When thinking of Portugal, you may think of delicious wine, sunshine all year round, and beautiful beaches. However, Portugal is home to magnificent mountains that any trail or cross-country ultrarunner should visit.
Originally from England, Adrian Howell moved to illustrious Portugal to continue his incredible running journey and inspire others to travel and explore outside the race-day bubble.
Why Did You Begin Running?
I think there are many reasons why I decided to run, some are more complicated than others. I think the main thing is the simplicity. I believe that is always the thing that encourages me to get out is that most days, I only need a pair of shoes, a pair of shorts and a watch.
I actually don’t even need the watch to go out and explore. Mainly where I’m living in central Portugal, it’s very mountainous. There are lots of tracks. There’s this curiosity, I think, when I look out, and mountains surround me. I’m living in a natural park and just seeing how all of these trails and routes intersect with each other. Then seeing how if you explore in one direction it completely changes your perspective on the whole landscape again.
That desire to get out and explore is pretty important. Then there’s all of these other benefits which I think that most people who run also relate to. The fact that it can clear your head and helps clarify thoughts, too. I guess I gain a bit of perspective on whatever I’m experiencing daily.
You don’t need to have this complex reason to go out and justify why you’re doing it. If it feels good and it doesn’t have any negative consequences other than maybe waking up with sore legs the next day. I feel like it comes down to the playfulness when you have this fun attitude that helps you to take yourself and life generally a bit less seriously. And obviously, then when that happens, everything is easier to manage.
I feel like many people when they come to running, and specifically trail and ultra running, there’s this realisation that, oh, now I’m doing this again, I realise like, oh yeah, maybe I do wake up with cuts and bruises, and I’m covered in dirt, and I’ve got leaves in my hair!
What does Portugal have to offer for Ultrarunners?
I’ve been pretty lucky to run in really cool places; more or less, as soon as I left university, I just wanted to go and explore Europe. I actually never felt that inclined to go beyond Europe just because the landscape here is so diverse. I feel like you can actually find a lot of almost everything here. You have mountains, you have ocean, you have desert, you have rainforests. It’s not tropical, but you have this entire diverse spectrum of places to explore.
I would say the main reason I moved here, it’s not necessarily something I can explain logically, but it’s a place that’s more relaxing. There’s something in the culture where people take things more slowly, and there’s not really as much of a need to rush as I feel in places like the UK or in France. I think anywhere north of the Mediterranean, you feel generally there’s a bit more stress in terms of just the culture.
But what I really like here, particularly since living more in rural Portugal for a couple of years now, is all of the locals, they really like to stick to this lifestyle of being close to nature. They still have their gardens, they still grow their olives, they harvest the cherries in spring.
I think often about the people living here. There is a desire to want to be closer to nature, and you don’t have to be a farmer or growing cabbages, trail running is another person’s option. And I feel Portugal is a place that offers this potential. I’m not sure if it will be my final destination, but it’s a very good place to explore for now. And, yeah, I’ve barely scraped the surface, so I’ll probably stay here for a while.
What are some of the best routes you’ve found in Portugal?
I often find in Portugal there’s a lot of trails but they’re not very well maintained. I think the reason for that is mostly financial. If you’re in places that are known for trail running, there’s a financial incentive for them to maintain it.
For example, I live in a valley called the Mondago Valley, and further along you have this big boardwalk that they built through the valley. This is now the main tourist attraction which is obviously nice for people who have difficulty with accessibility or for families.
Many of trails here tend to be more of a functional purpose. They’re goat tracks or sheep tracks. They’ve just trampled their way through the hills or the mountain. I often find my favourite routes are the ones that I don’t even think are routes. I keep finding these trails that aren’t even on maps and I’m not sure where it came from.
A perfect example of what I really like is this ridge that you can go directly up onto, and there’ll be this small single track that no one knows about because it’s not even on the map. You can pop out onto the top, run along the entire top rim of the valley and then drop back down the other side.
And no one even knows about it. It’s not on the map.
These kinds of things are my favourite because you have to find them by exploring. Maybe there’s a bit of bushwacking involved, and you get a bit scratched up, but I feel like it appeals to that exploration side of ultra running which is cool.
In order to inspire more people to travel to Portugal and experience its mountain ranges like the Serra da Estrela, Adrian now organises mountain running holidays.
There’s this feeling that I have here that it’s so undeveloped in a way that I really appreciate. It still has this kind of untapped nature. There’s so many places where you can go and you won’t see a single person on these trails. You can drink from the streams and even sometimes forage some wild fruit. Just that simple pleasure, of going out and exploring in the mountains in Portugal, is what inspired me to set up mountain running holidays.
I feel there’s a demand now for a different type of travel. In the not so-distant past there was really more of this focus that travel should be something that’s glamorous.
But nowadays, there’s this real desire for an adventure.
People don’t necessarily want to go out and have this luxurious experience, they want something that will break up the monotony of daily life a little bit, open up their perspective and inspire them to get out and explore. That’s definitely what I aim to do with Serra. I want it to be something that, with the stories, it can inspire people to go out and explore wherever they are.
Interview with Adrian Howell