Douro Ultra Trail (25km) - race report

11 October 2017, 13:30

This weekend I flew to northern Portugal to run down a mountain, and it had been three years in the making. You may remember that back in 2014 I ran the entirety of Berlin Marathon with a guy named Luis who I only barely knew at the start, but by the finish line had become my brother. For the past three years he’s been trying to convince me to come and visit him in Porto, and this year I finally made it over, with my friend Alex in tow. I chose the Douro Ultra Trail race from a shortlist of Luis’s suggestions because the scenery looked beautiful, there was a 25km option (as well as 15km, 45km, and 80km) which seemed to be a good distance for having a good chat and not suffering too much. Alex has only been running for about a year and never raced a half marathon before but was keen for an adventure, which seemed to be the right spirit for this race!

Melissa race number selfie

I signed up over the summer, when entries for the 25km were a bargainous €20 (plus an extra €3 as I wanted the long-sleeved race tee). I honestly don’t know how they can put on a race for so cheap, as we ended up with the aforementioned technical tee, huge feed station, decent race medal, and a bottle of local wine, too! Having arrived in Porto on a delayed flight, we only arrived at Regua just as the pre-race briefing was starting, and to our amusement, was entirely in Portuguese! Luis and his friends translated what we needed to know, which was really only that there were some irrigation holes about 4km into our race that we needed to be aware of (in reality, the other runners were great about shouting out and indicating at each of them). Everything else was really already stated on their Facebook page and website, so if you’re travelling to this race in future years, don’t feel like you need to kill yourself to get to the briefing on time.

Alex and Melissa at the start Luis and friends at the start

We then headed downstairs to register, which was super quick and casual – each of us got a bag with our number (& timing chip), race tee, apple, and some local honey boiled sweets (hard candies). Our group then headed to an extremely nice local restaurant for dinner then to our hotel just before their midnight cutoff, ready to wake up at dawn to make the coach to the start in time. The ultra course is circular, beginning and ending in Regua, but the other distances start at other points on the route, with coaches ferrying runners to the start. The coaches for our race were super organised, each setting off once full and taking us up hugely steep and very narrow winding roads to the top of a mountain (making me very glad I didn’t choose the marathon or ultra races!). At the top of the hill was an open area with scenic views, bandstand, toilets (with no queue, omg!!), and two groups of traditional Portuguese drummers giving the whole thing a bit of gravitas. After basking in the morning sunshine for a half hour or so, the starting firecracker was pulled, and we were off downhill!

25km start area

And downhill… and downhill… actually, the first 10km were almost entirely downhill, with a mix of loose rock, scree, pavements, and even thick, fine dust that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sahara. Alex brought along his gaiters, which I thought were ridiculously overkill but actually worked out great, and I’d recommend them if you have them. The course elevation for the route this year looked to be almost entirely downhill or flat, but in reality there were still a LOT of hills. Not just steep hills, but downright ravines in places – I lost count of the number of times I had to use my hands to steady myself on trees, rocks, and the ground itself to scramble up or down a hillside, with only a few places having stone steps carved into the slope to help us out (and again, glad I wasn’t doing the ultra, where runners would be negotiating these in the dark!).

Melissa in vineyards

The result of the first 10km was to exhaust the brain, having to concentrate continuously on where the next footfall should land as well as attempting not to brake with your quads and knees (spoiler alert: my quads were wrecked anyway!). We went through several small towns along the way, wound through narrow, steep, and terraced vineyards, and absolutely stunning vistas. My photos don’t really capture the full beauty of the Douro Valley – every single scene we saw as we turned a corner could’ve been sold on a postcard or printed in a coffee table book.

Melissa and Luis official photo

Eventually we rounded a playing field and entered a larger town, where crowds of people lined the streets – we’d reached the start of the 15km “hike” option, where we got a boost from the runners waiting to start their race, but apparently missed the water stop that must’ve been there (at least we had our CamelBaks – on such a hot day, many others also missed it and were caught short before the only other pit stop).

Melissa posing

I’ve mentioned the heat, but it’s worth noting that it’s not usually 28C and sunny in October in the Douro – we hit upon a rare heatwave, so slathered ourselves in suncream, ran in our sport sunglasses and caps, and wore shorts and vests as a last celebration of summer. I wore my trusty Vivobarefoot Trail Freak shoes, which I hadn’t race in since the Transylvania Bear Race last year. These served me ridiculously well in the Transylvanian (and English) mud, but on the dry, dusty, and rocky Portuguese trails, something with a sturdier sole would’ve been a bit better (and I know understand why Vivobarefoot now make trail shoes for soft or firm ground!).

Melissa and Luis in vine canopy

In any case, Luis, Alex and I stuck together throughout the race, chatting to ourselves and the other runners throughout the race. I got very good at my two phrases in Portuguese (Hello and Thank you!), and I really liked that even with a small field (350 runners on the 25km, plus some of the faster 15km runners), there were no real stretches where you were alone, and the course was incredibly well marked with plastic tape at regular intervals so you really only just needed to follow the person ahead, or glance to see the next piece of tape. At the start, the three of us decided to take a casual pace, chatting, enjoying ourselves, and taking plenty of photos and GoPro videos to enjoy the day. There were definitely points where things got tough, but never any real low points where we stopped having fun.

Melissa and Alex in tough times Melissa and Alex selfie

When we reached the only feed station at 16km, we filled our CamelBaks and set upon the impressive array of snacks with abandon. As a salty sweater, I went straight in for the crisps, but kept coming back to the watermelon slices, too. I swear watermelon has never tasted so good in my life, so I thank the local boy scouts who spent the whole time chopping up fruit in the feed station building! Feeling fuelled but not full, we set off to conquer the final few kilometers back down into Regua, and seeing the Douro River was a big boost, even though only minutes later the course cut through a large section of vineyards that had recently been burnt by the wildfires that plagued this part of Portugal.

feed station

The whole race was a treat for the senses, but smelling the charred vines were in sharp contrast to the fresh air, flowers, and eucalyptus we’d enjoyed earlier in the day. Several other races in the area had been cancelled due to the wildfires, and indeed, we witnessed a fire with our own eyes on the drive back to Porto, so this part of the race really made us feel thankful for the unspoiled countryside we’d witnessed for the bulk of the race.

As we approached the riverside path, we looked at our GPS for the first time that day and saw we were several kilometers short, and were concerned that, even though we could see the race village, we’d have to loop around the town or something first. On reflection, our GPS measurements came up short because it’s measuring from the top down, as the crow flies. But we’d run through such elevation that the diagonal route we’d taken down and up created a discrepancy to the top-down view, meaning we’d actually run ~3km more than we’d tracked. You can tell I don’t run mountain races often – this is probably obvious to many people!

Luis, Melissa and Alex at the finish

We crossed the line at the race village, were awarded our medals and local wine bottles, and immediately the emcee started interviewing me and asking about my race and my world championships and how my health was! Turns out Luis tipped them off that we were coming and they’d clearly seen my number and put two and two together very swiftly, hahah. The race village itself was quite small, but had a good selection of food and drinks (free) as well as a bar (paid) for anyone who fancied something stronger after their race.

In the tradition of ultras, our race was held on a Saturday, which meant we were able to head back to our hotel to wash the copious dust, sweat, and salt off before heading back to Porto and exploring it the next day. We spent the morning hobbling about, exploring the city, marvelling at the vistas, and drinking or well-earned wine along the same river we’d run to the day before.

Melissa and Alex drinking our race wine

Having never been to Portugal before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but Alex and I both utterly adored our time there. I’d recommend the Douro Ultra Trail to anyone who’s interested, but do not underestimate the toughness of the course. As someone who can run a 1:45 half marathon without too much effort, I expect to run this 25km downhill in about 2-2:15ish but in reality, we finish in just over 3 hours! I’d imagine if I’d done the 45km it’d probably have taken me around 5 or 6 hours, so be sure you prepare and (if possible) get some trail experience on hard, rocky ground, which I think would’ve really helped me.

In terms of enjoyment, adventure, and value for money, you really can’t beat the Douro Ultra Trail. I’m only sorry it took me three years to actually take Luis up on his offer!

Douro Ultra Trail (25km), 7 October 2017, 3:04:18

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Comments:

  1. Sounds great. Thanks for you’ race report. IT is good to te about uncommon races.


    Dorothé    12 October 2017, 09:47    #

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