“When you get to the top of The Volcano you can stop.”
These words became my mantra as I struggled to negotiate the technical rocks of La Palma’s GR-131 trail route. I had ascended about 11,000 feet of vertical in the past 24 miles and had accumulated a significant amount of fatigue. It was a journey that started level with the crashing waves of the Atlantic at the Fuencaliente Lighthouse up through pine tree forests and 20-30% grade slopes that resembled giant anthills of slippery sand…a lot of sand. And then there was the stunning sunrise view, whose first rays of light illuminated an expansive panoramic of the horizon framed by the majestic mountain of nearby island Tenerife: A 3000m peak that seemingly floated on a mythical sea of mist above an ocean blanket of clouds that inevitably blurred with the actual ocean. I was in paradise but my body felt like Hell.
“This is the end, my race is over…”
I came to terms with what I rationalized would be a logical DNF. Just like last year, I seemingly ‘blew a gasket’ at nearly the exact same point just over halfway into the 45-mile Transvulcania Ultra Marathon. My lead on eventual champion Luis Alberto and runner-up Killian Jornet had diminished from 4 minutes to 40 seconds in a matter of 10km. Perhaps out of sheer stupidity and stubbornness and I had tried to climb hard like a bat out of hell after taking the lead 4.5 miles into the race. So far I had bested my aid-station splits from the previous year by a couple minutes. It was a risky strategy that I knew had a high potential to backfire, but I reasoned that if I had flown halfway around the world I wasn’t going to run a conservative race! In my mind distance running is about pushing the envelope of preconceived “limits,” and sometimes that involves erratic pacing tactics.
I first knew something was amiss when I started seeing the fuzzy outline of flashing “stars” appearing in the middle of my sunglasses A sudden wave of disorientation and despair accompanied this hallucination as it manifested itself with a narrowing and darkening of peripheral vision…a phenomenon that I usually experience right before fainting. I was deep in the pain cave and the thought of finishing became an incomprehensible challenge.
“Just make it to the top, then you can sit in a chair in the air conditioned pasta tent and drink an ice cold beer. You can get a ride back down to the finish line and become a spectator. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”
I formed a plan in my mind with how I would orchestrate my DNF. Aside from the inevitable “shame” and disappointment of letting down loved ones and sponsors (as well as the loss of points in the SkyRunning Ultra World Series) it seemed quite justifiable: I was still recovering from Lake Sonoma 4 weeks prior; I hadn’t arrived a week early on the island to acclimate and train on the course; I had barely done more climbing in a single week than what the course was about to dish out in less than a quarter of a day! The excuses accumulated faster than the irritable grains of sand in my Hokas. Considering I still had a gnarly technical descent of 8,000 feet and 20 miles to go before the finish in Los Llanos it would be silly to risk falling and shredding my skin (or worse breaking a leg!), RIGHT?
Out of sheer desperation I pounded 3 Vfuel gels all at once. Luis and Killian came flying past me like I was standing still. It was on a solid, runnable uphill section of trail (my favorite!). I was amazed at the speed in which they gapped me while climbing at a seemingly impossible intensity. Usually when people pass you on an uphill they go by slowly! Unlike last year where I maintained a brief amount of contact for several kilometers they were quickly out of sight within minutes this time. I was alone with my thoughts, waiting to be gobbled up by the other competitors.
I had no idea at the time, but it turned out that my biggest opponent for the next 3 hours would be myself.
The energy from my blast of gels started kicking in along with the heat of the day. As I negotiated more rolling technical rock sections before the final push up to the 8,000+ foot summit I desperately craved salt and pasta. I reached into my fuel belt for salt pills and much to my dismay found them missing! [Many runners later told me that they saw my bag full of salt pills, a gin-gin and my electrolyte tablets in the middle of the trail as they had presumably fallen out of my velcro-sealed belt pocket]. This was another tremendous mental blow for me as physically salt was the number one thing I craved. I grabbed a large cookie at the next aid station in desperation…it was quite sweet but I was breathing too hard to get it all down. I ran with that giant cookie for a good kilometer though!
When I finally reached the highest point on the course at Roque de los Muchachos my plan to stop racing seemingly dissolved. The excitement from all the spectators cheering me onwards, my local running shop crew support from Riverol Running Store on La Palma (via sponsor Compressport) made it impossible for me to justify quitting just then. I glanced back downwards at the ridge line, anticipating a pack of runners hungry to gobble me up at any moment but was shocked to see just the stillness of the rocks along the rolling horizon. Still in search of salt I demolished a ham and cheese sandwich (pulling out the ham since I am vegetarian) as I left the aid station. I figured I could at least continue to stumble downhill to the next aid station before dropping out…
“Don’t fall and hold onto the final podium spot!”
The plummet down to sea level from 8,000 feet happened mostly in about 8 miles. There were technical rocky sections that made me shudder with trepidation. Despite my earlier thoughts of despair and the fact that the heat of the sun intensified, I grew more confident that I could actually reach the finish! The rest was a blur of dehydration, too many glances back to see where 4th place might be, and carrying a banana up a dried up river bed (this new, 2km section of the course was quite sandy and technical as it replaced the paved road from prior years). The craving for salt and water was almost too debilitating, but the sight of the ocean below became a target that I could extract positive energy from.
“I can’t believe I made it!”
As always the final 1000 foot climb during the last 2.5 miles to the finish line was brutal. I glanced back in fear and saw (what I thought was the 4th place runner) gaining on me. Remembering the pain of Rob Krar passing me in the final mile of Lake Sonoma, I was determined to not relinquish my final podium spot so late in the race! During the final kilometer on the roads a motorcycle cop with flashing lights and a siren escorted me along, but I still kept glancing back over my shoulder in fear. Finally, with 400m to go I enjoyed the energy of the crowd by clipping my handheld to my chest and extending my arms to give simultaneous high-fives to the hundreds of cheering spectators that lined the finishing stretch on both sides of the road. The island of La Palma is always so welcoming and the atmosphere at the finish is electrifying. When I crossed the finish line in 3rd place, the announcer of the event, Depa handed me a large bottle of champagne which I quickly opened and started guzzling. Luis and Killian were still hanging around the finish area and we took some pictures together and congratulated one another. It took a moment before I could register the physical toil of such an intense 7-hour effort. I have a strong feeling that this race will stay with me for life.
In closing, I’d like to thank the island and people of La Palma for being so friendly, energetic and welcoming. I think this bodes well for the future health of the sport. The local organizing committee (including Depa and Angel), race aid station volunteers and SkyRunning all made this a very special experience for me as well. Finally, I’d like to thank my sponsors, my girlfriend Sandi and my family, and people like YOU for supporting me to be able to make such trips possible!
Thanks for reading and see you on the trails,
Gear-used and sponsor plugs:
Shoes: HOKA One One Huakas (to be released in July 2014)
Nutrition: Flora Health “7 sources” (recovery and general health), Ugo Bars (energy bars for recovery and pre-race), Vfuel gels during race (about 20 peach cobbler).
Calf sleeves and compression for racing and recovery: Compressport
Fluid bottles, belt and pack: Ultimate Direction handhelds, Jurek Essential, and AK Race Vest.
Socks: Drymax Socks: Max Protection Running (the orange ones)
Shades: Smith Optics Pivlock V2
GPS watch and data/training tracking: Strava.com
Post Race Celebration: Avery Brewing beers
Recovery, Flexibility and Body work (massage): Jeff Paulson at RallySport in Boulder