How not to start an ultramarathon: The Transgrancanaria Classic 128km.
As far as race starts go or to be pedantic, pre-race starts, I’ve had some pretty bad ones. Like a punctured Thermarest while bivvying on a concrete step, or waking up to a fellow racer relieving his bowels obliviously in the abandoned outhouse we were crashing in within 3 meters of me, or sleeping on the road as it started to rain and pulling the tent shell over me like a bivvy bag (which didn’t work incidentally). This time I was going to do it right…
The Transgrancanaria Classic 128km is definitely a bucket list race and it attracts some of the best athletes from all over the world. The idea that you cross, in its entirety, a volcanic plug in the Atlantic is quite appealing. Not to mention the variety of landscapes from dense forest to lunar rocky plateaus and incredible race organisation. At 128km it was my longest run to date and my planning was meticulous. With flights and accommodation booked, I was ready to fly!
Fast forward several months to 5 days before the race. Checking the bib collection information, I realised that I wasn’t going to arrive in time on my flight and so I booked another last minute. What an idiot! Disaster was averted. However, to catch up on sleep from my 6am flight I also booked a room to sleep in the day of the race because it kicked off in the evening on the Friday. Everything was back on track.
Fast forward to the Friday morning of the race and I step off my flight buzzing with excitement, safe in the knowledge that I could go to my room and sleep all day. The 4 hours sleep that I’d managed to get the night before wasn’t nearly sufficient for a 20+ hour run, but that was OK because I’d planned for this.
The baggage carousel went round and round and round and people came and picked up bags and left until the arrivals hall was empty, except for me standing in horror without my luggage. I rushed to the info desk and politely explained the situation after which I got a reference number and a phone number and was told to call back later. So, there I was with my running shoes on my feet and a bag of pre-cooked potatoes for my race bag. Everything else was lost to the airline and as yet unlocated somewhere between mainland Spain and the Canary Islands! “Insert 4 letter expletive” echoed back and forth bouncing off the walls of the desolate arrivals hall. Adrenaline and rage coursed through my veins as I exited into the warm humid air of Gran Canaria.
I have flown with Vueling a number of times and this was the first flight that had actually left on time and wasn’t cancelled at the last minute (consider that a warning).
The race staff were amazingly helpful and organised my drop bag, which was to be taken to the 85km aid station, to be sent separately and later. After checking in for the race I went to my accommodation and tried to rest up until three-thirty when I had to call the airline. Needless to say, sleep was not forthcoming, and my stress levels were through the roof. Three-thirty came and went and I was told to call later which I did to no avail. “Insert more expletives”. I was faced with two options: not do the race and spend a weekend in Gran Canaria hating myself for not doing the race or buy everything I needed except my shoes and do the race no matter what.
It was on! I raced (pun intended) to the race headquarters where there was a gear fair on so I could kit myself out. It closed at six, so I was in good time at around half past four. I ran in in a frenzied panic to see that most of the stalls had shut up shop and closed for the day! I cannonballed into the one remaining stall.
“You have to help me! The race starts in 6 hours and I have nothing!”
Thus started the most insane spending spree of my life as kit piled up on the counter so high that it was loaded into a separate box to keep it all together. The two people were quickly grabbing different sizes and brands for me to throw on and confirm before they were launched into the box and the next bit of essential kit was brought out. I walked out of the building with the following:
10 packets of tailwind
A red back light
A lightweight waterproof jacket
A survival blanket
A pair of racing socks
The latest Salomon S-lab running waistcoat
Carbon fibre running poles
A spare soft flask
A badly damaged bank account
I then saw a message from Vueling saying my bag was to be delivered the next day. Yea, thanks for that... However, I still wasn’t ready because I didn’t have shorts, which was the most worrying thing, or any of the small items like ibuprofen, antihistamines, spare batteries, more food, sun cream, Compeed, zip lock bags and tissues to name a few. I also hadn’t eaten anything substantial since dinner the night before.
Off I went, rapidly tiring of this whirlwind shopping debacle, to a shopping centre where I found, by pure chance, the only pair of shorts in the shop, which fitted perfectly. Then, on to the supermarket followed by the pharmacy followed by…
At least I shared the cost of this one with a Finnish guy who was also going to the race headquarters to catch the bus to the start line on the other side of the island. It was now seven-thirty and I had half an hour to de-tag all my brand-new equipment (this takes a surprising amount of time), get dressed, pack my bag, leave my drop back with the race organizer, eat my vegan sushi and pop an ibuprofen for the splitting headache I now had.
I boarded the thirty-minute bus, closed my eyes and meditated and smiled for the entire journey into Las Palmas. I was now aware of the task I had ahead of me and lacking sleep, I was determined to go into the race happy and relaxed at the very least! I focused on my smile and thought about how psyched I was to be there, and it worked!
The first night passed and as dawn broke, I emerged from a volcanic canyon to climb up to a pine covered high point on the island overlooking more volcanoes in the sea. The cool morning silence was broken abrasively by my phone ringing. It was the delivery man with my bag, calling just a little bit late at 65/70km into the race! I laughed, said where I was and told him to take it back to the airport because nothing was going to ruin this moment.
Around 5pm on Saturday evening the lack of sleep kicked in hard after running for 17 hours. The rocky escarpments started turning into Easter Island like oblong faces done in the style of a Roald Dahl illustration, which was distracting to say the least. I’ve had hallucinations while running long distances before, so I just ran and tried not to get too confused by rusty abandoned motorbikes sticking out into the trail which reverted to type into cacti as I passed, or aid stations appearing in the distance which turned into street lights. You win some, you lose some!
I finished in just over 22 hours totally satisfied and just a little bit tired, only having had 4 hours sleep in the previous 60. The following week, Spain was in national lockdown and I did zero running for the following two months as the entire country was confined to their homes. The memories of that race kept me going through those tough times and on the plus side, I now have double the amount of running kit!