Running on the edge
TransGranCanaria ultra-trail 125 km is a seriously tough race.
By Fredrik Ölmqvist
At the start line in Agaete on the Friday evening something wasn’t right with Jonas Buud. You could see it in his eyes. An insecurity. A hint of weakness. Like he shouldn’t be there. What we didn’t know was that the swede since a few days had suffered from a cramping-like stiffness in the leg area, more precisely the area of the stress fracture that stopped him from running for several months in the beginning of 2015. The day before the start the stiffness had spread to the neck and right shoulder. Getting prepared for departure to the race start he considered his chances to finish the race less than 2 %. This was not going to be the perfect Jonas Buud race we have seen in Ultravasan, in Tarawera and of course at the 100K world championship in the Netherlands 2015 the past fall. Make no mistake, Jonas knows very well that more runnable courses suits him much better than Transgrancanaria, which is considered as a very technical course, with steep climbs requiring more walking than running. His participation in a technical race like TGC is primarly for learning and to develop, to become a more complete runner.
Agaete is a cosy village on the north-west coast of Gran Canaria. Compared to the hot and sunny south this part of the island is battered by bitterly chilly northern winds sweeping up the mountains during winter. Mentally you need to be prepared for this.
The event has grown steadily since the start in 2003 amassing international media attention. For the 2016 edition TransGranCanaria had attracted a strong international line-up, partly as an effect of being part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, where runners assemble their top points from maximum three races. Notable runners were: Andy Symonds, Nuria Picas, Long-Fei, Seth Swanson, Julien Chorier, Seb Chaigneau Caroline Chaverot, just to name a few.
Among the elite runners at the front of the starting line Jonas’ Asics team mate Didrik Hermansen looks relaxed and composed, silently watching Gediminas Grinius, the winner of last years edition. The Lithuanian pose for the press photographers with raised arms, playing the extrovert role that amass likes on social media, but likely it only fuels Didrik’s desire to prove his aquired strenght, because this is what TransGranCanaria is all about. Strong legs. The steep descends and technical trails will eventually trash your legs, elite athletes included. After his second place 2015 Didrik Hermansen is here to win. After months of thourough preparation he is quite confident, although he knows that the field is considerably stronger this year, including a Gediminas in peak fitness and the 100K world champion Jonas Buud. Didrik knows of course of Jonas’ predicament. Actually Didrik’s accompanying friend Jörund happened to be a chiropractor and had given Jonas a much appreciated treatment before the start, which has done wonders for Buud’s back and neck. Even if they aren’t training partners, they know eachother well and Didrik has podium finishes behind Jonas in Ultravasan, the 90K ultra-trail along the classic Vasaloppet nordic skiing course in Jonas’ home region. It’s a race where Jonas has two consecutive victories and Jonas himself considers his 2015 race, where he won in 5:45, his best race ever. A perfect race, on a runnable course, which is right up his sleeve.
But TransGranCanaria is a completely different kind of race. Although situated on sunny Canary Islands with finish in Maspalomas, this race isn’t the least about leisure. Make no mistake TransGranCanaria 125 is very VERY tough on the legs. Only approx 50% of the participants finish. The rocky trails works the muscles from all directions. Like putting the legs into a stone crusher. You only need to see Ian Corless’ picture of Anton Krupicka efter his finish in 2015. Sitting on a chair with an empty gaze, void after having endured hours of suffering, trying to figure out what’s left of him. Jonas Buud’s facial expression after the finish is one of a survivor, like he just came out from a war zone. While he endured the course he looks at least 10, maybe 20 years older than his 40. Normally Jonas Buud is tall, lean and elegant, with a faint resemblance of Harrison Ford. He has class and perseverance and he is not one to withdraw without very strong reasons. Symptomatically he gritted through the punishing course. Still standing he greets a horisontal and likewise shattered Andy Symonds who took 5th. They ran together much of the course but Buud’s legs just wasn’t there. To manage this course you have to do your homework, which is lots and lots of uphill trekking and steep descending, preferably on the gnarliest trails possible. Jonas Buud didn’t and he, just as most, had to pay the consequences. Suffering. Burning quads. Dark thoughts. Agony. Desperation. Beyond hope. For the runners TransGranCanaria has nothing to do with hope. It’s all about staying power.
Mental strenght is Gediminas Grinius ace. He was once in a place where running saved him. Suffering from depression as an effect of post-traumatic stress from his military experiences he started running on his doctor’s advice, to enable an escape from haunting memories. And the longer he ran the easier it got, he told photojournalist Ian Corless in his podcast ’Talk Ultra’. ”When you have been to hell in real life with the potential for death or in the dark depression of post-traumatic stress, the challenges of enduring the hardships of a 125K race are put in perspective, says Ian Corless, a former elite cyclist and keen trail runner with many ultra-trails under his belt. He is intrigued by the unpredictability of the sport.
”Fitness in any endurance event will only take you so far, but in the end the mental strenght is what actually will make you finish. The biggest problem with ultra runners however, is that they are so good at turning off the physical signals.” One tragic example is pro cyclist Tim Simpson who actually died from a heart attack on Mont Ventoux while cycling, He died on his bike and the doping had made him into a machine, feeling invincable.” Another recent example is Swedish runner Johan Lantz in TransGranCanaria 2015. Despite horrendous pain from a stress fracture he pushed himself to the limit. He was in superb shape, easiliy outrunning both Sondre Amdahl (4th 2015) and Didrik Hermansen while training on the course prior the race. TGC 2015 was supposed to be his great debut on the international ultra-trail scene, but it nearly ended his running carriere. He was in 3rd place when his right leg just snapped under him and he collapsed onto the ground while running on the tarmac in Tejeda, some 70K into the race. The femur bone was completely broken. The doctors gave him slim chances to ever run again, primarly as a consequence of the initial failed surgery in Las Palmas. But thanks to skilled Swedish surgeons Johan is now training with obsessive determination focused on his second debut at TransGranCanaria 2017.
Initially Hermansen and Buud ran together but 5 hours into the race Jonas has to let go of Didrik. He doesn’t dare to keep the same pace, especially downhill. Being 100K world champion on road or even the undisputed king of the runnable 90K ’Ultravasan’ is no guarantee. TGC 125 has +8000 metres of steep climbs, and 8000m of steep descends – mostly on technical trail. Jonas Buud’s quads suffer in the descends, normally one of his strong assets and one that helped him to win Swiss Alpine Marathon eight consecutive times. His major goal this year is Comrades, a completely different race where you run all the time and where Buud’s unique endurance and excellent running economy makes him a podium contender. But in TGC you spend more time walking than running. In walking or speed hiking you use different muscles. You can’t win the TGC if you haven’t prepared your quads properly for the massive descents. Reaching the highest point of the race Pico del las Nieves at approx 85 K Jonas still feels fairly fresh but in the following descent his legs have no desire whatsoever to run downhill. He is ’hobbling like a scared old man’ only to see Andy Symonds, who he had been running with for a while, dissappear in front of him.
At Roque de Nuble french runner Aurilien Collet still has the lead but the looks tired, and he’s being chased. Gediminas and Didrik are hot on his heels, steadily working their way up to the front of the race. Before the race Gediminas has said that he’s much stronger this year than last year. Just like Didrik he appears leaner. None of them are newbies anylonger. After last years 2nd place Didrik went on to win Lavaredo in the Dolomites, another prestigious ultra-trail. They know eachother well, having trained together on Gran Canaria. The pace increases. Gediminas tries to pull away uphill but is soon caught in the descent.,. With his ability to descend fast on technical terrain Didrik runs into first place in the downhills to Ayagares, some 25 km before the finish. At the last food station he gambles and only grabs something to drink, while Gediminas spends three minutes eating. Gediminas ability to suffer can’t prevent Didrik from being the faster runner. Without knowing exactly where Gediminas is, Didrik pushes hard all the way to the finish in Meloneras. He has given everything and he’s running on the edge of what his body can handle. After Garanon he hasn’t been able to eat anything, just to drink. Coming down from the mountains has also meant it’s got much hotter. Running through the cheering crowd the final metres before the finish line as number one – this is moment he’s been training for with 100 % focus since previous year. Through the winter, many, many cold traning sessions in darkness. Crossing the finish he can’t hold back the emotions and exhaustion.
Realizing the suffering is over and that he’s made it for a split second his face turns into a cry. But just as quickly he composes himself and returns to the smiling, humble athlete. Overjoyed he gives his wife a long, big hug. Sharing the victory. Thankful. Gediminas arrives just three minutes behind. Looking strong. Happily hugging his kids. While the top runners arrive, one more shattered then the other, Didrik has to work hard to stay on his feet. He can’t anylonger control his body with his mind. During an interview he has to excuse himself before he rushes aside and vomit. Another side of the victory, curled-up in the grass behind the sponsor banners, now covered by a survival blanket, utterly weak and drained. He is brought to hospital on a stretcher and treated with IV-fluids due to extreme dehydration. It was a tough race to win.