When I fell in love with trail running I immediately understood that the delight of it was joining the exquisite running experience with the sense of exploration and adventure that the new brings into anyone’s life.
How many times have you felt that the world that surrounds you is getting small? If you’re a runner like me you’ve likely felt already that you needed new routes, new sights, new landscapes to run on. The travel experience, the freshness of new to get your mind flowing and in the zone.
I registered for Douro Ultra Trail in early April this year and can only praise the location, the people and the organisation.
Trail porn is the best possible way to start this post, by showing off the absolutely fantastic landscapes and thrilling views you can expect to find in the race.
The race takes place in one of the most beautiful regions in the world, classified as UNESCO World Heritage and renowned for its production of port wine. It runs through authentic vineyards, exploring the Serra do Marão with its steep slopes, green forests and rocky cliffs. The organisation offered trails of unparalleled beauty and an open ended outlook of the portuguese horizon.
The challenge started on a Friday morning. As I’m living in Germany I had to travel all the way to the north of Portugal to participate in the race the day after. Early wake-up call, flying over after a busy work week, having my parents pick me up at Oporto airport and drive all the way to Peso da Régua, home location of the race.
The pre-race day was used to explore the city, get the race bib, check that all the required material was present and in order, but mostly to enjoy family, tasty food and good weather. The forecast indicated heavy rain and thunderstorms but the setting was a perfect 26ºC sunny day.
The race day kicked off early again (without much sleep) at 4:30 AM. The 44K race would start from Mesão Frio and we had a bus transfer leaving at 5:00 AM to get us there. It was dark and cold but one could anticipate already the warm atmosphere that would be felt during the whole event: the complete crowd was ecstatic, groups of acquainted people chatting, casual laughter generating a sense of community and an united thrill based on the idea that starting at 7:00 AM an epic journey would commence near the base of the mountain.
While eagerly waiting to start, I sought the dim lights of civilisation in the hills standing in front of us and the joy of meeting fellow runners which were as crazy as I to board on such an endeavour. Soon enough the race started, we were off, adrenaline at its high, heading up and all the way to Ferraria.
The cold and shivers from the night soon started to fade away and the rain jacket was quickly stowed away.
The first 20 kilometers into the race were pure bliss. Absolutely stunning landscapes, sunrise slowly unravelling the beauty of the region, vineyards popping up everywhere, the Douro river always present down below, getting up to where only clouds sat at the very top, images and feelings which I won’t forget for a long time to come.
Ermida is a small village located in one steep slope of the Serra do Marão. Narrow streets, traditional houses and elder people awaited us with eyes full of curiosity. A nice old lady saw me coming and after a welcoming good morning, stated she was surprised as she “was told there would be a lot of runners coming”. “So they are, so they are…” I said. Her smile still cheers me up today.
In the next 5 Km the accumulated ascent on my legs was starting to show signs of itself. I couldn’t but stop thinking about the configuration of Ermida: the whole village was on a slope! The lady I had just met is challenged with ascent on a daily basis just to visit her neighbour. Her fitness is for sure top notch! 😉
From Ermida to Santa Marta de Penaguião time just flew. I’ve met a few runners on the way and quickly adopted the common pattern of talking with everyone. You ask if everything is ok if you pass a fellow athlete which is walking. You wave, you nod, you hail “good morning”, you praise the landscape, you establish contact and share the moment. The race is a race… and yet at the same time it is not. It’s kind of a walk in the park where you enjoy the scenery with others. From players complaining about the heat which was starting to hit us to others claiming they could run only on ascent instead of flat terrain, diversity was a natural and curious part of the game.
After a pine forest at the top of the hill, the long descent to Santa Marta started. My bib had got torn and I’d fold it into one of the backpack pockets. Passing through a checkpoint, they didn’t really care to see it, they just trusted the bib number I reported. There was a huge empathy with the organisation staff at that moment, the one you feel with family. The whole event was designed to provide athletes a true and natural experience. Good example of it was the fact that when we needed to cross Santa Marta, buried deeply in a valley, with its logical village asphalt, the path went directly through the soccer field, green soft grass greeting my tired legs. What a superb detail!
At this stage I had aproximately 30 Kms done and the watch marked 4 hours. I remember thinking that was slightly above my training average, however I wanted to soak it all in. It made only sense I would take a bit longer, as timing was not my main target. The goal was to enjoy the most of it, learn with every given step and record all precious sights on my memory vault.
I came to run the next section with a fellow trail lover which kept doing different trail races and never repeated any. He truly enjoyed the sense of discovery, the exploration and the new which a trail run offered. That made a lot of sense at the time yet however I can’t stop feeling that a part of my soul and the Douro valley now have a strong bond. Who doesn’t like revisiting loved places? Haven’t you ever sought re-living a past experience?
My learning curve was just around the corner. At Km 32 my body started craving for energy yet clearly shrieked that anything I’d try to put in, wouldn’t stay there. The long way up until the next aid station at Medrões suddenly felt like I had to climb up a huge wall. I decided to take it easy and follow the recommendation of a few runners I’d met at the start line which were just passing by: take in as much water as possible! Grateful I am for the hint, as the natural spring found along the way provided sacred fresh water which was not only drunk but poured over my head for refreshment. Oh joy…
It took me one and half hour to reach the top, including the time spent at the aid station. I decided to forget the food I was carrying and made my bet on available fruit (hoping the fructose would kick in) and chips (for the salt). Together with the enthusiasm of all the runners arriving at the top, the friendly reception of the staff and the shade of the canopy, I suddenly started feeling like Superman again. Laugher kicked in as I athletes went for glasses of wine and cocktails (yes! they did!) and everyone felt that after an additional 1 Km going up, the long descent all the way back to Peso da Régua would greet us for the last 7 Kms. Fuel levels restored, I departed only to get absolutely amazed with the astonishing view one had at the top.
I rejoiced and smiled the whole way down. I overtook around 15 runners and by the slow speed I was loosing altitude, I finally realised how high the previous challenge had taken us all. Suddenly there was a stunning view over the Douro again and Régua down below. When I temporarily stood still for a photo, a man painting his house with his daughter close by couldn’t avoid commenting “you all stop at that exact place to take a picture”. We laughed in unison, delighted with the simple things in life.
It was around 13:30 PM and the sun was creating a blazing temperature of around 30ºC. The last kilometers were done entering the city, staff at each crossing making sure we’d take the right path, guiding us to the lane that followed the flow of the river. The sense of close achievement is unbelievably hard to describe. If you haven’t ever felt such an emotion, set yourself on a mission beyond your limits and accept the challenge. If you did already, I’m confident you’ve set your next target already anyhow ;-).
The finish line was set in the Museu do Douro, a tribute to the region where visitors can tap into the history of the valley, grasp its tradition and enjoy the opportunity of port wine tasting. It was the perfect place to finish the race!
I crossed the finish line with 6h 28 min after 44 Kms with 2250m D+ (4700 m overall).
First marathon, first trail race, first ultra…
The crowd was having a great time seeing all the runners arrive, having nice drinks and enjoying the sun. Having the familiar faces of my parents eagerly waiting for my arrival was absolutely priceless. Ensure you always have eyes of recognition looking out for you when you tear your barriers. They’ll keep you moving!
The personal triumph is dedicated to my family, especially to you-know-who. Thank you for your support and for putting up with my trail craziness and/or love.
At the very end the organiser João Marinho challenged me to participate in the next edition to tackle the 80 Kms. Well… who knows…