In preparation for this weekend’s classic Three Peaks race, committed athlete Chris Steele headed out to Tenerife to tackle the gruelling 42km Santa Cruz Extreme. Returning to the UK with a big international win under his belt, Chris will be one-to-watch when the elite toe the start line in North Yorkshire on Saturday.
‘Oh man…. I’ve blown it!’
Those were my thoughts as I passed the 40km mark whilst leading a field of 250 runners at the Santa Cruz Extreme race (part of the European Mountain Marathons Series) in Tenerife.
I hadn’t seen one of the by-now familiar pieces of blue and white tape marking the course for at least 500m. They had been far more frequent before this.
Panic set in. I had only 2km (or at least I thought I did) to go but no idea which direction to run in!
I stopped. With nobody in sight, my only option was to stick to the main path and hope for the best.
Another few hundred metres later I saw somebody in the distance. Fired-up and full of anger, I put in a massive effort up a big climb to try and catch the man in front.
Pushing my body to the limit, I gained quickly on the new ‘leader’ only to be told, upon catching him, that I was last and he was in charge of taking down the course markers.
What? How the hell did this happen? Did he think the last race of the day was the 21km event? Had he forgotten about us out on the longer course? My anger heightened and a barrage of expletives spewed out of my mouth.
I decided just to carry on -at least I was now able to follow the pieces of tape he hadn’t so far taken down.
Another five minutes of tough ascent later I reached a summit checkpoint, at which point a hardy gang of Spaniards began to roar ‘champion’. By now I had absolutely no idea what was happening and, with my watch having passed 42km, how far I still had to run!
A super-technical descent followed before 4km of torrid asphalt. Eventually the finish line came into view. I was still unsure as to whether I was in the lead or not, but the cheers from the huge crowd suggested I may well be.
Arms aloft, I crossed the line. Yes, I had indeed won. Phew! Oh, and I’d run 48km too, with 2600m of ascent thrown in for good measure.
Set in the Santa Cruz region of Tenerife, the race certainly lived up to its billing as extreme. The landscape was tropical but very rough underfoot.
Bussed out from Santa Cruz early in the morning, the race started on the beach at La Terisitas at 9am.
Once underway, I was pleased that the early pace was steady. I had been informed of ‘who was who’ at the start and whom I should keep an eye on. I stayed to the fore, alert to any breaks.
The course profile was brutal and involved 700m of ascent inside the first 6km. As it turned out only 100m of that ascent was in the first 4km. Then, at that point, we hit what can only be described as a 2km wall rising 600m in elevation.
At the foot of the climb, Andres Fernandez made a break for it. It was a move I knew I had to cover, so I went with him. It was tough, but at the same time I felt comfortable with the pace.
As we topped out the first climb and went through the first feed station the weather began to worsen. This made the next descent even trickier. Wet and slimy underfoot, my inov-8 roclite 243 shoes gripped superbly and definitely gave me an advantage.
By the time we hit the bottom of the descent I afforded myself a glance over my shoulder and was happy to see nobody in sight. I had the gap, now I just had to keep pushing hard.
This wasn’t too difficult as the trail was amazing; every twist and turn brought something new. The climbs were steep but often runnable, while the trails were flowing along the coast and the descents technical. It was, to be fair, my dream course.
I kept pushing at the front, unaware of how big the gap actually was. The big panic over route-choice followed before I eventually completed the course in a time of 4hrs 51mins, over 15 minutes in front of second-placed Andres.
I raced for the first time in the inov-8 Race Ultra Vest. I was amazed its effectiveness. Long European races often require athletes to carry water as part of their mandatory equipment list. This race was no exception with organisers insisting everyone carried a mobile phone, emergency blanket, waterproof jacket and 1.5 litres of fluid.
Having such ease of access to the water bottles meant I was able to keep drinking regularly and grab gels from the pockets without having to slow my pace. The vest didn’t move or bounce throughout, there was no sloshing of water and it was super-comfortable, leaving no rub marks.
It was most definitely the best win I’ve ever taken, over one of the most amazing courses too. My focus is now on this Saturday’s high-profile Three Peaks race, which this year celebrates its 60th running. The 37km race, which has 1608m of ascent over the summits of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, always attracts a top-quality field and this year will be no different. After that I will ramp up my preparations for the opening race in the 2014 Skyrunner World Series, to be held at Zegama, Spain, in May.
* Photos courtesy of the European Mountain Marathons Series.