I’d signed up for this race on a whim after a friend who lives on Malta sent me the details, I’d needed an ultra for April and after checking this one out I realised it was cheaper to pay for the flight, accommodation and entry than the alternative I was considering so I registered and didn’t think much else about it. Not until race day started to dawn anyway.
With all the other races I was taking part in taking my attention one after the other it wasn’t until mid-April that I finally started to look into the Gozo 55km and I quickly started to question my decision to sign up without researching it first. I read a couple blogs written by previous entrants and there was one common theme… how hard the route was.
Oh dear, with just 2 weeks before the NDW50 what had I let myself in for?!
We arrived in Gozo on the Wednesday before the race and spent a couple days exploring Malta’s sleepy little sister Island, soon discovering that the terrain was… bumpy. And hard. In fact, the whole place is either limestone or volcanic rock and I swear there isn’t a flat spot on the entire Island. The undulations aren’t even gentle with sheer cliffs either side of the bays we visited and knowing the route followed the coast I incredulously convinced myself that it must somehow skirt these towns for a more passable route that I was unaware of. I was wrong, so very wrong.
Myself and 3 other runners (from Canada, Poland and Belgium) were transferred by shuttle bus from Marsalforn to the start in Ghajsalem on the Saturday morning with plenty of time to register, a hassle free start to race day which is always preferable to fighting with public transport in a foreign country. During the obligatory race briefing we were advised to follow the tape and sprayed red dots & arrows, the latter used because the “hunters remove the tape”. Cue nervous laughter from all! Hunters? I just hoped we weren’t the prey. We then lined up behind the inflatable gantry ready for the local Mayor to count down and at 8am we were off…. by which time it was already getting warm.
From the start the route quickly hits the cliff edge passing the walls of one of the many fortified towns around Gozo giving stunning views of Comino and Malta, then immediately it started to take on the soon to be familiar pattern of rocky technical descent to a pretty bay followed by short steep quad burning ascent. I had set off at a comparatively quick pace and was soon sweating heavily in the early morning heat so slowed a little to a more comfortable speed. The trails were pretty good for the first 6 miles and although the runners were already well strung out the red dots marking the route were clear and easy to follow so I soon reached CP1 in good time & good shape.
I took on some water and quickly followed the red dots and arrows through the town where I was joined by Sue a local runner who was here for the second time and chasing a sub 8 hour time. We broke free of the town and were greeted by the breath-taking Ta’ Cenc Cliffs, a highlight of the race and I had to stop for some photos losing touch with Sue.
The next 3 miles followed the cliff edge all the way to Xlendi, one of the places I’d visited but couldn’t see how we could possibly get up the sheer cliff side. After passing the restaurants and taking the stairs I’d seen on the far side the red dots that showed the route just went straight up the rock face. Literally scrambling up to the boulders to some steps cut into the rock I rounded the top, but with the concentration and effort required to get up I had lost sight of any red dots. After wandering back and forth for a few minutes I spotted another runner passing me along a track just below me so I crossed to the edge & picked up the route again, but I had lost a substantial amount of time which had allowed several runners that hadn’t been in sight to catch me. We all continued along together, me leading the way until the trail appeared to fade away before my eyes, with no red dots in sight. We fanned out looking for signs of the route, until one of the group pointed out a track off to our right telling us we needed to be on that. The big sign stating “Way Out à” suddenly made much more sense. Joining the trail we were all off again heading inland on gravel tracks & country roads before running into arable land and blindly following the others as they passed a big sign that warned “Private. Stay out or Trouble.” We now weaved between a lot of the hunter hides, some in action with hunters (and their guns inside). We eventually joined a clear trail on the cliff edge again and could soon see Dwerja and the Azure Window for CP2. Dropping down the good track onto the road and dodging buses and tourists to the second place I’d visited since being on the island and CP2 at 13 miles.
The marshals were superb, helping me top my soft flasks up with water, electrolytes & Tailwind – no mean feat in the stiff breeze before I headed on my way. It was a long pit stop, due to all the faffing about but I needed to ensure I had enough fluid as temperatures were now soaring. The route now began a long drag uphill first away from the Sea before picking up the cliff edge and providing absolutely stunning views back to the Azure Window, a perfect location for the race photographer to snap us as we passed.
The next section was a bit of a mental battle for me, I felt sick, but wasn’t sure why. Was I dehydrated? Had I drank too much? Do I need to eat more? Was it heatstroke? As the questions and doubt pounded my brain we passed through some stunning landscapes, which helped take my mind off the concerns. The limestone had been eroded by the wind & sea creating formations that were like an alien landscape and as I started to feed off the views I picked myself up again and began making good progress again.
Reaching the Salt Pans I knew from the blog I’d read we were nearing Marsalforn and I reached CP3 at 19.5miles feeling good again and on for a sub 7hr finish. I began chatting to a Swiss runner and we stuck to the road through Qabbar and down to Marsalforn, passing the bemused British and Polish tourists filling the restaurants along the seafront. At the end of the row of hotels there are a few steps… and then you enter Hell. The trail ascends abruptly and with the hill blocking the wind it was hard and hot work, but the reward for this was a fun stretch of single track carved out of the hill side. Following the dots I passed into a patch of bamboo, enjoying the sudden cool in the shade, coming out the other side 2 runners came down towards me, telling me they were lost. We went pack into the bamboo, and there was a marker… out of the bamboo, nothing. We wandered up and down trying to work out which way to go before seeing Sue making her way along the beach below us. We eventually discovered a reasonably safe way to drop down to the beach and again picked up the route. We all heading along the beach over the rocky edges before the trail climbed very steeply up to a ridge overlooking Ramla Bay.
I cracked on this final climb and dropping down the path to the beach I was suffering in the heat, making my way onto the sand I heard Anna calling me and I shuffled over to see her. Downing a few big slugs of water I deliriously wobbled away down the beach. To escape the torturous sun trap of Ramla Bay required a long slow steep climb up to the welcome cool shade of Calypso’s Cave where I sat for a few seconds. Legend has it this is where Odysseus stayed with Calypso during his Odyssey, so if it’s good enough for him to take a break then it’s good enough for me too! Leaving the cave through a door way in the back we now made our way along a serious of enclosed roads and tracks that undulated like a roller-coaster which soon raised my temperature again. I took some painkillers to ward off the growing pain in my legs and continued to move forward, slowly. It had taken so long to cover the last 6miles I had run out of fluid and was now worried about the 10 hour cut off, never mind 7hrs! After another 1.5 miles the road surface improved and we reached a good descent that allowed me to stretch my legs a bit and as we hit the coast again the wind picked up cooling me a lot. Reaching CP4 I was finally starting to feel OK again.
The marshals again helped me with my soft flasks adding caffeine infused electrolytes and Tailwind for an extra boost during the final leg. I downed a bottle of Isotonic and plodded off up the road. Passing onto steadily rising trails I was feeling sick again, I’m pretty sure that it was Iso drink sat on my stomach that made me feel bloated so I took my time until the sloshing subsided and I’d taken on the fluid. I finally started to feel OK as we passed yet another fort and I started to push on knowing I was only a few miles from the finish. I was following the red dots as they passed between a couple large boulders and appeared to disappear, looking around a little bewildered I realised the route dropped straight off the side down a loose rocky scramble. I clambered down and as I started making my way on a female runner behind me continued straight past, I was shouting for her & realised that a male runner was behind me saying no because the route again appeared to disappear. There were markers all round us but it took a few second for us to realise the dot went straight over the side of a huge rock blocking our way, so another climb was necessary. After another couple scrambles and crossing a couple beaches the route took us up a metal rung ladder over a final rock face before we settled into better progress along a single track.
By this point I was smashed to pieces but pushing on as I wanted to get it over with and for the final couple miles of trail I played leapfrog with one of the MTB entrants, he would pass me only for me to catch him in a section he couldn’t ride just to be passed again seconds later. I passed him one last time as we reached the road and didn’t see him again until the finish line as I soon left the road to head up the steps and slopes in enclosed back alleys towards Ghajnselem. I passed the line in 8.08, I was a little disappointed to be over 8 hours but it was a bloody hard day that I found thoroughly enjoyable.
Despite getting lost on several occasions having lost the route I didn’t really find this a negative, the support from the marshals was spot on & they couldn’t do enough for me at the check points. The views and terrain were spectacular and it was an incredibly welcoming and friendly event with runners from all corners of the world which all added up to be a true experience. The only negative was the runner who miraculously appeared ahead who I suspect used local knowledge to take a shorter route. I know that really they’re only robbing themselves and the organisers have done what they can to stop this by having a number of spot checks around the course but it is still saddens me to see it happen.
To finish off a great day the organisers also put on a pasta party at a nearby country club on the cliff top overlooking the Mediterranean so I joined many of the runners from the day in the evening for a good meal, a recap of our days exploits and the presentation ceremony… a fitting end to an unforgettable day.
- Travel to Malta is quick and comparatively cheap, with flights starting from as little as £25 and taking less than 3 hours. Accommodation on Malta (and Gozo) is plentiful and well priced so it makes perfect sense to make your running trip here into a holiday giving you time to explore the islands and their sights and sites.