A week has passed and I can almost feel my sausage toes again which prompts me to try to jot down some thoughts on the Madeira Island Ultra Trail, so here goes…..
MIUT was one of those races which you don’t remember in order. Random moments jump into your consciousness and these little vignettes invariably cause the edges of your mouth to curl in conspiratorial smile. Lizards, rats, green pipes, broken poles, scary mountains, darkness, scary drops and Glenfiddich. You see, MIUT was one of those races where you had to be there. There is no recounting of events which can adequately describe just how mind-blowingly awful and wonderful it was. In the same way as the sober observer might recognise a good going party, they can never feel the conspiratorial camaraderie and exhilaration of the intoxicated participants.
But back to the beginning and MIUT set off at midnight in darkness from the little fishing village of Port Moniz, perched on a rocky outcrop on the north west coast of the lump of volcanic rock which is Madeira. The destination was Machico some 115Km away on the opposite edge of the island. The route would take us over the mountains which run down the spine of Madeira and would involve climbing and descending 7200 metres.
“its like UTMB – just make it to morning and then everything changes”. Craig Hamilton had offered these words of wisdom as we waited for the start of the race. Craig is a hell of a runner and I have enormous respect for his running achievements, so listened carefully.
It is funny the little things you notice. We were sat on granite steps watching traditional Madeiran dancers entertain the assembling runners. It was 11pm at night yet the stone wasn’t cold. If you are Scottish you will understand just how weird that is.
Then there were the lizards. The first climb out of Port Moniz was on narrow concrete roads which headed upwards at angles so steep you can’t imagine cars going up them until you have to bypass the cars parked outside the houses. Houses built in places where houses shouldn’t be, served by roads so steep they shouldn’t be roads because cars shouldn’t be able to get to them. Yet all these things exist and 800 runners lit by head torches are running and walking up these roads and when not on the roads they are climbing thousands of stone steps which link the different vertiginous road networks reaching into the sky. So to the Lizards which scuttle across the concrete by day as they bask in the sun. Quite a number of them were obviously taken by surprise by the stampeding hordes and met an untimely end leaving a flat gelatinous lizard shaped gloop on the concrete.
What goes up must come down and the road hurtled down to a river crossing and a small village of Ribeira de Janela. A noisy, excited and unexpectedly numerous group of supporters cheered us across the river and on to the hill. A look behind and a stunning snake of head torches zig zagged from the sky to the sea set against the black outline of the hill. A glance at the route profile helpfully printed upside down on the bottom edge of the race number provided the metaphorical poke with a sharp stick when I realised that the first climb hadn’t in fact been the first climb. That cheeky little 1000ft climb followed by 1000ft descent in the first 5K was just the warm up. Now was time for the proper hills.
Darkness brings with it the fear. Fear of what you can see and fear of what you can’t see. Fear of the loneliness of the challenge. Fear of failure. Fear of sleep. Fear of time slipping away. Fear of time cutoffs. Fear of a mis-step and the drops you know are off the path. Last year had not been particularly kind to me on a racing front. I had failed to finish in two big races and while I had the physical excuse of excruciatingly sore heels on both occasions, I suspect that the real reasons for the DNFs were mental failures rather than physical failure and the fear haunted me as I climbed relentlessly upwards into the night. That fear that my sore heels might return or even worse, the fear that the voice in your head saying stop would grow too loud to ignore.
I had prepared for the distance and I had prepared for the climbs. After all, as Craig and I had discussed, we have both run further and climbed higher. How hard could it be? As my watch had stopped telling me anything meaningful, ticking over with yet another Personal Worst for 5K and 10K, just how hard it could be was becoming self evident. This wasn’t Chamonix and these weren’t the hard metalled paths switch backing elegantly up hill. These paths were going straight up in an ever changing mix of dirt, tree roots, stone steps and unevenly spaced log steps.
After what seemed like an eternity the checkpoint of Faval was reached. More than 1100 metres climbed, the equivalent of one of the bigger Scottish Munros. Time to take stock and head off down hill once more. Only 800 metres to the bottom of the hill. If I thought it was steep on the way up it was even more steep on the way down. Step followed cautious lumbering step. Rocks followed logs which followed grassy banks which followed treacherous dirt slopes, all shrouded in darkness. “Make it to morning” became my crutch as I picked my way downhill while the younger lycra clad European mountain goats flew recklessly past me taking advantage of lightness and elasticity that my knees and hip flexors can only dream.
“make it to morning” kept ringing in my head. I needed to finish this race as I needed the points it offered to complete my registration for my goal race of the year the Diagonale des Fous on Reunion Island. Flights and accommodation were booked and it would be an awful long way to go not to get to race because of a DNF. Cloaked in darkness, I made sure that I reached the bottom of the hill without any slips falls or twisted ankles.
A deep breath at the checkpoint, still comfortably ahead of the cut off times, feeling a little bit pleased that the first really big climb was done. Ok it was 3:45am, dark, it had taken me nearly 4 hours to run 20K and I was about to set off up another mountain, but things were ok.
As I climbed, making good use of my poles, my internal conversation turned into a swear fest. “F*ckin hills, b@starding tree roots, oh ya b@satrd not another f*cking big step” and so it continued for the next 2 hours as I made my way up the never ending mountain. After 2 hours I was about three quarters of the way up the climb when the wheels came off. Puffing and panting I had to step off the the path and let people start passing me. Looking up a line of torches sparkled demoralisingly high above me. Several times I repeated the routine of climb, puff, step aside, look up, get depressed, repeat. After an eternity I made it into the sky, there was nothing else above me. The torches were going sideways instead of up. I had made it to the top, 1580 metres in total, higher than Ben Nevis, and there was now just a tinge of pink on the horizon. Into the next check point and a quick text to Helen “Have a good race. Mine is hard as fuck but still safe and still ahead of cut offs. marathon done 8 hours”
Despite the ridiculous nature of the climbs I was finding that I was recovering quickly and well so was reassured that my race wasn’t quite over yet.
Thinking that the big climbs were out of the way I managed to run the first half of the descent with the daylight arriving just before the next technical section. I had made it to morning. By coincidence having made it to morning I also caught up with Craig as we crossed a narrow volcanic ridge. I was more than a bit surprised as I hadn’t expected to see him again. The night hadn’t been kind to him, Craig told me he had officially retired from all trail running 4 times during the night, but catching him gave me a lift and we ran together down the remainder of the descent through forest trails and down hundreds of steep log steps until we arrived in Rosario. We had survived the night, and the sun was up. everything was different.
The morning was spent in a sweaty blur covering the constant ups and downs of kilometers 40 to 60. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, there was another steep up or an awkward technical down, it was so bad you just had to smile. This was the race that kept on giving.
Did I mention the rat? A moment of light relief when trundling through the forest in a multilingual train we picked up a great big rat in the head lamps. It wasn’t in the least bit concerned by us and just looked at us as if we were daft.
Then there was the water pipe. After yet another dip into a ravine, and yet another clamber up a grassy bank, the next section of path followed the line of a large green empty water pipe as it clung to the hill at some ridiculously steep angle. I know it was empty by the hollow ringing sound it made as I banged my head on it on each of the three occasions that the path ducked underneath it. I also use the word path very loosely. There was a very narrow sheep track which followed the line of the pipe, sandwiched between the pipe and a bowel-looseningly sheer drop. Just to make it interesting there were sequences of oddly spaced steps cut into the hill, with some big steps which tested both your bravery and your concentration. With 11 hours climbing in your legs not falling off the hill became something of a priority.
Eventually though it passed and I found the trail which would finally lead to the half way checkpoint and my drop bag at Cural das Freiras. Presumably because it was getting too easy, the sun was now beating down and playing havoc with my celtic genes and my once red hair. I was surprised to catch up with Craig once more and even more surprised to learn that he was struggling. I was still doing sums in my head and was reasonably reassured to calculate that despite all the traumas of the previous 12 hours I was pretty much on schedule to achieve my 24 hour target. Oh how naive I was! I wished Craig well and headed forwards. Before long I could see the town below which was good, but then began to have that nagging doubt that something was wrong. The thing that was wrong was that I was level with the town but it was still a long, long way below me which could mean only one thing. Yep, turned the corner and the path plummeted down hill. A few comforting switch backs eased the nerves, but the rest was done on steps, ladders, rocks and tree roots. After an eternity and much swearing I crawled into the checkpoint at Cural das Freiras, retrieved my drop bag and set about repairing the damage. I changed my socks and shoes (La Sportiva Mutants off, Skechers Go Trail Ultra on), waxed my legs when I tore off the K-Tape. Craig arrived at the checkpoint happy in the knowledge that he had organised a taxi back to the hotel and despite offering him a swig from my miniature of Glenfiddich he was having none of it and his day was done. I will confess that I gave serious contemplation to writing this race off as one adventure too far and joining him for a warm bed and a beer.
I was deliberating whether or not to change my top, when I felt the familiar checkpoint sensation of my stomach rejecting the food it had just taken in. I hobbled to the toilet as fast as I could but only made it as far as the outer door before the projectile vomit exploded through my hand, half going up over my face onto the ceiling and the rest going down over my shirt. I made my apologies to the lady who was just coming out of the cubicle at that point, found a mop from the cleaners cupboard, made an attempt at cleaning up my mess and headed back inside to change my shirt.
I left the checkpoint into the heat of the afternoon in reasonable spirits thinking the worst of the climbs were behind me and knowing that I was now heading into the scenic bit. The race photographer caught me doing my best Beau Geste impression as I headed up hill trying to be patient, knowing that I probably had a 3 hour climb ahead of me. We were heading for Pico Riuva, the highest point on the island. On the whole the path was of better quality than most we had been on, but it just kept going higher and higher. Up through the clouds to some jaggy pinnacles looming high above. We can’t be going up there surely? Oh shit yes we are. Relentless upwards progress and the top came closer.
A number of runners were in quite a sorry state by this point, and one Portuguese runner had completely given up and was lying prone at the side of the trail, looking grey and trying to sleep. I spent a wee bit of time with him and then as it was only a short distance to the top reported him to the firemen at the aid station who sent a rescue squad back down the track to retrieve him. Pico Riuvo was done. The aid station was slightly surreal as the power had failed so there were no lights in the hut which housed the food and drink.
It wasn’t yet 6pm and next stop was Pico do Areeiro which really was the last high peak on the course. My ambition was to get there and down the other side before dark. According to the map it was only 5K away and 300 metres lower so it should be straightforward. Nope, it involved a drop of 800 metres down steps and ladders with sheer drops. A trip through two 100 meter long tunnels through the mountain and then a horrific scramble back up another 600 metres of stairs, , steps, rocks and ladders. The guide ropes provided some reassurance, but there was still lots of this ..
Once at the top it was freezing cold with a strong wind, but it was only 20 or so miles to go. We were on the course used by the marathon which Helen was running and which had started in the morning. I was feeling more than a bit nervous at her prospects if the rest of the course was anything like the stuff I had just come up, but fortunately the path became quite runnable and I relaxed knowing that she would have managed fine and that I would be able to make some progress towards the finish. According to the race plan there were just two features still to navigate, one last wee bump of a hill at a place called Ribeiro Frei and a final downhill describe in the race brief as a “technical descent”.
Darkness fell, but I was ticking off the miles and was going to finish. Maybe wouldn’t be my 24 hour target but I would get there. I had done all the hard work. In and out of the Ribeiro Freia checkpoint. The board said it was only a 500 metre climb. Let’s be having you. I made my way to where the path turned up hill and started to climb. OH MY GOD what are they trying to do to us. No real path, just a near vertical scramble up a dirt bank which was torn up from the hundreds of pairs of feet going up it earlier in the day. It was unrelenting and at that point, in the dark I wanted to give up. Two things kept me from giving up at that point, firstly the aid station boss had been a bit grumpy and I I didn’t think I would be treated very sympathetically and more pressingly how on earth was I going to get back down the hill without killing myself? Upwards it was. I got in tow behind a chap with green shorts whom I had seen on and off all day. I knew I climbed faster than him and he kept looking over his shoulder for me to go past. Big scaredy cat that I am, I let him beat the trail and I was happy to be rabbited up at his pace.
It passed, I made it to Posio at the top of the hill, sent Helen a text to say really sorry I might be a bit late, threw up a couple more times and then had the panic that it was nearly midnight and the next cut off was at 2:30 nearly 9K away. Now under normal circumstances having two and a half hours to run 9K downhill would seem ridiculously easy but after everything else the race had thrown at us, I set off like a scalded cat for Portello the next checkpoint. As it was I arrived in plenty of time, refuelled once more and headed for the last technical downhill. It was a wee bit disconcerting when first I was passed by an ambulance and then by the mountain rescue, but as it was they were just out lending support. The route headed into the woods and I could hear the sea. A wee while of normal trail and then it started to drop. Numerous bid drops down steep dirt banks or big steps down off and between rocks. All of this would have been bad enough in its own right, but the realisation that your head torch was picking out the tops of the trees on your right side and that if you fell, if you were lucky you would land in the tree branches, if you didn’t hit the tree branches then you were probably in the sea several hundred feet below. I picked up a Portuguese runner at this point who’s head torch had failed so the pair of us gingerly worked our way to the last major checkpoint.
As a minor aside the darkness brought some interesting complications. First one of my poles started collapsing of its own volition which was less than helpful when I was depending on it getting me up and down hills. Next I found a new way of staving of the sleep which washes over you on the second night: I was using soft flasks and discovered that if you fill the flask with coke the first time you try to drink it by biting the nozzle, you would get a high speed burst of CO2 fired into your mouth which shot up the back of your nose and squirted out your nostrils. A sort of coke breathing Smaug the dragon. I got quite into this and did it regularly over the course of the night. Don’t ask me why, I just did. I can also recommend 18 year old Glenfiddich as a particularly fine wee pick me up for those moments when spirits are flagging.
Coming out of the last checkpoint we also got in tow with a french runner who was happy for the company. We swapped race tales and he told me reassuringly that Madeira was very like Reunion except that Madeira was more technical! We shall find out in October.
5 miles more. 5 miles along a good path. 5 miles along a good path 2 metres wide and perched precariously on a sea cliff with a 500 feet drop into the Atlantic. Oh well, it was that kind of race. Probably just as well that section was in the dark. Except my Frenchman then announced that he was soon to have a problem as his torch was fading! So we have this league of nations trotting gingerly along this cliff path in the dark with one working head torch between us. Bizarrely we were all smiling.
It was slow but finally into the final checkpoint and only 4K to go. There was a hint of light in the sky and some lights from cottages provided some help so I sucked in some air and started running. For the first time in 24 hours I felt like I was running properly. I left my companions behind and picked up even more speed. Along the narrow concrete path at the side of the last Levada, I passed a good number of people and felt stronger and stronger. Cockerels were crowing down in the valley and I could see the bay of Machico getting closer. As always there was a detour, another uphill which I ran much to the amusement of the Marshals, down a steep grassy bank, some steps and bounded out on to the road by the beach. Job done. round the corner, follow the cones over the footbridge and there is the Arch. It is 5:30 am and I am sprinting towards the finish line. Up and over the ramp and inexplicably in a mixture of exuberance and relief I jumped through the finish line.
It was without a doubt the hardest race I have ever done. It is brutal, awesome and wonderful all at the same time. I have no idea how the elites can run that course in the time they do. The daylight sections I can get, but how they do those 3000ft technical descents in the dark I have no idea.
Did I enjoy it? Absolutely! When recounting the adventure to various people these last few days I found myself grinning excitedly as I tell the tale. Would I recommend this race? Absolutely not. There are some of my friends who would love this race, but it is the sort of race you need to find yourself. The potential for misery is so great that I would not want to be responsible for recommending that misery to someone.
This is the first race I have done where I have been genuinely pleased just to finish. I didn’t even look at the results for a few days. For all that my 29.5 hours was slow, my heel injury didn’t reoccur, I climbed all those hills, battled a few demons and I didn’t give up. I was a proper ultra runner again and that was all that mattered. “Do you dare?” is one of the race strap lines. “Too fucking right I did” was my response as I sat in the dark covered in dirt, sipping my beer and I was proud as punch about that.