Sunday, May 19, 2013

Transvulcania 83K Race Report: “The Hardest Sh*t I’ve Ever Done”

Note: 90% of the interesting details about my experience in the Canary Islands last weekend are missing from this write-up :) as I’m saving them for my feature story on the race in Trail Runner this fall. But if you’re an ultrarunning geek like me and curious for an overview of what running Transvulcania entails, by all means, read on …

Running the Transvulcania 83K on La Palma Island (technically Spain, but much farther south, off the coast of Morocco), involves three separate ultramarathons: the travel to get there (30+ hours total), the race itself, and the travel to get home. All three were harrowing in their own ways—and leave it to my body to survive a brutal race just fine, then suffer a strained calf muscle sprinting through the Madrid airport to catch a flight two days later, but that’s another story …

To my Northwest friends familiar with Rainshadow Running races, the best way to describe Transvulcania is as a blend of Orcas Island (unbelievable views), Angel’s Staircase (relentless climbing, altitude and highly technical terrain), and Yakima Skyline (heat, exposure and scree-laden trails). Throw in a little UTMB (thousands of runners, elite-level competition, thunderous crowds of spectators) and you’ll start to get an idea of what this race entailed.

The first mistake I made was listening to Ian Corless’ Talk Ultra podcast from last year’s Transvulcania on the 3.5-hour drive to the Denver airport last week. I thought doing so might jazz me up for the race. In fact, it had the opposite effect, as I learned bit by bit just what I’d signed myself up for.

The first 50K would be mostly relentless uphill—almost all of the course’s 15,000 feet of elevation gain occurs in the first half of the race. We’d run from sea level up to 7000 feet, then back down again a bit, then steeply up again to the course’s high point of 8000 feet—mostly on soft, black volcanic sand. “Every step you take uphill, your feet will slide right back down—just brutal!” Ian enthused (paraphrased.) “And then you’ll pop out into the crater, and blimey, it’s so hot, it’ll just feel like you’re running into a furnace!”

I shut the podcast off before it convinced me entirely that I was an idiot for thinking this was a good idea. The rest of my journey to La Palma was long, but uneventful—three flights, lackluster airline food, not nearly enough sleep on the Chicago-Madrid leg of my journey, a dizzying, rally-car shuttle from La Palma airport to the hotel where I’d meet up with Gina and Chris (the rest of the Trail Runner crew—badass runner and badass photographer, respectively) who’d gotten there two days before me.
Photo by Chris Hunter, taken of Gina and me at the start
I had one day to acclimatize and sleep off the jetlag before race day. On Saturday, the alarm went off at 2:15 a.m., just enough time to get dressed and eat some breakfast at the hotel before our 3 a.m. shuttle to the start line on the other side of the island. As we stepped out of the hotel, I could feel the heat in the air already. Not a good sign, for melt-into-a-puddle-when-exposed-to-sun types like myself.

The starting line, right next to the crashing waves of the ocean, reminded me a good deal of road marathons: thousands of runners, loudspeakers blasting music, huge inflatable arches, timing chips, a giant digital clock counting down until the start.

As the gun went off, we started up the mountain in the dark, 1600 headlamps bobbing, my feet already slipping and sliding in the soft sand. The plethora of trekking poles above me, being aggressively planted and subsequently lodging volcanic rock down in my direction, was no help.

We continued to climb and climb, up into deep pine forest. The ground felt like running in a litterbox, with all the sand, little rocks and lack of traction. There was so much scree inside my shoes already; I knew this race would be blister-central. The sun beginning to peek over the horizon, however, was a big boost.

Shortly, too, we arrived at the town of Los Canarios to throngs of screaming, cheering spectators. Much like I’ve heard the Boston Marathon be described, the crowd was many levels deep, thunderous, with so many little kids’ hands held out for high fives. I was nearly moved to tears as I ran through the mostly uphill stretch of pavement through the town. Hard to believe so many people had come out just to see us run.

I don’t speak much Spanish, but I quickly learned all the key words: “Venga venga!”, “Animo!”, “Vamos!” and, my favorite, “Chica chica!” So few runners in this race are female, so the spectators blew up with excitement when they saw a woman running.

Then it was back into the woods. Gina, who ran the half-marathon (actually a 26K, which started half an hour after our race), passed me around this point, looking super strong on the uphill. She went on to win the women’s half-marathon by at least a 20-minute margin over the second-place female. She’s an animal! I cheered for her as she went by me, then hunkered back down into my lonely climb up to the first caldera—which means “volcano”, and is derived from the Latin “caldaria”, or “cooking pot.” Aptly named.

I’d strained my piriformis several weeks before the race, and it had acted up quite a bit in the first few hours. However, around the 25K mark, it seemed to stop hurting much and, in fact, ceased to bother me for the rest of the race … I suppose my body just got distracted by the plethora of other pains that came in to roost: blisters, heat exhaustion, sleep deprivation, fatigued muscles, bruising under my feet from all the sharp volcanic rocks.

Fortunately, there was a tremendous amount of camaraderie among us middle-of-the-pack runners to take my mind off of the physical pains. Most of the participants (90-95%, I think?) are Spanish, so most made that assumption of me and would try to engage me in conversation, before I’d explain, “Lo siento, no habla Espanol; I speak English.”
One of the more runnable and shady stretches of the course, early in the day
So, with a few broken words of English, a few broken words of Spanish, and many exaggerated hand gestures, I made friends with the men around me. Many of us leapfrogged all day with one another, cheering one another on as we passed.

Much of the course is run along rolling, exposed ridgelines (I don’t think there was a drop of shade the entire second half of the race), so the views of the surrounding ocean and nearby volcanic islands were just stunning. Bluebird skies all day long.

At the risk of giving away all that I intend to write in my feature on the race for Trail Runner, there’s little I can say about the rest of the race except that it hurt a lot. I had looked forward to the long downhill after the high point around 50K in, but like a child craving ice cream all day only to discover it had all melted before I got a taste, I was sorely disappointed by the reality of the downhill—so steep and technical that, on my tired legs, it was far from runnable. 
Steep trail down. Can I just parachute into the ocean now?
On blistered feet, I hobbled down 15ish miles of relentless climb down the mountain and couldn’t stop thinking, “This is the hardest shit I’ve ever done.” In retrospect, I'd say that's arguable, but in the moment, I was very convinced of this fact.

It had been since my hundo back in October that I’d been thrust so far into the pain cave. There were so many thoughts: This is a dumb sport. Why do I do this? As my mom once asked me, Ultramarathons? Can’t you just do drugs instead?

The final few miles feature long stretches of steep pavement—both uphill and downhill—off of which the 90+ degree temps and beating sun were radiating like, indeed, a furnace. Two miles from the finish, a runner collapsed on the hot pavement right in front of me, screaming and writhing in pain. Medics were there in a heartbeat to carry him away. At the finish, I watched dozens more collapse and be carried away on stretchers. Is this even healthy? I asked myself, and again, Why, why, why?

The final half-mile of the race is flat, on pavement, and again, through screaming crowds a dozen people deep. I’d never wanted something so badly as to cross that finish line and stop running. They announced my name (pronounced correctly!) over the loudspeakers as I approached the finishing chute. Neither Chris nor Gina nor anyone I knew was there, and yet, in that moment, high-fiving every kid I could to the tune of “Chica bonita, buena buena!”, I felt anything but alone.

I crossed the finish line in 13:10 and plopped down into a filthy, ice-cold kiddie pool, overwhelmed with satisfaction. I hadn’t quit. I watched as the friends I’d made that day came across the finish line, too, see me, wave, scoop me up out of the pool for a sweaty hug and the traditional Spanish two kisses, one on each cheek. We’d all made it; we’d survived.

It always amazes me how quickly all the doubts and pains of a race like this fall away at the finish line. How the pleasure of sitting in a shallow pool of icy water, or slurping down a cold Powerade, or exchanging a hug with a perfect stranger, can redeem so many hours of pain. How worth it it suddenly all seems, and how grateful I feel to be a part of this amazing, albeit somewhat crazy, community of people that feels the same no matter where in the world you are.

I couldn’t help but think of something a fellow ultrarunner, David Green, recently said to me in an interview (see my story on him, ‘The Man Behind the Photo’, in the upcoming July issue of Trail Runner.) He’d said, “This is what runners do—we look for pain and punishment, but we know there’s meaning in it.”

Amen. This race will go down in my memory as one of my proudest accomplishments and most meaningful experiences. I'm extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to have gone and run the amazing trails on La Palma! Stay tuned to the mag for the full story in a few more months :)

Sunsets in the Canary Islands are pretty stunning.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Love Note to the Seasons

Several days ago, one of my coworkers came back from a sultry lunchtime run, panting, drenched in sweat, and said, No more lunchtime runs for me. It’s no longer the season, I guess, now that noon here on a sunny day generally sees temperatures in the high 70s or low 80s.

In contrast, last summer in Washington, after a long mountain run in the middle of a cool, cloudy day of what I recall to be July-ish, my good friend Tim proclaimed, “Today was awesome! You know you must be a real runner when you’re grateful that it’s overcast so often in Seattle!”

And indeed, for all my years in mild Seattle, I was far too busy being giddy about having escaped Midwest summer humidity and bitterly cold winters to consider what I might be missing. Yet, now that I’m living in place that once again has very distinct seasons, I feel grateful for them—despite dreading summer temperatures forcing me to give up the lunchtime runs I've so been enjoying this past month.

And ... random snowfall on May 1 = not cool, Colorado! Forgiven, only, by the fact that it was sunny and all melted by 3 p.m.
Perhaps it’s once again a case of cognitive dissonance, of my trying to see the best in whatever situation I find myself in, but watching Colorado transition from winter to spring to what feels like summer (at least on days like today) has been pretty darn mesmerizing.

When we moved here, Redstone was silent, semi-deserted, muted by the snow:

Now, it looks like this:

Slowly, seasonal residents have returned, tourists have come to visit, and the town feels as though it’s come alive. Across the street, the Crystal Club CafĂ©—all shuttered up in the winter—opened for business for the season today. Tonight, there are lights and voices and laughter outside … children playing corn hole, bikes flying down the street, music playing, the happy clink of pint glasses.

Trails are (finally!) opening up for running. 

I’d been lamenting the fact that the only places I’d run here yet were all dusty, exposed desert trails, scattered with twisted juniper trees and sage bushes—beautiful, no doubt—but not like the deep, lush, fern-and-moss-laden forests of Washington that I love. Last weekend, though, I ran the Avalanche Creek Trail out here for the first time, and was amazed to find myself running under a canopy of tall pines that felt far more Washingtonian than Coloradoan. 

There are still snowy patches here and there, but soon enough, it’ll be a spectacular 24-mile out-and-back to a series of alpine lakes … and with a trailhead just five minutes away from home.

The Crystal River has risen tremendously in the past few warm weeks, as snow has melted off up high and transformed the Crystal from a trickling creek into a roaring river. 

Taking a short break on a run near the "Meatgrinder" Class V rapids
We can hear the river now from our living room windows. Earlier this week, our beloved hot springs down the road disappeared for the summer, as the river level has risen and rushed right over the top of it—but it feels okay; it will come back when the water falls again for autumn.

Seasons are soothing in this way. They’re predictable, but not so much that they’re lacking the delight of small surprises—the sound of birds in the spring, the first summer night that permits a nighttime stroll in a T-shirt, the turning of the leaves in autumn. Seasons are an antidote to stagnancy; they promise forward movement, without threatening irrevocable change. No matter how drastic the season is, you can be sure that it, too, shall pass.

It’s different from the kind of changes we experience in our lives, which are indeed often both unpredictable and irrevocable—for better or worse.

2012 saw more changes in my life than any other year recently. Not counting miscellaneous freelance projects I juggled, I went through three different jobs—four, if you count the new one I started in January 2013. I experienced the end of a 3.5-year relationship and the beginning of a new one. My income fluctuated wildly. I went from having run one ultramarathon a year in 2010 and 2011 to running more than a dozen in 2012. I moved to a new apartment last summer, then six months later, moved halfway across the country. Needless to say, by the time I got to Colorado, I was a little tuckered out, and ready for some steadiness.

And very quickly, I cultivated just that—living in a quiet town in the mountains, going to work five days a week, doing all my runs on pretty the same couple of snow-free trails, settling into a peaceful evening routine at home of cooking and crossword-ing with Steve.

While much comfort can be derived from this kind of stability, the flipside is that it can also feel awfully scary. Even if you enjoy your routine, you might wonder, So … is this the way my life is going to be forever? Given that I’ve struggled a good deal in the past few months with homesickness for Seattle, wondering if I’ll be able to make the same kind of friends out here that I had there, the prospect of nothing ever changing again hasn’t exactly been a thrilling one.

We need change to continue thriving. The seasons are reminding me of this. I feel fortunate to have Steve in my life, to feel the warmth of an amazing support network of friends even from hundreds or thousands of miles away, to have the kind of job I’ve dreamt for years about having...

Tough day at the office last week! Our gear guide photo shoot, part I at Mt. Garfield
Gear guide photo shoot, part II, Grand Junction, CO have a home I love coming back to at the end of the day … even yes, I feel lucky to have a hungry kitty who, without fail, paws me awake at 5 a.m. every morning for breakfast.

Gratuitous Chloe photo
What I’m learning out here is that I can have these big rocks in my life that anchor me, while still pursuing growth. I can be stable without being stagnant. 

In closing, I’d like to state that while I still believe Seattle is the best place on Earth to be a long-distance runner, I am eager to see what Colorado's got in store for the summer. It's a tall order to compete with Seattle, where there are hundreds of miles of amazing singletrack in the city or within 30 minutes of it, that stay mostly snow-free and runnable year-round. Trails don’t get shut down for eight months a year to help preserve elk herds. It never gets hot enough in the summer to make midday runs uncomfortable. It never gets cold or snowy or icy enough in the winter to make runs unbearable. And as for all the rain … personally, I always feel like a million bucks when I go running in the rain—like my own personal sprinkler cooling me off every step.

However. I’ll admit that the sunshine out here has wooed me—and I move forward with an open mind. Come on, Colorado … I’m here, I'm optimistic, I’m ready to love you, too … show me whatcha got.

Chair Peak, Crystal River run-off in the foreground, as seen from Redstone this evening