When was the last time you spent time truly alone amongst people? I don’t think it happens a lot, it certainly hasn’t happened to me for a while. I remember in 2000 I went to Italy on my own and for around 10 days I was truly alone in a country where I couldn’t speak the language finding my way, whilst trying to learn words and phrases when I could, to get by. I remember hours or even half a day would go by without speaking at all. It’s a strange feeling. I haven’t thought about this for a while before, but reflecting on my experience of this race on the trails was a very lonely one. I am not saying it’s a bad thing, I just hadn’t thought about those feelings. I haven’t done a race where I have been on my own for a while, Eiger 51 in 2019 I ran solo but I still had friends at the start and I chatted to quite a few people on the route. Cumbria way, I started on my own but I had the wonderful Becca as crew, plus 99% of the runners were British and I made friends on the route. This may be a weird way to start this blog but it kind of sets the scene, in my mind.
The Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) 85km was a race I found myself doing on my own and I really liked it. I didn’t go to the island on my own, it’s just that all my friends were either doing the 115 or 60 and they all had different start times and start places. This race has been on my radar for a while as some other friends completed various distances in 2018/19. It intrigued me as it is very unique, much like, the island itself. It also scared the sh*t out of me if I am honest. The climbs are brutal and you run along small paths with drop offs into nothing but I like to face these fears, within reason. I’ll never not be dizzy at an edge but I will find a way to lessen its effects and doing more of these events will hopefully give me more confidence.
Now for some numbers!
85km with 4800m ascent and 4800m of descent. Cut off, 25 hours. Start time 7am.
2xVK climbs, that’s vertical kilometre (1000m of climbing in 5km or less)
7 aid stations
And the most important thing, my bib number: 2222
I had selected the 85km race (rather than the 115) as I had Hardmoors 55 1 month earlier, delayed due to covid and felt the longer race wouldn’t be a good idea, I am happy with that life choice! It also meant I didn’t have a midnight race start. Saying that I still had to wake up at 3am in order to get ready for a taxi to the bus pick up point at the finish town of Machico. The organisers are brilliant at sorting this out for the races.
The taxi dropped me off just after 5am just as the rain stopped. I was alone, I waited for the bus, I got on a bus at 5.30 found a seat and settled in for the hour long journey. It rained quite a bit again and I got nervous about starting in the rain as it’s a bit of a faff. I also felt a bit sick but was wondering if it was nerves or the ride. I looked over my race plan. It was a numbers game. I had copied the Google sheet into notes in case of zero signal, this was my guide for the course, it probably looks like gobbledegook to most.
We arrived at the start line near the coast, in a village called Säo Vincente about 6.25, it had stopped raining, so I did my last bit of kit sorting and got my drop bag finalised and well, dropped. I didn’t know what to expect but it was properly set up start area, with a start funnel, big arch, toilets and couple on the mic getting everyone hyped up. When the corral opened up, they scanned us in, the elites were sectioned off at the front, I got myself in the middle ready for the count down. Then dead on 7am we were off.
It was dark but the sun was rising rapidly as we wound our way straight up on a road section into the hills. I hadn’t bothered with a torch, and was pleased to be correct with this plan. I also left my poles away as I wanted to get my legs moving and find a groove. It was a punchy 10km but once off the road I was happy, the smell of the ferns, fresh form the rain fired of some sensory memories. It reminded me of happy days camping/hiking with the scouts. There is nothing like that fresh smell in the morning. I felt, it was going to be a good day.
I remember at some point running along my first levada. These are water irrigation channels, made of concrete. You have to run along a raised part, sometimes they are thin, and sometimes wide. A very unique part of this race and would pop up at random places through out the day.
Before I knew it, we were at the first check point. I hadn’t checked the pacing plan but now looking back on it, I was 45mins up on my predicted time. As I said though I just wanted to get in the groove for the first part of the race. I topped up my water and grabbed a bit of banana and headed out. I knew the next section would be tougher. Just 4.4km but with around 800m gain, it was poles time! We were climbing straight away too, on all manner of stairs. I knew we had stairs, I had been training for them. Now I was in them and they wouldn’t leave me for hours!
This section is a bit of a blur like much of the race to be honest, it is really weird to enjoy a race so much but not remember every moment. What I found myself doing though, was putting into action a new climbing plan. It was pretty congested, so what I did was, just go steady at the persons pace in front for a little bit, then over take when a clearing happened, if I felt ready. I wouldn’t get stressed about being stuck behind slower climbers, I just used that time to take in everything and lower my HR. A little way up the hill we merged with the 115 runners. They started at midnight, some looked fresh and some looked a little worse for wear. The weather on this island is so localised that I think some got caught in heavy rain and others missed it. They were all looking forward to the next CP though as hot food was on the menu. They smelled breakfast!
CP 2 Ecumeada, was inside and it indeed had hot food. I arrived an astonishing hour ahead of schedule, which was mind blowing. I had been running for 2.5 hours and already climbed 1400m. This aid station was in a big hall with toilets. I refilled both bottles, restocked my front pockets with fuel, grabbed some crisps and headed back out. It was too early for a meal! Another tough section was to come but it was actually tougher than I thought!
Almost 15km with 1000m climbing. This section had the worst climb of them all IMO. All steps that followed a pipe straight up, you had to duck under said pipe a few times too. The stairs were steep and uneven which made it tricky, I continued with my climbing plan though; hang back for a bit then push on when i could. I noted to myself that I had barely spoken still. One french guy from the 115 had asked how long I had been going for a little while earlier but that was it. I was happy in my own mind, focusing on getting off the pipeline. As always, the goal was the next aid station and to enjoy the views once we got out of the hell climb woods. What views they were. When the trails levelled off a little, we were in this stunning valley. The path continued to climb but it was breath taking and just so lush. I have never run in a place like this and my heart was full even though we were still going up. At the highest point of this section we reached 1250m and I could see over into the valley on the other side. In the distance was the next peak, Pico Ruivo, the tightest point on the island.
Again, I was making excellent time and way up on my predicted, that was before the descent!
3km with 700m straight down, and I mean straight! It was switchback rocky steps, technical hell. When I first saw it I had a wobble mentally. I had to take a moment and a kind Portuguese guy said to me, “take your time man, this is the most technical descent of the course”. So I took my time, in fact it took me about 40mins to get down that section. Which is pretty damn slow but mentally, going at my pace helped. I even chatted to an actual English guy on the way down. He was on the 115 and in a world of pain, convinced he was going to DNF at the aid station below, I tried to talk him out of it but have no idea if he did, he was way ahead of the cut off but was worried about the looming climb ahead. I was excited about it! I was also excited to have spoken to someone for more than one sentence.
Once at the bottom of the hill, we were on tarmac and heading to the aid station at Curral Des Frieras. This part was super annoying as it was 2km on a slight incline. I walked most of it tbh as it annoyed me a lot. a long loop out to get to the building, I know they had to do it to have somewhere big enough but still it pissed me right off! We had lots of cheers from locals running in. It was here that I first paid attention to a marshal calling out my number, duas, duas, duas, duas as I entered. They were having a right chuckle at it and said “good number” to me, I liked that. This was 30km in for the 85 and the halfway point for the 115ers. We had access to our drop bags here and I had planned on a 30min stop over. I came in 20mins ahead of schedule which meant I was in a good place for the 30min stop. I used the toilet again, rehydrated, sorted out my kit for the rest of the race by adding in a bunch gels, other food, spare warm gloves and a 3rd water bottle for the next section. I then went in search of hot food. Annoyingly it was downstairs, So I had to go down then go back up. I guess I could have just moved down there but was happy in the larger room. I wanted some pasta but when I got there it had run out and the next batch was taking ages, so I grabbed some chicken broth instead. it was yummy! I sat at a table and gorged on it while a random Italian man was sat opposite me in just a towel having taken a shower, how very European. it seemed a lot of the 115ers were using the showers, they also had crew to make it much more efficient for them. All the volunteers were super helpful though. With 30mins done, I was up and ready to go but then I spotted Tony, a friend of the friends who I had come out with, I had met him at registration and then the following day when his partner Vix and him had fed us yummy pasta. He was a 115er, I asked him how he was doing, he said alright, I asked after the others (sadly Paul had to drop, Cajsa was ahead and Vix and Sarah just behind) then said he’d probably catch me later before exciting the building.
The next part was the big one, 11km with 1500m vert, we were going to Pico Ruivo and I was excited!
Back on the tarmac though doing the shorter downhill back round to where we came off the trail, I could see the pain in the other runners eyes I felt 30mins earlier on the loop. We carried on the road for a while longer, through a little village, I smiled at an old lady sitting in a doorway, she gave me a horrible shake of the head, which was weird, kind of like something from a horror movie! Maybe not everyone enjoyed all the people coming to the island to race. I shook it off as soon we dropped back onto the trail and immediately went upwards. This time though in a Eucalyptus forest, which I wasn’t expecting. The path was uneven and covered in dead leaves and bits of tree. I guess either a storm or farming of some kind but it was super odd. I got my climbing groove on again though, pacing myself well, stopping to fuel along the way, pushing when I felt ready, chilling when I wanted. I made pretty good time to the forest break. It was really eerie though as cloud had come down. it wasn’t raining but very misty up there and in the distance I could hear this horn being blown and a woman shouting something in Portuguese. We were winding our way around the top of this section with high bushes and big drops and the sound getting closer and closer, when suddenly there were two women just standing there. One with the horn and the other with a clipboard, they were safety marshals checking us in and full of enthusiasm, duas, duas, duas, duas, more amusement. These moments are what make races for me, the randomness in remote areas just gives you a little lift.
I noticed I was getting a little cold so I put my arm warmers and gloves on before heading off into the mist. It wasn’t far to Pico R, the route doesn’t take you to the actual summit but you are pretty damn close and it can only be another 10m but the viability was zero at this point anyway, even though I did consider going up. I headed to the CP instead, just a couple hundred metres away, which was actually a mountain hut. I had some crisps, banana and refilled all my bottles then put on my wind proof jacket as I was feeling the cold even more now. They actually had some hot broth here but I felt like I just wanted to keep moving, I had been running for 9hrs 16mins but was still 14mins up on schedule and I knew the next section would be tough as well.
Their wasn’t a lot of climbing in this section but it had some “interesting” descending with metal stairs that at times were pretty steep as the path dropped down a bit then basically ran round the inside off the mountains. I loved this whole section though, these are reasons you go to race in places like this. It also had the famous tunnels I had heard about, cut through the mountain side. Some were short and a couple were quite long. I was glad I had a little head torch (Petzl Bindy) to hand as they were very wet, I enjoyed the feeling of this part, especially when you pop out the other side to see the next view.
The main part of the climb here was to get to the very famous Pico do Arieiro, about 100m lower than Ruivo but more majestic in my opinion. In the build up, this part of the race had me nervous as its a big drop off but as I approached the the nerves were subsiding. The cloud started to lift a little as it came into view. and I could then see the infamous stairs to the top. My heart raced a little as I turned onto them and then I just couldn’t help but smile. What a place, what a view. It wasn’t completely clear but it was just epic. There were two photographers at the top who captured these moments for everyone too.
You can actually drive pretty close to this summit from the other direction so many people were up there but it didn’t feel too crowded. Once we came down a touch the other side , we could see the visitor centre and radar station just appearing through the cloud. Lots of people were up there cheering us all on. some tourists and some friends of runners, the vibes were certainly good at this point. It was time to start heading down, time to get to the next aid station.
I arrived at Chao De Lagoa just 10mins over predicted time, which I was pretty happy with as well considering we were 50km in. I decided to spend a little extra time here and eat something hot. I had some rice and mince, slightly weird combo but it worked right then. I drank some extra water as was feeling a touch dehydrated, nothing serious but needed to get it under control ASAP. Just as I was getting myself set up to leave Tony came in. I knew he would catch me up! I gave him my seat and said that I would probably see him very soon and headed out.
This next section was 11km but it had almost 1000m of descent. The first part wasn’t too bad terrain wise, after a sharp drop down the paths were kind of like Lakeland trails, a little rocky but quite runnable. For some reason though I kinda lost my mojo here though. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, as the race was going well. I started to question my ability to do ultras, I felt a bit tired, the sun was getting lower in the sky and I just think I lost my head. To make matters worse I saw this sign which said “Percurso De Trieno 35KM” and it was pointing the way we were heading. In my slightly weird mind I thought that was the town we were going towards. I kept seeing the same sign again and again, further down the trail but the distance wasn’t getting any smaller, it started to confuse and worry me. Was I going round in circles, were these signs put there to mess with me, why oh why!
Then after about 20mins it clicked. they were for a 35km circular trail, doh! In my head there was much rejoicing, even a smile and that’s when Tony caught me up. Which was perfect timing for me. We asked each other how we were, he said he was shuffling, I said I was slightly dehydrated and had been a little delusional. We were now on big old down hill section and I basically used Tony to pace me to the aid station. It wasn’t too steep and we ran a bit, shuffled some and walked a little. This section was nice as we came out of the colder air but it was obvious that there had been much more rain here earlier as the ground was much softer. it was hard on the legs with parts being slippy. I told Tony to run ahead of me but he seemed happy to just trundle along at my pace. I don’t remember much else of this section we had the usual levadas to run along every so often, then some more steps and more descent but just after 9pm we came into Portela. I was now 1 hour behind schedule though. I need to work on my descending, or maybe it was just tired legs.
Portela was another decent aid station inside with toilet (if you know me these are important) and some hot food. we didn’t stay too long though, Tony used the toilet. we grabbed a bunch of crisps, some fruit and filled up our bottles and headed out. I thought I would be able to get some time back on the next section as it was only 6km how wrong was I!
It had just 100m climb but 700m descent and it was the worst kind of hell I have ever experienced. There was a lot of mud, my shoes didn’t like this, they didn’t have the grip. It also had a really, really long section that was tiny stone encrusted steep steps that also had mud on and were so slippy. My shoes just couldn’t grip on them at all. Some how Tony was doing much better and he headed off. It was dark now also and I really didn’t want to risk falling at this time, so I struggled slowly stepping down them. At some point, it caused a major irritation where the IT band joins the knee. I was swearing a lot and cursing this hill all the way down into Porto De Cruz, the final aid station. it had taken me an hour and half to do 6km, down hill!
To more shouts of duas,duas,duas,duas, I was now close to finishing only 55mins behind my estimated time. This final aid station was again nice and warm inside, with toilets, lots of space and food. I caught Tony chowing down on some broth, I said to him that I wasn’t going to be able to run much, if at all, so would just crack on. I topped up bottles, ate some more crisps and fruit, used said toilet and headed out for the last 15km to the finish.
Yeah, my left leg wasn’t happy, I could power walk the flats but that was it. Mentally I was pissed off as I knew this section would be so runnable. In my plan I allowed for 2.5 hours to do it, based on the comedy 400m climb we had to do back up the valley. I say comedy as they made us go down that hellish hill, just to go back up! Evil course makers. The climb though was good, I over took Tony and many others on this. I had focus and heaps of energy which was amazing but once at the top, I was back to the power hiking on the flats and being annoyed.
We hit the coast though and the route was basically a pretty flat coastal path with what I imagined to be a sheer drop off into the sea below. it was dark now though and I could just hear the waves below crashing against the rocks. My nerves and vertigo were ever present here but I was conscious of keeping a strong hiking pace. If I was going to have to walk it in, then I was going to do it with gusto! Earlier Garmin had told me I was going to finish at 2am and the annoyed me, to be 2 hours over schedule was not cool. In My mind I made it my goal to get that down to 1.5 hours. I started to visualise the finish, I find this helps me when things get tough. I also wondered if any of my friends would be there, I wouldn’t be mad if they weren’t as it would be really late and they would be tired too.
As we wound our away along the coast line, I was waiting for the infamous lighted section I had been told about by friends, although in my messed up mind I thought I had missed it or something. Around a corner though were a load of police who had setup some kind of rescue station, which did seem a little odd. They cheered us on though and round the next corner it appeared.
A long lit up section of narrow path with sheer drops to the ocean below, railings at some of the more sketchy parts. It was a thing of beauty, I stopped to take it in and some bad photos. Everyone who I passed earlier passed me, including Tony. That would be the last I would see of him until the finish.
This part again tested my nerves a little, but I was in head down and get it done mode. A while later we were off the coastal path (I was a little relieved) and heading inland, for the final part, the last push to the finish. Sometimes I was keeping up with people who were running, sometimes people were passing me. They had the 2nd winds I knew I had but I just couldn’t run. Every time I tried it hurt so much, there was more cursing in my head but you know what I was still pretty happy, in pain but happy. Is it weird to be annoyed and happy at the same time?
The last stings in the tail of the route were a long winding levada which had a steep drop off into the valley below and a very thin part to run on and a very steep descent into Machico. The levada I took very cautiously, the descent in pain swearing a lot. Seeing the lights of the town below though made me happy, I checked my watch and had made up most of the time. When I hit the road it was a relief I though, yes, there just 1 km to go. Then the final evil sting, a short section of stairs down to the sea, I cursed all stairs known to man. I could see the finish ahead, a little wooden bridge to go over, where I almost snapped a pole getting it caught in the slats. Then I was right in front of the arch and I ran, I ran for relief, for joy, for the sense of achievement. To my surprise Cajsa and Paul were there cheering me in. My heart melted a little. I stopped just past the finish with relief, I got my medal and then Lou appeared for a hug
I was done, my legs were done, my head was done, done, done.
85km 4800M+ in 18hrs 36mins with about 6,000,000,0000 steps
The time was 96mins slower than my plan but you know what, I am damn proud of this race. It was an adventure spent nearly entirely in my own head, on my own two feet, something I haven’t done for a while and look forward to doing again. I got my nutrition almost perfect, I didn’t vomit or get massively dehydrated either. I also was back on the high ish mountain paths and for the most part felt pretty comfortable. The biggest win as always, I had fun.
I had a brilliant trip with friends and even made some new ones. The island is beautiful, but there are hardly any flat parts. The race was expertly organised and the course really well marked. The volunteers were brilliant, I’ll always remember my race number thanks to their amazing encouragement. I would say they need to look at the t-shirt supplier though as in my opinion it’s not great and should look at not be giving two tops away for racers. Maybe a buff instead, which I did buy. They do show you a great time, I would 100% recommend this race.
The day after we spent by the pool drinking some beers then eating pizza, reflecting on some serious adventuring. I felt so gutted for Paul, and so proud of Lou and Cajsa. I owe them for that finish, it made it extra special after hard craft on the trails.