Project Canary

(Updated 12/02/2015)

In 2014 as part of my efforts to raise awareness of muscular dystrophy I made a plan to complete an ultra run on each of the main Canary islands. This commenced in March 2014 with Trans Gran Canaria (Advanced) . Since then I have toed the start line at Trans Vulcania (La Palma), Haria Extreme (Lanzarote), Bluetrail (Tenerife) & most recently Maraton del Meridiano (El Hierro). Fortunately the marathon del meridian was slightly over distance so I was able to claim a 'technical' ultra.  Annual leave & funds permitting I plan to complete this challenge by the close of 2016.

This blog has been updated as I have completed in each event so it may appear a bit disjointed but I thought that was better than writing a sterile piece.  

Trans Gran Canaria

To add a little extra interest to my first Canadian adventure I sandwiched the run between some cycling with aim of completing a total of 639k by bike & foot over 10 days, with Trans Gran Canaria falling on the 7th day.

I ran the 'Advanced' race. This simply distinguishes the distance of 82km from the other options available. The run started at 8am in typically British conditions - wet and cold. During the day the sun did make an appearance & most of the daylight running was completed under beautiful blue skies. 

The trails were a true mix, ranging from muddy through to rugged & rocky. Genuinely a full mix. The trails made their way up & down some incredible scenery. It really was a beautiful course. As night fell & my headtorch was deployed, I encountered a 3km steep, rocky descent. This took me 1hr 20 as I strived to stay upright & in one piece. During this descent, fatigue meant I lost some motor control of my legs. This hindered my balance & ability to control my momentum. A very small insight into some of the issues faced by those suffering from muscular dystrophy. I reflected on this at the bottom of the climb & used it to motivate me towards the finish. 

My finish was just that. A finish. Nothing remarkable in terms of time or performance. What is remarkable is that most of us can do these things if we choose to -  our bodies will allow us to explore our limits. Our bodies will support us, grow with us, work for us.

Trans Vulcania

Round 2 of my Canarian ultra challenge took place on the island of La Palma.

For UK residents this is currently a little bit harder to get to than Gran Canaria & unless you are able to fly on Fridays as part of a package deal it will involves at least 1 flight change. However the island is beautiful, it rises steeply from the sea & is strikingly different to Gran Canaria & Lanzarote (the only other 2 islands of the group I am currently able to compare it against). 

At the time I entered this race its description was similar to that of Trans Gran Canaria in terms of distance and amount of climbing. It 'just' had a tighter cut off. After my flirtations with the cut off in Gran Canaria I was mindful of this & new that with the level of fitness I was taking to the start line I would need to be on top of my game in terms of pacing, nutrition & hydration to secure a finish. 

Getting to the start line was a challenge in itself as the organisers chose not to share where registration was & other fairly critical race information. The actual distance also became a bit of an unknown with three different distances being mentioned on various pages on the website. Much of the other information that was provided was also contradictory or unclear. However, I did make it to the start line courtesy of one of the buses provided & enjoyed close to 2 hours of sitting in the lee of the lighthouse seeking shelter from the wind before the race commenced. 

As the race start approached the organisers did well in raising the tension & atmosphere with their choice of music, Mexican waves & other antics. At 6am sharp we were off. OK the front runners were off. 

The event starts at the base of a hill the first few hundred meteres of which are fairly wide & then it narrows to a rocky steep ascent. This means the front runners can speed off but the masses are soon baulked & unable to make any meaningful forward progress. The string of headtorches that stretched up the first climb did make up for some of this frustration. On the first climb I got a flavour of just how difficult much of the run would be. The climbs are steep & the ground a mix of rocks & deep, dark volcanic sand. This mix sucked the energy from my legs as the altitude rose & the kms passed. 

For the early part of the run the wind was also good and strong. Part way up the first climb dawn broke & the beauty of the island was revealed. It really is a privillege to be able to explore new countries & locations in this way. 

I had a clear 'race plan' going into the event - start slow (a given), keep it steady & then make the most of the closing kms which were predominantly downhill to grab myself a finish. Despite a very, very basic error of failing to re- fill my water stocks at the first checkpoint I stuck to this plan with between 2- 400m variance in pace per hour over the first 11 hours. After my initial faux pas I was good on hydration, kept on top of my nutrition & worked solidly to make progress across the mountains, savouring the views & re- connecting with nature. I was in a good place. Even a low speed but fairly awkward fall at around 9 hours didn't phase me as I was relaxed enough to ease back, walk off the pain & get going again. 

Regrettably when I reached the checkpoint after 11 hrs & 15mins of forward movement I was told I could not procede because I was too slow. My Garmin indicated I was spot on with my pace (for a finish) & I had conquered all of the major ups. The closing kms were predominantly downhill, the kms that I was confident I would be able to relax on, enjoy & secure my finish within the allotted time. The checkpoint staff were unmoved & I along with a group of others had our timing chips removed & were ushered towards an old Toyota Land Cruiser which conveyed us to the next checkpoint to await the sweeper bus of 'shame'.

I was disappointed, frustrated & annoyed with myself for not considering the risks of cut offs prior to the end. Whilst I wasn't ever going to post a quick time I felt I was capable of getting a finish & this was, in my mind, evidenced by the consistency of my pacing. I later learnt that the cut off time had been incorrectly applied by the official who pulled me from the race. I had a 30min window. I should have been allowed to plod on. This has left me with a sense of injustice as it would have been nice to finish even at the very very back of the field. 

Not withstanding my disappointment I know I got the chance to see La Palma in a way most tourists will never experience. The course was demanding, but all the more rewarding for that, the scenery stunning & I 'finished' tired, unbroken & capable of plodding on ;)

Haria Exreme

My third Canarian Ultra was the Haria Extreme (56km) on Lanzarote. The website for this event isn't particularly user friendly but if you can find your way beyond that barrier you will be rewarded with a well organised, friendly & tough run. 

As with the other ultras I have so far enjoyed as part of this challenge other distances are available for those who don't want to spend quite so long out on the trails. Possibly because the 33km option was part of the Spanish Cup the entry field for the Ultra option was relatively small (90), which I liked. The run started at 6am in Haria square & the opening 15- 20km (depending upon your pace) were run by headtorch. This was on a mix of surfaces including a fairly tecnical section across a lava field. I am not sure how much qicker I would have been on this in daylight to be honest. In terms of gradient the first few kms were also very kind. 

The first real climb came at around the 17km point & rises from sea level in Orzola to the top of Mirador Del Rio (a name that will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Ironman Lanzarote). Having reached the top there is a short relatively flat section before a steep trail takes you back to sea level via a series of zigs & zags. It is then back up via a near vertical climb to Guinate. I found this to be one of the hardest climbs I have ever expereinced in any event including the Gore- Tex Trans Alpine. After a few more climbs the trail finally eases you down into Haria for the end of the first loop.

After leaving Haria the second loop opens with a long climb upto Penas Del Cache. As I neared the top of this the temperature dropped & the wind picked up as some mist blew in. The easing of temperature was welcome. The mist was then replaced by a short, but fairly intense spell of rain which helped was some of the dust & muck away. On reaching the top the profile was realtively kind until the climb our of Arrieta, albeit the nature of the trail prevented me from taking full advantage of this (my legs & brain too tired to negotiate the more technical bits at any speed). The climb out of Arrieta was brutal, not the worst of the day but still dam hard taking a very direct route up. The trail continued with a generally uphill bias until the closing 500m to the finish in Haria. I reached this just in time to claim an official finish & to be able to wear my T-shirt with pride. 

This is a great event, much more than simply a 56km run. The volunteers were all friendly & helpful, the course marking exceptional, the atmosphere brilliant. The course lived up to its billing. It will test those who toe the start line regardless of their speed, fitness & strength. Despite my relatively slow time I was very pleased with my day. I had managed the fitness I had taken to the event well & I earned my finish. By the end I had dug as deep as I have had to dig in recent years & I stripped away some layers of self- doubt. I didn't leave anything in the tank on this one & I was pretty much spent as I crossed the finish line.

 Yet again I was left to reflect on what my body will enable me to do when I put my mind to it. My aches are already fading a stark contrast to the situation those affected by muscular dystrophy find themselves in.

Next stop for me is the Blue Trail in Tenerife - 6 days & counting.

UPDATE 19/10/2014


I had originally intended to run the 95km option but due to a dose of reality & a work course that commences immediately upon my return I exercised some discretion & elected for the 59km route. This proved a wise move as despite the profile looking relatively kind I found the event tough. I think the 95km version would have proved too much for me on this occasion.

The organisation was efficient & the mass start saw us head out of a small village & onto the trails. The profile suggests the first 15km are basically uphill & this is certainly how it felt. The profile then suggests a relatively flay 20k before the route takes you back down to sea level. Well the flat bit didn't feel flat & when the descending came it was quite technical (for me) which made making good speed difficult. The route was spectacular taking in pine forests, lava fields, volcanoes & a dense forest section before finishing along the coast. The variety was incredible & breathtaking.

Like Haria Extreme the marshals were friendly & supportive & the finish was a nice place to be. At the start I had hoped to match or better my time from last weekend. This wasn't to be but I ground out a finish & given the fitness I took into the Haria & BlueTrail I have to be happy with that. 

UPDATE 12/2/2015

Maraton del Meridiano (El Hierro) 

El Hierro is the smallest & furthest south west of the Canary islands & is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It is a very special island. 

The run itself starts in Frontera with a short road section before hitting the trails. The first of these kicked steeply uphill. From that point on apart from crossing a few roads & a couple of very short stretches on tarmac the route is exclusively on trails offering a heady mix of surfaces & varying degrees of technical difficulty. The route is exceptionally beautiful taking runners through a mix of lush green vegetation & rocky trails with dramatic vistas.  The weather was a bit disappointing but this didn't detract from a wonderful day on the trails in good company with wonderful support.  

 So far each of the Canary islands I have run on has presented me with challenging courses, a surprising variety of flora & landscapes. Currently El Hierro is my favourite of the islands because of its combination of vegetation, scenery & tranquility.

For both Lanzarote & El Hierro trips accommodation we rented apartments direct from owners. On both occasions the outcome was incredibly positive. In  Lanzarote enjoying the hospitality of Brian & Kim whilst renting Casa Ida & in El Hierro enjoying a stay in a  beautiful finca with sea views owned by Gaby with amazing local support provided by Carmen. Both offered made the stay on the respective islands that much more special. 

1 Comment(s)

good effort, shame the race staff weren't as accurate as you clearly were with the pacing ......

martin nobbs / 11-May-2014 05:11 PM

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