My lasting memories of Malta are going there on my ill-fated honeymoon (that’s another story, kids) and standing in the middle of Valetta trying to buy jazz cigarettes for my then husband. For the whole honeymoon. FYI, that was a long time ago, internetz police. We are, unsurprisingly, divorced.
When Rat Race told me about this new trip, I was a teeny bit sceptical. Spolier - my scepticism, drawn largely from visiting 15 years ago, disappeared as soon as I got there. Malta is BEAUTIFUL.
The idea is to run/swim/kayak/bike across Malta in one day. You don’t have to do all those things. You can mix and match. Like a big old sweetie shop of fun. Y’all know how I feel about bikes right? BIKES ARE CHEAT MACHINES.
Malta is made up of an arpeggio of Islands and this event covers the big three – Gozo, Comino and then Malta itself. We were to start at the top of Gozo and run down the west coast (about 10 miles) then jump in a kayak or swim the 800m to Comino which is TINY. We’d then run across Comino (or kayak around it), then swim or kayak the 2km channel to the mainland. Once out of the water, we would run 35 miles down the western side of the island, from the most northern to the most southern point. Then we would all have a beer and bask in glory.
So that’s 45 miles plus maybe 3km of swim and 4km kayak. Do-able for sure. Do-able in 34 degree heat was going to prove slightly more challenging.
First things first – to pick up the kit., I had gone out to Malta with my trusty boyfriend/support crew Julius, under the guise of it being ‘a holiday’. He was working as crew for the event, along with four other – Nick, Nicola, Shannon and Lisa. We flew out Thursday and spent the evening in a tiny village where they decided to have a massive party that ran from about 10 – 1.30am. Complete with a brass band. Outside our window. Make no mistake, Malta loves to party. They will literally set off fireworks if someone wins on a scratchcard.
Views from our Friday morning “fun run” Photos: Julius Naim.
On Friday morning we got up early and headed out for a run (or a “reality check” as it became known). At 7.30am the temperature was creeping above 28 degrees and the humidity was hideous. We ran trail and road for about 6 miles, and realised that the following day was going to be a lot harder than it was on paper. Malta is not just hot. It is very, very hilly.
Jim came to pick us up at about 10 and we headed out to pick up the hire van and the bikes. The hire van was laughable. Julius had to drive this. On Maltese roads. The bikes were bikes, I would have just chucked them in the back and let them smash about, but apparently we had to look after them because apparently they were “quite good”. (They were actually really good quality hire bikes – all road and very light). Then we headed to the airport to pick up the rest of the test pilots. Myself and my pal G-Law (you may remember him from Mongolia) were the only two runners. Everyone else was on a bike. Those people were the sensible ones.
Once we’d picked up everyone we headed to the ferry for Gozo. We were staying on Gozo overnight before starting the recee at about 4am the following morning. Jim loves and early morning. After a briefing over dinner we headed back to our B’n’B to have a bit of kit faff and to go to sleep. It was about 10.30pm when I went to bed. The alarm was set for 2.45am. WHY DO I DO THIS??
The next morning I marvelled at my own ability to organise myself. I’d sorted all my kit and slept in my pants and sports bra so literally jumped into what was left, slapped a shit load of factor 50 and lube all over me (PARTY TIME!) and picked up my pack. We were fully supported for the run, with crew in cars, so we didn’t have to carry a lot of weight which was a total treat. Everyone in the group seemed to have a decent amount of experience in running apart from my pal Rob’s son who had never done anything like that before. He had that supreme confidence that only 14 year-old boys possess. Probably because he is a 14 year-old boy.
We drove to the start point in total darkness, bundled out the cars and got on the road. The group spread out pretty quickly – we had some fast boys in there, but me and G-Law stuck to the middle of the pack 11 min mile pace that is oh so familiar to relatively lazy ultra runners. I imagine the start was beautiful - it ran along the tops of cliffs, but with only our head torches to guide us, the most exciting thing we saw were the huge rats that skittered past us and into the fields. The route took us through a number of silent and sleepy villages and some beautiful little towns and out onto a fairly main road - obviously extremely quiet given the time of day. Everyone seemed to be going pretty well, and after quick stop at the crew checkpoint at 10km to fill up with bananas and water, we headed towards the south of the island. Make no mistake, it was hot. It was 5am, but already about 27 degrees and we were all sweating buckets. We kept running - I wanted to make the most of the cooler part of the day. I knew what was coming. The latter part of the route took us along a highly technical trail that reminded me of the Jurassic coast, but the Jurassic coast in a dark sauna. If I could have seen how steep the cliffs were, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I did.
One of the odd things about Malta is that the dawn doesn’t creep up, morning it just appears. There’s no warning or crack in the sky, suddenly the sun is just there peeking above the horizon. Coming into the most southern tip of Gozo was beautiful. We were greeted by the support cars and kayak crew, and after a quick bite to eat, shoe change and even more factor 50, we got into out kayaks. G-Law was swimming this bit. He looked a teeny bit scared. We just laughed at him, being the supportive people that we are, and watched him slip arse over tit as he walked down the slipway into the water.
The Kayak was a total treat. The sun was coming up and the water was like glass, Our guide took us into a small cove at the edge of Comino, where G-Law got out of the water, put on some shoes and started his less -than-parkrun across the island. I was pretty gutted I hadn’t thought about this bit. Ideally, I would have loved to have run across Comino too, but just didn’t think about the logistics. All was not lost though, as we got to paddle through the blue lagoon on the west side of Comino, through the undisturbed crystal waters at 6.30am with hardly anyone there. People that have been to Malta before will know the blue lagoon is a total tourist trap, filled with teenagers taking Instagram pictures of themselves pouting, but at this time in the morning there was nobody. It was truly beautiful.
After paddling through some choppy water round the outside of the island, we pulled up on a natural slipway and all trotted up to the fort at the top of the island. Then it was back into the boats for the 2km paddle across to the mainland. This was some proper paddling and although it was massively enjoyable don’t under-estimate how much it takes out of you – 2km is a long way for someone like me with very little upper body strength! Poor G-Law was swimming behind us but smashed it out in about 45 mins because he’s a legend.
Once on the mainland, we once again regrouped, had a group photo, ate all the food, got changed and procrastinated for as long as possible before saying goodbye to the cyclists. It was about 9.30 when we finally set off on the 35 mile-run, and the temperature had crept up to about 30 degrees. There was no shade. This was our life for the next 10 hours. And it was only going to get hotter.
From top left clockwise: End of the first run at dawn, kayaks ready, on the water, G-Law emerges.
It’s easy to forget what you have already done in staged races. Running in heat really takes it out of you – not to mention the swimming and paddling. I started feeling what can only be described as “a bit shit” about 2 miles into what was essentially a fast walk up to the top of the cliffs. Classic feelings really. Felt sick, felt hot, felt spaced out. I was drinking loads of water and had taken salt, but I was allowing my brain to take over. Worrying that it was only going to get hotter and that we had hours of this ahead of us. I felt bad because I was slow and not as fit as G-Law. We sort of talked it out. We ran when we could – the terrain was the more metal side of technical. We walked when we had to and basically got on with it. It wasn’t fast, but we were doing it.
The scenery was twenty types of amazing. Beautiful views of amazing coves with crystal water, the weirdness of Popeye Village (look it up – MENTAL place), the disused buildings, the farms with rows and rows of plum tomatoes, pumpkins and watermelons and the views of the trails stretching on into the distance. Mentally it’s a tough one. You need to be on top of your game to manage your brain and the heat. Your body will do everything it can to tell you to stop. But you just have to keep keeping on.
At about 6 miles we reached the first support stop and drank a litre of water each. No shit. I ate a banana and stuffed loads of sweets into my bag and we continued on. We were told the next crew car was “only 5 miles away” so we didn’t worry too much about running out of stuff. Spoiler – it wasn’t only 5 miles away. The next stretch took us along a popular tourist beach (Golden Sands) before an extremely steep climb over a huge natural wave break. At times, this was more of a scramble than a climb, with the descents being almost as much trouble as the climbs, but after a couple of miles we were back on another beach. This was where things started to get hairy.
Some views. Some idiots.
Every path off the beach that we tried to take was marked as private land. We spent a good hour trying to navigate cactus filled paths and ascents, but nothing. Eventually we decided to sack it off and follow a different route on the road. The problem with running on roads in that heat however, is that the sun bounces off the tarmac so burns you from both directions. It’s like being in a microwave. It was about 12pm and the heat was relentless. It had climbed to about 34 degrees. I had tried to soak my hat and buff in the sea, but the sea is REALLY warm (bloody mediterranen!) so no go there. We got our heads down and trotted it out, over some long slow climbs, willing the support vehicle to appear over the next hill. Nothing.
We knew that the cyclists were planning to stop at 15 miles in the walled city of Mdina, for lunch and coffee. We knew that they were already there. We were about 2 hours behind them. Our trail was different to theirs - they were exclusively on the roads – and we knew that at least one of them had pulled out but was still a little disheartening. I think it was about 12 miles when G-Law asked me if “hypothetically” I could continue on my own. That worried me a bit. He had been feeling sick for a while and kept telling me he felt cold. I tried not to panic. We kept on trekking up the hills, I kept talking to him and kept pace in front, acting like bait for him to keep on up the hills. Having him tailing me was weird. He is seriously so much fitter than me. He admitted it himself – the swim had knocked him for six. I’m not surprised – the swim would have probably killed me.
At about 14 miles there was still no sign of the support crew. We had run out of water and food. All the shops in the area were shut for siesta time. I started to get ratty. I called in support and asked where they were in a not-very-nice way. I found a shop that was open and managed with my emergency 5 euros to get me and G-Law a cheap shit sugary ice pop thing and some water. We found a house and sat on the step outside, waiting for the crew.
It was funny watching G-Law eat his LIDL calippo. I could see him coming back to life with every sip of water and bit of ice lolly. The crew turned up – they had been held up through no fault of their own by a cyclist who had earlier pulled out. Information had been lost in translation and they had missed the pit stop. It was fine. they fed us cold coke and pastries. This is why we do these trips – so we know where we will need people to be. This is definitely a every 5-7km type affair. We were drinking so much water so fast.
After our little pit stop and pep talk, we got up and started out on the final 20 miles. It was later than we would have liked. The cyclists had enjoyed 2.5 hours of lunch and LOLS in Mdina. We had a long way to go and no pizza lunch. We arranged to meet the crew every 5km from then on, mainly to help with our mental states, but also to keep an eye on our physical state. There aren’t loads of shops everywhere on Malta so it’s hard to be self-sufficient as far as water and snacks are concerned unless you carry a massive pack. We only had small boys. It’s also hard when there are only two of you. I am so used to running with bigger groups and test pilot trips are not like races in that respect.
Views. Good innit?
The new plan worked like a dream. Every 3 miles we saw our support crew, had a croissant or banana and filled up on water and we were travelling well – faster than before and enjoying ourselves. The route just didn’t stop giving. It was just ridiculously beautiful. If the weather had been 15 degrees cooler, it would have been totally ideal. We were sensible and looked after ourselves and before we knew it, we had reached the 30 mile mark. It was getting late and we were a bit knackered. The good news is that it was also starting to cool down a bit.
The last 5 miles properly dragged. Julius ran with us for a bit and Pete joined us too, but knowing the cyclists had all finished and were back at the hotel was killer. We eventually got to the end of the island at about 8.15, just as it was getting dark. The last half mile was all up hill. I hated the last half mile. But we had finished. Malta DONE. 16 hours on foot and kayak. 45 miles. An all -time personal worst for time. Apart from Panama. But we don’t talk about that
We got into the car to drive back to the hotel, and it wasn’t until then that I realised how beaten I was. The heat and the ascent and the early start; the paddling; for G-Law the swimming. It had been a full-on day. That’s not to say it was a sufferfest. It was as beautiful as it was brutal, and there’s nothing like knowing that you’ve managed to traverse a country in a day. That’s a nice feeling.
So that’s it. The Maltese Falcon done. A proper brilliant day out. Don’t underestimate it. I can’t comment for the cyclists, but running it was tough. Best things about this event:
You can dress it up as a holiday. We stayed on for 3 days afterwards enjoying the islands (and yes, I did make Julius run 7 miles of the route on the monday for fun). Bring the family – Rob did it with his wife and two kids!
It’s totally doable physically and financially. It’s going to be cheap for what it is and you get so see the spectacular side of Malta when most of the tourists are still asleep.
It won’t be as hot when it’s done next year. I think Rat Race are talking about October time, so about 10 degrees cooler, but just as sunny and glorious.
You’re fully supported. The crew were brilliant and now we have ironed out support stops, you’ll be really well looked after.
As for me, next week I am off to Scotland to attempt the coast to coast – over 100 miles running, trekking and packrafting from the west coast of Scotland to the east coast. I think the weather may be a little different….