The Transvulcania Ultramarathon on the island of La Palma, Grand Canaries—the third stop of the 2019 Migu Run Skyrunner® World Series—sits high on many an ultrarunner’s list of destination races for a variety of reasons. It starts with the location: Diverse, dramatic scenery greets runners on the island, nicknamed “Isla Bonita” (“Beautiful Island”). The course’s 14,200 feet of climbing takes runners through a range of microclimates, from cold, windy and misty, to hot, dry and sunny, and landscapes that include black lava-sand beaches, above-the-clouds ridges, dirt paths through pine forests, and technical singletrack that is reminiscent of the Spanish, French and Italian Rivieras.
The race also delivers an extreme range of experiences, from of the headlamp-lit 6 a.m. lighthouse start, beside the space-scape of the world’s largest telescopes, through banana groves and a hot beach town along the final descent, and then a final, painful 5 kilometer climb to the booming urban finish line. In all, the race is a physical and emotional orchestration that makes for a dramatic conclusion.
Complementing the course is the race’s rich history. Some of the sport’s most storied battles have occurred among the “ultra elites” who have raced Transvulcania during the race’s eleven years. The breakout year of 2012 set the standard, with American Dakota Jones crowned the winner. Jones had pushed at the front to break away from Kilian Jornet, who, coming fresh off his ski mountaineering season, collapsed in the heat of the finish line. Jones’ time took more than a half hour off of Spaniard Miguel Heras’ course record.
Subsequent versions added a half marathon and a vertical kilometer (“VK”) to the original line up of the 74.3k (46-mile) ultra and a marathon, and each year now sees an incredible international line-up. The organizers have invested with staff and budget to expand and promote the event as a major attraction on the Canary Islands.
Americans Defy Expectations
Amid the international excellence, American trail running is often laughed at abroad because of our relatively tame trails and because US running races seemingly dole out awards to most anyone who crosses a starting line. In contrast, Transvulcania is a quintessential Euro-style race, one where Americans, with a few exceptions, don’t fare well.
So, even putting politics aside, Americans abroad make easy targets. During the pre-race athlete round table on Friday, May 10, Max King, who holds the U.S. 100K record and has won the World Mountain Running Championships and numerous trail ultras like the Chuckanut 50K (2017) and Fourmidable 50K (2017), was coyly asked whether he was going to uphold the US ultra running reputation by going out fast and exploding. “That’s probably what I would have done were I going into this race 100%,” he replied.
As it turned out, King, in his debut at Transvulcania, was one of the exceptions, finishing seventh place despite (or perhaps because) running in pain due to a calf-plantar fascia injury he’s been nursing off and on for more than two years—an injury he thought he had finally overcome—only to have it flair up in one of his final workouts before heading off for long travels to the Canary Islands.
The every-distance and every-surface runner, King was in fourth place by the time he reached the race’s high point of Roque de los Muchachos, at 50km into the race. But it was the downhill that exacerbated the injury and he had to gut it out for a seventh place finish, given the long descent back to the coast, followed by five kilometers of climbing back to the finish. Under the circumstances King said he was quite pleased. And ready for a long recovery.
On the women’s side, Megan Kimmel, 2016 Skyrunning World Champion, was another exception. In her debut on the island, she finished third in a tight battle with two women competitors in the Skyrunner World Series. Dutch runner Ragna Debats dominating most of the race, and was welcomed at the finish line by her young daughter and partner, last year’s men’s winner, Pere Aurell. Debats finished in 8:09:25, more than 15 minutes ahead of Anne-Lise Rousset of France.
Kimmel beat Debats at the May 4 Migu Run Skyrunner World Series race in Sichuan China, and placed second in the April 21 Mt. Awa race in Japan, giving her the top rank in the series so far. But there are 13 races to go before the Skyrunner World Series culminates with the SkyMasters Championship in Limone, Italy in mid October. Next up will be the May 19th Skyrace des Matheysins in the French Alps.
Is There a Doctor in the House?
In the front of the men’s race at this year’s Transvulcania, France’s Thibaut Garrivier, who placed third at last year’s race, finished in 7:11:04, three minutes ahead of Russian Dmitry Mityaev. Garrivier says he took time out of his medical studies to focus on his running and reported having “a lot of energy at the end and when I couldn’t see Dmitry behind me, I pushed extra hard on the last uphill.” Petter Engdahl, a young Swede who pushed the early race pace, was third in 7:21:28.
It was only appropos that a med student should be the first to cross the famous, loudest finish line of the ultra running world, given it was a year of many US injuries. Last year’s Transvulcania third-place finisher, Kelly Wolf, had to bow out because she took a hard fall on a trail, banging her knee less than two weeks before the race. She had enough swelling that she couldn’t run on it so decided to think positively and focus on her recovery and future plans.
Brittany Peterson, who had a great top-ten Transvulcania showing in 2018, also sat out this year’s race. She’s been recovering from an ankle injury and although she says she feels she’s coming back strong, not “to a point where it would have been smart. That’s with a side of prioritizing being healthy for Western” States 100, in six weeks.
Similarly, YiOu Wang, who was slated to run Transvulcania, said she was already feeling tired from her close second-place finish at the Lake Sonoma 50, gaining her a golden ticket to Western States. That’s where she is now focused. Add to that a death in the family and a home purchase in the preceding week and a long trip and race didn’t make sense.
What made sense for two elite but recovering Americans was to run the vertical kilometer as a warm up event two days before the longer races. Climbing may hurt, but it rarely aggravates an injury.
Rob Krar has been finding his way after knee surgery two seasons ago and said he wasn’t motivated to run this past winter. He jumped into his first VK to see what it was like. He enjoyed revving his engine and trying something new. He also opted for the marathon distance, where he had a similar performance to King’s ultra, going from fourth place at the top of the marathon course to losing a handful of spots on the descent.
Morgan Elliott, last year’s top American male at Transvulcania and who will also be running Western States, came to La Palma with a full mix of injuries, from hamstring and toe. After running the vertical kilometer, he suffered through the ultra but was happy to get past some rough patches and complete the course without being worse for the wear.
Finally, Cody Lind, who is young enough that injury rarely rears its head, came to the race sharp. Yet he struggled, saying that “everything seemed a bit ‘off’ from the start and continued to fall apart” until about 25 miles, where he picked it up to salvage what he could, passing many on the descent.