The island of La Palma in the Canary Islands plays host every May to the fantastic running festival Transvulcania, featuring a half marathon, marathon, vertical kilometer and 74km ultra marathon.
In May 2017 I was there to run the ultramarathon, for my first race of the year. My previous longest run around two thirds of the distance, meaning it presented a significant step up from past races. This, coupled with the heat and over 4,000m of climbing and descending, made for a challenge not to be underestimated.
I significantly revised my training in preparation for the race, not least because I spent 2016 doing too much racing and not adequate recovery time between races. Gone was the “more is better” approach, whether that be miles run per week or meters climbed, and in came a far more structured plan looking at quality sessions, each with a set purpose, that was progressive.
I also introduced recovery weeks every third or fourth week, to allow my body time to adapt to the training stress of the previous build weeks. The gains I experienced over 2017 led me to create my own personal training approach, which you can read more about here.
Leading in to the race my final training weeks consisted of, respectively:
I was also training for the Celtman Xtreme Triathlon at this time, so there were also swimming, biking and some strength and conditioning sessions. Living somewhere flat meant that a lot of the elevation was achieved by going to the hills for my weekend long runs, which were between 42km - 58km for the three longest weeks.
This meant the other element I introduced to my training was making use of a sauna to try and acclimatise to the heat.
This involved after a run sitting in the sauna for 20 to 30 minutes in a dehydrated state and not drinking anything. Once out I would slowly rehydrate.
I arrived in La Palma a few days before the race and instantly fell in love with the island. I had never been to the Canary Islands before, and the scenery was spectacular. I rented a car as the airport was on the other side of the island from the finish line, where my hotel was located, and I was keen to drive to see sections of the course to familiarise myself with the trails. Unlike many of the mountain races I do, you could drive to the highest point of the race course, Roque de Los Muchachos, 2,420m above sea level.
The race starts at sea level early in the morning at Salida Faro De Fuencaliente and then climbs through the volcanic landscape around the volcano rim to Roque De Los Muchachos, before dropping back down to the sea. You essentially are running along the spine of the island.
Due to the early start, head torches are required for the first hour or so of running. It was an amazing sight to see the head torches of 2000 runners weaving up the trail ahead and behind you. The start was a little chaotic as the path narrows very quickly and there were huge queues forming, however, after a couple of kilometres it began to spread out and I was able to begin to run.
After 7km and 716m of climbing I passed through the village of Los Canarios where the crowds were out in force, despite the fact that it was only just sunrise. It felt like the whole village had come to cheer on the athletes.
The trail continued to climb for another 9km to 1,828m and Las Deseadas checkpoint. A local offered me some wine, and I felt it would be rude not to have some. I think this was around 8am! I was feeling great, the sun was up and I was up above the clouds, I could see Mt Teide on Tenerife off across the sea of clouds.
Shortly after Las Deseadas the first major descent occurs, following single track trails in to El Pilar - the start point of the marathon. Again the atmosphere here was amazing, with the marathon runners and many fans cheering the ultra runners on. I would see a few of the marathon runners again as they started shortly after I had passed and followed the same route as the ultramarathon.
I was feeling great at this point, my timing plan was on track and I was hydrating well.
After a few kilometres of relatively easy flat running on wider tracks the route begins to climb, and gets above the tree line, and it was here that the heat hit me for the first time. Without any shade and no wind, it was feeling hot. I upped my fluid intake to try and ensure I didn’t get dehydrated. A short flowing descent followed to Pico de La Nieve aid station and all of a sudden I got cramp. I was feeling fresh, but every time I tried to run I would cramp up. Not what I was hoping for 41km into a 73km race.
I walked the final km to the aid station and sat in the shade for five minutes taking on lots of fluid and salts and then started the long undulating climb up to Roque De Los Muchachos, 9km away.
The heat was increasing and reflecting off the stones as I made my way around the crater rim. On the climb the cramp didn’t strike and I was able to maintain a reasonable pace to the top.
Then followed a 2,420m descent over 18km! The trail wasn’t technical, the odd section had a few step downs, but 99% of it was runnable trails. I set off tentatively and had to stop on 3 occasions for cramp, each lasting a minute or two. The other challenge on the descent was the hammering my quads took. People around me were hobbling down, walking backwards, doing anything to try and relieve the pain in their thighs. This carried on all the way to the spectacular switch backs above the port of Tazacorte - the finish point for the marathon.
It was tough to leave the aid station here as the marathon runners were all finishing, there was a fantastic atmosphere, a nice beach to collapse on, and my legs were battered after the descent. However, after a quick stop to replenish food and water at the aid station I carried on for the final 5km and 340m of climbing to Los Llanos. This section involved running (hobbling) along a dry river bed before climbing through the banana plantations for a final couple of km on a flat road. This was the slowest 5km of the race for me. However, I knew I would make it, and the fans who were out cheering all day were lifting my spirits.
I crossed the line in 12hrs 34 minutes and 44 seconds - 622nd position out of 1507 finishers.
I had been slowly gaining places until the cramp had struck and then promptly lost them all.
However, I can say this was a fantastic event and it really is a bucket list race.
If you are doing the race here are my 5 key points to build in to your training plan:
The video I made is available here:
If you would like more advice or training plans on the race please get in touch.