Race Report: Madeira, island of highs and lows
The high has unfortunately worn off and it has been replaced by blues, a serious case of post race blues… The weekend prior to my birthday, I completed my first ever 50 miler (80 km). For a non-runner person this will sound like gibberish. But it’s a term commonly used to describe a 50 mile trail race. Also known as an ultra trail race. I participated in the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) Ultra 85 km race. It was the toughest physical challenge I had ever completed.
Why run so far?
That’s actually a great question. The only answer I can come up with is that I like to figure out how far I can push myself mentally and physically. I wanted to see if I have a breaking point, everyone does, but do you know where it is? American videographer Billy Yang made a great video about it.
Last year my goal was to run a road half marathon and the first race of the year was a 50 km trail race. You’re nuts! Yes I know, I’ve been told numerous time. There is one thing most of us “ultra runners” have in common. We are stubborn minded people! If we put our mind onto something, we’ll go through extreme ways to achieve our goals. Up until last year I didn’t even have a clue about the ultra running scene and if there were a lot of runners in Belgium. Little did I know… I have gotten in touch with some very friendly and open minded people in this past year. I need to thank one person in particular and that is Eric Lemmens (aka Beast from Belgium). Such a laidback guy and never bragging about his accomplishments.
Back to the why. Last year Eric and me went to Oman to participate in the UTMB race there. I was undertrained and not prepared for what I got served: epic failure! But even before this race, we had already signed ourselves up for the MIUT race. So in some sort of way, it would give me a chance to “prove” myself.
Madeira, here we come!
The month of April is definitely low season for tourism on the island of Madeira. You will still find people, just not very crowded which is just the way I like it. Our flight was at just after 6am, meaning we had to be at the airport at 4am… At that time of night there are no trains, but hooray for the shuttle bus. Good thing was that first one left Antwerp at 3am and only cost 10 Euros a person, direct drive to the airport. Sorted!
We flew from Brussels to Lisbon, where we had a short layover and spend some time in the lounge. After that a delayed flight to Madeira, but it gave us no issues. We had a driver waiting for us at the airport. Through Booking.com I had booked a small apartment in Machico which would serve as our basecamp during our stay. Only downside, it was up on a mountain. We didn’t know, but it was the first thing our driver told us, that his van would be unable to get up the steep hill. Hmm okay.
He had dropped us off and explained how to get there on foot. Now imagine going up a 13 % to max 19% gradient street with a backpack and suitcase. It’s a workout! We were welcomed with a smile and settled in.
Later that afternoon we went to get some groceries and then went to the Machico Forum to pick up our bib numbers. The check at the registration desk was minimal as they didn’t want to see any of my gear. Just the registration form, passport and confirm if I needed a bus ride to the start. After that we went to pick up our goodie bag downstairs.
You train hard for months for a race like this, then you taper. You what? You taper. It’s a period where you run or train less and eventually rest on the days prior to the race. A shakeout run just before a race gets the juices flowing again and it just feels damn good to be out for a short run. I felt like a f*cking energizer bunny with restless legs.
So on Thursday morning, after a proper bacon & eggs breakfast, we headed out to explore the area around Machico. Eric had put together a GPS track for us to follow. As we didn’t know the terrain or trails, I was hesitant to run a longer distance. It wanted to do about 12 km and then give my legs rest again.
Well it turned out to be a bit different than planned. The loop took us north bound on the island and Eric kept telling me: “Oh I think it’s just around the corner of this next mountain.” Well after 4 mountains we still weren’t on our way back. We only had the map on his Garmin watch to go from and Google Maps wasn’t of much help.
After we lost the trail for a 3rd time, we decided to head back into the direction where we came from. A scenic trail next to the coast and then pass through a tunnel which would take us directly to the other side of Machico. After the tunnel there would be a short ascent and then it was downhill to the finish line. We ended up running a half marathon as our shakeout run. Smart or stupid? You tell us!
Friday I’m in love…
Great song by The Cure, but the butterflies I had in my stomach were not from falling in love. Nope, they were pre race nerves kicking in! No matter what kind of race you’ll be running, you’ll get this feeling. Your tummy starts turning, you don’t know what to do with yourself, you’ll go over your checklist (if you didn’t forget to make one) a dozen times, you need to go to the toilet more often than usual, you start eating, you feel restless,…
I had spread out all my gear and started to go through it. The checklist I had created was on my laptop. I kept going back and forward like a headless chicken. Get your sh*t together! For f*ck sake, take a breather! Eric and me kept verifying each other, do you have this? Don’t forget this! Do we need this? If you would have filmed us, it would have been a comedy haha.
Eric would try to get some sleep as his race would start at midnight. I was way too restless and decided to head into town to get some more groceries. As soon as I got back I decided to sit outside on the terrace and enjoy the sun. It didn’t take long before I found it to be too warm. So went inside to watch some Netflix. It probably was around 4 pm that Eric showed up with sleepy eyes. We started going over our checklists again. OCD? No! Wanted to be prepared.
The plan for the rest of the night was to have dinner and then drop Eric off at the parking lot on the edge of town where he would take the bus to the start of his race, located in Porto Moniz. We had dinner at the same place we had been all week, the food was great and service was good. As soon as the sun had set, a wind picked up and it actually became pretty chilly. I was wearing a fleece jacket and even put on my Ultimate Direction rain jacket.
Due to the big number of participants in the 115 km MIUT race, we had to wait a while before Eric was able to get onto a bus. While we were waiting, I noticed a familiar face. I stopped him to verify if it was the person who I thought he was. It was a guy from Thailand that I had spend some time with during the dark hours at night on the trails of the UTMB race in Oman, what a small world! I wished him good luck. I shook Eric’s hand and wished him all the best on his adventure. Little did I know that he would have a shitty start to his race. He got car sick on the bus and lost his stomach content as soon as he got off. Poor guy!
I went back to the apartment and set my alarm for around 4 am. Did some more last minute checks of my gear and put out the clothes I would be wearing in the morning.
The night before a race is always hard to fall asleep or even sleep at all. I think I passed out around 11pm and slipped in and out of sleep until my phone sounded the alarm. I got myself dressed and then filled my Camelbak and soft flasks with Tailwind. I learned from my mistake in Oman where I had mixed my drinks the day before and left them sitting in a warm room. A recipe for disaster as I won the 15 km dry heaving contest! No, this time I had my mind sorted and in the right place. I was reasonably relaxed but was eager to start running.
Check, check, triple check, yes I got everything! Ok time to head out to the bus, which took about 20 minutes to get there. I was glad I didn’t have to wait as they were already letting people onto the busses. My luck had turned and I was picked as a Chinese volunteer to take the last of 2 empty seats on a full bus. The seat was located on the back row in between 4 other people, crap! I’ll survive, I thought to myself. I put in the earplugs and fired up my old iPod which had been loaded with tons of music. I’m a social person, but at this time of day and prior to a race I had trained so hard for, I wanted no interaction and to be left alone. Don’t mess around with the iPod too much and keep your eyes focused on the outside. A bus driver that thought he was driving a race car on roads that went up and down in the dark and swinged from left to right, recipe for getting dizzy. It didn’t take long before most of the people on the bus went quiet.
After about 45 minutes of driving the bus stopped and there was movement of people getting off. False alarm, as the bus driver had parked at the wrong spot and we weren’t in Sao Vicente yet. 15 minutes later we arrived where we were supposed to be. As soon as people got off the bus, a line formed next to a wall. Guys had to pee and there were no toilets available. I walked to the starting pen and did some last minute preparations. Put everything in the right place on my race pack and belt and grabbed a Snickers. Some more calories before this epic adventure starts. I looked around for some shelter as the wind that was blowing was making me shiver.
I met 2 people from Belgium and a Dutch girl who I had also met after the race briefing. There wasn’t a lot of conversation from my part, I was too tense and still felt like the Energizer bunny! The speaker announced that we were now allowed into the starting pen. My bib number got scanned and I picked a spot somewhere in the middle of the pack. That way I was sheltered from the wind. Took off my rain jacket and packed it away. Let’s get this show going!
5 minutes before the start it got more crowded, about 500 people had registered for this 85 km Ultra. I set my iPod to shuffle mode and the countdown started. Goose bumps, cheering and shouting, always a weird sensation at the starting line. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… GO GO GO! The first couple of kilometer were asphalt roads that went slightly uphill. I was able to keep a good pace. But on the very first steep uphill, I decided to power hike. It’s a long way to the finish line, so save some energy!
First check points
I teamed up with an older Portugese man, he didn’t speak English but as soon as our eyes met, we understood each other. We set off on our power hiking pace uphill, doing slalom between the other participants.
It didn’t take us long before we reached the first check point in Ribeira Grande after about 10 km. I still had plenty of water and Spring Energy gels, so I only took 2 pieces of orange and continued my way. Off to Encumeada! I knew the first real steep climb of the race was coming. After some really nice and tight single tracks we turned the corner and the beast showed itself in all its glory. The dreaded climb next to the gas pipe line up the hill. Everyone slowed down to snail pace as we made our way up the endless steps.
Nobody would be able to run up this one, the gradient of the climb was ridiculous. I was surprised about how good my legs were feeling. I took a short breather and started a gradual descent which was short. In Encumeada there was another check point, again I didn’t spend much time here. Only thing I did was put an extra stick pack of Tailwind into my Camelbak and ate 2 more pieces of orange. It was followed by short steep climb to reach a plateau and then went up again. Oh and did I mention the stairs? These got me off my pace as they were either too close together or too far apart to get into a nice rhythm.
The next check point would be the one at Curral das Freiras at 29 km. It was hidden behind a hard climb which made me swear profusely! This is where my drop bag was located with spare clothes, Tailwind and Spring Energy. I spend some more time here but didn’t want to sit down, afraid that my legs would turn to mush. I took off my Craft thermal shirt and the Antwerp Running Crew singlet that I was wearing. These were drenched in sweat as the sun was shining bright and the temperature had risen to about 20 Celsius. I changed into my short sleeved Tailwind shirt. I even called my mom to give her an update. “Hey, I’m doing good, I’ve almost done 30 km and still need to do another 55 km!”, as soon as I had said this I started laughing. What was I doing to myself?
Before leaving I stocked up on about 2,5 liters of water and made my way past the gear check. They made sure you had a working phone, rain jacket, water and emergency blanket. Just in case something would go wrong up in the mountains.
Run to the hills!
Yeah literally, because after a short descent on an asphalt road, it went all uphill. In the distance I could see the mountains that we would be heading up. I was running by myself and caught up with two French-speaking Canadians. They were both doing the 115 km race. As soon as we turned left off the road, we had no clue what was coming next. Oh boy… this was the start of the climb up to Pico Ruivo. By this time I had already accumulated about 2255 meters of ascent.
But this climb was brutal because over a distance of 10,5 km I needed to go up 1320 meters of vert! It was a mix of trails and stairs. Up till here I was in a great mental state, but I reached a point where my face wasn’t showing happy emotions haha. Oh for f*ck sake, how long will this go on?! But as soon as I had almost reached the summit, I had a smile on my face again as the views were amazing! I kept thinking to myself how lucky I was that I was able to do this.
Yes I was in suffer mode, but somehow I managed to enjoy these moments up in the mountains. This feeling can’t be described with any words. People who do these kind of races will understand, to others it’s hard to explain why you pay an entry fee to torture your body to exhaustion.
If there is one tip I can give you: don’t forget your poles! I saw people go up this steep long climb without them. All the training with the poles paid off! It’s a matter of getting myself into a rhythmic flow of legs, arms and poles all working together. It’s an energy saver on the upper legs and back as you don’t need to lean over and push with your hands on your quads.
Pico de Arieiro
During the very steep and technical descent from Pico Ruivo I met a Czech guy and he started asking me about Pico de Arieiro. This was where the big white ball was located. It’s a weather station on top of another mountain. We were able to see it before from a distance, but never got close to it. He was in doubt whether we took a wrong way, but I assured him that everyone was on the right trail so we would probably see it later.
I passed him and continued my way down until I reached… you guessed it: more stairs! Some even more steep then during the gas pipeline climb. AAAARGH! But with the music in one ear, I kept pushing. Music can give you such a boost, especially when the AC/DC song Highway to hell started playing. All I could do was grin and started singing along. I was in a good place inside my head. It kept me energised.
There were so many people at the peak of the mountain. Everyone was cheering and clapping their hands for us. Such a great vibe! All smiles and giving people high fives before starting a long descent and passing through another check point at the 50 km mark.
I passed through so many different landscapes and by this time I had lost track of time and distance. I had my Suunto GPS watch set to a screen where I could only see the elapsed time, time of day and battery status. It was a mental trick, not being able to see the distance that I had already run. It would prevent me from getting demotivated.
The rays of the sun made way for foggy trails as I descended further down the mountain. The trails were spooky in what looked like a piece of rain forest with thick growth of ferns and trees covered in moss. Because of the humidity it became more muddy.
Last big climb
From the check point in Chao de Lagoa it was about 9,5 km to Poiso. Half was downhill, but as they saying goes: what goes down must go up. And so it did. During the climb to Poiso I met a guy from Scotland who was all hyper. First thing he said after looking at my bib number: “Oh you’re doing the fun run!”. WTF?!
We both started laughing out loud and continued chatting away until we reached the check point in Poiso. The temperature had dropped quite a bit by this time and I noticed that I started shivering while I was refueling and getting my pack ready. I was glad that I had a spare Craft long sleeved thermal shirt with me. I even put on my rain jacket before I left. I made a quick call to my mom to give her an update. She thought something was wrong, but I assured her that I was going to finish.
The sun was setting so I got my headlamp out and teamed up with a guy from Portugal. The trail became technical and we figured it would be easier to navigate through the darkness together. I asked him how he was doing: “I’m destroyed!” he told me. Apparently he had food poisoning in the days prior to the race and was unable to keep any food in for 3 days. We walked and ran for a couple km together but with all due respect his pace was too slow for me.
After taking off my rain jacket as I was feeling way too warm, I snapped one last picture of the sunset and set off again. It was pitch black by now. My legs were still feeling good, same for my feet. No hotspots or blisters in my Hoka One One Evo Mafate shoes. The only sore spot I had was my ass. Huh, say what? Due to all the sweat, my shorts had rubbed open my butt cheeks. I’ll spare you any further details haha.
Finish line in sight
I was picking up runners here and there but got passed as well by people who had plenty of juice left in their legs. After a while I hooked up with two French guys, both way younger than me and running the MIUT 115 km. One of them was in good shape, the other was struggling but kept pushing through his pain: “I f*cking had of enough of this shit, I don’t want to go on!”. I suck at speaking French fluently but can understand most of it. The technical muddy trail kept flowing up and down. According to the roadbook on our bib we shouldn’t have any more climbs, but every little uphill section we hit caused more swearing haha. Some of us were reaching breaking point.
We had some funny moments as they were swearing in French and I kept cursing in English, we had a good understanding. The three of us set a fast power hiking pace along a technical trail that went up and down. We made it to the check point in Portela and had a quick stop to drink some Cola. Soon we were on our way again towards the final check point in Larano at 71,6 km. This was the last check point. Mentally a tough one because it seemed so far away. I don’t know where we were, because it was pitch black when we came across a bib number check prior to the last check point. There were a couple of these you had to pass so the organisation was able to tell if you cheated or not. Anyway, they told us it would be 2 km before the final check point.
Those 2 km lasted forever and in my best French I was complaining and whining to the 2 French guys. We were in anything but a “du vin, du pain et du Boursin” mood. We turned a corner and saw something that looked like a lit up party tent. Or was it a restaurant? Was this the check point? Or was it a party we were about to crash? Our brains were going crazy and our eyes were playing tricks on us. But as soon as we got nearer, we saw people wearing MIUT organisation clothes. Yes! We made it!
The end is near
My mindset had changed. No bullshit here, no time to waste, just grab a cup of Cola and move on! The French guys had the exact same idea, let’s get going! I got so amped by a couple of songs on my iPod and forgot about any pain I had at the time. We caught up with another French guy but then dropped the youngest of the 3 while power hiking. It was more like speed walking. We put quite a gap on him.
The other 2 decided to wait for him, but I didn’t. I could smell the finish line. I wanted to get there, really bad! This was the longest I had ever traveled on foot. A mix of emotions was going through my mind. A sense of accomplishment was growing. It gave me a mental boost and physical strength.
To my surprise I came across an older man who I had seen earlier during the day. I made him all nervous as I kept following him in his footsteps. He kept turning his head, asking if I wanted to pass. “No thanks, I can’t go any faster!”, I told him. Not this time, I was chasing him again haha. “Keep looking in front of you as you’ll stumble of your own feet”, I thought to myself.
I was starting to wonder how far I was away from the finish line. On Thursday during our shake out run we had checked the last 3 or 4 km of the course. According to my watch, I was at 83 km and I didn’t see a single landmark that I recognized, WTF! How far is that damn finish line? On the single track next to the water channel on the mountain, I was able to see the small town of Machico in the distance. But instead of getting closer, it felt like we were making a circular move around it.
I briefly met the Scottish guy again, but as soon as we had caught up, I left him behind as he was taking a piss. There was a cold wind blowing hard from the right hand side, which I was ok with because there was a steep drop at times. “Don’t look down! Focus man, focus on what’s in front of you, you’re almost there!”, I started talking to myself.
I finally made it off the single track and turned right onto an asphalt road. Still no references that I knew from the days before. F*ck! Ran down the road, steep uphill on pavement, followed by a steep descent on a gravel track. Straight on and turn right down the slope. Oh hang on, wait a minute! This slope! I know what this is, it’s part of a downhill mountain bike track we were on during our shake out run.
Embrace the pain!
I knew this downhill would hurt my knees like a b*tch, but I had to suck it up. After this last gnarly part, it would be pavement until the finish line. I had on thing on my mind: I wanted to be by myself on my finish line photo!
No shared glory, maybe selfish, but this was my moment! I looked for a song that suited my mindset and settled for AC/DC – You shook me all night long (live in River Plate). I got overpowered by emotions, all kinds! I was so happy that I almost made it! This boost enabled me to pass a couple more runners.
Turn right at the pink house, go down the stairs at the small yellow house. Heck I was taking the stairs 2 at a time until I reached the road next to the sea. There were still people there to cheer me on, clapping their hands. All I could do was smile and almost cry. I had to think about my dad, how proud he would be! Over the wooden bridge and the final stretch started!
Running never felt so great before! By this time I had a huge smile on my face and put my arms in the air. I crossed the finish line after 19 hours and 1 minute! Holy shit, I did it! I received my medal and then quickly drank up two cups of Cola. I texted my mom and it didn’t take long before she called me to congratulate me. I was over the moon!
I still had to walk back uphill to the apartment, but it felt like nothing. As soon as I was inside, I got overwhelmed by emotions thinking about my dad. Tears of joy streamed down my face and I just let everything out.
After calming down I took a shower, felt great until I turned off the hot water. It was like my own power cord was unplugged. I started shivering so bad from the cold that I struggled to put on my PJ. I crawled under 2 blankets to get warm. By now it was after 3 am in the morning but I couldn’t sleep. My body was filled with endorphin. I quickly checked on the online tracking system where Eric was. He was still in the race, about 2 or 3 check points away from the finish. I texted him on Whatsapp to cheer him on but was in a deep sleep (read coma) when he eventually made it back to the apartment.
At this time of writing I have finally managed to recover a bit from the ultra trail race in Madeira. I was coping with some knee issues, but a lot of rest did me good. It’s time to start my next training cycle. I cancelled the Epic 100 km trail race in Spa mid June. It just doesn’t make sense to run such a long distance while preparing for the 7 day Pyrenees Stage Run in September.
Another tough decision was to cancel my entry to the Manaslu Mountain Trail race… It took me a couple of weeks of thinking. It was the smartest thing to do. This is my first year focusing everything on these long ultras. I have no idea how my body will cope, so my participation will be postponed to 2020.
I will do one last race in December, the 80 km Bello Gallico in Belgium. Followed by a long period of rest.
It always sounds cheesy, but it never hurt anyone to be friendly and say thank you. Thank you to my mom and brother for believing in and supporting me. Thank you Eric for the getting me into this sport, being a good friend and sharing this adventure. Thank you Tailwind Nutrition Benelux for letting me be an ambassador for the brand. Thank you to everyone of the Antwerp Running Crew for their cheers and support. Thank you Malcolm for the encouraging messages over Whatsapp during the race.
And of course, thank you, for taking the time to read this story. It’s something different than a trip report or review. This year will see me travel less than previous years. But I wanted to spend a whole year focused on running to see where it will take me.
Till next time! Keep on running and if you see me somewhere, say hi and smile 🙂