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The search for common ground at Spain’s elite Transvulcania 83K
A grueling descent toward the town of Tazacorte. Photo by Chris Hunter.
This article originally appeared in our September 2013 issue.
I heard a buzzing overhead and saw the flashing lights of a drone helicopter. Pants down around my ankles, squatting in pre-dawn darkness on the edge of a cliff on La Palma Island, I groaned and thought, You’ve got to be kidding me.
Before I came to La Palma, I’d heard a lot about the differences between the American and European trail-running scenes— how Europe embraces hyper-competitive mountain racing the way America loves football. In writing on his blog about winning last year’s Transvulcania 83K on La Palma, elite runner Dakota Jones, now 22, of Durango, Colorado, characterized European trail races as “steeper, more competitive and harder in every sense of the word … with helicopter footage, prize money and high-profile media storms.”
But now that I was here, 30 minutes away from the start of the 2013 Transvulcania, the biggest difference I’d noticed—which Dakota had failed to mention in his blog—was the absence of port-a-potties at the start line. The other points he’d made were on the mark: I’d seen the helicopter camera zooming around that morning—a remote-controlled sort of hovercraft that soared over the crowd at the starting line. And, yes, there would be an €8,900 ($11,600) prize purse—not that I would have any stake in it. As for the “high-profile media storm?” As associate editor at Trail Runner, assigned to cover Transvulcania, I’d happily accept that designation.
But back to the issue at hand. In lieu of a proper toilet, runners flocked to relieve themselves on a rocky cliffside sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Fuencaliente lighthouse on the southern tip of the island.
As runners finished their business and migrated toward the starting line a quarter-mile down the road, the cliffside grew deserted. Having been immersed in crowds for the past three days—crowds at the airports in Denver, Chicago, Madrid and La Palma, crowds at the Hotel Sol where I was sharing a room with a colleague—I realized that this was the first time in days I’d truly been alone.
But no sooner had I popped a squat than the helicopter camera came whizzing over me, live-broadcasting my pre-race bathroom break on television sets all over Spain.
It wasn’t the only time on La Palma that I’d fluctuate between feeling completely alone—for better or worse—to feeling as though I had all the company in the world.
Photo by Chris Hunter
One of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco, La Palma has several defining characteristics: massive, rocky volcanoes that jut straight up from the sea, black volcanic sand and forests of broad-leafed banana trees that resemble squat palm trees. Even the Atlantic Ocean is different here—a rich turquoise hue that looks as though some overzealous Photoshopper cranked up the color saturation too high.
The inaugural Transvulcania 83K took place on La Palma Island in 2009, with fewer than 400 runners. Though the race has grown exponentially each year since, it didn’t truly land on the world’s radar screen until the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) picked it up. Devoted to the sport of racing steep courses at altitude through some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, ISF expanded its Skyrunner World Series to include a new Ultra division in 2012—and they chose Transvulcania to kick it off.
The course boasts nearly 15,000 feet of climbing—most of which occurs in the first 58 kilometers as runners climb straight up, save for a few forgiving, rolling ridgelines, from sea level to nearly 8,000 feet at the island’s famous astronomical observatory, Roque de los Muchachos.
After big-name sponsor Salomon jumped on the Transvulcania bandwagon, elite athletes and media outlets were invited in droves to the 2012 race. Both the women’s and men’s records were obliterated. Jones crushed the course in just under seven hours. Anna Frost, or “Frosty”, as she likes to be called, 31, of New Zealand, finished in 8:11, lopping nearly two hours off the previous year’s record and a full five and a half hours off the women’s inaugural winning time just three years prior.
This year, though Jones did not plan to return, many were calling the race roster the most competitive international field ever, with the likes of Kilian Jornet (Spain), Thomas Lorblanchet (France), Luis Alberto Hernando (Spain), Anton Krupicka (USA), Sage Canaday (USA) and Timothy Olson (USA) all promising to compete. With Frosty withdrawing just a week before the race, the women’s race was predicted to be a battle between Norway’s Emelie Forsberg and Spain’s Nuria Picas.
The day before the race, my colleagues Gina Lucrezi, Chris Hunter and I took a taxi from our hotel into the town of Los Llanos for the race expo. A friendly Brit named Anthony hopped in with us, and together the four of us braved the harrowing rally-car ride to town, the driver taking hairpin turns at tire-screeching speed along the steep, island cliffs.
Chris, a freelance photographer whose other job involved skydiving in Hawaii and BASE jumping in Utah, had come to photograph the race. Gina, Trail Runner’s Advertising Manager and one of those speedy, toned runners who seem to operate solely on fast-twitch muscle fibers, planned to run the concurrent, 26-kilometer “mediamarathon,” or “half-marathon.”
After we picked up our race bibs and timing chips at the expo, we found a shady outdoor terrace to enjoy coffee, croissants and browse the runners’ guide—a thin book with all the entrants’ names listed alphabetically, alongside their occupations. The elites, exempt from the alphabetical structure and listed upfront, nearly all had “Runner” in the Occupation column.
“I’m listed as a ‘Vacante,’” I said. “What’s that mean?”
“Writer, maybe?” Gina said, shrugging. Flipping through her book, she added, “Hey, I’m a Vacante, too.”
Maybe it means journalist?” I said. “Or something to do with magazines?”
“I think maybe it just means you left that question ‘vacant’ on your entry form,” Anthony suggested tenderly.
“Ah, of course,” I said, “The alternate definition of Vacante; incapable of filling out an entry form properly.”
The starting line scene reminded me of every marathon I’d run, back in my road-running days—thousands of athletes milling around in the pre-dawn air, running warm-up strides and doing jumping jacks. There were giant inflatable arches, a booming sound system, teams posing for photos in matching, custom-made T-shirts and a clock counting down to the 6 a.m. race start.
In many ways, my experience at Transvulcania would be completely removed from that of the other Americans there, since nearly all of them were elite athletes. I’d be suffering on the course well into the late-afternoon heat, while they’d knock out a finish and be sipping Mai Tais on the beach by 3 p.m. Furthermore, of the 1600-plus runners signed up for the full ultra, only 15 were from the U.S. And of those, only three were female—including me.
So, not only was I a little fish in a big pond, I was a slow-moving, Spanish-illiterate, testosterone-less little fish. Accustomed to running homegrown races put on by friends back home, I had a feeling Transvulcania would be a rather lonely race for me.
When suddenly the speakers erupted with AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” for the first time since I’d landed in Spain, I was immersed in English—the crowd of jittery runners around me singing,
“I looked ’round, and there was no turning back…”
After the gun went off and we mid-packers began our slow trot, I heard a voice behind me: “Hey, USA girl!” I looked over my shoulder, my headlamp beam swinging with me. The voice belonged to an Italian, a wisp of a man who looked in his early 50s, whom I’d met in the Madrid airport as we awaited our flight to La Palma. He’d been wearing a finishers’ jacket from the Tor des Géants, a rigorous 330-kilometer trail race through Italy’s Alps; I’d been sporting a pair of well-worn inov-8 shoes. It hadn’t taken us long to nod knowingly at one another and begin chatting about Transvulcania in our respective languages, gesturing with our hands when words failed.
Photo by Chris Hunter.
Here on the trail, he patted my back and flashed a toothy grin. In halting English, layered with his thick Italian accent, he said, “You do good work today.” I smiled and gave him a thumbs up.
My smile did not last. Within minutes, I was stuck in a slow, crowded hiking train on the singletrack; my toes had been trampled, my shoes filled with black sand and my shins scraped by swinging trekking pole tips. Even for someone who thrives on camaraderie, I felt a little nostalgic for the solitude on my home trails.
Eventually, the singletrack opened up onto a sandy, gravel road—wide and long enough to create some space between us all—before narrowing again into a pine forest. As the sun came up, I clicked off my headlamp, admiring the pale oranges and yellows billowing up behind the silhouettes of volcanoes on the neighboring islands.
When we hit the town of Los Canarios 7.4 kilometers in, hundreds of spectators lined the street, forming a deafening tunnel of cheering. “Venga, venga!” the crowd yelled, and then, “Animo, animo!” I didn’t know what any of it meant, except when they’d call out, “Chica, chica!”—the Spanish equivalent of “You go, girl!”
Meanwhile, the mediamarathon runners had been set loose on the course half an hour after us, and it wasn’t long before Gina came pushing by me on the climb—the first woman in the mediamarathon! I let out a whoop, cheering as she flew by.
Boasting a motto of “Less Cloud. More Sky,” the International Skyrunning Federation comprises 22 member countries, ranging from South Africa to Switzerland to Spain. Its annual Skyrunner World Series is split into three disciplines: Sky races (marathon distance or less) such as the United States’ venerable Pikes Peak marathon in Colorado, Ultra races (50 kilometers or more) such as Transvulcania, and Vertical races (one kilometer’s worth of vertical climb, typically three to four kilometers in actual distance) such as France’s Mont-Blanc Vertical Kilometer in Chamonix.
Contrary to the triumphant imagery so often associated with running races, the iconic Skyrunning photo is one of an athlete cliffside, hunched over his trekking poles, brows furrowed amidst a waterfall of sweat, mouth gaping open with exhaustion.
And, yet, enthusiasm for the sport continues to build. Whether it does so in spite of the requisite aching muscles and gasping lungs, or perhaps because of them, ISF is clearly onto something. Participation in the Skyrunner World Series has grown by 150 percent in the last year.
When we emerged onto the moon-crater-like expanse of the first caldera, the land fell sharply away on all sides, plummeting toward the ocean. Here, my legs began their protest. To help relieve some of the ache, I pushed down on my quads with every step. No sooner had I begun this dismal attempt to thwart fatigue than a trekking pole miraculously appeared under my nose.
Crowds greet runners at Refugio de El Pilar, the 26-kilometer mark in the ultra and mediamarathon finish line. Photo by Chris Hunter.
Connected to it was a brawny arm, which was connected to a grinning, dark-haired man. He held the pole to me as an offering, nodding at it and saying something in Spanish.
“No, no,” I smiled, shaking my head. “I’ll be fine.”
He was not easily deterred. He continued to hike next to me, holding the pole out, until finally I took it from him with a reluctant “gracias.” Satisfied, he nodded and charged ahead with his remaining pole.
The use of a pole was an instant boon, and my pace picked up. I was nervous about falling behind and being unable to return the pole to my new friend. Keeping him within eyesight became a game, the rewards of which were distraction and companionship—two welcome gifts during the otherwise grueling climb.
Then, mercifully, the course relaxed into a gentle, rolling downhill back into the trees. I again fell into step alongside my friend and offered him his pole back.
He waved it away and, wordlessly, pointed up at the next daunting climb. Winking, he surged forward again, and in the chaos of the next water station, we lost each other. Unsure who was ahead, I had no choice but to run on with the trekking pole of a perfect stranger.
As the day wore on and the steep climbing gave way to more forgiving ridgelines, the heat grew more intense. Shade was non-existent. I frequently pulled off the trail to lather on sunscreen, dump sand out of my shoes and drain blisters with the safety pins from my race bib.
At one aid station, the volunteer refilling my hydration reservoir asked an unintelligible, one-word question in Spanish. “Lo siento,” I said—sorry—“English?” He reached behind him, pulled out a giant bag of ice cubes, motioned toward my hydration pack and repeated his question.
“Si, si!” I exclaimed, eyes widening at the sight of ice. “Si, si, si!” My enthusiasm earned the chuckles of several of the Spanish runners around me.
Around seven hours in, I mused about how strange it was that, thanks to social media, most anyone in the world could already know who’d won the race—and yet I, present on La Palma, had no idea. It wouldn’t be until many hours later that I’d learn Kilian had taken the win in a new course record of 6:54, with Forsberg narrowly beating Picas for the women’s win in 8:13.
Perhaps no athlete better embodies Skyrunning and ISF’s vision than Kilian Jornet. Boasting six Skyrunning world titles and appearing no fewer than 40 times in the official 2013 Skyrunning magazine, as well as on countless billboards throughout La Palma Island, he literally has become a poster child for the sport.
Runners combat soft sand on the climb up to the course’s high point, Rogue de Los Muchachos, at 7960 feet. Photo by Yitka Winn.
Skyrunning is a sport in which “running” is really only one piece of the puzzle. In preparing for a sky race, it is not enough to log big miles; Kilian, after all, would take the win in this year’s Transvulcania on less than one week of actual running in training. Otherwise, he’d spent his winter, as usual, competing in ski-mountaineering races. In the weeks before the race, many speculated that Kilian would not have the running-specific training under his belt to adequately prepare him for this year’s race.
Wrong they were. In Skyrunning, factors beyond simple leg-turnover speed matter, too—the heart and lungs’ ability to thrive at altitude, the legs’ power to handle relentless vertical climbing and descending. Perhaps, above all, one must have the fortitude to not simply run, but to fly, across technical terrain where one misstep could mean disaster. It is this precipice between cautious tip-toeing and confident soaring that distinguishes between the elites of Skyrunning and susses out its champions.
At the course’s high point, a giant, air-conditioned tent offered a space for cooling off, while volunteers doled out pasta from large vats. Combining ultrarunning in 90-degree temps with Europe’s deodorant-averse culture then covering it all with a giant canvas tent doesn’t lead to the freshest scents—but nothing could deter me from the hedonistic pleasures of cool air, shade and a plate of pasta.
Later, when recounting the race with Canaday, who’d finished third, I mentioned the tent and was met with a blank stare. “I don’t remember a tent,” he said. Then, after a moment: “Oh, you mean the tunnel?”
Yes, I could see how clocking six-minute miles across the tops of volcanoes might make a tent seem more like a “tunnel.” Not for me. I savored every bite of pasta amidst new friends, before beginning a quad-shattering 20-kilometer descent to the seaside town of Tazacorte—the last aid station before a steep, four-kilometer climb on pavement and cobblestone to the finish line in Los Llanos.
I could see the ocean and hear the bellowing crowds in Tazacorte for over an hour before reaching them. During the final, relentless switchbacks down a sheer cliff, we spread out enough that I once again felt alone—but only for so long, until the course suddenly spit me out onto a village street, where I was met with more cheers of, “Chica bonita, buena, buena!”
Runners climb to the finish in Los Llanos. Photo by Chris Hunter.
At one juncture, I looked up to see a bunch of teenage boys hanging out the second-story windows of a house. In their hands, a hose spewed a fat stream of water toward the ground. They called out, before dousing me in cold water that felt divine. I let out a whoop, waving and yelling, “Gracias!” Their cheers echoed behind me as the course snaked into a dense, banana-tree orchard.
Soon, I popped out on steep, downhill asphalt. The afternoon sun, now at its peak, radiated off the black tarmac. I had been guzzling water and popping electrolyte pills like candy, and still felt parched and exhausted. The hard pavement jarred my joints, pain searing through my muscles with each step. Hot tears welled up in my eyes at a sudden awareness of my bodily pain.
I prattled away to the banana trees, because there was no one else around to listen to my complaining.
And yet, I was grateful to fare better than so many around me. In the final few kilometers—all pavement, all exposed, nearly all uphill—I saw several runners collapse, crying out and writhing in pain, whisked away on stretchers by race medics.
I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why do we put ourselves through these sorts of things?” Soon, though, the crowds in Los Llanos answered my question.
The author (left) with colleague Gina Lucrezi before the race. Photo by Chris Hunter.
In the final, flat kilometer through town, the spectators’ roaring fervor flooded me with equal parts determination and joy—the thunderous applause, the cries of “Champion!” as I ran by, the wide-eyed kids outstretching their hands for high fives, the Spanish voice on the loudspeaker booming, “Yitka Winn, USA!”
At the finish, I looked around for Gina and Chris. I wanted desperately to talk to someone, exchange a hug, recount the gritty details. But a few kilometers back, I’d seen Chris barefoot, shirtless and grinning under a banana tree with his camera clicking away, and he was likely still there. Gina, I imagined, had gone back to our hotel to shower.
I hobbled aimlessly amidst the crowd in my socks, unsure what to do next. Ultimately, I plopped down in a kiddie pool of ice-cold water at the finish line—a thoughtful provision from the race organizers—to cheer other runners.
As runners I’d leapfrogged with all day crossed the finish, they’d light up, embracing me, offering the traditional Spanish two kisses, one on each cheek. When my trekking-pole angel, whose name I later learned was Orlando, crossed the line, I leapt up to hug him—and return his pole. Together we laughed, babbling away euphorically in our own languages.
Ultimately, Transvulcania didn’t seem so different from the races I’d run back home. Steeper, yes, more spectators, yes, and still no porta-a-potties at the finish—but even with a language barrier as daunting as the race’s elevation profile, La Palma had made me feel as though I belonged.