Trans Gran Canaria 125k 2018
I don’t always pick races from a logical stand point. I like the name “Trans Gran Canaria”. I didn’t even really know where it was, what the distance was, the terrain, etc. But it is a race in the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) and as such I knew it would bring in the top runners from around the world, and there is nothing in racing I like more than seeing how I stack up against the best.
Once I had entered the race I began doing homework on the course like never before. When I learned that in the course of 125k (75 miles) there was 25,000 feet of gain, I knew I need to be climbing A LOT, and learn how to use trekking poles as efficiently as possible. With a few consultations regarding said poles and how to use them, plus what the steepest trails we have in the Auburn vicinity, running friend Bob Crowley hooked me up with Don Freeman of podcast “Trail Runner Nation” and presented me with some Leki trekking poles, with titanium tips that I am certain could be used as weapons if need be.
Training started late December for this February 23rd race. I began incorporating more and more vertical feet “vert” into my runs, and each time I would look at the GPS data from my runs, I realized I needed to do even more to match what I would be up against on the course. By the time I had finally figured out all the math, I found myself concentrating on climbs in the area that were steep enough, and had to do repeats on them just to get the needed vert. I had to keep “flat” running to a minimum in order to achieve similar conditions. Probably the biggest adaptation (besides my glutes, biceps, and deltoids) was to my brain. Going up and down a 0.9 mile with 800 ft of gain trail “Training Hill” aka “K2” as many as 15 times in one day helped me get my head around what I would be in store for. I also found similar trails (Hoosier Bar, Grizzly Trail, Euchre Bar, Cardiac) that I would do repeats on as well to mix it up a bit. Running something flat became a sort of recess that I relished. By the end of my training I was ready to be done, go do the race, and then launch my Western States training, which has a lot more running than hiking
I flew into Gran Canaria Tuesday before the race, which was set to start at 11:00 PM Friday. Long time running friend Amy Sproston picked me up from the tiny airport and took us to our AirBnB which allowed us to be in control of our dietary needs building up to the race. The weather was very pleasant, a bit cooler than normal for the island, with the threat of real weather around the race weekend.
Wednesday, we were able to pick up our bibs from the expo. Later we went for a bit of run on the tail in of the course, in a canal bed no less. It was hard with big rip rap rocks jutting out of the surface, so we had to fairly dance thru them so as not to trip.
Thursday we attended a breakfast for the elite athletes and listened to the top runners be interviewed for the race. The rest of the day disappeared with the tiny details of getting ready for a race, making decisions on what to wear, what to eat, what to pack. In the evening I did a bit of Q and A at the Altra booth, and then Amy and I attended the pre-race briefing, which was festive and entertaining and mostly in Spanish.
Friday we slept in as long as possible. By afternoon I was done trying to rest too much more. There were several mini meals I went thru – rice and eggs, then sweet potatoes, then more rice with cheese, and some pasta. At 6:00 I started to dress and make final preparations. The start was a bus ride away, and departure time was 8:00 PM. At 7:20 we walked over, under dark cloudy skies. Torrential rain had fallen in the past 36 hours, already causing the delay of one race by a full day. When the rain falls here, it is pretty impressive.
We waited indoors at the expo for the busses to arrive, and then followed the masses out. A petite woman was checking each bib to see if we had purchased our ride to the start line. Stephanie Case, friend of Amy’s and new one for me was panicked because her bib indicated she hadn’t purchased a ride. To make things worse, the sky opened up and dumped water on the anxious runners, and a mob scene to all available busses ensued. I nearly lost Amy but we managed to squish our way onto a bus. Now we were all a bit wet and cold – not a good scenario for sitting aroundin for a few hours.
The busses took us to Las Palmas, the starting town of our journey. We were dropped off on a street and looked around and finally followed the masses to the beach, lined with a broad sidewalk and cafes. Steph, Amy and I found a coffee shop and ordered lattes, found a table, and relaxed and laughed the 2 hours away.
At 10:20 we made our way to the beach start, as we were told we need to be in the corral at 10:30. It was slightly chilly but as more and more athletes amassed, it grew warmer. A group of musicians and dancers entertained us a while longer, in a scene reminiscent of a Las Vegas show. With 15 minutes to go the announcer began announcing in very flamboyant tone, the elite runners, and we all yelled back in equally energetic and fun voices. It was indeed a festive and hopeful atmosphere.
Eleven PM finally arrived, and off we went down the shore line. Sand is not my friend, so I tread very gently on the most packed surface I could find. How ridiculous it would be to fight a bit of sand so early in a 75-mile race! In about 200 yards, we ran upstairs to a waterfront sidewalk, to the cheers of many spectators. And in another 100 yards, down to the beach we ran again. Another 200 yards, and we left the sand for good.
I knew I was well back from any sort of exciting placement, but I wasn’t concerned. My goals for this race were entirely process goals. Run at a sustainable effort so that I am still able to hike hills with purpose and run flats at the end. Eat 200 calories per hour. Let the training take care of my time and place. If I see a competitor ahead of me, don’t pick up the pace, just focus on my own effort.
The crowds lining the course in this initial phase was inspiring – after all It was nearly midnight – but then again, this was Spain on a Friday night, so perhaps not so unusual. We were running on relatively flat pavement for a good while, then a gravel road/creek bed, with plenty of loose rock. New to me was the impatience to get to the climbing – it was what I trained for, yes, but I never imagined I would actually desire it over more runnable terrain.
I was using my poles already as I find them useful in most circumstances. On the loose rock I’m sure they prevented a fall more than once. The course was varying between wide path and narrow trail, and our headlamps illuminated some of the plant life we ran through – cactus, eucalyptus, bougainvillea, bamboo. As a group, we were pretty quiet. For me, it was a language barrier, so I felt rather disconnected from my fellow runners. Eventually I caught up to Steph and had to speak up to get her attention through her headphones. “Oh hey! Did you find your legs?” I had warmed up and was getting a good rhythm. Finally, we started to do some climbing, and I was more than pleased at how easy it felt. I knew the first 10 miles were very mellow in terms of climbing, so I likened it to running from No Hands Bridge to Cool about 3 times. I was determined to not look at my watch for pace or time, but only distance, and even that I didn’t check at first. When the first aid station appeared 10 miles in, I was a pleasantly surprised. I took my time to fill one bottle and eat a bit. The bananas were on the green side and hard to peel and I was not very patient. The cheese didn’t really want to go down. But there was avocado! I ate about half of one, and then went on my way just as Steph was coming in, so we were able to exchange support.
It was still so very dark, and it would be for a full 8 hours from the start. The next section would have a bit more climbing, but still not the steepest, and this I compared to running up and down from The Confluence to Foresthill Road – pretty steep, but runnable in parts – about 3 times, before we would hit the next aid station. I was already falling a little short on my calorie intake – somewhat due to the darkness, technical difficulties with my bottles, and not paying close attention. The trail was now a bit more removed from civilization but occasionally we would be popped out on some pavement. It was occurring to me that there was really a lot of rock. A LOT. Loose, embedded, smooth, sharp, big, small, and in the towns we passed through, smooth pavement mixed with cobbled streets. I hadn’t really trained for that, so was very glad to have the poles for balance and for being able to take some of the weight off my feet.
At mile 17 was the second aid station. I didn’t do great eating, so was failing a bit on one of my main goals. I did have gels with me so started consuming those, and noticed a quick response – good thing as we were now entering 30 miles worth of terrain with the amount of climbing I got in the 15 K2 repeats I did in training. To be clear, it wasn’t exactly like going up and down the same hill – the climbs were longer, the descents were shorter, and there was more flat interspersed than I imagined there to be. I had passed 3 women so far, but had really no idea where I was place wise. I knew it couldn’t be very high as no one mentioned placement at the aid stations.
Every now and then I would shift my focus for a few moments to my left or right and see village lights off in the distance, plus an incredible clear sky dazzling with stars. And then I quickly shifted back to the ground before me, to avoid any nasty falls. The weather was about as perfect as one can have in a race of this length. Cool, moist air, unlike any I had ever breathed, fresh from the torrential rainfall earlier in the day. I hoped the day ahead would remain the same.
Between the next two aid station we ran some beautiful dirt through a pine forest, where lichens had been blown from the trees, and scattered about the ground, illuminated by our headlamps looking like great handfuls of white hair. The runners were now fairly strung out, and still we were pretty quiet. I was anticipating the sun to rise soon. I had run nearly 30 miles now, feeling very good about my climbing still, and was trying to send telepathic message to Mark – “I’m doing it! I’m climbing strong! All that ridiculous training is paying off!”
The next section of trail was very exciting, in that it was a bit like a fast carnival ride, in the dark, with sharp and short switchbacks. I was in a tight conga line of Spanish men who were definitely having a great time. Lots of hooting and laughing as we all attempted to keep the pace going while staying upright through the jungled canopy. We finally spilled out the bottom onto a paved road that would lead us to the next village.
Just before the next aid station, I caught a couple of women, and was running beside a man and realized it was Auburn-ite Dan Barger. “Hello Mr. Barger! I wondered if I would see you out here.” I asked how he was doing, and he said good, but would be glad when the sun came up. I agreed, and slowly pulled away up the paved road, my poles clacking away. The next aid station came quickly, and I focused on getting more calories, fumbled around with my bottles, while Dan came in with his one bottled, filled it within seconds, and was gone.
When I had passed 30 miles and it was still dark, I was even more pleased. In fact, I was over half way through the race when dawn finally broke. So I’m thinking – first half of the race in less than 8 hours, now it was going to be light, and with only 20 more miles of mostly ascending, and then 25 miles of mostly descending, heck I had a shot at running 17 hours! It made perfectly good sense to me, and I didn’t need to do anything but keep on doing what I do.
At the next aid station, Dan was coming out as I was going in. This time I was really determined to eat more. I had broth with bread, avocado, coke, and there was Paella! “Yes please!” It smelled lovely, and tasted amazing, but I could only get about 3 bites down, as my stomach wasn’t receptive to more. Fellow American Abbie Mitchell was sitting down with a goose-egg scrape on her forehead, and not looking so happy. “Oh no! Did you fall?” She smiled sheepishly and said “oh, I’m okay”. I wasn’t sure if she was going to continue. I left the aid station as another woman runner was coming and we high fived. I felt strangely light, and realized I had left my poles on a table in the aid station. I quick turned around and ran back the 50 yards feeling very glad that I realized it when I did.
Jogging slowly out of this village, uphill, my poles clacking away, I was heartened by the townspeople out cheering “Vamos gringa! Vamos!” Ahead I could see a woman who had passed me earlier. I eventually caught and passed her, as well as Dan. Dan stuck behind me for quite a while up the next rather grinding climb. The climbs were definitely starting to add up in my body. Legs were getting a bit tired, but mostly it was over all fatigue. This bit of trail was rugged but not as rocky. It did go on and on. Finally, after the crest we hit some very nice downhill and again pretty good dirt. On and on it went through the light forest. I was hungry, so as soon as it mellowed out onto a bit of road, I dug into my vest for more gel. It wasn’t that appealing but I was able to nibble at it. Dan passed me again and was soon out of site, and as we made a sharp turn on the trail I noticed that a woman had caught me. “Nice work!” I said, but her response was guarded, and she stayed behind me for the next few miles which included some pretty fun descending. Once we reached the pavement of the next town, she went around me, and again I encouraged her, but our language barrier may have prevented her from being receptive.
As I entered the aid station, Dan’s wife Kim cheered me in as she was finishing up crewing for him. It was nice to hear a familiar voice. At this stop I ate avocado, boiled potato, two cups of coke, two cups of electrolyte, put 2 potatoes in my vest pocket, filled my hydration pack with water, and made my way out. Now there was just one more tough section before the course became a downhill. This one I likened to the climb up Euchre Bar trail. And it would be equivalent to doing three of them. But for now, it was pavement for over a mile before we turned off to the trail. Only this time the trail was a creek bed, with running water. I was trying to imagine how the faster guys and gals would navigate this faster than I was. It was a bit crazy. Then it popped out onto hard, technical rock with lots of switchbacks.
To add some excitement to the day, runners from one of the other races, the 64k, which started at the halfway point of our race at 9:00 AM and followed the same course, were catching up and passing. They were fast, fresh, and exciting to watch go by. It wasn’t too hard letting them by as there was usually a wide enough place for passing. Up and up we went, with precious little down. There was a trail intersection where we were made to do an out and back. I was a little cranky about that, but on the way saw Dan coming back, as well as the woman whom had just passed me. I couldn’t figure out what the reason for this little dog leg until I looked up and saw the magnificent stone out cropping “Roque Nubio”. Totally worth the trip.
Moments later I saw Amy. She was moving quite slowly, as if someone had let all the air out of her tires. She looked back and saw me. “Hey there”. “What’s up Amy?” She had been puking for miles, couldn’t keep anything down, was completely out of energy and she kept falling asleep. She said she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. I said I was behind on calories as well, but able to eat. I gave her my condolences and moved forward. Finally, the last aid station on the ascending end of the course, and my drop bag! I grabbed it quick, pulled out my NOW electro endurance drink and guzzled a full bottle. I ate the potatoes from my pocket. I drank broth. Amy made it i and I suggested she take a nap, wait for Steph, and the two of them could come in together. She thought that she would try that. Later I learned that even after napping she couldn’t eat without getting sick, so called it a day.
I had 4 gels now, and was somewhat topped off. I knew there was one more “short” climb before the descending. I was starting to flag a bit, but really pleased that I had managed as well as I did. I could hike, I could jog. And finally the descending started. I was so excited. The top portion was a bit rocky. And it got rockier. Oh my. This was not the smooth sailing I was dreaming of. Eventually we hit a wide rock path that can be described as pointy rough cobbles that was steep and full of switchbacks. There was no “letting loose” here. I ran guarded and could see way down in the valley that I had a very long way down. At the next town and aid station, one volunteer filled my pack with water while I nibbled. I found I could get a bit of sandwich down if I chased it with water. I drank more coke, ate orange slices, and finally left.
The main climb for the next section was to get us to the next saddle before another long descent. In the openness of the landscape I could see far ahead and up. We passed through some farm land, smelling of pigs and goats and chickens. Still hiking well, and running some, I was generally passing runners most of the way. Fingers crossed that the next descent would be smoother.
Nope. Just a different kind of rocky. The jutting sharp kind you have to step over. My feet were tired as were my legs from all the clearing of the rocks. An occasional 64k racer would pass, and I would try to hang on for a bit, trying to mimic their foot work, and that would last a few seconds before I was back to picking my way somewhat slowly down.
The temperature had risen during the day, but nothing too unpleasant. I got to the second to last aid station, and knew that I had 9 miles to the last one, so I wanted to try to eat more. But again, I kind of fell short. Oranges, banana, coke. A volunteer offered up paella, and I was so sad to have to say no.
One more fairly mild climb out of this valley, and then the course profile was a gentle downhill to the finish. When the descent started, I was so excited to be running down a gravel road. Could it be that we got this for miles? Then I saw the turn onto trail. More narrow rocky steep trail which soon ended up in a dry creek bed of loose river rock. Yaaaay. I ran some until I was too fatigued, and walked until boredom over took me. So on it went, run, walk, run, walk, stay upright. My poles would frequently get stuck between two rocks as I was going forward, yanking my arm back. Sometimes we would be out of the creek bed, and I thought that was it, only to be led back in.
Suddenly a man came up beside me. “Meghan Laws?” Uh, yeah? “I’m Pablo, an Altra rep from Granada, and I wondered if I could film you while you’re running. You don’t need to stop or talk. I just want to say a little blurb about you in Spanish. I’m putting together something motivational for a trip to China to encourage people to get off the couch.” Pablo happened to also be running in the 64k. He filmed me running beside me, while narrating. It put a tiny burst of energy into my step, until we finally got out of the creek bed. There were more fans lined up as we got closer and closer to Maspalomas. And into the canal bed where Amy and I had run a few days before.
The last aid station was above the canal, and I was hopeful that we would stay up there, but no, once we went through, we had to go back down for another 100 yards or so, back upstairs and onto a bike path. I started running harder in a small pod of about 4 men. We took turns surging and slowing. And then we had to go down in the canal again to pass under a bridge (instead of crossing the road) and back up. One of the men in my pod said to a volunteer “was that really necessary?”
Now we were very close. I had given up on sub-18 miles ago, but was pleased to see a sub-19 in the making. I was running alone as we had all spread out on this last dash. I crossed the finish line in 18:47, 15th female, 2nd 50-59 to Ildeko from Hungary, who beat me at Western States as well.
I have nothing bad to say about this race or experience. The training definitely paid off and I can see room for improvement still on my climbing. It is a beautiful island but because of all the rock, I don’t plan on doing this one again. I would need to train on that kind of rock to really enjoy the trail. The organization was superb, the volunteers were great, the runners were positive.
Friends – Bob Crowley, Jim Kepfer, Maria Steinhauser, Nick Banaszak, Craig Thornley, Lee McKinley for easing the pain of all those hill repeats by joining in for a few. Don Freeman of Trail Runner Nation for supplying me with the Leki poles.
And the man of the house, Mark Laws, for quietly shaking your head each time I returned from said hill repeats, and for taking care of the family farm while I galavanted across the seas.