Gozo, Malta’s lesser-known sister island is a short ferry ride away from the mainland and is known as the quieter island, with far less habitation and a lot more unspoilt countryside. As such, it’s the perfect backdrop to the Xterra Ultra, a 50km trail race circumnavigating the island which features every year on my running calendar.
The race starts in Għajnsielem, a village just north of the port, and from there enthusiastic participants head back down towards the coast and then clockwise around the island, with hopes of eventually making it back to the start with all ten toenails intact.
The route is challenging, the undulating trail hugging the coastline but the cut-off’s are generous, which makes it an appealing race for people wanting to try their hand at longer distance running for the first time, and it attracts a lot of international participants. The heat is often one of the biggest challenges of the day, especially for those who come from cooler climes; the race, which takes place in May, always seems to fall on an unseasonably hot day – or maybe that’s just how it feels after a few km’s running! The scenery does a good job of distracting from the relentless sun though, with constant stunning seascapes to your left and the picturesque countryside and villages of Gozo to your right.
Part of the thrill of a long-distance race is in the way it encompasses so many emotions in a relatively short period of time; sheer joy and liberation during those (brief) periods when you feel you could run forever, despair and misery when it feels like you might actually be running forever. But like a lot of things in life, the only way over is through, and if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you arrive, triumphant, back at the start, promising yourself never again- or at least until the first celebratory beer kicks in…