Take the risk, get the snack: Madeira Island Ultra Trail 115k 2023
There is a Portuguese phrase “Quem não arrisca não petisca” . Literally this means “those who do not risk, do not have a snack”, in other words, one never knows if they can succeed at something unless they try it. Another quote I like is “If you never go in over your head, how will you ever know how tall you are?”. I say these because I chose to sign up for the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) 115k last Fall knowing it would be the hardest race I’ve done to date. The race is in its 14 year and is set on the lush volcanic 309 square mile island of Madeira situated about 435 miles off the coast of Spain in the Atlantic ocean. It runs from Porto Moniz on the northwest coast through jungles and over massive mountains to Machico on the southeast coast. By the time a runner has covered 115k (or approximately 72 miles) they will have climbed and descended over 23,000 feet of trails, steep roads, and stairs… so many stairs… of every kind imaginable. When I signed up I knew,... I was going in way over my head.
Magnar is from Norway. Like many European trail runners, he’s run some of the most gorgeous and challenging terrain I’d ever seen. We met at a Tanawha Adventures trail running camp in 2017, and then again in 2018 and 2019. In 2021 we ran the No Business 100 and he was staying with me in September of 2022 to run the Barkley Fall Classic with me. One afternoon he casually mentioned “oh! MIUT 115k has 25 spots still open…”, just like that… no fanfare, no pressure, just a seemingly benign comment. Now, I've seen his photos from Madeira. Of all the races he’s shown me, this was the one that looked the most incredible. Staggering views, impossible trails clinging to cliffs and ridgelines, lush greenery and flowers,... just generally awesome looking. I laughed and proceeded to come up with several excuses why I couldn’t sign up for a race 3467 miles away on a tiny island in the North Atlantic. When I couldn’t justify any of the excuses, I quite suddenly said “OKAY! I’m signing up!”. In a flurry we’d both signed up and the plan was in motion. Magnar had done the race multiple times, and knew the area, so he would book us an Airbnb… all I had to do was get there… oh and train.
Raleigh does not have mountains. Our hills are gentle, and rolling. The steepest grades are short, and even the mountains West of us offer only a few sustained climbs. Mount Mitchell is a 3600 ft climb over 5.5 miles. Respectable to be sure, but access to those Western NC mountains would prove elusive due to time restrictions and normal life events. Instead I focused on a program of consistency, post-run incline-treadmill sessions, and leg strengthening exercises (lunges, step-ups etc). There was a parking garage with 6 flights of stairs, a trip to South Mountains State Park for a day of stairs and steep trail repeats, and generally trying to find whatever I could climb even around here. Additionally, this race would start at midnight on a Friday night and run all the way till early Sunday morning. Further “training” came via my volunteering at the Umstead 100 for nearly 36 hours straight immediately followed by a 4hr run just 2 weeks before.
Madeira Island is part of an autonomous region of Portugal, formed from giant volcanic mountains deep in the abyssal floor of the North Atlantic. The highest point is Pico Ruivo at 6106 ft and it boasts 90 miles of rugged coastline. With an estimated population of around 270,000 located mainly in the coastal towns, its economy is based mostly on bananas, Madeira wine, fishing, handicrafts, sugar, flowers, other agriculture and tourism. The island is known for its terraced gardens and plantations, all irrigated by an elaborate series of Levadas (irrigation canals) built over generations along the hillsides and cliff faces. These form some of the thousands of trails that network across the island and make it a trail running destination. Madeira is constantly ranked in the top 3 European island destinations.
After 6 months of training, planning, dreaming, scheming, making lists and race plans, watching endless race recap videos in foreign languages, and trying to translate written race reports, I landed in Funchal at the Cristiano Ronaldo Airport (Madeira’s own soccer claim to fame).The weather year-round in Madeira is temperate and spring-like, and April is a perfect time to be there. The sun felt amazing and the ocean breeze was intoxicating. Our Airbnb was close to the harbor in Machico, which was the check-in and expo locations, as well as the finish line of the races. (There are16k, 42k 60k and 85k races as well) I had cafe with sweet rolls for breakfast at a corner shop across from the church in the town square most mornings, and we explored some of the island in the days leading up to the race. We hiked a levada above Porta da Cruz, ran the Sao Lourenco peninsula on the southern tip, explored Pico Ruivo and the enchanted forests of Fanal. I played tourist in Funchal, got a leg massage, ate amazing food and drank a few local Coral beers. My sister Cindy had made the journey out as well and we got to vacation properly in those 5 days leading up to the race. Before I knew it, it was Friday and the midnight start approached.
I’d organized stuff ahead of time, but having the midnight start meant I could arrange things and pack the drop bag, my vest and the crew bag throughout the morning. I tried napping, but that was impossible, so instead I focused on relaxing with my legs up as much as possible, hydrating and eating. A bus is provided by the race organization, but we elected to drive since Cindy and Magnar’s fiance Jenn would be crewing and wanted to see the crazy scene at the starting line. It’s about an hour drive from Machico to Porto Moniz. We ended up catching and following the buses to arrive there at around 10:45 pm. The town was full of runners and family and crew. There were news crews filming and a PA system was blasting music and announcements in Portuguese, French and English. I was surrounded by runners speaking other languages, wearing lycra, and sporting unfamiliar European gear. 981 runners from 57 different countries were assembled and ready to strive towards a common goal. It was great energy, and I never felt the effects of the approaching midnight hour. Then, with AC/DC blasting and to a heavily accented English countdown, we were OFF!. A quick pass through town and we were immediately climbing. The streets of Porto Moniz (like most towns in Madeira), cling to the side of the slopes approaching the mountains. The streets are steep, and roughly ridged for traction. The sidewalks and paths have low steps built in the center, and not the edges. The roads switch-back and the path occasionally re-routes up stairs. The first kilometers are underway and I’m already sweating and huffing and puffing! Everyone around me has their poles out already, and the clickety-clacking sound dominates the night. Before long we crest the first hill and bottleneck into a trail for the “conga-line”. Spirits are high, and a course photographer is already out there shooting pics like a strobe to catch us all as we run past.
Coming down into the small town of Ribeira da Janela you can hear it before you see it. There is a crowd down there, lining a curved bridge that passes through the town. Cheering, cowbells and vuvuzelas can be heard from a mile away. Then, coming around a bend I see the street lined on both sides with a crowd of cheering fans… at 1am!!! The noise is deafening, and I’m adding to it cheering along as I run way too fast this early in an ultra. I’m high-fiving and filming and laughing, and my heart-rate is WAY too high! I’m still laughing and breathing hard when we depart the crowd and immediately begin climbing again. But, this time, there’s no quick up and then down. We are climbing to Fanal, the first big ascent; 1100 meters (~3600ft) over the next 11k (~7mi). Now I start to get a feel for what the rest of my race is gonna be. The climb goes on and on. 2 hours later I roll into the Fanal aid station. I’d been in this forest during the day so I sort of recognized some of the trail. It’s crowded, and my first international aid station experience, so I’m perhaps not as efficient as I could be getting my bottles refilled, and I have to look over the food options to see what’s what. Cheese, potatoes, soup, bread, crackers, fruit, some kind of granola bar and some type of gingerbread cake. It’s similar… but different. It’s also chilly, and time to layer up a bit. Some folks are already hovering around space heaters. It’s pitch dark… no moon, as I begin the first steep descent to Chao de Ribeira. There’s plenty of company, but folks don’t really chat it up like a US race (except for the French, who all seem to know each other!). It’s STEEP, but my legs are still fairly fresh. Nonetheless my poles save me several times from a slip or a trip down the ancient, sketchy, technical steps and slippery logs. This nearly 3000’ drop over only about 5 miles takes me nearly 2 hours! I roll into Chao de Ribeira finally, but now running a little behind my goal time for a 29 hour finish. Leaving on a short paved road through town I feel pretty good though, and start the 4000’, 5 mile climb to Estanquinhos where I’ll see my crew, and daylight. This is a dramatic ascent for the most part… slow, slogging, switchbacks and some simply steep stair climbs. Gradually the light creeps across the ocean and clouds to reach me, and around the same time the temperature drops. This coupled with the wetness of cold fog and my own sweat from working hard uphill combine to make everything on my periphery get cold. My gloves no longer keep my fingers warm, and I am now wearing all my layers. Estanquinhos aid station (32.7k/19mi) is crowded with runners trying to warm up, so I do my best to get what I need and move through the big tent to the other side where my sister is there to help me refill bottles because my fingers aren’t working well from the cold. I drop off my headlight for her to charge and make haste to get moving and warm up again.
Leaving Estanquinhos in the morning sun, and descending elevation means I can finally start warming up. The trails are a mixed bag: some access roads, some single-track through a magical forest, a levada and of course plenty of stairs. I’m treated to some epic morning views, cliff-side trails in the jungle, waterfalls and one amazing knife-edged ridgeline with sheer drop-offs on BOTH sides. Of course… there is more quad and toe crushing descent as well, just to remind me what goes up… must come down, down, down. I’m entertained in this section by a Portuguese couple who keep leapfrogging me (I'm fast uphill, they downhill). They laugh and do crazy bird calls and sort of adopt me because I keep laughing at their antics. Later in the race Cindy would meet them and find out they referred to me as “Santa Claus”. Somewhere along this section I get a text from my sister/crew that their rental car had broken down! I text back letting her know she doesn’t need to make it to the next Aid Station (Encumeada) but hopefully I can see her at the halfway point where I planned some gear swapping. This is the lesson… always be prepared to complete the race without crew support… unforeseen events and all that. I muster enough quad strength to actually run down some well spaced log steps and make my way to the Encumeada Aid Station (48.4k/28.6mi). This is a large building, and the place is set up with a FULL hot buffet: plates, steel cutlery, a huge spread of food and REAL bathrooms. Here’s a thing I notice: the Europeans like to SIT DOWN and have a meal at these aid stations! They seem to be taking their time! I hustle as best I can, but the lure of an actual bathroom turns out to be excellent timing as well. Though I arrived only a bit behind schedule, despite efforts to be efficient I’m there 20 minutes! The next section changed for 2023. It used to have a trail that wound its way up an exposed Barkley-esque section beneath a huge green pipe. In all the videos I’d seen it looked to be the most miserable section, no matter what language the video was in. But… the fact of the matter is, the climb still has to happen. This year it was on a relatively freshly cut trail that is thankfully under the shade of eucalyptus trees for the most part. It is STEEP (recurring theme) and the stairs are again irregular and the dirt is loose. The trail is just basically cut into the side of the mountain… and it’s getting warm. It’s important here to reflect on the race profile (the graphic showing the ups and downs), and see that there appears to be 3 major climbs, with this section sort-of sandwiched in-between the 2nd and 3rd. In comparison, it’s easy to overlook that it is still a sizable climb, and even more… that the descent is practically straight down! After I slog and plod up through the jungle and traverse some epic mountain passes, I then find myself at roughly 57km descending the most brutal of all the downs. The trails switch back above and below each other. The stairs are irregular shaped and a combination of rocks, boulders, logs and dirt. My quads and knees are screaming. My toes are jammed unmercifully to the front of my shoes despite all the fancy lacing tricks and wide toe-box Topos. The going is slow, and demoralizing. I lose time. At some point I can SEE the town of Curral das Freiras from above, but it’s a long time before I’m finally approaching the village outskirts. I’m checking my watch and it seems like if I can hit the aid station soon I’ll be ok… but WHERE is it!? On and on through neighborhoods, terraced gardens, a major road,... and then there is a volunteer in a yellow vest. She’s standing at the base of some steps that zig-zag up the face of a giant wall and directing me that way. “Only 1.5k to the aid station, but hurry, hurry!”. Oh… my… Gawd! Seriously?! Once again I start traipsing up steps, each runner coming back down urging me to “hurry!”. But the aid station is NOT at the top. There is more winding through streets and around a bend. Then finally… FINALLY a school gymnasium and the Curral das Freiras station (63.2k/37.9mi), and my crew has made it!!! (the car story is for another time haha). I’m way behind my estimated schedule, have only 30 minutes to spare ahead of the cutoff, and I am wrecked and demoralized. My sister takes it in stride. She’s done this before, and knows that this defeatist attitude is just on the surface. Somehow she helps me get my shirt, shoes/socks, hat, supplies changed out, food in my belly and enough time to slip into the bathroom for a generous reapplication of lube where it counts. I make it out of there with 10 minutes to spare, feeling at least a little fresher, if not recovered. Going back down those stairs on the wall, I see runners struggling in knowing they will not make the cutoff. One woman is crying and I say “Desculpe” (I’m sorry, in Portuguese) and offer a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. I know I just have to keep moving, because the biggest climb to the highest peak is ahead of me now (3600’ over the next 6.8 miles to a peak over 5800’ above sea level). The climb is amazing… and difficult. The views even with the mist and clouds make it worthwhile. The trails are carved into the cliff faces at points, and it feels like a prehistoric landscape. I expect any minute a pterodactyl will swoop up and snatch my hat. Brightly colored flowers are silhouetted against a whited out abyss. I begin to make friends with runners from around the world. A guy from Poland, another from the UK, French, German and Portuguese runners pass and get passed, but finally we are starting to become trail-brothers and sisters. I fantasize about laying down on flat rocks, and the pace sometimes slows to 3-4 steps with a break to breathe. We climb for 3 hours ascending into the clouds until, quite suddenly, I'm blinded by sunlight. It feels so CLOSE, and I look around to see we are suddenly above the cloud layer, with the mountain peaks around us poking through like islands in a white fluffy sea. And yet… there is still the peak to reach, an 8 pm cutoff, and a second night approaching. The last few miles approaching Pico Ruivo are confounding; False summits, short descents followed by more ascents… a set of metal steps bolted to the side of a completely vertical cliff wall… switchbacks, and more and more stairs. Eventually the small lodge of Pico Ruivo (74.2k/44.6mi) reveals itself on the ridge and I stumble in. This place is a warm, cozy and crowded little haven, but despite so many sitting (and even laying) down I know I can’t linger. I refill fluids, and then for some reason I try an orange slice. Oh my god… the best tasting thing EVER. A German runner and I go on a brief feeding frenzy over a bowl of them until I force myself back out the door, and out to the next section of trail which promises to be the most EPIC.
The trail between Pico Ruivo and Pico do Arierio is an approximately 3.5 mile route that is one of the most often photographed and traveled trails in all of Madeira Island. The iconic narrow trials clinging to the cliffs, hand-carved tunnels through the rock, vertigo-inducing drop offs, and above-the-clouds views are unparalleled. The sun is still up as I leave the aid station and briefly drop into shadows created by the massive cliffs above me. Soon we climb and descend, and weave our way along, sometimes in and out of the clouds. Then, as we continue to trudge upward, the sun begins to paint the sky with blazing orange and yellow. It’s breathtaking (if I actually had any breath to spare), and we’re all compelled to stop to take photos, even though we know another cutoff is looming. At this point I’m so awed and happy, I accept that even if I don’t make the next cutoffs, I am privileged to be right there, right then. It’s dark by the time I cross the sky-high narrow trail with dual drop-offs to the summit of Pico Arierio and I’m still somehow ahead of the cutoff. Nothing to do now but descend! It’s now going into the second night, and during the descent my new Polish friend tells me he’s having trouble staying awake so we start chatting… about EVERYTHING. Seriously, we talk about family, kids, jobs, the economies of our countries, the healthcare systems, the pharmaceutical industry, races we’ve run, hallucinations, you name it. My first hallucinations start as I’m running down some steps (yes, actual steps, not boulders or switchbacks!). These steps have a few twigs and leaves on them, but what my brain registers for only a millisecond is a complete folk art painting on each step, before I see them to just be sticks and leaves. African, Mexican, Native American, Hawaiian, prehistoric, you name it. It makes me laugh. At some point during this segment I come to the realization that I probably can finish, and I REALLY want to. I am far behind my original plan, but the cutoffs are more generous from here on out. I know I can make it as long as I keep moving, but it’s going to be a LONG night. In the pitch black as I’m crossing a road a voice calls out “John!” and I’m startled! It’s my sister who came out a mile or so ahead of the next aid station to see if I was gonna make it because I was so far behind now. I assure her that I am good and I have a new resolve to finish. She hustles ahead to meet me at Chao da Lagoa (83.8k/52.6mi) and gives me an amazing lukewarm microwaved cheeseburger left over from my dinner Friday! Perfect because I’d been struggling to find things that excited me at these aid stations.
Headed down to sea-level I’m in a good headspace but my legs are jelly. The trail drops in a forest with a tunnel of trees. It’s twisting and turning, soft dirt and always descending. I slip and fall once, but the problem is that it just feels so good to lay in the dirt. A few seconds of blissful laying down and I’m back up and moving though. There are of course more stairs, but often just steep quad crushing straight downhills. Portela aid station (94.9k/58mi) is crowded and tight to move around, but my new trail buddys manage to get plates of food and sit! I am too anxious and work on refilling water and grabbing a snack. I’m in such a rush to leave I forget my poles and have to go back 100 yards away and BACK down/up stairs to get them! Despite their relaxed meal and my rushing about, my new friends and I all leave together (go figure). The descent further down to Porta Da Cruz (101km/62.76mi) is fuzzy. It’s nearly 3 am when I roll in and I’m actually a little faster on this section so my sister is asleep in her car when I text her. I’m able to sit somewhere quiet and eat some pasta, fill my bottles and then I know it’s 16k to the finish. My new friends are once again sitting down with plates of food so I tell them I’m gonna head out but I’m sure they’ll catch me. They never do. I briefly run/walk with a group of French, German and Croatian runners but they eventually pull away. I’m on my own, as is often the case late in an ultra, for the rest of the night. The Verada do Larano trail is along the northeast coast of the island. My headlight turns out to not be fully re-charged (the whole rental car fiasco) but I still have my waist light and can use the headlight briefly for spotting. In the darkness I can hear the waves, but know they’re hundreds of feet below me to the left off a steep drop. At different points I can hear the most bizarre sound which turns out to be Cory’s Shearwater birds, native to Madeira. The cliffs to my right are taller than I can see, and have nearly glowing patches of lichen. It’s in this section that I have my most vivid hallucinations. I saw: Lisa Simpson with hollowed-out eyes, a complete 3D full-face motocross helmet, a Joker’s mask, and an entire wall of the Shadow Demons from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, a cartoon guy with glasses and a fedora but no mouth, and many creepy baby faces. It’s entertaining, and probably helps to pass the time. This trial is not hard, but my legs are shot. I can run some though, and do so in spurts as much as I'm able. Before I know it I’ve turned inland onto the last section towards Machico, one I recognise from having hiked it a few days prior. I get excited when the trial connects with the levada that I know will take me into town. The levada seems to go on forever and remains at around 650’ above the town until finally the trail cuts to the right, and steeply DOWN. It’s a straight downhill descent (more toe crushing) and eventually more stairs until I’m FINALLY approaching the Machico Boardwalk. Magnar, who'd finished many hours earlier, is there with his fiance to cheer me on, and I find another gear and really try to sprint to the finish chute! (the video shows this to be FAR from anything that could be considered “sprinting”) I manage a triumphant leap at the finish caught in the flash of the race photographer, and then it is suddenly over. My finish time is 30hrs, 56min, 46sec. It’s nearly 7 am and the town is still quiet. The sun is rising over the harbor and Atlantic beyond. I am 63 minutes ahead of the overall cutoff. I have no more stairs to climb or descend. I sit for a bit and get out of my shoes. My Polish friend comes in and we’re able to get a picture together and “friend” each other on FaceBook. There is a post-race meal, and a few guys are in the tent eating some pasta, but I’m mostly happy about the beer. I hobble back to the Airbnb and take the elevator upstairs this time. After a long shower and laying on the sofa, my eyes are closing and my brain is foggy from lack of sleep, but somehow I really can’t nap. Eventually I gingerly head down to the finish area to watch the awards ceremony and I get a chance to meet and chat with Corrine Malcom and Abby Hall, US elites both of which raced too. No surprise they are both super cool and seem stoked to meet me too. We laugh about the absurdity of some of the climbs and descents but all agree that it was SO worth it. Finally, after devouring a giant pizza with my sister, I crash early Sunday evening.
The 2023 Madeira Island 115k had 981 entrants and only 652 finishers. Of the 10 US runners entered, only 6 finished. The winner finished in 14 hours! There were 57 countries represented across all distances, most of which were Portuguese and French. The MIUT organization is amazing and put on a fantastic race. The course is well marked and the aid stations are well stocked with plenty of volunteers. The views and trails are incredible.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience this amazing adventure. It was a large step outside my comfort zone in many ways, but having experienced multiple long-effort races to date, I simply believed I could do it. I did ALL the research, watched all the videos, read translated race reports… but nothing could prepare me for the rigorousness and stunning beauty this race offers. It was truly a privilege.
Some additional impression of a European race:
Plenty of Lycra.
Poles used from the start… kinda chaotic when we were all in a crowd at first.
First time I’ve seen an Ultra runner take a break at the side of a trail for a cigarette.
European runners are kinda bad about trash (wrappers, toilet paper etc.).
Ironically, English is the “common” language.
Shoes: Topo Athletic- Mtn Racer 2 & Ultraventure
Shorts/Liners: Path Projects
Jacket: Brooks Canopy
Pack: Ultraspire Alpha 5.0
Hats/Beanie: race hats/ Path Projects beanie
Hat drape: CoolNes
Lube: Salty Britches & Trail Toes
Nutrition: Spring Energy, Huma, Honey Stinger Waffles, Payday bars
Hydration: Performance Hydration mix