Video content courtesy of Tom Dillon
Grains of sand so small, so insignificant and fine. The weathered particles of rock, ground and broken down by ages of water, wind and waves. That sand; made by suffering the forces of wear and tear, is about to have its revenge.
Revenge on us. Our legs. Over three days of coastal trails.
Sand pushing out and sinking under our feet, filling our shoes and lining our socks. Suffocating our toes. Dunes rising and rolling in repeated hills.
The Vicentina Coast of Portugal is a line of sheer and dramatic limestone cliffs, eroded back and weathered by the Atlantic Ocean. The sand collects itself above to form dunes and below as golden beaches. Where the cliffs give way to river outlets, white walled and terracotta tiled fishing villages appear. The Rota Vicentina (Fisherman’s Trail) was only recently established in 2012, linking several coastal walks. It is quickly bringing in a growing tourism base to the Algarve for hikers and trail runners alike.
Our party of nine hardy runners (Mitch, Tam, James, Becky, Lexi, Tom, Annabel, Nicole and Corinne) set off south from Porto Covo. Leading up, we had been doing varying levels of training and thus decided to split into two groups of different pace and intensity. The team chat group was ominously named; “Portugal DEATH Run” for fear of what this distance might do. Despite these perceptions, following the blue and green markings is surprisingly easy (for some) and an inland route offers an alternative for those doing a return journey. Gear consisted of; enough clean clothes to last a few nights, enough water to last the heat of the day and a chunky DSLR to document some stunning moments and landscapes.
We were running a total of 60 kilometres in three methodically planned sections. The first run to Vila Nova de Milfontes set us along a coastline sparsely populated by hikers and tourists. Who we did meet was the fisherman; rows of anglers appeared, casting out into the surf. Seafood is integral to Portuguese cuisine. Local markets and restaurants offered wide varieties of bream, bass, cuttlefish and clams.
For early May, the temperatures were high, the sky clear and the breeze fresh and salty. We managed the first run swiftly, stopping off for a lunch of Bacalhau à Brás – salted cod, scrambled eggs, chips and onions (trust us, it isn’t that appetising when it is served sloppily mixed together). The evening allowed for a few cold Super Bocks, an ice-cream and an ice-cold swim.
The second day of running to Almograve brought out the first aches and pains. A bit of chaffing from backpacks and blood blisters from sand in the toe-box were quickly overcome with a few plasters and rotation of the packs between the group. Toenails were beginning to wiggle. Would they last the journey, or would they be later pushed out by the next growth?
Expectations were also high. Tom “Spielberg” Dillon was filming, editing and producing a movie. He directed with his sharp pointy finger some willing participants to do acrobatic feats for his camera. These were welcome breaks during long stretches of running.
While only 15km, the second stretch was going to be much hotter. Protection from the elements was our best policy. It was an undercoat of sunscreen over the first burn of summer for some. Also protected from danger, we came across stork nests perched on the edge of eroded pinnacles; fortified by the ocean surrounds.
Our path pushed inland for our overnight rest at a local backpackers. A major bonus was the pool and a playful Labrador named Simba. He chased us around the lawn and obediently followed Mitch as he cleaned the pool – chomping on the bloated mice that were salvaged from the scoop.
At twice the expected elevation and being the longest run of the trip, we had saved the best for our final days run to Zambujeira do Mar. Leaving earlier in the morning to avoid the heat, we ran through fragrant fields of poppies, daisies, wild pea, lavender and the invasive hottentot fig. The plants clung together over the sand dunes, providing a habitat for all kinds of animals. A few mice and lizards darted out of the way of our footfall. Through one section, Lexi shrieked, jumping backwards into Tom’s arms as a brown snake slithered from before her foot into the undergrowth.
In other sections, we found dunes being irrigated for the cultivation of perfectly manicured lawn. Long strips are used to service the booming golf industry – a recent British ex-pat import to the Algarve.
Arriving at the end of our trail we had completely exhausted our supplies -a bonus due to less weight in our packs. Mitch kicked a rock conveniently disguised as sand and flew sprawled out into another larger and well placed rock. His bruised knees gushed with blood. It reminded us of the time Tamson tripped on the Abel Tasman track and we used up all our drinking water to wash her wounds. This unfortunately left us dehydrated over the next 16km of that run…
Swimming in the wash of the Atlantic both soothed sore muscles and cooled an overheated body. Most importantly, it cleaned out the sand. Sand had become our owner, trainer and now our hitch-hiker.
In celebration of our feat we retired to Lagos for a night of ‘burritos and mojitos’. Partying late into the night is an entirely different kind of endurance event and one which we didn’t manage to last very long into. Running the Rota was a spectacular experience in a relatively empty corner of Europe that is not to be missed.