I started training for this race back in 1996 when I was nine years old. Needless to say I didn’t know what I was training for at the time. We went on a family holiday to The Peneda-Geres National Park in north-west corner of Portugal. We drove there in my grandparents old VW campervan and spent two weeks exploring the mountains and swimming in secluded, turquoise rock pools. On looking at some photos of the trip just two weeks before we flew out for the world champs, it became apparent that we had actually reccied a fair amount of the route. I have no idea how we had heard about the park back then. It is hardly a popular destination amongst British tourists. Even today the National Park is little known to the rest of the world. Maps showing the park’s trails just aren’t available.
I secured my place in the GB team for the 6th World Trail Championships back in April through winning The Highland Fling, the UK trial. It was a great privilege to be selected and I wanted to make this race my main goal for the season. I went out to Portugal 4 weeks before the race to recce the course. In summary the course is 85km with 5000m of elevation gain. It is a linear route through the national park starting in Rio Caldo and finishing in Arcos de Valdevez. The course tests everything; there are plenty of technical sections over rocky terrain, some of which are on narrow trails and some off-trail over the open mountainside. There are also some fast sections on big forest tracks and on old block-paved roads through picturesque villages. A lot of the course is runnable but there are also several long, steep hiking sections. Checkpoints were 10-15k apart with 3 team feed stations were we had GB support crew who could give us our own rations, change kit etc.
We arrived in Braga a day and a half before the race. Braga was 45 minutes from the start of the race but a great base for the athletes. All competitors were staying in Bom Jesus, a historic hilltop district which is important pilgrimage site and a big tourist attraction. Our Portuguese hosts did very well at showing off their city’s best bits. It was wonderful to have a day of wandering around and doing very little but by Friday night we were itching to race.
The start was early. Really early. My alarm went off at 02:40, breakfast in the hotel was at 03:00 and the bus left for the start at 03:30. At 5am 235 nervous looking runners were huddled on the start line in Rio Caldo waiting for the gun to go off. The start was fast, as expected. The first 6.5k was a continuous climb on wide forest trails. The route was really well marked which was a relief. I do enjoy starting races in the dark. We mainly ran in silence for the first couple of hours. All you can hear is the sound of our footsteps and our heavy breathing. I was working harder than I anticipated in the first few hours of the race but everyone else around me seemed to be working equally as hard. I figured this was a level of ultrarunning I had never experienced before and I had to step up to the challenge.
I came into the 2nd checkpoint at Geres (30k) in 11th place. It had been a sweaty morning so far but from here onwards the temperature rose and the heat became my enemy. I was drenching myself in water at every opportunity but I still felt weak and a bit dizzy for the majority of the day. The only sections of the race I enjoyed were the technical descents; the dry, grippy granite was a welcome change from the mud and greasy rock in the UK. I was strong on these sections and would often pass a few people. The longest climb of the course was up to the checkpoint at Serra Amarela. I ran out of water about 1.5 hours from the checkpoint and was also really low on food. To my delight I found a dirty puddle on the ridge not far from the checkpoint. I drank 2 cups of it then poured 2 cups over myself. It was only at the end of the race that I realised quite how bad the stuff I had been drinking was – my plastic cup had a thick layer of grit at the bottom.
Despite feeling sub-optimal I managed to pass a few people and by 45km I was in 8th place. I was convinced some of these people would pass me again in the later stages but everyone else must have been suffering as much as me. I usually manage to smile at photographers during races but there was no smiling today. I had been intermittently running with Jo Meek, my GB team mate, in the middle stages of the race. She was stronger than me on the ascents but I was a bit quicker on the technical descents so we kept passing each other. It was a big confidence boost to be so close to her as I thought she was in another league to me. By Soajo at 65km Jo pulled away from me as I expected. Next came the final big climb of the course; nearly 900m of ascent ‘off-piste’ over rocky, arid landscape. I passed a few people on this climb (mainly men unfortunately). In the last 10k I had given up hope of catching any women. I was just desperate not to be overtaken and was looking over my shoulder every couple of minutes. I was aware I was in a bad state and it would be touch and go. Every time I pushed on a bit I felt nauseous and dizzy and thought I was going to pass out. Even in the final 100m to the finish line I thought I might collapse at any moment.
The relief of crossing the finish line in 8th place was immense. I had tentatively hoped for a top 10 finish but never really believed it would happen. I sat down on the red carpet and let Matt pour bottles of water over me until I felt brave enough to stand up again. I then headed to the fountain for a further drenching. I have never suffered so badly with the heat before, and it wasn’t even that hot. Jo Meek had finished in 7th (5 minutes ahead of me) and Jo Zak in 29th. Together we secured a team bronze medal. I couldn’t have been happier.
I would like to thank Raidlight for my custom made Gilet Responsiv – the lightest and most comfortable rest vest I have ever used. Thank you also to Ian Sharman for getting my legs in tip top condition, to Contours Trail Running Holidays for their generosity and to Matt & my parents for coming out to Portugal to support.