How to make a proper checkpoint for your next ultramarathon
Do you have a support team for your next ultramarathon? Here’s what you need for a successful race and a ‘full’ Check-Point.
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“I did half of the climbs. We still have that much!” I told the boys. As soon as I said that, I knew I would finish. I knew that the brain, the most important organ in an ultra, would take me to the end. I still can’t explain why and how, but I knew then and there that it would be fine.
I was climbing through a pine forest with Paul and Gabi and checked the data on our watches. It was morning, I had probably ended the worst night of my life. The rain was pausing and, being in the woods, the fog was less visible. All that remained was the penetrating and persistent cold, the cold from which neither my clothes nor my running protected me. But let’s start with the beginning.
Trans Gran Canaria is one of the largest trail races in the world, being part of a circuit every year, such as the Ultra Trail World Tour or the Spartan Trail Race. It crosses the island from north to south, from Las Palmas, one of the two capitals of the Canary Islands, to the south, in Maspalomas, a resort bathed in sunshine all year round. Being of volcanic origin, the center of the island is a massive mountain range, with many branches. What is specific to Gran Canaria is that on a very small area you will find many extraordinary types of climate and vegetation. Within a 30-minute drive, you can drive from rainforests to sand dunes, from the humid, rainy climate of the northern half to the southern desert. The race is almost 130 km long and almost 7000 m positive level difference.
I arrived on the island two days before the competition and from the moment I landed I had a feeling of “home”. I have connected with the place from the beginning and I was sure that I will return several times. I’ve felt this in just a few places. The program for the two days was busy, with many organizational trips related to equipment, nutrition plans and meetings with fellow riders. I managed to sleep well, one of the most important things before such an effort.
The start is a festive moment, a show organized for runners and thousands of spectators standing in line on the 2 km from Playa de las Canteras where it all begins. There are percussion bands, a choir singing the island’s anthem, and games of lasers and lights. We meet Robert and exchange the latest information and head to our starting places. Robert is set to race mode, I always liked that about him, that he can be relaxed and ready to run like a running machine for 14 hours at the same time. Before the start, a selfie with Paul and Bogdan. Last picture in which we look decent…
Training plans, race tips,
3, 2, 1 and we’re off!
I have started with Paul too fast, but we try to get out of the platoon because we know that there are areas that we will not be able to overcome. It’s 11 at night and the beach and the seafront are full, it’s a carnival atmosphere. Our tricolor T-shirts, with ROMANIA, written big on the back, produce effects, I hear various nice remarks from those we run with. We also meet a runner from the Republic of Moldova, and we wish each other success. We leave the city and start the climb. Las Palmas remains bathed in light, we let it sleep.
The silence begins.
It’s a kind of silence at an ultra that you can rarely find in real life. It is something that comes from within when you manage to isolate the noises from the outside and you are left alone with your thoughts. It’s meditation, it’s introspection, it’s giving up the permanent external stimuli that keep our brains plugged in every day. This peace is addictive, it’s one of the things that makes me go back to long races, despite the inevitable suffering.
We left in shorts and a T-shirt, but as we advanced into the night, the cold began to set. We’re on a tropical island, but something doesn’t look right. A gust of cold wind coming from nowhere, a valley from which the cold air from the base does not come out and enters under your clothes. The rain, which will be with us all night, begins slowly. As we climb the mountains, it gets worse, as if nature is trying to stop us.
Although after finishing an ultra, in the coming weeks I remember very clearly all the climbs, all the descents and the discussions with my colleagues, the night in Gran Canaria was completely different. It no longer has a chronological thread, it’s just a collection of images, some stronger, others more erased, a drunkenness from which sensations and feelings return. I see Aloe Vera forests and cacti, dormant villages, some coquettish, some dilapidated, pine forests, valleys full of boulders, a 25% climb with so much mud that I was pulling trees so I could advance, a ridge on that the wind was blowing so hard that I couldn’t go in a straight line, a lot of falls and an incredible amount of water and MUD. Above all, a penetrating freeze and a cold rain that enters under your clothes and freezes your blood.
But one thing worked during the night: nutrition. There were 3 supply and hydration points, Arucas, Teror and Fontanales. I vaguely remember them, at Fontanales I tried an unsuccessful hot soup from which I tasted and threw it away. Otherwise, gels and sticks for 30 minutes, water and electrolytes, and as the electrolyte flask emptied, I filled it with Pepsi.
In the morning we were caught on a steep descent, on wet rocks, and then an ascent as well, to the El Hornillo hydration point, a small point where we stayed for less than 5 minutes. I was still through fog and rain but the light of day gave me a boost of energy and I was slowly leaving the night behind. After El Hornillo, as we climbed through a pine forest, I had the moment described at the beginning. From then on I knew I would finish, abandonment was ruled out!
Artenara is the feeding point located approximately halfway through the race, at km 65, arranged in a hall, protected from rain and cold, equipped with food, blankets, chairs, doctors and, most importantly, the possibility of transport to start or finish. Because of this it was a difficult threshold to cross for many competitors because of the 262 abandonments in the race, 85 were at this point. After a night of cold, rain and torment, I understood perfectly every runner who chose to stop here.
For me, Artenara was a good time. I am satisfied with the design of a plan and its perfect execution. Even though the plan itself wasn’t the best, as I was going to find it on my own skin, it helped me move on and leave the torment of the night behind. I knew that in the southern part of the island there is an arid, desert area and it rarely rains. Left alone, I decided that the only thing I would do was cross the mountains, to reach the southern slope. It didn’t matter after that, I had only one goal. So ambitious for this new plan, I took all my clothes off, even though they were wet, and started implementing my plan. I found a steady pace and, helped by the fact that the rain was getting rarer, I increased the pace and started to overtake competitors. We climbed and then descended to Tejeda, one of the most beautiful villages we have seen so far, and after the point in the central square of Tejeda we started the climb to the campsite El Garañon, where we had our drop bag. It was the first climb in the race where I felt it was no longer working. The brain wanted me to go at a pace, but my legs couldn’t. We had a few breaks without rain and even sunshine, but once we reached the ridge, the strong wind, rain and fog started again.
The drop bag helps in the ultra both logistically, with equipment and food, and psychologically. I left the El Garañon campsite with new, dry shoes, and some of the fatigue and wear was left in the drop bag, with the old equipment. I did a reset and started the last marathon. The weather was already much better, it was really hot, and the mud was replaced by dust and dry boulders. All that remained was the strong wind. The most emblematic point of the route followed, Roque Nublo.
Roque Nublo is a 67 m high volcanic rock, located on a mountain peak, being the third-highest peak on the island. It is a magnet for tourists and is visible from several points on the island, especially from the south. I saw it from a distance and started the loop that went around it with a descent that went well, then a torturous ascent on strong winds.
The passing of Roque Nublo was a new psychological threshold. This is where my plan ends, this is where I set out to be. If until now my only goal was to cross the mountains, once I managed that, I was a little confused. The accumulated fatigue caused all the determination and motivation to melt as soon as we reached the hydration point at Roque Nublo. Another problem was that from here I did not know very well the profile of the route. I knew that only a descent would follow in the sea, but I missed the fact that there were 3 more climbs which, although not very big, at the stage of fatigue accumulated until then, became the heaviest climbs in the race.
Another thing that has been constantly deteriorating over the days has been nutrition. The gels and sticks were getting harder and harder to eat, and I started eating chorizo bread and cheese from the check points.
It was a mistake because, although they tasted good, they were not digested at all, as I would find out later in the evening.
After Roque Nublo we climbed to the highest point of the route, then began a long and stony descent, as if placed there to chop finely what was left whole of the muscles and ligaments.
As after 100 km of the race the judgment is not the clearest, I was sure that there is only one intermediate point, at Ayagaures, and then the finish. I knew that the last point on the dam was an accumulation lake, a lake that could be seen in the distance at the base of the mountain.
But the road took a completely different direction, and I couldn’t explain why. I only realized when I got down to the village that I had forgotten about the Tunte supply point. I got there so tired and demoralized that I couldn’t eat anything. I stayed very little and took it on.
This was followed by the climb that consumed me the most psychologically, crossing a ridge between Tunte and Ayagaures. In addition to the extreme fatigue, it was already getting dark, I could not see where the road passed the ridge, and my body was listening to me less and less. I tried to think a little, clench my teeth and squeeze out what energy I had left. When I reached the top, I put on my headlamp and had my first equipment problem in the race. Although the battery normally lasts 16 hours, due to the extreme cold of the previous night, it was now almost discharged and was operating in emergency mode. So, in addition to being tired, I was also blind!
After a few swear words and a few “God help!” I started the descent. I strategically positioned myself behind a girl who was constantly running and had a better head lamp and I set out to hold on to her as much as I could. Because I was running on a very rocky path and I couldn’t see anything, I hit my feet in every way they could hit. That girl got acquainted with the darkest corners of the Romanian language..
In the end it was a good descent, of 7-8 km, run slowly but steadily. I arrived at the dam at Ayagaures dizzy, as if I were floating. I don’t remember what I did at that point, I just know that I wanted to go with the sticks of a German, forgetting that I had mine folded back in my waistcoat. I had about 15 km to go and I was not well at all. My legs were moving at their own pace, I couldn’t control them too much, my brain was in a panic, and my stomach was completely blocked, I couldn’t even drink water. A theoretically easy climb followed, but for me it was the hardest in the competition.
I was lucky enough to clear my stomach on the side of the road at the beginning of the climb. I mentally noticed that the ultra no longer eats chorizo and cheese and I went on a little better. From there until the end I at least managed to drink water again. I passed the last peak and started the descent towards the finish. What was supposed to be a pleasure run became a final torment, because the route did not lead to a road or a path, but through the dry riverbed, full of boulders. It didn’t help that I had almost no light at all.
I forgot about all at the entrance to Maspalomas, the lights in the Parque del Sur and the applause of the spectators at the finish. In the cheers of the crowd, I was surrounded by a bunch of locals, I was congratulated by the race director and the mayor, and the local press crowded to say a few words to me. A few girls, probably local models, were crowding around to take pictures for Instagram, and a few kids were asking for my autographs!
Or maybe I don’t remember well… After the finish line, after the spotlights on the last 50 meters it’s dark. The race announcer can still be heard, but it’s quieter. I found two chairs that I sat in with Lutz, the German with the sticks from Ayagaures with whom I had run the last 10 km together. We took our medals and finisher’s vests, we also took water in flasks and, for the first time in 24 hours, we were without any specific purpose. I just stayed.
My brain helped me the most in this race. I finished it out of will, nerves and determination.
Two things need improvement, nutrition and core strength. I need more strength in my torso and I need to learn to eat at ultra.
Practice nutrition during long runs, test several types of gels. Maurten, no matter how good they are, there are only 2 types of gels.
Probably the night running through a totally anti-running weather. I passed because I had a time horizon ahead, I knew it was just a stage, I had to go through it and get to an area where it is no longer cold and not raining.
I finished the race only because halfway through it I had the revelation in the first paragraph. It was a good time. I was still resting, the real fatigue started around km 70-80.
I didn’t use the external battery at all, but I should have charged my headlamp. I took too many gels and bars, I don’t know if I should have taken less or eaten more. The clothes were the most useful, the cold blouse I bought last year from Chamonix became my favorite coat.
*) Anime champion! you hear from spectators lined up on all roads, in all villages and at all intersections, at night, day, wind or rain. The people you most likely meet once in a lifetime are there to encourage you. A remarkable level of civilization and sports culture.
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