Back in 2022 Nick and I were looking at races we fancied and Nick was eager to run in Malta after a recent holiday there. A quick search threw up the perfect event for us – The Xterra Malta 50km Gozo trail race – which is a route that takes you around the entire island of Gozo off Malta. We signed up and turned it into a little holiday with Natalia and Elise.
We woke on the morning of the race pretty relaxed and slowly made our way to the start line about 10 mins away from where we were staying in Ghajnsielem. It was great, we arrived about 10 mins before the start of the race and caught most of the race briefing (although couldn’t here anything). We liked the vibe, turn up and run, simple. Of course there was time for a ‘before’ photo at the start line.
After a very modest countdown the race began and we trotted over the start line. It was without doubt the most relaxed start to a race I’ve experienced. Although we were pretty near the back of the pack, no one was rushing or racing passed and the majority of the group just jogged on casually as the adventure began.
From the start we ran passed some tavernas with views over the port below and then turned up and along a main road where we crossed and joined up to the trails. Within minutes we had spectacular views as we ran on the coastline along winding paths weaving over the cliff edges. Runners were peeling away into the distance.
After a few km we dropped down to our first inlet of the day. The trails were more technical as we dropped the massive 20m descent and climbed back to 40masl after crossing the small beach and continued back along the cliffs. Way off in the distance we could see the curvature of the island and the majestic forts, churches and citadel inland on the island. The views were exceptional.
Shortly afterwards we had the first real climb of the day, as we climbed 100m and left the coast for a short while before going around a small seaside town (and the first water station) and finding our way back to the cliffs along the coastline for several kms before descending back to another cove. This would pretty much be the story of the day as the trails were undulating with short sharp ascents and descents as we hopped from cove to cove. Each one more beautiful than the last.
Around about 14km into the race we had a beautiful coastal stretch that passed through a little town of Xlendi and another 100m or so climb up some steep rocks (a little bit of simple scrambling was needed here). From here the trails took us high along the coast with more spectacular views of where we’d come from and where we were heading. Particularly in the distance seeing the ‘azure window’ view point where the next aid station was located. We stopped to refresh and reapply sun cream with the temperature now at its highest as it was around midday. It was very hot and humid and we were craving for every breeze of wind we’d occasionally encounter.
After the climb out of the aid station I think the trails started to become a little more technical. They were now rocky underfoot and overgrown with wild foliage evolved with spiky stems and leaves. Our legs were getting shredded and itching as we sweat in the heat.
The trails took us along many more coastal sections littered with salt pans where Maltese salt is collected. The formations in the landscape were a sight to behold. This was now by far the flattest section of the course and after about 30km we were ready for a little rest. Thankfully the penultimate aid station appeared and we could enjoy some fresh fruit and more water and isotonic drink (pretty much all the aid stations had). It was somewhere around here that the 21km race started and we wondered how Elise was getting on in what would be her first trail event.
From here we had several kms along the bushy cliff-side tracks descending to rocky coves and climbing back into the foliage. It was hard going with the uneven terrain and lack of any wind along this section so we hiked most of it. Way off in the distance we could see the red sand of the terracotta beach of Lr-Ramla. Eventually we reached it and had to cross the Sandy beach, passing all the pale, ghost-like sunbathers. We stopped immediately afterwards to empty or shoes which were full of sand. It was a steep ol’ climb as we as ascended back to the mammoth 100masl before back down to the coves at Dahlet Qorrot and the last aid station. The bulk of the race was done now and we had just 10km to go and one final climb.
We climbed out of the aid station and left the coastline for a few undulating kms inland along some ‘roads’ before returning just north east of the start/finish in Mgarr for the final 5km. It was probably the most technical part of the coast where we did a little more scrambling and bushwhacking for a few km and crossed the rocky Beach with the view of the ‘halfa rock’.
After getting off the rocky tracks, we had a very short ascent up the rusty metal ladder and then passed the water sports area of Hondoq-lr-Rummien and continued off trails towards the harbour at Mgarr. We ran passed the ferry terminals and sea front restaurants before climbing back to the finish line.
Over the last few km we’d steadily picked off runners and then held them off. As we rounded the final street we saw one final runner walking to the finish line. We agreed we could catch and pass them so ran on. As we ran passed we realised the runner was a double amputee and felt immediately bad for passing them so close to the finish line. What an achievement though, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, but navigating those last few rocky kms must have been very challenging!
As we reached the finish line Elise was there to cheer us in with her own finishers medal proudly on display. Her first trail race completed! We took some photos and went in search of the the finishers food and refreshments.
The race was very straight forward and highly enjoyable. The organisers, Xterra are simple and no fuss. Whilst the course was sporadically marked, the ‘red dot’ trail markings were, for the most part, easy to follow. The aid stations were simple and had very little, but it is probably quite a fast race and we were told this year was far hotter than previous versions. Despite all my races, this was the most I had continuously ran on the coast as the route circumnavigates the entire island. It was a joy to run with the crystal clear blue water of the Mediterranean sea at your side the whole way. It is a fantastic way to see the entire island. We made mental notes of some coves and beaches which we went off to enjoy the next day! Despite being a small island and only having about a 4 or 5 ‘climbs’ on the course the route does manage to cover 1300m of elevation, which shows that the trails really are undulating!
For me, this one was going to be a little bit special. Going in to the race I thought it would be the 100th time I’ve run either a marathon or longer. Turns out I missed the occasion and it was the 101st! (Trans Gran Canaria being the 100th) (for the geeks like me – it’s made up of 77 ultras and 34 marathons, with a mean distance of about 67km over those runs in 22 different countries!). Whilst not all races, each run has meant something to me and I guess shows that I really do like running long distances!!