When I saw the island of Gran Canaria from air did I got a glimpse of how tough a race TransGranCanaria really might be. Running 123 km of zigzagging trails across that huge caldera-shaped volcanic rock won't be the same experience as running the same distance at home (three years ago I ran a 112 km trail loop called 'Route 2000' in Helsinki in about 28 hours). This course would be much steeper and more demanding in many ways.
Although the highest peaks remained slightly under 2000 meters, the cumulative ascent would be 5500 meters - and the same amount of descent of course, as the both the start and finish would be at sea level. 80% of the course would be trails, 17% dirt roads, and 3% asphalt roads. This would be the 9th edition of the race, although only the 3rd time with 123 km as the full distance - the race used to be 115 km before. They also reported that a small change had been made in the final part of this year's route, adding a little to the previous distance and ascent. Now I understood why the cutoff time had been extended (by one hour) to 31 hours.
Having done Ironman Lanzarote, I knew well how the weather around Canary Islands is often windy and unsteady. The sun will shine a lot and it can be pleasantly warm or even burning hot, but the next moment it might turn into a hell of a storm colder than a bankster's heart. Luckily the weather forecast for the race weekend looked really good: sunny with some clouds, no rain, with temperatures around +13-20 C.
I hiked to the race HQ beside Alfredo Kraus Auditorium along the 3 km long Playa de Las Canteras, "one of the best urban beaches" according to wikipedia. To my delight I noticed that the local people were extremely active. Everybody seemed to be out there walking, jogging, barefoot running, swimming, snorkeling, surfing or playing. The atmosphere reminded me that of Kona before Hawaii Ironman. I could sense the same energy in the air. Yes this is my kind of a place - I've selected the right race!
I had hauled all my gear from my hotel just in case they'd want to check it out like in Alpine races. The race office tent was packed with a couple of thousand runners, and they weren't interested in checking anything but my paperwork:
- Medical Certificate (signed and stamped by a doctor, required to be less than three months old)
- Disclaimer (signed by myself, basically stating that whatever happens to me, it's my responsibility).
There would be only six aid stations with food and drinks at 42, 62, 73, 81, 98 and 113 km. We were required to be mostly self-sufficient and carry backpacks with everything that we might need. There would be no crews or pacers, no friends or relatives to help me along the way.
I wore/packed in all the mandatory gear - although it was never checked at any point, it made sense to have it all anyway: a LED headlight with spare batteries, a red backlight, mobile phone, 2 liters of water, food, a thermal blanket, a plastic cup, and a rain jacket.
"Food" in my case meant a dozen Clif Shot Bloks (orange flavor with 50 mg caffeine / one packet of 6 bloks). In addition to that I packed 3 x SiS Go gels (orange flavor) and a few SaltStick caps.
In my Raidlight Olmo 20L I packed:
- 2 x 650 ml water bottles
- Source 1 liter water bladder
- a small compass
- paper money
- paper tissues
- skin wipe cleaners
- a pair of warm gloves
- Petzl Myo XP headlight and spare batteries
- Petzl e+lite with red blinking led and spare batteries
- Mountain King TrailBlaze 4-section foldable aluminium poles.
In the red drop bag for 81 km I packed spare clothes, some extra food, sun cream and a can of Ambassador Thai Young Coconut Water. The blue drop bag I didn't use at all. I found it funny that both drop bags were meant for the last third of the race, which was the easiest part of the course (looking at the course profile).
Friday night 10PM there were coaches at the Las Arenas shopping mall (beside the Auditorium and race HQ) to take us to the start at Playa de Ingles. It was dark, windy and a bit chilly, and I was wearing:
- Crivit longsleeve lightweight shirt
- The North Face race top with my bib
- OMM Kamleika Race Jacket
- Raidlight 3/4 R-Dry tights
- 2XU Calf Guards
- Inov8 gaiters
- MoreMile socks
- light gloves
- 2 x Buff, one on my head, one around my neck
- my old trusty Hoka One One Bondi B shoes (1200 km on the meter and still going strong) with Lock Laces.
We arrived in Playa del Ingles about 11PM. This 'Englishman's Beach' is a sea resort in the south coast of Gran Canaria. It's a popular tourist attraction and there are plenty of hotels. We were hiding from the wind behind bars and restaurants. There was a live band playing at the start area on the beach, but most competitors preferred to stay in shelter for as long as possible before the midnight start. This is the only trail running race I know of that starts at 24:00 hours. After a couple of nervous visits to a toilet, it was time to go. The wind was so forceful I could hardly hear anything, I just went with the mass of 600 runners (350 starters for 123 km + 250 for 96 km, which misses the hardest 27 km section in the middle of the island).
At the start my right hamstring felt really tight, and my running style must have looked like Angus Young doing his famous duckwalk. After all this was my first race in M50 category, and I planned to pace myself wisely. My race strategy was adapted from Walt Stack: 'Start slowly and taper off'.
Some adolescents went out way too fast though. Some even wore silly plastic bags taped over their shoes - if it was meant to be a joke, then it worked! The sand wasn't an issue at all, as long as you stayed as close to the sea as possible, where the beach surface is always hardest. Everyone had their LEDs on, as it was pitch dark. First we headed straight down south, then turned west towards a lighthouse and then finally left the beach to continue north into a dry canal.
The wind died and I stopped to take my jacket and gloves off. The canal floor was quite tricky with protruding rocks, and I tried to stay with a small group to get the advantage of multiple light sources. However there were lots of locals cheering by the canal and somehow my speed picked up in the excitement. Soon I was running all alone. Slow down or you're going down. I chose to ignore the weird loud warnings that flashed on my mind, and then suddenly my shoe hit a rock and I fell!
A runner down! Soon there were a few fellow runners around me, asking me 'are you ok?' - I got up and felt fine so I replied 'Yes yes, I'm ok, go on now!'
Then I saw blood dripping from my right hand, so I quickly opened my backpack, wiped my hand clean with a sanitizer and put a bandaid on it. Just when I was about to leave, I noticed blood dripping on my backpack - also my left knuckles were bleeding. I covered it with a paper tissue and started to run. My right knee felt funny, and when I looked down my tights were torn and there had to be some damage done as well.
There was nothing to do but limp forward, think positive and hope for the best. I must have been a sight for those late night watchers cheering us on. In a few minutes a rocky trail lead us to a dirt road, and I spotted an ambulance. I stopped to get some professional help. I felt guilty for being so stupid. Good job, Trail Plodder. Only 45 minutes into a 31-hour race, you're already being treated by an ambulance crew, generally hurting all over, and bleeding with more cuts than Greece!
A member of the crew took a look at my wounds, wiped them with mysterious blackish liquid, saying it would make it stop bleeding in five minutes, and it would completely heal in two hours. I couldn't believe it was that simple, but kept going nevertheless, determined not to waste any time talking. Surprisingly it came out exactly as the good man had said, and I was back in racing mode within minutes.
Besides that unfortunate incident, my first marathon was pretty much uneventful (in my mind, I had divided the huge total distance roughly into three marathons). There were only dirt, rocks & dust lit up by hundreds of LEDs and the bright half moon. Don't get me wrong though, as it was very beautiful and exciting too. We went on climbing up, and the trails got narrower. I got my water bladder quickly filled up in Ayagaures de Abajo (31 km, 2:17), after which there was the first really steep and technical climb. I took out my TrailBlaze sticks, and pretty much relied on them from there on. With gloves on, my hands didn't hurt too much. Never mind the hands, save your legs for the mountains!
After a little nice & easy downhill section I arrived at Tunte aid station in a tiny town named San Bartolome de Tirajana (42 km, 6:09). I filled up with water, ate some oranges and bananas, drank some soup and cola, and went off. The route markings lead us to west. There were something like large stony stairs going up the mountain, and soon after about an hour the sun came up. I turned off the lights and sped up, feeling really good. I remembered reading from somewhere that this race really begins after the 62K point, so I tried to keep my enthusiasm in control.
The trails were very enjoyable and soon I arrived at a lake. There was a dam which we crossed and after some really tricky and confusing sections I was happy to arrive in Presa de Soria (54 km). I saw Lizzy Hawker sitting there, and she didn't look too cheerful. I didn't know what she was up to, but later I learned that she and Zigor Iturrieta (last year's winners) had incidentally both DNFed right here. Ms Hawker had suffered from backside pain, while Mr Iturrieta had complained of stomach issues.
It was only 8 km to the next aid station in Presa de Las Ninas (62 km, 10:18), but boy did it feel warm already! I drank tons of iced cola and stuffed my Buff with ice cubes. They had a 'coffin' full of ice, a bit like those in Badwater ultramarathon, where runners can lie down when they are desperate to lower their core temperature, and I jokingly asked if I could try it. When the aid station volunteer opened it I got quickly scared and run off thanking everyone profusely. The volunteers were really friendly everywhere and did such a fantastic job in helping me to go on that I struggle to find words to thank them enough.
The heat took it's toll and I slowed down a little. The trails felt really steep and tough. The scenery was so incredible that I was in high spirits. Speaking of spirits, I came upon a huge rock wall towering up, and after navigating through some devilish sharp bushes that left red scars all over my legs, there of all places I encountered a group of tourists who seemed to be in 'good spirits' too. I didn't know what to say, so I decided to advertise the fact that I'm Finnish, pointing at the blue and white flag on my bib. Immediately one of them nodded understandingly and extended a bottle of whisky to me, without saying a word (Finns are infamous booze connoisseurs, except for me of course). I politely refused, seriously contemplating if such bizarre experiences could be real or whether I was hallucinating.
Only a few hundred meters later the markings urged me to cross a road, and on the other side I could see the welcome sight of Aserrador aid station (73 km, 13:45). Some more ice, drinks, and fruits, and I continued on what I knew to be a challenging trail.
I was getting close to the highest peaks of the island, and I saw some of mountaineers climbing with ropes while I followed the steep but extremely beautiful and scenic trail to Roque Nublo (Cloudy Rock), the icon of Gran Canaria. This was definitely the highlight of the whole journey for me. Imagine a giant 80-meter tall rock monolith standing on a rock plateau at 1813 meters - simply breathtaking! (If you are interested, check out this 360-degree panorama of Roque Nublo.) This is the second highest peak of the island, and the place was swarming with tourists for a good reason. Marveling at the sights, I almost missed two guys recording our bib numbers. In hindsight one may wonder if it was here that the first woman to finish, Emma Roca, had missed the CP, leading to her DQ. [Edit: Yes, it was confirmed that this is where she failed to notice the control point, and thus lost her victory.]
Next there was some bouldering for our stiff legs. One of them actually had a rope attached, so we could climb faster and safer. Some of the slopes were ridiculously steep, but I just smiled and kept going. I could already see the highest peak of the island, Pico de Las Nieves (1949 m, 78 km, 15:17) within a reach. The dome on the mountain can be seen quite far away.
After reaching the top and the CP there I headed without any time wasted on great scenery straight back a steep and somewhat slippery 3K downhill through a nice forest to Garanon aid station (81 km, 15:43). This is where we got access to our red drop bags, so I changed my socks and drank the Ambassador Coconut Water with ice. This is also where the Marathon runners had started earlier towards the same finish line as me. After stuffing my face with soup, cola, and fruits, I visited their fine indoor toilet before starting the last marathon of the race. The volunteers were fabulous once again, making sure my every wish got fulfilled before letting me go.
This was the easiest part of the journey, but I felt my strength also gradually vanishing and my legs were almost done. Nevertheless I kept a pretty decent pace, as it was mostly downhill. I ran alone for a long time, until I catched an Italian guy Roldano and ran together for about a 10K. After all that wilderness it was fun to run in a more urban setting with houses and roads. We passed through the village of Lanzarote which was closely followed by Valleseco. At that point the trail went through truly ashtonishing forest with lots of trees and birds singing. After seemingly endless ups and downs I finally reached the aid station in Teror (98 km, 19:23) with the last rays of the sun.
When I left it was dark and I ran together with a young couple (Nathan & Dreama) from States. They also had the advantage of speaking English, unlike most others I'd met during the day. We shuffled in darkness through the villages of Los Penones, Santidad Alta and San Francisco Javier, while the batteries of my Petzl Myo XP faded to almost nothing. Unwilling to stop for any reason, I followed the lights of my fellow runners until reaching the last aid station, Tenoya (113 km, 23:02). We were warmly welcomed by cheerful volunteers. I changed the batteries and ate a ton of chocolate with cola. Then I headed out with the others to finish this thing with only 8K to go.
Now I could smell the barn and actually see the lights of Las Palmas, but I didn't feel like sprinting although it was so close. This was my second night without any sleep, and I had gone to a state where time didn't have any meaning to me anymore. I wasn't in a hurry. I just kept going and I knew that for sure I would finish within the 31 hour time limit, even if I had to crawl. It was an extraordinary feeling, and I actually felt pretty good. Finally I saw the finish, which was elevated on a stage, and I sprinted there, jumping up in the air as I crossed the line (123 km, 25:06:43).
I ate a small meal, picked up my red drop bag, and walked a couple of km back to my hotel. People were walking from bars and restaurants to their homes. Some of them seemed to be aware of what was going on, and even shouted me 'Hey Trans!' with a friendly grin.
After sleeping for a while it was morining again. I shuffled 30 meters to Playa de Las Canteras for a little splash in the old Atlantic. The cold water was wonderful for recovery, and as a bonus I saw some amazing fish by the limestone reef the locals call La Barra - could have been Green Moon Wrasses.
I'll never be younger than right now. Life doesn't get any better than this.
In the photo above: Sebastien Chaigneau (France), winner and new course record holder (12:54:19), standing on the podium on Sunday afternoon. By the way, I later learned that also he had fallen and hurt his knee in the beginning of the race.
Fernanda Maciel (Brazil) won women's race (15:02:29) and placed 5th overall!
214 of the 350 starters finished the full 123 km race (61%). Juan Castillero Gonzalez (Spain) was the last finisher (30:52:39).
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the race officials, volunteers and sponsors, as well as my fellow competitors for creating such a unique event and fantastic experience.