After 460 days not wearing a bib number for an “official” competition, we were back on a starting line. We travelled to Mafra, in Portugal, for the Linhas de Torres Running Challenge, an athletic event organized among others by the Portuguese Army, and with modalities of 100k individual or by teams, 42k on foot or on horseback and 10k.
Obviously, we opted for the marathon distance, for a demanding trail course with 1600 meters D+ (and another 1300 meters of descent). The route going from Mafra to Torres Vedras follow the lines of Portuguese defensive forts built to face the Napoleonic invasions of the 19th century.
With just over a hundred participants, and the start on one side of the Mafra National Palace, declared a World Heritage Site, you cannot ask for a better return to the competition. In addition, the meteorological forecast accompanies, with a predicted temperature of 18⁰C and clouds, instead of the high 20⁰C on previous days.
In Portugal they love trails, and races of this type are always demanding. In a semi-autonomous regime, there are only 4 supply points on the route. That means carrying a backpack, although used to it, is not a big deal.
Shortly after the start, I meet once again an old acquaintance from my times in the UK, Tiago Dionisio, an avid marathoner, and ultra-runner, with more than 700 to his credit. However, knowing what lies ahead, each keeps his own pace.
The route is mostly through wooded areas, in which the rugged terrain forces you to look where putting your feet to avoid falls. With continuous ups and downs, it is a constant leg breaker. I try to maintain my running cadence on the ascents, although the steep descents slowing down are also punishing to the quadriceps.
The second refreshment station is at the highest point of the route. In the 23.4 kilometres, at the top of the Hermitage of Nossa Senhora do Socorro, there are bifanas, soup, bananas, energy bars and nuts available. I stop briefly to have some fruit and refill the backpack. The next checkpoint is 13 kilometres away.
Although the next 2 or 3 kilometres are downhill, the climbs are not over yet. With the legs already tired, I take a breath and start walking up the hardest slopes. I see possible to finish under 5 hours.
Arriving at the last checkpoint in the 36.3k I have been running for 4h15m and Torres Vedras can be seen in the distance. In a “road” marathon at these stages the worst is over. Here, though, there is still much to go, and new trails follow one after another.
Finally, I cross the finish line with 5.27.22 for one of the toughest marathons I have come across, second only to the Trionium Picnic in the UK. My second worst time ever in the Pheidippides distance, although happy to return to official competitions on a highly demanding course.
With the calendar shyly opening, we can start making some competition plans. Hopefully, we have already passed the worst of this pandemic.