It says something about a race if you can’t wait to do it again despite vomiting your whole way around the course and finishing in the medical tent. That is the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) for me.
But before we get to the vomiting, let me lay out the basics. MIUT is a 115km race with a whopping 7100m of climb on the unique Portuguese island of Madeira. Part of the Ultra Trail World Tour, he race starts at midnight on Friday on the north-west end of the island in Porto Moniz and finishes in Machico (time limit is 32h). There are also 84, 42, and 16 kilometre races if the 115km one is too daunting.
Unlike the Canaries to the South, which are much rockier and dustier islands, Madeira is quite a lush, verdant place to explore. It is a volcanic island covered in forests, green mountains, wet valleys, cliffs, caves, and levadas, which are the irrigation channels tattooing the entire island. If you’re a beach person, this isn’t the place for you… but if you are an epic-lord-of-the-rings-type scenery person (um, who wouldn’t be), look no further.
So, back to the vomiting. I ran the race last year (2016) when I was still living and training in Gaza, so my fitness wasn’t great. Plus, as the first race of the season, it was a pretty ambitious event to take on. I ended up throwing up for the last six hours of the race, too sick to raise my head and take in the spectacular views. The only saving grace was the extremely attractive doctor in the medical tent at the finish line. It wasn’t a coincidence that the tent ended up being predominantly female. Sure, I had bloodshot eyes and smelled like puke, but hey, you never know…
Anyway, this year, I couldn’t wait to come back. Physically, I wasn’t sure where I was at. After my accident on January 1, I had pushed my body pretty hard in recovery, but it was difficult for me to tell where I had wound up. I was more disciplined in my training, but I was tired, and my confidence was lacking. Emotionally, I was a bit of a wreck. Just personal crap, but that kind of stuff can really have tangible effects on your performance. Come race day, the last thing I wanted to do was head out into the night and run. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts for 115km because they were all just sad. I wanted to crawl under the covers and sleep away the emotions.
At the same time, I knew I had to slay the dragon. I needed to get back out there and race. I needed to prove to myself that I was o-k-a-y. So, at 8:40pm, I headed out to Machico to catch the bus to Porto Moniz, waist torch charged, covered in Chafex, potato chips packed and hiking poles in hand.
I always hate the race start, but I was lucky enough to be identified as ‘elite’ for this one, so I got to start right at the front (yay!). It paid off. The race starts with a short and steep 350m climb on mainly road and concrete steps. Even the leaders weren’t running this section, so I happily power hiked. The course then takes a quick and somewhat technical descent back down to sea level, where crowds will cheer you right into an 1100m climb to the first checkpoint, Fanal, at 14km. At this point, I was well into my ‘death march’, attacking the stairs with fervor. It reminded me a lot of racing in Hong Kong and I was keen to get on to trail. I breezed through the checkpoint quickly, wincing at the site of another runner who already had to drop out due to a twisted ankle – there were many more to come on the way…
I descended down to checkpoint two at Chao da Ribeira without too much fuss – not exactly enjoying myself, but trying to numb my brain on auto-pilot. The tree roots and jungle-like terrain in the forest helped distract me as it required my full concentration to stay upright (which faltered – the first time – in the night, causing some nuclear damage on my knees and a bruise to the side of my face). In some of the forested sections, it was so dark that I contemplated bringing out my second light, but I wanted to save some battery in case things went really wrong and I ended up running into Saturday night.
Video of the course from the start to Estanquinhos (28.8km)
The climb up to Estanquinhos is gnarly. You’re looking at about a 1250m climb at a fairly steep gradient, reaching 1500m around the 30km mark. For me, it is on this climb when you can really feel everyone settling into their own rhythm. At this point, exhausted of bravado and mass hysteria (something that seems to plague the start of all European races), runners succumb to the relentless ascent. Last year, I remember how stunning it was to escape the forest cover and break through the cloud layer, bathed in moonlight as I reached the 1500m peak. This year it wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it was still beautiful – and cold. I tried to breathe warm air on to my hands to warm them up as I ran along, which was useless. Only solution was to try to run faster.
Luckily, I was running and climbing behind Italian runner Cristian Caselli for most of the way up to the checkpoint, which gave me a lot of comfort. Cristian and I have run large chunks of Tor together – and once you’ve survived that experience with someone, they pretty much become family! (Kind of like when you poo in front of someone for the first time, yeah?) He keeps a great pace going uphill and I loved following him. We weaved our way through the pack along with one other runner, reaching the peak around 4:30.
I figured if I was running with Cristian, I was probably moving pretty well, but it really didn’t feel like that. My mind was heavy and that zapped the energy from my legs. My heart simply wasn’t in the race, but I wanted to see if I could bring it back in with cumulative miles. As the sun rose, I started to get the feeling that I was further along in the course than last year, but I couldn’t be sure…Climbing up another steep set of stairs alongside a large pipe, I had a flashback to last year’s catastrophe, and thanked my lucky stars that I was feeling okay. (NB: this climb feels particularly demoralizing, but just put your head down, pump the legs, and get it done – the descent is technical, winding, and pretty).
Video of the course from Estanquinhos (28.8km) to Curral das Freiras (59.6km)
Coming into the 60km checkpoint at Curral das Freiras, I spotted another female coming up quickly behind me. See? You ARE slow. Now people are just going to be streaming past you for the rest of the race. The negative narrative was incredibly self-defeating and I tried to turn it around. Go easy on yourself. You’ll do well to just finish this time without puking. That’s a good goal to have. Ix-nay on the omit-vay. You’re doing great. Just as I was working on my sorry little monologue, a volunteer held up three fingers as I approached the checkpoint. Three? Three what? Is this a Madeiran peace sign? My eyes widened when I realized I was in third. Third!!! I assumed that Andrea Huser would be in first and Lisa Borzani, the indefatigable winner of Tor, would be in second. When I found out Lisa was actually behind me, I immediately vowed to slow down. I had gone out too fast and would burn out if I tried to keep up that pace.
Sofia Roquet, the energetic Portuguese runner behind me, came in and out of the checkpoint in a blur while I was still bumbling around trying to figure what to do first, and in what order. In my attempt to multi-task, I ended up pouring water all over my spare dry shirt, spilling hot soup on my crotch, and smushing oreos all over the back of my pack. I was on fi-yah (well, my crotch was at least). After a quick gear check, I headed out, bumping into Lisa on my way. “You’re so strong! You’re doing great!” Lisa said cheerfully, cheering me on my way. “You need to be in front of me – see you shortly!” I replied after a quick hug. And sure enough, within a matter of minutes, Lisa came up behind me on the climb and steadily powered her way forward. She’s a wonderful competitor and a brilliant athlete who just loves the mountains … I’ll happily run behind her any day!
With my new-found confidence, I started to come out of my ‘funk’ and really enjoy myself. I am sure I was moving more slowly, but I felt so much lighter, and it reminded me that sometimes we can really be our own worst enemy. There I was actually rocking the race and I was contemplating whether I should even bother finishing. Enough of that shit. Time to get my head out of my @ss (good thing I lubed).
The smell of eucalyptus woke me up a bit and the sunlight wasn’t too strong, so it felt like ideal running conditions. The second half of the course is nothing less than stunning – some of the most beautiful topical views I have ever seen. The red roofs of some of the villages along the way peek out amongst the bright green grasses and mountainous backdrops. The winding trails seem to find impossible nooks and crannies in the landscape, taking you to outcrops and climbs you wouldn’t expect would be possible. It doesn’t look like it from the course profile, but there are actually some good stretches of relative flat that require you to actually run pretty quickly, which I found much more difficult to handle than the climbs or descents.
Video of the course from Curral das Freiras (59.6km) to Poiso (89km)
The terrain from Pico Ruivo to Poiso is probably the most challenging on the entire course, but you are rewarded with 360 degree views of sheer beauty. The course winds through tunnels in the rock, so keep your head torch handy as you’ll need it on a couple of occasions. This is where you’ll start seeing some day hikers, but rather than get in the way, their cheering should hopefully give you a bit of a boost! I had fallen a number of times by this point, so my knees and legs were covered in dried blood, mud, and either dried leaves or dead skin (hard to tell, and frankly, I figured it would be best not to try to figure that out mid-race!). This drew some grimaces from passersby, but I just responded with an idiotic grin. NB: if you’re afraid of heights, there will be some stretches of this part of the course that you won’t love, but the parts that are steep will have ropes on either side. There are some metal ladders you will have to descend, but just take your time or go down backwards if you feel dizzy.
From Poiso, get your running legs back on and prepare for 25km of descent and flat running with views of the cliffs dropping down into the ocean. I enjoyed running the trails along the levadas and dirt roads, chatting with some of the runners from the marathon and 85km course along the way. The only tricky thing about this part of the course is that due to the overlap, you will always have someone ahead and on your tail, and there are few places to duck off the trail to pee. I just embraced the nudity and dropped trou on the side of the path, back up against the cliff face, smiling at runners as they hopped over the little trickle of urine that started to form in front of me (* awkward *). (Anyone remember that scene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?).
I ran by David Jeker, a fellow Canadian, immediately tripped (for the fourth time), landing myself in the mud again. David reached out his hand, saying “it’s bound to happen when you try to run fast!” My right knee was quite visibly swollen at this point, but as long as I didn’t concentrate on it too much, it was manageable.
As I came into one of the checkpoints near the end, I had another flashback to last year when I was keeled over ten steps from the tent, spitting up water. I stuffed some oranges and bananas in my mouth and congratulated myself. Look at you go! Eating like a champ! No sooner had I smiled and waved goodbye to the checkpoint volunteers did I start suspiciously burping. Okay, perhaps I’m not completely in the clear yet. Easy tiger.
Video of the course from Poiso (89km) to the finish (115km)
The last couple kilometres, running into town, I was ecstatic. I yelled aloud to some of the people on the street, “I’m so happy right now!” It was a rather self-evident thing to say, but I felt the need to share my joy with anyone and everyone around me. Running to the finish, I put my happy orange Julbo sunglasses on and jumped across the line. I did it!!!! Not only did I get to the end without vomiting, but I beat my time from last year by 3:40. Best of all, I came in fifth!
Lisa and Cristian were sitting down at the finish waiting for Lisa’s partner to come in. I flopped down beside them and we all congratulated each other, genuinely happy for each other’s performances. After a brief ‘chat’ in English/French, I hopped in a cab to head back to the hotel.
In the end, I did much better than I thought I would and really surprised myself. Three weeks later, I’m now in la Palma, ready for Transvulcania tomorrow morning. Too soon? Maybe. But I don’t care. I’m so grateful to be running and racing again, and I just want to keep going, even if it means tripping up along the way.
Oh, there was one goal I didn’t really achieve. Once I got back to the hotel, I couldn’t even make it down the hallway to my room. As the other guests walked towards the restaurant for dinner, there I was, sitting on the ground, throwing up into a Ziploc bag, medal around my neck. What a race.
- Bring poles. The climbs are steep and believe me, you will want them! Amongst the top five female runners this year, Andrea Huser (1st), Beth Pascale (2nd), and I (5th) all used poles, whereas Lisa Borzani (3rd) and Sofia Roquet (4th) did not. From what I could tell, the majority of the top men did too.
- Eat often. It is quite easy to get mesmerized by the climbs and time can just fly by. Don’t forget to stop and eat to keep up your energy. A few times, I realized my stomach was actually growling despite eating quite a lot at checkpoints, which is probably what contributed to my nausea later on.
- Bring gloves if you tend to get cold. They will come in handy on the first night and you can drop them in your drop bag in the morning.
- Don’t skimp on head torches. Last year, my head torch died an hour and a half before sunrise and it was a nightmare on the very technical descents. All I had was my tiny emergency torch that everyone brings for kit check but no one intends to rely on. The dense forest cover means that the trails can stay dark for longer than usual, so make sure you’re prepared.
- Bring money with you to the start. There is a little café that is really nice to sit in before the race. The buses get you there around 10:30pm, so you’ve got time to kill.
- Conserve your energy during the first half – you’ll need it! During the first 63km, I did 5700m of climbing already out of 7100m. You’ll end up passing people on the long descent to the finish if you save some legs.
- Don’t cut it too close with your flight when you fly in. Both times I’ve flown into Madeira I’ve had issues – the first time, our plane was diverted to Gran Canaria overnight due to weather, and the second time I was bumped off my connection due to overbooking. Madeira is a tricky airport to land in, so this isn’t uncommon.
- Book your accommodation in Machico early. It is a small town, so hotels get filled quickly. Funchal is a bit of a hike from Machico and you’ll want a car, but if you want another option, Canico is a good bet (halfway between Funchal and Machico)