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Transgrancanaria 360° Part 1 - The winter wonderland

Winter. It will always be too cold and too long, at least for me. Well, maybe this year we’re experiencing one a bit milder than the usual, but running in cold weather, all those countless layers of clothes, dark evenings, and struggling with choosing the route without too much ice is just overwhelming. This simply kills all the joy of running! It’s such a relief then in February, as usual, I’m able to put aside all this winter wonderland madness and go to a happy place far, far away - Gran Canaria. Don’t get me wrong - Latvia is happy enough a place, but in the winter it's no match for a land of sun, beaches, mountains, and perfect running conditions.  Every vacation should be spent with a purpose, therefore a certain race is on my schedule for this one, too. Transgrancanaria 360°. It is really too hard for me and my physical condition is far from peaking, but it didn’t stop me last time. Should anything be different now? There aren’t many things that can hold me back when I have adventures on my mind. I can't come up with any good reason not to participate in this 264 km challenge with 13265 meters vertical climb. It was an unforgettable and exciting adventure back in 2017. All the pain and despair have been forgotten a long time ago.

My autumn laziness and undertraining led me to back pain, which inevitably leads(led?) me to further undertraining. I’ve begun to wonder - why on earth have I signed up for this? Let me tell you a little bit about this “race”. It is not for the faint-hearted. The Transgrancanaria 360º is an individual and autonomous mountain test. The 264-kilometer route is not marked. You have to follow the route using a navigation device, a map, and a compass. Also, be prepared to face the changing environment and weather conditions, lack of sleep, fatigue, eating disorders, and of course, my favorite one - hallucinations. This time it will be a bit different. I’m going to face this challenge alone. Last time I had a fantastic companion, my friend Lauma. Those were crazy, fun, and awesome 101 hours, but at the same time - it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So, why did I sign up for this again? Let me think... I know: I could certainly use some good entertainment and a bit of adrenaline! 

In December, when I’m back in my normal training process, it’s time to work on a race plan. I’ve decided that this time distance should be covered in 80 hours instead of 101. Although it is not exactly a competition I’ve got no intention of finishing in the last place again. As reckless as it sounds, I think it should be quite possible. I think I should do more running at the beginning, spend less time resting at roadside cafeterias and base camps and have less sleep. That should do it. And then the fancy hotel room will be waiting for me starting from Friday. That means every hour I don’t spend there will be pain.

The day of departure has come completely unexpected as usual, of course. Oh, that beautiful island! My winter fairytale! I’ve missed it so much, or probably I’ve simply missed summer itself. The hotel I’m staying in Maspalomas is quite fancy and not far from the ocean so I can spend some fabulous days there before the race, doing almost nothing - just like those fat, happy Gran Canarian cats, lazily basking in the sun. That is what I call a real winter wonderland! I’m trying to avoid running because of my back problem; it’s not completely healed yet, but still I have to inspect the first kilometers of the route and test the navigation device. It’s not very good for me to spend my days alone, I find myself surrendering to the temptation of shopping rather quickly. I enjoy everything. I’m overwhelmed with the excitement about the coming race, and nothing can spoil my mood. And then there’s the splashing in the pool, sunbathing, and shopping. Also. I am busy planning my spare equipment and for my food supplies to be sent to several basecamps along the route. There are 5 bags to be packed with necessary things- food, batteries, power banks, clothes, underwear, shower gels and towels - anything I might need. Everything has to be planned to perfection - even a single mistake could have serious consequences. I could find myself in the middle of nowhere with no food. What’s even worse - I could end up without batteries for my navigator or headlamp in complete darkness.

Race day morning. It’s 6 am, and I’m already up. Mom is calling me on the phone several times to be sure I won’t miss my big event. Everything’s ready. My hair is done, hydration system and bottles filled up. I’m worried sick and not able to sleep any longer anyway so I’m good to go. Oh, no! My backpack is way too heavy! There are 3 liters of water, 10 gel packs, a storm shelter, a cape, waterproof pants and jacket, spare clothes, two headlamps, a pile of batteries, a phone, and a navigator in it. A bunch of other things as well, essentially necessary, of course. 99 percent of it is mandatory equipment, which means it has to be there no matter what. How can I ever run with this weight or climb a mountain? No way! My outrage is not likely to change anything, though, so along with my backpack, I put on a smile and head out to the Expo Meloneras. Here I am, living my dream, right?

 The last moments before the start I spend together with other Latvians - Anita and Valters. Their bags are as big and heavy as mine is, but we cannot help noticing that some other participants’ bags are rather small. It looks like somebody’s cheating - but that is none of our business anyway. It’s time to take our places at the starting line. Brief crowding in the starting corridor and not much waiting left. The time has come so off we go. I’ve decided not to use the navigator for the first 10 kilometers. I know the way, I’ve done this part of the race while testing the navigator. The route is quite picturesque in the beginning. I’m trying to get used to the weight of my bag. Nobody seems to be in a hurry. The first kilometers are lovely and runnable. We run on a paved promenade which leads us to a rocky beach. It is not suitable for running if you care about your ankles, but it’s beautiful. The track makes a loop through a small village and returns to follow a trail on a rocky cliff along the ocean shore. I’m trying to enjoy the ocean view as long as I can because very soon we will be entertained by merely succulents and dull wasteland views for quite a long stretch. 

Time to bid farewell to the ocean and head into the island. I’ve been pretty happy with the weather so far, but now it is getting rather hot. The dirt road is exposed to the sun and pretty hilly. A tunnel under the highway, a single big tree in the middle of nowhere, and a very steep climb. Soon after this the rest of the course is unknown to me. This is the very point where I turned around to head back to Maspalomas on my test run three days ago.

My Latvian buddies Anita and Valters are too fast for me as I start mixing running with power hiking breaks. I’m too lazy to look for my navigator which is hidden somewhere deep in the backpack, so I use a map to follow the course. Although there is not much of a view to enjoy, the road suddenly starts descending, and I feel strong enough to run. This kind of happiness never lasts long - the first serious hill is right ahead - 500 meters of vertical climb. Suddenly I find myself all alone, and to my great disappointment, I’ve lost the track. This sucks, I have missed the turn, I should find my navigator after all. Nah, still too lazy. The map will do. A steep slope, a little shortcut through the bushes, and I’m back on track. I should be more cautious, though. A small group of runners is approaching from behind. They are fast. I’m bad at uphills, but I always catch up on downhills. This makes me change paces with this group again and again. I’m trying to keep up with them until we reach the top of the mountain. Oh, the delightful descent! It’s time to fly!

Running downhill is so pleasant that I almost miss Waypoint 1 - enter the tunnel. A Polish guy I found myself running together with announces now that we are not on track. He turns around and disappears as I’m finally getting out my navigator. The device shows that I am on track, which can only mean the tunnel is somewhere beneath me. How do I find the entrance? As I’m looking around, a French couple Celine and Herve approaches looking as confused as I do. They decide to go down a cliff so steep that I don’t even consider joining them. There has to be another way! Where did the Polish guy go? He hasn’t returned, which means he found the way. As I’m walking back slowly, I notice a stream below the roadside. That should be it, I guess. I have to slide down into a deep ditch. Finally, I can see it - the entrance. Are you serious?

This is not a tunnel, it’s a dark cave full of water. At least there seems to be light at the end of it. I pull myself together and jump in the dirty, brown water. It is knee-deep and freezing. How refreshing! I have to bend down to get through the cave, but to my surprise, the road after this turns out to be a concrete drainage channel full of water. I am not afraid of getting my feet wet, however, this is very unusual. The view in front of me is breathtaking. This drainage channel is built right in the wall of a cliff. It makes kind of an open balcony on a steep wall of the valley. Running is not possible in water that deep. I just have to wade forward. Should it be called power wading?

The roadbook says this “tunnel” is 3 kilometers long. Nice... Suddenly I notice a girl in front of me. She is balancing on the concrete edge of the channel. It looks dangerous. She says she doesn’t want to get her feet wet. That’s Cristina from Romania. I encourage her to jump in and enjoy this unrefined but very refreshing entertainment together. Pretty soon the walls of the channel close above our heads and we find ourselves in a real tunnel. In the beginning, it has openings to let in some light, but in a few moments it probably goes deeper into the rock and we are surrounded by complete darkness. Cristina puts on her headlamp. The situation is surreal. I have this slightly claustrophobic feeling. The dim light of Cristina’s torch casts spooky shadows and reflections on the wet, moldy walls. The splashes of our footsteps are echoing through the tunnel, making an enormous noise. The guy following us is splashing the filthy water so violently, that my back is all wet. It is refreshing, of course, but considering all the mold and stench, I don’t want this kind of a shower. Ouch!  My head bumps against the uneven ceiling, again and again. It was a good idea to wear a cap. Will this tunnel ever end? I miss the sunlight! We’ve been wading for too long. Our pace seems to be good, though. There is a group of runners ahead. It looks like they are waiting in a queue to get out of here at last. 

Here it is - Waypoint 2 - exit the tunnel. It’s not that simple. The exit is a vertical opening in the ceiling. You have to crawl up to get out. It seems too high for me. There are a lot of guys around, but nobody is offering any help. So Cristina and I manage to help each other by pushing and pulling. Wow, after such a long time in complete darkness, the sunlight is blinding! A bunch of runners are sitting near the exit with their shoes off. Oh, their poor, little feet got wet… Sissies! We, girls, are not wasting any more seconds here. The rocky downhill path is a feast for my feet. I rush forward to enjoy the wind in my hair at last. The gorgeous serpentine trail ends on a road, that leads us to a small village. For a moment I consider buying some refreshments in a local shop, but there’s no time to waste. To be honest, I need to pee. To my disappointment, I don’t see a public toilet in this village. My need gets more and more urgent as I cannot find any place to hide even outside the village. Only wasteland embellished with some thorn bushes. Not much of privacy, but this will have to do. I step a few steps off the roadside, squat down, and…. Aaaah! The surface beneath me cracks open and I fall down with a scream. Now I’m hanging with my bare rear end in this pit, an old basement or whatever it is, holding on to the dry, thorny vegetation around its edges. Well, this sucks. Those darn thorns! The situation is so embarrassing. The thing I’m worried about the most is that somebody can see this mess. I’m pulling myself out of the pit with tears in my eyes. Oh, that hurts! My palms are full of thorns and bleeding. I’m able to take out only some of them. Time to use some disinfectant spray. Luckily, I have one. As upset as I am, I have to run further. It’s relieving to have a long-sleeve shirt and leggings. The bruises could be much worse without them.

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