Where to begin? This race was NOT what I expected. I wasn’t even suppose to be in Portugal. That is pretty much what was going through my head during the tough times. But I am jumping ahead. Let’s take a step back.
My summer race plans were:
Cayuga 50 mile trail run on June 1st https://www.cayugatrails50.com/
Wilderness Traverse 24hr Adventure Race on July 12th with an all female team http://www.wildernesstraverse.com/
Ponitrianska Stovka 100k trail run on July 19th http://www.ponitrianska100.wbl.sk/
Then throw in some mountain bike races, 30 miler at Fat Dog http://www.mountainmadness.ca/fatdog.php
All to gear up to my first 100 mile trail race in October http://www.oilcreek100.org/Home/registration
However, the Slovakia race fell through and I was left with a European race void to fill. Fortunately time and place was on my side. Friends of mine were now living in Porto, Portugal, and a bunch of us girlfriends were being persuaded by her husband to surprise our friend for her birthday. So I decided to head to Portugal for the party and of course find a race. After much searching I finally found Ultra Serra da Freita.
Timing was great. Location was only 1 hour south of Porto. Couldn’t be more perfect.
So I was committed. To what I didn’t really know. I thought a fun 70k trail run.
However, as the days got closer and more information came out, like this video, with river crossing & bouldering, (for the impatient, skip to minutes 6)
And cut-offs like this:
- Covelo of Paivô 20km – 5 hours
- Piles of Póvoa 40km – 10 hour
- Castanheira 65km – 17 hours
Full time limit of 19 hours for the Ultra Trail Serra Freita (70km). For a 70km are you kidding? No way, I thought. There must be something I am missing here. I began to realize this may be more than I bargained for, but I was committed. So that was that.
On June 19 my bags were packed & headed to Porto, Portugal for the surprise party, some crazy St. Joao festival and a tour around the city where the Harry Potter books were written. It shows, form the architecture, to the statues that seem to follow you, to the University students that walk around in black cloaks like wizards. Truly magical. Throw in some time in beautiful Lisbon.
Back to Porto to drop off one bag, grab race stuff and hop on bus to the host hotel. http://www.hotelspedro.com/
Once at the host hotel I had no plans on how to get to race start, just going on timing and luck. I was in contact with the race directors, but there was no concrete plans on how to get to the race site. I had opted not to rent a car. Thank goodness because driving in Portugal is nuts. Narrow streets, pedestrians that jump into the road without looking. No one would have been safe with me driving. The race kit pick-up, start & finish was located at the Arouca Geopark about 7-12km away depending on who you ask and which way you go. http://www.europeangeoparks.org/?page_id=532 So worst comes to worst I’d cab it over.
I arrived at the host hotel sweaty from my heavy pack and my walk uphill of course and kept my eyes peeled for anyone that looked like a racer. I spotted one and quickly accosted the poor man. Miguel, was his name, however he did not speak english. But through the concierge we figured out that he too was doing the race and that once he figured out baby sitting (his wife Danielle was also doing the race and they had a little baby) he would call the front desk to let me know when they were leaving for kit pick-up that evening. Phew! All settled. Except after 10 minutes in my hotel room I was bored so I headed out to explore the little village of Arouca and get some water and snacks. Hoping I wouldn’t miss them. As I arrived back I saw Miguel and another women entering the hotel. I couldn’t catch up to them, so I got the front desk to call his room. He said he was leaving in 10 minutes. Perfect timing again. I headed to my room for my bag and back down to wait. Miguel arrived, not with Danielle, but with Celia who knew perfect english. Bonus! Celia, had done UTMB in 44 hrs and 51 min (9 min shy of the cut off) in 2009. She had also done Tor des Geants http://www.tordesgeants.it/#sthash.17snq2ea.dpbs twice and was gearing up to do it a 3rd time. Also, she had just done a 214km race 2 weeks ago. She gave me lots of pointers on this race. Stressing that it was not easy and the cut offs were actually tight. The first 20k was mostly river walking on extremely slippery rock with a cut off of 5hrs which took her 4hrs 45min last year.
The Geopark looked great. Fabulous camping and cabins around and the usual Salomon, Inov-8 and other gear tents. I also met Jose Moutinho, one the race directors. Who, had actually very kindly had a spot in one of the cabins set aside for me, but I was already set at the hotel. He, also asked Celia to stress to me how hard this race rally was, as I stood there a little cocky in my CCC shirt & finishers vest. Oh yeah, I’m a hot shot. *silly* 😀
After an alternate route back to the hotel. Which was unfortunately not faster we were finally back with bibs in hand, to prepare our packs (no drop bags) as quickly as possible so we could get some sleep before the 3:30a.m. wake-up call. Race start was 5:30a.m. and parking was tight so we were leaving at 4:45a.m. Although, I as in bed by 10:30p.m. the neighbours were a little rowdy so no sleep for me until after midnight, which meant the 3:30a.m. wake-up call came much too early. Only 3 hours sleep was certainly going to add an extra challenge to this adventure.
We were quickly at the Geopark race start. Got a good parking spot. Put our lights on, which we shortly took off as the sun rose. Quick pee in the bush. A couple of pre-race pictures and some introductions/announcement by Celia to those arounds us that I was the “Canadian”. They have never had someone from North America at this race and nobody internationally really. Mostly locals, ’cause they know what they are getting themselves into. 😉
The race started with absolutely no warning. I didn’t hear any pre-race announcements. No gun. Just everyone started moving forward quickly. Celia turned to me and said, “We are starting.” I hit start on my Suunto and I was off. Uphill of course.
Race began with a wide gravel road uphill run through the camp ground for a couple 100 meters leading up to the single track trail. At about 6km it opened up to gravel road again where there was a pile of water bottles, then back to single track. This first 12 km were rolling rocky, single track, with gorgeous vistas and the added bonus of lots of fog and rain. Yup, rain for the first 7 hours. Regardless of the rain these first 12km were fabulous and runnable. I did think it was funny that many had left there headlamps on even though there was enough light at the start, but at around 9km I hit the tunnel and realized why the lights were needed. I tried to go in blind, but soon realized it was longer then I hoped, so into the pack to dig out the light. Luckily and women racer was nearby with her light, so she took it out of my top back pocket for me and we were off. Out of the tunnel and more rocky, rolling running.
Just after 12km we started to go down in to the river. Then the fun really began. I was loving the river running…at first. Thinking this was reminiscent of UXC, http://www.ultimatexc.com/trail-running.html But as more time passed, it seemed it would never end, and the fun started to wain.
The rain had made the already super slick rock even more slippery. It was like trying to walk on glass covered in ice. I started to wish that Salomon would create suction cups shoes for my next run or that I would suddenly get bitten by a spider and develop Spiderman powers. You’d think trekking in the middle of the river would be easier, but it wasn’t. The footing was even worse. Poles were useless, as they would slip and your hands weren’t free to catch yourself. So I stuck to the narrow sides like everyone else as we tried to inch our way forward. We then hit a bottle neck. A very narrow section with ropes a long the rocks and then a slippery log walk across the river. I debated with the guy behind me whether swimming would be a better options. However, I was worried about my phone. It was already wet from taking it out for pictures in the rain and fog, and since I hadn’t anticipated swimming I didn’t have it very well waterproofed, just had it tucked in a airport supplied ziplock. As we debated the benefits of swimming, two people jumped in. I decided to stay put. I was pretty happy sandwiched between these two local guys that were super helpful when I needed a hand because I couldn’t quite reach the foot or hand hold the taller guys could. Good thing I did too, because once through the ropes and across the log, which now was so slippery you had to shimming across it like riding a horse (which was tough on the guys, ouch), the swimmers were behind us and shivering due to the cold and rain. The 10 minute wait was worth it. Most people doing the race had done it before so they were aware of what was coming. So as we waited the guy behind me started to tell me that we were making great time. It was almost 4 hours into the race and very close to the 20km aid station, 5 hour cut-off point. I said, “Good time, really? I was afraid it was slow due to the rain.” He said, “Yeah, last year was 42 degrees and dry so a little faster, but this is the easy part. Once we are out of the river we start to climb and it really gets hard. Then the beast comes after the 40km.” I couldn’t believe it. I had climbed the alps after all. How hard could it be, I thought. It would seem that I would be continually underestimating this race.
We finally exited the canyon and started to climb up to the first aid station. I flew by the aid station joyful to think the sketchy river section was done, only to drop back down into the canyon for some more treacherous slippery trekking. It was here people began to grumble. I heard things like, “That darn Moutinho (RD’s last name)! 2km per hour. This is stupid!!!” It felt good to have company with my misery. I got sandwiched between to great guys again that pulled and pushed me when I needed it and one who even hoisted me by my pack when I fell in to a crevasse between two rocks and thigh deep into the river. They were lucky to have me around too as I pointed out the trail twice as they almost went the wrong way. Yup, for once I did not get lost.
I had some pretty good falls and witnessed some even better ones. None ever as bad as I expected. But I couldn’t help thinking to myself that the next one might be fatal. Dramatic? Maybe? But I was truly fearful. I had visions of falling and smashing my head. I saw people go down hard, saw bloody knees and chins. One guy recently posted that he fell in the river and twisted his knee so badly he tore his ACL and is having surgery this week. I was surprised there was no safety crew. However, it wasn’t really needed as everyone rallied together to get each other through. It was more of a team effort, like an adventure race, than an individual trail run. No egos on this course. I also got more of “You’re the Canadian!”, along the way. #celebritystatus
Fortunately at around 30km we crossed out of the river. Got cheered by Mountinho and started to climb. I realized as I started climbing how much I had been sweating, regardless of the cool, rainy conditions. I believe it was a stress sweat from the feeling of dread during the river section. Unfortunately, although I was happy to be out of that after 2 km of climbing I was reminded of the guy that said it gets really hard when we start climbing. Dammit!!! He wasn’t kidding. I was pooched. It was now about 8hrs of racing and only 32km into the race. The negativity really set in here. This was the first time in any race that I truly was ready and willing to quit.
I reasoned with myself as I climbed towards the 40km aid station that quitting was entirely reasonable. I was on Vacation for God Sakes!! This was no longer fun!! I had to book my hotel for the Azores!!! I hadn’t signed up for 18hours!!!
I wanted to text my friend. But she’d tell me to keep going.
I wanted to call my mother. But she’d tell me to stop.
I didn’t know which one I wanted to be told.
Instead, I thought about writing my facebook status that I DNFd and I welled up with tears. I had my answer. I couldn’t quit. But I still didn’t want to go on. Social media and pride will be the death of me.
I then had a yelling match in my head with my friend’s mother, who I was suppose to do the Slovak race with. I imagined her telling me that I cancelled Slovakia because I suck, since I DNF’d at UTSF. I got so angry. At least I was talking to live people. In Slovakia I was having conversation with dead people. 🙂
I still had a lingering urge to quit.
As I continued to climb something a race acquaintance had said to me recently came to mind. He had asked about my summer race plans, and after hearing them he said, “You are the real Boundless. All this races close together and you don’t DNF like those guys.” That made me smile, albeit weakly. Obviously this acquaintance was just making a passing joke. I am not even in the same stratosphere as Simon & Turbo on Boundless with their athleticism and determination . The filming & races are so close together with little to no rest & recovery time, on top of jetlag. However, recalling the remark & what the boundless boys have done gave me a little fire to keep going. So thanks for the motivation guys.
Finally at the top of the peak and it was stunning. Always worth the miserable climbs. Me and a guy took pictures of each other and then headed to the aid station. At the aid station however I was physically and mentally done again. There was beer at the aid station and I was tempted to take a mini super bock (beer) and just sit and wait for a ride back to the finish. Fortunately, I only had time to scarf down a slice of salted tomato (no potatoes) before the guy (whom I had taken his picture) waved me to go with him towards the beast. Energized by the wave I had no time to waiver as we were off. We trudged through what felt like a jungle until we hit the sign “The Beast”. Then the fun really began. Okay, I know I’ve said this before. This whole race was like a roller coaster. Felt good for less than 500 meters than hit a wall, harder than the last. This was a BIG wall!!!!
Huge boulders at a precarious angle and elevation. Like in the river/canyon you had to choose your footing carefully and really look 4 to 5 moves ahead or you would end up taking a line that was not passable. My wave guy slowly pulled away and my heart sank for the 3rd? time on this race. I propped myself against a rock, took my phone out, took a picture and finally texted Dee, “I think I’m quitting at 50”. I put the phone away knowing it would be 2-4 hours before I’d get to the 50km aid station, and so I’d check it then.
I took a few more steps up and then felt stuck not sure which line to take, as a guy quickly approached me from behind. I told him to pass me. He did. Then turned and said, “You coming?” I nodded meekly. He said, “Come on. I dropped two girls already who were too slow. You aren’t slow. Come with me.” And that was it, an alliance was formed.
It wasn’t easy but we climbed up the beast. Using arms, legs, knees, shoulders, whatever to get over the boulders and mini waterfalls. Passed the guy that waved me on at 40km. Hit the skree, that was the best part. Sliding down and scrabbling back up to find any kind of footing or branch (usually with thorns on them) to grab on to. I kept asking Mario “How much further?, What was after this?, How much harder can it be?, How long did this take you last year and the year before?”. He kept saying, “It’s different every year. Just think about the 5 feet in front of you. That’s all you need to be concerned with. I don’t wear a watch. I run until the end or until they cut me off. Keep going.” He did mention that it seemed like the beast was longer and harder this year as last year it was split into two smaller climbs he thought. Either way we made it, and again the view from the top was gorgeous. Open vista with cows and Windmills.
At the 50km aid station (12.5hrs) it was the best I had felt since the start. We had finally got some running in again. I checked my phone, Dee had written back, “What’s going on?”. I wrote, “It’s survival. But I’m going on.” She sent back, “To 70k. You are strong like bull.” 🙂 I had my pudding squeeze pack some salted tomatoes and Mario, the guy I met on the beast and I were off. We were a team now.
As we left the aid station I hoped to use my poles finally. But they were pointless. One, I think they are too long. Secondly, you could only run about 500 meters before you had to use all your limbs to hoist yourself over a boulder and slide down a muddy/sandy section or Inca like staircase. So the poles went away and I envied Mario’s padded bike gloves.
The beauty and the toughness continued. Up, down, up, down, boulder, trees. Down into the river a bit, where we caught up to the pair that pulled me out by my pack in the canyon. Here we also saw the first safety crew. I thought, how hard can this be if there is finally two safety guys. I had to shake my head, as it was a small boulder, river section where we had to shimming down a rope to a crevasse. To get across the crevasse we had to step on the safety guys foot and then use his shoulder to push of and propel ourselves over the crevasse. I totally almost knocked the guy out. Landed it!!!
Climbing to the 60km aid station my energy waned severely once again. Not being able to use poles was really slowing me down on the climbs. The roller coaster of emotions and doubt set in and once at the 60km aid station I was ready to quit. (14.5hrs)
Two guys were already waiting there for a pick up. It didn’t register until the next day, but the guys waiting had arm slings on. Broken arm? Collerbone? Wrist? Who knows?
As I whined and asked the aid station support, Paula, how long it would be for a ride to the finish, I wanted to quit, she looked at me like I was nuts. “You only have 10km left. It will be hours for a pick up.” She announced. “But 10km will take 4 hours. I don’t have the energy. My watch stopped and so have I.” I whined. Paula turned her back on me. Totally not succumbing to my whininess. Mario reasoned with me saying, “But you do have the energy for 5km.” My eye twinkled. He got me. “Yes! I do. But then you are going to make me do the last 5km too.” We laughed and were off, running uphill.
Again, the energy and laughs lasted all of 1km before the climbing along with the setting sun and high winds drained and cooled me. I was ready to turn back to aid station 60km and say Adious to Mario. Instead I called Mario to stop to take one last picture of the sunset, get our headlamps and jackets on. He watched me like I might bolt. I had to tell him to go on as I had to pee. He trusted me and moved on. I did my business and caught up.
I really don’t know how I did it, but we got to the last aid station at 65km. Paula was there with a big hug and said, “See it only took an hour not 2.” It was actually 1.5hrs but I was really happy for the encouragement and the hug. We were quickly off for the last 5km. Downhill I prayed. Alas, not to be. This first 3km was climb, climb, climb along a very narrow, rocky ledge where all our limbs were needed. Mario was ahead of me and a guy I had seen earlier in the day was behind me. Mario and I both asked him if he wanted to pass, but he said “No, I am so tired. I need to follow you.” At least I wasn’t the only one.
I kept repeating Mario’s mantra. Five feet in front. It’s not a race. It’s about surviving the Freita.
I clawed at my arm sleeves and undid my jacket as I over heated during the climb, but froze due to the wind at any little opening. The last 2 km was essentially gravel road. A little uphill of course and then into the Geopark. We spotted a trio ahead of us going the wrong way. Our trio followed for a bit, until we realized and turned back to the correct trail, they followed. The flags were all around, but the arrows drawn on the ground we pointing in the opposite direction of how we were running. I pointed it out to Mario, who reminded me it was most likely from the 17km race. I said, “Oh yeah. I trust you Mario. I’d follow you any where.” He laughed and said, “I hope not after the race though.” I assured him I wouldn’t follow him home. 😀
500 meters down hill to go, Mario shouted, “Go Wanda!” “Together!” I hollered back. Much like the start that began out of no where the end too seemed to come quickly. Well 17hr 48min but the very last bit seemed quick like taking off a bandaid. We crossed the finish line. Greeted with medals, a big hug from Paula and declarations of, “You survived the Freita.” As I shouted back “I sure did. You crazy Portugese!” Oh joy!!! I really couldn’t believe it. It was by far the hardest thing I had ever done. I had wanted to quit at 32km. How did I get to the 70km finish? It was absolutely a team effort. I owe it to Mario. A sweet man, who didn’t care about time and just reminded me to only think about and ENJOY the 5 feet in front of me.
Mario’s generosity did not stop at the finish. As we discovered on the many hours together on the trail, he had been with Celia earlier and she had been cut off at 20km. Obviously she headed home and I now had to find my way back to the hotel. Mark, on the race director’s handed me my bag (that I had left in Celia’s car) and asked if I could wait until morning to go back. What? Maybe I lost something in translation, but I just wanted to get back to the hotel asap. With no taxi available. There was an ambulance. Mario tried to call Celia, but there was no signal. So he generously drove me back. As I got to my hotel I thanked him for driving me and getting me through the race. The thank you just didn’t seem enough, but what else could I offer. He simply replied, “Nothing to be thankful for, I only handed you my hand twice. You’d do the same for me if I were in Toronto.”
Portugal you tore my heart and soul out. Beat me with them Then put it back in in a whole new way. Thank you to all at the Freita racing & helping, you are all my heros.
Next year the 100km. Who’s joining me?!
For some great videos, pictures and more information check out the UTSF facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/ut.serradafreita
Corollary: I made it to Porto the next morning by bus to change bags again and managed to book a hotel in the Azores. I flew out Sunday night & arrived at my great hotel. The only probably is the hotel room was a split level with 3 stairs up to the bathroom. Hardest 3 steps of my life for the next 2 days. But more than my quads hurting. My shoulders were tender and sore. I have never had my arms hurt as much as my legs after an ultra before. Fun!