Social media, it’s not all bad…
Adventures on the Azores Whalers Route
With my interest growing in trail running and especially in mountain races my Instagram feed last year was bursting at the seams with stunning mountain vistas from races far and near. This is how I stumbled on and started to follow the “Ultra Trail World Tour” – they organise and host mountain races across the world and this is where this story begins…
This tour hosts about 12 races across the globe every month from the Tarawera race in New Zealand to the infamous Western States* in California, USA. In December 2018 they announced a competition: if you were the lucky winner you got to select a race of your choosing and you would win an entry. I had already entered the UTMB lottery (a mountain races in the French Alpes in August) so to make sure I had enough time to train but also time to recover I thought the month of May was the best. According to the tour calendar the month of May was the Azores Whalers Trail race. In typical fashion the competition consisted of “tagging” two of your Instagram friends and hope for the best…that was the easy part.
*Western States was not an option for the competition sadly..
Then on a normal Tuesday morning the 22nd of January this popped up…
A part from being completely ecstatic it would now be prudent to do some actual research 😊
– Where is the Azores?
– What is this race I’ve won entry to and how far do I have to run?
– How do I get there and how much is it going to cost?
The race takes place on an island called Faial part of the Azores islands. Right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean…this is going to be interesting
The race entry granted me access to the Azores Whalers Route which is a 118 km mountain race with over 5000m elevation. (https://www.azorestrailrun.com/). Now I’m quite concerned…but would be great test event was I lucky enough to get a lottery entry for one of the UTMB races.
The race route takes you to most parts of the island so I could be confident that I wasn’t going to miss out on any sightseeing!
Being located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean getting there was going to be a challenge. There are no direct flights to the island from the UK. You could fly to a neighbouring island (San Miguel) and take a ferry a short 14-hour ferry trip…no thanks. After a bit more research and making sure I arrive with plenty of time before race I found a flight from London to Lisbon and then Lisbon to The Azores. I also needed a place to stay for a few days and with the costs mounting up I was having a hard time convincing myself (and the wife!) to travel. In any case I decided to register my free entry to the race and contacted the race director to get more details – perhaps they could advise on cheap travel options…
After a few emails with the race director I discovered that the flight from Lisbon to the Azores and hotel was included in my winning entry! That sealed the deal – I was definitely going.
Now there was just one small task left – getting bloody fit enough to get around in one piece. This needed some drastic action. A running coach.
Luckily, I managed to find an old Harrier to help me and got in touch with Lee Kemp who was happy to help.
This race served as the perfect opportunity to try out new gear, nutrition and also to experience running through the night for the very first time. Never anything new for race day, right? The mandatory equipment list was not long and really covered the bare minimum for such a race.
1) Race bib
2) Race vest
3) Water carrier
4) Foil blanket
5) Rain jacket
9) Drinking vessel
10) Head torch / flash light
11) * I always include a small first aid kit.
12) * Trekking poles!
13) * I have an ambassadorship with Salming and used their Salming Trail 5 shoe.
Friday 24th of May. Up at 5 AM to catch the flight from London to Lisbon. Catch some Zzzs on the plane was needed and hopefully get into some serious relaxing at Lisbon airport for a few hours before the connecting flight to the Azores. The included flight that was arranged meant arrival just a few hours before the race start, but as it was free there were no complaints from me. I managed to snooze on the plane which was great, but had a small hiccup at Lisbon airport: I was surprised I got through customs as some of my mountain fuel powder bags had exploded in my case. I had opted for the blackcurrant flavour and everything in my suitcase now smelt of Ribena!
Flight to the Azores Faial island was luckily uneventful. I did browse through the usual tourist leaflets and did spot some whale watching tours. Added those to the to-do list if there was time. Bus transfers was at hand to take us runners into the main town called Horta and got dropped off at the hostel. The hostel was really amazing. Fantastic location overlooking the harbor, modern interior and most importantly clean…! Shared a room with 8 people. All Portuguese from the mainland and really friendly. Six of us were runners in the race albeit I was the only silly one doing the ultra and two guys were part of the camera/drone crew making the race clips/interviews. After some quick introductions we all headed down to registration a short walk away.
Opening ceremony was very welcoming and registration a breeze and I just sat down and waited for a pasta meal that was part of the welcome package. Unknowingly to me I had missed it and lost valuable time and with the bus shuttle to race start leaving earlier than I expected it was a mad rush to get back to the hostel to get changed and prep.
Stress levels elevated to say the least…
I ordered a sandwich in the hotel bar for quick take out and headed to the bus shuttle a short walk away. It was now about 21:00 with the bus journey about 30 min away with race scheduled to start at 22:00.
Race start was at sea level at the north east corner of the island. We walked down to the start as the sun was setting. Magical and stress was turned into excitement. Could Not Stop Smiling.
The race start was full or volunteers and locals with a bit of party atmosphere. Local kids practicing their English with nervous runners trying pacing up and down. There was camera crew on hand I even got interviewed which luckily it did not make the post-race video!
In the end we all headed off into the night at 22:15. There is always quite a bit of excitement at the start and most runners set off way quicker than expected, but we all soon settled down as we reminded ourselves this there was still some distance to go…😊
The first kilometers were on grassy paths reminding me of our local trails and summers evenings in the Surrey Hills. Cows on the trail meant a few surprises and spooked runners with elevated heart rate as it seemed they almost sneaked up on you. They are pretty invisible until your head torch light hit them.
Race markers were relatively easy to follow, but occasionally quite spaced out and even within the first kilometers we’d run off course. Hopefully not a continuing trend!
Early checkpoints were a melting pot of activity as runners were still quite bunched together and all the local villagers out and cheering. Really great vibes! Check points were well stocked with fruit, pastries, sweets, biscuits, cakes and various drink options both hot and cold.
The noises and sounds of the Azorean night were really foreign to me. There was one in particular that had me really spooked. Best description I could give you is some kind of alien insect. (At least that is what my wild imagination conjured up!) I would be running on my own in the dark with only my headtorch light and suddenly this loud repetitive screeching was heard that made your heart skip a beat. Your mind wanders and you think you are going to be jumped by some giant cicada. Post-race I had to Google it and found out it’s a bird called Cory’s shearwater. Apparently quite protective and we were there during the nesting period…
At about 02:00 and 25 km in I hit the west coast of the island and a land mark of the island – the famous light house. This is also close to where the race also finishes. Terrible picture, but it kind of looks like a landing strip with air traffic control tower
The west coast was really rugged and exposed. Volcanic black sand everywhere. Luckily the sand running was short-lived and we were soon back on trails and roads as we followed the coast line south.
At the 30 km mark the trails took us inland again and the first really big climb. Well I say climb, it wasn’t that bad to be honest in elevation terms with only about 530m in the end, but it was 530m over 10 km. A grindingly slow uphill. At this point it was about 03:00 in the morning and the westerly wind and sea mist had arrived. Visibility was nonexistent and with the head torch light making it even worse. Enclosed of what felt like wall of fog it was a real challenge to see the race markers. Mentally it was a mix of excitement and adventure, but also some dread if I ran off course.
Looking back at that section I discovered it took me roughly 1h 30 min to do, but in all honesty, it felt like several hours. It was banging tunes that brought me back to reality which I assumed came from a local night club. As I was getting closer to the sound it was the actual check point (with the volunteers having a bit of a boogey as they waited for the runners). This section was the first real test and it was with some relief when I arrived at the check point.
We started to hit more tarmac as we descended and it was easy running. With the sunrise came strength and I felt really vigorous. The next 20 km felt like an breeze and mentally I was in pure elation.
At this point I was gaining quite a few places and by the time I hit Horta harbor checkpoint I was in the dizzy heights of the top 30 runners.
Then came the sun came out properly…
I had been running with a great group of runners and on the next ascent at about 60 km I started to lose contact with them. By the time we had hit the next checkpoint at about 70 km I had to let them go. It felt like I had nothing left by this time. Empty. I spent a quite bit of time at the check point trying to drink and eat, but it’s hard when the appetite has gone. In this situation the mind games creep in, but I tried to stay positive. Whatever happens I would continue and just enjoy the scenery and comradeship of the trails.
The next check point was about 15 km away and I headed off. This section was really lush farmland, again reminding me of back home and it was single track trails with the occasional road sections.
The problem was that I ran out of water after 10 km. The sun was blisteringly hot. Walking only at this point. Just one slow step in front of another. I was so dehydrated that I started to have very strange thoughts – not surprisingly all about water! Didn’t have any hallucinations, but my mind kept focusing really strongly on all the lush green grass around me. It kept telling me if you want to sort out this water issue you have to eat the grass. It was quite an entertaining battle in my head as thoughts of eating grass and at the same time chuckling at the absurdity of the situation… It didn’t make much sense to me then and it still doesn’t as I reflect on it as I write this story.
By the time I finally straggled into the check point time I managed to drink some coke and water, but it was a real struggle to eat anything. I spent about 20 min with salt crystals in the palm of my hands. That was a new experience, but it helped a bit and allowed me to eat.
This check point was located at sea level and now the mother of all climbs started. About 1 km up over 20 km.
It was slow going, but the amazing views and vistas did help and allowed for some respite and opportunity to look for shelter to hide away from the sun when possible. I had at this point managed to join forces with a runner from Germany called Lukas. We had been running together earlier in the race chasing places, but at this point of the race were like two broken souls. We decided to stick together to the end.
Together we had now reached the 85 km mark and the next check point. This check point was staffed the local girls’ scouts and had a plethora of food options and drinks – best one by far! As I arrived one the volunteers said I looked like shit (she used a politer term of course!). She was a nurse and insisted on a quick blood test to check my glucose sugar levels.
They were quite low and I was given a glucose solution to drink and asked to take a few mins rest. I actually fell asleep as I put my head on the bench and woke myself up as I fell off the bench. Followed by the laughter from the girl’s scouts.
The glycose solution was a real-life saver and it allowed me to feel strong enough to eat and drink and I even got spare for the next climb. We left the check point feeling motivated again to finish this race.
With the continuous climbing the landscape turned Alp like with big evergreen trees and long winding roads.
We soon reached the top of the and it was certainly a view to savour and we stopped for a few minutes to take it all in. The top of the volcano was simply incredible and we could see the whole caldera.
The trail continued around the whole rim and we had now reached the 100 km mark – the longest I’ve ever travelled on foot. Surely, it’s all downhill from here…
I did manage to overextend my right leg as we descended as I slipped on loose stones and it was quite painful experience for a while, but again I could walk and jog and with my magic potion energy was returning.
After the initial decent the trail got really interesting and Lukas and I took turns pushing the pace. We ran along kilometers of water irrigation systems and man made fresh water channels through some the lushest pine forests I’ve seen. It was really some of the best single tracks I’ve ran on. Pure trail bliss.
There were hand carved tunnels and rickety wooden bridges. The tunnels especially were a bit uneasy. The walls consisted of small volcanic pumice stone. A touch or scrape resulted in stones coming of the wall. Not a place to linger.
Sunset and darkness had now arrived and I just wanted to finish. We passed one or two more check points and my routine was now shouting for a nurse as soon as I turned up, begging for glucose shots and stuff myself with food and drink and head off as quickly as possible.
At the last checkpoint I even got offered a massage and it was quite amusing as they tried to bring some life back into my sore legs. Although my legs were too far gone I was still very grateful for it!
The end was now neigh and we just had one last small volcano to climb and then, as we reached the summit, we could see the light house and our long overdue finish. By the time we arrived it was a fairly low-key affair, but the volunteers tried their best to get us excited. I mustered a smile and was so incredibly happy to have finished. What an amazing adventure.
This race exposed me to many new experiences. My first really long mountain race. When nutrition fails and how to recover. Running through the night. Troubleshooting and solving injuries. Mental and physical exhaustion. All really valuable for me and post-race filled me with much more confidence for future races. I have experienced these, and now know the signs on how to handle them before it’s too late.
The organization was faultless really. A couple of times I got lost as I missed a few markers, but probably down to me rather than anyone else. Having nurses at the last few check points were fantastic and something I was really happy about. The people and the local volunteers where really something else, but it’s something we can say for most races we participate it.
Met so many new trail friends. Lots of new Portuguese like-minded trail runners and we are still in touch which is fantastic. It was also inspiring to share a couple of miles in the beginning with an old chap who I later discovered was Gene Dykes (world record holder for the marathon over 70s). Just seeing him on the trail running with us youngsters was inspiring.
The Azores trail community offer many different races across the year and there are actually several race organizers available across different islands. https://www.azorestrailrun.com/. In November this year they are also hosting the final of the Solomon Golden Trail Series. So, it’s certainly cemented itself on the trail running map!
I did also venture out whale watching that was worth the trip to the Azores.
Would I go back to race in the Azores again? In a heartbeat.
Thanks for reading
The race video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcwEYLJ0AE4 (Someone proposed on the finish line)
The scary bird sounds (!) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHby0BIP-PU (Note random video I found on YT)
I also came across these two movies about the last Volcanic eruption on Faial island. Not this particular volcano pictured above, but the one close the by light house I ran past on my first night and where the race finished.