Bronze and Gold at the European Masters Mountain Running Championships 8.5km, 1010m Ascent, 140m Descent – Friday 8 Nov 2020.
I’ve harboured a desire to run a European Mountain Running event for a few years. Late 2019, a W60 and still running well enough, some Bingley Harrier and other W60 running friends, a W60 team in the making. By January 2020 we were ready to go with the appropriate Masters membership, race entries in, flights booked, GB vests ordered, and a hotel lined up for the European Masters Mountain Running Championships in Madeira at the end of March. ‘We’ were myself, Becky Weight, fellow Bingley Harriers Mary Green and Sue Cordingley (entered as Becconsall), and forever friend Mandy Dean from West Hull Ladies. Then came the Mar 23 Covid-19 lockdown crash. No travel. Flights cancelled. Event postponed to November.
I didn’t give it much thought for several months but as the summer moved on a few Covid-secure events were appearing and the event in Madeira appeared to be holding. Madeira had gone for strict Covid control measures very early on and had succeeded in keeping the virus at bay. Mary & Sue could no longer make it due to work. With all the uncertainties around Covid-19 restrictions, and the risk that any of us may catch the virus, Mandy & myself (and partners Neil & Alan) agreed to organise ourselves independently and only booked flights the week before we travelled. If arriving in or leaving Madeira coincided with catching Covid-19 we had accepted that we would be self isolating in Madeira or at home.
The GB Masters vests had gone back to Ron Hill (Ridgeway Textiles) early in the summer to be shortened – none of us liked the long style of vest. In the Covid chaos the job got missed and in late October, as it was looking more likely that some of us would make the event (if it held), I was chasing the vests. They arrived just in time!
By Mon 2nd Nov, Covid tested and temperature checked, we were all in Porto Moniz on the north of Madeira. The mountains on the northern coast climb out of the sea precipitously, with steep forested slopes, cliffs, gorges and waterfalls cascading straight into the sea. Porto Moniz itself was on an apron of hard lava flow and protected from the Atlantic swell by jagged lava outcrops in the sea which now form the very popular ‘natural’ swimming pools
Looking down on Porto Moniz
Mandy & Neil had been there a week already and Mandy had been out to ‘recce’ the race route. Maps, gpx files, and websites all gave slightly different views of the route and what was possible on the densely forested slopes rising from the start at Ribiera da Janela. So, on Day 2 (Tuesday) we planned to run the route – or Mandy’s best guess 😉. A wet day forecast – Mandy claimed we had brought Bingley to Madeira. We were dropped off at the start at the church in Janela (~200m altitude) and Neil & Alan were to pick us up at the top of Fanal (~1100m).
The route starts with stepped paths through the village and narrow terraced plots before following an old sunken track steeply up into the forest.
As we got higher the slope eased. Some paths were smaller and some marked up for, and used by, mountain bikes, with occasional stretches along wider grassy horizontal tracks, and along a small ‘levada’ (water channel). We came close to the road and cleared picnic areas a couple of times. The rain got heavier as we got higher. After 5-6km I heard a text ping in on my phone – ‘Car smashed’. When we eventually got through – a stone had caught under the car and smashed the sump – draining the oil down the road. A recovery vehicle and taxi were on their way. There was nothing we could do and we didn’t really know where they were so we continued with our recce – the only concern being that it would leave us at the top of a cold windy wet mountain at over 1000m with fairly minimal running gear 6-7km away from the start and probably 10-11km from Porto Moniz.
It was raining heavily now, we were in the cloud and there was a strong wind. On the forest paths there was shelter from the wind but underfoot the paths were muddy and greasy with lots of tree roots, running water and puddles. Mandy, in her studdy Inov-8s, was gripping better than me in my trail Scotts but I did have the advantage of running many a boggy moorland mile around Bingley. With only 1km to go the route crossed the road and the final stretch was out into open mountain top meadow areas so we decided to head back. We donned our jackets and anything else we had to put on (which wasn’t much) trying to shelter from the strong wind and driving rain, and set off back down the road hoping to flag a car down for a lift. I was glad of my peaked cap under my hood which was keeping my head fairly dry and the rain off my face. Needless to say there weren’t many cars about and we had run around 4km before a small car with two girls in appeared out of the mist and cloud. Mandy flagged them down and asked for a lift, explaining about the accident and our predicament. After initially looking very wary of these two soaked running women they agreed. We soon got chatting. Our two rescue angels were optometrists from Lisbon on holiday and visiting a friend in Madeira. Before we knew it, they had plugged Porto Moniz into their Satnav and were happily extending their drive to take us back. At the hotel Mandy ran in and grabbed her welcome bottle of blue ‘fizz’ and gave it to the girls as a thank you.
Wednesday and registration was open. After another wet walk we went along to register and, with face masks on, hands sanitised and temperature checked, we picked up our numbers, t-shirt and goody bag. There was a GBR F65 entered and we checked to see if she had registered so we could make a GB team. Not yet. Everything was still going forward but Portugal was going into ‘lockdown’ from 00.00hours on Friday, the day of the Mountain Running race, hanging a large question mark over the event.
Thursday was an easy sightseeing day. We bumped into Kurt at our hotel, one of the European Masters Athletics organisers, in his Safety Officer top. In the pending Portugal lock-down all regional athletics events had been cancelled but as of that moment international ones had not been. Kurt was just going into a meeting to persuade the powers that be that they could run the Mountain Running and Trail races safely. The final decision to allow the races to go ahead only came through later that day – to everyone’s relief. No social events allowed, no opening ceremony – just the race. Kurt had also been out to walk the route and commented that it was a tough course.
Friday and race day but not until 2.45 for the ladies with the men off at 3.30. A long morning trying to keep occupied. Mandy went up to the Registration Centre to see if any other GB ladies had signed in. Susan Ridley F55 was here and looking for a team. Mandy signed us up for a F55 GB team. Yes – we had a team!
Susan Ridley, Amanda Dean & Rebecca Weight – V55 GB Team
A bus at 1.30 would take the ladies to the start at Ribiera da Janela. The weather had improved and after some early morning rain the sun arrived. Mountain Running – no kit or navigation required, the route would be flagged and there would be a water station; kit bags would be driven to the top for us to pick up there and the coach would bring us back. As a fell runner the concept that I would be doing a race in the mountains with no kit was hard to accept but the warm sunshine at the start pushed the shivering drenching of our recce away.
At the start we had our temperatures checked again, everyone was spaced out, masks had to be worn until you started running, and runners would go off in waves of 6 at 30 second intervals. Inevitably given the Covid pandemic and associated issues, the field was small – 18 ladies from W35 to W70 from 8 countries. We had Spanish and German F60 competition.
2.45 and we were off in the third wave. Susan disappeared quickly and Mandy stayed in sight for longer. Mandy, from the flat lands of Hull, runs faster and more distance than me but claims she can’t do hills. This would tell. Zig-zag road & steps out of the village and terraces and up the sunken path into the forest. I don’t know if anyone managed to run this bottom section but not me. We passed a couple of ladies from an earlier wave. Regular dangling flags marked the route and for a while it was mostly as we had recced but not for long. On one of the horizontal tracks we went further along before swinging off onto a smaller path (not used by mountain bikes which I was quite glad about) – steady climbing, some contouring, and even some down along leaf scattered faint narrow paths through the forest. Definitely glad of the flags! We were in new territory now unfound by recce attempts. To my surprise Mandy had stopped concerned that she was too far away from her ‘watch route’ and that we had somehow got onto a different flagged route. For me there was no choice – follow the flags. I could mostly keep with Mandy on the up sections but every time there was an open flatter track she moved away until I lost sight in the windy narrow sections.
At around 7km we crossed the road – new territory for me. Down to a lake then back up, along a short stretch of stony track between scrubby low vegetation and then out across an open gently rising grassy area with occasional larger trees. It didn’t seem steep and the grass was short but it was soft and sapping – you felt you should keep running but it felt so hard, breathing fast and deep with every stride, legs screaming. A short steeper section, a few people shouting, ‘only 500m to go’, dropping into a broad sunken track, Alan & Neil with cameras.
The finish arch and stop.
7.75km 961m ascent (4.8m 3153’), official time 1.16.18, 12th lady, 3rd W60. Susan was 6th in 1.08.49 and 1st W55, and Mandy 10th in 1.15.30 and 2nd W60. The winning lady was Charlotte Cotton W35 of Belgium in 1.02.12. Our winning W55 team time of 3.40 was only 4 minutes behind the overall winning Portuguese W35 team. I’ll take that.
Strangely I didn’t feel completely wasted but struggled to think how or where I could have found any more. My ‘hill reps’ from the Coach Road to the trig point at the top of Hope Hill (repeat 4 times, with no downhill and add another 100m ascent to get the Mountain Running Race) must have counted for something.
The men’s race had 48 runners, M35 to M75, from 9 countries. Laurent Vicente M40 from France was first in 52.02. The fastest men’s team (3 runners) was the Portuguese M40 in 2.51 with times ranging to 5.24 for the M75 team from Czech Republic.
There was talk of a presentation at 6.30. We hadn’t been sure it would be allowed but obviously it didn’t count as a ‘social event’.
A good turn out for the presentation, filling the hall, all masked and chairs spaced out to enable social distancing. The local mayor gave a rousing speech in Portuguese which we all applauded vigorously. Those who did understand seemed happy. A representative of the British Masters Athletics Federation was there with a Union Jack. Standing on the podium with the national anthem playing is quite a shock but a very proud moment. Being a Bingley Harrier opened this door and gave me this opportunity.
There were a couple of British men there too Jeffrey Norman M75 1.21 who won his category and Kevin Dillon M65 DNF.
F60 Ana Cristina Aguado Mori (Spain), Amanda Dean (GBR), Rebecca Weight (GBR).
F55 Team Rebecca Weight F60, Susan Ridley F55 and Amanda Dean F60. Sunday names 😉
It was an odd year for a first experience of an international event. In some respects the Covid-19 pandemic scaled the event down and made it less competitive but in others, for those who got there including myself, it felt like a massive achievement and definitely a triumph of hope over adversity.