An Epic Run Through the Vivid Landscapes of the Serra da Estrela
“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up” – Nelson Mandela.
As we gradually emerge from confinement, we are starting to dream again. Lately, I’ve found my mind wandering to what I love most – the outdoors. And in my wanderings, I found myself transported back to the lonely, rugged mountains of Central Portugal, to one of my most cherished memories. This is my account – part race report, part travel story – of Estrelacor 2019 – a 100km foot race through the Serra da Estrela.
The spine of Portugal
Situated three hours to the north-east of Lisbon, the Serra da Estrela is a “Natural Park” that covers over 100,000 hectares. It is a protected area that’s home to some of the wildest and most scenic terrain in Portugal. Some months earlier, I had signed up for the event, seeing it as a way to explore the region and to test my mettle, for the first time, against the iconic 100km race distance. The event is run every autumn and features a range of courses, the longest of which was mine, and is one of numerous races in Portugal. The sport of ultra-running continues to increase in popularity, as more and more people get hooked on its intoxicating mix of preparation, challenge, self-improvement and adventure.
The start time of the race was scheduled for 11pm, setting off from the picturesque schist village of Piódão. Here the houses are made of metamorphic rock and I was hoping that I was going to find out that I was too. Arriving at night etched this attractive riverside village indelibly onto my memory and I made a mental note to return in daylight. We’d been transferred there by bus from the finish line under the cover of darkness, to a fate unknown. Anticipation, excitement, apprehension and impatience hung heavy in the dank night air as we lined up on the starting line.
In this semi-autonomous mountain race, athletes were to carry a lightweight backpack containing certain mandatory kit – base layer, waterproof, GPS tracker provided by the organisation, snacks, headtorch, water reservoir, bandage and survival blanket – and then head off into the night on a linear route marked with reflective arrows. Feeding stations had been set up every 10kms or so, where hot and cold food, water and other drinks were made available. The route almost entirely off-road and with a cumulative vertical ascent of nearly 6000m. To put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of more than four climbs of the UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. All in one hit.
Setting off into a sleepless night didn’t seem an ideal way to get started on a challenge like this, but as I expected the race to take me around 24 hours so at least one night was inevitable. As it turned out I was to see plenty more darkness – and woodland hallucinations – on the second night of this epic journey into the unknown.
While running through the night brought, I encountered a succession of mountain ridges and ferocious gales, often in the moonlight shadow of giant wind turbines that whirred eerily in the darkness. The race field of 120 athletes was slim, so after a few hours we were sufficiently spread out for me to find myself alone in the wild. Once off the ridges and down in the valleys, a glorious serenity fell upon the place as the trail took us through woodland, across streams and through isolated sleeping, villages. At a comfortable rhythm I had been steadily ticking off the miles, but there came a point where fatigue made me yearn for daybreak and the hope of a rebirth. There is a saying in the ultra-marathon world that goes like this – “If you’re feeling good in an ultra-marathon, don’t worry, you’ll soon get over it”. Whilst I doubt any ultra-marathoner would disagree with this, the upside is that it works equally well in reverse. And, sure enough, after a pre-dawn grind to the race’s 45km mark, a blood-red sunrise brought with it hot soup for breakfast and a fresh perspective.
I knew I would need both. The route profile – which I had been studying intently for the past few months – pointed to the next section as the race’s potential deal-breaker. Ahead, for the next few hours, lay Portugal’s most brutal climb up to the highest point on the country’s mainland, some 60km into the race.
The Roof of Portugal
It’s uncommon to find a climb as long and sustained as Torre, Portugal’s 1993m peak. Most climbs ebb and flow, but this is a 1500m brute, delivered in one remorseless hit. On Torre, your pace is reduced to a steady hike, lactic acid burns in the legs and mental strength takes centre stage. Torre needed to be broken down into bite-sized chunks, with stops to refocus on good breathing – The ill-perfected, but most natural, ally of many endurance sports. Despite the effort my spirits lifted as the scenery became more expansive with every step. Granite outcrops, wildflowers, plunging valleys and pine forests stretched out into the distance. I was in the heartland of the Estrela, a wild and contorted upland plateau-like nowhere else I had seen. Eagles glided overhead as runners ground to a gradual halt, and once again, the wind began to wail.
The top of Torre came as a relief and I was curious to see that at the aid station they were serving bottled beer. The locals seemed to swear by it. In spite of myself, alcohol seemed foolhardy at this stage in the game. Instead, I stuck to Coke, a drink that has dug me out of many an ultra-marathon crater down the years. I could have stayed for a long time in the cosy refuge at the top of Torre, with the wind rocking its walls, but there always comes a point where staying too long delivers diminishing returns. I mean, it wasn’t like this thing was nearly over! So, I set off with a handful of locals through a grassland of giant boulders and the purest mountain lakes that I ‘ve ever seen. Not long after, sleep-deprived and having run over 60km across challenging terrain, tiredness got the better of me. I was running with my eyes half-closed and there was no choice but to curl up on an inviting patch of grass, hidden behind a rock to avoid being taken for a medical emergency. I was too tired to compute how to set my alarm with the GPS running on my watch, so I threw caution to the wind. Fortunately, 13 minutes later I awoke, feeling (again) reborn. Re-reborn. I made a note never to underestimate the effectiveness of a brief power nap.
I started to zero-in on my next objective – getting to my (second) bag drop in the village of Manteigas (80km) by sunset. I once again chuckled to myself that the race website referred to the village as “Butters”, a victim of Google Translate no doubt. By now my feet were run ragged and I had an ankle sprain. All the same, I was pleased that I’d decided to drop off my cushioned Hoka shoes for the run-in to the finish. I followed a clear ribbon of water down an open valley where cows grazed in the dying rays of sunlight and enjoyed one of those moments of feeling at one with my surroundings. In the village, the aid station was set up in the town hall in a room full of typically kind volunteers and garish strip lighting. It may come as a surprise, but a lot of people’s races ended here. Their minds and bodies were unable to deal with the trauma of continuing for (what would be) another four hours, heading into a black night in the woods. I took my time to get fuelled and prepared, and then set off into the dark (initially in the wrong direction I might add!) For the first time, I dared to dream that I might just finish my first 100km ultra-marathon.
Spirit of the Woods
When I look back at the race, it’s the last part I remember the clearest, however twisted and distorted it was at the time. The winds of the previous night had blown themselves out, leaving behind a ghostly stillness. Few people would ever really relish being alone in a wood at night. Yet, in my condition of worsening mental and physical tiredness I found myself in a sort of “contented meditative state”. I reached a clearing and saw a family perched on a log. My mind questioned why they would be in the woods at night. But, of course, they weren’t really there. The path ahead opened into a vehicle-width fireroad and there I came across a double bed blocking my way. Wishful thinking I’m sure! I walked around another figment of my tired mind. Nature’s forms played tricks on me for the next hour and a half until I arrived at the final feeding station on an exposed plateau. For some reason it made me think of a saloon in the Wild West. Things were getting worse, but I was nearly home and dry so I drained another coke and set off on the last leg of my epic journey to the finish of the race in Penhas da Saude.
When you arrive at midnight in a foggy, one-horse mountain town, at the end of an ultra-marathon, the best you can expect is a handful of supporters – usually the organisers. If you’re lucky, there might be a ripple of applause that is barely audible above the buzz of the compressor that breathes life into the finish line’s inflatable arch. We were a band of five who crossed the line at 23:59; an international mix of like-minded people with a love of sport, challenge, the outdoors, and above all, adventure. The finish was modest but memorable. For my part, I was exhausted and riga mortis had quickly set in, but I was happy that I’d achieved my goal. I had come here to explore the Serra da Estrela but what I got was a whole lot more. Once again I had discovered how captivating and inspiring it is to take ourselves out of our everyday lives, to challenge ourselves and to create our own story. I was reminded of a valuable life lesson of how we can do so much more than we think. Now, as I sit reminiscing about this magical day in October my mind wanders to a world of space, freedom and possibility that lies beyond our walls.
In a short story about a long race, there is a lot of stuff that gets left out. As one of the few non-Portuguese athletes in this very “local” race, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality shown by organisers and competitors alike and I extend a huge, warm, thank you to Margarida Henriques and the team of organisers and volunteers at Estrelacor 2019. Turning the vision into reality takes a lot of passion and hard work and you all did a wonderful job. And although this story gives only brief airtime to the highs and lows of 25-hours on the trails, they are not insignificant, and in this sport we all regularly lean on the positivity and camaraderie of others around us when we sink into our inevitable black holes. Thank you to all who helped dig me out of mine along the way and I hope to see you all again soon in those wonderful mountains!
Epic organises multi-day guided hikes exploring the region, based out of the magnificent Casa de Sao Laurenco that sits perched high above Manteigas, and gives onto some of the most beautiful mountains in Portugal. The hotel offers one of Portugal’s finest hotel experiences where one feels as though they are staying quite literally above the clouds.
To find out more about how you can incorporate a mountain pitstop into your Portugal holiday, get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to us via our contact form.