Early in the race after the frantic sprint for positioning I found myself running easily somewhere around 30th, unable to see past the glow of a headlamp, and steadily going up. It was almost a relief to get out of the crowds and make it through that first mile unscathed. Picture the running of the bulls, just without the bulls.. The trail was soft volcanic sand that made an aggressive ascent nearly impossible. To top it off, my headlamp, which was nothing more than a LED reading light from the hardware store barely lit the ground in front of me. Soon the sun would rise though, and with it the beauty of La Palma would be visible for all to see. Volcanoes rising violently out of the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, rough and rocky trails traversing the high ridges accented with clear blue skies, and even lush green "forests in the clouds" would be my backdrop for the next 7-9 hours.
As the darkness gave way to the predawn glow of the morning light I decided it was time to start moving up. The first hour felt nearly pedestrian and I knew I was surely losing ground on the lead pack. My legs felt light and without much added effort I quickly left the group I was with and began passing runners one by one. Before long though I looked up and saw the neon green singlet of my VFuel teammate Timmy Olson. To be honest I was shocked... what was timmy doing so far back? I had assumed that I was somewhere around 20th at that point. (I was actually closing in on the top 10) Now two hours into the race and nearly 7,000' of ascending we reached the top of the climb.
After cresting the summit we descended down to the first big aid station, El Pilar. Somewhere during the descent I realized something was off. My legs went from feeling light and strong to feeling a little flat and heavy. I wasn't worried though, the following 4 miles were the flattest of the race. I had planned to use that section to make up time and shake out my legs to prepare for the second big climb of the day. Instead I found myself struggling. My legs were heavy, my hips felt tight, and I still did not know what place I was actually in. At the next aid station, 31k in and at the base of the second climb, I saw Bryon Powell. As I stopped to fill my bottles and stretch my legs he informed me that I was in 9th. Thats exactly where I wanted to be but my legs had other plans.
This was the part of the race that matched my strengths. Solid footing, both ups and downs, gradual grinding climbs and flowing descents, and the altitude! My mind screamed for my legs to go, to open up and let loose, but there was no response. How could I spend so much time training, running better workouts than I have in years just to get to this point and watch the race go on without me? This was my first international competition. My chance to show everyone that I belonged. My chance to prove to myself that I belonged. Yet there was nothing I could do.
The miles dragged on, people continued to pass, and to top it all off I began to feel the extreme discomfort of chafing in a not so pleasant spot. My legs didn't want to work, and now even if they did, the chafing made any fast movement nearly unbearable. When Luke (Nelson) caught up to me I tried to shake myself out of the funk I was in and keep up. I did for a minute or two, enough to share a few words but the chafing was so painful I had to let him go. Then Anna Frost passed, along with another half dozen people. I began to feel completely demoralized, my mind was no longer in the race. Nearly 50k in and I just wanted to be done.
Finally I reached the high point, Roque de los Muchachos. The second big aid station, and the point of no return. To go past Roque you have to be committed till the end. It's an 8,000' steep and technical descent to the ocean. The first thing I did was find some Vaseline (easier said than done when when you don't speak much spanish), the second thing was to eat. I brought enough food for up to 8 hrs, and I was running out. The last thing I did was hydrate. It would get hotter and hotter the lower I got and I figured I had enough trouble for one day and didn't feel like taking a chance with dehydration. One of my longest aid station stops ever... nearly 5 minutes. I no longer cared what place I was in, how long it would take, or if people passed. My racing mindset had been gone for hours. I just needed to finish.
While I jogged along thinking through all the same scenarios again I realized that I no longer hurt. My legs felt fine and the chafing had been alleviated (Thank you whoever had the Vaseline!). More than that, I got sick of moving so slowly. "This is going to take forever" I thought. So when another guy passed me, I decided to run with him. I did, for about a mile. It actually felt pretty good to move fast again. My legs no longer felt heavy, so I passed the guy and took off down the trail at my own pace. Before long I began catching people.
The descent was extremely steep, rocky, and technical. The lower the elevation, the higher the temperature. The only thing that remained constant was my legs, they still felt good. Hearing the cheering crowds as I passed through the final aid station in Tezacorte gave me a final jolt of energy. The final 4k was mostly uphill to the finish and I ran nearly all of it. I passed about a half dozen more people, all of which were walking and looked at me like I was crazy. I even put on a little show for some spectators when I leaped into the air for a photographer (going up hill). They went wild! As I neared the finish line the crowds got thicker, became louder, and more and more little hands reached across the barricades. That final half mile completely turned my day around.
I no was longer running with regret and disappointment. I was now smiling from ear to ear and, giving high (or low) fives to as many kids as I could. My arms stretched wide to reach hands on both sides for nearly half a mile. I was approaching the finish line of my first international race, a race I had such high hopes for, a race in which I was so far from my goal that I should have been finishing with my head hung low and my sponsor's shirt turned inside out in shame, but instead I was on cloud 9. I was happy. I was about to finish, my legs felt good, people all around were cheering. If I didn't see all those people passing me I would have thought for sure that I was the winner! How could all these people be so excited to see someone finishing nearly 2 hours after Luis Alberto broke the tape?
The people of La Palma are true fans, and I am eternally grateful to experience their enthusiasm first hand. Although I am disappointed with my performance I no longer feel the need to sulk. I got to toe the line with the best in the world, I finished the race, and I have spent 2 weeks (with 1 more still to go) on a tropical island overseas. To top it off I have made so many new friends and got to see the potential for what this sport can become. I am indebted to my sponsors for making this possible and hope that they give me another shot. I know that am fit, I just had a bad day. Next time the story will have a different ending.
Thank you Altra, VFuel, UD, & ElevationTat. Most importantly, thank you La Palma! This was a hell of an experience! I will definitely be back.