St Helier, Jersey, Channel Isles

Transvulcania – The Directors Cut

Omens and superstition… I never really used to go in much for these but over the last few years I have really begun to take them seriously. Take for example Magpies; when I see one on its own (which seems to be an alarming amount at the moment as I live next to a field that seems to be the designated Magpie hangout for my town!) I have to salute and say “Good morning Mr Magpie sir” as if the course of my day now depends on it! If I see two I am happy in the knowledge that all will be ok. If I see one then two? This is where it gets tricky… Does one supersede the other or do both apply, or do they get added up?? Who knows..

So on to the beginning of my tale: We arrive at the airport my friend Simon, his wife Sam and I to begin our journey to La Isla Bonita (La Palma) to be told straight away by the kindly EasyJet staff that the check in had closed for our flight and that if we wanted to fly we would have to send the bags by mail. Awesome start to our journey, taking in Jersey to Gatwick, Gatwick to Gran Canaria and Gran Canaria the following day to La Palma. I thought at this point we might have fallen at the first hurdle, but we were able to negotiate a deal with British Airways (gawd bless them!) whereby one of us flew with them to Gatwick and checked all our bags in paid the excess, so off Sam went whilst Simon and I dashed to make the Easyjet flight and joined the commoners..

i run blog

La Palma: Called La Isla Bonita due to its amazing scenery and stunning views. We circled the island on the approach to the runway and I got a glimpse for the first time of those massive climbs that we would be encountering a few days later when we lined up at the start of Transvulcania Ultra Marathon – 73kms up pure up and then pure down – no inbetween! I was nervous and kind of looking forward to lining up to take on the race, the fact that Kilian Jornet, Sage Canaday, Timothy Olson, Anna Frost, Emelie Forsberg to name but a few would also be taking part meant that this was going to be a special race. It has been commented before but there really are few other sports where you can line up along side the best in the world in the same race and same course and I love ultra running because of this!

We arrived in La Palma early Thursday morning and found our apartments in Tazacorte which conveniently enough was where the vertical kilometer course was that afternoon. For the uninitiated the vertical KM is a race where people try and run up a hill a kilometer in height as quick as they can. After unpacking and getting sorted we scoped out the start line where the Salomon banner was, the red carpet was out and the vertical KM course looked very steep indeed!


The main draw of the vertical KM for me (and many other judging by the cheers for them) was Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg and predictably they ran later in their respective classes. It was a great afternoon watching all the runners though, some quick, some struggled a little and I recall Simon and I saying at one point “We should have entered this!” conveniently forgetting that we had to do a 73km lap of the highest points of the island in a couple of days!! The vertical KM kicked off Transvulcania for me, a real celebration of running, brave heroic people running up the mountain, running celebrities milling around, I was like an excitable school girl! I managed to get a photo with Timmy Olson and had a little chat with him, and then a bit later at the awards ceremony for the vertical KM I saw my chance and got my picture taken with the one and only Kilian Jornet! Standing next to him I saw how he was as good as he is and how I am as average as I am.. He is quite a small chap and carries virtually nothing up the mountain, whereas I stagger up carrying my lanky limbs and inferior VO2 Max.. Kilian finished 3rd in the vertical KM by the way, with what appeared to be 2 local guys taking first and second place. Emelie did not podium but looked like she was enjoying the run as she came past.


The following day was race registration, hop in a car, pick up another of our party – Bruno – from the airport and then make our way to the registration point in Los Cancajos on the other side of the island. I had arranged to meet a couple of my friends from MDS –Gordon and Guy – that morning who had arrived the previous night and were doing the Ultra so was a great vibe altogether. We made our way over to registration picked up timing chips and race numbers then made our way back to Tazacorte. I decided to then grab a few hours siesta as sleep would be short in demand that night. Our nearest shuttle bus to the start was leaving at 3am on Sat morning which meant getting up at 1:30am to get sorted and drive to that town. An ungodly hour to be awake! I awoke in the evening had a big pasta meal, hung around a bit and not really knowing what to do with myself and nerves starting to kick in went back to bed to try and get somewhere near an accumulative night’s sleep in there somewhere.

t61:30am – the alarm goes off, I stumble around trying not to wake my roommate for the night Bruno who was doing the marathon and so didn’t have to be up til 6am! Silently cursing him and wishing I had entered the marathon instead, I took all my stuff in to the bathroom, got dressed for action and made some porridge. Simon and I sat there in silence, perhaps a mix of tiredness, trauma at being awake that early and trepidation at what lay ahead. We got in the car, drove to Los Lianos (or so we thought..) and then realized after 30 minutes of driving that we were on the wrong road. So a near 2:30am sleep deprived exchange of short words, a quick U turn all the way back to where we had started and finally we hit Los Lianos a full 30 minutes after the shuttle bus was due to leave. There were people stumbling around town so it was obviously kicking out time in the clubs and we managed to get directions in my limited knowledge of Spanish to the bus station. We got there and thankfully there was still a coach there! We ditched the car, thanked our lucky stars and proceeded the journey to the start line at Fuencaliente.
I must say at this point when I stepped out of the front door of our wonderful apartment in Tazacorte the weather was most agreeable; probably about 10 degrees Celcius and a perfect balmy summers evening. Upon stepping off the coach at the start line we were met with the whirling cauldrons of hell!! It was windy, and I was dressed inappropriately to say the least. No jacket, my X-Bionic Fennec top that had served me so well in the MDS some arm warmers a buff and a hat were the extent of the clothing I had on my upper body. I was cold, tired and a bit stressed after the getting lost experience earlier but walking down to the start line was pretty amazing, it is definitely everything you see in the photos and more. A great atmosphere and luckily as we dropped down to by the lighthouse the wind subsided somewhat and I warmed up.
Burrows irun blogAt 6am we were off, the start of Transvulcania 2014! 45 miles, 14000ft of elevation to come, & I was a little underwhelmed if I am honest.. We started to climb from the start, & joined a long line of 1,500 or so runners & walkers making their way up the mountain. I clocked my first mile at 23 minutes & really hope this wasn’t going to be the shape of things to come! It was chaotic at the start but as the first few miles played out there seemed to be some equilibrium & I was feeling ok with the climbing. I had trained hard on the hills in Jersey & whilst I could never replicate the elevation of La Palma I felt that I had done enough to feel reasonably confident. I had a strategy in mind for the race; as much as one can for a race that one hasn’t done before! It was to climb for the first 13m, the middle bit looked “easy” on the profile so this was where I would make my time up then I would glide home downhill on the third part. So part one was going ok, it was dark and windy and the black dust was clinging to me as I had worked up a bit of a sweat, but I was in a rhythm, running where I could and keeping it real. About 2 or so hours into the race the sun started to come up & I remember coming into the first major checkpoint of the race. Surprisingly there were loads of people there & it gave me shivers down my spine as people were cheering & really making us feel like heroes.
Paul lights

On and on the climbing went.. I was feeling ok though, I was pushing hard but I felt within my limits. By around 11am it had started to get warm but I was enjoying the scenery and playing the little mental games I do when running ultras, ticking off the miles, ¼ of the way through, 1/3 of the way through etc etc.. I recall getting to the El Pilar refuge which to me signified the end of the first third of the race and there was a few miles here of nice up and down running and I felt so good. I was on top of my nutrition, my hydration was good and I was even I daresay enjoying the race.. Coming out of El Pilar and this was the second major checkpoint and again lots of people were around and this lifted me. I was running a lot around this time, even the inclines and making good time. I had had a few bits of food from the checkpoint; some water melon which was amazing and a power bar type thing which I tried a bit of, it wasn’t great and I left the rest of it in my rucksack. I was running along ticking the miles off, and looking forward to a bit more running rather than climbing..

Paul signs blog

So the climb to the highest point – Le Rocque De Los Muchachos; This is where the race began to get interesting. I think about 21 miles into the race I started to get a few little aches and pains and the various underlying issues I had been managing for the last few months – my hip flexor and my knee – started to play up a little. I decided to take an Ibuprofen just to try and delay the breakdown I could feel was on the horizon. The Ibuprofen kicked in and everything was ok for a bit. Then the heat started to bother me, I was really starting to feel the sun, I was also hungry, so at the 27 mile or so mark I decided to sample one of the cheese and salami rolls that had been laid on at the checkpoint there. I ate it and pressed on, the push for the highest point was on, up to 2,400metres and then it was all downhill – literally as it appeared on the course elevation! By now I was having to stop every now and then just to have a little stretch and I could feel that the climbing had taken it out of me, I was truly at my limits and I just wanted the relentless climbing to be over. This is where things went wrong for me; the cheese and salami roll wasn’t welcome in my stomach but rather than doing the decent thing and just getting rid of it, my body started to complain.. I felt weak, my stomach started flipping over, I felt nauseous and a little bit sorry for myself and I knew which was this was going to go.. I started to slow down dramatically, I could see the top of the climb but it seemed every corner I turned it didn’t seem to get nearer, the sun was really bothering me by now, I had to seek out shade and rest every 100 meters or so as my body was in full rebellion. I was that guy that everyone was going past with his head in his hands and every one of them asking “Are you OK?” or words to that effect in Spanish or French.. I knew the game was up in my heart of hearts, but I also knew that I had to get to the highest point to be able to drop out – purgatory!! I carried on with my rest every 100 meters tactic savoring every bit of shade I could find. Eventually my body had had enough of the cheese roll and told it “Your names not down so you’re not coming in!” I was sick and so now I was completely devoid of energy.. The further I got to the top the more people were sitting by the side, one guy looked in worse bother than me and some medic from the top had come down as it looked like he had injured himself. I continue the odyssey to the top.. I got there eventually and after nearly 12 hours I decided to quit. It was a tough decision as I had been building towards this all year, but I knew I had nothing left to carry on. So for the second time in a race I posted a DNF

Upon getting to the top and before definitively deciding to quit I sat down for a good 15 or so minutes and had a good think about it. I spoke to a friend on the phone who tried to talk me round and I really soul searched. I know it was the right decision at the time as I was spent. I had nothing left, had gone so close to my limits before being sick and then that left me no reserves to finish the job really. I was informed by Simon and Bruno (who both did really well in their respective races; the ultra and the marathon) that the rest of the course had been completely downhill and I wonder if had I know that whether I would have pushed on and seen how I felt. Second guessing, however, is no good and is a recipe for sending one mad I believe. I do think about Transvulcania and I have a tinge of something, not sure what it is at the moment, but it has made me think hard about what I want from running. Over the last couple of years I have improved so much as a runner and I think I have changed in my approach to running from enjoying it primarily to competing and getting results and being concerned with times and paces and all the other units of measurement us OCD runners like to concern ourselves with. I love to train, and I love to race but lately I suspect I might have been racing for the wrong reasons. I recall doing Transvulcania and being so focused on finishing the race, ticking off the miles, playing the little distance games I play in my mind and getting the medal that I forgot to be in the actual moment and enjoy the race for what it is – one with breathtaking scenery and amazing challenges. I would be pushed to say that I enjoyed much of the race, purely for my own reasons and this worries me significantly.

The rest of the week I had in La Palma was spent relaxing in the sun and recovering from the race. I was so tired after the event and slept a lot. I did however want to have a crack at the vertical kilometer course and so on the Tuesday Simon and I set off and had a go at it. It was steep but really enjoyable with some amazing views of Tazacorte Bay. I also had the bonus of getting on the same Strava segment leaderboard page as Anna Frost the female winner of Transvulcania for 2014 – she was well quicker than me I hasten to add but I will take these small victories!


So back to life and back to reality – In August I am due to run Round the Rock 7 times in 7 days in aid of Jersey Hospice Care. I was worried after Transvulcania – “Have I gone soft?” “Have I lost my edge?” “Have I lost the ability to endure suffering to complete a race?” These were all questions that I faced as I recovered from Transvulcania.

My response? Get on the internet and book another race! Get back on the horse! The criteria? A 40 mile or so Ultra, In the UK, around early June – The Endurancelife Classic Quarter fitted the bill perfectly! Race report for that to follow!

Back to the initial subject of Omens and my logical mind knows that the whole Magpie thing is rubbish really, and I am trying to train myself to not buy into the whole superstition thing as life is complicated enough right? The omens weren’t so good for Transvulcania however, but even so I have taken away a lot of valuable lessons from that race as I have from every race I have done. Running has been such a journey for me; I remember setting out to start training for my first marathon on 1st January 2011 and the journey since then has been amazing; my life has changed beyond recognition and I have found a niche where before I felt I did not really fit. I guess I went through a period of steep improvement for a few years, thinking at one point I was invincible and could do anything! My times got quicker, my distances got longer and my limits expanded. I’m now I am on the other side of that with the gains being seconds and the concern being more about how well I am placing rather than how much I give and actually maybe enjoying it. Transvulcania was a big awakening for me and since then I have done a lot of thinking about my motives for running, about what I enjoy, what I will go through to finish a race, what motivates me to finish a race and to do well. So onwards and upwards – Classic Quarter race report to follow soon.

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