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.


  1. Awesome report Yitka! Sounds like a really amazing, tough experience!

  2. Nice report Yitka. Enjoyed it and you managed to sum up some of my passion for what I consider to be one of the 'best' courses on the planet. It makes so much sense, you start at the sea, you go up (an up and up) and you come down (quickly). It is tough, brutal and beautiful. Matched with a beautiful island and beautiful people it should be on every ultra runners list... I hope my podcast didn't really frighten you but pre warned you ;-) Till next time.

    1. Hey, thanks for this, Ian! Haha, your podcast absolutely frightened me--but it was perfect to set my expectations for the race exactly where they needed to be. I just listened to your post-Transvulcania podcast with Frosty this year and all the terrific interviews with Kilian, Emelie, Sage, Timothy, Cameron, etc. Wonderful stories, fun to hear the elites' perspective on their experiences, too! So great getting to meet you out there ... hope to cross paths again soon. Cheers :)