Golden Series Championship

Golden Series Championship - Azores Trail Run


Nov 22nd, 2020

4 stages, 4 days on the island of Faial – 112km with +6100m.  80 elite athletes, 70 golden ticket winners and 110 lottery ticket winners.  This was going to be EPIC; a one-off event due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.  I’ve never competed in a stage race before so was really looking forward to the experience.  Plus this is only the second race of 2020 that I've competed in!


Many athletes arrived on the Wednesday morning, flying from Lisbon where we had to queue to have our covid-19 tests validation before the short taxi ride down to the main town of Horta.

I had found a reasonably priced hotel with terrace for myself and two teammates with a view of Pico, the neighbouring volcanic island with its summit at 2330metres.  Absolutely stunning to see that view in good weather.

The prologue was mid-afternoon where all athletes ran a 3.5km course.  Two short steep climbs and descents around Monte da Guia (a volcanic cone), a sprint across the beach at Praia do Porto Pim and the start/finish in the Whaling Museum (an old whaling factory).  It was a “lung-buster” and the legs were certainly fired up for the next 4 days of racing.  Our times seeded us for the next day.

Day 1 (Salão – Capelinhos)

Starting on the rugged northeast coast and finishing on the volcanic lunarscape of the west coast.  The course was 8km up to the caldera and then downhill for 16km, although it was not all downhill. 

It was a cloudy, damp start but that didn’t lessen the spirits of all the athletes as we were marshalled into our starting boxes like a F1 race.  The air was full of anticipation to start the race and this Azorean adventure.  My aim was to push hard today so once the horn sounded, I went off at a decent pace and tried to get into an early rhythm.  The climb started on the road, then onto trail then onto fields and so the ground got softer and softer.  And as we climbed higher, it was wetter, and the course became very muddy.  There was a great section through the forest where we were just knee deep in mud, sliding and scrambling over and under logs and trees and undergrowth. At the caldera we were truly in the clouds with no chance of seeing the caldera in its glory.

Then we dropped off the top and straight into a steep and very technical descent which even the elites struggled with.  Sliding and not really in control for several hundred metres before the descent became more runnable.  The downhill became a fast and slippy switchback, all the way to Praia do Norte (on the northwest coast); you could hear the crashing of the waves but not see the ocean through the trees.

The final part of the stage was the ‘flat’ section across the lava fields and through the dense bamboo forest.  Legs and body were tired now after working hard for the first 18km and we had 6km to the end.  Again, technical trails weaving up and down the coastline´s gradient as we worked our way westwards along the coast. And then finally, we popped out into the lunar landscape at Capelinhos (the new land created by the volcanic eruption of 1957), a small rise before one kilometre downhill past the lighthouse to the finish line.

Day 2 (Varadouro – Salão)

We started on the west coast at a local campsite and we headed north across the island, around the caldera, and back to where we started on day 1.  The day was clearer and drier along the coastline.  The course was again 8km up to the caldera and then downhill for 16km but this time downhill all the way to the coast and along the cliffs.

The start was flat but soon went into a climb as we left the small villages and we were back into the muddy fields.  My plan was to repeat yesterday and work hard on the climb then push on the downhill.  Before reaching the caldera, we passed through a small forest section with beautiful waterfalls. After the forest, it was hard work – knee deep or more in mud and puddles.  We were running in a group of around 10 of us, all trying to pick the best route through the trail.  The last section up to the top was ultra-steep, a proper scramble, using my hands for purchase on the clumps of grass and to try and get a little distance from the guys around me.  Felt amazing getting to the top then realised visibility was less than 10 metres and the wind was whipping across the caldera.  We ran around the caldera’s single track for around 3km, the wind attacking us from our left, trying to push us onto the barbwire fencing.  Wind was reportedly around 60km/h, literally blowing us off our feet.

It was a relief to drop down off the caldera lip and into a steep and fast descent.  Then the best part of the course was running through the forest and the lavadas (water channels with small pathway that wind down along the mountains of the Azores and Madeira).  However, there was a lot of water and the puddles were quite deep in parts.  We also had to run through a tunnel in the pitch black, literally could only see the daylight at the far end maybe 50-80metres long.  There were also quite a few small gates to negotiate and it didn’t matter how quick you tried to get through, you always had to stop.

Then we came out of the forest and onto the farm tracks which took us all the way down to the coast.  It was fast; I could see runners ahead of me which were good targets and knew there were runners that had me in their sights behind.  I caught a few runners and then kept a steady pace through the grassy fields all the way to the finish on the cliffs.

Day 3 (Capelinhos - Capelinhos)

Today was meant to be the highlight of the race – catching the ferry over to Pico Island and running to the summit.  Portugal’s highest point at 2330metres.  But the weather had been against us for a couple of days and we’ve finally received the confirmation the night before.  So, we had a re-arranged route on Faial.  It was a clockwise loop on the west of the island.  The first half retracing the trail in reverse from Day 1 – bamboo forest, lava fields, slippy switchback climb, farmers’ fields and the very tough and muddy final climb to the caldera.  In all, 16km uphill.  I had pushed hard on the first two days and was unsure that if I pushed again today, I would be able to push again on the final day.  I decided to take it at a steadier pace, also knowing today and tomorrow were both over 30km.  I enjoyed the climb, but it was a grind but as I reached the final section I had almost caught up with the groups of athletes I had run with the previous two days.  But as the cloud engulfed us and the mud got deeper, I lost sight of them.  The wind was howling again and at the caldera is was even stronger than the day before as we had to negotiate another technical and fast trail.

The second half of the race was all new trails for us.  We dropped out of the wind onto a fire track for a couple of kilometres.  The wind made the clouds continuously wash over the pines above us like waves.  Then onto more lavandas and down a great trail through a forest with some wooden step sections. 

This time we knew there were two final climbs before the end but boy they felt longer and harder than they should have been.  I also had run out of water having not stopped at the aid station back at KM11. I was wishing to see a drinking source somewhere, but nothing was around, so just had to grind on. First climb was a tarmac road up to Cabeço Verde (a smaller caldera) and the last push up to Cabeço do Canto, which was single track trail up to the highest point.  You could hear the music from the start/finish line in the wind, but it was still 2km away.  The trail took us back up the moonscape gradient before we could drop back down to the lighthouse and the finish line.

Job done but I knew I had lost time to the athletes around me.  All to work for on Day 4. Time to eat and rest.

Day 4 (Capelinhos – Boca da Ribeira)

The coach ride was quiet all the way.  Everyone was tired or sleeping after the efforts of the previous days.  Going across the Island from West to East and going around the south side of the caldera and using parts of the old whalers´ route across the island.  The longest stage of the 4 days at 34km and almost the most ascent at +1750m.  I was going to run as hard as I could; I also brought extra nutrient and would stop at the aid stations.  The first half of the day was all uphill again and reversing the second half of day 3’s route to the finish.  So, we had the two early climbs to spread out the athletes before the long climb up to the top.   I was able to pass quite a few guys and even caught my teammate once we hit the lavadas. It was just head down and pump the arms and legs, keep moving quickly.   We hit a tarmac section which was winding up to the caldera.  The wind was strong, and visibility was low yet again.  I worked with my teammate to keep a good rhythm; when the wind was behind us it felt great then we’d turn a bend and be running straight into it head on and feel like we were not moving! 

Once, we started the downhill section between 16km and 22km.  I couldn’t keep pace with my teammate and another athlete, and they slowly disappeared into the cloud around us. I knew after 22km, it was downhill pretty much all the way to the coast so I just worked as hard as I could.  Plenty more farmers’ fields to run through (and to be honest, I don’t plan to run across a cow field for a long time now).  At 25km, the route flattened out with a mix of tarmac and farmers tracks.  You could just make out the coastline in the distance and the cliffs became more visible.  I was feeling good and keeping a decent pace on the flat, I had hydrated better and eaten my nutrition on plan.  A couple of athletes had come by me, but I was hopeful to retake them before the finish.

Then we hit the jungle section…Oh My Gosh!!!  It was wet, it was humid, there was no grip, you slipped everywhere.  The trail had been hacked out of the jungle and I was just grabbing anything I could to gain forward momentum and purchase.  Why did the organisers add this section…but hey, we were all having to go through this but I made it slow going and lost another place!  Finally, we popped out the other side.  I could see the three runners ahead of me, my targets.  We had a short grassy hill climb and then descent before hitting the mountain bike downhill section.  I had taken two places back by the time I reached the MTB downhill and then went full throttle.  It was just like the tracks back in Sintra and I flew down, passing the final athlete in a flash.  One of the highlights for me that was!

I crossed the road and we headed up a small wooded climb; I looked behind me to see one of my competitors start the climb maybe 30 seconds back; I would not let him get any closer. I powered up, along and then down the final steps towards the finish.  Running through the finish line was an amazing sense of achievement and I looked to the skies for a few moments before gathering myself and receiving my finishers bracelet and cap.

I congratulated the athletes around me that I had raced with over the last few days, then found my teammate.  We walked down to the sea pool and washed off and cooled down in the ocean.  Our other teammate finished a few minutes later and he joined us in our celebration sea cool down.

This was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I prepared for this race and did the best I could, my only thought after analysing the race is should I have gone harder on the 3rd day (where I lost time) but then I might not have been able to push as hard on the final day.  So, who knows?!  It was the choice I took and I am happy with my performance and result; I have learnt plenty from the experience and had a great time with my teammates and training partner.  I would also like to thank Armando Teixeira, the Portuguese Salomon Sunnto Athlete, who I ran with each day.  It was great inspiration to run with you.

Final result was total time of 13hours and 2 minutes.  I finished in 83rd position overall and 59th male!

I 100% recommend visiting the Azores.  Faial is a beautiful island but so are the others and only 2.5 hours from Lisbon International Airport.  Some airlines fly direct to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel island.

Finally, thank you to the Golden Trail Series / Golden Trail Championship sponsored by Salomon, Azores Trail Run and the people of Horta, Faial.