Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Camino Coaching have had a wonderful start to 2022 and none more so than with Julien Cazorla (Top 50 world ranking) and Claire Shelley (15th Woman) at TGC
When most of your clientele run around flat parks of major UK cities there are quite a few things you need to do to even contemplate a 130 KM mountain race with over 6000 metres of elevation!
Julien is a much loved runner in the Camino Community and it's obvious for all to see that his level of preparation and commitment is world-class - so if there is a blue-print for how you go from Hyde Park laps to the summits of Gran Canaria + compete with the world's best mountain runners - well....make yourself a cup of tea.....sit back.....and enjoy Julien's awesome TGC 2022 race report.
"I had heard good vibes from that race. It’s high on the international trail running calendar and a great one early in the year to kick-off the racing season. I liked the idea of exploring a whole island that way and signed up without thinking. As the race date was getting closer, my excitement was building up – I was expecting a lot from the event. My first international ultramarathon. My first mountain race (having had only a glimpse of it beforehand in the Peak District and in the Brecon Beacons on shorter events). My first night race with a 11pm start. The privilege to share an event with some of the best trail runners in the world. In brief, something extraordinary and definitely bigger than I’d ever done.
My training before the race was designed to address my lack of experience on technical trails and being able to cope with so much elevation. It’s hard to find places to do that around London. Therefore, I headed to Tenerife (the island next door to Gran Canaria, expecting similar conditions) for a week one month before the race. That time was well spent to practice trails, climbing, test some kit and learn to use poles, get faster and more confident on descents. The week was intense but one of the most enjoyable I’d ever experienced, with a great variety of trails and stunning landscapes. I loved it to the point I swore myself I’d come back the Canaries to run again, even after TGC, to train or to race (I’ve since added a few events from over there to my bucket list). I also discovered in Tenerife I didn’t handle the heat too well, I’d never had the chance to see that in the UK weather! After mentioning it to my coaches Darren and David, I was advised to top off my training with daily sauna sessions (up to half an hour) in the final couple of weeks to acclimatise my body to heat. Because it’s always hot in the Canary Islands, isn’t it?
After arriving in Gran Canaria the day before the race, everything went smoothly with the bib collection and the visit to the race expo. I enjoyed the sun and a bit of warmth, in sharp contrast with the weather I had left behind in London. I finished my training with a leg loosener run along the beach and through the sand dunes of Maspalomas. It felt wonderful. My main worry then was to catch enough sleep ahead of the race, knowing I’d have to skip one night given the evening start. Fair to say I was too nervous to get that extra sleep in the end.
In the morning of the race, a new worry came up. We received an e-mail from the race director starting with ‘URGENTE // METEOROLOGIA’ which sounded like bad news. In brief, that e-mail was saying the weather forecast was terrible up in the mountain, included a strong temperature drop, probable rain, mud, and most notably heavy wind conditions. The island was on orange wind alert. All weather apps and websites seemed to agree that we would not get probable, but certain rain, and for many hours overnight and into the next day. My sauna heat training was not needed after all. Rather, having also run through storms in England in the previous weeks had actually been the best training I needed. The e-mail also recommended wearing long trousers. I hadn’t packed any and decided I would just go with shorts, extra layers, gloves, a headband to cover my ears and a makeshift scarf with a buff wrapped around my neck.
Two hours before the race we caught a chartered bus from Maspalomas in the south near the finish line where I was staying, to the start line in Las Palmas on the other side of the island. The bus stop was hard to find, I was expecting a party-like atmosphere, lights, noise, but instead I arrived into a semi-deserted car park, seeing a group of trail runners looking sad and worried. Was I the only one feeling excited and cheerful about the race? Fortunately, I met up with Camino friend Claire Shelley who was also running the TGC Classic, and we enjoyed our ride to the start chatting about all things running and trying not to be too nervous about the race. I’ll always remember her question during our conversation if I preferred road running, trail running, or mountain running. Until then I had only made the distinction between road and trail. It made me think I didn’t know what mountain running was really about, and that I would discover it rather quickly in the following hours. That thought added to my excitement and made me question what I got myself into, but it was too late to have second thoughts. We arrived in Las Palmas and could finally enjoy that party-like atmosphere the TGC start is known for, with a large crowd of runners and supporters and an orchestra playing music near the start line. That start was on the Las Canteras beach, we would kick-off the event with a bit of sand running.
After a few loudspeaker announcements about the elites taking part in the race, then a countdown, the race started. The beach section was not too long but fun. I felt lucky I didn’t get any sand into my shoes, that would have been a bad start. We quickly moved to the pavement along the shore, soon enough there was no longer any street light, the road turned into a gravel trail and it was time to use our headlamps. The first climb was in the dark, runners forming a line of headlamp lights ahead of me and again behind me whenever I looked back. I was expecting that moment as one of the highlights of the race (and of any night race I suppose). It was beautiful to watch. I got lost in my thoughts that some of these lights at the very front would be from elite runners Pau Capell or Hayden Hawks, they looked far already. The first hills were gentle. I followed my own running pace by effort, ignoring what people around me were doing – that was one of the most important lessons I’d learnt from previous events if I wanted to finish that ultra in one piece. Then we had more climbs, more descents, a little bit of faster running on road sections, some easy trails, some trickier ones, but everything checked out. I could hear the music beat of the first aid station in the distance, the route was well marked, everything seemed well organised. I was feeling comfortable. The race was going well.
I had been wondering if it would happen in the end, but of course it did: it started raining. The ground got wet, and increasingly muddy. I had been careful in choosing my shoes for the race, opting for Salomon Ultra Glides. They have good cushioning to help the legs coping with long distances and to save the soles of the feet when running on stony paths. They have great fit and generally good grip (but on dry ground). They had been amazing in Tenerife when I trained with them, although I knew they wouldn’t hold so well on muddy ground. Therefore, by that time the path was wet, with mud and more mud, all grip was gone, the shoes were actually gathering mud undersole and around, and got increasingly heavy and difficult to run with. At that stage I had started using the poles just to avoid sliding in the mud and to help me keep my balance.
The mud was manageable until about km27 when climbing the first higher peak of the route (the Osorio). The path became a steep mud chute, a fountain of sludge, the poles stopped being helpful and with mixed results I tried to climb up grabbing roots and branches from whatever was growing around the trail. Many people were sliding down, I was sliding down, I caught someone to stop him from sliding further, many people were swearing, and I’m sure I did it too. Many people better skilled at handling the mud passed me while I was stuck in it and covering myself with it. Losing the race position that I had built with a decent run up to that point annoyed me a bit, always being a little competitive, but never mind, I didn’t have any position target for this race. In the moment all I had to do was focusing on trying to climb that slope. With hindsight it was a fun experience, except it wasn’t on the spot. My watch was recording the race and was lapping after each km, telling me how long that km was taking – looking back at the watch data after the race, I saw the km including the Osorio climb had been by far the slowest of the whole event!
I eventually reached better ground, and managed to get back to some decent speed. However, by then after the Osorio experience I had become wary of falling over given the conditions underfoot, knowing very well I was at times on the edge of a cliff (it was still night and I couldn’t see a thing), adding to the sense of danger. The weather was also deteriorating, with the temperature drop and gale winds the forecast had mentioned. I wouldn’t be confident on descents for many more hours, in fact for as long as the weather would be bad and the ground would remain wet, compounded by not have the visibility of the trail I needed because it was still night and running by headlamp had some limits. These feelings were justified, because I did fall over face down a couple of times, covering myself in mud all over again.
The next few hours were a blur of climbing more peaks and carefully descending more valleys, deciding when to use the poles or not, sometimes seeing light crossing villages, but mostly running in the dark in what felt like the middle of nowhere. I’ll remember a specific spot, running along a grassy ridge with rain and cold gale wind battering strong. It reminded me of when I raced in the Brecon Beacons (also in horrendous weather), except it felt odd because I was in the Canary Islands and not in Wales. And it was really dark, the headlamp light reflecting the rain and not really showing anything else. I vividly remember around km52 a very steep descent (probably the steepest of the entire race when I check the race profile) with overgrown vegetation, a wet irregular path, surrounded by the sound of croaking frogs, and me tripping over a few times and trying not to fall, while seeing the light of headlamps from other runners getting closer and closer until these runners would pass me in lightning speed. I didn’t feel comfortable. The path was a tricky one to follow but I couldn’t blame its technicality to justify my lack of speed given I had proof it was runnable, I could see others doing it. I couldn’t say my slow pace was due to tired legs either, they were not really tired yet at that point in the race. I was obviously just the one lacking in technique, experience and confidence, and swore myself I would have to work on that and practice running gnarly descents in the future.
The night felt long. The wind and the rain wouldn’t stop. At least I didn’t feel cold, I had enough layers on and was glad I had thought of packing gloves for the trip. I kept looking forward to each next aid station. Not to rest, drink or eat (although with hindsight I suspect I had been underfuelling for a few hours already), but just to have something to looking forward to. Breaking down a ultra into shorter sections is always a good way to keep going. I was often checking the time on my watch, impatiently waiting for a significant milestone in the race: daylight. And while I was running through a pine forest it finally came: a dim light coming from everywhere, allowing me to work out the shape of rocks and trees beyond my own headlamp light. That dim light became a brighter dull one, it was all foggy. At least I could better see where I was placing my feet and the mud became less of a problem now I could avoid stepping in the wrong place. It was still cold, still raining, still windy. Not the glorious sunrise I had been hoping for when I was trying to picture in the days before what the race would look like.
The night was over, it felt good to start a new part of the race. I was now about half way into it distance-wise, but knowing the second half would take much longer time given the state I was in. I was finally feeling tiredness in my legs after so many climbs and descents, and the lack of sleep was obvious. I stopped to put my headlamp into my backpack and got passed by a few runners. I had been so focused on making sure I was running safely on the trail I had lost track that others following me. I didn’t mind being passed however at that point, dropping to whatever place in the race, but actually enjoyed the moments after I was overtaken and was alone again on the trail with just the nature around, and no one in sight. These moments would soon be gone though, because another race was about to start and the trail would get crowded.
I reached Artenara, the village where the start of the TGC Advanced (another race following the second half of the TGC Classic route) was located. It felt funny to see many runners getting ready, warming up, all fresh, and curiously staring at us running the TGC Classic looking tired and wasted. A bit like when you’re leaving a nightclub in the early morning hours after a long night out and see people who recently woke starting their day and doing their own things. These runners had about half hour to go before their own start. I received my first cheers of ‘Animo! Animo!’ – not the last time I would hear that.
Another climb, and finally the fog cleared a little and I could see through the clouds what Gran Canaria was about: rugged, with deep canyons and massive cliffs, a stunning landscape. I wished we had better weather at least for the views, but you can’t control the weather. The fog rapidly came back, hiding the island again. Not too long later, the TGC Advanced elite runners who had recently started their race, caught up with me storming ahead, looking fresh and strong, effortlessly flying downhill, fast, really fast. Did I see Tom Evans? I think I did (he ended up winning the TGC Advanced). I felt inspired by them and that encouraged me to speed up a little. The trail was also drier and felt safer that anything I’d run in the previous hours. I could see where I was stepped and going, that helped making myself more confident in the descents. It all felt great.
That’s when a massive rainbow shot in the sky. I forgot about the race and turned into the tourist I also was, taking pictures. The TGC Advanced elites gone, the faster crowd from that event caught up with me with runners looking way too fresh and going way too fast. Some did cheer me after noticing my bib had a different colour to theirs and that I looked like a wreck after I had been running for over 10hrs already – ‘Classic?’, ‘Si!’, ‘Animo, Animo!’. The trail was narrow, followed yet another a steep ascent, and I kept stopping to let the TGC Advanced runners pass me by. I was too slow, partly because I was tired, and also as I kept telling myself because of my lack of experience climbing. I didn’t want to be in the way of these other runners and be a drag on their own race by blocking the trail. That being said, having so many people passing me did discourage me a little (even if I knew we were racing something different), and I unconsciously stopped pushing it for my own race. At least I still had the poles to help me and save the legs a little for the many more hours left ahead. I would catch up with some of these faster TGC Advanced runners later on.
I was looking forward to seeing the Roque Nublo (around km92), the famous peak and stone formation you can see on many Gran Canaria pictures and on the TGC t-shirt, also one of the highest points in the island. I wanted to take a picture of it as one of the highlights of the race, one I would remember, but that never happened. We ran around it, it was in front of us, but not really there because of the fog was hiding it. Fortunately, we were heading further south into the island where the local climate and the landscape looks more like Arizona than Wales, and the fog, rain, wind and cold went away almost by magic. Just too late for enjoying the Roque Nublo. I could finally enjoy the scenery of the rest of the island I was about to run in. That cheered me up a little, and I wanted to go faster but my legs wouldn’t follow. They were trashed by then, after so much climbing and pounding in the descents (nothing I could have done about that). I didn’t feel any pain or sharp discomfort but just a dull sensation of weakness and heaviness. I knew by then I hadn’t been disciplined with regularly eating, and had been underfuelling.
I couldn’t run, I was barely shuffling. I was fast walking propelling myself with the poles as soon as I would hit any slight incline or when facing any slight technicality and I would rely on gravity to help me go forward on the way down. Not too long after the trail became an endless man-made path of irregular stones, like a Roman road, something built to help hikers I suppose, but quite hard to run. The weather was also getting hot and the sun was stronger, a massive change from what I had experienced not so long ago. I stopped to remove my layers, change into a vest, and put the poles away into my quiver. I no longer felt comfortable using the poles, I wanted the freedom of my own arms.