What’s this all about?
If you want to experience the ecological diversity of Tenerife on foot then this event is completely for you. If you’ve heard of the BlueTrail then it’s more than likely through magazine write-ups and social media and it’s not unreasonable to think that there’s just one event, the 105 KM Ultra, but there’s much more to it. The flagship 105 KM gets the limelight due to photos of runners with a Teide backdrop however, there’s a shorter (ahem) 71 KM Ultra, a Marathon, a Half-marathon plus an 8 KM route for runners with disabilities. Everyone is catered for.
I first became hooked on the idea of signing up after reading an article in the UK publication, Trail Running magazine, early in 2020. The author’s write-up covered the full Ultra and while that distance it was way out of my reach I saw an opportunity to be able to participate. Having spent many winter breaks in Tenerife walking around the various GR routes I had an idea of what I’d be getting into from a terrain perspective so I decided to sign myself up for the Marathon. It’s a distance I’m relatively comfortable with although not with an elevation gain (2517m) and height variation (6031m) suggested on the map. Still, I reassured myself there’s no PB in this, it’s all about the experience.
A little research
Sifting through videos on the internet, mainly YouTube, I found a fair bit of professional and amateur footage from previous years events. I was even more hooked and couldn’t wait until the registration opened. This was an agonising wait in fact as typically registration opens in October but due to the ongoing pandemic the release date and confirmation for the event to proceed was under constant review. But, finally on 19th February 2021 (midnight) the website opened for entries and I eagerly submitted my details and paid the entry fee just minutes after the midnight release. The initial submission isn’t a guaranteed entry as the event team review all requests before confirming you’re finally ‘in’, this took a further 5 days. Fortunately, I made the cut.
The capacity for the Marathon is usually 800 people but due to restrictions this year, only 400 places were available. I was now in the hands of the unfolding pandemic, global vaccination programmes and government ruling for travel. It was the latter that became the most volatile. Every week that passed the UK government’s traffic light countries were under scrutiny from the media as well as pressure from other countries with lower case rates than the UK. It was exhausting trying to keep up with it all.
Putting that all aside I ploughed on with booking flights and accommodation independently. The lack of clarity and certainty around travel meant many of businesses in this sector were offering flexibility and guarantees of no money loss so I took advantage of it. I booked to arrive one full day before so I could rest and fuel properly then depart after a full day of rest. That, however, never came true as my flights were cancelled and rescheduled twice in the fortnight and then a week before departing. In the end I arrived on the Friday afternoon, raced the Saturday, then flew home Sunday morning. In the end I was on Tenerife soil for 49 hours, 15 minutes.
As the finish line for the races conclude along the seafront of Puerto de la Cruz at Lago Martianez, I planned to have accommodation within walking distance as the town would be manic with traffic. I opted for an apartment through AirBnb situated opposite the Botanical Gardens. Ideal for me as it was quiet, had parking included and took less than 20 minutes to walk into town.
Travelling to Tenerife
In the days leading up to my departure the media was bombarding me with images of packed airports, uncontrolled queues, risks of mingling with arrivals of UK classified ‘Red’ countries and so on. Unsurprisingly I was anxious of what Gatwick Airport was going to be like. As it transpired, it was empty.
I arrived at check-in 2 hours before my flight with only two couples in front of me. Declaring their intention to travel to Greece they shuffled handfuls of paperwork to and from the member of staff, proving vaccine status as well as part completed Passenger Locator Forms. When it came to my turn I said I was travelling to Tenerife and was immediately waved on through. This quick transit through check-in must have been due to the Canary Islands being excluded from Spain’s travel status classification of Amber. In fact the case rate per 100,000 was less than the UK which boosted my confidence for travelling.
One quick bag drop later I walked into the Security hall only observing a handful few people, there were more Security staff than travellers. The terminal itself was deserted with very few stores and eateries open. The departure gate was no different when it came to the quantity of people. When I boarded the plane I enquired on the total of people travelling, I was told 35 (including the flight crew). Unsurprisingly, people had rows of seats to themselves.
Upon touching down in Tenerife I navigated through Security, baggage reclaim and disembarked the Avis Hire car coach in 31 minutes. I was flabbergasted and pleased all at the same time.
Registration, race pack and bib collection was held at the Recinto Ferial (aka The Burger) building in Santa Cruz so I took a few minutes detour en-route to Puerto de la Cruz. Entering the premises there was a quick temperature check before being allowed in, then following the Orange carpet (the designated colour for the Marathon category) to the desk I grabbed my kit.
In previous years the start time was around 9am, however, this year it was 2pm. Not my preferred time for running I have to admit but it meant I could rest more, pack my bag, re-check all the mandatory kit requirements, label my food and fuel steadily.
I’d opted for the organised transportation to the start line, cheaper than a local taxi too, with my preferred pick up in Puerto de la Cruz. Three coaches were there and ready to transport Marathon entrants to the start line in Aguamansa. It was fairly busy but most people were considerate on ‘people space’ and, of course, it’s mandatory to wear a mask outside at all times.
If you’ve ever visited the northern part of Tenerife you’ll be well aware that most of the time it’s enshrouded in cloud and extremely lush with vegetation, unlike the barren southern part of the island. Arriving at Iglesia de Aguamansa, approximately 1000m above see level, we all had an hour to kill until 2pm, it was windy and a little chilly. I stood away from the main group of people in favour of distance and also standing in a recessed doorway to shelter from the breeze. I watched people conduct their warm up exercises, bump fists and chatter furiously as only the Spanish seem to do. Groups meeting up again, teams in their matching tops, prep-talks, it was all happening and soon the hour passed.
A local drum group appeared and began warming the runners up with tribal rhythmic drumming. The runners were assembled into distanced and staggered lines while the countdowns began for each small wave to depart.
As we all shuffled forward the drums repeated their chanting ending with a cheer from the crowd as each wave departed. It was incredibly exciting and energising.
Then I was off, through the inflatable blue arch, signified by an audible bleep from the official timing kit plus a myriad of beeps and tones from sports watches all around me as we synchronously pushed our ‘Start’ buttons. Setting off straight up a hill I abandoned my mask after half a kilometre as my breathing was being constricted. Many others hadn’t waited as long while others didn’t seem to worry for short time after. The pack I was in abruptly veered right off the paved road onto a track slowly merging into a single line heading deeper into the National Park.
And so it began. The wide fire tracks were soon replaced with narrow GR walking paths signified by their Yellow/White & Red/White dashed lines. As we became corralled into single file the chatter and banter continued amongst many of the people around me and despite not being able to join in it was a great atmosphere. The paths undulated and were relatively easy to maintain a controlled slower running pace, underfoot was firm forest floor with pockets of rock and roots. Nothing tricky to negotiate. Occasionally we’d arrive into a clearing where fire tracks intersected which meant the super fit and keen were able to fly on past.
Periodically a refuge or picnic area loomed out of nowhere as well as pockets of wildflowers. It was truly marvellous to see these vibrant colours.
As the route climbed further the path began to widen and trees were replaced with large ferns and bright yellow flowering.
A tree line soon returned with a pink flowered path climbing steeply. No sooner had the trees returned they disappeared as the path plateaued for a short while. Glimpses of the sea and the towns below reminded us of how high were.
Running was soon replaced with walking as the gradient increased significantly. Running poles were clacking against rocks as we followed paths deeper into the dense forest. Cloud enshrouded this part of the mountain and silence descended, there’s something eerie about how thick cloud will deaden noise. The jovial chatter no longer prevailed. Focused minds and purposeful foot placements rhythmically tracking through the dirt and over rocks was all that was happening.
The first aid point arrived which I bypassed as I still had plenty of fluid and food onboard. Crossing a timing mat my phone chirped with an automated text message informing me of my time and distance so far.
[ 11.7 KM] [ 1 hour 50 minutes ]
At this point I was back on a fire road which allowed me to stretch the legs and get into a rhythm of running. The constant ascent of walking was fine but I knew at that pace I wasn’t going anywhere fast. In the same vein I knew I wasn’t going for a record time but I didn’t fancy walking until the early hours of the morning :-).
Of course, what goes up must come down and it wasn’t too long before the first descent came. Initially it was a gradient I could manage without too much fighting to control the speed with rock sections sparse enough to run out some of the undulation. Inevitably it became steeper with switch backs presenting uneven corners, roots and passing places for the more capable speedsters.
Losing altitude meant losing the coolness and moisture of the cloud and for sometime the course tracked slowly across the mountain, it was now getting warmer. Fewer rocky sections and well-trodden footpaths offered the opportunity to stretch out the legs again and get back into rhythm, not all the time, but I settled into a routine with a couple of other runners as we traversed, sometimes walking the brief ascents, hopping over fallen branches and cautiously stepping down drops. The forest floor was becoming smoother and I really felt comfortable. I found the combination of walking the ascents and running the descents allowed my different muscle groups to find moments of rest and recharge before being battered again.
The path exited out onto a small lane and I followed the runner up ahead of me. We descended. Abruptly he stopped, looked at his watch then toward me asking a question, in Spanish. I apologised saying I didn’t understand. Confused, I stood and watched as he trotted a few metres further down the road and spoke to a guy that was peering under the bonnet of a car. He returned pointing up the way we’d just come. Back up the hill we ran only to see other runners taking a path alongside a property. And there it was. A small piece of event tape held under a stone pushed to one side. It would appear another runner had taken the rest of it as a memento. Oh well, what’s another 100 metres or so when you’re doing a marathon? :-).
The second aid station came into view and this time I was stopping. All runners were put into single file and required to mask up and use alcohol gel before proceeding. Fine, as far as I was concerned. I grabbed fruit, chocolate, Coca Cola and took a few minutes to stand on level ground, this in itself was a novelty.
Setting off once more I crossed over the next timing mat and my phone chirped.
[ 25 KM] [ 3 hours 57 minutes ]
I knew I still had some distance to go and with the elapsed time on my watch showing just under 4 hours I fully expected to be arriving in Puerto de la Cruz in the dark. No problem as far I was concerned, this was never meant to be a race for me. I’d been stopping for photos and to allow others to pass marvelling at their ability to simply skip over terrain that I could do nothing more than battle with. Prior to this event I’d never encountered anything like this in my trail running experience for such extended durations in these gradients and I was learning quickly the extent of my ability.
The next section immediately following the aid station was by far the most brutal ascent of the course. The picture below shows only the entrance. What was to follow can only be described as a relentless length of steep ascent via roughly made steps from stones and pinned in timber.
The cloud soon returned as everyone funnelled back into single line. The poles were back out continually clacking over rock and seeking gaps between the stones. It was noticeable that fatigue was setting in as weakened bodies were slipping on poles at times as the owner’s energy was draining away. The pace could be described as nothing more than half steps and a death march. Everyone stopped for breath, wiped a brow and glugged fluids every few minutes as turn after turn presented more complication and exertion. There was no breeze and it was humid.
Eventually after 54 minutes and having ascended 614 metres, I emerged. Well, that’s what my Garmin reckoned when I reviewed the data the following day. I felt exhausted and judging by the looks of others I wasn’t the only one. Unsurprisingly I didn’t see hoards of people racing off. In fact, I saw just one person, who was grinning ear to ear making conversation and jokes to the marshals as he emerged onto the fire road proceeding to set off at mach 10.
By now I was fatigued. I looked onwards to the next section which immediately descended on a fire track. I knew I could skip slowly down this, secretly hoping my demolished legs would miraculously burst back into life. The terrain wasn’t even but I began to get into a rhythm until the path banked immediately right. This didn’t look good. I stopped, look onward and watched others periodically fly into the track. As I set off I found it hard to maintain a controlled pace. The track was eroded and where water had found its way it had created all manner of sized gullies. Give me a mountain bike and I’d blitz down it but that wasn’t to be. Others passed me making it look pretty much effortless while I could muster nothing more than hops and skips with an occasional light jog speed. I couldn’t see an end point just amazing views of the coast. I battled this section and inwardly was distraught at the discomfort I was feeling in my left knee. I’d felt sharp pain around 18 KM in to the race but had managed to control the periodic bursts of pain by stretching out my legs when I could run but now, for me, there was no running.
I could hear a cow bell and as I rounded a corner. A Father with his young son had walked up the path and cheering people as they passed. I smiled and waved. This was the first of many encouraging and boosting moments. Initially, I felt embarrassed saying thank you to people for cheering me as I wasn’t like the other runners. It was all that I could do to maintain a light pace while my knee complained and my toes spent nearly all their time at the front of my shoes.
At last it began to flatten out. The track turned to a rough paved area where groups of people had gathered to cheer us all on. I took a moment after passing them to admire the view, rest my legs, look across to where I had started and where I’d be finishing.
From here, the next section comprised of paving formed from rocks set in mortar which varied in height. As I have previous form for tripping over uneven stone surfaces this was possibly my worst nightmare. Fatigue in this instance kept me focused as I knew I had to be surefooted and certain of my route or I’d be picking myself up off the floor. The time passed without incident and supporters periodically appeared cheering and clapping. Intersections with dirt paths and rocks meant I could switch to light runs and stretch the legs more. Soon we arrived at a main road and, with the assistance of marshals, crossed over and continued along a cordoned off pedestrian route for nearly a kilometre. My legs found a rhythm and I passed a few runners who were walking, coincidentally they’d flown past me earlier. The route took a sharp right and back once again I found myself bracing gradient and picking lines. On one corner a few supporters stood cheering us on and letting us know the next aid station was around 500 metres away.
The gradient of descent increased dramatically as the path petered out into a small town to delightfully smooth roads. Tight turns led us around the local area. Young children stood in doorways playing music and collecting high-fives from runners. Looking upwards many properties had traditional wooden balconies which the nearby town of La Oratava is known for. Not all great scenery needs to be vistas sometimes. Soon the aid station appeared and as before, we applied masks and hand gel before grabbing supplies after crossing the next timing mat. My phone chirped.
[ 32.6 KM] [ 5 hours 58 minutes ]
I stayed for a few minutes sinking cup after cup of sugar-filled Coke, scoffing chocolate biscuits as well as remembering to fill up my water bottle. The sun was now low in the sky with the surrounding area beginning to wash over with orange light. It was 8pm and soon it’d be dark.
I had 10 KMs left and beneath me all I could see was conurbation and sea. The descent continued and concrete soon replaced tarmac as we headed along tracks than followed barrancos. Rough terrain returned but now I found it easier to maintain a pace and with my recent refuelling I felt good. The path ended abruptly with the route way marked up steps, big fat uneven ones, some pinned up with wood others simply cut into the rock. Of the few runners around me everyone slowed their pace and stepped slowly. A few minutes passed and the situation reversed, at this point I stopped for a breather and let people pass watching their rapid descent. Another barranco faced us and as we ran upwards music could be heard, a Spanish style, with a female voice chattering and shouting over it. A family were were seated on their veranda periodically waving to us runners. We waved back to their cheers.
Arriving back into another small town we followed footpaths, ran through local parks and picked up our rhythm. The sunset was well and truly upon us, the warmth on my back felt good so I stopped periodically to snatch photos of the end of the day.
It was the final stretch now and we were following the coastal path toward the Maritim Hotel which I knew to mean two things, firstly that I wouldn’t have far to go and secondly that it’d be all pavements and paths.
The coastal path was smooth and the views spectacular but this soon ended. The sunset happens quickly in Tenerife so the light immediately dropped when I arrived into a residential area just before the Maritim Hotel. Pockets of locals clapped us along as the runners became to bunch a little. It was interesting to see that some runners who’d flown past me earlier on the descents were now walking. I took my time and found a pace to tick the metres along. A final aid station at the hotel offered one last liquid refuelling, disco lights shone and music blared (Majestic X Boney M – Rasputin Remix) as I shuffled on by.
We ran alongside a local road as we headed into Puerto de la Cruz, cars tooted their horns while their occupants shouted through open car windows. As these shouts were in Spanish I couldn’t tell you if they were words of encouragement or witty comments but either way it made for a good fun.
The town’s paved area appeared. We ran through the local streets welcomed and applauded by outside diners, the smell of food was amazing. I knew the end wasn’t too far and as I turned the corner opposite a McDonald’s I was joined by another runner who asked if she could run with me to the end. We chatted about the day and what a phenomenal experience it (is) was. The route continued along the seafront with the pedestrians being kept at safe distance from the runners using barriers. People continued with the support all the way through until we reached Lago Martianez at which from this point it the public weren’t permitted.
We weaved around the water ways until reaching the finish line up a long ramp, counting down the metres until crossing the line.
Picking up my medal I opted to keep my legs moving rather than collapse in heap, which was tempting. I had a 20 minute walk back to my apartment which I knew to be up hill and, unsurprisingly, via many steps. Putting my mask back on I left the town area.
My final time chirped through on my phone.
[ 42.1 KM] [ 7 hours 30 minutes ]
What a day. The toughest marathon distance I’ve ever run.
To close this story out I feel I need to explain the return journey given the constant news reports of complications of nationals returning into Britain.
Tenerife Airport South was empty. Departure halls, the Security check-in and Departure lounges had no more than a handful of people. The shops and food hall were closed. A couple of eateries were open for sandwiches plus a newsagent. Other than that, a ghost town.
Upon boarding the aircraft I once again asked how many people were on the flight, 25 (including the crew), I was informed. My return in Gatwick was faultless. From touching down, passing through Border Control, collecting my bag, waiting for the bus to take me to the Long Stay Car Park and physically arriving to my car, it took 39 minutes.
So there you have it. That’s what 49 hours and 15 minutes in Tenerife can look like when you travel me :-).