In just over a week’s time, I will be on the start line of the hardest run of my life. One which has the capacity to get the better of me – the 285km 6 day Trans Atlas Ultra Marathon (TAM). My body is already exhausted and I’m starting to tire of the relentless training over the last couple of months, clocking up several hundred miles of running. But I knew I just needed one more week of quality and focused training to best prepare me for this testing ultra marathon. I have done other ultra marathons, but TAM is on a different level. To best prepare me for this testing mountain ultra, there were two characteristics in particular I was looking for out of my training:
- Altitude: The highest point on TAM is 3,400m above sea level, and the course rarely drops below 2,000m above sea level for its duration; and
- Ascents/Descents: With daily climbs of between 2 – 3,000metres on TAM, I wanted to be able to replicate this and build strength in my legs and stamina on steep and technical trails.
So I was eager to get in some training which would simulate and best prepare me for this as possible. On studying Google maps for quite some time, and researching best training camps etc, it became apparent at this time of year (late Spring) anywhere 2,000m+ above sea level was going to be impossible without pushing into the snow line, and therefore make any training less effective. I was searching far and wide – Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees – but all would still have snow. I considered Mallorca too as another option, but its highest point is just 1,445m and therefore didn’t really offer the altitude element I was looking for.
Then I stumbled across the Canary Islands, and why I hadn’t thought of this before I don’t know! A volcanic archipelago some 4.5 hours flight south of London with great weather and altitude, it was just the playground I had been searching for! Having set off on my 3,000mile Atlantic Ocean row from the Canary Islands three years ago, I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before!
Tenerife – the largest of the 7 Canary Islands – was the best pick of them all. It has the highest point by a long way (3,718m), and the Teide National Park is home to some 19,000 hectares of brilliant running terrain. Also loads of options for direct flights from London, flights even at this late notice were <£200. There are numerous well marked footpaths which will keep you very happy and busy for a week without having to cover the same ground more than once. It is a volcanic island, but there are treelined trails with softer pine-needle covered ground at between 500 – 2,000m above sea level, and above this point you get into much more technical trails where you really get a sense this is a volcanic island.
So that was it, I booked my flight, and headed out there a couple of days later. I arrived on a rather cloudy Monday afternoon, and after the usual battle with the rent car company (although I ended up winning that one after giving it a bump but they never noticed on return!) and headed straight up into Mount Teide National Park. This was about an hour’s drive up windy roads from where I was staying, a small town near the coast on the north side of the island. I put on my trainers and hooked straight into the running, as wanted to maximise every minute of my time out here!!
Here is what it was like during day 3 of my training: “Drawing in breath as hard as I can, lungs struggling to offer up the oxygen my legs scream out for. My hands are clenched trying to keep warm – it’s cold here at 3,300m above sea level. The weather has unexpectedly turned and I find myself ill equipped on this training run. Two and a half hours in and not even half way, my pace is now just a walk – medium to small length strides – and concern and fatigue are battling to occupy my mind. The steep treacherous trail winds its way up the volcano, made of sharp boulders and loose shale. Now covered in moisture, eyes scanning and trying to select a secure footing to avoid slipping, a long way from anyone or any help.”
Whilst out there, I hooked up with a great local runner, Marnix Mortier, who has run many ultras in his time and a real font of knowledge of Tenerife, trails and running generally. He was a guide for me on some days, and we ran together on a couple of the routes. He operates Tenerife Trail Running Sports, TTR, which specialise in offering bespoke running / hiking holidays on the island. They’re a great shout if you don’t want to do lots of research yourself and plug straight into a great setup.
I managed to squeeze in a total of 6 runs whilst out there, with a total of 130km of running and 10,500m of ascent and descent. Here is the daily breakdown of the training I did:
- Monday: 16km, 1hr 29min 1,200m +/-, altitude 2,100m+
- Tuesday am: 20km, 2hr 15min, 2,000m +/-, altitude 1,000 – 2,000m
- Tuesday pm: 23.5km, 2hrs 15min, 1,200m +/-, altitude 2,100m+
- Wednesday: 30km, 5hrs 2 min, 3,200+/-, altitude 2,000m – 3,500m
- Thursday am: 10.3km, 1hr 4min, 520m +/-, altitude 1,000m
- Thursday pm: 30km, 3hrs, 53min, 3,000m +/-, altitude, 2,000 – 3,500m
- Total: 129.8km, 10,652m +/-
The highest point you can get to on Mt Teide is 3,500m above sea level. This is the highest altitude I have ever been to. It was really interesting, the effect of altitude, and I really noticed the extra work my lungs had to do to suck out the oxygen. Also it was almost impossible to run, only taking good strides and steps up the steep trails. I can only imagine how strenuous each and every movement would be up 8,000+ mountains – big respect!! Also, it was a reminder when heading out on any kind of longer distance run, particularly up a mountain. to take extra food and clothing in case things go wrong. It got really quite cold and windy when I ascended Mt. Teide – the weather came in and I found I was really quite ill equipped with no gloves, hat and no extra layers, it felt a little sketchy at times!!
This was a really worthwhile trip, and I’d recommend Tenerife as a location for running training, or a running holiday where you can mix in other more leisurely activities too! I for sure feel much more prepared for the Trans Atlas Marathon after this. I experienced similar altitudes, steep slopes, technical trails and terrain – everything from sharp volcanic boulders to scree slopes to tree lined narrow tracks. I will stand on the start line surrounded by the Atlas Mountains, in a week’s time with that little extra confidence and self belief which could just make all the difference when the going gets tough.
TTR Sports Holidays specialise in putting together bespoke running and hiking holidays in Tenerife.
Google maps with Teide National Park trails marked on. Super handy to navigate and keep on your desired route: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1_JnCXdqaLL0fDw-7NlhvQQUhhps&usp=sharing