With the dust settling behind him in the city of Golegã, XTERRA coach, racer, and writer, Doug Hall, recounts his experience at an exhilarating XTERRA Portugal that saw athletes from all over Europe visit the Horse Capital of Portugal for the third European event of the season.
As my 01:30 am alarm went off in preparation for my flight to Lisbon, I was bleary-eyed but super excited to get out the door and start my first XTERRA adventure in over two years. I hit an espresso and a croissant to get me into the European spirit of adventure and headed for the airport, filled with relief a little while later when my budget airline successfully landed at Lisbon airport.
Baggage gathered, another coffee consumed, hired car collected, and capital city navigated, I was officially on the road to Golegã, home to XTERRA Portugal.
After 60 minutes of driving down increasingly smaller roads I finally drove through the city gates of Golegã and was immediately reminded of how off-road racing takes you off the beaten track and away from the traditional touristic spots.
I took a quick detour through the town centre, amazed by the narrow cobbled streets and traditional buildings, still every bit as spectacular as when they were first built centuries ago.
But most noticeable was the number of horses! Golegã is famous for the Lusitano horse breed and XTERRA Portugal just so happened to coincide with an entire festival dedicated to these wonderful creatures.
Horses rule in Golegã, with dedicated paths for riders and carts, and the town square given over completely for dressage competitions and other equestrian festivities. It was incredible to see horses being used as general transport rather than cars. I was also most amused by the horses waiting patiently outside of a small tavern, presumably their riders inside quenching their thirst. I guess that’s one way around a drink driving situation!
Upon arrival at my accommodation, I was greeted and welcomed warmly by João and his wife from the Natur guest house. This place had been recommended to me by previous competitors, all with sterling reviews of this shared accommodation on a small sustainable farm on the outskirts of town.
I set about building my bike and heading out across the arable fields full of bemused (but friendly) farmers and into the forest to check out some of the XTERRA Portugal bike course.
Pretty soon I found myself winding my way around hundreds and thousands of cork trees, not surprising given that this region of Portugal is responsible for nearly 50% of the world's cork production! After finally running out of data on my phone reading about the world’s most sustainable tree, I finished my lap and headed into town for some dinner.
The Portuguese believe their food to be the best cuisine in the world and on this occasion, I may struggle to present a counter-argument. Proper traditionally cooked meats and fish, served with vegetables (presumably from the same fields I passed through earlier) along with incredible service and friendly atmosphere – I was left wanting for nothing. Contently satisfied, I wandered out into the main square to find the Kiwi team of Sam Osbourne and Sam Kingsford catching some of the horse festivals that had just kicked off.
I’m the first to admit I think dressage looks a bit ridiculous on the TV, but in person and up close the amount of control and precision that the rider and horse demonstrate as a unit puts most of us athletes to shame. Suitably humbled, it was time for bed.
Friday is always a quiet day as people complete their final preparations ahead of race day. As I attempted to stay out of the heat, I found time to meet my housemates, Vitor Bastante. Hailing from Spain, Victor was doing his first XTERRA Triathlon, so with the help of Google Translate and a number of exaggerated hand movements we discussed some strategies for surviving the following day’s challenge.
Shortly after that the Vie family arrived. The Vie's are perhaps best known through Francios and Pauline who are both elite podium favourites, but this time the whole family was here for what is pretty much their home race. When I asked Vie Senior how he expected to do, he simply replied:
“To have fun no matter what, the result is not important.”
Wise words for sure.
Race registration and briefing is always a bustling and nervous atmosphere with most discussions based around the weather, tyre choice (it’s always tyre choice!), or the river crossing. But for me, it was a chance to see yet more old friends and meet new ones, something that the international community has been missing for such a long time.
Catch ups continued throughout the night as the Portuguese Pasta party got underway, with the organisers putting together a fantastic spread with options for everyone.
As I sat and consumed my third plate, I spotted local legend and hero Rui Dolores, a.k.a 'Mr. Portugal’, skipping his dinner to take his coaching group through some last-minute transition practice ahead of their race the next day. An XTERRA elite veteran I’ve raced against for many years, it was amazing to see him willing to sacrifice his performance to pass on his experience to others in need of knowledge and a testament to the kindness so often seen in the off-road community.
I also met up with Tom Eickelberg, an American working as an Engineer in New York, who explained that coming to Portugal was a no-brainer for him:
“The culture here is awesome, the horses are beautiful, and I’m loving the ambience from the back street cafes and restaurants throughout the town. I fully recommend it to any athlete on the East Coast to look across the pond for some adventure.”
Race day arrived bright and early and soon we were in the water and ready for one big day out.
The course was super tough in the heat, but it felt far more like an adventure than just an out and out race.
The single-lap bike course took us on a proper journey into the surrounding countryside of Golegã, with the hills offering enough technicality to keep your attention whilst the flatter terrain provided opportunities to recover or push harder.
Despite being on the bike for a long time, I never once wanted it to end.
With most athletes hitting the run course at the hottest point of the day, it was amazing to see the camaraderie between people, making a common enemy of the conditions and helping each other through. Sharing water at the aid stations, offering a hand or a leg up through the rope-assisted river crossing, and cheering words of encouragement to those struggling with cramp or fatigue.
The finish line was a shared sweet reward for everyone who made it.
As the final finishers made their way in, the BBQs fired up and drinks at the bar started to flow. People exchanged stories of their day out in the cork forest and the battles they had won or lost. A late-evening presentation ensured everyone was fully saturated and very much in the mood for celebrations as prizes, trophies, and those coveted Trentino World Championship slots were dished out in front of the cheering crowds.
After the final hurrahs, the crowds slipped away into the heart of the town in search of a late-night dinner fit to replace the day's spent energy.
After waking up on Sunday I walked off a mild hangover on my way back down to the race venue, dodging coaches and buses full of excitable kids waving madly at me out of the back windows as they arrived for the Kids Race. Doubling up as the Portuguese Youth Championships, this event attracted over 300 of the best young athletes across the country. With every region having a tented pit area surrounded by coaches and parents, the atmosphere was electric even before the racing began. And as soon as the starting horn sounded it was clear that the future of triathlon in Portugal is in safe hands, with perhaps some future XTERRA stars preparing to follow in the footsteps of Francois and Pauline Vie and Rui Dolores.
"...it was amazing to see him willing to sacrifice his performance to pass on his experience to others in need of knowledge and a testament to the kindness so often seen in the off-road community."
So, with a heavy but contented heart, it was time to pack and head home after an incredible few days in Golegã.
And needless to say, I’ll be back for sure.
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