Estrela Grande Trail in mainland Portugal highest mountain

This year I’ve challenged myself again to continue doing epic sh!t.  To pursue dreams. To follow the heart. To explore new ways of reaching the void. To seek my inner confidence, that driving force that makes us move forward and reach beyond our present self.

When I decided to participate in this year’s Eiger Ultra Trail edition, my coach Paulo Pires poked me to find a preparation race which I could use to trial the 51kms distance and the +- 4300m elevation of the run. The idea was to have a first person experience as a reference, to sense what the effort would be like, to tap into what running at 2000m altitude would feel like. To have a checkpoint to substantiate training progress. To have a reality check. To grasp the ambiance of such an event. To run. To learn. With the achievements and with the falls.

Planning is mostly an art of seeking accuracy. We think of numbers. Time. Speed. Heart rate. Distance. Type of activity. Numbers and figures one after the other, with the ambition to draw a mathematical formula which in the end takes us to a desired goal. On the other hand though, it is so much more than that. It is about dreams. Hope. Faith. Fear. Defiance. Motivation. Aspiration. Desire. The willingness to turn our imagination into reality.

With such emotions in mind, selecting the Estrela Grande Trail as a preparation race was both a logical and legendary choice. The race takes place in the beautiful Serra da Estrela (“Star Mountain Range”), the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal. Starting in the beautiful town of Manteigas, the race meanders through 46kms of beautiful mountain trails, passing through the summit (Torre) at 1993m high, providing athletes a dazzling sight of the granite and schist rocks that were once bed of ancient glaciers. Organised by Armando Teixeira, a superb Portuguese elite runner with a solid record of laying down graceful events in a perfect blend with nature, fellow of the Armada Portuguesa do Trail community, it was obvious that I was up for another great experience this year.

I flew in to Porto two days before the race. Family stayed home as holidays couldn’t be planned without a proper school break. Working, husband and father of two, my routines don’t leave much freedom of choice for defining my own agenda. Finding myself surprised with the ability to choose what to do with my own time and where to go next was quite a revelation. Have you ever felt the same? Well… I decided to have a nice dinner in town, indulge myself in a Castelbel soap (which I absolutely love!) shop and only after take the long drive to Serra da Estrela. Needless to say that the downside was that I arrived late and tired…

The town of Manteigas is a delight. I had a run first thing in the morning to explore it. Calm serene place, hidden at the end of Vale do Zêzere (Zêzere river valley), ringed by beautiful hills of vivid green, brushed by clouds in the mountain ridges, in perfect contrast with a clear blue sky. You are immediately bathed by a natural silence, discontinued only by the singing of birds and the flow of water streams. Peace. Bliss. Wonderland.

Mum and dad always say they’ll travel to the end of the world to meet me. Not so far away this time but they did come all the way from Algarve for lunch and a fabulous weekend together. Are your parents as passionate as mine? How priceless is it to have such bond with the ones you love?

We explored the valley in the afternoon and went all the way to the summit. The mountain was calling for us and we answered its calling. Gave us the opportunity to enjoy magnificent landscapes in a sensational spring weather, savour most varied sceneries of the mountain range and, to a certain extent, acclimatise to altitude.

I started training for this year’s challenges in early January and hence arrived to the Estrela Grande Trail with quite a legacy. What is the first thing you’d think could go wrong? Exactly… anxiety. Though we had a super relaxed day, I guess the fact that I get myself into less than a handful number of races per year gets my subconscious working in ways that I can’t really predict. Getting a good night sleep before the race was a nice wish, typically attainable… however my inner self decided otherwise. Go figure? Needless to say that the 3 hour flight from Germany plus that long car drive didn’t really help alleviate the tiredness I had on the morning of the race.

Up we go, breakfast we take, to the starting line it is! Ultra runner means endurance and perseverance!

I stopped grumbling and focused on all the perfect runs before sunrise for motivation and all the failures of the past for resilience. Soon enough we’d be running and my mind couldn’t stop but embracing the “this is it!” moment. Enjoying the race at full was all I wanted!

Tired at the start

Tired at the start

The race track took us through a marvellous forest uphill, passing through Penhas Douradas with its magnificent chalets overlooking the valley. The day was warm when we started but the shade of high pine trees and the progressive rise in elevation brought the temperature down and closer to my comfort zone.

Reaching the top of the first hill (© Matias Novo - Runners PT)

Reaching the top of the first hill (© Matias Novo – Runners PT)

Soon enough we’d be reaching the plateau of the Vale do Rossim, its dam in plain sight at the distance, the trail rambling through shorter vegetation, slowly taking us down towards the first aid station. After little time loading the water bottles, I followed suit towards the dam, passing lengthwise through its back as if through the ridge of a hill. A magnificent detail of the organisation in planning the track.

Leaving Vale do Rossim behind, the trail takes us through the plateau, ultimately towards the summit at the Torre. The segment was runnable and enjoyable, providing great sights over the fabulous landscapes of Serra da Estrela. Either sandy or rocky, the trail called out for attention to detail, helping me stay vigilant and awake, pushing away the fatigue of the previous night’s bad sleep.

At the distance one could spot the domes of the old observatories in the summit, a spectacular reminder of the endeavour we’d be facing and the distance we’d have to run before reaching such milestone. At this stage I was overtaking some runners which provided additional and crucial motivation. As the run progressed, the sky allowed a series of clouds to settle in, the temperature feel immediately dropping and the wind reminding us what it is like to be in the top of a mountain without sun. A good reminder of the caution one must have when going to such events. A satisfying remembrance of the mandatory equipment which is imperative to always have at hand. Which I did.

Praise again to the organisation for getting us through Nave da Mestra, a stunning location where a massive granite rock was built to provide shelter to shepherds. A narrow crack in the boulder provided passage from the plateau to the face of the refuge, a slim set of stairs supporting the downhill where each runner had to pass individually.

It is absolutely amazing how the landscape can have radical changes in a short space. Leaving Nave da Mestra we entered a marsh where water was dominant, small shrubs obfuscated the true depth of the terrain and demanded extreme caution where to put my feet on. As the air continued to get cooler, fellow runners started to get their jackets on. Me? Well… after living now for nearly 9 years in Germany, I started feeling a bit like home and truly enjoying the cool breeze 😉

The way to the summit didn’t take long. Goal was to reach the top with a smile, which being the half-way point would be a tangible way of assessing if there’d be enough energy levels to continue. An aid station inside barracks was helpful to avoid exposure to the elements. The staff there were super helpful on providing assistance to runners. I had someone refilling the bottles on my behalf! Top!

With a smile at the summit (Torre)

With a smile at the summit (Torre)

As I got out and prepared for the descent, I used a buff on my neck to preserve body temperature without the need to get any additional layer on. If you’re not familiar with the gear, do take a look at it, as its flexibility is superb! It can be used as head wear, face cover, cap, band, armlet, etc.

What laid ahead would be two astonishing stretches… At first a short downhill segment through a snow patch, where everyone smiled like children greeted with ice-cream in a warm summer afternoon. What a fantastic surprise, such amazement from everyone, so many cool photos to collect and laugh about. Impossible not to look back to see the expression of the remaining athletes going down the same route. On the second hand the Trilho do Major came next, a technical downhill on a steep slope, to some labeled as dangerous – and correctly remarked in the race briefing the day before – to others just an opportunity for exploration, to enjoy the breathtaking view of the complete valley with the dam below, to appreciate some time alone in the single track.

Going down the glacier valley towards Vale do Zêzere a recognisable girl in braids ran in front of me: Susana Simões, a fantastic elite runner, passionate for trails, famous for her achievements, together with Telmo Veloso part of one of the most beloved couple in the Portuguese trail running community. I couldn’t avoid but greeting out loud that it was a privilege to find her in such an event. If you’re wondering if we knew each other, you got it right… we didn’t. Until then at least 😉

Susana had had some issues during the race but would finish as 5th lady overall and 1st in her age class. I knew she’d get to me on the way up to Poios Brancos, a near 400m climb around kilometre 35, which would set the total elevation of the race to 2200m. Needless to say she did get to me, as I had to mostly power climb, sometimes even walk, to get to the aid station at the top. I’d been hit by the rising temperature just before, in the bottom of the valley. Numerous water streams and a water tank just before the uphill to Poios Brancos were absolute life saviours, as I used them consistently to refresh myself.

I reached the top with folks from The Squirrel’s Hour which I met in the meantime, refilled the water bottles again in the last aid station and took a considerable number of slices of orange. In cases you need to provide energy to your body in the most natural way, avoiding sugared products, natural fruit is the best way to do it. Fructose is much more effectively absorbed by the body when compared to refined sugar… something I constantly keep in mind at races.

The section afterwards was very runnable, as we headed back towards Manteigas through the plateau. Legs were fine, motivation as well, the feeling of getting next to the finish line coming closer and closer. I did have the joy of meeting Susana again in a beautiful downhill forest section before hitting town. I took the opportunity to tell her how much of a privilege it was to find her on the trails 😉 Again 😉

Approaching the end required conquering a final uphill to get to the center of town. A member of the race staff greeted 2 runners in front of me, advertising how close they were to the finish line and how cold beer was waiting for them. That gave them a true boost in morale… at least while they thought it was for free 😉 Altogether anyhow was a good laugh! 😀

At the finish line with my mum

At the finish line with my mum

My parents were waiting at the finish line, which is a fantastic feeling if you spend a considerable number of hours outdoor. That welcoming feeling of someone you love which is expecting you with anticipation. So good…

I had the chance as well to congratulate Armando for a superb race organisation. Humble character, friendly look, Armando perspires love for nature for the trail running sport. He welcomed me with arms wide open, as he did for all runners that would sooner or later – some considerable later in the 90kms edition – hit the finish line.

What can you expect of Estrela Grande Trail?

A track filled with remarkable details, an extreme care for nature and an immaculate accuracy on its markings. An adventure through Serra da Estrela‘s key highlights, the feeling of participating in one of the main races in the country, lovely mountain landscapes of granite and schist. A good deal of awesomeness and plenty of opportunity to reach out to the void!

Loved it!

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