My Return to MIUT’s Majestic Trails in Madeira

Madeira is a truly special place. The pearl of the Atlantic. The island of eternal spring. I first visited almost 20 years ago with my girlfriend. She’s my wife now 😉 We toured the island and discovered many of its wonders: the marvellous sea; the lush of green, a forest, a flora that gets everywhere, flowers and fruits like you see in no other place; the hiking paths, the “Levadas“, journeying the land with its water streams, the walkways alongside them, inviting for hikes into remote locations, waterfalls, mountain peaks, seaside cliffs; the multiple summits sprinkled around in this “orange presser” of an island; most important even, the welcoming smiles of its people, the savoury food and the bright light of a sun that seems to shine differently here.

When I heard of the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT), I knew that racing here would be an experience like no other. After doing so in 2017, I knew that one day, I would like to come back. Perhaps similar to the longing that I recently had with the Grand Canyon, the growing desire to race MIUT again was getting more and more difficult to ignore in the recess of my mind. And so a dream started to build up, one where a group of friends would meet up together, from different origins and from different countries, in this remote piece of land in the middle of the Atlantic.

I arrived early in the week, taking advantage of the benefit my company gives me of being able to work abroad for up to 30 days a year. Proud to work and contribute to a company that values its people. TUI absolutely rocks! I flew with our own airline and enjoyed a stay in a hotel on the coastline: quiet, great view, good food, nice swimming fool. The first days didn’t bring the vibe I was hoping for (as remote remote work can be quite focused sometimes) but the progressive arrival of friends to the island did. The natural excitement of a race approaching, the expectation of the wonderful views we’d be seeing, the vibrant atmosphere in Machico by the finish line, the experience of picking of the bibs and visiting the expo. Damn it! A delightful dinner, finally all together, in our hotel’s restaurant, on top of the sea, with a stunning view like no other.

We all went for different flavours of the race: Doug set himself for the brutal MIUT 115, Anna and Joshua ventured toward MIUT 85, Stefan, Sachin and I into the MIUT 60, Ben into the MIUT 42. Matt would be freely roaming through the diverse hikes the island had to offer and Silvia would be greeting us with her smile along the way. A common thread bound us all together: MIUT. And naturally a friendship built over the years or just newly discovered.

I’ve put a lot of effort training for this race. Loads of runs, multiple at the weekend with my tribe (thanks Timothy and Jakob!), yet however much we maximize the potential of the Deister, nothing in the Hannover area (where I live) can truly prepare us for the brutality of MIUT 60, a 60 km race in Madeira’s mountains, with 3100 meters of elevation (up and some other down of course). The incredible landscape, the stunning views and breathtaking scenery make up for the hardship. Guaranteed.

After some short sightseeing in downtown Funchal, Cabo Girão and Machico the days before the race, we found ourselves quickly at the start line in Boaventura, a small, beautiful village by the sea in the north coast, on a day that promised clouds and rain at higher altitudes. My wish was to finish the race around the 10 hours race mark and therefore decided that it would be best that each one of us to do its own race.

Hopes high. Pure, liquid adrenaline flowing through everyone’s veins. A radiant beam of joy in everyone’s smile. A shining spark in everyone’s eyes. An audible countdown for the start… and here we go!

The race starts flowing through the streets of Boaventura, by agricultural fields of people that greet us in a manner that it feels like we know each other forever. It tours through valleys of green and, soon enough, starts pulling us into an uphill incline. We know what is coming. No one is to be fooled here. We are venturing ourselves into a wall of more than 2000 m of positive ascent, from sea level all the way up to Pico Ruivo, the highest summit on the island. Everyone moves at race pace, either running, either power hiking, intensely focused on the trail ahead, on the technicality of the terrain, on the stairs ahead of us, on the thousands of steps we’re doing now and on the ones that will follow. While at first we could enjoy great news, through valleys of green and escarpments of rock, we soon got hit by a ceiling of clouds and by uninterruptible rain.

It took me around 3 hours to reach the top… A faint sound of voices, like a party in the distant, a vibrant atmosphere soon to be discovered, was a welcome preview of an aid station where there’d be an opportunity to recover, refuel and refocus. “Olá João, welcome to Pico Ruivo!”. Words that can only bring a large, wide smile to the listener. It was foggy and humid, cold from the battered rain and a chilly wind… still these people were there for us: to serve us, to cheer us, to welcome us, to lift our spirits. Relentlessly. Throughout out the day. With the same energy regardless of the athlete. “Bem haja!” – a Portuguese statement of thankfulness, gratitude and admiration.

The sights between Pico Ruivo and Pico do Areeiro are material of post cards. The photos displayed in this post give you an idea but can never grasp this divine route. If you’ve never done it, then kindly put this in your bucket list. In the mandatory section! There are a million descriptions out there about it and therefore I won’t go through it in detail, lest spoil your experience 😉 I couldn’t take advantage of it all due to the presence of the clouds. Neither could I last time. Which is a positive thing, as a new visit to Madeira is in order for me. 🙂

There are now 2500 m of positive ascent in the legs and downhill is the way to go. Chão da Lagoa, one of the main aid stations, comes quickly by. From all of the things available, the one I will never forget was the tasty rice with mushrooms’ stew, that brought me renewed energy and a will to continue strong. There was pasta, bolognese, chicken soup, all kinds of warm food, varied, like I have seen in no other race. “Bem haja!!!”

The run went very well from there onwards. Mostly downhill. Through technical terrain. Though stairs, thousands of steps built in the trail using rock, wooden retainers or just the natural shape of the soil. Soon enough, wares crashing, the sound of the sea, all shades of blue and white. Porto da Cruz is a sight to behold, where the ocean meets the mountain in the most spectacular of ways. Last aid station. Final refuel. A time to focus and gather strength for the outstanding 15 km and especially the 500 m elevation that are still to come.

You meet amazing people in these adventures. I had special moments of companionship with Tommy, an American from Missouri visiting Madeira for the first time. A friendship that I’m sure will last. I’ve had a photo taken by the sea, by a local girl, that knew that moment would be one to hold dear. I’ve countless memories of faces of people I don’t know, strangers, their smiles, the warmth of a wink, the shared feeling of admiration, without a word being said. Moments of bliss. Memories of joy.

The last uphill was tough. I started feeling sick. Stomachache. Again. I’ve reduced speed, lowered my heart rate… “I’ve been here before” I thought… Tommy passed me then and I wouldn’t be able to meet him again (lest at the finish line). When things turned to the worst at km 53, a sense of relief struck me. With an empty stomach and blood flowing again, it was time to load the resilience module and start rolling to the finish line, at steady and constant pace. “Damn… we’re going to finish this race with a smile!”

I’ve done Vereda do Larano in 2017 mostly in the dark of the night. This is a mesmerising path along the slope of the north coast, a sheer cliff towards the sea and a winding trail of undeniable beauty. Add that as well to your bucket list. It was wonderful to do it during daylight this time. Mandatory!

The arrival at Machico is a box of surprises. You get a first glimpse of the city and it feels like it is just around the corner. Well… think again! We had to wind around the multiple facets of the hill until we could finally see the descent back to civilisation. A good half an hour to get to this point, which demanded a lot of mental strength.

The incomparable taste of making it to the finish line. Of self pride. Of admiration. The smile that you cannot contain. 9 hours and 45 minutes of an adventure that fit exactly into what was an expectation. Very happy with the result.

A big thank you to Silvia, which captured a photo worth a million words. Your smile and care for me during the recovery after the race have a very special place in my heart. Congratulations to all the finishers that ventured into the mountain and challenged themselves. You have my profound admiration!

To all of you reading this, I can openly say that I’m in love with Madeira. And I’m sure that either you already are, or very soon you will be.

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