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…

Except me as I sat on my rock staring down into the caldera… After watching the already mentioned stunning orange sunrise over El Teide and the ocean of clouds, the race continued upwards, finally cresting the tops of the first summits of the course after around 7,000 feet of continuous climbing. We descended from these sandy summits down to the low point of the insanely long and continuous ridge which splits the entire island in half and defines basically the entire 50 mile run, to a point called El Pilar. There was an aid station at El Pilar, and another road crossing, so again there were thousands of screaming healthy people lining the trail in this otherwise peaceful forest. Lulled into complacency perhaps by the huge sandy descent we had just come descended, I bombed down the trail into this throng. I caught a toe on something, a rock most likely, and as often happens in trail running, tripped forwards while running full speed downhill, but at the end of this superman-esque dive lay a large immovable volcanic pumice stone which I slammed into head first. With the crowds present it is likely that hundreds of people witnessed this graceful display. I lay in the trail, holding my head, as all sorts of onlookers immediately loomed over me, blocking the trail completely as other runners tried to move through, women were yelling in spanish into cell phones for the medical crew, and all I could think of was, “I have to finish this race, I don’t want to have to stop.” After laying there for 30 seconds or so assessing myself – I never lost consciousness, didn’t feel dizzy, could see just fine, didn’t feel that nauseating about-to-go-into-shock feeling, could move my extremities – I ignored the WFR protocol for a hard knock on the head (immobilize the neck) and just sat up, then stood up, asked about blood on my head (“si, si, un poco sangre”) and started walking down the trail before I lost control of my own situation in the big crowd. I wanted to decide for myself whether I could continue, as I would have if I had taken a fall alone in the wilderness, and so just walked away from the scene, people clapping and looking really concerned at the same time.

only running photo of me, immediately post fall.

Since I fell right before the huge thronging aid station I was able to walk directly to the medical tent, which despite my urge to continue the race I deemed prudent considering I didn’t know how bad the head wound was. I arrived just as the litter team was scrambling out the door to go fetch me, making me happy I had decided to move on my own. I went in, sat down, and asked about my head, but the nice ladies there became very fixated on my palm and knee, which had lost quite a lot of skin and had some pretty epic flappers. They trimmed these up for me nicely, although slowly, I kept having to ask them to hurry up, and kept asking about my head, but they said the head was no big deal, so I signed their release form and left, which they seemed quite surprised about. As I pushed through the crowds and ducked under the barricade to regain the trail my mind was still in race mode, wondering how much time I had spent with this fiasco (15 minutes), but my body said, “why don’t you take it easy for a few miles and settle back into this game.” So I jogged easily along the forest road out of El Pilar, feeling surprisingly good all things considered, trying to continually assess my body’s situation. But by the time I arrived at the end of the forest road four miles later it seemed as if the adrenaline rush had passed and the wheels were starting to come off the bus.

The full ridge around the caldera, taken on a scouting mission at El Pilar. We ran the entire ridgeline in this photo from right to left.

The first sign of how the fall might limit my day was pretty easily noticeable in my neck. I must have suffered some whiplash as it was painful to move my head from side to side to look around. Soon the erector muscles in my back tightened up and became progressively more painful. This development is not entirely unexpected during an ultra run, but not after only 20 miles, and creating such pain that I found it impossible to run, relegating me to walking, even during the downhills. During this time I encountered another American who was also not having his best day – Ty from Wyoming – who I walked past while he was hunched over vomiting next to the trail. I had been missing the opportunity to talk with people during this long run as I usually do because I was unable to converse with any real meaning in Spanish, so I walked patiently as Ty caught up so we could share some words. The gist of our talk, which only lasted a few minutes, was that we had both invested far too much time and money in this race to consider dropping out, and so we each encouraged the other to stick with it despite the pain and figure out a way to finish no matter what. These nice words seemed to rally each of us, and I stumbled back into a run, while Ty became stronger and disappeared ahead of me. Unfortunately my “wind” only lasted about five minutes before the pain returned even worse than it had been all day. Electric pulses of pain shot from my neck down my back with every step. I continued to slow down until I was walking like a little child who is tired and doesn’t want to move. Looking ahead along the very long way that I had to go, all visible to me, I began to seriously consider that I might not be able to finish this race, not at this pace and with this amount of pain. I thought of numerous running friends at home and their advice that no matter how bad it gets, don’t give up, cause eventually it will all turn around. Just keep on moving was my motto, and I walked onwards, pulling over to the side of the trail every 20-30 seconds as I heard footsteps approach from behind to let runners blow on by. I felt miserable, was feeling very emotional about my misery, and continued to wonder if I would be able to keep on like this. But as things continued to degrade to the point of needing to frequently stop to bend over and just grimace to endure the pain and let it pass, I understood that continuing onwards for another 25 miles wasn’t going to happen, and so I crawled my way off to my rock overlooking the caldera to ponder my situation alone and try to take in the view.

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I guess perhaps it is worth explaining how much this race meant to me so that one might understand why I was so distressed at the prospect of not being able to finish when it seemed obvious that given the circumstances, which cannot always be controlled, ending the run was a logical conclusion and not one to be ashamed of. Transvulcania was to me essentially a carrot on the end of a very long stick that I had placed in front of myself in order to “rescue” my life. I had signed up for the race almost the day after it had taken place a year earlier and used it as that one goal far off in the future for which to plan, to dream, and to keep myself focused on moving forward in a way that inspired me. Last year an unexpected divorce had left me emotionally reeling and struggling to accept that many things were no longer a part of my life – the person whom I loved, my pets, my home, our goals and dreams, my purpose – essentially everything that had grounded me and made up my day-to-day life. Unable at the time to puzzle out the how or why of what had happened, I wandered around lost in life, unable to focus on work, not knowing where to live or what to do, having no idea what I was supposed to do with myself. Of course I did a lot of running, usually very fast out of frustration and anger. Feeling uncomfortable and anxious anywhere near home in Colorado I decided that the only solution was to travel, as soon as possible, to as foreign a place as could be found, for as long as I needed to. The greatest of blessings was that my brother Paulo was able to join me and together we went to Nepal to wander around amongst the mighty Himalaya.

As time went on and the two of us wandered day in and day out amongst the mountains I slowly gained the realization that my new life was not going to just create itself, but that I was going to have to create it for myself. Furthermore, I had virtually no ties or anchors to limit in any way what I might conceivably create for myself, except for money, of course. But in that regard I was lucky enough to own a business from which I could continue to earn a little bit of money by working on the internet wherever I might be, as well as the ability to live very frugally which was ingrained in me through years spent on the road as a dirtbag rock climber in my youth. So little by little, through many conversations with Paulo and much musing on the trail, it became obvious that in order to be true to myself and what I was now beginning to understand was an incredible opportunity, I had to go “all-in” and adopt the lifestyle which was the most inspiring I could think of. Thinking about the dreams of my youth I couldn’t get it out of my head that if I could be anything at all that I wanted to be, then I would be a professional athlete.

Paulo and I in Nepal in 2013.

Like many youngsters I played all sorts of sports, loved watching sports on television, and idolized pro athletes. But I was sort of runty as a child and never excelled at any of the team sports I played, even though I enjoyed them. Thoughts of ever becoming a professional or olympic athlete had fully evaporated by the time I discovered rock climbing in my mid-teens. Rock climbing, as well as mountain climbing, ice climbing, basically any sort of climbing became an obsession which I enjoyed mostly because, even though it is a physical activity, success and failure is most often dictated by psychological factors. Climbing for me was always about traveling and adventure, but the most addictive and beneficial part was that it was an exploration of ones own mental processes. As I learned more and more how to control my mind in difficult situations, and therefore succeed in my goals more frequently, or at least avoid complete disaster, I was also able to see how these dynamics played out in the professional sports I watched on television. I envied the uber-athletes that I watched on TV their great fortune to have to do nothing but focus unremittingly on perfecting their craft, which was also their passion, and wished that I had the ability to do the same thing without the distraction of needing to work at something else. So, given the unique opportunity to do anything I wanted with my life, I made the decision while in Nepal that I was going to live and train as if I was a professional athlete. Mountain running was the logical sport for me, as its where my inspiration and thoughts perpetually lie, and so I signed up for Transvulcania because not only is it an incredibly inspiring race in a beautiful place, which should be good enough reason for anyone to run it, but it has quickly become perhaps the most famous and competitive of mountain ultras. I needed a goal, a carrot, which I could aspire towards to follow through with this idea of life, and Transvulcania became it.

I must point out, lest people think I am delusional, that I did not actually believe that if I spent a year training and thinking mountain running like a professional that I expected to end up as one. Besides understanding that the term “professional mountain runner” is pretty much a myth except for a couple lucky and ungodly talented individuals, I knew that even despite my best efforts there was virtually no chance that I would find myself amongst the most elite. The idea was more that given the opportunity to do anything I wanted, and knowing myself well, I would sincerely regret not taking the chance to live my highest passion, my highest dream. Instead I believed that giving myself a year and pretending my highest dream into reality, I would automatically put forward the very best version of myself to the world, stay in the flow of my own highest interests, and would therefore, so I reasoned, give myself the best and most inspiring opportunities for creating a future life which I wanted to live, meet the kind of people I wanted to meet, and represent myself to the world as truthfully as I could. The attitude was to treat this seriously, do my very best, and then just see what happens and where I am at when it is all over.

Skiing above Silverton – home.

To this end I went about recreating my life. I ended my travels by flying home to Colorado and moving to Silverton, buried deep in the San Juan mountains, which I believe is the most beautiful area of the state and is a mountain runners dreamland. I moved into a house with another ultra runner, one who is far more experienced than me and who could guide me with tidbits of running lore gained through years of learning the hard way. I went for daily long runs high in the mountains, following my bliss and getting into great shape before succumbing to a wicked case of shin splints in both legs, most likely brought on by my over-zealous attitude. But undeterred I read countless books on training and laid out a plan for myself to get healthy and fit again. I helped crew for a friend at large and competitive races while I was recovering from my injuries, trying to watch and learn everything I could from an outside perspective. Testing my recovery I went on long runs in Zion, Canyonlands, and the Grand Canyon. To build fitness without stressing my legs I spent the entire winter ski mountaineering, spending every day climbing thousands of vertical feet in the high Colorado mountains with the resistance of skis on my feet. Eventually, as the race approached and spring dawned, I traveled again to Nepal and spent six weeks revisiting the trekking routes that were the fertile soil of this dream, but instead using them as running routes for training. And finally I competed in my first stage race – The Mustang Trail Race – which covered around 200 km in eight days, the longest week of training I had every induced myself to undertake, in probably the coolest and most inspiring place I have ever been. I rested from that experience in a yoga ashram in Pokhara, eating quality vegetarian food, stretching my body, and tapering before the travel to La Palma. Behind everything I did was the focus of having the best build-up and preparation that I could possibly have, living my life as if I were a professional… It was life changing.

Running along some of the most incredible trails on earth – Mustang, Nepal. Richard Bull photo.

I can honestly say that going into Transvulcania I was not attached to the position I finished or my time at the end. I wasn’t out to prove to the world what I was capable of or be able to say that I was better or faster than so-and-so. But in hindsight I do realize that I was attached to performing my best. As the culminating event in this year long live-your-dream story, I had created an ending in my mind which involved me going out there and laying it all on the line, reaching my highest potential for that day, and then laying on the ground at the finish, gasping for air, every ounce of energy spent, and knowing that I had given it my all, which is a beautiful thing…

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Given the above backstory one might understand why when I found myself alone on my rocky perch, I was unable to hold back my tears. I am an emotional person, far more than I used to be. I used to do my best to never cry, thinking it showed weakness and was immature. I have realized somewhere along the way that it shows far more strength to allow yourself to cry. A person strong enough to cry is actually feeling their emotions from their heart and soul as they are happening, as opposed to those who might choose to block emotions out, marginalize them, or even not feel anything at all. I sometimes when I am out running alone. Like an egg cracked open with the yolks pouring out my eyes, I just couldn’t hold back the tears. I cried alone on that rock near Pico de la Nieve because I realized that the moment I was experiencing was one of the most beautiful that I have ever had – I just couldn’t understand why it was necessary. The one result of this entire experience that I was completely unwilling to accept was not finishing the race, I had even swore the evening before to my mom, who was on La Palma with me to watch it all happen and cheer me on, that no matter what happened I would finish, walking the entire thing if need be. I believe that everything happens for a reason – everything – and I couldn’t wrap my mind around seeing the reason for this debacle. In despair, I visualized over and over again what it was going to be like to tell the people at the aid station that I needed to drop, to see my mom at the finish having not finished, to tell my running friends at home that for the second race in a row I hadn’t made it to the end. And I just couldn’t accept it. But it was probably because I was totally unwilling to accept what was happening that it was happening exactly as it was. The beauty came from the realization that no matter how much will power I poured into the moment, the Universe had its reasons for pushing back even harder and making me surrender to what will be.

So surrender I did, accept I did, and I crawled back to my feet and began marching again down the trail towards the next aid station and the end of my race, which at this rate would take me hours to reach. People continued to trickle past, one by one, as I stumbled along in my misery, wishing that I could just enjoy this day and knowing that in the end I would not. I’m not totally sure how long I had been walking when out of the fog of my own revolving negative thoughts I noticed that I wasn’t really in much pain. There were certainly no electric jolts running up and down my spine and neck with each step. In fact, my back felt a bit looser than it had before and the overwhelming aches were gone. Cresting the top of a hill I decided I might try breaking out into a jog and so I did! I jogged all the way down the other side, and then kept right on jogging as my long rest had given me renewed energy. I kept moving until the aid station, where I figured that if I kept going and the symptoms returned, I could always walk to the next aid to drop, so grabbing a sandwich and some water I walked straight through without stopping. I settled into the pace of the runners I now found around me, which was slower than I typically move in a race, but which felt naturally appropriate for the day. It felt good to move along at this easy pace, actually it felt great! I broke into a huge smile because even though I was still staring at Roque de los Muchachos in the distance ahead of me, and the beach at Tazacorte almost two vertical miles below me, I knew that I was going to finish this race today!

Tazacorte Beach during the running of the Vertical Kilometer race a couple days previous.

I stopped looking at my watch, time no longer mattered. I quit caring how fast I was going, walking casually on the uphills when I felt like it, and jogging easily on the downhills where I didn’t intend to take another rough tumble. I enjoyed the view, commented on the extreme heat as best I could in Spanish when I passed somebody or they passed me, and took my time at the aid stations, eating all the watermelon and candy I could stomach before bothering to move on. On the continuous 9,000 foot technical as hell descent to the ocean I stopped a few times for a couple minutes to give my aching legs a rest and didn’t feel even slightly guilty doing so – I saw runners seated under trees with their shoes off during this stretch. When I finally, mercifully, reached the bottom of the hill at Tazacorte beach I was again shocked by the literally thousands of people lining the boardwalk cheering for everyone who came through, and laughed as I gave high fives to the little kids lining the running route. The last stretch from Tazacorte to Los Llanos was up a brutally steep 1,300 ft. hill in the blazing heat of the day. One of my pacing goals for the whole race was to still have the energy to run this last stretch of course, which I didn’t do cause for me it turned out to be strict power-hiking grade, but due to my modified pace I had the energy to run every other foot of the distance from Tazacorte to the finish. It felt ironic to me to reach the red carpet at the end and not even feel like stopping, that has never happened to me in an ultra before. I had enjoyed every single minute of the last five hours of running I had experienced, all the suffering of the first half of the race was long since forgotten…

Ruminating now as I write these words, I think I understand what the great lesson of this Transvulcania run is meant to be, and why everything happened as it did. I sought to have a culminating experience to end this year of my life because that is how perfect stories are meant to end. But if I had managed to actualize my own fairy tale ending, would there have been anything truly revealed? Anything to learn? Any room for growth? I don’t think so – it would have instead been a meaningless perfect ending. This running journey for me has not ended, it seems much too soon to hope for perfection. The last year wasn’t supposed to be the end of this life, but rather only the beginning. And so it was exactly as it needed to be, complete with the fall – a reminder of my own imperfection, revealing how much more I have to learn – and a resurrection – the hook which will give me the hope and faith to come back for more.

Instead of attaining my own personal perfection and having no choice but to surrender to an uncontrollable fate, I was inadvertently freed up to be given a truly great gift – the chance to run Transvulcania for the only reason that actually matters, and the only reason which began this quest in the first place – for the simple pleasure of it!