Trans Gran Canaria

In 2010 I remember reading about the Trans Gran Canaria. Then James Adams went out to run it last year. I was looking forward to see how he rated it on his return and to read his blog entry on it. He was not disappointed! He said it was one of the toughest single day races he’d ran in. His pictures were also convincing. The views looked to be stunning. It looked good to me.

The race has been running for over 10 years now, and was growing year on year though not on the same scale as the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. Like the UTMB this event was sponsored by The North Face. This meant that you would get something decent for finishing and also that there would be some big names there from the ultrarunning world. This would be my second international race after the Spartathlon and I was really quite excited about it from the day I entered it last year sometime. I would be leaving the damp, cold winter of the UK and flying into fairer climes.

After my run on the Offas Dyke at the end of last year, I’d been clocking up some good mileage. Most of it though had been on the flat road with Trans Europe on my mind. This wasn’t exactly great prep for a race that has a lot of elevation gain and is mostly offroad. In fact, a lot of the trail is supposed to be very technical in places. This was not a race I would be after any great results, as shown by the not exactly ideal preparation. What I was after here was just the experience. I wanted to enjoy running in the sun, in the mountains and to hopefully catch a beautiful sunrise. I of course would put everything into it once I had started. I am pretty strong at the moment, just probably not so great in the hills. I’ll get my excuse in now before I get going. Two weeks before the event I got a cold. I felt really run down as I was training at a pretty high volume so stopped running. As the days passed, the cold developed and eventually I got an upset stomach. I remained fairly positive and saw it as a welcome forced rest before the event. As I’ve learnt over the years, a week or two off when your fitness is reasonable never really does any damage. In fact it can be a blessing in disguise! As it turned out, when I got on the plane, I had run twice in two weeks. Not quite what I had planned but I wasn’t concerned.

I had booked my flights from Gatwick on the Thursday morning at 0920. This meant getting on a train that I didn’t know existed – the 0420 from Bristol! Needless to say that with the adrenalin flowing I didn’t sleep much that night and the alarm for 0330 was a little testing. All went smoothly though and in a few hours time I was sat on the plane. I soon notice a familiar face. Mark Collinson who finished just 10 minutes behind me in the North Downs Way was walking towards me with his wife Fiona. There were a few spare seats on the flight so we could move around a bit and the three of us could sit together. I had heard that Mark was racing only a short time before. Up till that point, I wasn’t sure if there were any Brits in it. The flight went pretty quickly as we chatted loads. We also both discovered that we had both just bought a new bag in the last week and we both had it with us for the race even though we’d only used it once so far. We both had bought the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 12 set. It is a very expensive bag, but we were very excited about testing it out over Gran Canaria. Mark had run the 124km race last year and Fiona had run the 42km race. Mark was doing the long one again this year, and Fiona was stepping up to the 96km event. Excellent stuff! I picked Marks brains for course information. Soon enough we were off the plane and travelling up the coast on the bus to Las Palmas. My cheap hostel I’d booked was within a 5 minutes walk of the bus station which was nice. I checked in with no bother and made my way up to my room which turned out to be cool, quiet, clean and comfortable. It was very basic, but that’s all I needed. The corridors always stank of cigarette smoke, but it would never seep into my room so I didn’t care. I dumped all my stuff off and immediately went for a wander out to the local supermarket to pick up some supplies. It was around 3pm and I was going to meet up with Mark and Fiona sometime after 5 when we would be at the registration area which was a 15 minute walk down the seafront. I found a backstreet café and popped in for a coffee. My Spanish is pretty non-existent due to never actually having been there so this was fun. Soon enough it was time to wander down to the registration. The weather was a little blowy and about 23 deg Celsius. Not too bad really. I queued for a while and eventually handed in my forms, picked up my timing chip and my race number and was ready. I then went and burnt some time in the rather dull shopping mall across the road, before bumping into Mark and Fiona. The pasta party was in a bit and Mark and I were willing to hang about for it. Fiona was tired so was heading back to their hotel for a lay down. We had a coffee while waiting before heading down to the Pasta party. It was ok. Certainly enough of it though! That night I slept pretty good considering I was buzzing a fair bit for the race.

The race starts at midnight and the buses that leave for Las Palomas which is the southern point of the Island and the start, leave at 2200 so I had the whole day to just relax, get my kit ready and drink lots of coffee. I really enjoyed my day of relaxation, practising my exceptionally limited Spanish, but in the background of my mind I just wanted to be running in the mountains. The weather forecast was ok for the Saturday. The following year they had had lots of rain which had made it pretty cold at times. I tried to have a doze during the day but it was a pointless exercise. I got back up and begun packing my kit up into my bag. The first water point on the course is at 18 miles so I decided to take lots of fluid with me. The full 1.5ltrs in the bladder and two 500ml bottles in the shoulder strap pockets. I got dressed and fully ready, and after taking advantage of the hostels wifi and having a quick conversation with Lou, I was on my way. I walked slowly down to the bus pick up point where there were a steadily growing number of other trail runners hanging around. I sat down and took it all in. Then I saw a few guys that looked British. Sure enough, one of them approached and introduced himself. Matt, Jess and a lady (Helen?) all seemed pretty experienced and lived up around the Yorkshire Dales. This, like me, was their first time at this race. We got onto the bus and then Mark and Fiona arrived too. Within the hour we were parking up in Las Palomas. As we disembarked we felt the strength of the wind. It was a little fresh and we had over an hour left before the off. We found a little bar we could sit in near the beach where the start was and ordered lots of tea and coffee and kept warm. I swear this is the hardest bit. The long wait before the start!

Then with about ten minutes to go, we made our way down to the madness on the beach and squeezed in behind the start line. I started up my Garmin to hunt for the satellites that would be getting well used at the moment, and hopped around on the spot trying to stay loose for the start.

After much hype and noise we were off, and within minutes we were away from the crowds and lights of Las Palomos and were running along the beach right beside the sea. Initially I am running near no-one I recognise, but soon the tall figure of Mark bounds up behind me and taps me on the shoulder. This is always a great part of a race for me. There has been much waiting and hanging around, but right now I am running, I feel great. I grin just for the moment and my grin broadens as we head further away from the light pollution and the number of visible stars grows with each footstep. Mark and I are going a fair pace right next to the lapping waves so that we are on the relatively easy to run on damp sand. A few people have wrapped their feet and lower legs in bin bags and taped them up so as to keep the sand out as if we are in the sand dunes of the Sahara. I have heard this is a complete waste of time and at the moment that certainly seemed the case. As we continued along the beach I realised that most people had their torches on except Mark and I. You just didn’t need them yet, as the moon wasn’t quite full, but was incredibly bright. Mark had a problem with his bladder as his tube seemed to be kinked inside preventing there being any flow. He wrestled with it for five minutes trying to improve the flow. Once he’d sorted it, he apologised for slowing the pace. I didn’t notice any pace change. We had now passed over the 200 metres or so of dry sand to get on the tarmac. There were a few people here sat on the road cutting off the bin bags that they had pointlessly taped around their legs. We were now heading inland. We would not be at the coast again till we finish at the other side of the island. Soon we dropped down into the storm drain which had a pretty uneven surface so kept us alert. There were many people out shouting and cheering as we passed. We went under many bridges which had lots of people on watching us. Not bad for after 1230 in the morning! It won’t be long till the people fade away and the gaps between runners grows till you are seemingly alone. This is what I love. I love to be alone in the mountains. There is something special about pushing yourself hard, seemingly all alone out in the wilderness. It’s very simple and rewarding. We passed under a bridge over some rocks and Mark fell and bounced up again. Time for the lights to go on I think! We were now on a dusty wide trail that was slowly gaining height. It was still very runable though so we pushed on. The dust was getting kicked up from the runners ahead and was being highlighted by our lights. The gaps were opening up a little, but there were still a few runners around us. It was nice to be running with Mark. Our pace was pretty sharp, but that’s what we both wanted seeing as it was one of the fastest parts of the course. Slowly but surely the gradient increased, till soon enough we agreed that a walk was in order. We then went round our first hairpin bend. I was glad to be in the hills now. This is what I came for.

After a while I was starting to find my groove. As we ran at the base of a climb Mark said he was going to walk, I felt good so said goodbye, and said I’ll probably see him in about half an hour. I was now alone. There was soon after this a decent length downhill. I went as fast as I could while staying smooth to save my quads as long as possible. The course has a lot of downhill at the end so will certainly be demanding a lot out of them later on. Almost from the start my Achilles were pretty painful. From previous experience I didn’t really know what to expect from them as the race proceeded. I have on more than one occasion finished an all day run and realised that the pain I had been experiencing for the first 20-30 miles that was promising big things in my feet or Achilles had in fact vanished. A phenomenon, which I am most confused about. I soon saw lights ahead that signified a village, and judging by my Garmin, was the first water point. I crossed over a narrow bridge that led to a water bowser surrounded by cheering people. This was the 18 mile point. I was feeling nicely warmed up and was well into my rhythm so didn’t really want to stop. I reached behind my back and felt my bladder. It felt pretty full. I had only half a bottle left on the front. The next cp was in 8 miles. It was supposed to really get much more mountainous from here on in but I guessed that I easily had enough fluid to get me to the next stop so just ran straight through the cp. I immediately begun climbing and once it got too steep to continue running, I walked and immediately took the opportunity to eat some food and drink more.

I had begun the race with my new Team Endurancelife multi-sports short sleeved top (a cycling top) with arm warmers thin gloves and a buff. Within minutes the buff and gloves had been stowed away and the arm warmers had been pulled down before I had begun heavily perspiring. I had not stopped and my back was completely sodden, so I was quite aware that fluid intake was (as usual) paramount to a good performance. I was quietly hoping that the day wouldn’t be a scorcher when the sun rose. Up till this point the trail had been wide and relatively untechnical. This was about to change as the marker tape suddenly directed you off the trail steeply up some rocky singletrack. I really tried to keep the pressure on as I walked and this was showing as I was generally catching and taking people. Things were feeling pretty good and I was really enjoying it. I was so excited to be in the hills for the sunrise. The star-studded sky was promising a beautiful day coming up.

I soon passed through the first stocked cp and topped up my bottles, ate a handful of cheese, cured sausage and ran off with more in my hands eating as I ran.

The terrain was now pretty demanding and was pretty intense mentally watching your footing in the dark. The hills seemed to be relentless with no real flat not too much down and plenty of very steep, walking ups. I powered on. I was having many little stumbles but not falling. It was surely a matter of time before I went down? I was now seeing the beginnings of daylight as I came across the top of a hill and begun a super steep and rocky descent a Spanish guy effortlessly came past me. I let him go and made my own way down. Just before the gradient eased off a little, another chap came past. It was now a little quicker so I sped up. Minutes later I stumbled and fell forwards. I broke my fall with my hands and my knee hit the deck. I got up quickly and checked the ground for anything I may have dropped before continuing. As I ran I checked myself over. My hands were relatively untouched with just a small graze on one palm. Just before I climbed some steps that would take me to the top of a damn I would cross, I switched my headtorch off. What a relief! As I passed over the damn, I looked around to take in the stunning, dramatic mountains I was surrounded by for the first time. Truly incredible scenery that I was extremely excited to be running through for the whole of the day. There was now a couple mile stretch of road. As I made my way up the hill I caught a small figure which as I got closer I realised was a lady. She was going pretty slow. As I passed her I looked across and wished her well. She thanked me in a English. I carried on for a while and then stopped to pack my Petzl away as she caught me up again, I realised that it was no less than the incredibly accomplished Lizzy Hawker. We chatted a little and I decided to also get my camera out and carry it for a while to take some opportune piccies for the next few hours. She offered to take a picture of me with the stunning backdrop that was developing as we spoke. I felt sorry for her as she was injured so was pulling out. Let’s face it that’s the only time I’ll ever catch Lizzy Hawker up! I said goodbye and moved on.

After a slight descent on the road the markers took me off up the side of a mountain again. That’s better. Much walking ensued as I quickly gained height and admired the ever-changing panorama that presented itself to me. Sightings of other runners were few and far between now. It was peaceful and quiet. I was tiring but still felt strong. My mouth was dry so I kept drinking. I seem to have a bad habit in races of getting a little dehydrated then playing catch up which I seem to be getting better at. I think it would make a lot more sense though if I could not get behind in the first place!

I passed through another cp after a steady climb on a wide steadily climbing trail. I had my chip read here before forcing myself to down about a litre of water, filling up my bladder and bottles, eating a few bits and taking on some electrolytes. I was feeling dizzy. The heat was affecting me. If I could just catch it now, I’d be alright. I left the cp and immediately was directed off the good trail straight up a steep and very long rocky, dust path. There was a little vegetation around so was provided with a little bit of shade, but I was already suffering from my past neglect. I kept taking sips of water and squeezing the sickly Overstims electrolyte gels into my mouth to re-energise my fading body. I felt dizzy and was swaying from side to side. Must keep drinking! I held onto the knowledge that as long as I got back in control, that this would pass and I would feel good again and would be running strongly. This particular climb just kept on going, but finally I made it over the top. Five minutes later I looked ahead to look for the path and could see none, just the red marker tape threading it’s way up a slope of large rocks to the very top of the mountain. It wasn’t very long but it was certainly hard on my weary quadriceps having to scramble with the aid of my hands up this wall of rocks. As I got to the top I turned and looked at what I had just climbed and took a picture, knowing full well that it wouldn’t show the severity of it. I then realised that although I felt exhausted, I was certainly not feeling the dizziness and lethargy of before. It had passed. Now to get on with the race.

The hills kept coming, and I kept the pressure on as much as my fitness allowed. I knew that the race route visited the highest point on the island, Roque Nublo. This is basically a very large upstanding rock formation on top of a mountain that could be seen from far away. I kept getting glances of it as I progressed and got closer and closer. I soon realised that I was now actually climbing up to visit this impressive landmark. I was currently running with a Spaniard. We climbed for a while before being directed left off of the trail heading straight for the top. We climbed up a small gully before being on the surreal landscape at the top. We were on a large plateau, which the rock formation was atop. It took a minute or two to cross this plateau to reach the cp which also had a chip mat. I stopped for thirty seconds here and admired the incredibly beautiful view. There were almost completely clear, blue skies now. You could see the sea and some of the other islands that make up the Canaries. I quickly took a couple photos before running back across the plateau. After stupidly not being able to find the gulley back down again for a few minutes I made my way down then rejoined the main trail again heading down with some light shade from the trees. I was feeling pretty exhausted now and was just plugging away one step at a time. I kept looking around at the surrounding mountains looking for the highest. The general rule was whatever was the highest mountain nearby, then that would be your next destination. I could see there was an observatory on top of a pretty high looking mountain. Surely…?

Within half an hour after making my way across the valley floor I had started the slow and very steep climb up towards the observatory that was sparkling in the bright sun. The footing was loose and dusty, but I soon got to the top knowing that there was soon to be a major cp where I would stop to refuel and top up my provisions fully. There was a long and very steep and therefore painful descent that followed. There certainly seemed to be a little more greenery around now, though it was still really dry and dusty. I then entered the cp. My bag was taken off me to fill the bladder and bottles. I walked into the tent and took a bowl of pasta, grabbed a handful of cheese and sausage and mixed it in and sat down a wolfed it down with some luke warm coffee. I put my bag back on before grabbing a soup and speed walking off with it. I had probably been in there 10 mins. Too long really, but not that bad. This was the 50 mile point. Hopefully in around 10 mins I would start to feel the effects of all this fuel ‘d just stuffed in. The soup was hot, but soon I had finished it and painfully started to run again. Around a marathon left and the last 12 miles was largely downhill. It would be painful but fast hopefully. So I just wanted to push the next 13 hilly miles really hard before the down commenced.

Sure enough I soon felt a little bit perkier. So sped up. These are the times when races are made or lost. You must go hard when you feel good, just not too hard. I was now overtaking numerous runners from the 96km race and even some who were in the marathon. All very positive, and helps to keep the pressure on. I was really enjoying working at a high level. I ran along a short stretch of road, then cut down a long descent into a very green almost tropical valley before finally running on the awful river bed for around 4 miles. My feet were pretty sore by now and running on the large uneven rocks was pretty difficult. I stopped to walk briefly a couple of times, but was still overtaking runners from the shorter races. I hadn’t seen anyone from my race for ages now. Then just as I was coming to the end of the hell of the riverbed, I was overtaken by three guys from my race! I let them pass on the riverbed, then as soon as I got onto a more runnable surface, I grit my teeth and told myself that I would now run the whole lot as hard as I could and not look back. Within minutes, I had passed all three of them and was hell bent on continuing in this vein all the way to the finish line. I did occasionally look back, but I needn’t have as the gap just grew. I was really hurting but knew that I could keep going till the end. I think after some time for reflection that this was probably one of the strongest finishes I’ve ever ran. It felt good to be wringing every last drop of energy out of my body in a controlled way. As I dropped down a long fast descent I could make out the finish are in the distance. I passed another runner, then as I got closer, I spotted another runner ahead. Hopefully he wouldn’t notice me straight away and bolt, but he did. He accelerated fast, but I was gaining on him, we were now on the seafront and there were throngs of people cheering us on. I was totally at my limit now and had nothing more to give. I was about 20 metres behind him now. I then realised that the we had to pass the finish line by around 100mtrs then turn back and run the final 100mtrs to the line. That was too much for me then. I was forced by my screaming body to slow and watch the guy ahead continue and climb the rather cruel ramp up to the finish line. I finished shortly after knowing that I had given absolutely everything.

Garmin download

I staggered into the mess tent and gawped around. I then noticed Fiona chatting to a member of staff. I discovered that she had just finished also. We grabbed a plate of food each and sat down. I felt ill and couldn’t really eat. I needed to just crash out. I really wanted to hang around and cheer people in, but I just felt so rough that I slowly walked back to my hostel, showered and then passed out till 4am.

The next day and a half before my flight was a blissfully relaxing time in which much coffee was again consumed. I learnt that my time of 17hrs 43mins was enough to place me in 20th position! This was way above my expectation. I couldn’t believe it. It has to rate up there as one of my biggest performances seeing as it was an international race. Mark had gone around 2hrs quicker than last year and Fiona had come in 3rd spot! A phenomenal performance seeing as it was her 2nd ultra. Amazing stuff!
All in all this was an incredibly tough, fun and beautiful course, that I would definitely love to do again one year. Other than getting a bit dehydrated again, I am more than happy with my performance.
My next race is the Viking Way Ultra, which promises to be very tough but very different at almost double the distance. I will not be racing it. I really just want to get to the finish line. Before that though there is a gap for some Trailblazing so it’s adventure time.
I’ll let you know how it goes soon.
Happy running.

3 thoughts on “Trans Gran Canaria

  1. Great report Neil and glad you enjoyed it and got an awesome time and bloked Lizzy :)

    I forgot about the big bag feet at the start and I had an epic sense of humour fail on that river bed near the end too.

    See you in a few weeks.

  2. That has got to be one of the best reports of a race I have read. The race comes alive with every word and it has everything a race should have. Celebs (Lizzy), drama, emotion and passing out :0)

    Seriously though that is an amazing effort mate and well done again. One for my bucket list :0)

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