Time to race… at last!
A week ago I was running in a race, yes an actual race! My second trip to Madeira in as many years and now I’m home I want to share my thoughts on the race experience at Ecotrail Madeira and my time on the island.
Where to start? Such a beautiful island with some amazing trails. Nothing is flat here! There is plenty of elevation change to be had. Even in the capital Funchal you are basically either going up or down as soon as you get off the seafront itself. Madeira has some of the most incredibly steep roads in the world. As you wander inland a little you are greeted by paths, pavements and never-ending steps in every direction which seem to barely cling to the almost gravity-defying inclines.
I stayed in a top floor apartment with a lovely roof terrace, not far from the town centre and race start/finish. After a couple of days soaking up the atmosphere and exploring some of the island it was time to register and prepare for the off at 6am on Saturday morning. What lay before me was a tough course of 85km with over 5,600m of climb (and the same amount of descent).
The time limit on this course is 20 hours and some of you may know that I had a go at this race last year and was controversially ‘timed out’ along with ten others at a point that wasn’t even a cut off! A formal complaint to the organisation accompanied by copious pace tables, spreadsheets and sufficient indignation that I was well within the time limit and had every chance of finishing (had the cut offs been more evenly spread and applied correctly) did the trick and here I am back at the start again, ready for a second go, with a free place courtesy of Ecotrail. I am delighted to see that they have listened and made significant changes to the cut-offs in the mid part of the race. An extra hour and a half has been allowed at the next checkpoint from where I was stopped last year.
6am comes and we’re off. Around 50 competitors in this race with four Brits amongst the line up so we took the opportunity to have a chat before the race, talking about other races we had done and what challenges the day would bring. We were sent off in groups of twenty, one minute apart, all wearing masks. Nothing is the same in the grip of the covid pandemic but life is going on with some notable changes.
About two hours of running before sunrise and plenty of climb almost immediately after the start line. By around 9am I arrive at the top cable car station at Monte for a quick water refill and a cup of coke before heading on a marked route winding through the beautiful botanical gardens before heading yet further uphill. Not long after and we’re off into the mountains proper. The next section involves running along a long stretch of the many levadas which criss-cross the slopes. Since the sixteenth century they have brought fresh water down from the mountains to the towns and they continue to do so today. Much of this race follows sections of the levadas. They provide an alternative viewpoint of the city and settlements, often emerging to find a new vista opening up to enjoy. Throughout this race water feels like my constant companion.
Get on with it
Determined not to fall foul of the new revised cut offs I decide to get a shimmy on and power hike up the steep, cobbled, stepped trails which flank the steep levadas high on the mountain. Arriving at Pico Do Arreiro, one of the highest points on the island, I refuel, taking some vegetable noodle broth from the checkpoint before emerging into the clear cool air at 1,818m above sea level. It’s around 8 degrees up high, but with a very light wind no more than a T-shirt is needed. The views are stunning and I stop for a second to take a few pictures before reminding myself that I am determined to be less of a tourist on this section than I was last time.
From memory I know that there is a particularly nasty section of steep, cobbled (almost) steps coming up. They are impossible to descend with total confidence. Too far apart to properly run and clear two at a time, but also too close to feel comfortable walking on. These go on for around a mile and a half of hell and I find some sort of lop-sided one step, two step rhythm which must have looked very strange had there been any onlookers at this point.
I am reaching the point where I was stopped last year. Psychologically I really want to overcome the horrendously steep climb named Bardo (or Bastardo as I’ve decided to call it!) well ahead of where I was last year to give me a mental boost to power into the second half. It certainly hasn’t got any easier this year. Huffing and puffing, power hiking and occasional stops to catch my breath and eventually the terrain levels out. I check my watch at the top and am delighted to see that I am almost an hour ahead of my time last year.
Note to my Milton Keynes friends. I want to put this Bardo hill in context. We have a local hill we affectionately call Puke Hill, in fairness it is steep, approximately half a mile long and has 80m of climb. By comparison, Bardo has 600m of climb, is four times as steep as Puke Hill on average and is also considerably longer!
The technical, rocky descent on the other side doesn’t provide much relief but once all the elevation gained climbing Bardo (and more) is lost I’m happy to reach the Ribeiro Grande (half way-ish) checkpoint over an hour and a half inside cut-off.
Half way point
A ten minute stop for some sort of mince bolognese with rice concoction, a quick drop bag kit changeover and I’m off again. It feels very warm back down almost at sea level (300m) and I’m looking forward to gaining some altitude again to cool off. At least I was looking forward to it until I realise that the next climb of several hundred vertical metres is almost entirely concrete steps leading straight up the mountain side, crossing road after road and house after house, through the back alleys of the quieter side of town with houses that look precariously perched on the edges of some huge sheer drops. I’m getting a glimpse into a very different way of life than ours in the UK here, with green outside spaces, roof terraces aplenty and it feels a very laid back way of life, apart from the endless steps of course! I didn’t count them but there must have been well over a thousand on this climb alone. As the day draws on I am feeling pretty good still. Over half way and not that long until the longest climb of the day is done. Ribeiro Grande felt a lifetime away as I reached Terreiro Frexo up at 1500m several hours later. Even after the never-ending steps the trail climb that followed had been relentlessly steep and it took its toll on my energy levels. I was pleased to sit and be tended to at the checkpoint with a plate of trail food, juicy Madeira oranges and cake.
Magic on the trails
The next section ended up becoming a truly magical and memorable experience. I had buddied up with a Portuguese guy and we chatted as well we could with his limited English. I joked with him that his English was better than my Portuguese and we laughed together, sharing a camaradie which can only be experienced in moments of digging deep such as this. We pushed onwards and upwards, glad of the company to divert attention from the painful muscles as we approached the Pico Buxo checkpoint after around 59km. At the checkpoint he met his wife who provided him with some food and realising they had sandwiches spare she offered me a clingfilm wrapped homemade cheese and tomato sandwich. This was like manna from heaven and I can’t explain quite how much this picked me up. I almost cried and said that I would hug her if I was allowed. Sitting in a gazebo at 1600m with a sandwich and a cup of lemon tea I was truly happy and at peace with myself and this race. Tears in my eyes I said obrigado and headed off to purposefully march up a rare road section of climb towards the last peak of Pico Do Cedro. Already above the clouds in completely clear air and with incredible luck with the timing I found myself watching the sun set with deep golden orange and pink hues above a perfect blanket of cloud, save for the occasional rocky outcrop protruding through the cloud layer. I had almost been crying at the last checkpoint, now I was delirious with laughter and joy at this wondrous sight. Wow, wow, wow. THIS is why I run ultras. Moments like this are precious and this will live on in my memory for a long time.
What a difference an hour makes!
Back to the mission! This is not over yet. Still 23km, a quarter of the race and over 2,000m of punishing descent to cover. I knew I would make it in time, I had plenty of time in hand but as the sun’s colours began to fade I knew things would not get any easier from here on in. I readied my headtorch and prepared to enter a different world inside the thick layer of cloud where I would find myself for the next hour, descending through darkening shades of grey as night enveloped any remaining trace of day. Barely able to see two metres in front of my face I was pleased to have the comfort of the reflective course markers on the trail and a map of the route on my watch. This late in the race I really didn’t want to lose focus and go off course. That would be disastrous in the gloom. It is also easily done when you’re tired and your mind starts to play tricks. I had started to see the odd hallucination here and there, not surprising really after 14 hours non-stop.
Going down, down, down
After a while I arrived at the Estrela checkpoint and fancied cubes of cheese and some more beautiful juicy orange segments. A classic combination I joked with the volunteers!
Heading back down onto the steep cobbled streets I actually feel quite sad to be leaving the solitude of the mountains behind and can feel the air temperature rising, even at 10pm. My original target had been 18 hours but inevitably at some point during a long race your focus turns to just getting round instead and simply making it to the finish seems like the only possible goal. However, I can’t help but start to do some laboured pace calculations in my head though and wonder if it is still possible. Maybe, but it’s not a given. I’ve heard talk of the sting in the tail and a quick check of the elevation profile tells me I still have over 250m of climb to do even though I’m into the last four miles and already back down at sea level. The next two miles are along a deserted promenade at the bottom of a cliff with waves crashing against the breakwaters in a rather mesmerising way. It’s peaceful and I just want to keep my rhythm going now and keep moving at a pace greater than walking as much as I can. Run, walk, repeat keeps me going through this section as the remaining distance slowly decreases. Through a long tunnel in the cliff face, an unexpected diversion across a pebble beach with huge chunks of rock as big as your head and then… the sting appears!
The end is nigh
The route snakes inland for one final flourish of uphill, steps, a levada run and then a steep descent. It feels like a microcosm of the whole race has been squeezed into one mile and it reminds me of what I have just experienced over the course of the day! With a couple of miles to go I buddy up with one of the Brits who I have been chatting to and to-ing and fro-ing with during the race. We have about two miles to go and around 25 minutes to get in under 18 hours. That’s possible, surely, as long as there are no more surprises. Wait, what’s this? Gentle descent as far as the eye can see! Woohoo. Wasn’t expecting that! We chat as we run and decide we’ll cross the line together, neither of us wanting to expend any additional effort in a pointless folly to outsprint the other after all this time. This is about the experience, placing and rank don’t matter at all. We’re already doing faster than a ten minute mile and that feels plenty fast enough after 50+ miles of this relentless terrain. Into the final mile and we stretch ourselves further to do a 9 minute mile until finally the finish line is in sight. There it is, 17h52m41. Crossing the line I am greeted with a medal and my name called out over the PA system which is still blasting out dance music in the central square even though it is nearly midnight! Elated, I sit for a while and contemplate what a day it has been as I completed my 44th ultra. All that remains is to trudge back to my accommodation, get clean, eat and relax. There is just the small matter of three flights of stairs to reach the rooftop apartment. Whose idea was that?!