A couple of days after coming home from Japan, I flew again to Portugal, to visit my home town for a week. I’d heard about this trail race that is on its third edition in one of the villages, organised by a local sports group. It’s called Trail das Andorinhas (andorinhas means swallows in Portuguese) because it runs along Barragem das Andorinhas, a small dam that was built decades ago.
On its 3rd edition, when the event was born I had already moved to Switzerland. So, when a while ago, a family friend had told me about this trail, telling me how it ran past the little lake, the mossy paths, the dry, dusty hills and up to the mountain with an eyeful of the granite reign, I was envious. When I booked my trip home and found that the trail was happening that week, I didn’t even blink.
There were two trail distances: 15 and 25km. I challenged my brother and an old friend who would also be in town to come along. They challenged me back: we had no option but to run 25km. As we say in Portuguese, ou vai ou racha (something along the lines of you either sink or swim).
Fast forward to the start line, when we all meet bleary-eyed on a Sunday morning which promises to be very hot. Me, after my week with two days travelling back 8 time zones, working two days and flying to Portugal only to arrive at 1 a.m. on the night before the trail. My brother, a personal trainer who was in very good shape but had never run past 12km. My friend, a keen triathlete who had been off training for the past year. Finally, his girlfriend, who was the only one of us who was prepared and ready to rock.
When the start gun went off and we started running, I immediately started paying the price of the adventures of the last week. My brother shot off with all his mighty fitness power and I began to worry. Would I be last? Would I run in my home town only to end up not finishing the run or to cut the finish line hours after everyone else? My heart rate started shooting up, my legs feeling heavy and I was having difficulty in gaining any sort of rhythm.
So, I decided what I always decide on a trail (even though I’m not that experienced) – to let it go. If I can’t run, I know how to walk. And I can enjoy the scenery. I swallowed my pride and slowed down, much to the frustration of my little brother, who was able to explode and run up hills and mountains without breaking much of a sweat.
Thus it went for the first 10km. I ran or hiked, managing my own rhythm, enjoying the first views in many months of my “native habitat”. I ran with some people who I’ve known for years and even met a family friend who I’d heard of all my life and didn’t remember meeting.
As it tends to happen a lot in the mountains in Portugal, the markings for the trail were a little confusing, so we ended up catching the wrong route up the mountain. I was lucky, though, because some people were so lost that they ended up running 5km more that intended.
Finally, 2h into the run, I reached the peak.
Knowing it was mostly downhill from there, I took my time in the aid station, where there were all these goodies that you would only find in a Portuguese lanche: croissants, quince cheese, bolacha maria and… Super Bock! I left the Super Bock for the end and wolfed down some quince cheese squares, fruit and lots of water, making sure that I wouldn’t finish with an empty tank as in Montreux-Les Rochers de Naye.
Then, I started running down. Or, should I humbly say, dancing down? Because that is what it felt like. I still had a lot of energy from my management in the uphill section. I was on familiar terrain and running downhill is one of the things I do best. I quickly left my uphill running mates behind, including my brother who started having knee pain, and feeling like a little mountain goat, headed out through the dusty tracks lined with ferns and mato, these very prickly bushes that you find in the mountains in the North of Portugal.
On the way down, I mostly ran. In the uphill sections, I hiked a little. I crossed a guy who overtook me on some sections and who I then overtook. This happened a few times and we finally realised that we were going to be dealing with each other until the end of the race so we’d might as well just know each other’s names. For the following 9km we cruised, chatting a little, one running further at one point, the other one overtaking at another point, motivating each other a little when the other was down.
At the 19th km, there was the last aid station. From there, there was a little downhill run, and a significant portion uphill. I ran through a little village with its café central. In front of it, a few men sitting on the chairs in the porch commented on my running and made some remarks about my legs. This would normally leave me mad and embarrassed, but having been away for so long, and being so much in the spirit of the race, I laughed and said bom dia! and trotted off thinking that all this trail had been a sort of local cliché.
This trotting uphill and past the village had me on my last bits of energy, so I had an energy gel and braced myself for the last 3km, which had some of the nicest spots in the race…
(not the best picture, because… you know, running; but you get an idea)
… and also some obstacles!
The last km was long, around the lake and seeming like it would never finish. In the end, my new friend and I were just relieved to find the sports field and crossed the finish line together.
Then, I stretched, had some water and waited around for my brother and my friend, who came in after me. I’m not really competitive, but I was (not so) secretly pumped that I beat them!
This was my first time running past half-marathon distance and I was quite proud of my achievement. However, what really made me happy was to run with people that I love, in my home town, in the natural setting that I love so much and with all the little quirks that make me chuckle because they are just yelling typical portuguese.