My 27-Hour Ultramarathon In Madeira

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It was midnight.

What a strange time to be setting off!

Sleeping in the daytime hadn’t really happened. But resting had.

For the rest, I was counting on adrenalin to see me through.

As the event came closer and I studied the elevation and length online whilst in Lisbon my nerves grew.

My longest event before this one was 42 miles.

This was going to be 30 miles long and several thousand meters or more incline.

Madeira Island Trail

I had no sense of what that was going to be like.

I recalled how I finished the 42-mile race in the Brecon Beacons.

David and I had got lost in the darkness towards the end and whilst I’d sped down the downhills through the middle of the event…

The uphills and time spent on my feet had begun to wear me down.

After running for 9 hours non-stop; what would become the last 90 minutes of that race had become extraordinarily slow and painful.

So as darkness had set in, the ticker tapes were few and far between – David had to drag me around as I started becoming delirious.

We both came in after 10 hours and 30 minutes battered and broken.

As I stood around at the start line with my Liverpudlian friend I’d met in the hostel in Madeira who had been helping me with my final days of preparation – I looked up into the night.

The furthest I’d run during training had been 6 hours.

I got used to running up and down the river in Lisbon – often 3 hours one way and 3 hours back.

It was a mental battle to stay out for that period of time when I’d like at 11 and be back by 5.

Thankfully I had nothing else on my agenda at this time and so I could afford to focus on training for the ultra.

My life leading up to the final 6-weeks was consumed by it.

I’d go to the local gym and run 13 miles on the treadmill before cycling for 2 hours immediately after.

The personal trainers began to recognize me simply as I was there so often.

On other days I’d be out running for 3 hours before I’d come back.

It’d actually been Paolo who was a PT I’d met in the gym that had looked at the course trail and told me – ‘Madeira has crazy mountains – what hill training are you doing?’

I said ‘what hill training?’

He shook his head and smiled and showed me, Goliath.

It was similar to a step machine but rather it required you to crawl up the rungs as they span around a loop.

I’d spend 10-30 minutes there at a time sometimes during one of these bigger sessions.

The strangest thing about this period was that I still wanted to stay muscular/get muscular so I’d focussed on calorie intake that was greater than my expenditure so you had no way of telling me I was an ultra-runner (unlike today).

So eating was also a pretty full-time (but enjoyable) job!

And now judgment day had arrived where I’d discover what my robust but way too short training would take me.

The MUIT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail) is a very technical footrace (something I’d again discover halfway up the mountain) and so is considered by some to be one of the most difficult ultra races out there.

Madeira Island

And coupled with my inadequate preparation I’d discover what a challenge it would become.

The first 6-hours of the event seemed to go by in a blur. What with the adrenalin, group effort alongside the other trail runners, and dense nutrition I had with me – it was pretty plain sailing.

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Running through the darkness was new.

And amazing.

Our run started from the main village and then headed up via a cobbled footpath into the mountains.

Ultramarathon In Madeira

It was an initial steep uphill that many walked whilst some trotted.

I started with a trot then quickly reverted to the walk as I realized I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

Soon the path turned into a forest, and the path soon became a trail, and around us, we could hear the sounds of the night. The dozens of headlights around me lit up the surroundings, but as the hours went by the pack soon started to spread out across the course.

It was mesmerizing – to run the single file through the darkness next to a small stream with water running down above our heads as we trotted along a single path.

Here I was with seasoned ultrarunners coming in as pretty much a newbie with not a single English person I’d met at the start line.

The MUIT was only in its 2nd year so it wasn’t still a well-known ultra and so most of those I met at the start line were Spaniards and Portuguese.

This has always been part of the adventure of the endurance events that I’ve done.

Doing them in different countries has always made the experience that much harder – whether it was for language, terrain, distance or otherwise.

As the race continued I began to find partners at different points to run with.

The terrain began to become a real challenge. There were crazy uphill climbs that bought us almost to a standstill as some would get out their running sticks and pick away at the mountain as they climbed up the hill.

And then some of the very few (like me) without any sticks at all would dig my hands into my thighs as a means of supporting myself as we dragged ourselves uphill after hill.

My first scare came at around hour 8 when there was a discussion of checkpoint cut-offs. I was amongst the slower runners in the race so checkpoint running was what we were doing ultimately.

Not running for time but running to beat the cut-offs for the checkpoints.

Oscar whom I was running with around 10 years older than me. As had often been – I was one of the younger participants in the race. Most of the crowd seemed to be 30+ and significantly older still

This was when I caught my second wind as we realized we needed to be mindful of the checkpoint deadlines.

At this point, I shifted gears and for the next 2 hours, I gently passed other runners until the cutoffs no longer were on my radar as they would be some 10 hours later.

I hit the 10-hour 30+ mark and still felt ok.

I was semi-jubilant knowing that this was officially the longest I’d ever run for. But I also knew that I wasn’t even halfway into this race so I had no idea how the next X hours were going to be.

We’d started in the night and I’d watched the night slowly disappear into the light as day broke and the whole afternoon lay in front of me.

My race moved at a snail’s pace as the MUIT continued to punish people like me who hadn’t put in any hill training and my thighs suffered as the mountain tore into my body as I made my slow climb up.

Checkpoint to checkpoint became filled with pain and self-doubt as it’d seemingly only be a few miles but would take hours for me to ascend through the sometimes sodden hills.

I kept climbing up higher and higher and soon the mist began to sit in as we seemingly seemed to be in the clouds because I felt I’d been climbing for so long.

This was the other challenge of the MUIT; as I continually dug into my trail shoes, and drew blisters into my heels (a growing new problem I faced) – I had to also be content with what seemed to me micro atmospheres.