As I tell my athletes -- sometimes your A race doesn’t turn out as planned.
In ultra-running, a sport that takes place in nature, the unexpected is normal and being adaptable is a racing skill, just like speed, power and endurance.
Like most of us who compete at endurance races, I’ve had tough days before. Sometimes because I didn’t train properly -- sometimes because I didn’t fuel perfectly. But the Transvulcania Marathon (45K or 28 miles, a bit longer than a typical marathon) was a new experience. This was the first time I suffered because my body couldn’t cope with the combination of altitude, the technical terrain and the steepness of a course.
In hindsight, it’s remarkable that I managed to finish at all. This is a story about the mental and physical strength that it took to overcome the challenges of the toughest race I’ve ever done.
I arrived at the starting line feeling great and ready to go! Maybe a little nervous, but that was to be expected at a race with so many people and so much energy buzzing around the start line. There were over 600 people in the marathon and we were merging into a group of 2,000 ultramarathon participants who had started 13 miles and 4 hours earlier on the southern tip of Isla de la Palma.
The countdown began and we took off. Surprisingly, the front runners didn’t go out very fast, as I was told the Spaniards normally do. We took it easy up the gradual uphill start and made a sharp left turn onto a wide, runnable trail.
The first 5 miles were a breeze. The only obstacles were the 50 mile runners who were joining us on the same trail (or rather we were joining them!).
Because the runners doing the 50 miler had already endured 13 miles of climbing to get to the marathon start, they were understandably moving a bit slower than we were at that point. And so, we marathon runners had to weave in and out of them as we went along.
I arrived at the first aid station in great time -- filled my hydration pack with water and wasted no time taking off again.
That’s when the climbing began.
Up, up, up, up and up we went…on and on and on! It went this way for hours -- literally.
Every so often we had a short ¼ mile stretch of runnable terrain, which felt awesome. Finally, a chance to stretch the legs and go!!! My power hiking was in great form (which was a good thing, since it is impossible to run many of the climbs in this race).
At this point, I was sitting right in the top pack with some outstanding athletes. That would change later.
We ran along a spectacular single track – a cliff on one side, the mountain on the other. And when I say “cliff”, I mean a really steep, incredibly deep canyon created by an ancient exploding volcano.
With 2,000+ runners in the mix, there was constant passing and being passed. People spoke many different languages, but even if we didn’t understand each other’s language, we understood that the noise from behind meant “move out of my way!” And when someone didn’t hear you coming, you just tapped the person on the back.
I learned quickly to not let people pass me on the mountain-side of the trail, but rather to let them pass on the cliff side.
I learned this lesson the hard way when an out of control guy was running up from behind me while simultaneously trying to put on his pack. At the moment he tried to pass (on the mountain side – unfortunately for me), his big pack hit me and knocked me towards the cliff edge and a 1,000+ foot drop.
Fortunately, he was quick to react and grabbed my shoulders to catch me. Whew!!! He apologized (I think… his words, which I couldn’t understand, sounded like an apology), and off he went.
The journey between the place of my near death experience and the next aide station was beautiful. At times we were on top of the volcanic caldera ridge, 7,000 to 8,000 feet up and we could see 360 degrees around us. Spectacular!
We were above the ocean and the clouds…on top of the island. Just not at the very top…yet!
I could see in the distance, around the edge of the caldera ridge, to the top of the mountain range where the Observatory was sitting – a white dot on the black volcano peak at almost 8,000 feet elevation: El Roque de los Muchachos, they called it.
Sadly, it looked closer than it was.;-)
Soon we came upon a long line of runners who were stopped on the single track. Just stopped.
At first I thought someone was hurt and we were waiting for the person to be cleared from the trail. But then I realized it was an aide station and you had to stand in line and one by one have your pack filled with water.
So very slow. I had never experienced this in a trail race before, but then again, I’ve never run a trail race with nearly 3,000 runners.
As I said, most of the race was runnable to this point. But that didn’t last. We started getting into much more rocky terrain and climbing higher and higher. From this point to the next aide station and then to the top of El Roque de las Muchachos was where I experienced my first problems in the race.
With every step up the incredibly steep mountains,, the combination of steep grade and altitude was affecting my heart rate and my ability to breathe. I slowed significantly but made a conscious effort to only to take a short break if my heartbeat got out of control.
Around this time, my watch stopped recording distance and time, so I couldn’t tell how much further to the top. I could only see the summit in the far distance – which wasn’t helping me judge how long I had to run to get there, since I was moving so much slower than usual.
I started feeling the altitude more and more and it gradually developed into full-blown altitude sickness -- something I've never felt before, despite spending considerable time training at elevation.
Of course just when I was feeling bad, that’s when “mi amigo” who almost knocked me off the cliff, came thundering up from behind again. I had passed him on a straight away, (where I was taking advantage of the runnable terrain) and now he was coming back fast and out of control on a downhill.
He came barreling down and fell right into me, grabbing my shoulders from behind and swinging me slightly to the right as he passed me on his left. I wasn’t offended, and it actually made me laugh to myself, which seemed strange. At least he didn’t almost throw me off a cliff this time, I thought.
Maybe the elevation was making me light-headed.
The last 6 miles to the top of the La Roque de los Muchachos (the highest point in the race) were filled with brutal, grueling climbs. But the worst part was that the footing was so uneven. There wasn’t a flat place to put your foot anywhere.
I've climbed plenty in the mountains in the U.S., but this terrain was something totally new to me. To the Europeans, though, this was normal.
Sixteen miles to the finish. Baby step, step -- step, baby-step. And so it went. Mile after mile.
Though my stomach was churning and I wasn’t digesting very well, I tried to keep fueling and hydrating. I always tell my athletes that, as bad as things get, you can never stop eating and drinking. You can slow down, you can even take a short rest, but you have to fuel for the challenge ahead.
For me, on this day, I knew that to stop fueling would have meant an ambulance ride home.
The last 2 miles of the climb, I could see the top of Las Muchachos. Thoughts and emotions raced through my head. I was determined to finish this race, but I thought, “I might not get there. Will someone have to come get me on a stretcher?! OMG, please let me just get there. I’ve worked too hard to get to this point. Please, body, I know you are weary, but let’s just take one little step at a time.”
Ironically, my legs felt great. But my inability to deal with the altitude was frustrating because it was something I couldn’t control and hadn’t had problems with in the past. It was stopping me in my tracks, and I was beginning to have to throw up.
A few steps at a time, and I would have to let my heart beat settle down. Then I took a few more steps and took anther rest. I promised myself a longer rest if I could just get to the top of the summit.
There were many spectators along that last mile cheering us on. And, as we ultra-runners do, many fellow runners were looking out for me during this challenging section of the race.
One final step and I crossed the timing mat, making the cut off for this checkpoint about 18 miles into the race. YES!
Making a cutoff doesn’t normally enter my mind during a race, but I realized at this point in this race, it was no longer reasonable to chase a spot on the age group podium. It was time to adjust my goals and to recover enough to finish the race.
At the top, I found a place to sit and reflect. I was also hoping to settle my stomach. My body felt unbelievably weary. Almost like I couldn’t go on. But my mind was strong and I wasn’t going to give up.
I sat, drank a little coke and watched many others in a similar condition as me.
Sitting there, taking it all in, I saw many in the ultra race eating pasta. Oye, this didn’t look appetizing at all in my condition. But it did make me smile to see others employing their own fueling strategies to overcome the challenge ahead.
I must have looked pretty bad, because a couple of people (fellow runners and spectators) kept checking on me to see if I was ok. Did I need medical?
Maybe. Probably. But I’m pretty stubborn that way ;-)
I pulled myself together and made a new plan to get to the finish line. It was all downhill from here (at least that’s what I was told). The finish line was at sea level, and here, eleven miles from the finish, we were sitting at about 8,000 feet. So we were definitely going to have to go downhill.
But just because you need to go down, doesn’t mean the trail won’t go back up again before it goes all the way down.
I started off walking, as my stomach was still feeling a bit woosy from the altitude sickness. As I headed out and crested over the short hill where the aide station sat, I looked ahead and saw -- “what?!”
Up ahead, there were trails of people climbing mountains again. “Oh no,” I thought.
But despite my initial disappointment, I did what I had to do and adjusted my mental outlook again.
My mind is strong, I realized. I was taking each challenge, one by one, and not letting myself consider failure. Knowing this gave me strength.
And eventually, as the elevation dropped, I began to feel physically better again.
It is a bit of a blur as to what happened between the summit and the next aid station. I just remember keeping my head down, staring at the treacherous footing, worrying about falling and injuring myself. After all that I had been through, I didn’t care if I had to go slow. I just didn’t want to fall and get injured like so many of the other runners. (The male winner and the 2nd place female both had violent falls and were bleeding a ton at the finish.)
After the next aide station there were short gaps in the terrain where running was possible. But it was a battle to pass the guys ahead of me on the narrow single track. And it wasn’t very productive, because every time I passed a guy on the flats, he would try to pass me again when the terrain got steep and rocky again. These European guys were much more familiar with this type of terrain than me it seemed. Either that, or they were just too tired to realize the risks.
So to avoid hopscotching with these guys the whole way down, I just decided to hang behind them. To some extent staying back was helpful, because it allowed me to locate footing quicker by watching where the guys in front of me stepped.
But it was frustrating to be held back on the straightaway. I wanted to yell, “mas rapido!!!” and get these guys moving. I had a cut off to make and I was starting to worry.
In the last 8 miles or so, as we were running along the mountain side through a lot of trees, we came upon a woman who was lying down in the single track trail. The EMT was there putting her on a stretcher. It looked like exhaustion, since, fortunately, there was no blood. ;-)
We moved past her and kept running, but at this point the helicopter that was there to pick her up, kept buzzing all around us, pelting us with dirt and lava sand.
For the first time in the race, I got sand and small rocks in my shoes. My gators had been doing their job valiantly to this point. But because the helicopter was driving sand at us with such force, the sand and dirt found its way into every nook and cranny of our bodies and even made its way into my shoes.
But I was in a hurry and wasn’t willing to stop and dump my shoes. I just kept going.
I was distracted with the thought of getting to the finish, and watching my footing. My legs were getting more weary every mile and my feet were starting to feel like hamburger from running on rock for so long.
The sand in my shoes probably didn’t help matters.
And it is unimaginable how much jagged, boulder-sized lava rock you run on in this race.
I finally arrived to the last aide station. I recognized the area because I had been to this spot a few days before with Luis Alberto Hernandez (who would go on to win the ultra marathon and whom I met a few days before the race at the hotel where we were staying).
Luis had explained to me that this was the last part of the race and he showed me some of the terrain. However, something must have been lost in transition, because as I continued to descend, it was even more rocky and technical than anything I had seen that day.
And I still had 4 miles and over 2,000 feet down to the finish.
UNBELIEVABLE. Each step was on a rock. I was sometimes stepping 6 inches at a time, right, left, right, left and then hopping over boulders. You couldn’t let your attention drift for a second. If you did and you fell, the injury wouldn’t be minor.
I can’t express how crazy this last part was and how incredibly steep down hill it was.
As I hadn’t had the time or a watch since Las Muchachos, I was relying on trying to ask in Spanish or sign language how far “quanto kilometers?!” to fellow runners around me. No one seemed to really know. But that didn’t keep them from giving me answers!
I think I was told I was 3 kilometers from the finish 4 times, when we were actually more like 6 miles (10 kilometers) away!
In the last few miles, I found peace and camaraderie with the runners around me. There were many strong fit men around me, finishing at the same time, which made me feel proud to be where I was and it made me realize for the first time that I WILL finish.
In the final descent, about ¾ a mile from the finish line, it is a sheer mountain edge on a steep zig zag cobblestone trail.
You can see the finish but it’s slow going and the clock was ticking. At this point, I was really worried that, after everything I had gone through, I might not make the 10 hour cut off.
I just wanted to get there so badly.
But there were runners in front of me who were difficult to pass in these tricky conditions.
Eventually I took a risk, passed them, and I said “go, go go!” to myself.
“I’m almost there, I see it,” as the finish line approached and the crowd started to cheer for me.
Suddenly the tears start pouring with sheer joy!
“I’m in the chute…I’m there. I made it!”
This was the most humbling race I have done so far. And this picture shows it all. I’m so happy to have overcome such a grueling experience -- so spectacular, but insanely emotionally and physically challenging.
Mostly, though, this was a mental victory. I have never seen anything like this race course in all my trail running experience. I can’t even think of a place in the US to train for such conditions.
Many people would ask, “why do this?”
It’s for the same reason as we trail runners do any race -- it is for the feeling of accomplishment that comes with testing every facet of your ability as a human being.
I am, in every way, a stronger person because I did this.
And I would do it again.