Updated: May 11
I’ve taken at least ten UTMB shuttles by now, in four countries, and every one goes like this: the shuttle that you absolutely need to catch leaves sometime from somewhere. There will not be any links, coordinates, or navigating instructions of any kind, and the poorly-translated website will forever tell you to check back later for updates. The result is usually wandering around a foreign country schlepping bags at 4am hoping that you’ll see other people doing the same thing, and thankfully you round a corner and always do.
Transvulcania started the same way. We picked up a bus on a dark road near Punkfish Diving, not the San Antonio Volcano as advised by a volunteer, and not at the tourism office of Fuencaliente (as printed on the ticket), which we learned does not exist.
The race starts at the southern faro (“lighthouse”) on the beach. AC/DC pumps up from the waterfront as the runners file down the trail to the beach. I hopped in a porta potty line and listened to the sounds coming from inside: fffssst ffsst fffffsssst. What is that sound? What on earth anti-chafe spray do these Europeans know about? Do they really need to go in an outhouse to put on sunscreen? I mean, what else do you do in a portal potty?
Well, you also do the other thing.
Even the porta potties have bidets! That is wild, and I’m still not totally clear on the logistics. Not one roll of toilet paper to be found anywhere. For the first time ever before a race I was happy I only had to pee.
The first eleven miles are aggressively uphill; you climb over 6,200’ (for you runners, only three of those miles are less than 500’ and not by much less) only to discover that you have just reached the ridge to start climbing up to the volcano crater. Sweat beaded and dropped off the ends of my hair and slid down my neck. My hat was soaking.
In my opinion, the first few miles on road were the worst of the race. I realize that this is a world series race with some of the best trail runners bumping into you, but everyone runs uphill like the beach is on fire. I ran the entire time and felt like wolves were hunting me in the night, at times nearly panicky. Everyone is rushing but silent. I was relieved to be greeted at sunrise by the only village on the course and blasted with more AC/DC.
That village spat us out on the trail, which we would follow for the next 35 miles or so up the backbone of the island and around the volcanic crater that formed the island so long ago. The trail was soft black volcanic sand and smelled like a dead campfire.
The island of La Palma has free range succulents, wild cactus, rainforests, huge pine forests, banana fields for miles, recent lava flows, black beaches, and sharp, aggressive volcanic rocks as far as you can see in every direction.
The Aid stations are stocked with wafers, nuts, 85% cocoa bars, wrapped charcuterie or peanut butter or salami sandwiches, gummy sea creatures, and probably ten more things. I ate probably five of these cured meat sandwiches and they were fantastic. They have no crust, which is interesting too. I don’t know a lot of European things, like how to go to the bathroom or how to bake a crustless bread; how to live off espresso instead of a dark roast, or how to convert kilometers or celsius.
We climbed the ridge through the woods and then we climbed through the clouds. The thing about ridges is that they tend to be windy. Cold gusts knocked us sideward and soaked us.
The wind ripped my hat off and threw it down the hill. I didn’t realize that leaving the trail was almost certain death as I fell and sunk into the ashy sand trying to grab it before a crater ate it. We were stopped at the next aid station and required to show gloves and our raincoats in order to continue. It was really fun.
The little trail, marked with red and white horizontal stripes painted along rocks the entire way, is technical and relentless. The terrain fills your shoes and covers your legs in black dust and rarely offers the break of a downhill. I was daydreaming that the last ten miles would be nice switchbacks as a reward (spoiler: they are not).
The caliber of runner in this race is impressive; you don’t run Transvulcania if you’re not a mountain runner. Almost no one was slowly hiking, sitting (except at the aid stations), or puking. Everyone was strong and svelte and hucking themselves up the volcanoes at breakneck speed.
We never found ourselves alone-ish until a 50k in, after the climbing was finished. The same group of gibronis passed us ten times and then stopped, passed and then stopped. We all started yelling otra vez! Every time we saw each other. Another time! Another hill.
Once we made it above the clouds, the sun hit hard and started to cook the ridge. We did not run as leisurely as we planned as we realized that 16 hours was not the most generous cutoff for a race this technical with this much gain; we ran consistently. We worked hard. The wind never took a break either.
We ran through mossy trees with invisible birds, like a jungle. We ran across barren blast fields that had only rocks, dust, and wind. Many times, because the ridge is so severe, you can see the clouds and the Atlantic below you on both sides.
For the hardest miles, at least ten of them, you are not allowed to use your poles since it’s through parque nacional. You must use only your clydesdale quads to climb to the highest point of the island - El Roque de Los Muchachos. The final summit stands 7,284’ above sea level, or 2.428 meters, and blasts you with wind on all sides.
The are many huge white globes to climb up to on the way to El Roque, each one an astronomical observatory since La Palma has some of the best night sky viewing in the world. We could see the high point and it never seemed to get closer. By the time we summited the highest peak, my watch had already turned over 14,000’ of gain. The course is remote but very supported by volunteers and medical staff, park staff and a few spectators. I noticed the same observation here as I did in Chamonix; the crowd’s cheers are so much louder for the women. Our names were printed on our bibs, and many friendly faces yelled “Julie! Strong woman! Animo! Venga venga venga!” I often smiled so much it hurt my cheeks.
We started to go downhill. Kinda. Even the downhill is somehow not down (just like the roads; if you want to go north you should probably head south first). The downhill was not butter, and it was so damn steep. All of the Spanish men we had climbed past on the way up bombed past us (absolutely full-throttle sailed downhill) even though the ‘trail’ was just volcanic garbage stacked and piled on top of each other. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. Note to self: practice fast, technical downhills way more - it’s a time saver. We later met a guy who told us he was a sweeper for the race last year, and on a downhill stretch he had pinched his foot between rocks and snapped his ankle. Note to self: the reward comes with risks.
The ridge to the beach was a straight shot right down into the ocean, you know, exactly how lava would flow. The ocean was 6,000’ below us, and it glittered and laughed in the distance. We mashed to the last aid station. Five miles left. We grabbed one last charcuterie sandwich. Last water refill. There is a huge sense of urgency, happiness, and finality when you pass the last aid station in any ultra. Whether there’s a single mile left or ten - the next time you stop, you’re done. All your bailouts are gone. You are really going to do the thing you came to do, and you’ve done almost all of the work to get there.
Between the two of us, Dustin and I have run over 200 ultras. I’m embarrassed to confess to you what happened next. I’ll start by taking full responsibility for being ignorant.
The trail threw us down to a road. Civilization again! We ran behind houses. More road. Buildings. We were not in the city but we saw people, gardens, pipes, stop signs. Then, we turned onto a never-ending series of switchbacks down a vertical cliff and a party drifted up from below.
Loud Spanish music, an announcer shouting, a town. “Wait, does this finish on the beach?” I asked Dustin incredulously. Is the finish a poetic wrap-up: start at the beach, up to the highest point, and back to the beach? He shrugged and said no, it finishes in town - which we knew since we had been there the day before and seen the orange carpet. The stairs got steeper. I looked over. “No! I think see the finish!” Three huge inflatable arches with a corral leading in and people cheering. Tents. Food. A parking lot.
I repeat: three inflatable arches and a colorful corral. My watch was way over the total vert for the race (as long as 4,350 meters means 14,700’) and said 43 miles. The race, I thought, was 72k (so maybe a mile short?) even though it is called and counted as 100k for UTMB qualification purposes. These races and watches are never dead on. Volunteers were pouring pitchers of water over each runner’s head as they came through. A girl was crowding to pass in the last minute, and the energy of the end swelled around us.
We flew down the switchbacks, destroying our feet and calves in the process but it was fun and it was worth it. It didn’t matter now; we saw the finish line. We held hands and sprinted. We took off our packs, took a selfie, grabbed food, and sat down with other runners. We asked a volunteer to take a photo of us and she cocked her head with confusion and hesitated.
Julie, they are still running.
Dustin’s words rattled down my spine. I looked around frantically. Holy shit. This was just some kind of party aid station. The course was marked beyond the food table, and people were running out of it.
We grabbed our stuff and took off.
I have almost never been so defeated in a race. Not for long, and not unbearably, but for at least a mile or two disappointment crushed my shoulders like my pack was full of cement. It was boiling at the bottom. The beautiful course was suddenly garbage - the ‘trail’ was now just rocks up a long drainage. Emphasis on up. I am grateful that I didn’t know I had another 1,000’ of climbing up switchbacks and road crossings to get back into the city of Los Llanos.
We were still 5k away from the end.
Now people took sit breaks on the guard rails and in the shade. Runners were sick and hot and tired trying to climb this stupid road and these stupid stairs and these stupid banana fields and stupid, stupid, stupid cobblestones. We did not stop. We did not break. For a little while I didn’t even speak. Dustin knew I wasn’t mad or upset with him, but I felt like if I tried to talk I would burst into tears. If you’ve ever gone all-out and left it on the table only to find out it wasn’t enough, you’ll know what I mean. I could only do one thing: move forward the best I could.
After a bit I gathered myself. We tried to laugh about it, even though at the time it felt more sad. You can’t work so hard and feel the flood of finality and then grab your stuff and hit the hottest miles of the day with no energy reserved. That’s when we met our friend, a Spaniard with perfect English, who talked about the race and the mountains in Spain and how the trail will always be too hard if you think it is too hard, but if you don’t think about it at all, you can keep going because you know no limit.
When we finally climbed the last switchback up the hill to get into the city, we ran again. We said goodbye to our new friend and ran all the way, sweat dripping down our cheekbones and asphalt radiating heat up our legs. The people sipping beers and eating tapas in the cafes cheered. Animo! Animo! The applause made me run a little faster, a little stronger.
We saw another inflatable arch. “That’s not it!” I yelled to Dustin and we finally laughed. It really wasn’t the end; we knew now where we had to go and what the end really looked like. We heard the music (again). We saw the corrals and the people (again). We held hands (again) and ran the orange carpet.
It was a smidge anticlimactic, but still a relief. A happiness. A woman from channel once (11) rushed to us with a microphone on camera and interviewed us in Spanish, and we answered in our very broken vocab to the best of our ability. Mas lentamente, por favor. Fue muy difícil! Muy divertido. Muy todos. Estamos consados y felices.
We walked down the finishers chute and found two chairs. I hugged Dustin and cried a little. Sometimes ultrarunning is emotional. I didn’t even really know what emotion, maybe all of them. Something that I was feeling inside needed to get outside. A moment later, though, I felt better. Happy again. Proud. A little stupid. Above all, ready to take off my shoes.
We collected our drop bags, changed at a park and wandered to a grocery store for food and a cold drink. I am not sure I have ever needed a gigantic carbonated freezing drink more in my entire life. The finish line music was unbearably loud (to be quiet in nature all day and then pop out at a rave is a tad overwhelming) so we slipped into an alley with our chips and dip and picnicked barefoot while people walked past and wondered what we were doing. I turned to Dustin.
So, where do you think the shuttle to get back picks up?