How do you visualise a challenge? How do you imagine what you’ll endure and what you’ll face along the way? Comparisons work for me. I think what else have I done that is similar, how does it differ and compare to what I’ll attempt next. It normally works. Sometimes it isn’t so easy though, not when the challenge is so large. The Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) would not the furthest (distance) I’ve run. Comparably though, it is just about the highest I’d run. Likely it would also be the longest (duration) I’d run. It felt like a substantial challenge before I even considered he terrain, all you ever heard about is the steps. So I’d struggled to imagine myself enduring this event and what I’d really face. I was generally confident though.
Why so confident? What was different this time? I’m certainly more experienced in such events now. Just half a year ago I did my first mountain race and there have been a few under my feet since then! I’ve also upped my preparation game a little. Stair work has been a regular part of my training, more on that later. I’ve also watched videos of past versions of the race (like a scene out of Cool Runnings, only I’m not sitting in a bath tub when I do it), looking at the terrain. The point of this was to hopefully minimise any surprises I had like in Trans Gran Canaria where the rocky riverbed mashed me up good and proper.
Physically I was feeling ready, generally I’ve been OK. The one visual that kept forming in my head, was a sort of ‘health check’ image of my body. Mostly green, but both ankles and my left knee were flashing orange, orange to indicate a lasting pain for weeks or months, something I’m aware of but hasn’t stopped me from running. I’ve carried on regardless, like the idiot that I am. So I headed out to MIUT good to go…
So what is MIUT? It’s another of the Ultra Trail World Tour races. The short blurb is you run across the island form coast to coast via the mountains. I went back onto the MIUT website (after the race) to grab some words and phrases of how the event is described and I’ve decided not to copy and paste or dilute the words. Pop over to the website and read the description of the event. I think it is quite something. Probably because I can now visualise what it all means – MIUT – The Event
Way back when I planned 2018, I saw a video of MIUT. Wow. I was sold. The tunnels. The views. I came very close to buying a sponsored entry for 2018 in my excitement. I’m glad I didn’t. I was so inexperienced and it would have ended badly for certain. Now this time I think I had a fighting chance. Of all the experience I’ve gained, developing an understanding of my mental strength and my ‘race mindset’ has been invaluable. No matter what else, that will see me through I thought. Time would soon tell…
The weeks leading up to the race had been a little stressful, my mind was contaminated with work. I don’t like it. I don’t like work either but I meant the thoughts occupying my mind, I don’t like those. The short story is I’m in limbo, between jobs. I’m waiting, patiently. Waiting to get confirmation and run my way out of the purgatory of my current role. But the waiting has dragged on far longer than it should. It should all have been sorted weeks before this event but it hasn’t been. I didn’t want to have all these thoughts in my head still and I was fearful of being alone with them for 30 hours or so of running in Madeira. They make me angry. I’ve noticed I’m clenching my jaw frequently of late and I’m sure it’s related. Angry Dai would be a wildcard on the trails. I needed a calm and clear head to focus on the challenge.
Anyway, work left at home, flight and landing at the infamous Funchal airport successfully navigated, Yvette, Ale and I made our way to the event exhibition. They were both also running different events at MIUT. After registering and checking out the finish line we set off on our own little exploratory trip. Every adventure begins with a mini taster of the trails and we headed out to Ponta de São Lourenço. A lovely hike later in the Madeiran afternoon. It was an opportunity to sense the climate and get a feel for the conditions. It was grey and overcast, Warm but chilly. How do I pack now I thought? What should I carry to deal with the wind and cold at higher elevations? I’d have to think it through once more, but, the landscape lit up the gloom. A taster of things to come. I was excited. Very excited.
Race day. I slept for most of it. I still haven’t decided which is worse, an early morning wake up for an early start, or waiting around all day for a later start. This one was a midnight start. I woke around 8am after a decent sleep, had some breakfast and chilled with Ale and Yvette before prepping the kit bags and going back to bed for the afternoon. Drifting in and out of sleep before waking at 6pm for a pasta feast.
Come 9:30pm I was on the shuttle bus to the start. It was a long bus journey full of smelly runners (how do some people smell so bad before they’ve even started?). But, for me, worst of all, the loud group behind me who talked at excessive volumes the whole trip, including one lady who had an unnecessarily loud phone call (on loud speaker!) for a good 20 mins or so (of which I think about 15mins was spent saying good bye to her loved ones). Loud phone calls, hell loud conversations even, in public are a pet peeve of mine. I didn’t sleep any longer and ended up thinking about my work life again as another two days without answers had passed. I was hoping this would be the last of it.
We arrived in Porto Moniz and had about an hour or so before the start. The atmosphere was building and runners were huddling together to escape the ferocious wind. The Dj was getting the tracks going and some local musicians performed and danced to entertain us. With about 30 minutes to go they announced that they would start letting runners in to the start pen. By chance I was near the entrance so went straight in. I was therefore quite near the front of the 900 or so runners and, when the countdown completed, I felt it! We were off, heading through the town at a speedy 8min/mile pace. Runners passing me from all sides. I shouldn’t be running this fast I thought.
Soon the road turned and we started the first climb (just a baby at under 400m of elevation) as we skirted around Pico do Caldeirão. This was on windy switchbacks of the main road and wow. Just wow. My calves were on fire. I’ve never felt such instant pain in muscles before. They clearly didn’t like this, despite all the training and stairs I’d been doing. I was praying that this was only an initial reaction and wouldn’t last. I’d be in trouble if it did!
As we climbed through the town there was great support from all the locals. Drums and bells were ringing and plenty of chanting and cheering were coming from those gather along the roads. The main roads became narrow streets and paths and we climbed further and further. Many runners were already using their poles, but I felt it was unnecessary on the tarmac. We crossed streets and roads with built in steps in the centre of them and I’d alternate my climb between the (flatter) tarmac slopes and the steps. As the nature of the mountains goes, what goes up must come down and so the first descent began. Another mixture of road and trail and rather steep. Shortly before reaching the bottom I recall a very steep road. Gravity was instructing a fast descent. My brain was screaming out to put the brakes on, but gravity was, as always, the dominant force. It was a sprint. My feet were burning up. The friction in my heels was another new sensation and I thought my feet might combust. So soon into the race and I was already being tortured by MIUT!
As I descended I could hear the crowds up ahead. As we hit the bottom and the town of Ribeira da Janela more fantastic supporters whooped and cheered every runner through. Almost in a sadistic way as they pointed us into the first of the ‘big’ climbs – ~1200m up to the first checkpoint of Fanal. As we started (with the poles out now!) I looked back and saw the trail of lights descending behind me. I’m really coming to love this sight of trail lights glowing in the darkness. Its almost magical.
The climb was very steep and very muddy. The terrain was forest and, under the moonlight and streams of flashlights, I could make out the sea of trees surrounding us. Occasionally we’d break out of the trees into the openness of fields as we’d cross to rejoin the forest paths in different directions. I don’t know how far we’d climbed before I realised two things; firstly, how cold I was. It was bitterly cold and the wind was howling. Secondly how sweaty I was. I remember glancing down and seeing sweat on my shorts all the way down, almost to my knees. I was drenched. This was the realisation that I was in a vicious circle of sweat. I was sweating because I was hot and exerting effort on the steep climbs. But the sweat, coupled with the mist of clouds we were now ascending through, was making me cold in the wind. I knew it would only get worse and was already calculating how to address this at the first check point. I wasn’t alone. Arriving at the packed checkpoint of Fanal I could see other runners layering up. I got chatting to a Scotsman as I layered up myself and he acknowledged the same. I opted for my ‘sweat bag’ aka the OMM Sonic Smock. Super lightweight wind protection. I felt this was the ideal choice as my waterproof would be too warm and a baselayer too heavy in this climate. The ‘sweat bag’ would take the chill off and I’d continue to sweat inside. I packed fist fulls of food into a sandwich bag and set back off into the night.
As we summited the mountain we were shrouded in mist in the open grassed peak. I could barely see the ground in front of me as the mist clouded the light from the head torch. I also remember in the darkness there were cows all around, wandering in the darkness. You almost didn’t see them until they walked close to you. In the mist we began to descend, still barely able to see the ground, until again we reached the forest. Here the paths were muddy and soft under foot as we’d wind our way down. I remember a few stretches were the trees had grown up and over the path way (or the path had been made through the trees?!) forming tunnels. These were almost magical. At the bottom we reached the checkpoint of Chão da Ribeira, a quick break before the second of the big climbs towards Estanquinhos (another 1200m El gain) would begin. One which was a real introduction to the steps I’d heard so much about. Time to put all that stair training to good use. Just as we neared the start, running down a main road we were again greeted with immense local support as the crowds cheered us upwards with the screams of ‘vamos’ onto the steps. These steps felt never ending. Mostly it made the climb fairly easy though. Easy in the sense of you had a sure foothold, even during the muddy parts. It was still bloody hard work. Repetitive. Lunging forward and having to be sure to vary the effort on both legs (the steps weren’t quite shallow enough for a regular walking pattern). Occasionally we’d break from the steps and head through some mountain tunnels, navigating around the rockfaces. Natural water channels had been carved out and water flowed through these tunnels like streams. Then, mostly, this climb was through more dense forest. You could smell the fauna and hear the silence of the night. If you can hear silence that is. The steps were now essentially circular pieces of wood with earth packed up behind them. Sometimes so worn you were just hurdling the wood itself. As the trees started to becomes less and the trail widend, the moonlight lit up the summit above us. The moon was so bright and felt so close. I felt like I could reach out and touch it gently. As I looked forward I could no longer tell of up ahead whether I was looking at headlamps in the distance of simply seeing the stars of the night (it was the later!).
After sometime I felt we must have been nearing the checkpoint at Estanquinhos. But I was greeted with disappointment on multiple occasions. I’d hear noise or see tents but these turned out to be either bib number checks or extra medical assistance points. No rest-bite just yet. We began a short descent before climbing further and eventually checkpoint came. I didn’t plan to stay long but I soon joined many other runners huddled under a heater warming my hands and trying to dry out my gloves. Then it was back out into the night once more.
The steep descent down the mountain was like running through a rain-forest. Even in the darkness I could see it was lush green in colour. The smell of eucalyptus was powerful and I smiled to myself knowing it was blocking out the less than pleasant stench I was generating! Through the forest there were streams lined with trees we’d run through, slipping and sliding down the loose soil and mud. There were some more mountain tunnels and at one point we emerged onto a rock formation which we’d climb over via a stone-pathed path with cabled fencing to ‘protect’ from the drops either side. I had to get the camera out now as dawn was arriving, but sadly there was not enough light to capture the experience properly on film. As the descent continued we we were soon hit with the true glory of the morning breaking. We were still rather high when the trees fell away and exposed the panoramic views of the mountains. The layers of red and orange glow from the sun behind some distant mountains faded into the blue and black of the night sky. A battle for dominance was unfolding before us, all above a fluffy bed of clouds. Again my camera couldn’t handle its beauty. It was like a stereotypical drawing a child would make of the clouds and mountains.
We ran down some long and wide gravel switch backs as morning broke and headed into the checkpoint at Rosario. Shortly afterwards, emerging through the forest I found myself chatting to a guy from Essex as we began the next ascent to Encumeada. We were chatting away when two runners came bounding towards us and then took a sharp turn uphill. Following them we’d thought they’d gone wrong before we clocked their bib colour- they were on the ‘ultra’ distance race which started at 7am. We must have been making great time as they were alone and running uphill fast., I assumed they therefore would have been near the front of the pack. As we climbed more sections of never ending steps we were passed constantly by the fresh Ultra runners.
Eventually we reached the checkpoint at Encumeada which was a personal assistance zone, so it was packed with runners and their designated helpers. They were serving hot food but, despite being ‘breakfast’ time I didn’t feel the need. Perhaps my Tailwind was keeping me adequately fuelled. I snacked a little to be sure I had energy and went about swapping out the buff for the sun cap and took off my arm warmers. Despite still sweating from effort I was already dry from the heat of the morning. It was beginning to get warm! I knew the next section was long (about 15km) so I went about ensuring I had 3 bottles of water at hand and knocked back plenty of liquids before setting out -Including a few cups of some horrible flavoured isontonic sports drink available. Laying in wait before the next checkpoint at appropriately halfway were a few “smaller” climbs and descents.
I misjudged those climbs though and didn’t use my poles. I probably should have. Looking at the elevation profile of the route this section didn’t appear to be too daunting, just because there were three sections that looked far more impressive on paper, so I naively underestimated them. The first was up the steps leading alongside the infamous gas pipe. It was very steep. A very slow climb as it was packed with runners with limited opportunity to pass. I’m glad I trained stairs, but this was a whole new level of working out!
Once we reached the top it was a lot of windy single track paths descending followed by a lot more climbing. This one felt like an eternity despite not being one of the ‘big’ ones. I was quickly getting through all my water supplies and was glad I’d planned ahead. Despite the difficulties along this section the views were simply stunning. At some point I think we’d run around a mountain (Pico Grande?) as the views changed so much and we could now see different peaks towering in the distance.
Down below a town as visible, it must have been Cural Das Freiras, the halfway checkpoint as we soon began to head down again. This one hurt me. It was very technical and very long. I was slowing quite a lot and could feel the effects the terrain was having on my feet. All the downhills in MIUT are so steep that your feet are being bashed about in your shoes. My feet were raw now. As we neared the bottom I could see a road with runners running in both directions. It was confusing and for a moment I thought I was hallucinating, but clearly it was the route intended. As I reached the road we were sent in the downhill direction first. An old guy was sitting outside his house with a hose pipe wishing runners well. I wished him Bom Dia and drenched my hat in his cold water. It was bliss. After the road we hit some more technical trails were we would climb up and over the town and main road to reach the checkpoint. I couldn’t judge how long this would take and my watch battery was low (too low I realise now…) so I stopped to set it charging. This was the plan for the halfway point but I didn’t quite make it in time.
Reaching the checkpoint I tucked into some pasta. It was plain and tasteless, but very much needed to keep me going. I witnessed a small argument between volunteers which was amusing. The lady serving the food clearly didn’t want help and kept snapping at another lady who was dishing out food and setting it ready on the counter tip – a good idea I thought as there was a bit of a queue forming waiting for the serving lady to go about her methodical process regardless of demand.
After eating I headed over to the drop bag space set up in a large sports hall. I spent a good 45 minutes in total freshening up, changing and swapping out kit from my bag. I know it was 45 minutes because, as I was queuing for food, I’d noticed my watch had completely stopped. Dammit. I realise now the Suunto had auto-saved the activity as the battery was too low. Dammit, that would be a pain for monitoring my average pace later in the race. Oh well.
As I set off to leave I passed through the mandatory kit check. I fully endorse these, safety first after all. One requirement was a minimum of 1ltr of water as the next climb to the highest point of Madeira – Pico Ruivo, at 1862m was a beast. I had 2 ltrs on me and I’m so glad I did….
Coming out of the checkpoint we crossed the town and went down some weird industrial path with steel steps back onto the main road were we now went in the ‘up’ direction. After some time slowly walking the road I could see runners climbing in the distance. Time to go back up I thought. I can’t remember too much of the details of this next climb despite it being the longest continuous climb. It was steps again. Inevitably, a shit tonne of steps. I’ve no idea what direction or how we reached were we did. It was a head down and power on up kind of job. I kept thinking I’d take a break and treat myself to a few moments rest when the trail next broke/flattened out, but there was no natural break that appealed to me so I kept going. Kept pushing. Kept heading up. Like Yass would say “The only way is up…“. Then, eventually I reached ‘trail heaven’. As runners ran passed me I noticed (the rather unmissable) view. To our left was a sea of clouds. To our right was mountain ranges as far as your eyes could see. I stopped and started taking photos. I sat down and had a snack. Soon others did the same around me, I had the best seat though!
I had a huge smile on my face now and went for one more photo before I would get a move on again. Behind me there was a shout out “taking selfies are we?!” to which my reply was “take a look and don’t say you won’t do the same!” It was Yvette. She’d been running for a few hours on the ultra race and had now caught me up. I had wondered if we’d meet at all and suspected she’d already be ahead of me. I was fully committed to walking mode now though (I know, already!) and she went off ahead. There were several more climbs and a few very steep descents as we’d weave around various peaks to Pico Ruivo. I was constantly stopping to take more pictures. Some steps here were terrifyingly steep. If you have vertigo, don’t go here!
Up at Pico Ruivo, in a tiny checkpoint (with an open fireplace flickering away!) I met Yvette again. After refuelling and guzzling a load of Pepsi we headed off once more with Yvette out in front. I wanted her to leave. To run her race. To enjoy it and experience it for what it is. This was her first time going over 50km and it was a monster of a course. It’s great to know people and share these trails, but, there is always time for that. I didn’t want her thinking about me or changing her race as a result of my progress. I was 70 plus kms in and fading faster than the descents. Like many other races I’ve done I was ready (and happy) to power hike it to the finish from here. I had no doubt I’d soon be embracing the darkness of my thoughts, for which I make bad company to be around!
As we headed towards the observatory we were in for more treats from the Gods. More sections of steep stone steps and some rusty old metal steps (also terrifying!). All around us the paths dropped away to nothing. Nothing but certain death. How these paths were ever created I do not know! Then, then the tunnels. Again I’d read so much about these were the footpaths stopped weaving around the mountains and instead cut straight through. There were a few. First very short (you could see the light at the end of the tunnel) then several longer ones (where you couldn’t see the end). For the later few you needed your head torch. I didn’t have mine to hand and couldn’t be bothered so I winged it. Poles tapping away as I walked through the utter darkness using the distant glow from another runner far ahead to offer some sense of direction. Another surreal experience.
And then, after some really steep steps (yeah ok, I don’t know what the difference between steep, very steep and really steep are any more either, but these were the kind of steep where you wanted to make sure you body weight was leaning INTO the steps as you climbed!) we emerged onto the ridge way. A path along the ridge with a sheer drop either side. Spectacular.
Just before the observatory I met an English dude from Watford and we walked and chatted together until the next checkpoint Chao da Lagoa. I had some snacks and saw Yvette yet again. She was keeping good pace ahead of me. From here it was mostly down hill now with just one sizeable climb remaining. This was going to be tough I thought. My body is breaking with each run and challenge I do. With each event I think I’m getting slower at the downhills as a result. The pain and cautious approach I now take is a little bit of a hindrance. I knew there was one very technical bit waiting but I didn’t know which part it was. Early on we had a fairly technical part just as we began the descent back beneath the clouds (we’d now spent hours enjoying life above them!). I was hoping this would be the worst of it.
I was hiking along at a decent speed and would occasionally be passed by runners, but I kept catching one who’d run, then walk. This was the classic thing I’ve noticed. To me it seems like a misuse of energy to put effort into running only then to lose the gains through walking so slowly. Arrogantly I think my power hike is far more efficient over a long distance. I was stuck behind him for sometime and was going to pass him, but he struggled badly and fell a few times on the technical bits. So we ended up talking and I felt stuck with him. He was Polish and had a thick accent. We struggled to understand each other and honestly, at this point I didn’t want to talk, not to him or anyone. Thankfully the tracks soon gave way to wider paths that were quite runnable. I even broke into a run as gravity once again took control. Soon we reached the bottom and it was time to head back up for that final big climb. Not far ahead on the road I could see Yvette in front of all the other runners who had passed me on the descent when I was walking. I zipped past them all as we climbed. Yvette and I climbed together now, back through the forests. It was a long one. We knew there was an checkpoint (Poiso) waiting at the top and as we emerged once again above the layer of clouds we sensed it was close. Another false hope. It must have been another few kilometres of climbing and power hiking before we reached it. We’d talked about layering up when we arrived as it was now around 8pm and I noticed the night before it was colder around 9 and completely dark 30 mins later. When we’d begin the next descent we’d head below the clouds for the rest of the race. The climate would be different and we’d end the race running along the coast.
As we arrived at the checkpoint and I immediately started shivering. Stopping movement, even walking, had a dramatic effect. I got some soup on the go and started layering up once more. By chance I was under a heater again. This was good, as was the soup so I had more. It was a salty delight. We left and began heading back down – we still had 1000m to descend before the finish in Machico. I can’t remember this section. Nothing. My memory has gone blank. The only thing I remember is arriving at the Portela Checkpoint. The last personal assistance zone. As I reached some steps down into the checkpoint I heard a Kaaar Kaaaar call out. In a very delayed reaction I responded. It was Ale. He saw me in. Inside I had more soup again. So so good. Yvette and I left together with a course overview from Ale as he’d completed this part earlier in the day on the marathon race. We had 5km until the next checkpoint, a wide track, then forest paths and a very technical descent. Bollocks, I was hoping it was already one of the descents completed. Oh well.
We set off power hiking again. A few runners passed us but not many. The wide track was just that – a wide track. Dull but flat. The Forest was surreal. In the darkness the head torches lit up the trees and the sheer drop we were running along. Don’t slip! The ground was wet and soft and slipping was a real likelihood. We hit a wooden cabin all lit up with fairy lights and had our numbers checked. It was time to go down. Fuck me this was bad. Switchback tracks making it steep. Rocks that you’d have to jump or lunge down. And nothing to stop you from falling over the edge. Adding to the wet loose soil I was. for the first time, fearful I might disappear on a trail! And it almost happened many times. I lost count of how times I slipped and skidded down on my backside. How many tims I screamed out profanities into the night and how many times my hiking poles were my savior. The body visuals I had were now screaming red in my feet and ankles! I was hurting.
Last checkpoint Larano. More soup. Yummy. 12km to go. Next stop was the finish. I was doing the math. That’s still 2-3hours on a mountain ultra. Time for the brain to engage and win this battle. Yvette headed out and I wasn’t far behind her.
I don’t know how we got there, but there was a few km along the coastal path. Wow. Below us on the left was the sea (I could hear it not see it!) to our immediate right the rock face. In and out along every cove and rock face. Lights up ahead from runners bobbing about. I was behind another runner walking it in. He was also walking at a good pace so I didn’t pass him. I could have gone faster but it would have been an extra bit of effort I didn’t want to muster. Runners passed us but it was difficult on the single track and we’d have to time it right so they could. There was a stretch that had been lit up with extra lights. I’m not sure why this section only had it, but it was a delight and very pretty in the moonlight.
We then turned and headed inland and once again I found myself stuck behind the Polish guy as we hit some technical tracks and continued our descent. It was a little frustrating and a repeat of the situation a few hours earlier. After sometime he stepped aside and I walked passed.
The next challenge was running alongside a water channel. It was long. Like forever long. Machico was below us. The end felt near, I could see the town. We needed to descend the remaining 300m or so. Surely soon I thought, but the water channel path just kept going on and on. Many people were walking and I’d catch them up and pass when I could. Occasionally I’d be stuck behind someone and struggle to pass. I needed to keep walking at my pace I thought. I was engaged in finishing now. Determined. Looking up ahead the lights of runners continued at the same altitude round the mountains into the distance. When will this end?!
Finally a sharp right was indicated and we descended through some fields. No defined track as such it was a just a case of following the reflections from the course markings reflecting down below. Gravity once again won through and I ran down grunting and swearing with each rocky step. As we hit the road I continued. I could see the the finish line below in the distance. Maybe a kilometre to go? If I stopped running now I might not start up again. I was on it. I ran passed a few runners. Finish strong, the way I like it. As I hit the flat road the Polish guy whizzed passed me. I bet he was more grateful than I was to be on flat ground! As I crossed the line Ale and Yvette were there. Yvette ushered someone to give me a medal. I think the volunteers must have been tired too – it was 2am afterall!
The words that came out of my mouth were “is there a finishers gilet?” There wasn’t. That annoyed me. I quite like those as a different memento. Ultra races always have such an anticlimax of a finish I find. So many emotions. You never know what to expect. What you want. What you are going to feel. Suddenly it can seem like the whole day of exertion amounts to something as silly as a gilet! I was happy though, challenge completed. I was a finisher.
My immediate thoughts on MIUT? It’s utterly spectacular. The trails are without doubt the most picturesque I’ve run on so far. I’d highly recommend it. It is however brutal. I dread to think how many thousands of steps and stairs you climb. The ascents and descents are soul destroying and it is a very technical race. If you’re going to do it, be prepared. Train for it!
The next day we drove back up to the observatory. Ales marathon race didn’t take in Pico Ruivo so we thought that would be a good place for him to see. Of course, we took our medals out for a photo shoot!
7 thoughts on “Stairway to Trail Heaven”
Epic mate! A joy to read as always👏🏻👏🏻
Great read. The bits after CdF make me want to go back even more! I also agree with you on the conduct and “fragrance” of some other bus travellers…