Last year, after the first lockdown and in the absence of official races, I considered running from Lisbon to Fatima following the pilgrims’ route. To do so I had divided the 144k distance into 4 affordable stages, with Lisbon as the centre of operations. Finally, I discarded it for fear with the whole “Covid situation”.
However, in 2021 the opportunity came back at the last minute, with the Ultra Trail Caminhos do Tejo. The “short” distance of 57k, would start from Santarém to reach Fátima, with a 10h time limit and 2 UTMB points at stake. With 1000m of D+ and 760m of D- is enough. The “long” option with the whole route, of 144k and 22h time limit (5 UTMB points) seemed too much.
After arriving to Santarém, a short walk takes me to the starting area. The runners of the 144k race have a refreshment station there. Starting on the evening of the previous day they have already run 87k, and their faces show the effort.
The 20 participants of the 57k leave at 9.00, in 2 small batches. It is already more than 20⁰C and the sky is clear, with a forecast of storms in Fatima for the afternoon.
The route of the Caminho do Tejo is marked with blue arrows and in some difficult places, also with extra signs from the organization. For the most part, the pilgrim route to Fatima and the Camino de Santiago share the route, although the latter is marked with yellow arrows instead of blue.
With no experience in this race, I had the idea that it would be mainly on roads. This is largely the case until the first aid station, in Santos, at kilometre 19. In a semi-autonomous regime, I still have isotonic left in my backpack. Thus, I drink a bit, eat a banana, and quickly leave for the next control, 13k away, in Olhos de Agua.
But in this section things get complicated. We leave the roads and get into a forest area with steep slopes, especially in its final section. I arrive at kilometre 31 in 3h and 35 minutes. 26k remain. Calculating I could finish in 7 hours. Too optimistic as I would find later. Having discarded the idea of taking a bath in the river beach of Olhos de Agua, I make a minimal stop and keep running.
With the sun at the highest point, the 6 kilometres to the next refreshment station, in Covão do Feto, are a mountain trail., where I must walk the most difficult sections. On several occasions I think that I have taken a wrong detour, due to the rough terrain, but arriving at the refreshment station they confirm that, indeed, I was following the correct route. There are still 20 kilometres left and energy is already scarce.
At the last control in Minde, at kilometre 40, is where I do the longer stop, and even drink a cold Coca-Cola, that although I am not a fan, tastes delicious. I fill the Camelback to the max and, with a little more energy, go out again. There are 17 kilometres left and the next control will be in Fatima. So many kilometres running alone, temperatures of 30⁰C and hardly any shade lead me to intersperse longer sections walking with others simply jogging.
Despite this, I still manage to pass a few lagging runners in this section, while exchanging a few times positions with the first classified female. At 3 kilometres from the finish line, the sky covers up a bit and even 2 timid drops of rain fall. Not enough relief after such a day.
We arrive together at the entrance of Fatima and run towards the esplanade of the Sanctuary searching for the finish line. Obviously, it is not there. Lost, I look on my mobile for the race instructions to find the location of the finish line. After asking in a store, and wandering a bit, adding more distance to our battered legs, a policeman point us in the right direction.
I finally cross the finish line in an official time of 8.24.15 (net time 8.23.43), after having spent almost 5 hours to cover the last 26 kilometres! Exhausted, I estimate that I have drunk at least 6 litres of liquid. Position 9th out of 17 finishers.
Satisfied with the medal that has cost me so much to get, I walk to the shower in the hotel, right next to the arrival, that the organization provides to the participants.
Despite its toughness, I look forward repeating the experience next year and improve my finishing time. Another 2 UTMB points would qualify me for the OCC race of the Mont Blanc in 2023…
But that is already thinking in the very long term, and as the pandemic taught us, it is better to go step by step.
Greetings and see you soon.