Friday, March 27, 2015

You Are Doing Something Wrong - So Keep Going!

We endurance addicts work hard every day and love it. However it's not uncommon to get interrupted by self-appointed technique experts just when you are enjoying a smooth flow. Disguised as well-meaning advice, people will eagerly point out that we are doing something terribly wrong.

You are over-pronating when you run! Your cadence is way too low when you ride! You are splashing water when you swim! Surely we have all been there - on both sides perhaps.

Nokia ironman-distance Finnish Champs 2004 - many things went technically wrong, but an age-group podium finish isn't that bad at the end of the day.
Even when we manage to nail it perfectly, the familiar formula of behaviour will appear: if you keep doing X, then Y will happen. This 'You Are Doing It Wrong'  brain-app has gone viral.

When I was a kid (well some might argue I still am) I learned to ride my bike pretty well by the rules, but still an aggressive driver thought it would be a good idea to dangerously cut me off and yell me in no uncertain terms that if I'd keep riding, I would be killed real soon now (no doubt by a driver just like him)!

I also clearly remember the guy who told me that if I keep running, my knees would be busted in three years. It was thirty years ago, and my knees feel better than ever now!

Anyway I was reminded of all this today, when I saw an old man (I mean real old, probably 70-80 years) swimming in the pool. Every morning I've been able to drag myself out of bed and into the pool by 7-8am, he has been there. He always has all the fancy gear like a mask, a snorkel, fins, pull buoy, paddle gloves, fins and a kick board. Obviously he doesn't know diddly-squat about freestyle swim technique. He always makes cardinal mistakes like dropping elbows. But he always gets his swim done with great determination and without whining.

When we were both finishing our respective sets, I felt tempted to point out that he could possibly swim faster by making a few simple corrections. Then I thought it might not be easy to do what he is doing at his age. Who knows what kind of pains are bothering him? Maybe he is not interested in getting faster. I noticed he was truly happy and probably proud of his pool achievements.

On my way to the sauna I just blurted out: 'You're doing great, keep going!'

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Transgrancanaria Fun Marathon in 5 Easy Steps

Mental pre-race focus with my TGC-hat signed by Anton Krupicka on.

"The Transgrancanaria course had the best first 25k of any race I've ever done (steep, techy goat path) and possibly the worst last 25k (exposed flat road and drainage ditch)."
-Anton Krupicka after finishing Transgrancanaria 2015

Transgrancanaria 125 (actually it's 128km now with the finish line at the Expo) course can be roughly divided into three marathons. The first one is widely known as the fun part. This 42.8km section offers the most exciting trail running on the island of Gran Canaria. It's easy to register for the full distance and then do complete this 'thriller third' only. I'll show you here how to do it - just follow my five easy steps!

Those Maspalomas mornings.


The cold winds of March are always blowing from the sea in Agaete. Wear your obligatory rain jacket when you get out of the bus and head for the pier. If you have 90 minutes to the 11pm start like I did, get inside one of the restaurants to stay warm and order a cup of coffee or tea. Walk to the crowded pier 30 minutes before the start. The other runners will protect you from the wind. Take off your jacket and other extra clothes. Drink and eat something. Put on your headlight and red rear light. Start without using the poles.

Faro (lighthouse), the landmark a couple km from the new finish line. 


The uphill to Tamadaba aid station is not as challenging as they say. It's not too steep nor technical. It's 9.8km and can easily be climbed in well under two hours. My time was 1h50min, the cut-off is 3h. I chatted with friends to keep my pace aerobic.

Pre-race chilling on Friday night in a restaurant in Agaete with other Finnish runners. 
At the aid station I took some orange slices and refilled my bottles. I felt excellent and had no issues. So far so good.

Going to the Expo (Race HQ) with other Finnish runners.


I had studied the race reports from last year. I knew this steep downhill to Tirma would be slippery. The trails in exposed places can be covered with layers of fine sand blown by the winds from Sahara. I had fallen and hurt myself in the beginning of TGC 2012 (on a different course). Therefore my main goal in this race was to avoid falling on this slippery slope. If I just could get down this hill without hurting myself, then I could easily finish withing the 30-hour time limit.

The obligatory start-selfie in Agaete 10:50pm on Friday.
I ran down carefully and very slowly, but still managed to slide a bit at a curve. Frightened, I slowed down to easy walking pace and focused on not slipping anymore. Suddenly the dusty trail surface with fine sand and gravel started rolling under my Hoka Stinson ATR's. After sliding a couple of meters I fell on my back, felt my arms and legs being scratched, and was soon stopped by a rock that hit hard my left hip.

New useful race stuff: T-shirt, buff, visor, bib, wristband.
I washed the ubiquitous dirt and blood from my skin in a nearby mountain stream. Then I wiped myself with antiseptic towels and applied about 20 bandaids. Then I checked my hip and it didn't look good. I didn't feel any pain yet but I knew it would come. I thought I was had ran about 14km so it would be less than 5km to Tirma aid station.

Presentation of the top runners and race briefing at the Expo Auditorium.
There course was more like an adventure race than trail running. There were fun bouldering sections and even a rope-assisted descent down a rock wall. Normally I would have loved this course, but now I was struggling to go forward.

Maspalomas dunes are not part of the race course, but worth a visit.

Finally I arrived in Tirma AS where I filled my bottles, ate some orange slices and approached the busy medical staff. Unfortunately nobody had time to pay any attention at me. There were bodies of injured runners lying in the ground around me. Instead of waiting for hours, decided to continue right away.


I started the second big climb of the night by getting lost. The left turn up was clearly marked, but I ran straight ahead until the other runners called me back. I saw my friend Rudi and we ran more or less together after that. I reached the Altavista Control Point at 27.3km about 5am, 6 hours after start. The full moon illuminated the landscape and there were some really cool photo opportunities, but I didn't want to waste any more time.

Examining the longest TGC course ever: 128km.

Artenara (33.4km, 6:08am, 7:06 hours after start) was a nice mountain village with a slightly better aid station. I arrived I drank two big cups of black coffee at once from my half-liter Sea To Summit X-Mug. I also tried the green mystery soup, but it made my stomach turn and I launched an immediate search operation for the nearest toilet.


As the day broke I expected to get better. On the contrary, I felt worse by the minute. The strong wind was troubling as there were heavy dusty/sandy gusts. My throat felt swollen and infected. I found speaking, eating and even breathing increasingly difficult. The flu virus that attacked me the week before the race seemed to come back now with a vengeance. My bad hip made me limp. I came here to run the whole distance, but now even walking was challenging. At this pace, I wouldn't be able to finish in 30 hours. I started to contemplate the inevitable drop out.

This is the beach running section of the course at Maspalomas Faro.

When I arrived in Fontanales the starting place of Advanced 83km (42.8km, 8:14am, 9:14 hours after start), I told the young lady in charge of the time control that I would like to stop my race here. She is super tough, and won't let whiners like me quit for nothing. She asked me if I'm sure and suggested I wait half an hour before the final decision. We agreed on that. There wasn't any medical care available, so I used the time to add a few bandaids. Also Rudi was there at the same time, and also he contemplated a DNF as his energy levels were low.

Superhero Rudi leaving Fontanales - he finished TGC about 20 hours later!

After half an hour I got my DNF officially registered online. However Rudi said he will try to get to the next aid station in Teror, as "sometimes it turns around". He was right, as he would finish the race on Sunday morning. Quite a turnaround - or more probably, this dude is simply extremely tough! I was amazed to see him check his blood sugar with a pin from his bib, as he had forgotten the proper needle at the hotel.

Me (quitter) and Rudi (finisher) in Fontanales. I'm smiling because I survived the first marathon! (Photo: Rudi Zeilhofer.)

There was also a Brit who fell in the same downhill as me and also dropped out in Fontanales. A Slovenian and a French guy also decided to DNF there. Getting transportation for us proved to be challenging for the organizers. Finally a taxi van dumped us to Garanon, the 82km aid station and the starting place of Maraton 44km. I enjoyed a good warm meal twice there, as I was pretty hungry. It was much colder here at 1600m altitude, and I wanted down to a warmer climate soon.
Two Finnish finishers: Timo (Advanced 83km) and Pekka (TGC 128km).

We went to the roadside with the French guy and managed to hitch-hike to Tunte, 95km and the starting town of Starter 32km with some local dudes. From there we got another lift with a nice French couple to Arteara, 109km and starting place of Promo 17km. We watched runners pass by for a long time until their French friend passed by. Then they drove me to Maspalomas. I guess my new motto from now on will be: 'French will be friends'.

Maspalomas dunes.
It was already evening. I had something to eat, took a shower, fixed my wounds once again and walked to the finish line by the Expo. I saw a few friends finish, but got exhausted after a couple hours and crawled back to my apartment to sleep around 3am.

Costa Meloneras coast.
I don't feel like whining at all. Actually I feel relatively lucky. Many runners suffered a fate so much worse than me. I didn't break anything, except my confidence and my Lifeproof Nüüd iPhone cover. For instance, Swedish top runner Johan Lantz broke his femur during the race. Hopefully he will recover well and be able to come back for the win next year - which he deserves judging by his Instagram feed.

It was sunny, but the sandy wind from Sahara subdued the heat.
Lithuanian Gediminas Grinius (14:23:27, new course record) and Catalan Nuria Picas (16:53:27) won the race. Many top runners like the local hero Yeray Durán, Iker Karrera, Pau Bartolo, Joe Grant, Fernanda Maciel, and Nikki Kimball had to drop out. It sure was a BRRRRUTAL day in the office for everyone.

The view from my cheap apartment to La Charca Nature Reserve across the lagoon.
As always, I'd like to take this opportunity to extend my gratitude to the organizers, volunteers, participants, friends and sponsors of this awesome event! Transgrancanaria has improved so much since I participated three years ago. There is still some room for improvent in the minor details like the variety of the aid station food, but I'm sure it will all be so much better next year.

Green oasis in the desert: the island is generally very dry.
Naturally I have to come back to Transgrancanaria 2016 because I have this unfortunate unfinished business there. I can also honestly say that I'm very fond of the Canary Islands, and I'm always pleased to have an excuse for a revisit.

A fellow sandstormtrooper hiking in the desert.
Here's my bonus video shot at Maspalomas dunes on a windy day. See you at TRRRRANS GRRRRAN CANARRRRIA next year! VENGA VAMOS ANIMO!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mountain Ultra Trail Awards 2015

Occasionally people ask me what races I plan to run in the future. I often wonder the same thing.
Well I guess this is the best answer: Mountain Ultra Trail Awards (MUTA) 2015. As it happens, muta appropriately means mud in Finnish.

These ten races are IMHO the ultimate sine qua non mountain ultra trail running events for me. I have already finished the first five of them. And I'm already tempted to do all of them again.

The final five still remain on my bucket list. This task seems overwhelming and quite impossible. This Talebian uncertainty makes this all the more interesting. We wouldn't want it any other way, would we?

Best MUT-event Award: UTMB

The legendary 168km +9618m Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is my mountain ultra trail runner raison d'être - I started training for it back in 2007 inspired by 2-time champion Marco Olmo.

A nice trail in Italy during UTMB 2014.
For many years I didn't have enough points for the lottery. In 2012 I managed to get in CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix - the last half of UTMB) and finished it. Then I lost the lottery in 2013. I finally got in and finished UTMB 2014. I lost again in the 2015 draw. This means I'll get two tickets for the 2016 draw. You need nine points from three qualifying races to participate.

UTMB® 2014 - Beautiful landscapes by UltraTrailMontBlanc

The hype around this UTWT (Ultra Trail World Tour) event is incredible. It was a great experience to run around the Mont Blanc Massif in a weekend (46 hours time limit) with 2300 other runners. The Steepness Ratio (SR) is 'only' 57, but there are a few surprisingly challenging sections along the way in France, Italy and Switzerland. The highest point is Grand Col Ferret (2537m).

UTMB 2015 poster.

The weather tends to be unstable around Mont Blanc, so be prepared for anything. The race has been delayed or cancelled many times. Although on paper this course may seem easy-ish, it's a tough nut to crack in practice. Great support from the crowds and volunteers helps in times of trouble. The start and finish in Chamonix is fantastic.  

Best Challenger Award: TVSB

111km Trail Verbier St-Bernard has one of the toughest Alpine courses out there. Although I was in a great road-racing condition, I suffered a double-DNF in 2010 and 2011 both technically due to hypothermia. Truth be told, it was all entirely my own fault. It was kind of fun staying in a full-service mountain hut overnight though! ;)

I finally figured a few key things out and finished in 2012; the elevation gain was +7015m (SR 63) then.

The energetic organizers have since then renamed 'La Boucle' as 'X-Alpine' and made the first half of the course even more challenging, climbing up to Orny hut (2826m). The cumulative climb is now +8424m (SR 76). From La Fouly onwards the course remains the same - apparently it was impossible to make it any steeper!

Running downhill in TVSB 2012.
If you are a climber and steep-loving alps-head, this race is for you. The max cut-off time is 36h if you choose the early 1am start, but then you are expected to be slower than 26:30h. Faster runners will start 4am. Either way, it's always a challenge just to finish this Swiss gem.

Best Scenery Award: Lavaredo UT

LUT is a 119km +5850m UTWT event in a unique setting: a UNESCO natural site in the heart of Dolomites, Italy. When Anton Krupicka stated this is the most beautiful course he has ever run, everyone including yours truly agreed enthusiastically.

I did this race in 2014 (race report) and will be back in 2015. It's not the steepest course by any means (SR 49), but there are icy stream crossings and technical traverses to make it challenging enough for anyone. 30-hours cutoff allows you to relax and enjoy the scenery. The highest point is Forcella Lavaredo (2454m).

LUT course will blow your mind - can you see the runners in this pic?
LUT starts and finishes in Cortina, an exquisite mountain town only a couple hours from Venice airport by Cortina Express coach. There are about a 1000 competitors.

Best Winter-MUT Award: TransGC

This is another UTWT event that used to be tough, but is now even tougher. The new 126km +8500m TransGC is quite steep (SR 67). They have aded an extra 1.5km in order to move the finish line from the beach to the Maspalomas Expo. Some runners with a GPS have speculated that the true amount of climbing might be a bit less. Let's just say that this sort of a course is difficult to measure accurately. The highest point is at Pico de las Nieves (1938m).

I ran TransGC in 2012 from South (Playa del Ingles) to North (Las Palmas) - check out my race report.

In 2015 I'll attempt this new hardest ever TransGC course from North (Agaete) to South (Maspalomas). Actually it's this Friday, only five days to go! I guess all the main sights will be the same, just in different order.

In Europe I have seen all sorts of crazy items on the obligatory gear list, but only in TransGC have I found the following gem:
  • "Red rear light (runners shall wear it on their rear side and keep it on throughout the race)."
Gran Canaria from air.
The island of Gran Canaria is always a wonderful place to visit. The ideal weather makes TGC the world's favorite winter ultra trail. Also if you don't want to run in above 2000m altitudes but enjoy steep hills, this race is a match made in heaven for you.

Best 100K Award: Eiger UT

Eiger UT is another UTWT event that I like very much. Even when I suffered a DNF in the first edition in 2013 due to a thunderstorm at the wrong place and time I enjoyed the adventure and went on to finish the course on my own the next morning. And I returned in 2014 for a proper finish (race report).

The view from the highest peak of Eiger Ultra Trail: Faulhorn 2681m.
The 101km +6700m course is steep (SR 66) and technical especially around Schynige Platte, but there are also easy runnable sections. The highest peak is Faulhorn at 2681 meters, where you find one of the oldest and highest mountain hotels in Europe still in business.

I think the climb from Burglauenen to Wengen, Männlichen and Lauberhorn is the hardest part. Then traversing the majestic Eiger trail below the legendary North Face is trail running at its best.

See you in Grindelwald! Meanwhile, check out this video (feat. Trailplodder):

Best Newcomer Award: UTMR

Ultra Tour Monte Rosa is a new 150km +10000m (SR 67) race in Switzerland and Italy. The 1st Edition will be in August 2016.

There will also be a 'zero edition' 3-day 110km stage race in August 2015.

The highest point of UTMR will probably be Rifugio Teodulo at 3317m.

UTMR provides glorious views of Matterhorn and many other >4000m alpine peaks.
5-Time UTMB winner, Race Director Lizzy Hawker knows how to organize an ultra tour around a huge alpine massif. She is also familiar with the trails in Monte Rosa area.

I'd surely be interested in participating in UTMR 2016-18 as long as my race schedule allows.

Best 200K Award: Swiss Irontrail

Swiss Irontrail has an interesting new 'open category' concept for its longest race T201: "The idea is to fill the participant with courage to begin the magnificent and demanding T201". Instead of the usual DNF, T201 competitors will be rewarded with UTMB points and finisher souvenirs as long as they can finish one of the following three course options:
  • T201 Davos - Davos, 200km, +11440m, 4 UTMB points.
  • T139 Davos - Savognin, 135km, 4 UTMB points.
  • T99 Davos - Maloja, 96km, 3 UTMB points.
This sounds like an excellent idea. As published I will participate in Swiss Irontrail T201 in 2015. If I'm feeling great and the weather is good I'll attempt the whole T201. If not, I can choose to finish either T139 or T99 and travel back home with an accomplishment instead of a disappointment. Good thinking by these brilliant Swiss organizers, who are also responsible for popular Swiss Alpine events (I've participated five times) in Davos.

The view to Davos from Jakobshorn. 
The highest point is Fuorcla Surlej (2755m). So far there hasn't been a need for lottery. Any kind of escort of competitors along the course is prohibited.

All runners are required to carry a small lightweight GPS tracker with an emergency button. The system offers continuous online monitoring of all runners. Should you veer off the route, an alarm will alert race officials to contact you and guide you back to the right track. For navigation runners should rely on maps and markings, and perhaps their own GPS navigation device as well. 

Best 100-miler Award: Hardrock 100

Hardrock 100 is 'Wild & Tough' 100-mile (161km) race in Southern Colorado's San Juan Range with +10361m elevation gain (SR 64). The lowest point is Ouray 2341m and the highest Handies Peak 4282m. The course changes directions each year. The cut-off time for finishing the race is 48 hours. The start and finish is in Silverton.

From event description: "The course is designed to provide extreme challenges in altitude, steepness, and remoteness. Mountaineering, wilderness survival and wilderness navigation skills are as important in this event as your endurance."

From the rules: "1. No Whining."

Hardrock has a lottery with small but increasing chances of winning. They allow only about 152 competitors (and their pacers - this is the only race on this list where competitors are officially encouraged to have pacers to accompany them along the course) each year.

 To qualify for the rather complicated lottery process with several categories, you have to finish one of the qualifying races on their list (for example UTMB or Tor des Geants) in the past two years.

I participated in the 2015 lottery and lost. Instead of whining, I plan to try again in 2016. There is also an 8-hour pre-race service requirement for admission to run.

Best 200-miler Award: Tor des Geants

TDG is a 330km (205 miles) +24000m tour along Alta Via 1 and 2 trails in Valle d'Aosta, Italy. The race is in mid-September, and the word is out that it is certainly one of the best fall MUT-events.

The giants referred to are four >4000-meter Alpine peaks:
  • Gran Paradiso 4061m
  • Mont Blanc 4807m
  • Matterhorn 4478m
  • Monte Rosa 4634m
Don't worry, competitors won't have to climb any of these giant peaks. The highest point is Col Loson (3296m).

The start and finish is in Courmayeur. There are six additional 'life bases' dividing the journey into seven parts. Competitors can stop to eat, refresh and rest at bases, but the clock keeps on ticking. The max time is 150 hours. Sleep deprivation can't be helped and hallucinations are common as the video below shows.

While the rules of TDG say pacing (having personal assistants along the course) is not allowed, many competitors have allegedly had pacers - and race officials seem to have allowed this. It will be interesting to see how this confusing issue is handled in TDG 2015. In a such a long race it might be a good idea to allow pacers for safety. In 2013 a runner fell to his death at night. One practical solution many have successfully used would be to simply run together with another competitor with a similar pace to yours.

There has been talk about TDG providing competitors an obligatory GPS device to be carried in their pack for online tracking. PTL and Swiss Irontrail have been doing this for years. It seems to work well to improve safety and has the added benefit of preventing or exposing cheaters.

TDG has a lottery for those who have pre-registered for 5€. Only a Medical Certificate is required, there are no qualifying races. They can take 700 runners. However each nation has the right to two runners. So if there were only two people from your country in the lottery, an entry would be guaranteed. To ensure competitor turnover, 3-time competitors are ruled out - except Senators, those few hardcore runners who have finished all five editions of TDG. The entry fee was 500€ in 2015. I might consider TDG in 2016-18.

Best 300K Award: PTL

La Petite Trotte à Léon an extremely difficult, officially non-competitive trekking challenge around Mont Blanc for teams of 2-3 participants. The course varies each year. It's not marked. GPS tracks and maps are supplied. Each team has to carry a GPS beacon for online tracking, and another GPS for their navigation purposes. The route is not marked. The max time is 142 hours. The start and finish is in Chamonix.

In 2015 PTL will be about 300km +26000m (SR 87). The teams may use the existing infrastructure of mountain huts, cafes, shops and restaurants as they wish. The organizers provide three life bases only. The teams must progress together on foot in complete autonomy. Personal assistants or vehicles along the route are forbidden.

I'd probably be interested in PTL later on if I can find a suitable team. The entry fee was 670€ for the whole team in 2015. The team leader has to be a finisher of UTMB, Tor des Geants or PTL. Each team member must have their own Medical Certificate and accident insurance covering the expenses of search and rescue in France, Italy and Switzerland. The max number of runners is 250.

Finishers of PTL 2012 with their family, friends and PTL director Jean-Claude Marmier (who passed away in 2014).
So this is my ultimate Top 10 dream list. I hope you get inspired by these incredible mountain ultra trail races as well. Let's run them all - just not in one year!