First things first, into race registration to pick up race numbers, sign the it’s not your fault it’s mine paperwork, and collect entry bag. I was hustling down a wet and windy street in Horta, the main town of Faial trying to keep my enthusiasm up. We’d been sitting in a cosy tea-house on the first day of a long awaited holiday to the Azores, avoiding some very Scottish rain. It didn’t take long for things to brighten up, as I peered into the goodie bag handed over at registration I quickly became aware that I was holding the best race registration goodie bag I’d ever received. Lemmie tell ya what was in there: 1. Half a wheel of local cheese; 2. a tin of sardines;. 3. a bag of sweet biscuits. 4. other things. For the non-believers I’ve included a photo below. By way of comparison the last race entry bag I got in Scotland had a single tin of warm irn-bru in it. Following a delayed race briefing we then walked down to the pre-race pasta party by the marina. Wind gusting through the sides of the tent blew plates off the tables and we made our escape after I wolfed down some mystery meat infused pasta.
The forecast for race day was crap, driving wind and rain crap, forcing the organisers to amend the race route to avoid runners having to spend too long at higher altitudes. The clue’s in the title but the race route takes you from one side of Faial to the other, over the central caldeira of the volcanic island (see map below). This route change initially came as bad news to me, running predominantly in the hills at home I prefer more hilly singletrack to wider roads.
The morning of the race came around quickly and I found myself shovelling down bland oatmeal on the way to the bus. A short ride and we reached the start location, a village hall in the centre of Ribeirinha parish. At this point more Portuguese genius happened, sitting at the entrance to the hall was a local man in traditional dress strumming out tunes on a guitar with more strings than I’m used to seeing. Inside the hall espresso machines were working over-time to keep up with demand and baskets of cakes started appearing. My stomach is usually affected by pre-race nerves but what a start! Espresso, cake! The forecast was proving reliable with strong wind gusts and showers, clouds limited views of the route ahead.
Soon we were off, I hung back in the pack initially, aware that I often go out too fast. As the route turned off a tarmac road onto a grassy field edge I quickly became aware of just how beautiful the island is. Greens contrasted against the black lava rock giving them an almost electric vividness. The first climb soon followed, a muddy path leading up through coastal woodlands, stunted by the constant exposure to the elements but thick with tropical looking vegetation. The steeper parts of the trail were stepped in places, the narrow width making it hard to change position but keeping the mind working. I felt like I was running through the photo of a National Geographic or trail running magazine, the trails almost too perfect to believe. The number of runners meant the ground became very muddy and slippery in places but it would have taken more than that to put a downer on the surroundings.
I soon stripped down to shorts and t-shirt, although wet and windy it was fairly warm and the humidity much higher than I’m used to. Having not had opportunity to recce the route every turn opened up a new view, new trail and fresh perspective. Old tracks which allowed goods to be transported between villages in the past, similar to Scotland’s drove roads, allowed for some faster running between the muddy singletrack sections. Aid stations; you’ll never have seen as organised aid stations as these before, I’m talking cut fruit, different types of juice, nuts, biscuits……you name it. I had stowed out my running vest pockets with energy bars so tried to be brief at these points, which didn’t really work because I’m greedy and the food was better than I was carrying.
I settled into a manageable pace behind another runner who must have thought I was following him, I suppose I was really. As the switchback road up to the Caldeira came into view I stopped to whap on a blister pad, my shoes were on their second outing due to my poor advance planning. As we staggered up into the cloud I started to realise why the route had been changed. My initial despondency was replaced with gratitude. The blisteringly strong wind was coupled with sheets of rain, blasting apparently waterproof clothing and making you wish you had windscreen wipers for your eyes. A couple of runners ahead of me got blown off their feet, struggling to get traction on the muddy grassland of the caldeira. I pushed through this stage as quickly as possible, trying to loose altitude while picking out the route markers which were now canes without tapes.
Happily the wind and rain subsided as I descended and for the first time the sun threatened to poke through. At this point the coast to coast route meets with the ’10 Volcanoes Trail’ and the number of runners made a notable increase (a separate race is run on this route). For a section the trail hops between either side of a water channel, built to produce electricity but appearing as a perfect stream through thick endemic vegetation. The wet weather had turned the path to mud, thick in places and making leaps across the watercourse interesting. The descent goes on for a while and it just perfect, steep and interesting through woods which forces early fatigue to be replaced by concentration. As the name suggests, the 10 volcanoes trail does visit each of those volcanoes meaning some up-down running. Around this point I made a new friend called Luigi who was nearing the end of the 70km race, we ran at a similar pace and chatted through the last of the hills.
Finally the Capelinhos Volcano came into view. At this point temperatures were really on the up and I suspected I was treating myself to sunburn. I’m not usually one for geological history but get this – the Capelinhos Volcano is only 59 years old, it’s younger than a lot of people I know and a lot more interesting too. An authentic moonscape is provided by the lack of vegetation, as I ran further out into the open the wind blasted sand against my legs. It felt good. Passing by the lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelinhos and Porto do Comprido, the main and largest whaling station of the Azores between 1940 and 1957, the amended route then turned south-east for a 6 km gravelled road section to the finish line in Valadouro. Luigi and I pushed each other along and even made a sprint for the line. In a finishing flourish there was another food tent and free beer on offer, so good, please do it. I was happy to come in 17th for my efforts. Obrigado.