Transvulcania

“It is wise to think of the dynamics that we think of as ‘failure’ and ‘success’ as not truly existing, because they do not, not from the position of truth, only from the position of judgment.” – Gary Zukov, The Seat of the Soul

 

“Attune yourself to nature, and understand what nature demonstrates so clearly – there is no such thing as failure… You have not failed, you have moved further along the learning curve.” – John Perkins, Psychonavigation

Staring into the great Caldera de Taburiente from somewhere near Pico de la Nieve on the Transvulcania race course, I contemplated what it meant to fail. I sat on a flat lava rock that somebody had carefully arranged into a seat about 15 feet off the trail along this great volcanic ridge line, taking in a view which included the entire swath of rocky peaks and points which this trail race traversed, all the way down to the black sand beaches of the Atlantic Ocean nearly 9,000 feet below. To my left was the peak of Las Deseadas, which I had run over in the dawn hours, feet treading continuously up the black lava sand as the orange sun rose over the great ocean of clouds which stretched away to Africa. Behind me on the horizon stood the giant volcanic cone of El Teide on the far off island of Tenerife, the only piece of land to pierce the bank of clouds which still rested in that direction. To my right curved one long unbroken ridge stretching around the entire caldera for another 22 miles, passing by the bare brown highpoint of the run – Roque de los Muchachos – still more than 10 miles distant and adorned with the white domes of star-gazing observatories. In front of me and so far below me so as to appear only as a scattered dusting of white dots amongst the surrounding green of the banana plantations was the town Los Llanos de Aridane, where this crazy race would eventually finish. But as I sat and tried to enjoy the view with one runner after another in a slow but non-stop trickle, a drip-drip of moving humanity, jogging past on the dusty trail, each one glancing at me, uttering an out of breath “estas bien?” before moving on inexorably towards their goal, I was trying to accept that I would not be crossing that finish line so far below.

Fuencaliente Lighthouse in the daylight.

Transvulcania is certainly like no other race I have ever done or witnessed. At the starting line in the dark of morning on a tiny point of land jutting out into the great wide ocean, beneath a lighthouse buffeted by winds which felt strong enough to lift the mast right off of a ship, I stood tightly packed into a corral with 3,000 other maniacal runners for 45 minutes, doing my best to stretch and get my gear situated perfectly in my small running pack while standing shoulder to shoulder with babbling European runners adorned head to toe in the fanciest and most choreographed spandex running outfits I had ever seen. AC/DC blasted us from speakers larger than those at a stadium show as people bounced up and down and turned on their white headlamps and red back lamps, bathing us all in an eery but fascinating light. I was starting to anticipate Guns ‘n Roses taking the stage and began to look around for somebody to sell me a beer, but instead a handsome man wearing a sombrero shouted “VAAAMOOOOS!!!!” over a loudspeaker, so letting out a collective scream that would have made Bigfoot or the Incredible Hulk proud we all tore off our shirts and charged raging and foaming at the mouth into the inky black night! Except for the tearing our shirts off part, that would have been too American… Instead we did something even more crazy and ridiculous: prancing abo in our Tour de France costumes all 3,000 of us simultanously sprinted at full speed up a 200 meter long stretch of tarmac before crashing like a sea breaker into a one-lane single-track trail heading straight up the black volcano. This process did indeed induce some people to scream and foam at the mouth – it was awesome! Being an American, I partook in this foreign process with the greatest of zeal and gusto, stumbling up the black rocky hillside while trying to tear my shirt off (stupid rip-stop nylon!) and learned the hard way why so many Euros choose to run with ski poles even though we were certainly not intending to ski – they use them as weapons! Even more awesome, except I forgot to bring my own weapons!

Running through the town of Los Canarios. Yep, blurry

After about five minutes of this madness my heart-rate monitor overheated and exploded in a fiery ball, making me wonder what exactly my heart was doing inside my chest. But soon things settled into what I consider normal for the beginning of a race, people spread out enough that I could begin to hear my own breathing, find my own rhythm, be happy I was near the front and not still duking it out in the Thunderdome under the lighthouse for a spot on the trail, and realize that I’d better slow down cause there’s still 49 miles to go until this ends. Things remained normal for another half hour or so until we arrived at the first town along the race course – Los Canarios – and were greeted by literally thousands of people lining the trail, the road, hanging out windows and balconies, packed in five deep against barricades, screaming and clapping and cheering for the runners in the dark, all to more loudspeakers and AC/DC and flood lights and red carpets and who knows what else, I might have missed something as I ran by. This went on for well over a mile and proved instantly that the fine people of La Palma are the greatest sports fans on Earth! In the US we line the streets of our city to cheer for and catch a real life glimpse of millionaires with fake muscles who are paid millions of dollars to “represent” our city, and are thus lauded as the pillars of our society, while they flaunt their newly earned diamond rings and trophies to us for winning a contrived game which most closely resembles war, all of which we watched on TV while drunk. In La Palma they spend all day picnicing outside while happily following and cheering for the thousands of friendly and healthy tourists who have come to visit their island to appreciate its natural beauty in an inspiring, if not somewhat puzzling and ludicrous, way, while also bringing all of their happy friends and family to absolutely flood the local economy in money. They were amongst the happiest and most welcoming people I have ever met, but then again, I don’t think anyone could find a reason to be unhappy on La Palma…

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Mustang Trail Race

Running across a bridge in Mustang – Richard Bull photo

“Every place distills an atmosphere–a state of mind–that can more easily be felt than described, a something that overshadows all activities and bathes all events in a peculiar light. Some places have a feeling of sleepiness, others one of loneliness and desolation. But every place in Mustang was, I felt, characterized by dynamism and an enthusiasm that infected the entire population.” – Michel Peissel, “Mustang”

“A rocky cave in the wilderness was the home of your spiritual Father. A deserted and solitary place is a divine abode.” – Marpa the Translator, from “The Life of Milarepa”

The wall of Lo Manthang on a fresh morning after snowfall – Richard Bull photo

The idea of visiting the forbidden kingdom of Mustang first entered my mind as I descended from the summit of the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna Circuit last year. The Thorung La is the highest point on the famous circuit and from it’s 17,000+ ft. summit the views in every direction are expansive to say the least. Technically, as one descends into the town of Muktinath far below you are entering the Nepali district of Mustang, but the heart of the kingdom, the area which the country restricts access to – Upper Mustang – remains mostly invisible behind 4,000 meter passes and peaks to the north. As Paulo and I walked slowly down from the culmination of our Annapurna trek, I peered restlessly off into that dry and desolate land hidden from view, feeling as if I could perhaps stand a little higher on my tippy toes and see what lay beyond the barren dirt hills, catch a glimpse of a magical land which had no reality to me but was only a concept. I don’t know why I was drawn to look yearningly in that direction in the first place, except perhaps for the mystique the area generated amongst the other Annapurna trekkers. The high cost for a permit and the low number of trekkers allowed in by the government of Nepal turned it into a fable around evening dinner tables in guesthouses from Chame to Manang. Everyone seemed to agree on one thing about Mustang: while very few had visited it, they all had heard that it was amazing. But our trail bent off in another direction, which we eagerly pursued in search of more adventure and growth, and Mustang was filed away into the very large mental bin titled, “places I would like to go one day.”

Flash forward almost exactly one year and I was poised to enter Upper Mustang from the town of Kagbeni, a green farming oasis on the edge of the wide stony Kali Gandhaki river gorge. The water carves its way through the hills and mountains blocking the way into Upper Mustang, yet still bends out of sight just above town so that the mystery of what lies to the north prevails. The circumstances which led to me being there were so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that I can only percieve them as a long tangled thread perfectly described as, “what is meant to be.” If I had set out with a firm intention to visit Mustang within a year it seems likely that other plans, obligations, new decisions – Life – would have inevitably intervened, as it always seems to do. But instead Life decided that my path needed an adventure through Mustang in order to develop the way that it is supposed to, and so the many random ocurances and decisions that could only be seen as related after the fact worked their magic, and I stood alone in Kagbeni awaiting the group with which I would venture into Mustang.

A happy group of runners above Kongcholing Cave on stage 4. L to R -> Mira Rai, Matt Moroz, Upendra Sunewar, PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa, Nicola Bassi, Marco Baretta, Andy Wellman – Richard Bull photo

The reason for me going to Mustang was an event which was right up my alley – the Mustang Trail Race. This second year race winds its way through the highlights of the land in eight running stages spread out over the course of nine days and covers roughly 200km of rocky desert on very runnable trails mostly at elevations of around 4000 meters. As the culmination of a seven week long “Nepal spring training running camp” of my own design, it was the perfect chance to inject a significant amount of volume into my training (the most running I had ever done in one week) as well as some intensity and speed – and I would get to explore Mustang! Buzzing with anticipation would be how I would describe myself at that moment.

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