Sunday 20 May 2012

Stepping into my ninth decade

Our holiday resort - Los Cancajos
     In the past, even throughout my seventies, birthdays didn't bother me in the least but, as I've said before, I wasn't looking forward to my 80th. Eighty sounds OLD and if I allowed my brain to believe that then I'd probably start to FEEL old.  I looked upon eighty as an age when people OFFICIALLY become old men, or old women, and have great family parties to mark the transition before tentatively placing one foot in the grave. Maybe that was expected of me. Bottles of whisky arrived from well meaning friends, to maybe aneasthetise my decrepit brain and deaden all the aches and pains associated with latter years. I was having none of it. All I wanted to do was to get as far away as possible, far from the madding crowd, and do my own thing, like I've always done. 
With my wonderful partner at Roque de los Muchachos
     My understanding partner was with me all the way.Together we flew to the beautiful island of La Palma, reputedly the most mountainous inhabited island in the world relative to it's size, where we could climb and walk, run and swim, and celebrate the first steps into my ninth decade in glorious sunshine. It seemed to work for I came home feeling no older than when I set off. If anything, a little younger and a little lighter. Time flies backwards when you're enjoying yourself!
Jacaranda tree at Las Nieves
     Many months ago I'd decided exactly where I wanted to spend my birthday - at the highest point of the island on the Roque de los Muchachos which we'd failed to reach on two previous holidays to the area. Well, we finally made it, and in glorious weather. At 2,426m the Roque is almost twice the height of Ben Nevis and affords incredible views across to the other Canary islands of Tenerife, La Gomera and El Hierro. But the most vertiginous view lay beneath our feet, a staggeringly deep drop of around 6,000ft to the floor of a massive cloud filled 10km wide cauldron, the Caldeira Taburiente. Jay, our Thomson tour guide back at the hotel, reckoned it rivalled the Grand Canyon, and he's stood on the edge of both.
One of the huge Observatories at the Roque
     Also up there are a string of Observatories for viewing the night sky which is said to be clear on approximately 350 nights every year. There is very little pollution on the island, the only real industry being a necessary Power Station. Aircraft must land and take off over the sea. None are allowed to fly over the island - helicopters being the exception. Telescopes are absolutely enormous, the largest having a mirror measuring 10.4 metres across.  These aren't your common or garden telescopes where you stick your eye to an aperture and look through. Images from giant mirrors are fed into computers for nocturnal astrophysicists to study and analyse data on large screens. Their range and accuracy is phenomenal. As an example Jay told us that, were it not for the curvature of the earth, that amongst a great multitude of men in Red Square, Moscow, many thousands of miles away, these telescopes could locate one holding a candle in his hand.  The mind boggles. Well, mine does!
Dakota Jones arrives at the Roque
     We were up on the Roque for a second occasion on the day of the Transvulcania race, a hard 83 km route that began at Fuencaliente in the south of the island at 6am, followed the undulating GR 131 trail up the spine of the island, over several volcanoes to the Roque, dropped 7,000ft to the seaside village of Tazacorte, then climbed back 1,000ft or so to the finish in Los Llanos where thousands of people had turned out to greet each and every runner as they joyously ran the red carpet amid all the cheers, shouts, music and razzmatazz. It was a sight to behold, hair-raising, spine-tingling that brought a wee tear to the eyes of this old has-been who is no longer able to do such things. 
Anna Frost on the 7,000ft descent
     We stayed on the Roque until the three leaders had passed over (an American - Dakota Jones; a Spaniard - Killian Jornet; and an Englishman - Andy Symonds) then jogged/walked down 6,000ft of the race route to the Mirador El Time where we caught a bus into Los Llanos. The heat was intense. Across the water on Gran Canaria it reached 39ºC that day and some tourists died of heat exhaustion while out walking on Tenerife. It's a miracle these runners coped with the conditions, though more than one collapsed at the Finish - including Killian Jornet, the very experienced runner who finished third. Dakota won the race in a course record time of 6:59:07 with Andy Symonds 2nd in 7:00:34.   Anna Frost of New Zealand won the lady's race, also setting a new course record of 8:11:30.  Both winners are members of the Salomon racing team.
Jogging down the stony trail to El Time
     Our own morning runs were limited to a mere 4 miles which we ran on eight mornings straight after breakfast while it was reasonably cool - on days when we weren't setting off to walk the hills. All routes from our hotel involved some steepish uphill sections, our 4 miler having 384ft of ascent. My fastest time was a little over 37 minutes - finishing with a faster ½ mile of 3:25 which, try as I might, I could never improve upon. Maybe it was the encroaching heat, or running on a full stomach, but I was a little disappointed with my slowness. Back home I've run a bit faster than that. Maybe my Garmin was struggling with the heat too?
On Pico Bejenado
     Our forays into the hills involved thousands of feet of climbing up zig-zag paths and ancient donkey trails, some of them quite vertiginous. Our ascent of Pico Benjenado was one of the more memorable days, though another absolute scorcher. An email from a local lady said it was going to be colder so we only packed a half litre of water each. Lesson: never take notice of other people. Always use your own judgement.  However, an early start meant we reached the summit at 1,854m before the real heat of the day. From the summit I scrambled down a rock wall and walked to a Trig point at the end of the ridge to take photographs of the incredible Barranco de las Angustias - the Gorge of Fear. 
"They shall mount up with wings like eagles" (Isaiah 40 v31)
Staring into Barranco de las Angustias - or the 'Gorge of Fear'
     Back at the cairn we signed the Visitor's book before settling down for lunch amidst a multitude of lizards demanding to be fed. They climbed up my back, ran over my feet and tried to sneak into our sacks. They love chocolate biscuits!  Heat and humidity hung among the trees as we staggered down through the forest of Canary pines that can not only withstand heat, but forest fires that completely decimate their foliage. Their burnt trunks will blacken your hands if you touch them yet, after a few months, sap begins to flow through their branches again and green needles re-appear. Below the forest we walked a long exposed stretch of tarmac to the Visitor Centre where we refilled water bottles before catching a bus back to our village.
Banana plant with its gaudy flower
      Apart from it's amazing mountainous features another thing we love about this island is its wealth of flowers and vegetation that drench the landscape with a patchwork of colour. Even the bare volcanic tops are gaudily tinted with blues, reds, slate greys or orange according to different mineral deposits.  Banana plants too have bright flowers that give way to huge, heavy bunches of fruit.  Notice, I called them plants, though they're as tall as trees.  Like other plants they only have a year-long lifespan. However, such is the climate that crops can be rotated throughout the year meaning that, if a farmer has a thousand plants, around twenty can be harvested each week. These are 'proper' bananas, filling and flavoursome, as opposed to our local supermarket varieties.  We ate them every day.  
Flowering cactus
     Oranges, lemons and avocados are also grown whilst on upper slopes well tended vines provide grapes for the local wine industry.  The sub-tropical climate and sunny slopes are ideal for cultivation of tobacco plants used for making cigars that are said to rival the more famous havanas from Cuba. From a well stocked stall at the hippie market in Puntagorda I considered buying one to smoke with the birthday bubbly, then thought better of it.  It would have looked good on the photos though. 
     So, all in all, celebrations of my 80th year on planet earth went down pretty well, lasting for a couple of weeks and getting me away from all the hype and horrors of great family gatherings people seemed to expect. Sorry if I disappointed them. Maybe on my 90th, if they're still around!


  1. Glad you had a good journey (and Birthday!) in La Palma. Looks like you had good weather, too, and missed nothing but cold and rain in the UK. I'm hoping I'll get myself down there for the Transvulcania Race one of these years, but La Palma deserves to be visited as often as possible. I think Benejado Peak is my favorite hike there, but they're all good!

  2. What a great way to spend a big birthday. Keep on running, and no doubt time will keep going backwards!

  3. such an inspiring amaze me with your strength and your spirit!!! Sounded like an great bday...and I am quite sure your 90th will be just as adventurous!!

  4. How fun to see the ultrarunners! Enjoyed the pics! Happy birthday!

  5. Read an article about the race, what a great birthday present to get to see the best of the best!!! Sure looks like you had a great time, all the best for the years to come.

  6. I love your post! What a great vacation spot for a milestone birthday. Glad you had such an amazing time.
    My Running Shortz
    PS My Garmin slows down in the heat too. Dumb watch :)

  7. Spectacular image of you on the gorge... what a place!

  8. I recommended to you running along the the footpath that flip arround the island of Menorca in Spain. An extraordinarious pathlane crossing many virgin beaches with clear waters. See:
    You are a great example. Thanks