Recovery and rehab

15 Aug

Who knew it could take so long?

 

This part I hadn’t given any thought to. I knew, more or less, how the actual act of running and preparing to run an ultra could affect my body and mind, but it never dawned on me to find out what the effect would be afterwards.

 

For eight days straight, I was broken. I was so incredibly exhausted, ALL the time.  I slept for about 16 hours a day for the first three days.  I couldn’t eat, despite being told I should refuel and rehydrate. I was asleep most of the time and when I was awake I just wanted to be asleep.  My body felt wrung out, battered and broken.  I couldn’t walk up or down stairs.  So I just lay in my bed or on my sofa and slept, woke up, then slept some more.  I began to get worried, not really appreciating the effect such an act of endurance would have on me.  I got online and I found out it takes between 5-7 days to recover from any endurance event over 30 miles long.  Day 8 was the worst for me. I was at work by then but I was in physical agony, still tired, the whole effect brought me to tears.

 

By the next day it was as if I had woken from a coma. I felt amazing, in comparison to how I had felt.  I was human again, I could walk again.  I could go a whole day without a nap!  This was real progress.  Of course, I hadn’t fully recovered.  It’s taken me a month to get round to writing this update.  Deep, deep down my body is still repairing.  I am still sleeping very well every night, dropping off immediately but at least I wake up refreshed.  My legs still ache occasionally and so I’ve been to see my physio and my osteopath.  He was the one who pinpointed that TFL issue I had in the closing stages of each day of the race.  I now have daily stretches and exercises to do to help that recover.  I have run only three times since the event and each time felt good, apart from the niggling TFL so I’m giving it total rest now.  Total, unmitigated rest.  OK, I’ve been swimming, and I’m walking quite a lot, but not running.  I’ve got myself a new pair of trainers as an incentive for when I’m ready to go again.  At the moment they are shiny and bouncy and silently beckoning me back to the world of running….

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Race to the Stones

14 Aug

The big weekend arrived. After a very fitful night’s sleep in a comfy hotel bed, I was up at dawn psyching myself up for the performance of my life.  This was to be my Everest.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t too nervous. The organisation of the race was spot-on so that took a lot of worry and nerves out of the whole event. We arrived at the start line with plenty of time to spare.  The place was not packed, but the calibre of entrant was apparent. This was no fun run  This was serious.  We set off in the first wave, me and Bruce, and everyone was in high spirits, not really sure what to expect, but just doing what we did best – running.

The first 20K was undulating, with some nice views, but with a bunched up crowd still feeling their way.  It meant that between pit stops 1 and 2 I found myself running slightly too fast than I would have liked and knowing I couldn’t sustain that pace for 50 km.

The pit stops were amazing. We had self-righteously vowed not to eat anything we hadn’t tried in training (on all the usual advice) but at the second pit stop we were stuffing our faces with Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and Caramel Wafers, tea, coffee, fruit and biscuits!  The staff were brilliant. So friendly and encouraging, handing out advice and metaphorical back-slaps.  I found myself really looking forward to the next pit stop, not just to check out what was on the menu, but for the camaraderie and a chance to sit down!  Plus each one felt like another step closer to the finish line.

We ran though woodland, valleys, the Field of Dreams (really a big field of wheat), a golf course, along the slow and lazy Thames, some impossibly picturesque villages, massive country estates, along country roads, A-roads, through Goring, along endless chalk Downland, more massive wheat fields, a race course, through torrential rain (so welcome) with spectators cheering intermittently along the way to finally reach the Halfway Hub.  A gin and tonic was waiting for me as I crossed that first finish line, followed by foot inspection, foam rolling, race analysis, frantic texting and social media updates, a massage, a shower, tent set-up and finally FOOD and REST!  The atmosphere at the half way mark was one of palpable exhaustion.  Everyone was a bit shell shocked. We were the walking wounded wandering tentatively on blistered feet and battered legs, trying to refuel and ready ourselves mentally and physically for the same again tomorrow.  It all felt a little surreal.  A sudden and unexpected pain in (what I later found out to be ) my TFL in the last hour of running had made me seriously consider whether I could make it through tomorrow.  Another G&T convinced me I could.

All was dark and quiet on the campsite by 9.30 pm and I fell into a deep and exhausted sleep in my tent, listening to the wind batter the fabric around me, intrigued by what tomorrow might bring.

Up at 5.30, I immediately got dressed: I had a fresh top, underwear, socks and a change of shoes. We had breakfast in the communal marquee – the atmosphere even more subdued than last night – and watched as people started to set off for the second leg.  We were in awe of those who had done the whole course non-stop, thinking that they had been running all afternoon, all evening and probably all night whilst we were relaxing, drinking and sleeping.  But they were done and we had it all ahead of us.  So we set off at 6.45 am, and our legs were surprisingly willing.  It took about 10 minutes to get into a good stride and then it was business as usual.

There was more interesting scenery, more exposed than yesterday, out on the Ridgeway. It was also sunnier and we slapped on the sunscreen as we trudged in a line up the first steep incline. We watched the infamous Red Kites circle us ominously, but they were really just curious. The first pit stop was only a relatively short distance away but proclaimed that we had a marathon left to run!  That was both inspiring and daunting in equal measure so I did some stretches and layered on the plasters as my feet were beginning to complain already.

The crowds started to thin out as we left that first pit stop. Nobody was chatting as much as they did on the first day.  Fatigue was really starting to hit us all now.  We tended to find ourselves running with certain others of the same level.  When we walked they ran past us and then vice versa. Some went way ahead and some dropped back but we were all familiar with each other as the day progressed.  There was a silent acknowledgement throughout the day of knowing someone but not really knowing them.  I was alone in my own small world of pain but perversely satisfied in knowing others were in exactly the same place.

My sister, our “domestique” for the event, met us at pit stop 3 and it was lovely to see a familiar face and to hear her words of encouragement and amazement that we had come so far, literally, already. We had a good chat, filled up our water bottles, enjoyed the watermelon slices and orange quarters, and were off again.  It was very sunny and warm by now, hilly, with uneven ground, but spectacular.  We were all now very tired and we passed some broken people as we progressed.  We exchanged words of encouragement but the look in their eyes said they had had enough.  I hope they all made it.  My TFL was agony but I had to run through the pain. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) stop now.

After the last pit stop at Barbury Castle the miles seemed relentless.  But then we started to see countdown markers on the route, the best one proclaiming we had run 90KM, with a footnote telling us we were almost there, keep going.  So we did.  We took our last photo then started running again and we didn’t stop until we reached the end.

The last kilometre was pure pain.  A new blister on my right toe started up and later revealed itself to be a toenail eager to leave its mooring.  But I kept going, trying hard to absorb every second, every sight that I could, to remember those closing moments as the culmination of all those long months of training.  All those schedules I designed and re-designed; all those hours of running and thinking about running and talking about running and reading about running, researching, preparing.  The end was nigh.

We ran through the ancient site of Avebury Stones, then out again on a non-descript straight, narrow field path with the finish line now in plain sight.  Cheering and music greeted us and the announcer called out our names over the tannoy as we finished.  A medal was placed around my neck.  I stumbled off, dazed and confused, relieved, in search of food, my bag, a sit-down, grateful not to be running any more.  It was actually a bit of an anti-climax.  The challenge ended so soon, as I feared it would.  Despite the last 14 hours we had just spent running, it was suddenly and most definitely all over.  But now…

I am an ultra-runner.

Ultra blog – week 21

28 Jun

Run more, eat more, enjoy the solitude

I’ve made it this far and it’s been a real journey. I am amazed at what my body has achieved so far and know now it can support me all the way.  Provided I take good care of it.

The one important lesson I learned is that a body needs fuel. I made the mistake of not increasing my food intake while I was increasing my mileage week on week.  I complained to my physio that I was aching all over and felt incredibly tired all the time.  I thought it was just to be expected, but he made the ground breaking statement that I must eat more food! Now that I am running upwards of 50K a week I need more calories.  It made so much sense but I didn’t feel any more hungry than usual.  Whatever the reason for that, not surprisingly, as soon as I started eating more I felt so much better.  I didn’t cram in loads of junk food though, I was just eating more but sensibly.  But I had decided to become a vegetarian half way through my training.  Not a good idea but I’m an all or nothing kind of person.  So I had a period of adjustment there.  I still eat fish and I crave sushi most of the time.  A sure sign of what this body needs.

With that minor obstacle over, generally I have been injury and illness free.  I had an issue with my ankle which the physio warned me was my Achilles tendon.  Then my osteopath suggested it was the Tibialis Posterior.  So I dutifully carried out the exercises they both gave me and revelled in their manipulations, now, much less pain.  My body is definitely getting stronger and I do feel as if a few weeks back I hit reset and I’m good as new, if not better.  Now I am spending so much time on my feet I just have to deal with some serious blisters.  But skin can heal.  It’s tendons, ligaments and bones that tend not to.  And the blisters tend to heal overnight if treated properly.  So all in all I have been extremely lucky so far.

I am much better at running on consecutive days (run streaks).  I’ve learned a lot about mid-run nutrition and just coping with covering so much distance.  Fitting in runs around work and life in general has been a pleasure, rather than a chore.  On holiday I managed two 10K runs around Rome and loved it.  Having the whole city to myself very early in the morning when it was cooler was one of the most profound experiences of my life.  Also, getting in those long weekend runs before the temperatures rise during this year’s heatwave has meant I have seen so much wildlife and that has been a fantastic experience.  There have been so many positive benefits to this ridiculous amount of running.

In fact, I am seriously concerned about how I am going to cope without doing so much once the big race is over. On my last recovery week I had two rest days in a row and my life felt meaningless.  I was irritable and snappy.  Whilst in contrast, these final three weeks of peak training have left me feeling isolated and lonely because all I am doing is working, sleeping and running, and repeat and I haven’t had a social life at all.  I know it is just for a short time but it’s just something else to deal with.  Who knows how I am going to cope after the race?  I may need to give that some serious thought….

Until then, only three more weeks to go. Let taper madness begin.

 

Ultra blog 5

27 Mar

Motivation

I am 9 weeks into a 24 week training schedule.  Without seeming too smug I haven’t missed a run in my schedule and am still enjoying the training.  I am embracing that because I know there will come a time when I am de-motivated and crying out for a rest.  Until then I will keep on running.  I am constantly hungry, constantly tired and constantly aching.  I am becoming a little obsessive – obsessive about runs, obsessive about my kit, obsessive about illness and injury avoidance.  I breathe a sigh of relief on completion of every run; I am one step closer to my goal.  Having a goal gives purpose to my obsession.

Key motivators

Friends and family: However, my social life is taking a big hit.  I have had to turn down a number of holidays, birthday events and nights out this year because they are in the middle of my schedule and I simply cannot fit them in.  I did warn all my friends and family that this would happen but I don’t think they quite realised I would be turning down invitations outright, just to run.  To them it seems nonsensical, selfish even.  Perhaps.  But equally, they are in awe of my challenge and despite my neglect they are very supportive.  Like you would be when faced with a self-obsessed hypochondriac eating machine.

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Schedule: Here is my schedule if you’re interested.  It’s a hybrid of one I found in Runners’ World and one from the sponsors of Race to the Stones, plus my own intuition and experience.  But here’s the thing – I tweak it every week.  It’s a remarkably moveable feast as I judge how I feel against what I have to do and those unavoidable commitments.  Nothing in this game is set in stone.  Keep it flexible to stay motivated and to keep your friends (and your job).

WEEK MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY FRIDAY SATURDAY SUNDAY
               
1 5K REST 5K REST 6K REST 8K
2 REST 7K SWIM 5K REST PARKRUN 10K
3 REST 7K 4 HILLS 7K 11K REST REST
4 REST 6K 7K REST 8K 13K REST
5 REST 8K (Mitch) REST 6K SWIM 15K 6K
6 REST 5K REST 5K REST REST 17K
7 REST 6K REST 7K SWIM 17K 7k
8 REST 6K 7K 8K REST 18K REST
9 REST 6K SWIM 7K REST 19k 10K
10 REST 5K Mitch 5K REST 10K REST
11 REST 9K REST 10K REST 20K 6K
12 REST 10K Mitch 10K REST 22K 8K
13 REST 6K SWIM 16K REST 24K 6K
14 REST 7K Mitch 10K REST 10K REST
15 REST 8K 6 HILLS 9K SWIM 25K 7K
16 REST 9K 6 HILLS (Mitch) 12K 5K Rest 28K
17 Rest 10K 5K 10K SWIM 30K 10K
18 REST 8K Mitch 16K REST 16K REST
19 REST 7K 7K 8K Mitch 32K 16K
20 REST 8K 10K (hills) 10K REST 12K 35K
21 REST 10K 6K 10K Mitch 42K 12K
22 SWIM 8K REST 10K REST 21K 10K
23 REST 5K Mitch 8K SWIM PARKRUN REST
24 REST 10K REST REST 5K 50K RACE 50K RACE

Nature: The reason I enjoy running anyway is because it is an excuse to go outside on my own and be amongst the natural world.  I love nature anyway, but, call me paranoid, there is something slightly weird about a person wandering around on their own unless they are doing something purposeful like walking a dog, running or cycling.  Being outside in the open, breathing fresh air, looking at the birds, the plants, the wildlife calms me, makes me smile and is liberating.  Even routes I have driven round seem different when I see them on two feet.  I connect with and appreciate my patch so much more having witnessed it during all the seasons.  Running brings me solitude in nature which is my ultimate motivation.

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Headspace: I know this will sound pretentious, but I practice mindfulness.  Or meditation, call it what you will and the reason is because it works.  I use the Headspace app which includes episodes on sport including motivation, focus and competition, as well as other principles.  Somehow, and I would love to know how, it has stopped me reacting to pain like I used to.  I no longer get post-run neck pain and headaches which is a marvellous result.  It may also be helping me get out the front door every day to run.  I have no idea, but I am happy with the results.  Other apps are available.

Podcasts: I love listening to interesting podcasts while I run.  I usually pick comedians or other social commentators or just subjects that I like and so it provides a light-hearted and entertaining means of escapism to drown out the pain and tediousness of long distance running, after having listened to all my music playlists a hundred times.  Yawn.  I might even learn something along the way.

Treats: After all this challenge and achievement, I have to treat myself.  After a very long weekend run I find a nice gin and tonic does the trick.  Quite simply, it’s a miracle cure and no excuses.  Sports massage is also something I look forward to, so it’s a treat as well as being physically beneficial.  Clocking up all those kilometres means constant hunger and so I generally eat whatever I want whenever I want.  I try to keep a good balance of protein, carbs and good fats just like they tell me but I eat a lot of chocolate too and I don’t care.  I’ve booked a dream holiday next year and somewhere hot for Christmas.  That’s always a good motivator.  I look forward to and enjoy my rest days and recovery weeks, and I love an afternoon nap.  These tiny things in the overall scheme of madness really help me carry on.

Besides, now that spring is here it’s simply much easier to get out there and run….

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The long road ahead

Ultra blog 4

25 Mar

The next instalment – some more basics

Injury

Every runner, indeed every human, suffers from wear and tear. Touch wood I have never been so injured that I have missed races, but I inevitably get sprains, strains and niggles caused by over-training.  Usually, rest and recovery over a few days makes it all right again.  During ultra training there is no room for too much rest and recovery and that is why it helps to build in a contingency plan by preparing as long a training schedule as possible in the build up to a race just in case you do have to take a week off to recover and still be on track.

However, if you can’t do that, you can get help. I see a fantastic sports massage specialist called Mitchell Phillips at Studio 57 in Hove.  He and his wife, Elle and brother, Matt are directors of this great practice that offers all kinds of treatment and advice for sportspeople.  Good sports therapy does hurt!  But it’s a good hurt because an hour in a room with Mitch and my legs feel lighter than air.  It is well worth finding professional support like this and worth the cost.

They also give good on-going advice such as a sequence of stretches you can do at home, advice on self-medication like ice or heat. I always get confused as to which is best.  Plus they are great motivators as most of them are sportsmen and women themselves and are knowledgeable about their subject.

So keep on running folks.

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Ultra blog 3

24 Mar

Kit bag

The other reason for this challenge is the excuse to buy more stuff. My new obsession is browsing and shopping for running kit.  It’s my porn.  There are so many items you can persuade yourself you need to sustain you during an endurance event and all the training beforehand.  My current favourite new item is the race pack.  It is basically a backpack or glorified vest with  tonnes of pockets  and places to store litres of water in bladders with tubes that have “blister valves” (the geek in me loves all the terminology) maps, a whistle (for real!), gels, phone, whatever you many want while you’re out there running.

I have also discovered the difference between a trail shoe, as opposed to a road shoe, gaiters, buffs, compression clothing, Garmin. It’s all so exciting.  I want it all but it costs a bomb so just like the training, I have to pace myself.  Luckily, Race to the Stones is well-organised and I don’t have to lug around a sleeping bag and overnight kit, but one day I probably will and it will just mean more shopping!

Shoes, shoes, shoes

By far the most important item has to be your running shoes. Duh! I have gone through a manic buying spree of trainers after my faithful old Ravenna 7s had to be put out to grass at the beginning of this year.

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They were essentially a road shoe as I do a lot of road running.  Mainly because in winter when I’m running in the morning or evening around work hours it’s dark and wet so I have to stick to well-lit tarmac.  Also, roads are even and not pitted with ankle-busting divots and holes so I find I can run a lot easier and lighter.

Now that spring is here and my race is off-road in summer and I will be able to train over the fields and on the Downs, I decided to invest in some trail shoes (that can also transition to road use if needed).

Cue feminist rant – Women’s shoes have been designed by manufacturers who assume we all have tiny, narrow feet and don’t run more than a mile or so.  In reality, women’s feet come in all shapes and sizes (amazingly) and we can run vast distances so our feet swell and we need wider bigger shoes.  But none of the manufacturers, in the UK at least, will supply a wider fitting women’s shoe.  The answer for me is to buy from the men’s range, that starts at size 7, width D.  I am a 6.  At least it means my feet get more room overall.  The next trick is to tie the laces to secure the shoe but allow the toes plenty of freedom, and there is a whole world of lace-tying technique out there.  Thank you internet.

That problem solved, I have far fewer blisters and have not lost any toenails. During the last marathon training I lost three, but that was because I had my actual size 6 – always go larger.  It has also meant fewer leg niggles and therefore fewer visits to the expensive physio, which just goes to show.

I’m in men’s Brooks Pure Grit 5 and they now provide the perfect running machine.  I tried Brooks ASR 12 GTX (good support) and New Balance v610 (wonderfully waterproof) and they would have been fine if the assistant at Run and Become hadn’t suggested a neutral shoe would do, and recommended the ones she uses.  So remember, get advice from those in the industry.  They know their stuff.  And good shops allow you to return trainers even after a little use if they are not quite perfect.

Enough about shoes.

By the way, about five years ago I trained myself to fore-foot run and have since had no knee pain whatsoever. I do get calf strain and tight hamstrings and quads but they just need some good stretches, ice, foam rolling, intermittent sports massage and/or Rocktape to put them right.  No blinding pain or long term cartilage damage to deal with.

See you for the next one…

Ultra blog 2

23 Mar

The next instalment

What is an ultra-marathon?

That is the first question every non-runner asks when I tell them my plans for this year. It is any distance above traditional marathon distance.  So yes, you could run, say, 27 miles or 43 km and call yourself an ultra-runner.

After hearing my explanation with a look of horror, the next comment is, “You’re mad.”

I didn’t think so when I signed up but now I definitely do. That realisation dawned on me after the fifth run in a week where I had run a three-day run streak, had a rest day, then done a long run and a shorter one back-to-back.  That killed.  Now I am building on that pattern but with longer runs each week.

Why an ultra-marathon?

Good question. My first ultra will be Race to the Stones on 15 and 16 July 2017 – 100km (62 miles) over two days. That’s the distance from the surface of the earth to the edge of space!  It will be an adventure.  I enjoy running.  Eight weeks in and I am still enjoying the training although it is relentless.  It is very different to training for the marathon distance.  First, you do a lot more running on consecutive days and find I run naturally slower because I’m running on tired legs.  Secondly, marathon running is a competition to beat a specific time.  Ultra-running, for us amateurs, is just about eventually finishing.  And eating cakes at regular pit-stops.  And walking up the hills.  And camaraderie with fellow runners.  And getting a medal.  And the kudos.  What’s not to like?

Ultra blog

22 Mar

Constantly running, constantly hungry, constantly tired and constantly aching. Welcome to the world of ultra running.  I love it.

By way of introduction, I like running and it seems to like me, so this is one relationship I can sustain! I ran Brighton Marathon in 2015 and before that London in 2007 after starting out as a bit of a gym-bunny back in 2000. I hope to do New York in November.  In between all that I have run many shorter races, I Parkrun and now I have hopped on the latest bandwagon, the ultra-marathon.

To ultra-run one has to ultra train. Spending so much time on your feet with no distractions means a lot of thinking and a lot to get off your chest so I may be blogging profusely over the next few months.

Caveat: I really am not one of those people who “discovers” something as old as time itself, then builds a whole business and brand around their journey to enlightenment. I wish I was, I might be very rich, but to me it seems trite and a little bit boring.  I am just an ordinary woman, holding down a full-time job, who found out that she loves running in her spare time and it has become a passion.  But this is not my whole life and I am under no illusion that to many this is a well-trodden path (pun intended) and I am not expecting worldwide recognition.  I just feel the need to jot down my experiences, for myself, to remind myself where I came from and where I will go next.  I took inspiration from others like me. If someone gets encouragement from that, good, but it is not my objective.

Keep on running

During marathon training you go through a thorough process of finding out what your body is capable of and also learning to listen to it. During ultra training I can hear it pleading with me – to stop, rest, eat, drink, sleep.  So far I have found, if I can keep my body relatively happy with good nutrition, a constant supply of water, a good night’s sleep and perhaps driving to work instead of walking, it rewards me by sustaining the level of training needed and even belting up a hill on the last run of the week and that amazes me.  Another strange thing is that whilst I am in the actual physical act of running none of these niggles are apparent. It’s only when I stop that they manifest themselves.  The answer therefore must be – keep on running!

See you for the next installment…

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Everyday sexism

16 Feb

I work in a traditionally male-dominated industry, the law, but in the twenty-odd years I have been a part of it, I would say I have not suffered or witnessed any overt sexism. Although I have in my time probably not been offered the same salary as a male counterpart, which is always hard to tell because there is no set wage structure, I have obviously heard stories over the years.

But recently I have been subject to outwardly sexist comments from male clients. Perhaps those who work within the industry are more covert than those we serve.

The first example was an older man who was disputing my costs (yawn) and during our conversation he implied that the women who had worked in my team surely did not have as high a charge out rate as the man. In his opinion, the women’s work was not as worthy as the man’s and so surely cost less.  

But by the same token he disliked having a man working on the team because he considered that they cost more and he didn’t want to pay so much. Go figure!

Then today I was explaining the set-up of my team to another male client and it happened to consist of three women. So he asked if there was a partner in charge, and it dawned on me that he meant a man in charge, because in his words,  “with all these young women…” implying that a man had to be in charge of us all or surely we would all run riot. In actual fact ‘us women’ are all in our 40s and, young or old, we are all qualified solicitors perfectly equipped and sensible enough to conduct the business we do without male supervision.

Perhaps it is because I am much more educated on sexism and feminism, having taken much more of an interest over the years with the changing mood of the world post-Brexit and now Trump, that I have noticed these recent incidents. The world is becoming more fascist and the new normal is to be sexist and racist with impunity. It makes me very, very sad but also more alert. Sometimes though, ignorance can be bliss. 

New Year on the Garden Isle

8 Jan

In that no man’s land between Christmas and New Year the best thing to do is go on holiday. The weather in the UK is invariably rubbish, everyone is comatose and intending to stay that way until forced back to work the following week.

To avoid a coma this year, my two travel companions and I chose to visit the small Atlantic island of Madeira, owned by Portugal and part of the archipelago that includes the Canaries, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura and several other small islands I never knew existed, off the west coast of Africa. Without any preconceptions I went with an open mind and was really pleasantly surprised.

It is larger than I expected (about the size of east and west Sussex together) and green. Mostly hilly, a touch mountainous, the inhabitants cling to the edges wherever there is a bit of flat land, or indeed just build a house precariously into the rock face.  It is pleasantly warm even in winter, although there is a persistent strong wind. Huge surging waves crash dramatically against craggy cliffs. I suppose it is quite exposed sitting there off the African coast. Because of this location it is classed as sub-tropical.

Bananas and sugar cane grow in abundance; the sugar once providing the island’s main source of income, and was considered the finest and sweetest in the world back in the 18th and  19th centuries, its real hey day.

Booze

Also back then the island’s Madeira wine was considered a prize product, shipped all over the world it was used to toast the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence. What an impressive provenance. The wine is still revered.  Sipped at any given opportunity during the day, we found it goes well with their honey cake and avocado, but then again what doesn’t these days! Then there’s the 50% proof rum – or rather, their traditional rum-based drink – Poncha. It is a lethal mix of rum, sugar, honey and orange and/or lemon. Made to order by the specialist little roadside bar (?!) in Sao Vicente it is delicious, sweet and punchy.

Funchal

This is the capital which means “fennel” in Portuguese, a throw back to its past. It’s a pretty city to spend a day.  Starting at the harbour side, check out Madeira’s most famous son, Christiano Ronaldo’s museum, nightclub and hotel. And pose next to his statue with all the enthralled kids, big and small. The cruise ships flock to this island and there is always a behemoth moored in port. The cable car starts here and will whisk you sedately to Monte, where you can spend a very pleasurable hour or so wandering through the Tropical Gardens where there are thousand year old olive trees planted by the Romans and examples of garden design and plants from all over the world. Then check out the impressive church up here before jumping into a wicker basket and careering down the super-steep hills, guided by two old drunk men who ply you for an extra tip after you have parted with 45 euros for the 5 minute pleasure. It’s a thrilling experience that, like the gondolas in Venice, just has to be given a go. Then if you don’t want to get a taxi from the touts at the toboggan stop be intrepid (or foolish) and give your quads a workout back down to the city centre.  Time for more Poncha to aid recovery.

Try to visit the Madeira Story Centre, one of the best museums I have visited, it gives an interesting and well presented insight into the history of the island from its violent volcanic start millions of years ago, up to the present day tourist industry. Winston Churchill and other world leaders and celebrities of their time stayed at Reid’s Palace Hotel and you can see their signatures in the guest book.  It’s all very ‘Raffles’.

If you get seriously peckish, head away from the main harbour area into the winding narrow alleyways  behind it, paved with marble and basalt, and try a local taverna. And try out their famed fish dishes. Black Scabbard and Amberjack, preferably on a barbecue, they are delicious, as are tuna and lobster. Seafood pasta or seafood rice are served in huge casseroles and resemble a tasty stew stuffed with fresh tender sea life of all kinds. Mop it up with Bolo da caco, the local garlic bread and some crisp white wine. Food in Madeira is always delicious and well made. There seem to be a great many talented chefs on the island. They must be being held hostage or something. They could easily win prizes in London or New York if they ventured outside their island but thankfully for us tourists they don’t and so we eat extremely well!

Dizzy

Another detour can be made to Cabo Girao, a 580m high skywalk over the edge of a sheer cliff it is the second highest in the world and my sweaty palms and increased heart rate attested to that. Fantastic views.

But do make sure to get away from the coast and head inland. It is truly spectacular in there, with the mountains rising jagged and imposing all around you as your vehicle roars up those steep hills, over rocky, bumpy off-road tracks higher and higher, 1,500m into the clouds. The views are amazing. The villagers appear unfazed by the steepness and narrowness of every road. The island is volcanic in origin and so is very fertile, and they grow every vegetable and fruit you can imagine, here and there having built terraces to create every opportunity to make some flat land on which to grow stuff.

Natural

Funchal is on the south side of the island, which is hot and dry. The north is completely different, cold and wet. Very dense and green with indigenous laurel trees, and with an enviable bio-diversity, it is truly beautiful, a bit reminiscent of England in fact. The Romans wanted to harness the natural rainfall and cloud cover in the north and direct it to the habitations in the south and so they built the “lavada” system. It is really just a network of irrigation channels that one can now use to walk along beside in order to enjoy the countryside of the island, they provide a natural pathway to follow that can last a few minutes to over 19km if you’re fit and adventurous. They are still maintained by an army of workers and are a real benefit to the island. They still work perfectly well and are constantly full of clean, fresh water, a testament to their ancient inventors’ harnessing of the island’s natural resources.

2017

Back to Funchal for the new year’s celebrations. The town puts on a huge firework display in the harbour and from the hills surrounding it, that it is a true 360 degree spectacular. The nine cruise ships that stopped to enjoy the show all blasted their horns on the stroke of midnight and we happily toasted in 2017 with a convivial and the good natured crowd including families all around us. It was gentle and colourful and for that, one of the most pleasant ways to say good bye to the old and to welcome the new.

HAPPY NEW YEAR – and obrigado Madeira!