Animo Transvulcania

Animo (Spanish) for spirit & courage

Courage and spirit are most certainly what’s needed for this race that is a true test of strength and true grit by all that venture to even the start line. Transvulcania is a 73.3km single stage race set on the volcanic island of La Palma, with 8,525m of climbing, reaching its most vertical point at Los Muchachos at 2,426m (57.8km into the race) with temperatures in the 30’s it tests the body’s ability to cope with both heat and altitude whilst pushing quad & calf burning climbs and descents.

Brilliant idea for races!

Brilliant idea for races!

But it’s precisely the brutality of the race that makes it all the more rewarding. To be fit enough to be able to enjoy this experience of exploring this stunning island on foot and finish the race is reward enough. After having run my first mountain race in March, Transgrancanaria, finishing just half hour an hour before cut off my goal was to finish this race strong and well before the cut off time of 17hours. I had 3 goals in my head before I started as I think for a race of this magnitude whilst you want to be positive you also need to be very realistic, so I planned for either a 10.5 hour finish, 12 hour or 14 hour finish. Failing any of that I would of course take a finish! Having learnt some lessons from TGC(read my blog here), I came armed to this race with poles. I had always looked at them as cheat sticks which is the reputation they have in the UK and are even banned in a lot of races, but in Europe they are widely accepted and encouraged and if they’re all using them then it’s good enough for me. I’m not entirely sure of the science and actual percentages to back it up but they are there to help your posture and muscle preservation by distributing the weight better, giving you better stability and when all else fails you can lean on them when you are exhausted! I would not have made it down the final descents in one piece without them and now swear by them for mountain races. I used Mountain King Trail Blaze which are super lightweight and fold up nice and easily for easy stashing, not that I stashed mine I found them quite easy to run with as well. Some of the runners could use some lessons in pole etiquette though, be mindful of people swinging them about randomly, stabbing and/or tripping you up. Poles were the only thing I changed from TGC as I am pretty set on my usual kit which is listed below.

The race itself is great value for money with the entry fee at 90 euros. Obviously the costs add up with travel (my flights were about £350 all up, accommodation (60 euros a night shared) and extras of course. It’s not the most straight forward place to get to so wherever you fly from you are going to have to connect. I flew with Ryan Air from Edinburgh to Tenerife South, bus up to Tenerife North and then across to La Palma on a local flight. This was a girly holiday with fellow gal pal ultra runner Marina Ranger and we decided to stay in Los Llanos which was also the location for the pre race registration and most importantly the finish.

Registration was simple, open for 3 days prior it was relaxed and not too busy with no queues, quick and easy we showed some ID got our number and spent some time checking out the expo stands, of which we both purchased the race tattoo which was really helpful throughout the race to check what was happening with the elevation and when your next checkpoint would be.

Registration

Registration

The last thing you need after a massive race is logistical problems to get to your bed so the plan to stay there worked well, though if I came again I would probably plan to leave Los Llanos and move to Tazacorte the following day as the beach is there, but saying that the regular buses were only just over a euro to get there and our apartment (Apartment Adjovimar) was fabulous, with a great little pool and out door area for relaxing in, popular with runners as it is only 1km from the finish I would ensure you book early. The beauty of an apartment is being able to have a fridge and prepare your own food which is handy for that early morning 3am taxi to the start line and of course post race food. Cheese & prosciutto rolls for breakfast did the job and super noodles with a recovery shake and a beer chaser were the order of the day once we’d finished. It’s always imperative to have the post race food organised as believe me the last thing you feel like is going out or finding a shop to buy food. The organisation has buses that leave at 3am from Los Llanos bus station to take you to the start line however we decided to get an extra hour in bed and share a taxi which was 45 euros between us.

Ready to rock n roll

Ready to rock n roll

The race starts at 6am so it’s still dark and a bit fresh but I decided to tough it out in my race kit rather than taking any extra layers, but a bin bag would have been nice! Superb atmosphere to start and the place was rammed with runners, we headed down to the start line with the intention to get ourselves in closer to the front but it was so rammed we ended up probably three quarters in the pack. The race kicks off at a charge around the lighthouse and then it becomes very narrow very quickly bringing the pack to a crawling pace.

Fuencaliente lighthouse - the start

Fuencaliente lighthouse – the start

You have no choice but to be patient, conserve your energy and keep out of harms way as there a people pushing and shoving with poles everywhere, the main objective is to keep moving forward and not fall over. A few runnable sections but most of the way to CP1 is a walk. I get there in 1h19 for 6.1km climbing 709m, I made sure I ate (marzipan balls with fruit & nuts) whilst walking, sticking to one item per hour to keep the energy up whether I feel like it or not along with a salt tablet every hour. The CP is busy and the crowds are tremendous, the whole village at Los Canarios has come out! 2nd CP is another climb of roughly 1,200m over 10km which takes just shy of 2hrs, again this is mainly a walk with some running in patches.

The big crush - me in pink!

The big crush – me in pink!

The next 8km to CP3 El Pilar are my favourite, dropping gently about 500m it is on beautify pine forest trails where you can really get a wriggle on, I do this in about an hour and you can hear the aid station a good 10mins before you get there, music blasting and plenty of crowds to cheer. This is the start location of the marathon which started at 9am and finishes in Tazacorte, it is also the finish line for the half marathon that starts later in the day from the lighthouse. From El Pilar it’s 19km of what looks like flat on the elevation profile for the first 7km to a minor aid station and then another 10km of uphill to reach Pica de la Cruz and takes me about 3hrs. Again all the while eating, having finished my marzipan for my first 3hrs it’s time to switch to gels.

Calf breaking climbs!

Calf breaking climbs!

There’s some mistake here on the details and the checkpoint ends up being 4km further which means I, and many others run out of water, a mistake they have already announced they will rectify for next year. I survive, and I mean survive as the heat is really bearing down on us now and altitude is causing everyone to struggle for air, with many including myself stopping regularly enroute to get the heart rate down. I ask 2 separate passer-bys for water which thankfully they give as I’m dry and pretty disturbed by the amount of people I have seen so far vomiting and/or passing out and being stretchered off. The medical support is everywhere though and they are talking to each and every runner to check with are ‘bien’ – good. Yes 👍’great!’ I keep responding! I make the CP, thinking it would be Los Muchachos already but alas it’s not, that’s another 7km to go taking us to the highest point of the race. 2h20 to do 7km! It’s a slog, but at no point do I consider its too tough for me, I’m hurting but loving every minute! I just can’t explain how awe inspiring the views are, you are just going to have to see it for yourselves but I will say it’s magical, at one point we were running above the cloud line, it was like something out of a movie and the landscape is phenomenal. Speechless! Or is that breathless from the altitude!?

High above the clouds

High above the clouds

Los Muchachos is busy and I waste no time filling up water and devouring some water melon, orange segments and coke, this is the only food I take from the CP’s to substitute my marzipan, gels and Hammer perpetuem. Eat the watermelon! OMG! So good! It’s 11km with a severe drop of 1,300m to El Time and on legs that are shot already this steep technical descent is murder even with poles (I think I’d struggle even on fresh legs), some people run past me obviously much more confident on this very technical terrain and I reach the CP in another 2hrs.

Los Muchachos

Los Muchachos

From there it’s the final drop to Tazacorte beach which I have been able to see since we started descending trying to tempt you down so it’s another 7km with 1,150m drop, again mostly very technical so I’m reduced to a hobble but I enjoying running the steep road. There are some crazy drunk locals out supporting offering their homemade wine to runners, I think why not and down a shot at their avid encouragement. I figure I can’t get any slower maybe this is the rocket fuel I need and I reach Tazacorte in 1h 40 to a heroes welcome. The bars are heaving down here and it s a full dance party atmosphere, people are high fiving you and screaming out your name and shouting ‘Animo, Animo!!’ which you hear all along the way along with ‘Vamoos’ (depart hurriedly).

Selfie before the final descent

Selfie before the final descent

The last 5km section takes me 2hrs, aptly named the ‘sting in the tail’ starts with a few hundred metres in a sandy riverbed with about 500m of a nasty climb back up, here I see more people passing out, with Marina telling me later she sees the same guy I saw passed out then being airlifted out! When you finally reach the top, there is a flat road section to the finish which must be only about 1.5km but feels like forever, the street is lined with people and they are all cheering loudly and high fiving you so you can’t walk even though your legs want you too after that last climb. You see the big Transvulcania sign ahead but it’s not the finish that’s another 300m, turn right, turn left and there it is, the red carpet lined with throngs of supporters. I’ve done it, I’m a super legend! High five, high five! They’re all shouting and cheering me on, arms raised I cross in 14h 31min. What a day! I lean on my poles for a second before I spot a bench with a spare spot between 2 finishers, I sit and burst promptly into tears! Emotional the runner beside me gives me a congratulatory hug with tears in his own eyes. It’s not 2 minutes later and my running pal from TGC, Luis, finishes as well. I’m quickly on the phone to Dion I’m so excited I need to hear his voice but it’s so loud there I can hardly hear him, I hear his super proud of me and that Marina is only 20 odd minutes behind me, so I get back to the finish line to see her cross in 14h 54m! So proud of her as she has improved so much over the 7 months I’ve been working with her putting together a specific training plan first tailored to her Kalahari Race last year and then leading up to this incorporating specific training to get her mountain ready. I seem to be training her too well as she’ll be beating me next!

Finished!

Finished!

We’re elated to be finished before dark, just, and head over to make use of the physios for a quick rub down before heading back to the apartment to get cleaned up and start the recovery process. Sleep does not coming easy that night with our bodies full of adrenalin we stay up chatting for a few hours before a restless sleep on very tired legs keeping us both awake. We spend many an hour talking about the race over the next 3 days we have on La Palma whilst enjoying some well deserved RnR.

Recovery La Palma style

Recovery La Palma style

We hire a car to make the trip back up to Los Muchachos to see it with fresh eyes and whilst there go for a little run. We can’t believe the effect the altitude has on our breathing and still can’t believe how high up we were, even the car struggled to get up there! Recovery has been great, the legs feel very good not that I’ve really tested them as yet. I’ve made sure I’ve drunk lots of water, eaten well and spent a lot of time relaxing by the pool with my feet up and a few dips in the pool. Post race I had my recovery shake within about 2hrs of finishing and ate my super noodles before bed.

The only difference to my normal routine is that I’ve tried CurraNZ which are tablets made from black currant extract, a high potency anthocyanin/antioxidant superfood which is supposed to aid performance and recovery by reducing muscle soreness. It’s the first time I’ve used them so it’s really hard to compare as this race doesn’t compare to anything (TGC I had terrible recovery as I was pretty much straight on a flight!) but I am feeling very good. So…..I’m going to try them again for my next race and see. As advised by the guys at Totally Fuelled (who by the way will give you 15% off any order if you use the code ‘dutchie’ valid until April 2016) I took one tablet a day 3 days before the race, one 2hrs before the race and 2 tablets during (1 every 4-5 hours of exercise). Only time and a few more races will tell. If you’re looking for a challenge that’s as much awe inspiring as it is demanding then this race is for you. It is not to be taken lightly though with 402 Did Not Finish (DNF) out of 1496 starters gives this race a 26% DNF rate, so even if you consider yourself a serious contender, this race is really about listening to your body and getting to that finish line!

Finishers medal & shirt

Finishers medal & shirt

Kit list

Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta pack (my review here)

2 x Ultimate Direction soft flasks (420ml each)

1 x Salomon soft flask (500ml) used for Hammer Perpetuem

Salomon lightweight XA cap

Bliz sunglasses

X-Bionic Trick top

Running Bare sports bra

Lululemon pace setter skort (commando)

Injinji toe socks

New Balance Leadville shoes

Mountain King Trail Blaze poles

Black Diamond head torch

Garmin Fenix 2 watch

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Mystique of the Mohican

When our friend, Peter (Princess) Joergensen, suggested we join him on a trip to America to run the Mohican 100 we didn’t really take into account how soon it was after running Marathon Des Sables but wanted to give it a go. And let’s face it, any excuse that results in ending up in New York & Philadelphia for shopping and food is a winner in my book. So the plans were set and we were off.

My training wasn’t tailored for a 100 mile event, with MdS in April that was the event I was training for, so coming back from that was more about recovery and holding my level of fitness which I hoped would be enough to get me through my first 100 miler. I probably averaged about 50 miles a week between April and June, with one week including running the Edinburgh Marathon as a training run, in particular practising using gels for race fuel which I hadn’t done for quite a while due to stomach upsets in the past.

The Mohican 100 is the 5th oldest ultra running race in the USA, with many claiming it is tougher than Western States (obviously I am not qualified to comment….yet!). It is an automatic full points qualifier for UTMB which goes to show how tough it actually is. Traversing 95% trail along a challenging course made up of 4 laps (2 x 26.8 miles & 2 x 23.2 miles) winding its way through the lush 5,000 acres that makes up the Mohican Memorial State Forest, it has to be the most beautiful trail I have ever had the privilege to run. Absolutely stunning, mostly single track trails through heavily covered woods. Switch back trails taking you up roughly 1,000m ascent (and descent) every lap through gorgeous forestry, past lakes, under waterfalls, jumping fallen logs, running along rivers and even including a hand over foot climb up a massive set of tree roots!

We chose to stay in the nearby town of Mansfield, which was only about a half hour drive away, but in hindsight would definitely arrange to stay in the Mohican Adventures Cabins located directly across from the finish area to make it even easier. The race started at 5am on Saturday 20th June, so alarms were set for 3:30am to ensure we were at the race start in time. The weather was quite difficult to judge with some light rain to welcome us at the start but it was already so muggy! I decided to stick to my X-bionic shorts with a short sleeved top and donned a buff for my head to keep the cool off. I shouldn’t have bothered with the buff, within 5 minutes of running I was absolutely dripping in sweat and the buff was off and put away for good. There was loads of runners starting with just a pair of shorts not even a shirt so that is a pretty good indication of how warm it was, due to the dense cover the sun never really came through the trees in full light so the sunglasses I had in my bag were a waste.

A head torch was needed for the first hour and a half especially with the forest being so dense it did take a while for the light to be strong enough to turn the torch off for good. But oh my; how beautiful it was as the light came through. Absolutely stunning, the forest was shrouded in mist and had an ethereal quality about it and this was certainly the most magical part of the day.

I ran the first lap strong, I had my race plan of taking on fuel every half an hour worth 30g of carbs to keep me going and this certainly worked for me. I had a mixture of gels to take with different flavours from Torq, High 5 and Hammer, along with a few ‘real food’ options such as Torq bars and bounce balls along with a few treats like Doritos crisps and a donut (planned for later in the evening). There were checkpoints roughly every 5 miles, all of which were really well stocked with ice cold water, Hammer Heed, coke, ginger ale and a variety of snacks such as orange segments, pretzels, sweets, turkey sandwiches etc and of course Hammer gels (the event was sponsored by Hammer) and all the checkpoint volunteers were super friendly and always willing to help.

The route was absolutely beautiful, I made sure I was looking around and soaking up the beauty of it all. The ascents and descents were steep though and I started to regret my choice of shoe size. With the humid heat my feet were swelling a lot more than I have experienced ever before (even in MdS and Kalahari I didn’t have this problem) and this was causing my left big toe to be very sore, meaning I was running on the side of my foot to try and take the pressure off my toe, causing then a sore ankle, all compounded on the descents.

Covered Bridge was the 3rd checkpoint along the trail loop which stored your other drop bag ensuring I could maintain my nutrition plan by picking up my packed mini bags I had prepared with gels/food I had brought with me. It also meant I didn’t need to take long at checkpoints or eat much of the checkpoint food provided, just the odd orange segment which tasted a treat in the heat.

The temperature was certainly rising and the humidity was high, I’m taking a guess the temperature would have been in the 30’s with about 90% humidity so it was thirsty work which was a bit of my downfall. I was running with my Ultimate Hydration Ultra Vesta which had the supplied 10oz bottles (284ml) on each side. One one side I was using this for purely water and on the other I alternated between Torq Energy and Hammer Perpetuem (both high carb energy drinks) so my water intake was too low, I was constantly running out of fluid before each checkpoint, and even though I was drinking a cupful or two of water at each checkpoint as well I still ended up dehydrated through my second lap.

The laps started and finished at the Mohican Adventures checkpoint so this was the location for the other drop bag, so on finishing the first lap in about 5.5 hours, as 2nd lady I found out whilst there, I restocked with my fuels and headed off to plenty of cheers of support. Still feeling strong I headed out feeling great and positive that I would certainly be completing this race. About halfway through the 2nd lap my ankle/toe was starting to become increasingly painful and mixed with the dehydration things were starting to look desperate. I was still in 2nd lady position at Covered Bridge (41.8 miles) but soon after that I started to slow dramatically. When I got to Hickory Ridge checkpoint (47.3 miles) I was struggling. I sat in a chair, which is a complete no-no at this point and had a cup of the most delicious salty potato soup to try and kick start things. It was here that I started to get overtaken by quite a few runners. A lovely lady at the checkpoint recognised me, and knew that Dion, my husband, was ahead of me. She said that she had seen him at this checkpoint but he wasn’t looking good and was possibly going to drop which was a shame as he was in 7th place after 50 miles. Little did I know at this stage that he had been peeing blood again (he had the same issue at MdS). I think hearing that switched a little mental switch in my head and the last 6 miles back to the start/finish were a long battle of my thoughts; should I drop or shouldn’t I? I had to grab a stick along the way to help me get down the hills as my toe just couldn’t take any more pressure. 2 1/2 hours to do those 6 miles and I made it back, completing lap 2.

Dion is super positive for me, telling me to eat and drink something, sit for a bit and think about what I really want to do. Always thinking that there is no point doing lap 3 if you can’t do lap 4. I thought back to my last 6 miles and how long and painful that was; I could do one more lap I thought, but not two. So I dropped! There is roughly a 40% drop rate on this race, and as we sat waiting for Princess to come through, we witnessed lots of people dropping out as well. During conversations through the race with other runners it became quite apparent that most people were here on their 2nd/3rd attempt as a minimum so I didn’t feel too bad about the decision. Live to run another race right?

We sat for hours waiting for Princess, we’d eaten the food in our drop bags and decided to get some real food while we were waiting. It was getting late and soon it would be completely dark and there certainly weren’t many food options locally so Dion headed off to the local Pizzeria and came back with a massive, delicious pizza and a couple of beers which we enjoyed while watching the fire flies flutter about in the remaining light. It was truly amazing to watch other runners coming through after their 3rd laps now, looking strong and certainly heading out for strong finishes. Totally inspiring!

We were getting very worried about Princess and were constantly doing laps in the car up to a few spots we knew you crossed to see if we could find him and finally we spotted him so I got out and walked/hobbled with him to the start/finish again where he also decided to drop. He was asleep in the car before we had driven even 5 minutes.

The decision was right to drop out, this was never my ‘A’ race so I didn’t have a desperate need to finish and I was always mindful that I have a 100km race, Race to the Stones, on the 19th of July (less than 4 weeks after) to run as part of The North Face Ultra team so I also wanted to remain ready for that. But I can tell you now that this will be my ‘A’ race in 2016. I’m going back, in fact all 3 of us are going back to finish this bad boy and get that belt buckle; stronger, fitter and wiser than before! It doesn’t work in my plans for next year as it is too soon after Transvulcania which I have already registered for so it will have to be the year after, but I will be back and then it will not beat me!

What a steep learning experience the race was. It has certainly cemented my thoughts on nutrition and I am really pleased with how that worked for me so I will be taking that learning with me forward to future races. Of course with every race you learn something more about yourself and come back with a renewed vigour to attack your training plan to make yourself an even better and more competent runner. And as a race recommendation, would I recommend it? You bet I would, it was fantastically well run and I would highly recommend giving it a try to win the holy grail of ultra running – a belt buckle, something that alludes me for now but stay tuned for the next attempt!