Trail Runs, Beach Race & Prabhala's 80th Marathon 2011

It was a concert at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon that took me to Portugal, but while I was there for three nights I got four excellent runs in – a slightly strange race, two hilly sessions on the Cornwall-esque headlands around Praia Grande and an epic half marathon along the coast to Cascais. The concert in Lisbon was scheduled to coincide with a gathering of our meditation group from UK, Ireland and France – plus of course the centre members from various locations in Portugal and a big contingent from Austria, who were there as musicians and stage crew. We were staying in a kid’s hostel used for school trips – in fact the interior was very school-like and the bed was only just long enough for me, but the view was great and the sound of Atlantic breakers crashing on the beach below was restful and invigorating at the same time.

My first run was an exploration of the sandy trails and woodlands overlooking the beach – a chance to see how fit I was now that I had resumed running and racing after a gap of two months. The climbs came easily, the sand was soft and therefore very hard going, but in all the 70 minute session felt great and the views over the ocean were gorgeous. I’ve probably said many times on this site how privileged I feel to get to run in new and wonderful places – this was no exception.

The next day, after a late night at the concert in Lisbon, it was an early start for 6am meditation and 7.30 race on the beach. Well, the program said “In the Beach” and so it proved with the soft sand soaking up much of our effort and making it a testing run. We gathered is the early morning mist and warmed up along the beach, running into rocky inlets and exploring the foreshore. By the time we found Pedro (race director) at the other end of the beach, the mist was clearing to reveal a cool morning with cloud that would later burn away to give us another gloriously sunny day. Pedro was insistent that we should all run barefoot – he wears those Tarahumara “huarache” shoes with just a string between the toes to hold them on, and has done a 6 day ultra in them, so no surprise that he was exhorting us to do the same. I was having none of it though – having not run barefoot for ages, and with a calf and Achilles still a bit suspect, I was going to wear my structured shoes and that was that. I paid for it in terms of speed of course, but the race was still great fun.

After a few moments of silence contemplating the sea and sky, we were off in a bunch, myself alongside two friends from Ireland and another from Paris who soon pulled away to leave me in fourth place as we wound our way down the beach dodging the waves, trying to keep to the firm sand just above the surf. Half a mile down, we had to turn in towards the cliff and haul our way through soft, dry sand to turn around two marshals – hard going. By this time I was catching Ashcharjya from Paris, a great runner who now has knee trouble that limits his training, and I was into third behind the brothers from Dublin. At the second turn, the half way mark, Pedro grabbed each runner by one arm and swung them round – bizarre stuff, but it helped stop us losing momentum. The second half was hard graft – I was hoping to catch at least one of the runners ahead, but if anything they were pulling away, engaging in their own friendly-but-intense, fraternal rivalry.

My breathing was laboured and I was pushing hard, but with little sleep behind me I didn’t seem to be able to find the extra gear that should be there for the finish. I came in happy enough as third, proud winner of a packet of biscuits for being in the top three. My time was around 11.30 so I would guess the course was short – I felt like I had run around 12.00.

Next adventure was the same afternoon – Prabhala, another Parisian friend, was due to finish his epic task of running 80 marathons in nine months. Yes, 80 marathons! He had been running one, two or three a week since the beginning of the year, once running two back to back at night in New York. I had been his support driver for one of these 26.2 mile challenges in Cornwall earlier this year, so I wanted to be part of the grand finale too. Our plan was to start at the Sri Chinmoy Peace Plaque at Cabo-da-Roca, westermost point of Europe and reminiscent of Landsend where Prabala had run one of his previous marathons. From here we would head around the coast until we had run a half marathon and then I would hang around and wait while Prabhala completed the second half solo. I thought it better to run the first half with him so he would have the satisfaction of completing this personal journey alone - and after all, he has proved he needs no moral support over this distance. I was going along in the hope I could provide a little distraction for him in the first half to help him pass the time more quickly before getting down to the serious challenge of the second half.

Without a map, we were lucky to have a clear and glorious day so we could see for miles and work out our route. From the Cape itself, we ran inland on the road then headed south on the coast road through landscape that reminded me of the rocky coasts of Pembrokeshire or Cornwall, with the key difference being the heat of the blazing sun from a deep blue firmament overhead. As soon as we saw a trail that looked to be going our way, we headed off road and tackled some steep climbs and loose, stoney descents in a landscape now reminiscent of a western movie one moment (sand, cactus, badlands-esque) and southeast Asia (bamboo forest) the next. I was rapidly falling in love with Portugal. Prabhala was in good shape - he's always been a stronger runner than me, with a marathon PB of around 2.52 as I recall, but I was hoping that I would be able to hold my own with him over just half the distance. It was tougher than I thought - incredibly strong from 79 previous outings, he danced so quickly down the steep inclines I was hard put to stay with him. Resilient, sure-footed and light on his feet, his running was a joy to behold.

I was very glad when, after just over an hour of ups and downs, wrong turns and backtracking on sandy and stoney trails, we emerged on to the coast road at another cape and turned east to follow the flatter, more sheltered coast towards Cascais. I was expecting easier going, and we soon found ourselves on a smooth, flat cycleway parallel to the road. The pace picked up and the sun was stronger - the breeze was gone now and it was close on 30 degrees. Luckily I had brought a litre of water in two small bottles stuffed into a bum bag, and Prabhala had his camelbak. We both had GPS and each beep was a welcome sound as the miles ticked by, slow-cooking us both. At Cascais I clocked up my 13.1 as we reached an inlet called Boca Do Inferno - appropriate in that heat. Prabhala soaked himself under a drinking fountain and I finished off my water before settling down to wait for him. After a couple of hours he returned, looking so strong that no bystander would believe he had just run a full marathon. I clapped him then left him alone to meditate briefly by the sea. A few minutes later our lift arrived - Kanala the sitar player from Austria picked us up and we were soon back at Praia Grande in time for a very welcome meal. 80 marathons. The kind of inspirational feat that makes you look at your own life and ask, "What am I doing?", "How can I challenge myself, transcend myself?". Jai Prabhala!


Last run of the trip was an easy session the day after that half marathon effort. I went with Suswara and Ambarish over the same headlands I had visited on day 1. I was surprised at how good my dodgy achilles and calf felt - a bit painful after the long run, all was fine the next morning, giving me hope that I should be able to step up my running without doing any damage. The fun part of this run was our adoption of an alsatian who we expected to run with us for a hundred yards or so then go bakc home, as domestic dogs usually do. This one had other ideas, and he was soon sticking close to Ambarish who he had decided was the pack leader. He stayed with us up over the headland then back down on to the trails on the edge of the village. A couple of times he stood up to other dogs to defend us, and when a couple of mean looking dogs came down the road towards us he tucked in behind Ambarish, expecting him to do the same in return. When the run was over he appeared at the back door of the hostel where Hugo gave him a bowl of cornflakes for his trouble. Fortunately he had a phone number on his collar and the owner swung by to pick him up just as we were getting in to a game of football. All in all a great time in Portugal and really encouraging on the running front.

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