AZORES // FAIAL & PICO ISLANDS
May 30, 2015
Faial Island, Azores
I’ve run 42.195 km 18 times over the past ten years – what’s another 6k?
Within 30 minutes of starting the race, I realized I had severely underestimated the island. Overconfident in my mental strength and the months of “proper” training with the stairs, the hills, the miles — this was not a run “just a little longer” than I’m used to.
No. Nope. No.
At 5:30am, I fill up on as much breakfast as possible without actually puking. I like to feel nice and fat before a long run — it’s as though I have something immediate and ready to burn off to give me energy. That’s what I like to pretend, anyway. Really, I’m just a big fan of gluttony. The buses took us to the starting line where the weather was perfect – just a couple of clouds in the bright blue sky, the temperature just on the cool side, the air crisp with a hint of a salty ocean breeze. It seemed like the entire town of Ribeirinha (population around 400) came to see the 250 ultra-runners off (only 45 women). Many of them native to the Azores and experienced ultra-marathoners. There I stand in the middle of it all, not understanding a word spoken around me beginning to realize that this just might be significantly more difficult than I expected. What's bigger than "significantly"? Whatever makes "significantly" look tiny, that's the word I'm looking for.
The first couple miles descend to sea-level. Spirits are high; everyone is cheering and singing. There are a lot of selfie sticks out, the runners capturing themselves full of energy (for now) with the view of Mt. Pico a couple miles across the ocean, clouds circling just the peak. I’m feeling pretty strong until we turn a corner and come to a halt at the base of what seems like endless stairs snaking through the woods. No one is running these, which makes me feel better about throwing myself into this group of elites. At the top my legs are on fire, lungs are on fire, arms are weak and I’m wondering how the f*** I’m going to get through 40 more km.
We circle the ruins of the Ribeirinha lighthouse, destroyed in an earthquake in 1998 and trot over a green meadow leading to another patch of woods. This stretch brought back my confidence. I filled my ipod before I left with stories from friends, all singing, speaking, or reading to me. As I ran through the most perfect conditions, a friend read to me from the book 14,000 Things to be Happy About. As I absorbed my surroundings, she centered me with her calm voice, a deliberate, gentle pattern of speech “Dinner with laughter. Flickering gas lights. Crisp, cotton dresses.” A slight decline along a perfectly packed path through the woods. The runners have now spread out; I feel like I have the island to myself. “Miniature artichokes. Swing sets. Men’s Ties.” The air is crisp and cool with the trees blocked out all but flickers of sunshine breaking through the leaves swaying in the breeze. “Sunrises at 5am. Coney Island Hot Dogs. Looking back at the past with as much pleasure as you get from looking forward into the future.”
With my mind back on track I ascended towards the center of Faial, gradually for a while until the road turned to gravel and no longer cared to be kind. At an incline I was more productive power-walking than running, cows stared, slowly gnawing their dinners while we conquered 12 steep switch-backs to finally be in view of the Caldiera. The center of the island, a now dormant volcanic crater where the island was born is now covered in grass and exotic local flowers, lined with a single track walking trail that we need to jog along. Do not trip. DO NOT TRIP. They say that it just LOOKS scary, but tripping over a rock, the overgrown shrubs, or just your own feet in the deep narrow path could send you tumbling in. Maybe not to the BOTTOM, but yes, for an uncomfortable cartwheeling ride. As weak as I felt, as clumsy as I am, somehow I maintained an upright position around the 7km rim.
It was cruel for the Ribeirinha mayor to tell me “the difficult part is over” at that point. Clearly he had not actually seen the course. Or maybe he could see the tears in my eyes and wanted to lift my spirits. The road away from him looked like the Minnesota roads I grew up on. That soothing memory did not last long. Along with a group of Azorean runners, we quickly approached our next obstacle. A volunteer in the middle of the road stops us and points to our right where there are flags up the side of a rocky hill. I do not speak portuguese, but from the aggressive hand actions and frustrated faces I understood that we were veering off the road. This wasn’t a steep path or stairs. Boulders. We had to use our hands and knees to climb up and over boulders to get over the hill. I wish I had known the climbing gym was a necessity for race training.
At the peak it was difficult to tell where to go. Luckily, the path was very clearly marked with tall flags. It seemed like all we needed to do was cross flat grasslands. A moment that seemed like a relief, like it should have been easy, happened to have it’s own struggles. There was no path, exactly, but what seemed like grass covered toadstools hovering over mud. Hopping from one to another like I was inside a level of Mario Brothers.
Finally, I reached a descent that matched the switchback on the East side of the island, though this was through the woods. Being that I had been traveling at the pace of a turtle, the majority of the runners had already passed through this gauntlet, leaving the ground a muddy river. Traction was not in the cards. I hugged a small tree, swung around to the downhill side then surfed the mud, slamming myself into the next tree. This was the process until the ground leveled out.
With 10k to go, I chat with a few runners at an aid station while shoveling all the potato chips I can find into my mouth. “This is your FIRST ULTRA??” They exclaimed. Yes. I see now why this was not one of my wiser decisions.
The trail actually seemed normal for most of the rest of the run. I asked a couple young volunteers how much further I had to go; when they told me 5k I was ecstatic. The hill I had to climb next was no longer daunting. At the top another volunteer directs me towards the last trail to follow and jumps for joy for me “5K to go!” I stop. What?? 20 minutes ago they told me I had 5k to go. She points to the sign behind her. She was right. This is when I lost my damn mind. After traveling over aggressive hiking trails, willing my legs to function at a slightly faster pace than walking between them for 9 hours I broke. There was no way in my mind that this would take more than 7 hours MAX. I laid down in the grass and started bawling like a toddler. I stomped my feet and banged my fists against the ground. I called my friend waiting at the finish line, sobbing out my story while she tried not to laugh. After a few minutes of hissy fits, I dragged myself off the ground, determined to finish before the 10 hour cut off.
The men I met before had caught up to me at this point and refused to let me give up on myself; together we made our way through the desert like terrain leftover from the volcanic eruptions of 1958. I have to run over a beach and hurdle over a sand dune before I finally cross the finish line.
With seven minutes left to spare.