Boa Vista 2005Photographs above © Boa Vista Ultra Trail
The Boa Vista Ultra-marathon is an extreme race which covers the entire island of Boa Vista, one of the 10 islands which make up the archipelago of Cape Verde, located just six hours by plane from Europe and about 500 kilometres from the coast of Senegal. It has been described as one of the last few paradises left on earth, the meeting-place of two giants “The Desert and the Sea”. An island where dunes of fine white sand slope down and disappear into the emerald green waters of the sea, in an infinite and mysterious cascade which has something ancient about it.
Well getting there is fun. We took a flight to Munich to meet up with Anke and Markus. We then took a second flight to Lisbon and went into the city to see the sights while we waited for our connection. Lisbon had changed since I was last there many years ago but the centre of the city retained its style. The long colonnades and little shops, each an Aladdin’s cave selling buttons or clothes, each one individual. We then flew on caught our third flight to the main airport on the island of Sol, arriving about midnight. Here we lay on the floor of the airport and waited for the dawn. It was Kathy’s first sleep on an airport floor. She coped really well until 3am a boy playing with marbles on the granite floor managed to roll one up my bottom. She couldn’t stop laughing and kept me awake with little guffaws. When dawn broke we boarded flight number 4 for the island of Boa Vista. This last flight was only 20 minutes, but we arrived on a very different island; more remote and natural.
Getting our Baggage was different. Standing in the baggage hall I notice a large hole in the concrete wall. An open-backed truck arrived and soon the cases were thrown through the hole in the wall. It got worse; the truck proved to be our executive transport to the hotel. The road was non-existent and we bucked and bumped all the way into town whilst holding on for grim life. I love this stuff. It’s really living. We are so lucky and not aware of it.
We had the usual acclimatization to the start of the race and in the evening we went down to the shore to see the catch brought in. And what a catch it was: the fish, a type of tuna, spilled over the edge of the wheelbarrow. They were enormous and glistened in the evening sunset. The food was definitely fresh. The hotel was basic but pleasant and very homely. I could have stayed there easily for a holiday. The town was unspoilt. The people are poor but happy but as developers move into the area you can see their hunger for a better life – and why not? It’s easy for us to say “shame” but then we get on our planes and go home taking with us just memories but they still want to give their children a better start.
The ultra-marathon is a non-stop race, on foot, in which both individuals and teams may compete. Competitors are self-sufficient for their food and for finding the direction (for the most part, the route is marked out), and are free to choose their rate of progress, over a distance of 150 km, to be covered in a maximum time of 60 hours (with a gate at the 75th km to be passed within 30 hours).
Each competitor is obliged to bring with them a rucksack containing food, a sleeping bag, and the compulsory material required under the regulations. The organisers provides a road-book and a map showing the route, and will set up control points and checkpoints, at intervals of 15 km at most, where competitors will receive water and can rest. The race is followed by a medical team, which is in constant touch with the organisers by radio.
The race for the most part is a run around the island. The run from the start in the main town of Sal Rei, to checkpoint 1 is overland. About halfway you come to the coast which is marked by a wreck of a tanker.
This huge hulk is beached close to shore and the sea is gradually pulverising it to rust. It’s a hugely impressive sight, gradually disappearing year after year. From here you move inland and see what should be a natural wonder of the world. Here the desert is pure white. After running in white deserts around the world this is still the purest white I have ever seen. The sand is made of silica and we were so lucky to see it at its very best. At Checkpoint 2, by an old disused factory, you turn on to the beach and the sand turns yellow and you run around the shore line for the rest of the day.
Coming from a city like London you start to feel agoraphobic as large open spaces open up to you on one side and the empty sea is off to the right. It stays like that all day. No one lives there. It’s just you, nature and what’s going on in your head and that can get pretty noisy for some.
In the evening the baby turtles and crabs pass your feet as they make their way to the shore. The turtles have hatched and are taking their first steps in life. Crabs by the thousand are doing the same and you are continually trying not to stand on them. It’s quite difficult when you are tired and carrying a pack. It’s a privilege just to be there. At this point there were three of us together; Markus, Francesca and myself. At checkpoint no 6 Francesca dropped out and the two of us decided to move on. The next checkpoint is a lighthouse set up on the top of a high promontory which looks out across the Atlantic towards Africa whilst giving fantastic views across the east coast of the island. We passed local girls walking the water up to the building as they had done for a hundred years or more.
By now I was tired, it was mid morning of day two and we had been going for 30 hours. I don’t remember what the distance was, all I remember is collapsing on a doorstep and drinking water. I was getting dehydrated and didn’t know it.
We moved down to the beach and I glanced to my left, to see hundreds of little Chairman Mao statues in the sand – all giving a Nazi salute. Though this was a clue I didn’t take it. An hour later we lay down on the sand and I looked up at the sky. The clouds moved to form a Boeing 747 shape.
“Those CIA boys are getting really clever look at what they can do with camouflage” I told Markus. He looked at me blankly. I was getting awfully tired, each gulp of water was like the first sip of wine, the one when you sigh after a long day’s work.
Eventually we got to checkpoint 9 and I sank onto a bench eating my pepperoni. A local with a sombrero and cracked teeth was playing a three string battered guitar for us. I soon realised that he only knew one verse of one song, but he was devoted and continued to play this over and over again whilst we collapsed and ate. After 40 minutes I did not know how to shut him up; the twanging and nasal gurgling that came from him was becoming a torture and yet I knew that he was trying to help. I needed a plan. So I offered him one of my few pepperonis, the only things that were holding me together between this life and the next.
I showed him how to eat one as we didn’t speak the same language: I don’t think he spoke at all just grinned and smiled. Any way he couldn’t count; he took the lot and proceeded to stuff all of them in his mouth at once with the wrappers still on.
I now had no food and 50k to go down a cobbled road and hundred of tiny Maos chasing me down the beach.
The race now descended into pure hell. Ahead of us lay 50km of cobbled road. Anke had mentioned this to me and said how difficult it was. I am often asked why I do these races. It is character building. Not the macho shoulder dance, but the sheer endurance of not giving up when you really, really want to. There are points in some races when it is almost like temptation comes to visit and taunts you for hours. It becomes a challenge within a challenge and this was one of those times.
Cobbles are difficult enough (any one running the London marathon by the tower of London would tell you that) but 50kms was just brutal. Time and again my sticks would get caught in the joints and spring back out of my hands, swaying behind me like a redundant TV aerial; their swaying almost taunting me.
It’s a funny thing but after 100 miles you really resent taking a single extra centimetre towards the finish line. You cut corners like a formula 1 driver, you look down the road analysing the shortest possible distance to the next point. Euclid would be impressed with your mental angles and trigonometry. So imagine what its like to go back to get a stick 6 feet in the opposite direction!? Are you mad!? There should be a law against this! And on and on you go…
The cobbles stretched on in the evening light; we came round a bend to see the road drop down and stretch to the horizon in front of us. Dead straight for 10 -15 kilometres. Oh how I hate those; they play with your mind. You look at the horizon and put your head down losing yourself in your own world only to raise it again 30 minutes later and yup – you’re no further forward. It remains like this for hours until miraculously there is a change and each time the mountains get bigger and bigger and finally by act of God you complete that stage.
By now the hallucinations were getting rampant. My food had gone, I was starving and my dehydration had taken full hold. In the bits when I came to my senses I rationalised that I could have asked for the pepperonis back and the regurgitated food wouldn’t have been the most gruesome meal I had ever eaten (that still remains a toss-up between the honey pot ant soup of south Tunisia and the moving olives of central Mauritania) but it would have been close.
I would then dissolve into the normal world of the dehydrated. Walking through rear suburban gardens, through rose bushes, bright red brick walls and boarded fences all glinting in the afternoon sun when in reality its 10 pm at night and the sky is black and sprinkled with a million stars. But no matter – in Libya one of my mates saw a London Bus and stood at a bus stop waiting for it to arrive.
This 50km cobbled road was plain unforgiving and was an unmittigating hard slog to the finish. The two of us had to keep checking each other as we worked our way across the landscape at night.
Getting towards the final 5k the hallucinations went into overdrive. Each runner over the years is known by his friends for something. Normally something funny. With me it’s “the cow”.
After 18 hours of ever increasing mad visions we came around a bend and there, in the morning light was a Friesian cow in a wedding dress with a straw hat on her head.
Now the penny dropped – I was in trouble. I wasn’t the normal rational man. I turned to Markus “Markus can you see a Friesian cow in a wedding dress with a straw hat just over there?”
“Nien!!” said Markus who gave me a funny look moved away a couple of feet. I can’t blame him; if you are stuck out in the desert you hope that your companion is not a raving lunatic.
That woke me up and my brain hurt with the concentration that I gave to each foot fall over the remaining kilometres. We got to the finish and I collapsed in to my bed. After 19 events this stage still remains one of the most gruelling sections of any race I have had to complete.
The post race is a time to relax and look at all the burns and injuries. For us we lay on the beach. The thing I like about races is that you know more friends at the end of the week than you did at the start. I am still in touch with Marcus and Francesca many years later. Anke is always there and some of the other racers I later ran with in Libya and other places. It’s a family, a support group who give you the confidence not to just do what everyone else does but to do a lot more and go that extra mile, take that risk, live that life and generally move out of your comfort zone. It’s awesome.
10 years later and I am still the only Brit to have undertaken this race. It’s a small achievement but I am still proud of it.
It’s not bad for two weeks out of your life and besides what else were you going to do?
The Boa Vista Ultra-marathon really does offer you the chance to taste adventure, sensations on the limit of human experience, and to gain an awareness of new cultures in a natural environment of priceless value. It’s a rare opportunity to go to an island where there are few visitors and to see the island in its natural state. But this won’t remain so for long developers are sure to come in the future.