The island of La Palma juts out of the Atlantic Ocean in a great twisting arch of the kind of black rock that was so recently spit out onto land that it still clearly betrays its liquid origins. Fresh though it may be geologically, the island is clothed in a smooth shimmer of vegetation that breeds a multitude of species seen nowhere else on the planet. Its high slopes play host to the ‘cloud forest,’ so named because of the pine trees’ tendency to suck the moisture out of clouds that hover around the peaks. This moisture then drips and seeps down into the soil and steadily makes its way back to the ocean, watering a unique world of biodiversity along the way. Such a climate has also fostered human cultures for over a thousand years–a microsecond geologically but ancient by human scale.
I’m on one of the Canary Islands, and I’m struck by not just the absurdity but the presumption of it all. The Canary Islands–which I maintain are geologically part of Africa, though culturally and politically very Spanish–seem a rather specific and almost arbitrary place to be. One doesn’t just end up in the Canary Islands. And in truth, even though the reason I’m here–mountain running–makes sense in context–a mountain race–that still doesn’t make this situation any less arbitrary. I flew all the way out to La Palma simply to race a lot of people across a specific mountain. And beyond that, I went to all the effort and used all the resources to come here, yet I’m staying for only a week. Like I could just barely fit in a trip to run across a Canary Island into my busy schedule of mountain running in other places. All of it just strikes me as absurd. But that’s not all.
You see, in addition to all of the above, this trip is entirely free. Turns out that I came here two years ago for the same race and actually somehow won, thereby cementing my celebrity status on La Palma for eternity. The race organization wanted me to come back badly enough that they paid for my airfare, hotel, and two meals a day, plus they have ferried me around the island to various activities surrounding the event. I didn’t even have to go to the effort of booking my own flights; the organizers simply asked what dates on which I wished to fly, and voilà–the trip was planned. If that’s not absurd, then either was the reason I first came to La Palma.
In early 2012 I received an email from the International Skyrunning Federation inviting me on a two-week-long all-expenses-paid trip to Transvulcania and Zegama as part of an awareness- and hype-building project for the federation and mountain running in general. They might tell you that they invited me because they spotted my potential from afar and wanted to give me a chance to compete on a bigger scale, but I tend to disagree. I think they simply didn’t have any conception of the American trail running scene and just invited all the American runners whose names they had heard, and through pure chance mine happened to be one of them. That I got to go was a mere accident, a coincidence of having been in the right places at the right times. But that’s fine; I’ll take coincidence if it means I get chances like the 2012 Transvulcania trip. That I happened to win the race was a surprise for myself as much as anyone else and, despite mediocre success ever since, it has allowed me to maintain a certain level of respect in the sport. Thus the celebrity-status invitation to Transvulcania 2014.
La Palma is a fascinating place. The topography is so dramatic that it screams out for romanticism. Everything from the steep rock walls ceaselessly battered by frothy seas to the terraced banana plantations climbing up the sides of the volcano brings to mind fantasy images of isolated desert islands teeming with wildlife and waterfalls and great big ripe fruits that hang down low from the trees for you to simply pick and enjoy while sauntering past. The Spanish colonial influence lends an air of style and history to the island. The sometimes-up-to-400-year-old buildings, themselves flanked by unimaginably huge walls of black rock strung with long streamers of bright green vegetation, are built with admirable symmetry. Second-story balconies jut out in perfect alignment with the entryways below while matching staircases climb diagonally to the left and right past brightly colored windows. The walls are white stucco, while the doors, balconies, and windows are matching dark red. Upon arriving these things look perfect, like a painting or a cartoon, without scars or blemishes.
The romanticism extends to the running scene, too. If you don’t look too closely, lots of things here appear so perfect. The incredible definition of Kilian Jornet’s cartoonishly huge calves; the pipeline veins bulging from Luis Alberto Hernando’s arms; the gentle curve of Anna Frost’s legs through her running dress. These are the outward signs that confirm the fantasy. And clearly, very few people look too closely. When I mentioned earlier that I had ‘celebrity status’ on La Palma, I didn’t simply mean the way the race organization treated me. From the second I stepped off the plane I have been an object of overwhelming attention and adulation. Everybody on the island knows who I am and remembers how I came from nowhere and won the race two years ago. I can’t go anywhere, neither the race expo nor the nearby town nor even the lobby of my own hotel, without being asked by multitudes of people for photos and autographs. They treat me as a demigod, as someone with a gift unattainable by all save a select few. They want to see me like I want to see the island–as perfect.
I am susceptible to vanity, and I enjoy the attention. But it has become overwhelming. So I escape. I usually end up looking at the ocean.
Thus far the growth of the volcano that built La Palma has outpaced erosion, but erosion has been at work nonetheless. The shoreline is riddled with small bays and inlets which have been carved from the basalt by the constant pounding of waves over millennia. The ocean continually squeezes its fingers into every crack and hole in the rock, gradually carving out caves and trenches that compress the incoming waves and spray them outward in all directions. I spend a lot of time staring at one inlet in particular, framed by two jutting arms of basalt– ancient lava flows really–which extend out into the sea.
Probably 100 feet long each, and separated by an equal expanse of water, these points of rock transform the uniform waves into a tormented three-dimensional seesaw of uneven planes. The waves roll in from the sea a dark blue and are immediately thrown into green and white chaos by the jutting headlands. Often an incoming wave, in disorder enough from the rocky points, encounters an outgoing wave from the inlet. This throws the water up into a high peak of white spray, transforming the blue-green of the water into a milky white. This wave then continues inward and crashes against the rock sides at an obtuse angle, spraying water high into distant tidepools. The rock is a thick dark black, creating contrast as the frothing water drains back into the inlet in white sheets.
The ocean is always moving, always changing, always maintaining stasis through transmutability. But it is an incomprehensible force of endless destruction, an organism feeding on the land at a geological pace. And when I see hints of this power, the reverence which drives normal people to devolve into frenzied fans at the sight of Kilian Jornet or Anna Frost or me seems pathetic.
Whatever strength these people see in me is virtually nothing when compared to the greater powers at work all around us. I–all of us–am nothing more than a single spurt of geological ATP. I mean, people are literally standing on an active volcano and acting like running is the most important thing in the world. The world of running is a bubble of selective perspective which surrounds the sport and its participants, and inside of which there are no scars or blemishes and nothing is more important, strong, or impressive as how fast people can run up and down mountains.
Being a human myself, and therefore predisposed to the same vanity that builds such a bubble, I tend to instinctually believe the same things. I tend to isolate myself in pockets of things I understand–like running–and push out big scary things like ceaseless erosion over billions of years. Call me crazy, but sometimes I just want to forget about the imperfections all around me and live in a world without blemishes.
I train my ass off and focus on being the best athlete possible–on being perfect–and I come to La Palma dreaming of running once more down the final street ahead of everyone else, of once again cresting the top of the final climb, surrounded by manic cheering fans, and looking behind me and seeing that nobody is within sight. Of realizing that I am going to win this race, this race that crosses a whole island and brings together the best mountain-running talent on the planet, and to flush with surprise and exhilaration as I run for what feels like hours down the final mile, slapping hands and smiling and sharing my win with all these people who let me believe that this really is–even if just for a moment–the most important thing in the world. I want that again so badly.
But now the crushing disappointment to realize, less than halfway into the race, that I cannot do that again. Not today. I don’t have the strength. I cannot run fast enough. Through whatever series of mistakes I have made, my legs and my body simply cannot maintain the pace required to compete. I stay with the front pack for over two hours and I know from experience that this pace is fast but not impossible. I am good enough to run this fast. But not today. And if not today, then when? When else does it even matter? I need to be able to run fast today, right now, with the other runners here, and show the fruits of countless hours of intervals and long runs in mountains all over the world–that strength which I know I have because I have steadily built it up over years of concentrated effort. But today I am not good enough. I have no choice but to let them go.
In the ocean inlet, occasionally all the forces line up for a perfect hit. For the set wave. The incoming wave hits at the perfect angle; the outgoing wave has already passed; and the seesaw motion of the inlet has dipped to its low point. The conditions are ripe to not only accept the incoming wave but to augment its force considerably. Like the double-bounce effect on a trampoline, this wave hits the ideal conditions and sweeps into the inlet with astonishing power. It hits the back corner with appalling force and erupts into a volcano of white spray 100 feet high and twice as wide. The top of the spray splits into glimmering drops as it washes back into the ocean, only to be thrown into chaos once more as the next wave, yet unhindered by outflow, erupts behind the first.The level of the inlet rises several feet as all the extra water rushes in and rips through the area violently. The torrent continues for a long time. Eventually the process repeats itself, chaotic and cyclical.
I keep running. I hike a lot. I think a lot. A helicopter filming the race keeps hovering over the front runners, so close yet entirely out of my grasp. I’m empty and hollow today. From the top of the caldera I can see all of La Palma and it is heartbreakingly beautiful. The forest stops just below the crater rim, exposing the dramatic contours of arching ridgelines and ancient lava flows that have created this island in the middle of the ocean. And there’s the ocean too, all around us, glistening and smooth, infinite and untouchable.
What little foothold I had in the bubble has faltered. My own poor performance is a disillusionment that sets my whole world reeling. There is no music now. There are no cheering fans. The sun beats down on me and my eyes sting and my feet hurt and eventually it’s just me running along the top of a volcano and then down, down, down into a maze of banana plantations. Each footstep is an audible crunch of gravel. The veneer of glamour that coated the event in the pre-race hype is now simply an abstract memory, more like a story I read than something that actually happened to me. Even my own memories seem to deceive me. Was it really this hot last time? I don’t remember all these switchbacks. This section didn’t seem nearly as long before.
What am I really doing here? What kind of forces have really brought me to such a place in life where I’m faltering down a mountain in the Canary Islands 40-plus miles into a race? This is not how a normal life works. And if my life is so special, if I am so special that I get to do this, then why am I so far behind the leaders?
As I descend to Tazacorte I can hear the announcer say that Luis Alberto Hernando just won the race. And then I’m running through the aid station in oppressive heat and I can’t help but notice that the cobblestones are ragged and uneven. The homes are salted and weather beaten. The tiles in the plaza chipped. Even the road into town is under construction. I run up a creek bed that likely hasn’t seen regular water in decades, since the galerias were built to divert water from the streams to all the surrounding banana plantations. Sweat keeps running into my eyes and my hands just make it worse.
I pull over the final hill into town and everything is exactly the same–the same houses, the same roads, the same cheering fans. The only difference is that nine people have already passed through today. I realize that everything seemed easier two years ago because I hit my own version of a set wave. Everything came together for me, both within and without, and augmented my abilities far beyond normal. Today I’m like an incoming wave that hit an outgoing wave, handicapped by poor timing. I wonder if Luis feels like he hit his set wave. And I wonder how midpackers feel. Do they ever feel that they hit theirs, even though they don’t have the adoration, even the complicity, of thousands of cheering fans to confirm that they have done their best?
I’m spiraling out of control into a depressive abyss. If the ocean can destroy continents; if the volcano could explode at any minute; if mountain running doesn’t matter at all; then what am I doing here? I need an anchor of some kind, a marker to give me perspective.
I’m usually so desperate to see things somehow ‘honestly’ that I spurn the machinations created to give structure to existence. Before the race I scorned the ‘altered perspectives’ of people who live in a running-centric world. But now I realize that I am desperate to find something to hold onto. I can’t relate to some kind of geological reality with no human connection. I need people, society, culture. I need human reference points. For me, as for the Palmeros, that reference point is the running world. Two years ago I underscored this with my unexpected win, and ever since, even though I don’t always realize it, this experience has framed my perception of the world.
This whole island believed in me and I feel like I’ve let them down.
I’m dreading the finish line. As I pull into town I first notice that the trees lining the road have blossomed into a magnificent mosaic of deep blue and blood red. But I hardly have time to see them before I’m swept up in a torrent of emotion. The street is lined with people just like last time. Everyone knows who I am. My race has left me exhausted in too many ways to count but I can’t help but smile the whole way down the line. I give high fives on both sides. Everyone is cheering, yelling, encouraging me. They can see that I can’t run fast enough, that I can hardly see, that even my breathing is hindered by cramping, but they cheer nonetheless and I’m so grateful I could cry at any moment.
I’m not perfect and they don’t care. Maybe it’s not so much that they give me a pass for having a bad day as that they don’t need a winner in order to be inspired. Today I’m just another midpacker and they have never cheered harder. It’s okay to make mistakes, to be normal, because it’s real.
At the front of the race, Kilian fought with Luis Alberto but in the heat Luis managed to pull ahead. Even Kilian can’t win every time. Behind me Anna Frost runs to her second win, a victory made sweeter because she was injured for over a year. Emelie Forsberg, almost unbeatable for two years now, fell early in the race and cut her arm so badly that she needed minor surgery. Everyone seems to be falling right the hell apart and in the end it’s all just part of the game. We rise and fall. I embrace the bubble and find that it’s not a world of altered perspective at all but simply a way to give structure to chaos, to narrow a boundless abyss into something more manageable. Into something really enjoyable. The abyss is still there, forever eroding our confidence, but we have a bubble to keep us safe. To make us happy.
I know these people. These are my people. We can relate to each other through the commonality of running and even if people get carried away that’s okay. At the finish line I find I want to talk to everyone as well, even have my photo taken with them. This is real to me. It does matter. I think it’s perfect precisely because it has scars; because it isn’t perfect like a cartoon or a painting. It’s perfect because it’s real, this environment in which it is totally normal to travel around the world to run 45 miles across a sub-tropical island with 2,000 other people, and to have locals and fans enthusiastically cheer for you all the way, and to finish downtown among streets lined by thousands of spectators. To be able to make a living from this arbitrary sport. It’s really not arbitrary in context, and context is the reference point by which the world makes sense.
This volcano could explode at any moment, and the sea will almost certainly wash the whole island away eventually; but that also means that when everything comes together, when your timing is just right and you roll into a race with all the force of the ocean behind you, then you can accomplish feats of astronomical scope. Those days are gifts, the days when you’re almost god-like. And their magnificent height is cast in profile by the days when you’re human. We are shown how high to aim by those people who have the set-wave days, like Luis Alberto Hernando last Saturday. Without the perspective given by the running world en masse, the great achievements would make no sense.
There are a lot of ways to maintain perspective in life, but running is a pretty good one. It means a lot to me. I want to keep trying.