Monday, 18 May 2015

Transvulcania Mania

This race captivated me from the moment I caught wind of its existence roughly 2 years ago now, but never did I think that within a 24month period I'd be sitting here writing about my experience racing it. La Palma, one of the 7 Canary Islands, is a stunningly beautiful and extraordinarily geographically variable playground that hosts one of the biggest and most badass trail races on the calendar, Transvulcania. Since its inception it has grown in size exponentially, and now annually the whole place erupts (see what I did there) with activity surrounding race day. Shop owners, Taxi Drivers, Hotel Staff, Supermarket attendants, children of age 5 and men and women of 50, they ALL know about Transvulcania and to them, it has a great significance each year when it rolls around.

I was truly stoked to be able to be a part of the event, and at times out on the course I thought that maybe being amongst the sea of screaming people drinking beers and going platanos looked just as fun as running the race itself! I feel like the people of the island are what really make this race what it is, I'm sure there are other events that rival it for enthusiasm, however this was the winner so far for me.

Being a bird.
Earlier I mentioned that there are 7 of the Canary islands, and my trip began by visiting Gran Canaria first.... Accidentally. At midnight. After 28hrs of travel. Oops. Turns out Las Palmas and La Palma are very different places and Transvulcania is only ran on the latter. After a fleeting moment of panic, the wonderfully natured employees in the Gran Canaria airport made sure I got the right flight to the correct island the next morning, after a blissfully comfortable sleep on the chairs at the airport!

Only 8hrs after expected, I made it to Los Llanos and began to delve into the unique culture and vibe of La Palma. I was so thankful and fortunate to be able to spend a week on the island prior to the race, it allowed me to scout out snippets of the course and see some awe-inspiring masterpieces of nature whilst getting a bit more adjusted to the expected heat of race day. Contrary to what most people believe, all of Australia isn't a desert with tonnes of Kangaroos and Koalas bouncing around, so a bit of acclimatization time was great. I also hired an endlessly knowledgeable tour guide called Frosty, she showed me around some amazing places and I'm pretty certain the amount of questions I asked out of nervousness about the course were getting frustrating.

Running the mid-section of the course with El Pilar in the background
Closer to the race, I moved down the coast into the wicked race hotel. It consisted of about 35,000 pools, 10 tonnes of food at the buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner, views from a postcard and completely horrible coffee. It was definitely a place for the real hedonist that likes to lounge around and not really do a whole lot, which regularly I wouldn't be into, however coming into a race it was basically the perfect restraint to stop me from doing too much. I had a great time getting to know a lot of the other athletes that were hanging around, a heap of guys and gals had come over from the US along with Salomon team mates from all corners of the world. It's really cool to learn about different peoples stories, where they are from, what they do, why they run and why they were there, there's never two the same and everybody is unique in some awesome way.

This is the view from my room in the uber-dreamy race hotel. Not bad at all.
The racing aspect of all this can be kept quite simple. From the very beginning, the AC/DC on the start line was rad and momentarily took me back home, equally as rad was the job that Depa did as the MC for the whole event, that dude sure can yell and was a huge help to me when not behind the microphone. The countdown at the start was in Spanish however, and embarrassingly I didn't understand, so I just waited for everybody to start running like crazy so I could follow! We took off with haste around the lighthouse and into the sandy trail towards Los Canarios, it was a lot of fun being a part of the serpent like stream of headlights that I'd gazed upon in pictures of previous editions. You are arguably going uphill for the better part of the first 50km in this race, and if one was to only see different sections in pictures, you'd also argue that it wasn't the same course. The variation is mind blowing for an island of only 50x25km! It quickly changes from black sand to pine forest, followed by a Moon-like landscape up high and then onto a picturesque little beach side town below.

Running with Dimitris, Ryan and Landie on the first section of the route.
The up was tough like always, and as with most races, I had some great patches and some lower ones, but utimately it all went pretty well and I stuck with my pre-race plan. I'd hovered behind the ffront guys for the first 5hrs, with only Luis and Zach really pushing the gap out super far. I'd left a bit of gas in the tank in hope to roll it home down the descent and make up some time, as historically the race is decided in the last 23km. This worked a treat and I moved from equal 5th with 2 others at Roque De Los Muchachos up to 3rd by the bottom of the descent in Tazacorte. It beat my legs up good and proper, but that was the plan after all! It felt pretty surreal to move into 3rd and it was certainly the first time i'd allowed myself to think of the podium for the day. I knew I had a few minutes to play with over the last 5km, but it's still scary when you have no idea who could be charging from behind in the pack. I loped along pretty miserably up the last climb but some words of encouragement from the teams crew helped carry me up the last climb! Luckily at the top i'd maintained the few minutes I had to 4th and got a chance to let the goosebumps settle in approaching the finish!

View of Tazacorte from the last descent
There's no way to put into words the feeling of running down the finish chute of Transvulcania, it's exactly as you see in the photos. A beautiful red hue courtesy of the red carpet and the relentless sun beating down, countless orange blow-up battens coupled with hands awaiting high fives no matter your position, and a monstrous amount of noise. I was and still am an indescribably happy young boyish looking Aussie chap to stand on the podium in 3rd at the end of the day. I'd definitely hoped for it but I never expected it! Not having expected it, I didn't practice my champagne cork-popping skills either, so I embarrassingly struggle to open it using my lousy excuses for arms... but I got there in the end. Happier than ever.

Photo: Jordi Saragossa, featuring a hard to pop champagne bottle.
After a couple more days of rest I was sad to leave, home's always comforting but the adventures La Palma provided were incredible. I could've quite easily written for hours about it but it'd only be for my own self indulgence of the experience and not for the benefit of anybody else! There'll certainly be some more cool things to come later in the year, so once I feel back to 100% i'll kick into some more training. For now though I'm going to enjoy the year that has been so far, because it's better than I ever imagined!

Thanks everybody once again for the help in every area of life, family, friends and my gear and nutrition sponsors, Salomon, Suunto, Shotz Sports Nutrition and Swisseye Eyewear. I love you all!

Friday, 17 April 2015

Messed with the Buffalo and didn't get the horns.

A slight flashback to begin with. Despite my blog quietness, I've already raced a few times this year.  Here is a quick debrief on what I have been up to race wise. Firstly in January I raced Two Bays as a substitute for a cancelled Bogong to Hotham. I had a tummy bug that hit me at the 20km mark, so the race turned really crappy (quite literally). My first race of the year and a DNF, not a good start! The next step for 2015 was a trip to Hong Kong, with a fortunate opportunity to be invited to race at the Asian Sky Running Championships. The MSIG Sai Kung 50km was a great experience and Hong Kong is a wicked place. I had a reasonably good run which got me into 4th place on the day. This was a much needed little confidence boost over what was a deceptively hard course!

Onto the most recent of events though, the Buffalo Stampede. Last year I raced the Ultra and as many of you may know, I pushed too hard and found myself sitting in a creek at the bottom of Clearspot unable to walk. I was eager to test myself and didn’t respect the difficulty of the course and my own limitations. It was a real kick in the guts to be 8kms from the finish line in Bright and unable to reach it.  It was a massive learning experience for me!

With my sights on Transvulcania as my goal race for the first half of this year, I decided I would race the marathon as a perfect build up to get some good conditioning into my legs. It would've been nice to do the Ultra and actually finish it this year; however, I felt it would be too much of an effort to recover from. Being such an awesome event I am sure it will be around for many years to come. I look forward to tackling that beast soon! 

After the inaugural event last year, this race has already become a must-do race for die-hard trail runners around the globe. The quaint and beautiful little town of Bright is the perfect host to outdoor and adventure minded individuals. The surrounding terrain harbours some seriously wonderful and wild elements of nature. The social aspect of the weekend is looked forward to almost as much as the run itself. I was incredibly lucky to be sharing a house with the other Salomon athletes, some of which I know well, and others I had just met for the first time. Acting as a chaffeur for Stevie (US athlete) and Michel (French athlete) I had plenty of opportunities to annoy them with my Aussie accent. Unfortunately I failed in my role as ‘tour guide’ for Stevie as I wasn’t able to find her a koala, just some lousy kangaroos.

My weapons of choice.

Now on with the racing! Matt Coops and Lucy were kicking things off and both raced the 32km Sky Race on the Friday, both finishing 5th place on what some say, km for km, is the hardest course of the event. The big show was looming though, as Saturday's event laid claim to countless quads and toenails. Tom Owens was to step out of his comfort zone over the longer distance, whilst Landie was right in her element, traversing the gruelling 75km course, holding over 4500m+. Both endured the suffer fest and went on to take convincing wins. The post-race comments on how steep some sections of the course are was pretty comical, especially Landies descriptions of her crawl up Warner's Wall.

It was my first time following a full race that day, and I genuinely had a blast being able to watch the race unfold. Feeling those nerves as I waited at the checkpoints for Tom and Landie reminded me of how much a true fan I am of this sport, beyond purely racing myself. And what better inspiration than watching 2 friends win the day before your own run, too!

Nerves ensued as I began to prepare for the Sky Marathon the next day. Following the Ultra was a blessing in disguise, as it let my mind wander away from the usual pre-race jitters. I don't really understand why I get so nervous before races. I know it’s just a race and I also know that I had trained and prepared to the best of my ability. Being a very competitive little bastard though, I have a big fear of failure.

Descending Warner's Wall.
Sunday began at 5am, clothes went on, coffee and breakfast in, excess baggage out, and off to the start Stevie, Michel and I jogged. I always love the hive of activity that the race start area provides. There isn't much that can match the energy radiating from the runners, theirs friend and family in the minutes leading up to the gun going off, it's a huge melting pot of emotions. A vast contrast to what the little town of Bright is all about!

The race began fast. Michel, Samir and Marty were the first onto the introductory climb of the day, Mystic. Going up a trail specifically created for downhill mountain biking is generally somewhat painful…. and this was no exception. The pace being set by the front 3 guys was pretty hot, so Scotty Hawker and I just hung back in the distance ever so slightly to see how things would progress. At the Summit, Michel was off and blazing with Marty Dent in tow, Samir had drifted back a little, which saw himself, Scott and I pretty much hit Mick' track as a trio. Ahead there was a trail of dust as Michel gave us a lesson on how to go downhill, watching him descend ahead was completely ridiculous. There was none of this pansy side-to-side movement, it was just a full tilt B-line to the bottom of Micks track!

Beginning our ascent up Clearspot, we'd now caught up to Marty and so there was a train of 4 chasing the big Frenchman up ahead. I was feeling really good and very content with the situation, we had Michel in sight and I was climbing with 3 runners that I knew to be fit and in form. After the quad(?) burning lactic-bath to the summit, I'd moved ever so slightly ahead and was running in 2nd. Again, Michel went ballistic on the downs and I couldn't see him until I got to the top of Warner's Wall where I caught a glimpse of him already at the bottom and beginning his charge into the Buckland Valley.

On my way to the 15km checkpoint in Buckland Valley

 At this point although I was happy with how I was moving, I was also very concerned. Why? Well, Mr Dent behind me is an Olympic marathon runner with a PR of 2:12 and we were approaching the fastest section of the course.
My own speed on that specific type of terrain is the best its ever been, only a fool would back themselves against someone like Marty! So I ran like a scared little child through the whole valley in hope that the climbs had dulled his legs a little, and tried not to look behind too many times! I was still feeling great coming into Keating's Ridge and still had Michel in sight, ever so slightly. It was a huge boost that after 20kms of racing I hadn’t been caught by anyone. I tried to take this climb a little easier, as I knew that saving a little bit over that ridge would mean having a little extra in the tank for the Big Walk ascent on Mt Buffalo (I had learnt from last year!).

3 climbs down and 1 to go. The grand daddy of the course was sitting boldly in front of me as I coasted down into the Checkpoint at Eurobin. The huge granite face of the mountain is an imposing figure on a boy-like man with legs that are beginning to get a bit tired. Thankfully I knew the climb, and so there were to be no surprises lying on the trails in front of me. Cowbells and people screaming encouragement could be heard from afar as Michel made his way through the checkpoint. With course knowledge to my advantage I knew this meant Michel sat around 1 minute ahead of me. Generally, I'm not one to work off splits in a race, I always prefer to run to feel rather than be dictated by my watch. However, having ran the route before, I knew roughly what time I was expecting to be at certain points throughout the course, all things going well. My watch as I left the checkpoint read 2:06, which was a bit faster than I'd expected, so I was praying that my legs would hold up heading into the climb! Thankfully, they didn't let me down.

Leaving the Eurobin checkpoint at 25km with my good friend Mick Donges.

After 2 kilometers I could see Michel just ahead of me on the trail, as I clawed back a little time on the steep, lower slopes. Whilst it gave me a good kick of confidence, I couldn't help but be a little doubtful too and started to be concerned that I may have been climbing a little harder than what was sustainable. But I just rolled with it and kept moving forward at a rate that felt comfortable for me. By kilometer 3 I had moved past Michel and into the lead, I let him know that the climb is much easier after the first few km's and that the gradient tapers off for most parts.

With a myriad of runners now behind me, my race had really kicked into gear and I gave myself a kick in the arse. I sat at a tempo I was happy with, and my legs just kept ticking. At this point in the race I didn't expect to feel very good, but it turns out that the skinny little dude who won the 32km Sky Race, and ended up 2nd in the marathon, really knows how to get you fit. With Mr David Byrne as my running coach and receiving strength & conditioning training from Mathieu Dore my legs felt amazing. I had started a lap to track my progress up the climb, and at Mackey's I knew I was moving well. I figured that if I could run the ascent in around 70mins then I would maintain any distance I had on those behind me at the bottom by the time I reached the top, but in these races, you never really know.
 Approaching the top of the penultimate climb, The Big Walk, Mt Buffalo.

 I hit the Chalet in exactly 70mins and still felt like I had some good legs left. Whilst they were hurting, I still had energy to give and my nutrition and hydration was working perfectly. At this point I let myself have the thought of possibly winning the race. I downed a cup of coke (sorry Darryl and Steph) and carried on for the 7km loop at the top of the mountain. Whilst short, and the elevation gain isn't high, the trails up top are fairly technical. With a tired mind they can be a laborious task, especially having to climb through the Chalwell Galleries. For those that aren't aware, you actually climb through this section, and the hole in the rocks isn't very big at all. Even a midget like myself still has a hard time... I'd hate to be the size of Michel! 

Coming through the Galleries I saw fellow Salomon Australia runner and 2nd place in the Ultra, Beth Cardelli and her partner. They were great support out there when the going was tough! As you'd imagine, my legs were becoming pretty shot by this point. With only about 4km to go, and no other runners in sight, I was nervous without knowing how far ahead I was. If they were on the same little loop as me i'd never know, as the bush is dense and the trails are tight. However I knew that if I got off the loop and saw the runners there, that I probably had a big enough gap to hold on until the finish.

With 3 km left to run, I saw a friend out on the course and I  anxiously asked for a time gap to 2nd place, "14 minutes" he said..... Wait, 4 minutes? I replied, thinking that he surely couldn't be right! "No, 14 minutes when you hit the Chalet". My stomach went into knots, as I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. Rounding the next couple of bends, I came across 2nd place and all round good guy, David Byrne. Dave won Friday's 32km Sky Race and was backing up with a ridiculous run on the Sunday. He is a very incredibly fit and race smart individual. He is also the man that has been helping me for the last few months with my training, and it seems to be working well! Next I saw Michel, about 1min behind David, he was in great spirits but unfortunately had some stomach problems on the penultimate climb of the day...

About this point I realized that, barring disaster, I was on for the win. Possibly meeting the prediction of the 1st place runner going under the 4hr mark. I backed it off a bit and tried to relax as much as possible heading back to the finish, my legs were toasted but I had a smile from ear to ear approaching the Chalet for the last time. Emerging from the single track and onto the finishing shoot was the most amazing feeling ever. I probably looked like a bit of a douche because I got so ridiculously excited, but I don't win often, and so for me it was a very special moment. Lots and lots of training goes into being the best we can be in a demanding sport like trail running, and it's indescribable when it all pays off and you can enjoy the fruits of your labour. 
Sweet relief and satisfaction.

Our team of athletes for the weekend consisted of Michel Lanne, Stevie Kremer, Tom Owens, Landie Greyling, Matt Cooper, Gretel Fortman, Mick Donges, Beth Cardelli, Jarad Kohlar, Lucy Bartholomew and myself. Other than those of us running, we all owe a HUGE thank you to those that kept us clothed and fed for the weekend. Everybody at Salomon and Suunto Australia, plus our import for the weekend, Claire from Salomon France!

As always, thank you to all of my friends and family that make even participating in these events possible! Salomon, Suunto, Shotz Sports Nutrition & SwissEye, Mum & Dad, my brother & sister and the rest of the wonderful people that make this sport what it is! I look forward to running this event again as I truly think it will be bigger and better year after year. 

Next stop, La Palma! 
Tom very reluctantly hugging a sweaty, dirty me. 

Left to right, 2nd David Byrne, Myself, 3rd Michel Lanne.

For those of you that are interested in the data my Movescount is: