Skyrunning is a new ultrarunning trend that takes competitors above the clouds on the highest mountains and peaks. One of the most popular skyrunning events is held on Madeira. Runners don’t just love the race for its athletic challenges, however – the Portuguese island also offers beautiful beaches where they can recuperate after the race.
With sandy beaches stretching for miles, deep green forests, and pleasant temperatures all year round, Madeira is a dream vacation spot. The Portuguese island, located in the Atlantic Ocean about 700 kilometers off the coast of Morocco, is a mecca for sun-worshiping tourists. But Madeira has more to offer than lazy days on the beach. The island has also become a popular destination for those who enjoy a more active sort of vacation: Crisscrossed by a number of high mountain ridges, Madeira can add mountainous terrain to its reliably warm weather, making it one of the jewels of the skyrunning circuit. This relatively new extreme sport, which involves running at high altitudes along steep mountainsides and up challenging peaks, is growing in popularity. Today there is already a Skyrunning World Championship. Adrenalin junkies and elite athletes from across the globe are drawn to the event in Madeira, unable to resist the twin temptations of ultramarathon and sunny seashore.
The Ultra SkyMarathon Madeira was first held on this island paradise in 2014. It consists of several disciplines aimed at participants with different levels of fitness and endurance. The toughest discipline and the event’s greatest challenge is the Madeira Sky Race, a 55-kilometer technical mountain race that takes runners up the island’s tallest peak. The race kicks off before dawn in Santana, a small town on the northern coast of the island, so the runners must use a headlamp to illuminate their path over the initial kilometers of the course. The first ten kilometers require the participants to gradually work their way up the mountainside until they reach the summit of Pico Ruivo, which rises 1,862 meters above sea level and is the highest mountain on Madeira. Not surprisingly, the views from the top are breathtaking. The ocean stretches to the horizon as far as the eye can see, while in the foreground the mountain range with its green hillsides and lush valleys plunges toward the shoreline. Sometimes the runners pierce the cloud cover and actually seem to be running through the sky above the trailing mists. Once they have reached the summit, however, there is little time to enjoy the spectacular vista or marvel at the clouds, because the difficult ascent is followed by an even more challenging descent from the towering mountaintop. The athletes now tackle a long, rugged downward trail over steep mountain ravines and ocean clifftops. The descent not only requires the highest level of concentration, but alpine experience as well – in order to register for the Madeira Sky Race, all participants are required to provide proof of their advanced technical climbing skills.
The path to the valley takes the runners along several natural hiking trails and through Madeira’s famous laurel forest, or Laurissilva, which covers the northwestern part of the island. Densely packed with a diversity of plant species, this forest has many trees that are more than a hundred years old. In fact, some of them are said to have been already growing there in 1419 when explorers first discovered the island. Many of the tree branches are festooned with moss and covered in lichen. The cooler, moist air of the Laurissilva sometimes gives rise to a thin layer of mist, hampering visibility for the runners. The mist also lends the area a certain magical charm, earning it the nickname “fairy forest.” And as the runner’s trail also takes them across rivers and streams, it’s not only the air that is moist, but the athletes’ clothing as well.
The Madeira Sky Race is part of the international Skyrunner World Series, an annual world championship which covers races held on 16 skyrunning trails across the globe. The next Madeira Sky Race takes place on June 1, 2019. Those who find the long-distance skyrunning challenge too daunting can sign up for the beginners’ version of the ultrarace, the Laurissilva Sky Race, which covers a much shorter distance of 13 kilometers – although participants still face an ascent to more than 1,100 meters. The Laurissilva Sky Race is held on June 2, 2019, one day after its big brother.