It’s daunting signing up to an overseas trail event because it’s very hard to know exactly what’s in store for you. Couple that with limited understanding of technical language and a remote mountain location and well, all you can do is laugh, lace up and make the most of it.
I was born in Portugal but have lived in Australia for 32 years. Whilst I understand and speak the language I’m certainly not fluent. When my Dad announced his significant birthday would be celebrated in Portugal, I decided I would need to find a cool race to do while there. I stumbled across Ultra Serra Da Freita in the North of Portugal in a mountain location where my paternal great Grandfather was from. There was a 12km, 26km, 68km and 100km option. I was interested in the longer distances but due to time constraints, my husbands mental health (stuck in the mountains with our 3 children) and also given we had a long commute (3 hours in the car and a flight to London) the following day, reason prevailed and I signed up for the 26km.
As dawn broke on race day my Dad and I drove the hour from our mountain location to the race. With our Australian punctuality arriving at 7.30am for a 9am start I was pretty much the first person there. I picked up my race pack which included a technical shirt, hat, sunglasses and race bib and made myself a coffee. The start and finish line was in a school gymnasium and it was well set up with great facilities and was operated by the volunteers and organisers in a way that rivalled all world class events that I’ve run.
Whilst my Portuguese is ok I found it difficult to understand the technical instructions regarding the markings on the trail and other important race briefing information. Dad was trying to feedback information to me through the start shute but soon we were off and I just followed the crowds. The last thing I heard from Dad was I will see you at checkpoint 1 and that was that.
Section one of the race winded through the village and up into the mountains. This first 9km was all up hill. Once we hit the dense forest it was very wet, muddy and slippery. It was pretty much all single trail and a conga line up the mountain. For me that was frustrating as I’m strong on the uphill (extremely weak on the down!) and I couldn’t get moving in the part I wanted to. Couple that with a fall in the creek and I knew I just had to laugh it off and keep moving.
The Portuguese were incredibly hospitable and would offer a hand to me at every creek crossing or slippery muddy junction. They were fascinated that I would come all this way to run the event. For the many friends who think I can talk in an event- you should come to Portugal! I couldn’t get a word in edge wise and it was non stop chatter, whooping and yelling encouragement for the entire race. From now on I’m telling everyone that tells me I don’t shut up that’s it’s a cultural thing….
When I hit the top of the mountain I ran into checkpoint one. With a quick refill of my water and a piece of banana I ran out. As I was leaving, Dad got there. He said wow you got there faster than I thought (he remembered the snail pace I was going in Hong Kong). Then he waved me off and that was it until checkpoint two.
The second section of the trail was along the ridge of the mountain. It was a very rocky up and down with some climbing over rocky shale faces and some beautiful passages through old ruined villages. This is where the Portuguese really found their feet and where I struggled a little. I’m very cautious and I don’t love the rocks but I embraced the challenge and loved the scenery. Once again every runner that passed asked if I was ok “Tudo bem?”.
As I approached checkpoint two Dad jumped out and ran the last 1km with me. I love that he constantly tells me he could do these events easily with a bit of training… he filled my water at the checkpoint while I grabbed another banana. There was peanut butter toast squares, oranges, apples, salt and plenty of everything. The volunteers and the firebrigade made sure everyone was happy and well stocked.
Then I was off again for the final section which I knew would be the hardest for me, 11km downhill on loose rocks. Once again in a country where road running is on cobble stones and sometimes loose ones, the Portuguese excelled. For me, some of the track I slid down on my bum hoping not to get hurt. Two people fell in front of me and in true trail style all the runners rallied around to help. I slowed down even more (if that’s possible, picture snail) to avoid the same fete.
We soon entered back into the dense forest closer to the village where we crossed creeks and did a lot of slipping and sliding through the mud. I was completely drenched when I finally hit the road in the village with only 3km to go.
In the village I was surprised to see my Dad again before the finish line. He decided to run along with me but forgot that the road was probably my strength and after 1km he couldn’t keep up and I ran off to the finish line. It was so cool to run onto the red carpet in the gymnasium. The medal is wooden with a goat on it and I absolutely love it!
The drive home was almost as adventurous as the race itself as we winded our way through the mountains, lost and in a storm. Finally we made it back and both Dad and I went to bed (his more comfortable than mine as 3 children bounced all over me).
What a cool experience! The race was the highlight of the trip for me and I couldn’t recommend this event more. I really hope I can come back and do a longer distance one day preferably with a few Australian amigos.