Brutal: from the medieval Latin Brutalis meaning harsh; ferocious; inhuman.
Seemingly every race these days uses words like ‘brutal’ or ‘worlds toughest’ to describe themselves.
Well the newest race in the Transgrancanaria series makes no such claim but has every right to do so.
A journey of 265 kilometers with over 16,500 metres of climbing suggest that this isn’t one for the weekend warrior.
An unmarked course. Five aid stations. A circumnavigation of the islands interior on some of it’s least travelled paths.
The TGC headline race has for some years been the 125K. Part of the Ultra Trail World Tour, it attracts some of the best trail runners in the world to the island but it’s only part of a four day series of trail running.
There’s something for everyone from a net downhill 17K sprint to the newest edition in the 360. But one thing that each of the races has in common is the terrain.
For trail purists it’s normally termed as ‘technical.’ For those of us with a less lyrical turn of phrase it’s just rocky as hell.
So it was with an open mind I turned up to registration on Tuesday afternoon.
Some early e-mails to the organisers seeking kit list clarification had left me more confused that I’d started and I was soon to discover the Spanish have a more relaxed way of doing things.
Kit check was non existent and the race briefing ran along similar lines. Three or four minutes of rapid fire Spanish was followed by the English translation delivered by a laid back Irishman of “sure you’ll be grand.”
So with a pack to cope with every eventuality, I and over a hundred other adventurers started off on Wednesday morning, all doing that thing of assuming the person in front knew which way they were going and each refusing to be the first to waste 30 seconds on checking their maps.
The first 8K was lovely and runnable until we hit the foothills outside town.
Bamboo forests gave way to barren rocky moonscapes as we climbed out of Maspalomas. Rocks. Upon other rocks.
As far as the eye could see the landscape was barren broken up only by evil looking low shrubs filled with spikes. My natural habitat of the North Downs seemed far away.
After a mixed year in 2016 for me this was all about the challenge. After some disappointing DNF’s I’d had a rethink about my race strategy and had managed to put together some consistent training under my coach Robbie Britton – and athough my prep going into the race hadn’t been ideal I was in better shape than I had been in years.
I wanted to race. Not to push for the front and with no thoughts of a podium, I just wanted to start off with the mindset that this wasn’t a bimble for me. I wanted a time that I was proud of and the knowledge that I’d given it my best go. If I did that and failed then I knew at least I’d really tried.
And so I ran what I could and hiked the rest. Head down. My phone stayed in my pocket and my excuses to stop evaporated.
A faff-free turnaround at the first aid station and I was out again. Too quickly as it transpired as my recently consumed meal made a swift reappearance giving me my lowest point of the race.
Those next hours were the worst. Heading into the first night, stomach empty and the field already spread out so I felt all alone in the world, it was tough to keep my motivation.
But nights alone in the mountains are why I love these kinds of races and soon I settled down.
The tip tap of my poles and the barking of dogs at remote homesteads the only sign of my passing. The trails almost non existent in places, from GPS track to map to track, spending almost as much time off trail as on.
And up. Always it felt like we were going up. Harsh terrain all the way, a moments inattention punished by a stubbed toe or a rolled ankle. Concentration required for every step. Through sleepy Spanish towns and hamlets seeing a side of the island far away from the mass tourist sites.
Dawn brought me into the small town of Aldea at the 98K point, where I’d planned to have a short rest.
However, the aid station being located in a small school meant that tiny Gran Canarians had other ideas and sleep was hard to come by.
A mere 15 minutes rest and I was on my way again, somewhat refreshed by the new day and the bright sunshine.
This section was my reality check. On the climb out of La Aldea there were times I stood on the trail, looked at the GPS track and literally couldn’t figure out how we were supposed to achieve what it suggested.
These sections lent themselves more to climbing and scrambling than running. On one section I found myself stuck, no way to progress without ropes and no safe way to return.
A fall here would have had severe consequences but luckily ,and only with the aid of a mountain safety officer, did I get past.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying this race is tougher than the others, comparing one against the next. But when all you have is your experience and you’re called to step outside of it into something completely new it’s tough not to use hyperbole in your descriptions.
Suffice to say I’ve never before experienced a trail like this. Instead of up mountain trails we went across the mountain face. Instead of running we were climbing.
And with the ups inevitably came the downs. But with these there was no respite. Gravity was not our friend on these downhills, the gradient and rockiness consuming every ounce of concentration I had.
We occasionally passed though mountain villages and hamlets. The locals, unused to the race passing though, looked upon us with curiosity and humour.
As dawn broke on Friday I spent a glorious half hour sitting in a local’s café with a clientele who spoke no English.
Conversation was achieved by pointing and Google Translate, and though it was only a brief interlude during the race, it’ll remain as one of my most abiding memories of Gran Canaria.
For it summed up what the challenge meant to me. I spent hours on my own on this race, every now and again bumping into other racers taking a break in a café or on a summit, exchanging pleasantries and swopping places as we all moved inexorably towards the finish line.
I felt a solidarity in this I hadn’t felt in some time. A shared journey.
Each section brought a new surprise, spending up to twenty hours between aid stations meant planning was key. Water needed to be rationed, villages sought out and distances calculated so I was carrying just enough.
And of course I got it wrong. Rationing water became standard, the barren landscape not providing any natural streams.
Saturday morning brought me what I knew would be my last day. The small checkpoint at Santa Lucia giving me my last 90 minutes of sleep before the final push.
Back out into the valley floor before one last climb. And what a climb it was, traversing the cliff face for what seemed like hours.
What looked like a simple task was in reality a hands on rocks scramble across, up and down the rockface until finally, at last, we crested.
Then the long long rock strewn downhill into Maspalomas. A never-ending, non-existent trail. Take a bearing and go.
And instead of just coasting in as I normally would have, I raced. I ran every step I could, reeling in Spanish runner after Spanish runner until only one remained.
When he ran I ran. He walked I walked, until the trail levelled out and I made my break through the town.
First 20 yards. Then 50. Around a corner with a burst of speed until he was finally out of sight and I swore to myself that whatever place I was I wasn’t going to give up. Jelly legs carried me past holidaymakers until I finally heard the finish-line tannoy.
And then I went wrong. Confused and tired I went right instead of left. Away from the dunes instead of around. And lost four places in the time it took to get back.
I’d stopped racing and stopped paying attention and I paid the price.
And to the finish. Trying to sneak over unnoticed but failing miserably.
The Spanish crowds welcoming as ever. A finish-line interview gamely conducted but all I wanted was to sit.
The race was done and so was I. And for the moment only relief.
I knew that for now I could bask in the feeling of success that finishing a tough race brought me but soon enough I’d start looking to the mountains for another challenge.
And they’d be there waiting…
In the end my GPS recorded over 17,000m of climb and 295K travelled. Each wrong turn adding metres to my journey. Eighty-one hours. Just over three hours sleep. Worth every step.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garyfallsover