Fire and water, volcanic black and Atlantic blue, shady pine forests and cliffs above the ocean: La Palma is an island of stark contrasts. Pinned onto the sky by a line of volcanoes, it’s one of the hidden treasures of the Canary Islands. Every year at the start of May, thousands of runners flock to the island for the Transvulcania trail race. It’s one of the most prestigious mountain running races in the world and a marquee event of the Skyrunning World Series.
Covering 73.4 kilometres (45.6 miles) from sea to sky, the race takes runners over a lava crust, then on wooded paths through the heart of the island to the summit of the Roque de los Muchachos - which sits at an altitude of more than 2,400m (7,870ft) - before plunging brutally down a seemingly never ending 18-kilometre (11-mile) descent to a beach of black volcanic sand.
Under blue skies, this year’s Transvulcania again dazzled the eyes and punished the quads of its 1,700 participants. For many years now, La Palma, a UN biosphere reserve, has been an open secret among the world’s trailrunners, who come year-round to train on the race’s trails. Thanks to them the island is covered by trail running segments. Here are four of the most iconic.
The Fire Road
The Transvulcania starts at 6 A.M. at the water’s edge on the extreme south of the island. Runners face the dawn climbing a segment nicknamed the land of fire. Beneath their strides is a barely sleeping giant: many scientists fear the Cumbre Vieja, an active but dormant volcano, will cause a devastating mega-tsunami when it erupts again.
“It’s impossible not to love running up the volcano as the sun comes up. But it’s a difficult route, because you sink into the volcanic rock, a bit like into sand. It’s beautiful, but difficult to climb.”
– Jordi Gamito (Spain, 12th Transvulcania 2019)
After the summit of another volcano, Las Deseadas (1,950m/6400ft), the Transvulcania descends towards El Pilar. The soft volcanic rock is behind the runners as they accelerate towards the shade given by the great pine trees at the island’s heart, which were spared during a violent wildfire in 2016.
“After slipping and sliding with every step in the volcanic sand, descending to El Pilar is one of the most pleasant parts of the race. It’s a flowing descent and not very technical, through early morning sunlight between the trees, above a sea of clouds.”
- Eva Sperger (Germany, 9th in the Transvulcania 2019)
The sky above La Palma is one of the most beautiful in the northern hemisphere. By night, the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye; by day, clouds hug the mountain slopes like a sea of pillows. Around 50km into Transvulcania, the race approaches the world's largest single-aperture optical telescope which is housed at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory.
“Roque is the most impressive section: you pass along knife-edge ridges and the sun, the volcano, your muscles, everything burns. The crater is incredible, but to me the winding trail seemed interminable. Luckily for me, my loved ones were at the summit and their encouragement gave me the strength to take on the descent.”
- Anne-Lise Rousset (France, 2nd in the Transvulcania 2019)
A local institution, the Transvulcania is not only where the world’s top trailrunners meet, it’s also the Canary Islands’ biggest trail running party. This was the fourth time that Bruno Padron has lined up. Born on La Palma, he lives on the island of Tenerife, and the race is an opportunity for him to come and visit family.
“My favourite bit is still the summit, and the ridge above what’s called the caldera. Every year, I came to run with friends. It really motivates you to be on the start line with all the elites. The day after the race, I could look at all their race stats on Strava and see, on any given segment, how they’d surpassed themselves. We try and imitate that, even if just a little." - Bruno Padron (Spain, 241st in the Transvulcania 2019)
Diving towards the Ocean
The final segment is a hellish descent and the stuff of Skyrunning legend: almost 18 kilometres (11.1 miles) long with 2,400 metres (7870ft) of vertical drop to the Puerto de Tazacorte beach. This year, not for the first time, the Transvulcania was won on this endless dive towards the ocean, when the Frenchman Thibaut Garrivier set a record time on the Strava segment (1h 21’) as he took the biggest win of his young career.
“This year, at the summit, I didn’t want to look at the sea, which you can see from a long way off. There’s 1h 20’ of downhill, you can’t stop and think. I just looked at my shoes. There were three of us in the lead at the top, and we all had to make a gap, take the biggest risks possible. We all fell, one after the other. I took a flyer, I came down on my shoulder and knee, I really scared myself. The finish is really tough. You arrive at midday in the sweltering sun, on black cliffs that bounce everything back at you, it’s stifling. But the beach is packed and that motivates you to finish well.”
- Thibaut Garrivier (France, winner of the Transvulcania 2019)
This year, 962 racers finished the Transvulcania. Among them, Ian Lye from Singapore, who spectacularly injured himself above the eye at the start of the big descent.
“I’ve never raced on a volcanic island before, it’s surreal to run all the way along the crater’s edge, above a sea of clouds and a spectacular view of the ocean. The Transvulcania was my first Skyrunning race and it was an incredible adventure. Starting at sea level, climbing a mountain, and then finding yourself back below the clouds a few hours later is magical." - Ian Lye (Singapour, 236th in the Transvulcania 2019)