My thoughts a couple of miles into the Gozo 55k race and on a rinse and repeat cycle throughout the race, in no particular order:
- Living and training in Bloxwich (pancake flat area of West Midlands in the UK) is not ideal preparation for this race. But then again, I’m not sure what would help, except for living here and methodically covering bits of the trail week by week.
- I can now understand what they mean by advising trail runners to practice the downhills as much as the uphills as my quads are on fire. That hill by the Walsall Arboretum where I thought I was doing my hill training? So lame. But then again, the quads will actually seize to be a problem in later parts of the race where I resort to power hiking rather than running. Or power-sliding down my bum where the gradient feels like 90 degrees. OK, maybe 85.
- This is possibly not the best race for somebody with a fear of heights. Don’t look left, don’t look left. Just don’t. Although the views are gorgeous and I can’t believe I am running so close to the edge of the cliff and all I can see is the expanse of blue sea in the distance. Good job that I managed to fall over where there was a bit of path as opposed to falling over where there’s just the cliff.
- If this was the UK, the risk assessment would be hundreds of pages long and then the decision would be to ban the race. We did sign a legal disclaimer in the morning saying basically we’re choosing to do this out of our own volition and if anything happens, tough. Wonder how valid that would be in court…
- I can’t believe I am actually going to run round the entire island. Or at least cover the distance of the entire island.
- Sometimes ignorance is bliss. The pictures on the race website showed happy people running on a relatively wide path. It didn’t show people scrambling over boulders and climbing up extremely steep hills where there’s enough space just to put one foot in front of the other. Hint: that bit of the path where they took the pictures? Well, that’s where the photographer could get to. Other bits? That’s where they decided it was wise not to. Except for the runners of course.
- The course is breath-taking. As in literally. As in, trying not to have a panic attack as a result of previously mentioned heights situation and the running right to the edge of the cliff issue.
- I’ve never done anything like this. When I first read, 1400m total elevation profile, I happily thought to myself, oh yes, I did that once, the Malvern Midsummer marathon, that had exactly 1400m elevation, I know what to expect. No, I didn’t. The Malvern marathon is like a gentle jog in the park in comparison.
- Thank God for that local bloke that in the first couple of miles rescued me and a fellow Belgian runner from getting lost and missing a marker
- I can’t believe how beautiful it is. And I can’t believe I’m doing this. Although I’m not sure I will want to repeat the experience.
- I’m a Swift. Birmingham Swift. Birmingham Swifts don’t give up. Not even when they have to conquer yet another hill. Or downhill, for that matter. #swiftsahoy!
And so it continued all throughout the nine hours that it took me to cover the 55k around the island of Gozo, Malta’s neighbouring island. This was the third time my wife and I visited Malta, a place we discovered through a combination of my other half watching a historical programme and me discovering there was a marathon at the end of February, which I first ran two years ago, my third one (or second, if you discount Manchester which should have been my first one in 2013…). We came back last year, I ran the marathon again in pouring rain and we felt it may be good to adjust the timing of our holidays to a slightly warmer season. It wouldn’t be a proper holiday without a race so when I found out about Gozo 55k, that sealed the deal. Plus, last year we took the ferry over to Gozo and explored the island on the tourist bus, I admired the cliffs from the distance and was really drawn to the before mentioned pictures of happy people running on Gozitan trails…
I was up bright an early on race day as had to catch the 5:45 ferry from the north of Malta where we were staying across to Gozo to race pick-up point. I was very happy to see some fellow runners and exchange the usual pleasantries, including a discussion about the joys of being able to poop before a race (as opposed during the race). The race HQ was at Ghansielen square, slowly filling with the runners and mountain bikers participating in the non-competitive race. A quick race briefing, including advice to pace ourselves and enjoy the day, bit of a warning about the terrain and we were off, the first couple of miles on a relatively decent bit of trail until all hell broke loose. As in, the track became decidedly narrower and steeper and my goal for the day changed to survival and completion, no matter how long it took, as long as it meant I made the 10 hour cut-off. That good old piece of advice about running the flats and the downhills and walking the uphills? Well, it works if the flats and downhills are runnable, I quickly decided it was time to switch on my power-hiking mode and carry on, preferably without getting lost.
There are four checkpoints along the route which had some basic provisions – water, bananas and apples, salt crackers and cookies. I was very happy alternating my peanut butter sandwiches with salt crackers and an occasional jelly baby, I have found quite long ago that in an ultra, as long as the body says “I’m hungry”, that’s usually a good sign and it should be followed even if the resulting combination is slightly weird and does not really conform to the official advice as in the bit “though shall consume 30-60g of carbohydrates, preferably in the form of gels”. This was more like a powerhike so my stomach would be relatively OK with actual food and the craving for salty crackers was probably related to the rising temperature and decreasing levels of sodium or something along those lines.
The other bit of ultra advice is that these races are often run with the mind, rather than the body and this turned out to be very true for this particular event. I was feeling completely out of my element and overwhelmed by the elements as well. I was equally scared and in awe of my surroundings and even though I felt slightly disappointed about the fact I had to resort to powerhiking (I signed up for a running race!) at least it was a strategy which allowed me to finish well within the cut-off time and actually take in some of the beauty of the area, at least when I wasn’t purposefully avoiding looking to the left and noticing the drop of the cliff… But I was a very happy Swift when I finally caught sight of the ferry terminal which meant that the end was near as the finish line was about a 20-minute walk from the ferry. Funnily enough, I managed to get lost for one final time just before the finish line but averted the crisis thanks to very friendly locals and triumphantly ran through the finish mat a little over nine hours I started.
The funny thing is, my wife says that the first thing I said after coming back to the hotel was “I’m not doing this again. But I really enjoyed myself” in precisely that order. Guess I found my limit and now the idea of running around on a track for twelve hours or so, something I am hoping to do in the near future, sounds like bliss.