Sat trepidatiously in Agaete awaiting the start of TransGrancanaria 2015
As I jogged casually in work shoes across the main road in a vain attempt to not still be in the line of traffic as the lights switched slowly back to green, I glanced sideways up the street towards the clock tower checking the time – ensuring I wasn’t too late for the bus.
Being winter still it’s a fairly cold morning and I’m glad to get on board when it eventually pulls up to the stop. As the doors open and I step inside a strong smell of cider wafts into my nostrils and I hope it isn’t coming from the driver.
Welcome to Kingswood. This is the small working-class town in which I live and have done for more years than I care to remember. It’s far from the nicest place in the world, it’s not even the nicest part around Bristol.
I grew up here as a child, my parents still live here, and now so do I again. On a map, and to the Post Office, it may appear simply to be an annex or suburb of Bristol, but it is in fact a town in its own right, falling under the jurisdiction of South Gloucestershire Council in the South West of England.
The Clock Tower circa 1920
The clock tower, like that famously of Hill Valley, California, has been a stalwart of the town for more years than even I’ve lived here and appears in practically every old photo of the town you see. It’s a constant reminder of where I am, of my roots, in the same way as the WHSmith in Kings Chase Precinct in which I used to buy comics as a child and now take my own children there to buy theirs is.
It’s not that I haven’t ever moved away from Kingswood, I have, yet somehow I find myself having moved back.
Sometimes that simple fact bothers me. It feels like I’m a small town kid who just can’t break free from the grip of the place that has seen so many of my years, in the same way that the kids banned from dancing in Bomont lived their lives in a restrictive nowheresville. I call it Footloose Syndrome.
I’m not sure why it bothers me so much. Maybe it’s the fact that with the world being such a big place, why do I still find myself here? Obviously family, familiarity and comfort play a sizable part, but I’ve travelled the world, I’ve been to great places and seen incredible things. I know there’s more out there, but at the heart of it we do all love a bit of comfort.
The kids of Bomont were of course rockingly awoken with the rebellion of Ren McCormack from Chicago (in the shape of Kevin Bacon – ignore the shit 2011 remake) after he arrives in town and kicks dance booty. He rocked the comfort zone of the town.
We all have a comfort zone and it’s easy to live within it. Whether that is the location in which we live, the way we carry out our lives, or even the things we do on a day to day basis. Being comfy is nice. It’s safe. It is by the very definition of the word, comfortable.
But I think to live a purposeful life we all need a metaphorical Ren McCormack to kick us out of that comfort zone every now and then. For me, Ren is running. The one thing that makes me step outside of that safe bubble; that asks me to push myself; that takes me away from the familiarity of the clock tower.
Excited before the start
This is how I found myself in Gran Canaria at the start of March with the prospect of running the 78 mile TransGrancanaria Ultramarathon from one end of the island to the other (with a lot of twists and turns along the way).
As a challenge it would certainly be classified as a McCormack. It was further than I had ever run before, with more elevation to climb and in a hotter climate to boot. As far as comfort zones go this race used mine to mop the floor of the toilet.
The thing is as I always say, I am an optimist in life. Delusionally so, but as I’ve started to run longer and tougher races I am realistic to what I can achieve. I may be deluded but I’m not a complete idiot.
I entered this race on the premise that I knew it would be tough. I’d run up to 53 miles before in the Highland Fling – this was “only” a marathon more than that. There’s the natural step up. The fling wasn’t flat either, with a total elevation of something like 7500ft of climbing.
TransGrancanaria took things to a whole new level though with a total elevation gain of 28,000ft over the whole race. That’s the equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.
Anyone with any sense would be able to tell you there is a big difference between 7500ft and 28,000ft and by looking at the race profile you can see that the climbs aren’t gradual either. My problem however is that numbers tend to jump about on the page or screen like dyscalculia and I find it difficult to relate them to anything.
In my head I knew that 28,000ft would be a tough amount of climbing, but I didn’t really appreciate just how tough. I’ve seen videos of the race and looked at loads of great photos of the trail running masters in the office and they make it look easy. I learnt just how much it really isn’t.
My race number and elevation profile
I wasn’t going into this blind though. I’d done my training over the winter months and by and large it had gone very well. I’d run lots of long miles; I’d climbed lots of hills; and generally thought I was in as fit a state as I have been for quite some time. There hadn’t been any mountains in my training though, they’re kind of in short supply around Kingswood, but I made do with what I had to work with.
The race started at 23:00 in the north of the island and after catching the bus from Maspalomas we all sat around in Agaete watching the clock until the start. You could see nerves touching the people who were thinking too much about the upcoming challenge, you could see it in their eyes as they sheltered from the wind. The very idea of running for up to 30 hours through the night, up mountains, and through the heat of the Canarian day was enough to make any sane person question themselves.
The race is ready to start in Agaete
I spoke to some guys who were taking on this as their first ultra event. Whether they fully knew what they were letting themselves in for I didn’t know, but they certainly seemed trepedatious.
Once all the runners had arrived the small town in the north west of the island took on something of a party atmosphere. Crowds of cheering supporters and a loud drumming band made certain of the fact that nobody was asleep in bed. As the clock struck 23:00 the horde of runners chasing their own Ren McCormack set off into the night. I was one of them, both excited and nervous at the same time.
Once the first short section of road had been covered, we began our first climb. In the dark of the night the train of both red and white lights formed a chain of slow moving effort up and down the mountain. Whilst we might not have been able to see the tops of climbs through the night sky it was just possible to make out the trail of lights fade up into the distance for almost as far up as you could see. Suddenly the elevation wasn’t just a number on a computer screen, it was in front of us and it was brutal.
Up and down mountains and rocky technical terrain, we slowly followed the incredibly well marked out route, trying to run as much downhill as we could (there wasn’t really any flat). The downhill sections themselves were tricky. As well as the switchback nature of the trails the gravel and scree underfoot made it cautious going so as to not fall off the trail and down into the dark void.
As the time and miles slowly passed, the field became more thinly spread out. Every now and then I would come across a runner sat, looking broken, on a rock in the middle of the woods. Mentally as well as physically people around me were taking a beating. As I passed the 100km to go sign I myself began to question how far into that I could get.
608 runners stood toe-to-toe on the start line that night, and before the cut-off had passed just 349 had finished. I was one of the ones who didn’t.
Along with 259 others I became a DNF statistic – my second ever in around 15 years of running. After a touch over 8 hours in the mountains I had only covered just over 20 miles. As I arrived into the third checkpoint at Artenara as the sun and temperature began to rise, I was only within 15 minutes of the checkpoint closing. At that point I knew that the likelihood of reaching Maspalomas before the 05:00 cut-off was extremely slim, so along with my running buddy Paul we took the tough but reasoned decision to drop out.
We had completed two out of the three toughest climbs and no doubt we could have carried on a bit further, likely even making it as far as halfway, but we were pretty far back already and moving slow enough to realise that we were going to get timed out at some point. Better to drop now and live to fight another day. Sometimes it’s a case of knowing which battles to pick.
I’ve done lots of trail running over the years, and I’m certainly not afraid of some rough terrain and a bit of climbing, but for me the experience of running on single track trails up a mountain through the night wasn’t quite as I expected it to be. I had envisaged the terrain to be more runnable than it was. Sure, the big boys and girls at the front ran one hell of a lot more than I did, but even for them many of the ascents were hikes at best. Poles were essential equipment.
You could argue that it was naïve of me to expect to be able to run as well as I had hoped on that kind of terrain which I don’t have much experience of. Maybe that is the case, but I’m a firm believer that you’ll never find out where your limits are if you don’t go out there and push yourself to find them.
Was this race a push too far perhaps? Was it too far outside of my comfort zone? I don’t think so. It just wasn’t quite as I expected it to be. I don’t see it as a failure, sure we didn’t finish, but from the start at Agaete to where we dropped out at Artenara we were on our feet for 8 hours, covered a total of 20.75 miles in distance and climbed 11,204ft.
I have nothing by the utmost respect for anyone who completed the event, and for anyone who even tried. I learnt a lot from the event and it will certainly help shape the race choices I make in the future. Full credit to Arista for putting on an incredible event. The organisation was certainly pretty slick.
After a couple of days basking in the sun following the race, I returned home to Kingswood and its clock tower. I may have returned once more to Bomont, and in some senses my comfort zone, but Ren is already planning his next trip to the South Downs Way 100 in June.
There were no medals, but the prize for DNF was welcome