It’s 1am, I’m running along a concrete path through fields and below me all I can see is a long line of bright white torches, zigzagging down while the quiet night is swept away by cheers, claps and cowbells in the village below.
This is Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT pronounced myoot by the locals) and like a child’s wait for Christmas, the noisy crowds below can’t come quick enough.
I’m not tired or looking for distraction, I just can’t wait for the newest experience in the this race of firsts.
My first international race, my first midnight start, my first mountain climbs; my first trip to my adopted homeland of Madeira (my great grandma was born in Funchal and I went through a continental phase in my teens).
The first impression of the island was one of awe. Madeira rises 1800 metres (nearly 6,000ft) almost straight up from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa.
Coming from the South Coast of the UK, I had never seen anything like it. The South Downs Way 100 has 4,000 metres of elevation, MIUT has 7,125 in 30 less miles…
Friday night at 8pm and I’d left the comfort of our half board hotel in Funchal for a ride to Machico where the race would eventually end, for me on Sunday morning.
My girlfriend, my mum and her partner (who had surprised me on race day) walked me through the town before I jumped one of the many buses to the start in Porto Moniz.
I tried to doze, tried to eat, tried to look out the window but couldn’t do any with a combination of nerves and darkening skies.
Through a confusing number of tunnels, we suddenly saw the sea appear 100ft below our coach with not much in between. I wasn’t used to the travelling to the start line or the noise on the coach as I tried to see what was going on but quickly we stopped and my coach companions make a break for the door.
Porto Moniz is a cute seaside town with waves crashing into rocks rather than lapping at golden sands and above loomed a dark shadow punctuated with yellow street lights as high as the eye could see.
After finding a suitable spot to make final bodily adjustments (thanks SNB), I then soaked up the increasing atmosphere while checking out the other competitors.
I actually felt quite alone as an uneducated Englishman among so many conversations in French, Spanish, Portuguese and many other languages. I couldn’t chat with the guys and girls next to me (I’m sure their English would’ve been perfect but I felt stupid) so I played with my phone, GoPro and enjoyed the Euro-pop soundtrack.
It only took a disco version of The Final Countdown before we were off through the town, jumping around legs and poles towards the hidden hills.
Wearing a windproof jacket, t-shirt and arm sleeves, I was instantly roasting as we hit 15% inclines so I began trying to remove clothing while also stomping up hill with a headtorch.
In the end, I settled for rolled-up jacket and arm sleeves crumpled around my wrists like a polyester Miami Vice combined with She-Ra after a long shift.
After the beginning
Despite the chaotic clack-a-lacking of poles around me, I moved well up hill overtaking a few people who were faffing with kit or setting up for the long run. I was just loving it! The famous mountains that they were talking about and I was doing great!!
Until we headed into the fields and I realised that we hadn’t done the first climb, we’d done a little hill before the first climb…
Still, I could hear the town of Ribeiro Frio and the crowds didn’t disappoint as we passed through a tunnel of people, noise and high fives – imagine this at 1am in a UK race!
Out and up, onto white paths which climb and cut through windy roads and cars waiting for us to slog some more. In comparison, the previous “mountain” now looks like a molehill. This new monstrosity just goes up, up, up! Out of the town and into the woods, over roots, through puddles and into Fanal with 6 minutes to spare.
I couldn’t beleive it. I’d hit that hard and barely made it ahead of the cut off! I was so paranoid that I ate two slices of orange and headed straight out, before realising that the weather had come in and rain was now whipping around my sweaty extremities. Barely 30 seconds outside of the aid station I was turned from the wind trying to put on a second coat while walking and eating. It doens’t make for a pretty image. It makes for an even worse reality.
At least the next checkpoint was downhill. And I LOVE running downhill.
But this wasn’t smooth, groomed, single-track where you can actually run, this was rutted, twisty, slippery rock steps cut into the mountain, tripping me at every opportunity or threatening to send me into the dark valley below.
If you’re into your trail running, you hear people talk about how downhills are worse than up: this is the first time I’d believed them.
Until I went uphill again. OH MY GOD IT JUST GOES ON AND ON. and then on and on some more. The climb up to Estanquinhos was the highest, longest and steepest I’ve ever done but as I crested the worst part, we rose out of the clouds and I could see a crescent moon framed by the bushes on either side of the path.
Behind the foliage, the night was becoming shades of purple and as I walked out onto a small plateau, the sun rose over the clouds, making everyone in sight stop to exclaim.
I could’ve stayed there all day but the aid station was further on than I expected (a pattern that was far too familiar) so I jobbled (jog/hobbled) along a rocky flat path up to Encumeada.
The middle and an early ending
It was a long old slog up to the top of the mountains but the views as we descended made it all worth it. The path wound down slowly, dropping into greenery which made me feel at home. The paths reminded me of the rainforests of West Auckland, lush, wet and thriving in volcanic soil. Every now and then there would be a whoosh of menthol as I passed through bushes (eucalyptus I later found out) and the ground smelled of fresh dirt as my feet sunk into it.
The laveda hugged the side of the slope, crossing small bridges and through tunnels, all the while descending into the valley. It was a lot of fun but my legs weren’t used to the incessant downhill, struggling to keep up any pace when we headed onto the road for the final miles to Rosario and then again for the short (400m!) ascent to Encumeada. I took five minutes to collect myself and prepare myself for the 14km but I was having my usual difficulty eating so filled up with water, took on some crisps and oranges before heading back out.
If I’d know what was to come, I would’ve stayed longer.
The leg started with beautiful views down the valley towards the coast. It then turned and began to climb alongside a pipeline which headed up the mountain and out of view. It was a depressing start and hard work on continuous steps, some cut into stone, some made of crumbling wood and all going up, winding underneath the green monster. I stopped a couple of times to catch my breath and have a drink in the increasingly hot Madeira midday sun but slowly ploughed up and finally we left for some runnable sections where I tried to make up some time.
I was comfortably ahead of the cut-off, on target for my 29 hour Western States qualifying time and consistently stunned by the unfolding views around each corner, the waterfalls that crossed our paths and the course’s ability to continually surprise me.
This leg was 14k I knew that. But my watch was disagreeing with the terrain and I had no idea where I was. We had gone up a big incline and there was another to come before we dropped down into Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley) below. I could see a town or village below which must have been it but instead of going towards it, we cut further up the mountain, out of the tree line and into unbroken sunshine. By this time I was already down to one water bottle and hadn’t eaten much. I could feel the energy and enthusiasm sapping at zig zag skywards.
I like to write (nearly 1500 words in so far) but it would take tomes for me to accurately describe the length, beauty and foot-destroying incessancy of the four hours it took me to travel just under 9 miles. I’d already begun to think about quitting as I stopped to cool off in a mountain stream, letting a host of people pass me at the same time. The mental games had begun but I think now that I already knew the conclusion.
Mind mind was made up as I crested what I thought was a final ridge to be met by MIUT volunteers. “Thank fuck for that”, I said to the lady with the clipboard. “Sam Wilkes, number 912”, she started, “you have 5 more kilometres to go”…at that point I could easily have jumped off the top of the mountain to save myself the bother (the village in the picture above is where I was aiming for).
It should have been a moment of joy but seeing the actual Curral das Freiras below (I’d been looking at something else the entire time), I just wanted to cry. My legs and feet were hurting at every point and all I could do was curse the course and my decision to take it on. I wanted a challenge and this is exactly what I’d got.
I text my girlfriend to say I had decided to finish but it still took me an hour to trudge 5k downhill to the checkpoint. When I arrived, she said she was surprised by how well I looked in comparison to some others and was I sure I wanted to stop? I was a bit surprised by this but even if I was alright externally, my mind was made up and I handed in my number.
MIUT – you beautiful brute
As you descend into Nun’s Valley, you can see Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the course, towering ahead of you.
I wanted to see the rest of the island but knew if I continued that I would’ve been out for another 12-16 hours, the majority in the dark. I didn’t want my abiding memories of the race to be a death march in the dark, I wanted it to be the stunning surroundings in which I had decided to finish.
Could my body have continued? Yes almost certainly. Did my mind want to? Not at all. My motivation was to see the world, challenge myself and check out new race experiences and I had done that. Should I have entered the Ultra distance? Probably but I wanted to push myself as much as possible.
There is a lot of lifestyle guru bullshit around at the moment about “knowing your why” which is just a way of monetising motivation. I just didn’t have it. UTMB and Western States points just weren’t the same goals as sub 24 had been.
So I quit and as I sat in the sunshine with a beer, egg sandwich (on Portuguese roll) and chips looking at the most stunning vista, I was extremely happy with my decision. I still am.
Well done to everyone who took on MIUT and for those that completed, you have my utmost admiration. Thank you to the organisers – it was probably the best race I’ve ever done but I’ll go into that properly some other time.
And as for Madeira, you won my heart, stole my legs and have me desperate to come back for more. See you soon.