I travelled to La Palma for a week, on my own, staying in an Airbnb and renting a small car.
The flight out was delayed due to a faulty plane, and by the time I picked up my rental can in the airport it was nearly midnight. A terrifying drive over the mountain in thick fog was my introduction to the island. I made it, and found my way to my home for the week: a simple but comfortable flat set in a pretty garden, overlooking the sea on the west of the island.
The Friday was taken up with getting my race number, shopping for groceries, and preparing my gear for the 3am start on Saturday morning. Los Llanos is a big town, nestled at the foot of the caldera with the mountain soaring above. Looking up at the high ridge spiky with trees, I found it impossible to imagine actually being up there. We picked up our numbers and race bags from the museum, and I was very pleased to be handed a proper backpack containing a smart tee shirt, and a jacket with the race branding, as well as some slightly random foodstuffs. Number collected, I headed to the Lidl in the centre of town for my food for the week, then home. An early dinner of turkey, pasta and tomato sauce and I was in bed by 7, with an alarm set for 2:15.
Amazingly I did sleep, and woke just before the alarm feeling rested. I ate my normal breakfast of porridge oats, yoghurt and coffee, got dressed in my race gear and headed out. I was lucky to find a place to park easily (this was a worry), and I got on one of the first buses leaving Los Llanos for the start at around 3:15am. The bus journey was uneventful, and we were ejected at the top of the hill and had to walk down to the lighthouse. I followed some people who looked knowledgeable down a path which led to the cultural centre cafe, which was open, and sheltered from the wind, and had nice, non-portaloo toilets. The time passed quickly enough and I ate a packet of almond butter with a mini malt loaf and drank my water.
Finally it was time to hand in my drop bag to be sent to the finish, go through gear check and get down to the start. And what a start! The atmosphere was incredible. Fireworks lit up the darkness, music played. The space man, who was the mascot of the race, walked down the hill lit up by a spotlight. The horn blew out and 2,000 headtorches streamed up the hill, around the lighthouse and out into the mountains.
The slow start that was enforced by so many people trying to get through a bottleneck suited me, and by the time I could run, I felt good. I had no pain in my leg from the injury that destroyed my build up. Before we got to Los Canarios, the first aid station at 7k, the sun had started to creep up, lighting the sky incrementally and giving hints of the vistas to come. I caught a glimpse of the crescent moon setting towards the sea between the mountain. When I got to the town it was fully light, time to put away the headtorch and bring out the poles.
I started enjoying myself as we climbed through the pine forests and volcanic rock. The rhythm suited me and I was having fun. Even a crashing fall on the first downhill section didn’t bother me too much, despite the blood on my hand and an elbow swiftly turning purple. I was aware of the need to push as the intermediate cut offs were tight. I got to El Pilar in around 4 hours and felt happy. I ate some watermelon, used the toilet (in the men’s, but needs must!). The section after El Pilar was boring muddy fire roads, runnable but not much fun as it was raining and getting cold, but I picked up time by simply running along. Onto the next climb and it started to hail, big hard hailstones and it was truly cold. I started to feel a bit sorry for myself as I pulled on my jacket. Luckily, we eventually broke out above the cloud inversion into bright blue sky, and as quickly as it had turned cold, it got hot. I’m a lot happier in heat than cold, and I started enjoying myself again.
From this point on it is a relentless climb flirting with the tree line but staying above the clouds, first to Pico de Nieves (more watermelon and coke), and then leaving the trees behind, climbing up and up, pushing on my poles. I was so thankful for all the strength training I had done, all the hours spent lifting weights. For all the running I missed, the strength I built helped my so much. I got to Roque de la Muchachas, the highest point at 2,200m, and I still felt good.
The aid station there was like a refugee camp, with tired, dirty runners slumped in chairs or pushing their way to the food. Again, watermelon and coke for me. I didn’t spend much time there, and cracked on knowing for me the bad bit was yet to come.
I am not a good downhill runner. I had a moment early in the race where I felt good going down, but my fall had shaken my confidence. 18k of downhill having climbed for a solid 50k was always going to test me. I started well, jogging easily but feeling all right. I got about half way down, to the aid station of El Time. My watch said 12 hours and I had just 12k to go. I stopped for more watermelon and coke. But when I tried to start running again my legs just couldn’t. I had run 65 kilometres or so, on about one months worth of training. But my body couldn’t sustain what I was asking it to do. So I walked. Painfully. Leaning on my poles. Watching scores of people run past me. Thinking it would never, ever end.
I always knew I would finish. It was painful and it was humbling. But I even managed to run a bit on the smoother downhills coming towards Tazacorte. Going through the marathon finish, out onto the beach, and onto the dry river bed was hard, knowing the finish was close, but still a climb away. Up, through the banana plantations, on cobbled switchbacks. Finally emerging on the road into Los Llanos as the sun was setting. 9pm. 15 hours of running. I crossed the finish line of Transvulcania.
I’m not sure how I drove the hire car back to the flat that night without crashing it. I do remember struggling to get my compression socks off, and watching the water run black from the shower as I got the layers of volcanic dust off my skin and hair. The next day I spend mainly sleeping in n the sun and with my legs in the ocean.
I recovered well. By the Tuesday I was able to hike back up the Caldera and by Thursday I was able to run. On that short run I managed to get bitten by a dog, and had to go to the hospital in Los Llanos for a rabies shot.
Flying home, I realise that La Palma has beguiled me. And Transvulcania and I have unfinished business. If I can be fit, fully trained, and conditioned on the downhills I know I can do 12 hours, and I will go back to prove it. It was truly the most incredible day of my life, for both joy and pain. I saw the sun come up over the sea and the clouds break below me on the mountain. I endured and came to the finish.
My gear: I wore Altra King MT shoes, but with gel insoles for a bit of extra cushioning. These were fabulous and I didn’t have any foot issues, blisters or hot spots. I do have black big toenails but I always do. No blisters for me is amazing as I’m prone to them and it shows how good the shoes are. I also used Altra gaiters. Gaiters are a must for this race as it is very dusty and without them I’m sure I would have had foot issues from debris.
I used Scott carbon poles. I couldn’t have finished without them. Anyone who doesn’t use poles in a race like this is insane.
I wore a Raidlight Responsiv Gilet with Raidlight bottles. One of the bottles misthreaded when refilling with was a pain. The pack was comfortable and held my gear well. I also had a Salomon waistbelt which contained my phone and car keys. I wore a Salomon running skirt and an Inov8 tee shirt, with a super light ASICS jacket which I started with and put back on during the hailstorm. I had 2xu compression socks on and I used a Pezl Reactiv headtorch which was great.
My race nutrition consisted of Gu energy gels, squeezy packs of nut butter, mini malt loafs, and my own homemade energy balls, which are made with dates, coconut oil, tahini, and chia seeds. I had a bottle of Tailwind green tea and a bottle of plain water in my vest. I probably didn’t eat enough, but I did start to feel a bit queasy and I think I walked the fine line between putting energy in and making myself sick with too much food. The nut butters worked well as they cut through the sweetness of the rest of the food. At the aid stations I only ate watermelon and drank cups of coke, as I couldn’t face anything else. I was dehydrated on finishing but not terribly so. Not getting sick was a victory in itself.
I was probably the most undertrained finisher of this race. I have had compartment syndrome in my left tibialis anterior since February. I started running in April, run walking 5k on the flat. I just about managed to run 2 20 Mile ish runs. I have, however, strength trained and cross trained seriously. I would do interval session on the cross trainer: 3 mins hard, 1 min easy for an hour. I would carry 6kg dumbbells on the step machine and do climbing intervals. I did strength circuits. I squatted and deadlifted heavy (for me) and did very heavy unilateral leg presses. I made a point of getting strong and it worked. All that strength helped as I pushed on my poles and hauled my body up the final hill into Los Llanos.
What I lacked was downhill conditioning. I couldn’t replicate it sufficiently in the gym. I basically came into the race with no downhill training in my legs at all. That I got as far as I did gives me great confidence for what I will be able to do when I can put some proper training together without injury. But it has taught me an important lesson: I don’t have to run 80 miles a week for 12 weeks. I have a deep reservoir of fitness and endurance that I can trust and rely on. I can always endure.