, wash hands, on with the backpack, pay up and go. We left the bar last of all the runners. Didn’t feel the need to stand freezing on the beach – and the start line was about a minute away. When we got there all the runners were lined up. We were supposed to stand in the second corral (based on previous race results I suppose), but we were just fine at the very back.
A men’s choir on stage started to sing the famous Trans Gran Canaria anthem, I think it was something about the Roque Nublo mountain. Then came the the countdown; 10, 9, 8… fireworks (the Spanish know how to work them!) and there, off we went!
There were about 1000 runners, maybe a little less, and we were among the last 20 to cross the start line. The crowd, surprisingly big, was fantastic and cheered like crazy. Great smiles and great feelings. A red serpent of the mandatory back LED lights slithered on the beach towards the point where we headed for the first ascent. But we only came a couple of hundred meters when we saw a long line of runners already relieving themselves in the ocean. Funny sight. Race nerves? Too long queues at the bars in near the start? I don’t know.
The race plan
Step One: Survive and make it to the finish line before cutoff.
Step Two: … uhm, let’s find someone that has actually done this race before, that can help us with Step One.
And thus appeared our guy.
I believe it was on the very first ascent after the 3.5 K’s after the beach. He probably overheard Johan’s and my silly chat about the race and how we would tackle it. So there are about 20 Swedes participating, and this nice grunt, with 3 TGC finishes (Spoiler Alert: now 4), and a stab at the TGC 360° course under his belt just happened to appear behind us. Turns out he was racing on his own and thought it was nice to have some company. We had that for the remainder of the race. Niklas is a gentle guy with a big heart and great persistence. What a great match!
The organizers had made a couple of last day modifications to the route just days prior. One was changing a small path up a hill in the beginning which offered us a bonus of 180 verticals and around 1 kilometer extra in distance, if I recall correctly. The cutoff’s weren’t changed, and we speculated if this was really done to preserve a path from many runners, or to weed out more people from the race? Conspiracies are such great conversations on long runs.
Coming from Sweden we were quite familiar running in the dark with our head lights. We didn’t have the brightest lights, nor the darkest but ours were nicely diffused with a warmer yellow tone. I appreciate that over the sharp industrial light cones that causes tunnel vision and in worse case nausea.
The first Aid Station came up in Arucas on a small village concrete multi-sport field. I munched on locally grown oranges, they were sweet and juicy. I chugged bananas and some other stuff. Neither of us had issues with gear or needed any adjustments or anything, so after filling up our flasks we got on our way in decent time, I guess in just some minutes. The only real solid memory I have is of a guy dressed as a clown walking on high poles to entertain us. A quick High (really high) Five and hasta luego, Arucas!
The second Aid Station was in the small city of Teror. I don’t have any recollection of it, the station was on a big square I was told afterwards by Johan. I probably just stared at the tables and bananas, pieces of orange and drank yucky Pepsi Cola. Eyes on the food and drinks!
Approaching the third Aid Station in Moya I recognized a little ping from my stomach. I needed to go to the loo. Luckily it was a controlled situation so we could carry on all the way inside the cellar of some house where the Aid Station was located. And yes; they had a toilet. The Men’s room had a white porcelain throne side-by-side with a urinary. So close it would be unavoidable touching distance between the seated and the standed. As there was no lock on the door, I just closed it, sat down and prayed that I could swallow any pride and vanity of having people standing next to me while I did my thing. I worked my best and felt relieved pretty quickly. Clean up was fast as my whole nether region was excessively lubed up. I could wash my hands proper with soap and reapply lube – and nobody came in! Going out there was 4 people on queue. Thank’s for respecting my privacy guys, much appreciated.
After this session I had no more brown-out experience throughout the race. It’s strange, since it seems we chew on stuff all the time, and eat like crazy at Aid Stations, and then chocolate bars etc during the course, but most is probably liquid. One of the most common questions I got about this race from non-ultrarunners is ”How do you manage sleep throughout such a long race?”, but the true mystery here is ”How do you not shit more, eating that much and moving around for so long?”. Still no clue how that works.
We spent around 7-8 hours reaching the Marathon distance, a third into the race. Spirits were good and we looked forward to the sunrise starting around an hour later. It began as a shimmer over the mountain crests, but we had the sunlight in our backs when the route turned due West. At some point I saw a post legend say ”Artenara 7 Km”, but that would be the shortcut to that Aid Station. By now the light came up enough to shut off the head lights.
The paths were fairly nice and runnable, we kept on chatting, and things were good. The views showed up with the light and they were spectacular. Dramatic and post card-esque. It was a pleasure every time I lifted my eyes from the trail.
The surroundings were green and hilly, it was more like I imagine a place like Wales, not dry and naked as in the southern part of the Gran Canaria island. There was a descent, gentle and runnable one, which we jogged our way through. From out of the blue came an Asian guy bombing past us. I think the bib had a Chinese flag, but was hard to catch with the speed the guy had. Bombing down a trail 8-9 hours into the race, who would do such a silly thing? (Spoiler Alert: Me, even later into the race.). But this guy didn’t get any value for his brave and brisk descent. When we hit the bottom part we saw clear indicators to turn left, with the characteristic arrow, a plastic strip and I think even one of those blinking red LED lights that were great beacons throughout the night time run. But our Asian had missed it and just carried on. He was 500 meters away and I had to shout and wave several times to get him back on track. Much later on the course he passed us again and said thanks. I know I would be pissed on myself if (ehem; when) I do stupid navigational errors.
Now there was a fairly technical and steep descent, some loose gravel and rocks on it. I had the lead, as I have had most from the start, and pulled the train with Johan and Niklas just behind.
Suddenly Niklas slipped and fell, and since he had attached his poles to his hands they slashed forward in his fall, and one of them hit Johan straight in the face – right on the lip. There was blood, and for a second we all worried. A quick inspection in the mouth: all teeth were still there, and no missing part, although it took some seconds that felt like minutes to verify through all the red blood. Johan winced in the pain and was worried that he would have to get stitches, and even be taken off the race.
The lip got fat but he seemed OK. With grand luck! That pole could have hit harder on a tooth, ripped his chin or poked the eye or pierced the freaking skull! But it didn’t. Niklas was devastated, but Johan had calmed down and shrugged it off. We continued on our way. I guess the pain and experience gave him some adrenaline, because he took the lead and took off with tempo. Here were two important lessons for technical descents: don’t fasten your poles to the hands on a downhill, and keep the distance to the runner in front of you. I’ve had poles attached in downhills before and that can have other bad implications, such as when the tip gets stuck in the ground; then it can throw you off real bad.
Johan kept on chatting and the bleeding had stopped, so I stopped worrying about it. He would be fine, although I bet it hurt. At the next Aid Station in Presa Los Pérez, just next to a big dam, we to a closer look again. Johan cleverly avoided the oranges and tomatoes here, they would probably be too acidic, but there were pieces of cucumber that were gentle to his sore mouth. I asked but they had no real medic around, but they told us there was at the next Aid Station in Artenara.
I put on the cap I had in my bag to protect myself from the sun. I smeared some sun lotion and ask Johan if he wanted some:
Johan: ”Nah, I’m fine.”
Me: ”You sure?”
Johan: ”Well OK then. I’ll have a little.”
And so he drew three lines with the stick on each shoulder and was done with it. The next day it looked McDonald’s had sponsored him with shoulder tattoos. (Spoiler Alert: When he crossed the finish line and got the medal, he complained that it hurt around his neck too!)
We had long passed the 50K mark and things were still good. Johan and Niklas had already started to tease me about my jolly re-occurring statement: ”I’m fine now, but I will have a dip soon!”.
Aid Station Artenara approaching
This Aid Station was quite big. There were massage benches, three indoor tents with stretchers for people to lay down upon – hell, worse than Chäirs! We did take a seat at a table, one of few occasions where I actually sat down, and had a warm meal of rice with veggies, some warm bouillon, and of course banana and orange. I changed from my merino t-shirt that served me well during the night and morning hours. Felt great to put on a dry tank top, as the sun was on and the warmth came with it.
When I looked up I saw Randi, a Norwegian ultrarunning lady I met when I was supporting Lotta at The GAX 100 Miles last year. She said it was hard and had thoughts about quitting, and my first response to that was the obvious; ”No you can’t do that now! You’ve got plenty of time to regroup, eat, rest and at least get going to the next aid station.”. I wasn’t lying, we had plenty of time before cut-off’s. And the badass woman she is, she did regroup and got going again. It’s amazing how little it takes to turn things around, but incredibly hard to actually do it when the mind is having dark thoughts. She did make it to the finish: congrats Randi, you are great!
We left the Aid Station, again in good spirits. Let me rephrase that: I was super! Fresh legs, good energy, happy to be here.
Towards Tejeda Aid Station
The heat was up, and we did a really long climb that seemed to last forever. Lush and nice views though, and enough of it in the shades of trees.
I don’t know about the Runner’s High, but I felt so great that 1-2 K’s from the next Aid Station in Tejeda, I said to Johan and Niklas that I’ll go ahead, because I usually need some more time to deal with my stuff on Aid Stations than most people. I’m a sloth when stationary, but now I was bombing down descents in bliss. No pains, no problems, just bouncing downhill on a sunny trail. I passed a lot of people and they must have thought I really needed to go to the bathroom, or that I was just a silly random idiot having a moment of fame. But I felt like a machine, THE MACHINE, and was totally in the moment.
At the Tejeda Aid Station they played energetic music; techno and classic rock like AC/DC. To the amusement of the wonderful ladies behind the Aid Station tables I even danced. I felt like a rock star with a new number one hit coming up! Yeah, I had that Runner’s High.
-”Describe the race in three words, Johan!”
-”So damn nice.”
Then came the big dip
I had a great race. My body was doing fine. My mind was doing fine. My nutrition was under control. My stomach didn’t crash. It was beautiful! But now one of my water bottles started to leak which I noticed after they had put some ice and water in it. The ladies tried to fix the soft flask with tape, but it was doomed.
”Purple Haze all around,
Don’t know if I’m coming up or down.
Am I happy or in misery?
Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me.”
– Jimi Hendrix
Screw it. I had a spare in my backpack, and a new one in the dropbag, which was at the next aid station. I gathered my things, ate foods, drank drinks, forgot to brush my teeth, and as per protocol, Johan and Niklas still had to wait for me before we took off, now towards the highest peak at the Roque Nublo.
The sunlight was on, the heat merciless. My digestion would have needed some more minutes to cope with all the stuff I just stuffed myself with at Tejeda. The Machine was broken. For the first time I had to ask my mates for a pause in a shaded spot during the ascent, not once but 2-3 times. The pulse went up quickly and I felt exhausted. I had imagined this location as colder. Forecasts said about 15 C. I thought I would freeze in windier conditions, but it was really the opposite. What a quick change from just feeling great to feeling sick of it all.
I struggled to keep the pace Johan and Niklas kept, but dug in at the back of the train. Knowing the peak wasn’t that far off, I did at have hope to make it to the top.
And finally we got there, the iconic Roque Nublo. We snapped some photos and had a glance at the views, but really did not stay long. However one important thing happened there and then. My dip disappeared, and for the first time I was more certain I was going to make it through this race! I did feel high earlier, but I didn’t dare to think of being a finisher just yet. Now this was a big turning point for me mentally. Previously I had given myself a 50-50 percent odd chance to make it, but now I knew odds were in favor.
Going down, our minds were going for the next aid station at Garañon where our dropbags were located. It was only supposed to be some 2-3K away below the peak. Or so we thought. That turned into some of the longest kilometers, and quite a lot of verticals too that didn’t look like much on the elevation map. I assure you we felt them all on the path.
As always, the eternal suffering on an ultra comes to an end. Find dropbag, fresh clothes, warm meal, drinks, leaving some stuff – and weight! I could ditch stuff from my running vest that I didn’t need, like the GPS unit. Changed battery on the head light so it got new energy too. My feet were fine, splendid actually, so I decided to keep the same shoes. A baboon ass chafing was coming up, but I applied generously with lube and embraced it, it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t cope.
Again I was not as organized and quick as Johan, Niklas and most others. Johan had the time to go to the loo, change all his clothes, shoes, eat, lube, refill bottles and all that jazz. I was still counting gels and had my stuff spread out like a disorganized kid. If I could manage to do it in the same time as him we would probably have shaved off 5-10 minutes per aid station. Sorry guys, I know need to practice quicker AS stops.
Meanwhile, we saw a french guy getting all torn up. He had put his stuff in the wrong dropbags, so he had the finish line bag at this aid station (guessing with a comfy warm jacket and some flip flops), and at the finish line all his dropbag content was waiting for him, just a marathon and thousands of verticals away. He was upset and heartbroken by his mistake, but I think he actually went to make it across the finish line. We were not the only ones offered valuable lessons during this race.
As I finally got my shit together and we walked out the Garañon aid station, a guy with a big hairdo comes in. Hmm. I recognize him? Well, we went out and took upon us to finalize this race. Sun was setting, but there was still some light left for dusk. We picked up our ultra shuffle pace, steady. The there was light when we got passed by a star: Luca Papi, with his big hair and smile came behind us!
He had just won the Trans Gran Canaria 360° (265 km’s) at around 50 hours, then took a powernap and regrouped in 13 hours before putting himself on the start for the 128K race, to complete an unprecedented double! In effect, Luca covered over 393 kilometers with 20.765 meters of elevation gain in 77:37:20 hours. Let that sink in. The man is legend. At first I felt a bit strange about what this would do to my motivation on the race and onwards, but meeting the guy for real and he turns out to be the big hair and big smile – that’s just great!
As soon as we noticed, we stepped off the trail and cheered “Bravissimo!” to this awesome champ. He smiled big and gave us high fives, and left us starstrucked for some seconds.
Back to the grit. From Roque Nublo the race changes from generally uphill to downhill. Knees and quads got to work. The sun was also setting, so head lights were attached and turned on.
To Hierbahuerto Aid Station
The Machine was back on track and steady again. We descended, we climbed, we kept pushing forward. Some hills felt like eternities, but we kept at it. On the very long and quite steep descent down from Garañon I could hear both Johan and Niklas let out sounds of hissing and wheezing. They were hurting but kept going. Such badasses.
I was just feeling a bit worn out, I didn’t hurt and wasn’t that tired so I could still focus and pull at the front most of the time, but now we started to let Johan get in front so he could take the pace by himself. Niklas appeared to be fine going last in our little train of three. This far into the race mine and Johan’s chatter was less, but Niklas was a great conversation starter.
I can only imagine Johan being so pissed at his hurt that he actually increased the speed, so much I had to call it to get down to a more sustainable pace – we still had hills to conquer and miles to go, the race was far from over.
On thing that did cheer us up was after the longest descent, a steep drystone serpetine. At the base of the drystone part we unexpectedly found Johan’s family waiting to cheer us on. They had been there for more than 3 hours in the dark, and was just about to give up when us three dusty and rusty guys came down – both parties as surprised to see each other! An energizer after that steep hellish descent.
We spotted a couple of runners wearing buffs over the faces. It wasn’t that cold? It was warmer than at the start. Nah, turns out that we learned about a thing that we did not predict and prepare for: la calima.
”Purple Haze all in my eyes,
Don’t know if it’s day or night,
You’ve got me blowing, blowing my mind
Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”
– Jimi Hendrix
I had heard about it before but didn’t understand the connection to the race: a windy haze of thin sand, drifting over from the Saharan desert in the Western winds. Most of the calima haze goes over the Atlantic ocean south of the Canary islands, but at times they drift due north/north west, and that’s why Maspalomas at the southern tip of Gran Canaria has a piece of the Saharan desert dunes, and the whole southern part of the island is drier, dustier and less green than the north. And the calima is what made my mouth feel completely dry, despite not being thirsty. That’s what made Johan cough a lot. That’s why the ground looked like it was covered in a layer of snow, in the light of our head lights. Apparently, there was a warning of a big calima for the weekend, but we were fortunate that it didn’t turn out worse than it did. When at worst, the race might even have been cancelled? Read the wiki page about Saharan Air Layer.
Passing at 108-109K on the trail
For once the course leveled out and was pretty flat for a while. It was actually quite runnable for a kilometer or even two, but we kept with our steady shuffle. The kilometers felt long and the time to the next aid station felt longer. Then I saw a light from a runner which didn’t make sense. Coming close we saw the runner flat on the ground, closed eyes, quite near to where the Hierbahuerto Aid Station was located. I stopped and woke him up. The poor bloke was exhausted, depleted of energy. He shouldn’t be laying there at all.
I knew we were close to the aid station but couldn’t tell for sure, so when talking to him I tried to sound assertive. I looked at his bib, there was a Spanish flag and his name was on it so I could speak to him in Spanish:
-“Hey, come on you are almost there, you can do it, they have food and drinks. Now get up and let’s go Rafa!”
He wasn’t all that hard to persuade, but did struggle to get on his feet. Not that it was stable, but he did start to walk.
-“Is it far, is there much ascent?”, he asked sheepishly. And I reaffirmed “Nah, it’s less than a kilometer, just a few steps up! It’ll take 10 minutes at max. You have a gel? Take it now.”. I just guessed and tried to lure him onwards. It worked.
We picked up our pace and marched on. It was already uphill but now it became even steeper. Oops, I may had spoken a few words of improved truth? Where was that freaking Aid Station? I looked back from the front of our train, and saw Rafa’s headlight already lagging behind, but he did move forward, so we carried on in our pace and shouted back every once in a while “You OK there, mate?”, “Come on Rafa we’re close!”. Not feeling close at all. A couple of minutes later he was already a small headlight behind us, but still up. I noticed a second headlight behind him from another runner, so felt a bit better about striding off. We couldn’t and shouldn’t leave that man behind. Then I turned up my head back and saw the lights. It was there, the Hierbahuerto Aid Station in all its glory! It was a small station with just some tents and chairs in the middle of nowhere, but it was heaven and an oasis to us.
Immediately I shouted down to Rafa to convey the good news, -”It’s here man, it’s right over here!”. The aid station folks heard it and started to cheer for us. I felt emotional and relieved. Seconds later we ate, we got fab help to fill our bottles (by people who actually knew how to unscrew and close these damned soft flasks). I stuffed myself with some potato chips, pieces of banana and whatnot. Hot bouillon too I think. Turned my head and saw Rafa in one of the three aid station chäirs wrapped in a blanket. He made it there and was taken care of, so we could let it go and focus on our race again.
-“How far to the next aid station?”, I asked the nice waterboy-guy, as he handed back my flasks. -“Just 10K, but it’s difficult and technical”. He wasn’t joking, he wasn’t exaggerating, he was telling it how it was. I was very grateful we came in the night, because those steep descents were on the edges of vertical walls. And the path was just loose stones, covered by dust. It was slippery and felt dangerous. Johan’s knee was bad and he felt it for each step down. We had to keep distances to ensure we didn’t slip and fall on each other.
This part was really awful. Just awful and painful. Poor Johan and Niklas had a tough time trying to work this out with achy knees, and I had to struggle not to slip. If there is something that pulls down the grade of this race, it is this part. At some steep cliff the organizers had nicely put a plastic ribbon on the ground to warn us about not going over that edge. Thank’s guys. We really felt safe to have that plastic ribbon to hold on to, should we have stumbled a little. (Did you feel the sarcasm there?)
We got out of the steep descent onto a small road. Thank god it was over! Well that feeling lasted for a minute, and the route turned off down the road again and into a steep narrow barranco; loose rocks, lot’s of dust and even plants with thorns by the side. -”Fuck this shit!” and other nice thoughts were on my mind, and perhaps came out of my mouth too.
But once we (finally) got down to Ayagaüres we were greeted like heroic champions by two scores of villagers (where there can not live many more than 100-200 people). Applauding, cheering, chanting words of encouragement: -”Vamos campeones!”, ”Sois heroès!”. This part was a great illustration of one of the things that pulls up the grade of the race again. So many people in all the small places we passed were all cheering like crazy, and we loved everything about it. They really energized us.
There were quite a lot of runner’s at this aid station, sitting, eating, taking a rest. We were decently fast, even I, despite consuming warm food. I sat down on a mural for two minutes to eat the hot stuff, otherwise I meandered to keep myself moving and avoid shivers. On previous aid stations I have had some bad shivers when leaving, but this time I was without it. It was a relief.
After Ayagaüres we faced the last real hill. The ascent was not technical at all, it was a wide and flat gravel road with just some degrees of elevation. We powerhiked our way up. Back when I did the recce run, I did this part from Ayagaüres to Maspalomas and felt very comfortable with navigation and what to expect. Apparently a lot of others didn’t. As the road did a first 180 degree serpentine turn, there were 10-15 people at the bend, all confused and wondered where they were supposed to go. They thought they’d continue south, but the road ended in that direction and there was no path or sign post or anything. It just didn’t occur to them that they were on the right and only way. I told them the way and marched on. Some still didn’t believe me but marched along, so our merry little train of three became a big and wide herd. That felt awkward.
A couple of hundred meters later the road made the bend back again towards the ”right” direction, and then we did see a nav-sign from the race to carry on. Some of the peeps decided to jog ahead now. Others were OK with our steady pace. Another set of minutes and we came to the place where the last real descent began, down into the ravine. I wasn’t very keen to stay in a big group, and took the opportunity to take a leak and let the herd head down the ravine in their tempo, so we could do ours undisturbed.
This descent was a lot easier when it was daylight and the legs only had 20K in them coming here, but still in way better shape than the horrible technical descent we just survived. We passed the burnt out Toyota car (What the hell? Someone made a real effort to drive it up this small trail!) and eventually came down to the center of the barranco; the dry river bed leading to the finish in Maspalomas.
This ravine was rather steep and narrow, dark and full of foot-sized to smaller kind of rounded stones. Hard to tread on, easy to get a sprained ankle if you stepped badly. At this point we didn’t give a crap, we just placed one foot in front of the other. It was about eight really, really long kilometers until the approach to Maspalomas. Feeling rather good bodily wise, I upped the pace a little. Johan and Niklas fell behind slightly, so I adjusted to not disappear. They kept up, despite all their pains, and we actually caught up with most of the herd again. And passed them. Perhaps they were being too cautious, or in more pain, but passed them we did. When we finally, after yet another set of eternal kilometers arrived to see the lights at the end of the barranco, we couldn’t even see their headlights behind us. What a crusher hike we just did! It gave me a dose of energy needed for the last 4K.
The lights of Maspalomas appeared, we caught up with one guy, but actually got caught up by one of the runners we just left behind who trotted. He was content to have caught up with us and lowered his pace to tag along, but none of us could understand his blurry French. I think I finally understood that he was asking if the very last Aid Station, at Km 3,5 from the finish, included a metering station where our chips would be checked? I said ”Oui, probably”, and it did. At this station there was cold beer. COLD BEER! I filled one water bottle just for safety, and gulped but couldn’t down the whole thing.
It felt pretty good to just stride along on mostly flat ground. A Finnish gal we passed at the barranco caught up at a jog/walk pace and chicked us. Good sisu there. Her sister DNF’ed at the Garañon Aid Station so I’m sure she did the finish for her too. I think she mentioned that those runners who DNF:ed there would have to spend the night unless they had a ride of their own.
We finally came close enough to see the finish line. Unanimously we decided to try and look good, so we took a few running steps to see how that worked out. And quickly agreed that we’d save ourselves for the very final 100 meters. Niklas’ wife just came by with a taxi, skipped out and greeted us while we approached the last corner. By the time we reached the blue mat my two mates, who I’d pulled most of the race, decided to make a sprint and almost left me behind. Gee, thank’s guys! But they were good sports and let me catch up. And there it was. The finish line. We made it, in time. We survived and conquered this beast of a race. I was tired but very, very happy.
We got our beautiful Finisher vests, a medal, drank some water and went inside the Expo. Grabbed our finisher bag, then looked around for the post-race meal that we had ordered in advance. Johan got real down as his body released tension. I had to tell him off to eat and drink some, but he kept sinking in. Got a taxi dispatched and after some minutes we got inside my AirBnB room, took a shower and went to bed.
It was a bit hard to find a pose that didn’t hurt somewhere in bed. But the pain wasn’t all that bad compared to how sleepy I was. It probably didn’t take too long to cuddle in. Still can’t believe I got off so easy, as opposed to Johan with all his struggles. I guess I got all the bad luck at the previous race. Sometimes things just work out fine. This was one of those occasions for me.
I can see why many chose to return and run the Trans Gran Canaria race again, despite some truly horrible parts. They views are stunning! The race is well organized – despite some minor issues. The climate is good, spending a few days before and after the race with a beer at the pool is rather nice.
The course was well marked with reflexes, plastic ribbons, many blinking red LED lights, and sign posts with arrows and at junctions (even posts to indicate wrong direction at some places). I didn’t need to check the GPS or a map at any time.
The Aid Stations were equipped with good foods and drink, apart from using Pepsi instead of the real Coka Cola! The major stations had massage services as well as Chäirs and even beds for tired runners.
I can truly recommend this race. Apart from the main 128K course, there were the really long one at 256K, and down to 17K for those that want a different challenge. Will I do it again? Maybe. Niklas told us the course has sometimes been reversed, so there could be a reason to get a new experience. We might do a three day self-organized adventure running expedition instead, as that polish guy we met the day after recommended. (Congrats, he finished as 34 or 36, with big scrape marks and stitches to his eyebrow after two bad falls!). A multi-stage setup would allow to experience more of this beautiful island in daylight, enjoy more good foods and drink than bananas and Pepsi Cola, and take our own pace to allow us to embrace even more of the stunning views. We’ll see.
I want to recognize a couple of people who made my achievement in this race possible.
First off is my dear wife and my kids. Without their support and understanding there would be nothing. Now there is love and a purpose that I need to keep doing all the training and practice needed for this kind of race. Which is a lot for an amateur ultra runner, living in flat land, with a 9-5 office clerk job.
The second to thank is my wingman, my partner on the trails and adventures, Mr. Efflon of our Efflon Adventure Team himself, Johan. This guy got me signed up for this race (and a few others!), and we went through all kinds of crazy to prepare for it. I wouldn’t want anything but to finish this race with him, and we did it. Johan, your dear wife Anna, and loving kids; you are awesome! I am proud to be at your side.
On a third account, on this particular race we met a friend on the trail, a seasoned ultra runner with whom we spent almost the entire time together, and we finished it. Niklas Tyni, you are a kind spirit and a badass ultra runner. Your experience and calmness helped us all get through. We had a great race, I am forever grateful that you completed our race plan.
On a more general note, big thanks to the fab volunteers at the Aid Stations who gave us a lot of energy – literally speaking, and to all the people along the course cheering so enthusiastically, to friends, colleagues and ultra offensively good peeps on social media showing love and support all the way on the long journey to the Gran Canaria island, and during the race.
- Distance: North of 128K (new PR!)
- Verticals: Between 5800 (watch) and 7500 meters (official) (new PR!)
- Duration: 28:52 hh:mm (hey, another PR!)
- Number of mosquito bites: 0 (not a PR)
- Number of banana bites consumed: I’m thinking at least 20-30
- Number of rocks passed under my feet: 4847263737372, give or take five
- Buff, merino t-shirt, arm sleeves, shorts, underwear, toe socks. Slightly warm but mostly fine.
- I put on a light Buff cap from my backpack an hour after sunrise. Changed to a tank top at mid day.
- Complete change, apart from shoes, at the Garañon AS, the only difference using a long sleeved shirt. Was a bit too warm, but still manageable.
Apart from mandatory gear:
- Raidlight Gilet Responsiv 18L backpack/vest. A tad too big for the occasion, but still fits like a glove, weighs little, and gave me 0 chafing. However one softflask started to leak, really annoying. That’s going on warranty issue.
- ArmyTek headlight with good capacity battery (and spare). Lasted the night and a half!
- Black Diamond Carbon Z poles. Solid.
- Coros Apex GPS watch. Excellent, lasted the whole race without a need to recharge, though the total elevation gain could be considered too conservative.
- Shoes: Topo Terraventure (1st gen)
Number of blisters: 0
Number of black toe nails: 0
Number of lost toe nails: 0
Number of any issues with the feet: 0
Carried but never used
- Light wind vest
- Mandatory wind/rain jacket
- Tailwind (Naked, Citrus), Clif gels (Citrus), Maurten 100 gels, Snickers, Salt Stick tablets, and some snack sized Toblerones.
Had most of it. Wasn’t sick of it, even though I did long for a good ole’ toothbrushin’!