Malta Marathon Challenge

On 7th December 2014 by Rachael Woolston

If you fancy a marathon but not ready to run it in one go, this event spreads over three days is the perfect option. Make no mistake, it’s still a challenge but with a holiday on the island as a reward it’s one worth taking on

How the event works 

The race is made up of three stages of different distances over three consecutive days. You are timed on each stage and these times are then added at the end of each day to provide your overall time and ranking.

The distances and order of the stages are: Friday – 11.3kms, Saturday – 6kms, Sunday – 25kms

You can stay at the race headquarters hotel, which means you get transport to each stage of the race. Or stay elsewhere and make your own way there.

Stage One – Mdina, 11kms

Imagine starting a race in front of an ancient fortified city complete with moat (albeit now filled in) and city wall? The first stage of this event makes for a pretty impressive start, right in front of Mdina, a baroque town complete with up to three palaces still owned by nobility.

Not so impressive admittedly was the 11am pick up time for a twenty minute drive to the city for the 1pm start. A little overenthusiastic even for the most anxious of runners. It gives you time to wander through Mdina but preference would have been sightseeing after, not before.

It is my only gripe about stage 1, which both challenged and stunned, both in terms of the beauty of the route and the brutality of the unexpected undulations.

With less than 150 runners, there was no need for an official start line or pens on this race, just a painted line on the road by the bust top, just outside the city walls.

Then it was straight into hill as it headed out towards the coastal road overlooking Dingli Cliffs. While not a trail run, this stage has the feel of one because  you find yourself in the middle of the countryside almost straightaway.

The route was lined with cactus’ bearing prinkly pears (edible either as fruit or made into a liquer like it is here in Malta) and sunny yellow flowers, while windmill pumps whizzed round in the fields, etched against a blue sky.

There were few supporters but with such a small group of runners, it resulted in a friendly atmosphere between the runners themselves, most  of whom were Maltese.

Of the foreign contingent, most who were staying at the race headquarters Dolmen Hotel, the majority were from the Netherlands, a friendly bunch who came with their own travelling supporters.

If you’re used to seeing kilometre markings , don’t expect them here. The only distance markers were painted on the road although signs telling you which way to go where enthusiastically held by local volunteers.

Hitting the coastal road overlooking Dingli cliffs the route was beautiful, the sea in the distance for a short while before it headed inland once more through several small villages complete with pasticlleria selling delicious pastries. From here, the route headed inland again towards the village of Mtarfa before the evil final hill back to the fortified walls of Mdina.

As I finally reached the top of the hill within touching distances of the city walls, I followed the road round the beautiful public gardens before finishing on a speed downhill and local supporters, as well as the horse drawn buggy drivers who ply their trade inside the city wall.

It was a beautiful but challenging route, with maximum elevation of 240 metres. And despite this only being the first stage, a fantastic post-race goody bag stuffed with useful treats, a banana, iced tea, water, salty crisps, a muesli bar and some sweets.

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Stage Two – Birzebbuga 6km

There can be few start lines more calming than that at stage two, right  on the water by the town of Birzebbuga.

As I jumped off the coach transfer, the day was cloudy but steaming hot. Little fishing boats, traditionally painted in pretty blues and greens, bobbed gently on the water making me feel like I should be sitting down and reading the weekend papers, not racing.

Having run yesterday, my legs felt good although I was aware that my left calf felt more tight than usual and so I warmed up gently along the water hoping it would be OK.

Today, there seemed to be more runners and definitely more female runners represented by the local Ladies Running Club, some of whom were Maltese, others who were expats.

We all huddled together, trying to avoid the water washing up on to the road, waiting for the starting pistol to fire. Then we were off.

As the route rounded the corner, it headed straight up a hill towards the town square, dominated by the church of St Peter in Chains, and within 1kms, I felt the tell-tale sign of a torn calf.

I’ve experienced a tear before where it feels like you’ve shot in the leg. This time, it was like a light ‘fizz’, not right but not the end of the world. I slowed down to test it but decided to run on because it was only a total of 6kms.

I was lucky as it could have been a disastrous decision as the route headed out into the country and the smooth tarmac became pockmarked with ruts and rocky holes.

Come on, keep with me,’ encouraged one of the runners who I had run at the same pace with the day before.

It is one of the nice things about this event. With so few runners, you soon get to know everyone if not by name by sight.

After 3km, we hit a main road again and we were soon winding back in a loop toward time, this time, our view the water the the port that dominates the skyline.

Then it was over, a final ascent before crossing the finish line to cheering from local supporters, not to mention those drinking beer at the local village bar right on the finish line.

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Stage 3, Valletta 

Having spent the night before hobbling around, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 5am for the early breakfast before the coach departure at 6am on the off-chance I might be able to run.

Despite the night before deciding that I was definitely NOT going to run, (my goal being the London Marathon 2015) you know what it is like if you’re a runner.  If you have a race, you want to run it.

I had been half hoping I’d get out of bed and fall over, making my mind up for me. But I could walk and even managed a little jog around my hotel room without collapsing.

So, I forced some toast down, strapped by calf with rock tape and headed on to the transfer coach to go to the start line. By now, most of the international runners knew each other and were asking if I was going to run. I told them I’d wait and see what the warm up was like.

It was a beautiful balmy morning, the sky with a tinge of gold beginning to seep into the velvet dark as the sun began to rise. Most of the local Maltese runners were already warming up with a much more serious edge than the previous two days.

Be careful, don’t go too fast,’ one of the Maltese runners said when I saw him. ‘You run  fast but this stage is very  hard. Many hills.

I smiled although the thought of running 25 km of hills on a slightly suspect calf was adding to my doubt.

But add to the mixture lots of excited runners, the fact that my previous two stages had put me in a good position, AND a spectacular sunrise over St Peter’s Bay, and I decided to try the first 7km. There would be a supporters coach waiting there who would then drive to the finish line.

Again, on a starters gun, we were all off along a beautiful route which hugged the coast. Ordinarily, the entire route would continue along the shoreline to the capital, Valletta.  But a big roadwork project this year (2014) meant that within a three kilometres, we were diverted inland.

It was still beautiful, the road lined with small farming plots although now and again, cars passing close made for an unnerving run.

I was running over a minute slower per kilometre to avoid putting too much pressure on my calf but even though I tried to focus on the beauty of the countryside, my mind was focusing on every little calf twinge.

And so as I neared the 7km point, at the top of a  huge hill, I pulled out and jointed the group of Dutch wives who were supporting their partners.

It was the right decision because as we got on the coach to drive the route to the finish line, it became clear how undulating it was. And as we drove into Valletta itself, a medieval city dating back to 1566, I was even more convinced I’d made the right choice.

The route finishes right in the city centre at the top of Republic Street. This street tracks its way right up from seal level to the highest point, a punishing final assault of over 1km to they finish line.

And what an incredible final few kilometres as you run past old palaces, now open to the public, cafes, art galleries and more, not to mention supporters cheering everyone on, some of them simply cheering as they do their weekend shopping.

It was disappointing to miss out on but I knew I’d have felt far worse to have run and then not been able to run for six months after.

Besides, the supporters on this race are just as much part of this event and make it what it is.  A small, intimate but challenging race experience in a beautiful part of the world worthy of exploration once all the running is over.

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Next year, the Malta Marathon Challenge celebrates its 25th Anniversary. Race entries, including transfers and airport pick up start from £130. It runs in November every year and has a cap of 200 runners.

www.maltamarathonchallenge.com

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