First of all, what a tough race. To put it into perspective, it is an 80 km race, 5400m of ascent and is worth 3 UTMB points…. (The TDS is 74 miles, 7400m of ascent, also 3 points…)
If you’re not an ultra runner, the above will probably not mean much, so safe to say, this is an absolute BEAST of a race. It’s equivalent to climbing and descending Ben Nevis over 5 times, over 50 miles and on very challenging terrain underfoot.
This post is a little back to front, bear with me, it makes more sense to write it up this way. I was 2nd female, got to stand on a podium and received prizes. This race is a big deal over here, the event was live-streamed on Madeiran TV, the start was crawling with press and the prize-giving was would you would expect for a national event. The papers covered the event, publishing stories the day after. Although that sounds impressive, it really isn’t…
The start was the centre of Funchal at 6.am, it was dark. It meant a 4am get up for us, after our usual breakfast of porridge we got a taxi to the start.
From the get-go it was apparent that we were rather outclassed. The field was far smaller and more specialised than we were used to, the start was all uphill and everyone set off incredibly quickly. We soon found ourselves at the back (or so we thought). As usual, with our minimal training, we wouldn’t really have expected anything less, but for an ultra of this level of difficulty it seemed unusual for such a rapid start.
This elevation map gives some idea:
Climb after climb, climbing, climbing, climbing…relentless. I kept repeating Alkaline Trio’s ‘Exploding Boy’ in my head, in an effort to keep some sort of walking rhythm.
As we ascended to Pico Do Arreeiro the weather began to change dramatically. The cloud descended very quickly and gave way to rain showers. We were up on the first cut-off by around 2hours. The CP was in what appeared to be a radar station and served the most delicious chicken soup that I’ve ever had in my life. Hopefully Ed will be able to recreate it at home.
I have to say that the marshals at this event were the most helpful and positive that I’ve ever come across in a race. At most CP’s I had at least 3 people around me, dressing my wounds, feeding me, offering encouragement and just generally being good Samaritans. I was so tired that I’d given up on lifting my jacket up to show my numberand from then on just stuck my belly out and let them do the work.
A descent then brought us to Alegria. A muddy, slippy descent. I fell and skidded some feet into the mud, followed by Ed who made the same mistake trying to rescue me. However, we were rewarded by a stunning rainbow that lifted our spirits greatly.
Following a quick food stop (more chicken soup!) we began the insane climb up to Bardo…just look again at that elevation map…now imagine red clay-mud, vertical. It was grim, a real low point for me…‘I knew if I turned, I knew if I turned, I’d turn away from you…Not today…Not todayyyy’
Made it. Big drop now, followed by huge up to Pico De Prado. Tough times. Ed’s most hated section. Made up of stairs, stairs and more stairs. These stairs climbed through narrow streets, it was oppressively close and characterised by barking dogs. Constantly barking. Madeirans are definitely dog lovers. Anyway, this was an incredibly hard section, the higher we climbed, the colder and wetter it became.
On the race notes, there was a reference to an ‘abyss’…. There were several areas that could be referred to in this way. Some sections were downright dangerous. Brings to mind the overused Nietzsche quote:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.
And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
No fear of that on this race- I was in a world of my own pain with no inclination to gaze into anything. I was concentrating more on not falling into the abyss, although I did consider whether that would have been preferable to the constant climbing.
We emerged from a mountain pass to be greeted by another CP. We were 2 1/2 hours up on cut offs. Another long descent followed and night was drawing in. I was feeling the cold and my hands were going white. We stopped and tried in vain to get my gloves on, my hands just wouldn’t go in! We hit the next CP in the dark, again 3 marshals were helping me try to get the damn gloves on- still couldn’t manage!
The wind was getting up and the rain was setting in, we were still very high up on the mountains. I put my arm-warmers on under my Minimus and soon warmed up. Pitch black.
We’d done most of the graft now and what followed was a long descent made up of mountain tracks, roads and miles and miles of what Ed has dubbed ‘concrete tightropes’. Imagine a width of around a foot, made up of concrete slabs, peppered with holes (of varying size, some big enough to fall through) with a trench on each side. These trenches were at times filled with fast running water, other times a sheer steep edge and other times a slight negligible drop. Anyway- tired, dark, far from home, it made for a hard slog.
We made our way back into Funchal. A short section of this covered a rocky beach before the final climb and descent into the city centre.
As we passed the gantry I was surprised to learn that I’d finished as 2nd female. More surprised that far from last, we were actually around half-way up the field. The winners were sponsored athletes and there seemed to be a substantial amount of DNF’s. So, my second place finish isn’t really impressive at all- out of all the people who entered the 80k, only 3 were female. What is impressive (to me at least) is that I finished a race of this calibre, 4 hrs ahead of cut-offs, also, in a massively male dominated field, I wasn’t last by any means.
So I was treated as a podium finisher should be! It will probably be the only time I’ll get to stand on a podium for an international race and feature in the news etc.
An adventure, thanks to Ecotrail Madeira for a well marshalled, extremely challenging race. It is the hardest event that I’ve ever done in my life and although I enjoyed it, I think the box has been ticked now.