Despite the challenges of injury earlier in the year I had managed to piece together 6 weeks of reasonable training and was genuinely excited about racing MIUT. I flew out to Madeira the week before the race for the opportunity to get to know the route and get some much needed rest away from the stresses of life in the UK. I was obviously in need of that rest as I came down with a feverish illness as soon as I arrived and spent most of the 3 days in bed. Although this race wasn’t my main objective for the season I still had no intention of watching from the side line. As it would be the first big race of the season it seemed more pivotal and a poor result could really knock my confidence. Mercifully my illness passed and I managed to enjoy a few runs and hikes in the days leading up to the race. Madeira is a runner’s paradise; the trails snake through striking landscapes of lush forests, monstrous broken teeth-like mountains and along sheer cliffs of the dramatic coastline.
The race started at midnight in the far east of the island, with us working our way from one side of the island to the other over the central mountainous massif. The first half features more climbing and technical terrain, but the whole route is beautiful and engaging. A midnight start is psychologically very tough; a full day is a long time to wait with rattling nerves. But once on the start line the adrenaline coupled with the grams of caffeine packed away in the gels I was carrying, I was going to have no problem keeping the fatigue at bay.
Barely 1km from the start we hit the sharp climb out of Porto Moniz and poles started to come out. I got mine out; something wasn’t right. There seemed to be an integral part missing from one of my poles and it just wouldn’t go together. I dithered for what seemed like ages trying to fix it whilst moving slowly up the hill, then gave up and threw it in a bin I passed. I then faffed even more getting my phone out and texting Matt to bring me a spare in the morning, but I knew half the climbing would be done by this point. Then there was the question, is one pole better than none or do I ditch both? I decided to see how I got on with the ‘one pole technique’. Before my pole commotion there were several women around me but they were all gone now. How much time had I lost? How much difference would the lack of a pole make? Why has this happened to me now? It’s not like I hadn’t checked them before the race. It’s the kind of race where everyone uses them and there must be a good reason for this. I was quite flustered and assumed I was quite a way back in the women’s field. My usual ‘mill pond’ self was a million miles away. I knew it was a long race but for some reason I felt the need to catch up a bit so I really attacked the first few hills. Aside from climbing for a short period with Stephanie Case early on, there were still no women. I passed through 4 checkpoints, still assuming I was well back in the field.
At around 6am I arrived into Encumeada with 45km and 4500m under my belt. I met Matt and my parents here and picked up Matt’s poles, which of course were far too long for me but better than the alternative (although I had come to quite enjoy the one pole technique!). Here I learned that I was actually in second place, behind Andrea Huser. It was a huge relief to know this and the stress from early in the race was gone. Over the next few hours I settled I gained some space on the trails and settled into more of a rhythm. Dawn brought me freshness and I finally I could start to savour the views. I was really enjoying myself.
It was during the long, steep descent into Curral das Freiras that my hamstrings and calves started complaining. It was a bit early in the race for this, but I found out over the next 10 hours that I would suffer the consequences of my lack of hill training much more on the descents than the climbs. I met Matt and my parents again at Curral das Freiras, who re-fuelled me with salt and vinegar crisps and a fresh weight of gels. The biggest climb but the most scenic section of the course was now ahead, and also the knowledge that by Pico do Areeiro (1816m), I had broken the back of it. I wasn’t moving badly in relation to others, but I wasn’t exactly moving well either. I am used to doing more overtaking than being overtaken in the later stages of the race but it didn’t feel like that this time. I continued to feel strong on the climbs but it was on the descents that I was really suffering. By Poiso, pretty much all the climbing was done with just 16 miles of gradual descent to the finish. How hard could that be? Rather hideous to be honest. I was not helped by the lure of the finish until I could actually see it. However, I was helped immensely by my Portuguese companions; throughout the race I had run with various people, holding brief conversations in Frenglish, Porglish and Portuñol (my French is hopeless but I can understand Portuguese and my Spanish isn’t too bad). In the latter stages of the race we I reached a constant stream of the slower marathon competitors that all needed overtaking, often on a narrow trail with a sheer cliff on one side. One Portuguese competitor took it upon himself to my native ‘escort’, clearing the trail in front of me by shouting (in Portuguese) ‘this is the 2nd women! Please let us past!’ about a thousand times over the course of 10 miles. What a privilege.
The welcome by the crowds in Machico was amazing and second place felt like a victory to me. It was the confidence boost that I needed. I really can’t recommend this race highly enough. The race director, Sidónio Freitas, and his team put on a great event that I’d love to return to. Thanks must go to Matt who did a perfect job with support, with the added stress of having to ‘manage’ my rather excitable parents. But also to my parents for giving up a day of their holiday to cheer me on. I would also like to thanks Raidlight for kitting me out and the Ultra-Trail World Tour for getting me to the race.