Funny, that actually went about as well as I could’ve realistically hoped. TGC had been on my to-do list for a couple of years now. Friends’ descriptions intrigued me, and I found the surface-level details to be attractive: a route that logically traverses a geographic feature (the entire island!), travel to a foreign land, high-level competition, a long but still sub-100mi distance. Nevertheless, I barely made the trip due to a lingering shin twinge that left me woefully underprepared for so much running so early in the season. However, when my shin showed signs of affirmative health two weeks before race day, I put my faith in my consistent uphill skiing over the past two months and several reports that the track was steep and technical (i.e. giving me lots of hiking breaks), and began making some last-minute plans to race.
Joe and I were fortunate to spend the week of the race with our Buff teammates at El Garanon Campamento, a relatively spartan cluster of cabins and bunkbeds only a couple hundred meters below the island’s high point—Pico de las Nieves (1938m). This camp would be the 82km aid station during the race and the push up to the summit would be the last significant uphill of the course before the marathon-long drop all the way back to the beach for the finish in Maspalomas.
Hanging out up high gave us a flavor for the non-resort communities and culture on the island, which significantly improved our overall opinion of the place and left us with a good mindset going into race day. The official race accommodations and finish line comprised an abomination of corporate, soulless hotels seemingly overwhelmingly frequented by affluent, continental vacationers interested only in pillaging the opulent buffets, getting sunburnt poolside, and perhaps hitting the links for a couple holes of golf (in the midst of one of the most arid, barren landscapes I’ve seen). Jolly fun if you can get it, I suppose, but it seems somewhat pointless to travel all the way to this isolated island to simply surround oneself with every material comfort imaginable.
I mean, come on, I was there to run a race, clearly an activity of higher purpose, cultural and geographical sensitivity, and overall utility and meaning. Right?
Agaete to Artenara (0-33km)
The race itself was notable for me in that I’ve probably never gone into such a high-profile event with so little specific preparation, or, really, confidence even. My past running successes have always sprung from a self-belief pragmatically grounded in what I like to think of as appropriately excessive physical preparation. These are so-called “ultra” marathons, afterall; ultra preparation has always seemed necessary. That certainly didn’t exist here. I wasn’t even sure my body would allow me to finish the race. Somehow, thankfully, that turned out to not be an issue.
As such, I went in more convinced than ever that a conservative start was the only rational race plan. If that was the intent, I’m not sure I achieved it—I don’t think I’ve ever felt such significant muscular fatigue so early in a race—but despite what felt like flagrant transgressions in effort and pace in the first 30km it never seemed to really get markedly worse and all fall apart (at least from a musculoskeletal or caloric standpoint) later on.
The course starts with a nearly immediate 4000′ climb off the pier in 8km or so, followed by a rollicking couple thousand feet descent and another 2k’+ climb. This first 30K or so were spectacular, engaging trail racing. It is one of the few sections of race course I’ve experienced that closely mimics the kind of track I enjoy most in training—steep, technical, heads-up, sometimes barely-there trail.
On the first climb, I was slightly surprised to find myself about where I usually do at the beginning of these big international events, i.e. a few dozen places deep in the field but only a few minutes in arrears of the action at the front. The good news was I felt better than expected on the spectacular climb into the night. The bad news was that by the top of the hill I was already beginning to feel a bit of strain in the ol’ pins. 10km deep. The training simply wasn’t there.
Oh well, the first descent was a total blast. Shortly after starting down at what felt to be a reasonable pace, Antoine Guillon came rocketing past in his Hokas and the chase was on. Even in the moment I felt that such abuse to the quads at so early a stage was pure folly, but sometimes in racing you just let competitive fire and instinct take over, so I tucked in behind him—with Gediminas Grinius right behind me—and we led the chase pack through some really fun sections of trail (or non-trail, in certain parts).
Soon enough we were at the bottom of the hill and next aid station (Tirma, 18km) where Grinius and I arrived and left together in the low-teens position-wise. He took the initiative on the 2000′ climb out of the aid, but it seemed once he realized he wasn’t going to drop me he backed off the effort a little and I eventually gapped him and most of my pursuers, gradually working my way into the top-10 until I was in something like 6th or 7th place at the 33km Artenara aid station. It had taken 4hr to go a measly 20mi or so—that should be an indication of the ruggedness of this section of the race.
Pau Zamora—team manager at Buff—was my ever-enthusiastic and impassioned crew all night long, so it was good to see him at the aid, get an update on the rest of the field, and get back to business.
Artenara to Teror (33-56km)
Shortly out of town I caught and passed Florent Bougin from Quebec—moving me into 5th place—and I could see Iker’s and another runner’s lights only another 2min or so up. The course through this whole section was pretty disappointing to me. For one, it featured a ton of running (my internal voice went something like, “Well, what did you expect? You gotta get across this big ol’ island somehow!”) on largely untechnical, contouring paths and roads with minimal elevation change. So I just focused on trying to run as efficiently as possible without battering my legs, especially my shin.
The other problem (for me, at least) was that I went off course. Twice. Holy frustrating. The first time it happened I was in a great headspace, could see two runners only 90sec in front of me (I imagined Iker and Yan), and then I took a little flagged goat path off the street (just as we’d already done several times previously) and by time I realized I was no longer seeing any flags an even more frustrated Asian runner came back at me, explaining that this couldn’t be it. By time we made it back to the road, at least four runners had passed us (including Grinius, I was never ahead of him again during the race) and I’d wasted six or seven hard-earned minutes.
Ugh. So it goes. I reminded myself to stay calm—we were only five and a half hours in—and that things would naturally work themselves out over the next few miles. I dropped my fellow misguided companion and quickly caught two runners—I think maybe Freddy Thevenin and Didrik Hermansen?—and a short while later passed Johan Lantz (who would apparently break his leg 15-20km later?!).
And then, on another back-alley contouring road, I missed a turn again, this time continuing down the road when I should’ve actually taken the left down the goat path. It was marked perfectly—I take full responsibility—I think it was just that time of night where the brain gets pretty foggy waiting for the sun to come up. This one cost me another 4-5min, and by now we were finally rolling into Teror, which I did with Johan (who, along with Didrik and Antoine Guillon) had repassed me yet again on my latest birdwalk).
At one point coming into town Johan was limping pretty badly so I didn’t think he’d be much of a factor anymore, and then when I got to the actual aid station, Iker was still there. In my mind, Iker was the absolute class of the field, so I was pretty excited about this, especially since I was certain I would be able to make a strong move on the next big climb right out of town.
Teror to Tejeda (56-71km)
I had my first little bad physical patch at the start of this beautiful, steep climb up the ridge to Talayon. I ate my last gel of the race at the base of the hill, and then proceeded to watch Johan just march away from me on the uphill. Jesus, where did that come from?
The good news was that after briefly backing off the pace I started feeling solid again and all of a sudden Iker was in view and then so was basically the entire race. I believe I was in 8th place before I caught and passed Iker, and I think the top eight of us were all within 5min of each other at that point, which, on a slow steep climb like that is no more than a quarter mile of actual trail. Fun stuff; this kind of back and forth is my absolute favorite part of racing!
Iker and I ran together for a bit before I passed him, and I was feeling good. He said he felt “dead” and had nothing. I almost wrote him off, but then I remembered, “No, this is Iker Karrera, he’s going to be tough.” Almost immediately, I passed and dropped a WAA runner that I didn’t know, and then Didrik and then Antoine, and only Sondre, Grinius, Johan, and Yan were in front of me and I could see Grinius’ light.
Unfortunately, the ridge dropped for a bit which allowed Guillon to catch back up before I dropped him on the next uphill and then, good lord, there was Iker back from the dead, marching with authority again just as the sky was beginning to lighten and the calima haze became fully apparent (it was very windy on the ridges, and when this happens it sometimes brings in dust/sand from the Sahara, a haze known as “calima”).
After passing a writhing Lantz in the middle of the road (he was being attended to by medical personnel), Iker and I reached the summit of the climb, clicked off our lamps and he promptly began to drop me. Gradually but inexorably. At this point I was mainly limited by the blisters on the balls of each of my feet and an overall malaise. Other than the final 15 miles (which were going to be tough no matter what) this downhill into Tejeda was the definite mental low-point for me in the race. As is wont to happen in these long races, I just lost my mojo for some reason, and as I was refilling my water bottles at the aid station in town, Didrik passed me and Antoine arrived just as I was leaving.
Tejeda to Pico de Las Nieves (71-85K)
I stalked Didrik for much of the climb up to Roque Nublo. Maybe two-thirds of the way up, I finally passed him, doing so gave me a welcome shot of energy (I’d been operating on primarily orange slices since Teror), and I ran up to Roque with loads of optimism. The quick out and back there further stoked things by showing me that I’d already put about 3min on Didrik (though Antoine was close behind him) and was only 5min and <2min off of Grinius and Sondre, respectively.
By time we reached Garanon at 82K, I’d pulled even with Sondre for 4th/5th place, but unfortunately made a bit of a mess of the aid station transition here. After re-filling bottles, chugging water, and eating some oranges, I was surprised to run into Iker at the gear-check table, and in my haste to leave with him (with the drop of Yan, we were now in 2nd/3rd place behind only Grinius, who had already departed) forgot my third half-liter water bottle with my crew. I only realized this a couple of minutes down the trail, however (dammit!), but because race rules required a 1.5L carrying capacity, I knew I had to return to get the bottle. Ugh. In the process, both Sondre and Didrik repassed me. My accumulated, self-inflicted, completely avoidable time-losses on the day were certainly frustrating, but my costliest transgression was still to come.
Nieves to Tunte (85-95K)
The climb up to Las Nieves was steep but short enough, and after a few minutes, my legs started to feel really good on the downhill to Tunte. Knowing that things were only going to get hotter, I decided to capitalize and really opened things up, dancing over the technical, steep cobbles and soon blowing by both Sondre and then Iker, much to my surprise. I was even more surprised that I hadn’t yet caught Didrik, and that quickly blossomed into disbelief when I saw Antoine approaching from behind and eventually passing me. I’d been running the last section of trail legitimately quickly—far more quickly than I’d ever imagined I would’ve been capable of at this point in the race—and yet here was the diminutive Frenchmen easing by me with his trademark smile and twinkle in his eye. Dammit, maybe there is something to those Hokas! If nothing else, there continued to be a ton of exciting racing and shake-ups in the top-10—even the top-5—very deep into this race.
Tunte to the Finish
It was hot in Tunte, but I was still very much in the hunt and arriving at ~11:25 elapsed (the same as the leaders last year) I was still hopeful that I could get this thing done in substantially sub-15hr, maybe even approach 14:30 and secure a spot on the podium. Between chugging water, hoarding orange slices, and dunking my head in a bucket, I didn’t even realize that Antoine had left town before us, but Sondre and I left together and I quickly re-dropped him, even before reaching the edge of the village.
I thought I pinned the next 1000′ grunt after town pretty well, feeling decent despite the heat and haze and with only 25K left to run. Unfortunately, from the top of the ridge, everything quickly deteriorated. First, one of my flasks broke, spewing Coke everywhere, and then I just started to wilt and wobble in the unrelenting sun exposure on the unyielding dirt-and-rocks road.
The rest of the race was mostly just a blur of ever-increasing discomfort. My blistered paws absolutely loathed the steep, rocky descent into the 109K Arteara aid station. And by that point I’d been out of water for a while and was a pretty beaten man. Rehydrating in the aid, Sondra repassed me, but I left only about 90sec later, so was sure I’d catch back up quickly. Not catching up was the first inkling I had that I was off-course. The other was the complete lack of flagging. It was soul-crushing to realize this and turn around and run back uphill—all I wanted was to be finished with this damn thing NOW!—but that’s how these things go. With my 12min excursion I was now solidly in 5th place and just shuffled down the road for what felt like days, absolutely baking in the sun.
A handful of runners passed me with authority on this flat, dusty, road section, so by time we reached the horrifying last bit in the dry, concrete-and-stone river/canal bed I was fairly certain I was no longer even in the top-10 (it turns out every single one of these runners was, in fact, competing in a different, shorter race). The final pass, however, came with <1km to go, just as we were directed onto a quarter-mile section of loose beach sand (pretty frustrating and ridiculous in the moment) where Cyril Cointre’s Hoka’s wide platforms offered some tangible assistance. Admittedly, I hardly cared at this point, as it felt to me as if I’d already been passed a half-dozen times. The race organizers had tacked a puzzling extra 2-3km onto the finish from last year (this makes Grinius’ CR all the more impressive, not forgetting that he also got off-course for a few minutes), curling up off the beach and back into the maze of hotels and conference centers. Coupled with my own extra 20-25min of off-course meandering, I’d easily covered 130K on the day. Finally, I was done.
Post-finish was fairly rough for me. The heat had definitely touched me—I was nauseous for most of the rest of the day—and my appetite was frustratingly suppressed until Tuesday or so following the race. Overall, however, it was a very positive experience and I’m very grateful that my shin seems to have cooperated with no lingering repercussions (fingers crossed) and that it was able to make a turn-around in just enough time to even make the trip possible. Given my non-ideal and unconventional preparations, I’m thinking of it as an unexpected and promising start to the season.