Written by Tom Wright - http://life.tomwright.me.uk
So this is it. A winter’s worth of dawnies would all come down to the next 24 hours. I had pumped my legs full of Beacon hill reps, but despite the bravado of my running compatriots I was far from confident in my ability to reach the finish line. I knew I would have to overcome the mental frailties that regularly beset me on long climbs. Of which Madeira had plenty! Several climbs in excess of a thousand metres and an inconceivable number of steps.
It was both the beauty of this magical Portuguese island and the kindness and enthusiasm of its inhabitants that had lured me to run a distance I had promised myself I would never do again.
Curral das Freiras (the valley of the nuns) - A lost world deep in the heart of Madeira’s mountainous centre.
Thirteen months earlier Nadia and I hugged the tall volcanic cliffs of the Vereda do Larano as we stood perilously close to a 350 metre (NOT feet!) drop to the crashing waves below. By chance our mountain walk over Pico Areeiro and Pico Ruivo was cancelled due to low cloud and freezing temperatures and instead we found ourselves walking the last 10km of M.I.U.T. Our tourist guide casually regaled us with tales of the mighty runners that had traversed this precarious and precipitous trail.
Walking the Vereda do Larano in March 2016. Our guide assured us the cable would be fitted for the MIUT!
Nadia clearly sensed a hunger in my eye and without hesitation exclaimed - “Do IT!” The seed was planted and there was no looking back…
Located in the Atlantic ocean some 500km north of the Canaries, Madeira island is just the tip of a vast shield volcano that rises up some 4km from the ocean floor. A popular holiday destination of Winston Churchill, it is famous for exotic gardens, lavish afternoon teas, delectable desert wine, the monstrous black scabbard fish and tarmac tobogganing. Oh, and some bloke called Ronaldo - inspiration for Benoît Sinthon’s multi-layered Golden Ball at Funchal’s Michelin starred restaurant, Il Gallo D’Oro (well worth a visit!)
It also has a vast network of waterways, called levadas, which make for excellent hiking. Many of these are cut across steep ravines that form the Ribeiras (river valleys) dissecting the island. and with just a wire cable (if lucky) serving protection a good head for heights is imperative! The centre of the island is composed of two contrasting massifs - in the west the vast plateau of the Paúl de Serra swathed in ancient laurel trees and ferns; in the east jagged mountainous peaks of volcanic rock weathered by the Atlantic wind and rain to form some truly unique and memorable scenery. We would traverse both on our journey from Porto Moniz in the north-west of the island to Machico in the south-east.
115km and 7100m of ascent. MIUT (pronounced Mee-oot) would be my biggest challenge to date. The RAT Plague in 2014 was my only 100km, while the Brecon 10 Peaks and TGC (Advanced) had dished out fair lashings of elevation but no more than 15,000 feet in a single sitting. A bruising encounter with Catalonian mountains six weeks earlier had crushed my confidence and had there been an option to drop down to the Ultra course I would have taken it willingly.
The view to Machico from the hillside of Pico Facho. The finishers tunnel and forum visible in front of the one high rise hotel.
Nadia and I found a cosy apartment in Machico only minutes from the Forum and an even shorter walk from Madeira’s one and only sandy beach. Not only were we greeted by Floripes, the landlady, but she kindly returned with an umbrella later in the day when rain set in - for fear I might catch a cold before the race!
I bided my time in Mare Alta bar on the water front until the registration queues dissipated on Thursday evening. A chance to savour a sizeable and ludicrously cheap tuna steak perfectly foiled by a voluptuous Duoro blend. The Madeira tradition of cake and wine would have to wait though as I took my place in the registration line. Twelve litre s-lab pack over one arm, my now trusty rainbow golfing umbrella under the other. Processing was efficient and I avoided a trip back to the flat to collect my forgotten passport as driving license was acceptable identification. Were one to believe race number to be indicative of ITRA ranking, mine was 285. So, as I wandered back to our accommodation, proud owner of a nice collection of MIUT memorabilia in the goody bag, I contemplated the prospect of finishing in the top quarter of the 800 strong field.
Friday was restless. I tried to relax on the beach under a brief spell of sunshine. I consumed a large tuna pizza at the Baia Beach Club in the tiny marina and then attempted a couple of hours sleep despite the constant clicks resonating from stone tables below my window where elderly villagers were playing afternoon dominoes. The usual pre-race disorganisation ensued over kit and a last minute rush to meet Truro compatriot Becky on the front to catch the 9:30pm buses to Porto Moniz.
All the gear… no idea! The only items of note being 2 x headtorches and 2 x spare batteries; and a recently acquired collapsible Sea to Summit mug that would serve me well in the feed stations.
Porto Moniz was buzzing with anticipation. Young locals performed traditional dance in native red and white attire as crowds of runners flocked to the waterfront café. I panicked as my drop bag’s seam crumbled in my hands. A well prepared attendant had sellotape at hand. Resolved but I wondered how on earth I would get into it the following morning at Curral das Freiras now it was sealed with an arms length of sticky tape.
We were among the last runners to be crammed in to the brimming start pen. Behind us a Japanese runner attired in a giant inflatable sumo outfit. Bizarre as this sounds I have since come to discover he is a regular feature on the Ultra Trail World Tour! Someone started singing happy birthday. No-one really cared. Becky and I had chatted with nervous excitement on the 90 minute bus journey (no recollection what about). Now we stood silent, contemplative. Five minutes passed. The long wait was finally over. Midnight chimed.
MIUT 2017 was underway.
The official course profile and those two monstrous climbs to be tackled on the first night. Take heed of what appears to be only a 450m climb to Poiso late on. With 6500m of climbing already in the legs it was probably the most excruciating climb of the race.
Keeping with the way I approached the race, let us break this sizeable beast down into manageable chunks. Starting with…
The Night Shift
Porto Moniz to Rosario 37.5km 2935m+
It took a minute to cross the start line but the patience was well rewarded as we rounded the first bend to see an awe-inspiring spectacle of light. Hundreds of villagers lined the streets clapping and cheering the parade of red flashing lights weaving it’s way up the countless switchbacks to Pico do Caldeirao. Becky, sporting injury that had sidelined her for the last six weeks, was taking it easy so I said farewell and left her to battle it out with El Sumo! I was under no illusion the first, relatively short, climb would be easy. Madeira’s coastline rises dramatically from the sea and Porto Moniz’s suburbs were no exception. Despite being tarmac all the way, the switchbacks demanded hands on quads, as the gradient maxed out at 40% - a taster of what was to follow through the night.
The air temperature dropped gradually as we climbed. Still balmy by English standards. My merino tee-shirt came off and was packed away. All the nights of indecision over kit choices were proved wasted as I spent the rest of the race in a mesh vest complemented by some comfortable, MIUT branded, arm-warmers I acquired at the expo for 15 euros. With the summit came our first trail and realisation of how narrow the single-tracks in Madeira are. There were few opportunities to overtake and still being near the back of the field all I could do was stand my turn and wait patiently for everyone in front to cautiously edge their way down the steep path. This would become a recurring theme of the overnight downhills as the field remained bunched. No doubt Cudby would have waxed lyrical about the merits of conserving the quads but in his absence I got to chat briefly to Dai from Cardiff. One of a handful of British runners taking part in MIUT.
There was plenty of cheer as we crossed the river. All the inhabitants of Ribeira de Janelamust have come out to party. Cow bells, hooters, applause, shouts of animo and obligatory high fives from children arched over the fences. But in Madeira, what goes down pretty quickly goes up again and we soon left the party behind on the first big climb of the race - the eastern wall of the vast ravine and 1100m of ascent to the checkpoint at Fanal forest house.
Beyond the suburbs and its numerous tarmac steps we joined the first true trail of the course along Vereda do Ribeira da Janela. A mix of narrow forest track, shallow steps, and occasional road crossings. The festive sounds from the valley quickly faded and we faced the silence of night. Heavy breathing and occasional footfall the only disturbance. We were entering the largest surviving Laurisilva in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. I did feel I was missing out on some of the unique flora of the island under the canopy of night as we wound our way through the dense vegetation. However, focus was on climbing, and avoiding the flailing poles of the person in front! A pole skidded on a boulder in front of me and swiped across my cheek narrowly missing my eye socket. Prudence followed and I hung back from any pole bearer that preceded me. A brief stint on Levada dos Cedros, one of the oldest man made watercourses on the island, delivered us to the flat north-western arm of the Paúl da Serra. Ferns gave way to gorse in terrain of remarkable familiarity. Even the drop in temperature had me riffling through my kangaroo pouch for gloves. However I had forgotten to bag them and they were sodden with sweat from my back. All similarities ended though as the Petzl illuminated a contorted laurel tree. It’s thick branches twisted around each other casting spider like shadows across the plain. The kind of tree that can be found nowhere else but Madeira.
I had two empty sandwich bags in my pack ready to stuff with goodies at Fanal feed station. Dale (Winton) would have been impressed with the celerity of my hoarding. Crisps, olives, TUCs and rice cakes were crammed into the bags and I was through the forest house like a Formula 1 pit stop. Not without the occasional bemused expression from the crowds of runners stood around slowly gorging. The continental way! Inspiration for grab and go had come from Becky and I hope, in turn, I may have passed on the knowledge to fellow athletes. However, there were only a few minutes of climbing to force down my salty repast before tackling the first long technical descent. Ever tried to consume a handful of olives while hurtling down a steep slope? Not recommended!
I was keen to run. Two weeks of tapering and it felt like I had spent much of the last three hours hiking. Verada da Cavaca took a direct route down a spur, zigzagging its way through the forest. Overhanging branches covered in lichen would either need to be ducked or utilised to break the speed on another tight switchback. Queues would come and go as I negotiated another collective of pole bearers. There was a certain joy in watching them choose a safe foothold for their pole before levering themselves down the next high step. I on the other hand just jumped. Occasionally the path levelled and contoured a valley which called for caution as there was invariably a very long drop into the dark abyss to one side… and plenty of roots to catch an unsuspecting, or sleep-deprived, toe.
I had just about worked through my bag of savoury treats by the time I reached Chão da Ribeira in the valley floor. As well as scooping up another bag’s worth I quickly spread a Nutella sandwich to munch on as I tackled the ascent to the central Paúl da Serra. Three miles with an average gradient of 24% - a climb worthy of the moniker vertical kilometre (1135m in 4.6km - Hors Catégorie on the Strava scale). A downhill MTB track, it started steep on dusty switchbacks and I was more than happy to have my hands free to heave myself up over large, liverwort infected, boulders that littered the path. At the time it baffled me how any one could descend this track on a bike but recently I have stumbled across Grogley Woods back home which is of very similar appearance albeit a tenth of the vertical gain.
My target was to reach Rosario by 7am when the sun would be rising. I had a dramatised recording of Homer’s Odyssey to tie me through (more than enough blood and guts to keep the heart racing!). I also had the company of Dai once again. We chatted very little but by chance we kept finding ourselves along side each other. He was an efficient climber and putting poles to good use unlike a number of our counterparts. I tucked in behind him following every footstep. Pace may have felt slow but we were continually overtaking.
A “pee-t stop” on the high plateau above 1500m allowed a chance to stop staring at the ground in front and actually take stock of the most magical night sky. I temporarily switched off my head-torch to admire constellations I had never seen in such clarity accompanied by a glowing crescent moon. Dai and I parted ways at the Estanquinhos feed station as I continued to perfect my grab and go. The next descent was much like the last. Steep and very stop / start. The breaking as I approached another group of runners was doing my quads no favours and I wished I could just run freely down the dirt switchbacks. I took my one and only dive of the night as my toe caught an unsuspecting rock. Nothing serious but for a few grazes along the knee.
Rosario arrived. It was 7am. At Fanal I had been 600th, by Rosario I was up to 304th. It had been a successful night and with just shy of three thousand metres of vertical gain behind me I felt I had finally discovered my climbing legs. Light was starting to fill the sky and with it opportunity to appreciate the incredible scenery of Madeira’s heartland as we entered Encumeada.
The Royal Road
Rosario to Curral des Freiras 22.2km 1570m+
With dawn came a new game. Counting steps. We had joined the Camino do Norte and a stiff climb to the Encumeada pass that would allow us to bridge the western and eastern massifs. Hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of wooden risers have been set into the path to make steps. I got distracted around six hundred and lost count. I found there was just enough lip on the inside of each riser to push off and maintain a consistent momentum uphill. Sorry no photos - I feared that were I to stop I may never get going again! We teasingly reached numerous false summits before yet more steps led us on up through the dense forests.
A short descent on road and I arrived at the Encumeada Hotel, which like so much of Madeira, is perched precariously on a small terrace overlooking the valley. This served as the next aid station and the first dishing up hot food. The room was bustling and a lot of athletes were sat biding their time over a leisurely breakfast. I vied for a bowl of rice and broth only to discover the broth had chicken chunks floating in it so my eventual breakfast of championswas dry rice and diced cheese with a cup of coffee. Keen to maintain a swift turnaround I practically drank the rice, concocted another sandwich bag of salty delights and departed on a steep descent through woodland and what appeared to be a local villager’s garden. I couldn’t help but feel we were sent down into the valley simply so the organisers could then send us up more steps. This time alongside a huge water conduit. The steps were battered and at times footing was a struggle.
Photos never do justice. 200m climb averaging 40% grade. Good example of the wooden risers though. What a way to digest breakfast!
I had just about had my fill of wooden steps for the day and it was only 9am! Fortunately any thought of the growing pain in my weary legs was superseded by jaw dropping views across the valleys to steep mountains awash with green flora. Supposedly constructed under the edict of a Portuguese monarch we were traversing the royal road to Boca da Corrida. A chance for me to briefly hang out with some ultra-running royalty as the lead runners in the Ultra race, which started a little south of Rosario at 7am, came hurtling past. The recognisable face of Antoine Guillon and the beaming smile of Christophe Le Saux amongst them. It was the first time runners overtook since we set off at midnight and I couldn’t help but glance at race bibs to make sure they were the red of the Ultra and not the blue of MIUT.
I ushered one more runner through and a voice responded in a northern accent: “No thanks. You are British. I think I will follow you for a bit!” Despite kindly trying to convince me he had heard my name on the running scene (which he had mis-read as Tom Knight), Brian was a true veteran of the off-road ultra-running circuit. 4xUTMB; UTMF; Laverado were just some of the races that filled his CV. A fell runner of 30 years Brian would be my motivator for the rest of the race as a new friendship forged. Although for the next few miles I couldn’t help but will him to go past me so I could excuse myself a little bit of walking.
The path cut through a forest of tall eucalyptus, their roots sprawled across the path. We bridged the fast flowing waters of the Ribeira do Poço before climbing onto the open face of Pico Grande. The path hugged a series of cirques with vertiginous cliffs where dense vegetation was the only barrier to a tragic accident!
Looking south to the Ribeira Brava valley. Must have been a clear break in the vegetation as this photo crops up in quite a few guidebooks!
The south-west wall of Pico Grande. The path hugs the cliff.
Looking back. The path can just be made out a third of the way down the spur on the right. The vast plateau of Paúl de Serra, where we had spent the early hours, littered with wind turbines in the background.
A well cobbled path gradually climbed to the fittingly named “Donkey Pass” (Boca do Cerro). Brian and I got chatting. It turned out he was much higher up the field early in the race, but having only arrived in Madeira Friday afternoon, decided to have a lie down at Estanquinhos, which soon became a sleep! He was also suffering with his hip and had been unsure as to whether to start the race. Despite this he was full of enthusiasm and made for excellent company as we continued to gaze in wonder at our surrounds.
“Did you know there are no poisonous snakes on Madeira?” I exclaimed.
A begrudging retort in pigeon English came from behind. I had imparted my knowledge of Madeira’s fauna on an unsuspecting Ultra competitor. I stepped aside to let him pass. I felt like urging him to slow down and savour our surroundings. The uneven weathering of volcanic rock had produced some of the most incredible vertical structures I had ever seen. Gran Canaria had been impressive. This was truly a Lost World!
“Wow, wow, wow!” Ah that was more like it. Brian was back at my heels, once again in awe of everything we surveyed.
Hee haw… it’s the Boca do Cerro. The large white dome of the radar installation on Pico Arieiro just visible on the ridge but still a very long way off.
The long downhill to the valley was fast. A hard packed track strewn with loose stone. Aggie coast path on steroids! For once I got into a rhythm and thought I may well loose Brian. But another toilet stop and some distracting flora meant he was back on my tail soon enough. Below us in the shadow of the high mountains lay the Valley of the Nuns. A secluded village nestled in a vast caldera like bowl which served as a retreat in the sixteenth century for nuns fleeing from repeated pirate invasions on the south coast.
The Pride of Madeira. This sudden explosion of purple halted me in my tracks despite hurtling downhill. Pico Ruivo on the far right.
As we approached the checkpoint at Curral das Frieras we finally agreed to stick together for the duration of the race. I was enjoying Brian’s company. I set a 20 minute turnaround for the station. Brian was happy with that and really seemed in no hurry. Once I had finally overcome the sellotape that was keeping my drop bag together, socks came off, vaseline applied and clean socks donned. Then a clean vest. Thirst was quenched with two cups of sparkling water followed by a coffee and a bowl of rice and cheese. Twenty minutes had flown by and it was time to once again set off!
The Mountain Pass
Curral des Freiras to Pico Areeiro 16.3km 1830m+
I have struggled for weeks to put into words the next ten miles. Ten miles that took over four hours! Time spent with jaw gapping in wonder of the most incredible mountain landscape I have experienced. Vertical cliffs, jagged pillars, spewing clouds, long dark tunnels and of course steps. Metal steps, concrete steps, paved steps and even a few naturally formed basalt steps. Seriously if you are considering MIUT… practice on steps!
First we had to climb a thousand metres back out of the valley and join the Vereda da Encumeada. I set off at point and as I tired, without a word, Brian stepped past and took his turn to pull us up the mountain. We were becoming a well oiled machine! Countless switchbacks on narrow forest tracks bought us to the col. A signpost announced another 5km to Pico Ruivo. Not good when water supplies have dwindled and the late morning sun is getting very hot. I can understand the solitary kit check before we left the sports hall where we had to show our phone and water supply. I cannot understand how so many people were disqualified from the race at this point for failing to have one or other of these two items?
The smoking crater of Pico do Serradinho looking across to the Boca do Cerro. Midday clouds start to gather over the mountain tops.
Looking south to the Atlantic Ocean
Brian takes point
As we contoured the high peak of Pico Coelho a chubby looking bird waddled across the path in front of me. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of such a creature on these precipitous cliffs. Was my brain deceiving me or had I just been witness to the endemic Trocaz pigeon? As I tried to convince Brian that I wasn’t hallucinating the bird was long gone into the thick vegetation that clung to the vertical rocks.
My recollection of the remainder of the climb is hazy. Dehydration kicked in as our pace ground to a slow shuffle. What I do remember is crashing in to the dark entrails of Pico Ruivo mountain hut and slamming my cup on the table to request not one, but two hastily consumed cups of sparkling water. Refreshed Brian and I turned to each other and high-fived. You would think we had finished the relief was so overwhelming. Another 1400m of climbing was behind us and we now faced one of Madeira island’s highlights. The high level traverse from Pico Ruivo to Pico Areerio.
I was both excited and nervous about this section of the course. Expectations for narrow pathways with severe exposure to vertical drops. Only a wire cable as safety net. The traverse was everything I was expecting and so much more. But at no point did I feel unsafe or uneasy in the legs. It was just too damn incredible to be nervous! Let the photos do the talking…
A head for heights is a must but generally a metal cable serves as barrier between the path and a long drop. I actually took to supporting myself on the cable and hauling myself up the climbs. This was not always prudent as the cable was at times hanging loose and an unexpected frayed end sliced through my hand.
Geology lesson. Much of the eastern massif is a composite of lava and pyroclast (google it!). While the hard wearing lava has withstood the elements the softer pyroclast (e.g. pumice) has eroded away leaving jagged rock structures and outlying pinnacles. Then man has come along and decided to carve a path through the mountains - the dark line.
Several tunnels have been cut into the volcanic tuff. A shelter for travelling herdsmen perhaps?
Oh yes… just a few more steps!
Head torch at the ready for the tunnels the longest of which was a couple hundred metres.
We really weren’t in any hurry at this stage so plenty of posing for the camera!
With so much vegetation it was likely that clouds would start to gather on the high peaks as midday drew closer. I had been keen to make the pass before the cloud arrived to really appreciate the exposure and magnitude of the vast cliffs. As it transpired, the clouds added an ethereal atmosphere as the breathing mountains came to life.
The Stairway to Heaven! Or into the jaws of the monster?
Some bloke takes a photograph of a bloke taking a photograph of me!
Think you know what these are by now!
Tunnels, stairways and precipitous paths behind us the large white golf ball of Pico Areeiro’s radar installation finally came into view. A large number of tourists and supporters were gathered around the path that climbs to the 1818m summit. I had slight resentment that we had skirted the tip of Madeira’s highest peak so at least we would bag the third highest. Of course, there would be at least a hundred steps before we got there!
Just a few more steps to go!
Pico Areeiro to Larano 27.1km 675m+
We rested our feet in the feed station, ate warm food and drank coffee. Emotions almost got the better of me as I contemplated the past few hours. It was sad that we would now leave the mountains behind and head down into the valleys. And, despite another marathon in distance, I also felt we were on the home leg. The easy bit! Ha. The legs soon shattered the illusion as we scrambled, nay hobbled, down on to the path after some jocular banter with a couple of taxi drivers. The quads were burning and we had a vertical kilometre to descend.
The landscape was an immediate contrast as we crossed a barren plain. The clag came down and once again I felt very much at home. We passed within metres of the one remaining Poço da Neve (snow well) on the island. If only I had known!
The face says it all. Get the job done!
The rocky moorland and ferns soon gave way to trees as we descended into the Ribeiro Frio valley. A fast woodland descent allowed the legs a chance to stretch out and I briefly left Brian behind. He soon caught me up again on the level track while I struck up conversation with a marathon runner who was feeling the pinch and a little unsure of his whereabouts. There were still plenty of supporters cheering us “middle of the pack” runners into the checkpoint. Feed stations had been impeccably stocked through the course, as I have come to expect from European races, and there was an abundant supply of bottled water, coke, isotonic and sparkling water. The latter had become my go to and once again I left the checkpoint with a bellowing belch reverberating through the foothills!
It might be the shortest climb of the day but as expected the 450m climb to Poiso was none the easier for it. It just went on and on… and on! First we had an extremely steep scramble on a dusty trail that had been well churned up by Ultra, and now Marathon, runners that preceded us. Hands were called upon to scramble up the path as I lurched out to grab branches and stop myself sliding back down the track. Ever the gentleman, Bri stopped briefly to aid a female athlete who was suffering sickness. I was time watching. If we made Poiso by 6pm we might still be able to break 21 hours. However the hut up ahead which I took to be the checkpoint was just a hunting lodge and it was another twenty minutes of shallow, but painful gradient, before we finally rolled into Poiso checkpoint. The shortest leg but the longest 5km of the whole course!
I don’t think Brian was sharing my urgency to finish as he casually patrolled the feed station looking for coke, food and someone to smile at. I hovered outside contemplating what a formidable force we might be if Brian’s endurance and my efficiency were combined! Anyway, this wasn’t about time now. It was about finishing this shared experience with a smile on our faces. As we walked off the leg stiffness that set in pretty quickly when we stopped, a few red (Ultra) and blue (MIUT) runners overtook. I didn’t feel I had the strength to chase them anymore and was content surveying the tree lined hilltops.
With sleep deprived eyes I had seen a fair number of oddities through the day but the strangest, and most unexpected was Brian’s sudden turn of pace as he declared “let’s go Orc hunting” and sprinted off down the hill at sub seven minute pace. While I didn’t say it, this is exactly how I like to finish a race. Dig out those last bit’s of energy and call on gravity to assist in one last all out effort. However, we still had 20km to go! “Can you feel the adrenaline flowing?” Brian cried as we picked off aforementioned runners from both MIUT and the Ultra. Wow… This was a Point Break moment and Brian my Boddhisatva! After several kilometers of hunting I finally conceded that I couldn’t go on. We eased the pace as we approached the next checkpoint at Portela.
I finally turned to coke. Just a small cup. Craving some sugar I had tried cake on the mountain top but it was too dry, as were the flapjack bars I had carried all night and day. Again I hovered anxiously outside staring at the watch as Brian roamed the feed station. We followed a levada that, for once, didn’t have a precipitous drop off one side. The next two miles of track were flat and uninspiring. I did not speak. Brian sensed my discomfort and eased the pace to a steady jog. I was convinced we were going up hill. Only slightly but the legs really wanted to walk. But we were travelling with the flow so surely my mind was playing tricks on me. As we hit forest single track the sugar finally kicked in. It didn’t last!
The near vertical descent into Larano should have been an exhilarating affair but my legs were just too tired and the quads were burning. Exposed rocks were damp and slippery as were the occasional earthen steps cut into the hillside. A long, long way below we could hear the crashing waves.
Eventually we broke free from the trees and were rewarded with the setting sun radiating orange hues as it bled into the Atlantic ocean, still far below us. Penha d’Aigua (Eagle Rock) a tall dark shadow in the foreground loomed menacingly over Portela. It was time to revisit the vertiginous coastal path that had sparked my interest a year ago.
The Last Leg
Larano to Machico 11.8km 85m+
A few spectators still mingled around the track that fed onto the coast path and we received cheers of encouragement and applause before once again entering the silence of the trail. I really dragged my feet around Larano. I had good recollection of the path, now with attached cables providing a safe barrier between us and the crashing ocean, but that did little to inspire me to run. Why had these last few sections of the course felt so long? The sun had set and the light was fading fast. Brian was keen to push on.
Hopefully that wooden post isn’t perched like that because someone leaned on the old fence! A quick photo by Bri.
Brian set the pace… I tried to follow
I rummaged around in my pack for my buried head torch and floundered with the Nao’s twisted cables trying to house it comfortably on my head. This was new territory. The first time I had entered the second night of a race. Darkness fell quickly. Brian kept calling after me to keep up as numerous runners overtook us. I forced down a bar of some sort in the hope it would give me fuel enough for the last push to the finish.
Boca do Risco led us onto a downhill stoney path. Challenging enough by day but more so under torch light. Three Portuguese runners passed. “Stick with them” I whispered to Bri hoping for some of that Tolkien inspired energy I had witnessed earlier. Not sure if it was his hip playing up or just the lethargy of countless hours without sleep but the runners lights soon faded into the distance.
And so with 5km to go I faced a dilemma. A narrow levada hugged the hillside and numerous fashlights still pierced the darkness up ahead. I was excited at the prospect of finishing and keen to reel in those runners. A orc-hunting we go! But Bri was nowhere to be seen. Keen to get value out of his entry fee he had stopped at the last feed station to top up on coke one last time while I ran straight through. What do I do? We had shared company the last twelve hours and dragged each other through numerous troughs. My competitive streak goes into overdrive in the last stages of a race. Whether it is hitting a time target or reeling in a few shufflers I always seem to bounce back with energy. For once the heart prevailed. Perhaps it is the ultra runners code? I sat down on the warm concrete of the levada and waited for my running companion.
The first headlamp to round the bend was female. “Are you Tom?” she enquired in a European accent followed by the announcement of my bodhi’s imminent arrival. Soon enough we were back on our way at a far more ebullient pace than my heel dragging around Larano. Is it surprising though how the smallest climb can feel like a mountain with 7000m of ascent in the legs? Certainly as we meandered away from the urban lights into the dark shadows of one last re-entrant the final few metres of climb were laborious. Chance, or pure determination, would have it that, before the final descent, we picked off all those runners that overtook us along the coast. A steep descent across a dew-laden field would be the last of the day and conversation turned to our finish line celebration. Brian came up with some crazy plan - I have no recollection what but it wasn’t to be. I thought we sprinted the last few hundred metres along the waterfront - the finisher’s camera suggests otherwise (about 3 minutes in)! We did unknowingly overtake Kristian Morgan, the leading British male, on the promenade making us top of the UK men’s leaderboard.
(Note I say male, since Beth Pascall had finished a good five hours ahead of us in the elite end of the field!)
The next few hours passed in a sleep deprived blur. Following a brief interview with the finish line MC, I was offered a sponsored protein drink which I initially shunned in favour of a beer. But on learning the beer was not free I promptly downed four glasses of surprisingly refreshing mango drink; then a shower in the quaintly decked out (literally) finish-side showers; food followed below ground in a hall full of beaten up runners. Here it turned out the beer was free! And Brian, Nadia and I made sure we got our money’s worth. Then I opted for a massage from a very large, sweaty and aggressive man which quite possibly meant I was walking and not hobbling the next day and finished up with a finisher’s photo in the token Monte wicker toboggan.
So our finishing time was a nice round 22:11:33. Being the elder, wiser male Brian was awarded 172nd place and 173rd for me (perhaps I should change my name to Aardvark!) Getting down to the nitty-gritty I was 41 / 181 in the M40s. Brian was actually 6th of 78 and had he not turned up tired and partially injured maybe he could have hit his 18 hour target and made the podium in the M50s?
And what about Becky? Well here she is on a sprint finish. This is exactly what I was seeing after those beers sunk in!
Her knee collapsed early in the race and she impressively walked nearly the entire course to finish a short while after 2am Sunday morning!
Unfortunately we were not blessed with sun on the Sunday recovery. Instead, grey skies, a car rally on the front and a chance to hero worship Francois D’Haene who had smashed Zach Miller’s record in an incomprehensible 13 hours and 5 minutes! After a bit of window shopping Nadia and I settled for dinner, and another tuna steak, in the hills at Restaurant Lily’s. A short taxi ride but highly recommended for both the view and the food.
MIUT is a beautiful event delivered by a team passionate about their island. The supporters and volunteers were encouraging and friendly throughout the course; feed stations were inundated; the route was clearly marked; the challenge was everything I expected and more besides; we even had sunshine when it mattered! Maybe he was humouring me, but Brian described MIUT as the toughest race he had finished with longer, harder climbs than the likes of UTMB. But I am sure that will all change as he tackles UTMR170 this Summer! MIUT certainly taught me that I am capable of so much more than I ever realised and has reignited my thirst for adventure and the challenge of the mountain ultra.
Thank you to everyone involved!