There are places and occasions in life that leave a mark in us that is difficult to erase. I personally feel that it is when I most deeply connect with nature, with genuine people and with absolute silence, that my heart retains longing memories in a very special place inside my mind.
Three years ago I’ve decided to run Estrela Grande Trail at Serra da Estrela (“Star Mountain Range”), the highest in mainland Portugal. In the middle of Vale do Zêzere (Zêzere river valley), at the far end of what long time ago was a glacier containing cristal clear sparkling ice, lies the beautiful town of Manteigas. The idyllic place is a sanctuary of calmness and an open invitation to finding inner peace. I had my coveted moments of solitude, as well as warm moments spent with my parents, which came all the way from the south to be with me. It was a wonderful long-weekend spent doing what I love with the ones I love. I successfully finished the 46 km race. At the time what I’d call a big challenge.
Things have changed a lot since. I’ve done a lot of races and somehow moved on to longer races… I’ve finished the mesmerising Madeira Island Ultra Trail 85k despite a set of ups-and-downs, concluded the Zugspitz Ultra Trail in south Germany and ventured myself in a veeery long run at the Pitz Alpine Glacier Trail in the beautiful Austrian Alps. I used to think that such long distances were done by madmen only, heroes revered in running magazines, social media and occasionally in national TV news. I remember the time when the bare idea of thinking one day to apply for such a challenge seemed nothing short of impossible. It feels awkward that both realities exist in my mind now: the one where it just feels too much and the one where it has already been done.
If you know me or follow this blog you may have realised already that the longest challenges haven’t been done without a lot of struggle, considerable resilience and a fair amount of situations which haven’t been properly handled. Accurately assessing the terrain. Handling nutrition efficiently. In‑race gear decisions. Keeping contact with family / followers. These are situations which, no matter how much one reads or is advised by fellow runners, one must live them to get to know them. One must experience them. For only so, lessons are learnt and one can grow with them. Can learn how to recognise them. Can acquire the tools to work around them. To ultimately solve them next time they look you in the face.
There’s a considerable amount of situations which I still don’t master. I may never do. I do want to try though. I do feel the urge to face them again and try to see if the learning experience has been fruitful or which lessons are still to be learnt.
Estrela Grande Trail has been the key mountain challenge I’ve chosen this calendar year. The long distance edition. The 80 km. For very obvious reasons: an absolutely beautiful track, Portugal as homeland, Serra da Estrela as a brilliant race location, the opportunity for a family visit, a great running community, a flawless race organisation, ultimately a fantastic human being, good friend Armando Teixeira behind it all.
The race profile is in itself a very unique beast. It starts by taking runners through a shadowy forest climb out of Manteigas, all the way up to Penhas_Douradas. Crossing Vale do Rossim and its dam, the route takes on the mountain plateau, crosses Nave da Mestra and just before hitting the summit at Torre, takes a downturn into Covão d’Ametade. Steep climb towards the top, one takes the full descent into Garganta de Loriga (“Loriga Gorge“) until hitting the village. At halfway point, one has to reach Alvoco da Serra to take the colossal challenge of the vertical km towards the summit. Trilho do Major is the entry point towards the glacier valley, through Vale do Zêzere, which I was familiar with already from my previous adventure. The wonderful Poço do Inferno (“Hell’s Pit“) is the final stop before getting into the finish line at the village of reaching Manteigas.
In all the months of preparation for the race, it became very clear from the start that legs wouldn’t be what would kill me. Nutrition definitely would and I wanted to avoid all the pain I encountered while doing the Pitz Alpine Glacier Trail. In particular during the vertical km, to avoid the battle I fought at the Zugspitz Ultra Trail. The distance itself didn’t really scare me… the lack of proper training grounds at home with long uphills and a high temperature setting… well… that did scare me. You see, no matter how long I read, how much I research, how much I listen to advice from friends, it is only when I train that I can listen to my body and get my mind under the conditions of stress which really feel like the race day. Living in western Germany is hard in such regards, as elevation is scarce and temperatures are generally mild during my morning runs. I play with what I have. I try my best. Which, sometimes, as you’ll soon discover, is not enough…
In anticipation of the race, I kept dreaming of the quietude that Manteigas would have to offer. The silence, the slowness of time, the calmness that nature perspires in that location, the friendliness of people, the quality of the food, the kindness of the atmosphere, the peace of it all…
Midway on my morning jog the day prior to the race, I’ve met Sr. Manuel in Vale do Zêzere. He told me about his life. The people visiting the mountain for hikes, tours, running, all kinds of sports. To connect with nature. To disconnect themselves from their daily routines.
We talked about his encounters with such people…
Of how genuine those relationships were…
Of how fond he is of such moments…
He offered me the change to look at his herd. Sheep. Goats. Offered me cheese. Offered me bread. An orange. His approach was so authentic, so honest, so candid and affectionate, that it just blew me away… I love such confrontations, where my urban fast-paced self is struck by the innocence of how simple life can be. Despite how hard. Got me reflecting on how life can be so full of opposites… loneliness can be soft and sweet yet too much may kill you… the mountain can be lively and beautiful, while at the same time so raw and rough… animals a lasting dependency, whereas at the same time solid companions… bliss and pain often come hand in hand.
My parents and nephew joined me for lunch and we had a wonderful afternoon together. Talked about the race. Made plans for joint summer holidays. Thought about family. Called back home. Ultimately visited Manteigas, picked up the bib, made conversation with friends on the way and got back to the hotel to prepare all the gear for the adventure that was about to start the morning after.
The day of the race arrived…
At the very start I meet my friend Frederico Gouveia e Silva, companion at beAPT, a Madeira countryman, with whom I’d do nearly half of the race with. A wonderful surprise. A great start. An opportunity for camaraderie and sharing…
We took the upward, winding trail from Manteigas towards Penhas Douradas. Were dazzled with the sighting of Vale do Rossim. Met the extraordinary Telmo Dourado on the way – was able to finally give him a big hug and got a wonderful photo in return. Covered the plateau towards the summit, passed through the unparalleled Nave da Mestra, took a vertiginous descent towards Covão d’Ametade. We enjoyed each other’s company and sank the gracious beauty of the mountain.
Everything was going according to plan….
I’m taken aback when realising that a handful of hours is now passed and I’ve barely taken any energy. I ingest a gel prior Covão d’Ametade and take advantage of the aid station to ingest a proper set of solids. We know the next stretch will challenge us with technical terrain and steep uphills. Frederico takes the lead and soon enough I understand I won’t be able to keep up with the rhythm. Which is fine. It will be a long way and if we have to part ways, all is good. We may meet later.
When reaching back the top at Garganta de Loriga‘s aid station, I review my mental plan. The race is going according to what I thought. Time is right. Am progressing as expected. Hate getting my feet wet but started loving it given the high temperatures. Am absolutely taken away by a mountain that dazzles with the mixture of all it has to offer and the simplicity it has to present. Find friends on the way, make others, remember trails I’ve done in the 46 km race 3 years ago. After so long, certain segments still feel familiar. Find myself descending to the place where I’ve planned to do a proper meal: Loriga.
I go down the gorge with emptiness in my mind. The void that I so much love. Where thoughts are silenced, the mind soothes, the purity of emotions takes care of the soul. I now run next to a fellow runner called Inês. We exchange a few words on how careful we are when going downhill on technical trails. Little did I know at the time how far she’d go to win the female race and that she was part of the “Squirrel’s Hour” folks I’m so fond of. I advance alone, in hopes of getting to the aid station to start recovering. A long road… I see it at the distance. There’ll still take time until getting there… It’s getting late… Race started at 6:00h and is now past 13:00h… The long road… I realise I’m not running straight anymore. I’ve waited too long… I didn’t eat enough…
In a fantastic read from Crónicas do Sr. Ribeiro (“Chronicles from Mr. Ribeiro”) he sifts through the idea that, while many refer to the loss of energy as the wall or the man with the hammer, he calls it the bear. Like being chased by a big, powerful animal, that strikes you really hard if he gets hand on you. As I get to Loriga‘s aid station, I remember his chronicle and realise that the bear had been chasing me closely for long. That he was just getting hold of me. While I expected the warm soup to be the catalyst for my recovery, I couldn’t hold my stomach and went into total loss. I saw Frederico start the new segment. I saw Inês pass by. Even Mr. Ribeiro himself passed by. I comment with him how the bear got me. I do my best to get my head high and ingest some food. Runners keep passing by. They all run away. Who wouldn’t run away from a bear? Remember, the bear, he’s still sitting next to me, right?
The moment calls for resilience. I didn’t train all this time to sit and stand by. Another soup. Time. Crackers. Time again. A bit of bread. A final rest… Need to get moving. Alvoco da Serra is next and after it the vertical km. If I can recover on the way I may be able to make it. The hard stretch upwards towards the summit. The rest is then known and mostly downhill…
The devastating heat, the loss of energy, the negative thoughts that curse me… those I could have overcome. What I was not expecting was that the bear, which I thought I’d lost in Loriga, would be waiting for me at the next aid station in Alvoco da Serra. He punched me right in the stomach. And I couldn’t hold it. Damn nutrition. My weak spot in all honesty. I haven’t got it right yet. Was the key reason for hindering the race. I’d had occurrences of overconfidence before and promised to keep going. I so much wanted to keep to that principle… I felt though that I should be humble and accept that I couldn’t go on. This was such a moment… where I had to surrender to the DNF (“did not finish”).
The experience made me realise that, like Mr. Ribeiro outlined, ultras are food races with running in between. So simple… Yet so difficult to tame…
On Serra da Estrela as a location and Estrela Grande Trail as a race, they’ll be forever embedded in my heart. Pure joy. Love in its simple form. If you haven’t been there, go there. You will love it!
The motto of the race and its aftermath video say it all.
“Na Serra da Estrela corre-se todos os anos o Estrela Grande Trail.
Por trilhos cravados na montanha e no coração.
Como um fado feito com paixão.”
«Estrela Grande Trail is ran every year in Serra da Estrela.
Through trails embedded in the mountain and in the heart.
Like a “fado” made with passion»
“Feito para a saudade. Feito para voltar.”
«Made for longing. Made to come back.»