This was a superb 8-day, 7-stage race through northern Portugal’s mountainous and bucolic terrain, much of it in the country’s only national park and even edging over the border into Spain for a short distance one day.
It was often cold, wet and windy but when the sun did briefly shine it was glorious. The beautifully green landscape with terraced fields, stone villages and heather covered mountainsides proved a worthwhile challenge with almost 10,000 metres of ascent and descent over the 212km run – of which only about 15 were flattish. Of course, according to the master trail runner and Race Director of this event, the very approachable Carlos Sa, each day was “relatively flat”. Hmm, compared to the Himalayas maybe?
The whole race is very accessible. Though a camping option exists, most chose to use the race hotels, some of which were very comfortable indeed, which together with the post-race lunches each day, complete with unlimited beers and food, made for a very comfortable way to relax and wind down prior to the next day’s stage. There were both 4-stage and 7-stage options, and within each of these an ‘advanced’ and a ‘starter’ version, the latter of which started about half-way along the course, missing out much of the most extreme climbing and descending; though days 4 and 5 were the same distances for all. It means there’s a choice for everyone and that was represented in the multitude of nations that entered with almost 30 countries represented from every continent.
Part of the chllenge was the first day. An extremely early alarm call to get to the airport for a 6am flight to Porto, followed by a mad dash to collect our bags and get to the race shuttles that were waiting to transport us to registration a two hour coach ride away, was in itself tiring. Then Naoko and I stood in the very long and slow registration queue before it was time later to board the bus for the start of the first stage.
Yes, day 1 really was day 1, with an evening stage kicking off proceedings. Just 27km for the advanced runners but it was 27km with almost 1,500m of up and down. I tried – but failed – to avoid using my headtorch, having to use it for the last couple of kilometres but really needing it before then. I lost time trying to run the downhill to the finish without it and tripping over rocks and roots before eventually stopping to fish it out the back of my race vest where I’d securely stashed it. Then in the dark of doing this, I lost one of my soft flasks without noticing, as well as several places as runners passed me. Still I did OK and got back in time for dinner – which the last runners who arrived after midnight, didn’t!
It was more than a tough start because the next two days, starting early in the morning were the two longest – a marathon stage, followed by a 45km ultra. The legs felt it going downstairs the next two mornings, though from then on they got only stronger and I suffered no more DOMS. I also tried poles for days 3 and 4. They certainly helped on the steepest sections, both up and down and I eventually worked out a way of helping me speed up running up gentler inclines (there weren’t many!). However, I’m not experienced with them, they didn’t feel secure on my Ultimate Direction race vest when I tried to stash them and I felt they rather got in the way at times when I could run rather than hike. So, for the rest of the week I left them back in my room and felt less encumbered by them – but still got passed by pole-users on the steepest ups. More practice required.
The days and scenery got better and better though and 7 stages were disappointingly too few by the end. With the relaxed lunches and great ambience of the evening mealtimes that included a next day’s briefing and a slideshow and videos from the day’s events on the stage, this was a holiday as well as a race. There really is something for everyone and Carlos Sa and his team worked extremely hard to make everything go very efficiently and smoothly. Strongly recommended.
Oh, I finished 10th of 48 in the advanced 7-stage race; and Naoko did great to finish 20th of 30 in the starter 7-stage race.