Tenerife Bluetrail Ultra – altitude and downhill antics

Philippe Roberts headed to the Tenerife Bluetrail this summer and reports on a memorable experience


"So you didn't fall in then,” said son number two. "What?" I replied, just a bit confused. "The volcano, you didn't fall in!". Even my children tell bad dad jokes. It must be contagious!

The Tenerife Bluetrail Ultra goes for 102km, with about 6700m of elevation gain, throwing in a climb to 3555m on the Teide volcano, a 25km long 3000m descent and then finishing you off with a 500m ascent (my altimeter suggested 650m) with constant 25%-plus climb before spitting you out onto a hilly final run to the finish. The cut-off time of 24hrs, as I found out, is not one for walkers.

Don't think that summiting the volcano with an hour in the bank, as I did, will guarantee a finish. There are tight deadlines all along the course and anyone trailing near the back will need good descending skills and will need to keep running.

I love the challenge of altitude and this race did not disappoint. When the air gets thin, it is tough for a low-lander and this race took us higher than anywhere in the UK.

The push from 2000m to 3555m took me about four hours due to altitude and heat. There is no shade as you pick your way through contorted volcanic rock of varied changing colours.

It is stunningly beautiful while crushingly exhausting at the same time. I loved it! An unscheduled water stop at 3000m was probably the most welcome sight of the whole race. To suddenly see litres of pure water in bottles just dumped on the mountain by helicopter ... it felt like a desert traveller stumbling on an oasis!

Night time
The race starts at Playa Fanabe in the south at 11.30pm, just a few metres from the sandy beach. After 3km of fast-paced running along the shore - not a great idea to go too fast at the start of a 100k race - you head into a single-track riverbed and then the forests.

This is forest night-time trail running at its finest. If you're at the front, expect a dry trail with space to set your own pace. Nearer the back of the field, you have the joy of being overtaken by the elites from the shorter trail race in the night. Don’t worry too much about these running up the hill - theye’re only in the “mini” event.

As we headed inland, I thought about how few tourists actually get to experience an island like this. Historically most British tourists to Tenerife have taken a package holiday and ended up in a large resort and often did not see the amazing interior of the island or perhaps only catch brief glimpses.

Local smaller communities do not gain as much economic benefit this way as most of the money goes through the larger resorts. Yet seeing the more remote parts of the islands showed not only their beauty, but also the wonderful local people who had come out to support the race.

The descent
Descending Mt Teide is a 25km fun-run, dropping in sections. The first 800m drop is steep, technical volcanic switchbacks that require good technique as you allow gravity to help you along. At the bottom, the single-track turns to a yellow dirt road in an arid vegetation free-landscape where the path is at times almost flat. In the heat this can be stifling but it's not time for walking.

Overwhelmed by the heat of the day, I made the mistake of thinking I could walk this section. Big mistake as it's much easier to claw back time here than in the technical forest single track of the second half of the descent. My memory is cloudy but I actually forgot that there were checkpoints after the volcano. The altitude, heat and excitement of summiting had distracted me from how tight the deadlines were.

Bad timing
I was just short of the checkpoint at 72km (~2000m) when I realised my mistake. I suddenly surged in panic and hit the food stop with only 23 minutes left before the timeout.

I stopped and stared at the race profile poster that was stuck to the wall. My mind churned the numbers. It was 17:20, the cut-off below me at the next stop was at 19:40. The cut-off here was 17:50. I had to drop 1500m and go sideways 12.4kms in a forest in this heat in under 2:20. I panicked!

Would I even finish this thing? So, I ran with almost no break, apart from refuelling, for the next six hours. No walking allowed! Run, run, run. At the next 84.7km checkpoint I charged in at 19:25.

Only 15 minutes inside the time limit! Ahhhh! I had hoped to pull back time. I kept pushing. At 92.2km, after the 500m climb it was similar but this time only 10 minutes inside the deadline! I was running as fast as possible but slowly losing my race.

With only nine kilometres to go I was overtaking lots of "walkers". Folk just didn't seem to realise how close this was! The next six kilometres was almost all asphalt but was alternately little steep climbs and choppy descents.

Down to the beach then back up again - not the best for running on tired legs. I kept pushing. The final 3km is flat and is a glorious run along the promenade in Puerto de la Cruz.

I was in a state of constant panic, not knowing the route and thinking I was going to miss the deadline. The cheering crowds, however, just pick you up as you keep pushing.

I finished in 23:48 - just 12 minutes inside the cut-off. For me it was a significant improvement on similar races that I ran four or five years ago. It is a race medal I will be particularly proud of as I have rarely had to push a race so close to the wire. To not know for six hours whether I would make it or not was quite the experience.

Far from the madding crowd
While in Tenerife I was able to see how Tenerife No Limits and Anaga Experience are helping to open up the smaller communities to tourists to try to address that imbalance.

Along with training packages, hiking and scenic tours, they encourage visits to family-run restaurants and give you a uniquely “Spanish” Tenerife experience. As this race starts in a big coastal resort yet spends most of its time in the remote interior, I was struck by the contrast.

Plans for the future
The Tenerife Bluetrail Ultra is a race for keeps. It has made it firmly into my top three events of this distance and I definitely am aiming to return - not only to better that close call at the finish line but to see more of a fantastic island. Family are also interested. Plans are already afoot, perhaps next year, for a Roberts family visit to Anaga. Some scenic training and fun family excursions await.

Thanks to:

Tenerife Bluetrail – what a race!

Tenerife No Limits – for helping to organise the trip and for their athlete-centred approach to Tenerife tourism

Anaga Experience – for showing us the north of the island and sharing their vision for helping to invest in small communities.

Hotel Silken Atlántida, Santa Cruz – for a runner-friendly base for the race (12 minutes’ walk from the race expo).

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