Trail Running

The kilometers tick over like I’m on a treadmill. The tall pines fly past, lined up on either side of the road that’s guttered with frog-filled canals. I’m back in Virginia, on the platter-flat region of the Northern Neck, directly across the Atlantic from Portugal—or nearly so. Running here is so easy. 

So…kind of boring.

For one, I’m alone. Few cars share the road, and my trusty canine sidekick is curled up on the couch or harrassing birds on the other side of the ocean. My thoughts roll freely—but if I needed any distraction to make the miles pass quickly, I’m SOL.

And going back to the flat part. I’m so used to the hills on the SIntra coast that I almost miss them. Okay, maybe just the downhills. Our house sits about halfway up the main dune that rises up from Praia das Maçãs, so any run either starts or ends with a steep section of rolicking asphalt. I either take it at the beginning, at the end, or both, depending on my loop.

As I started running again in a dedicated fashion a couple of years ago, I’ve laced breadcrumbs throughout the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park that abuts the town. We live in the sea of its green on the map. With the pups we had discovered a network of dirt roads that see little car traffic, and only a handful of other runners and cyclists. I created a 4 km loop, a 5 km loop, and an 8 km loop (plus a 3.4 km out-and-back for when I’m tired or recovering or just need to squeeze in a quick one with Billy). 

When I decided to train for the Lisboa ECO Marathon this spring, I had to connect more dots—up to 30 km for a long training run at least. Doing so meant testing new roads, taking the odd trail or two, and making discoveries along the way. I chose well, I guess, because one Sunday, as I trotted my way towards 23 km, I intersected a corrida in progress no less than half a dozen times. At one point I was going in the opposite direction, at another, I took the “wrong” turn, hopelessly confusing the race course volunteers until I called out, “Não estou fazer a corrida!”

From the highest point on my long runs, I can look out towards the ocean, and understand the topography of the coast in a new way. The palaces of Sintra stand as beacons on the serra above, and keep me oriented should I actually make a wrong turn, and I can see up and down the coast for miles depending on the visibility.

I find vinhas  everywhere on my runs. Some are well known, such as those of the Colares DOC vines, hiding behind their tumbling walls. Others are half-abandoned, and I look around for any “VENDE” sign that would signal they’re for sale. As they come into leaf, I may stop for a water break and try to identify them by their shapes, and, later, their berries.

Of course I must keep a look out for dogs. On my longest runs, Billy stays behind—he gets bored after about 11 miles, and there’s no need to push him further. Though I’m conversant in how to handle dog interactions, it pays to stay situationally aware. Otherwise the sudden bark from behind a green metal gate can scare the pants off you. Trust me. 

The final 3 km of each long run has begun at Azenhas do Mar. You may know this town as the quaint aldeia featured in roughly half of the Instagram photos of our part of Portugal. I know it as “the Azenha,” the steep down-then-up kilometer that takes the last bit of life from my legs and punishes me if I’ve not saved anything in reserve. It’s a cruel test. It’s brutally beautiful. I keep doing it, every time. Slowly. You can’t even go down the slick calçadas with any kind of speed.

With all of thse lovely distractions, it’s no wonder that I miss them while I’m away. Yes, my Virginia kilometers are confidence building, and give me a chance to meditate. 

But I can’t wait to tackle another Azenha.

When I return from a run, especially a long one, I need to replace what I’ve burned up quickly–and in a tasty fashion. A savory “breakfast burrito” makes for the best kind of recovery meal, featuring protein, carbs, and all of the good micronutrients in the fresh veggies we source locally. I make my own pico de gallo salsa here–it’s easy with the local piri-piri peppers or a jaelpeño if you can find one.

Recovery Breakfast Burritos

2 or 3 eggs 

2 tablespoons olive oil

pico de gallo made from chopped tomatoes, onion, piri-piris

1 avocado, sliced

1 teaspoon ancho chile powder or pimenta fumada

1-2 tablespoons Greek yogurt

1 or 2 flour tortilla-style wraps

several sprigs of cilantro

Cholula, Tabasco, or molho de piri-piri to taste

salt and pepper to taste

  1. First, make the pico de gallo: Dice the tomato into 1/2-inch pieces, and finely dice one quarter to one half of the onion, depending on its size. You want a 2:1 ratio of tomato to onion. Finely dice up to one piri-piri or jalepeño pepper, to taste. Mix these together with a splash of red wine vinegar or lime juice.
  2. Crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk with a fork to mix them well. Add a dash of salt if you wish.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Take the tortilla(s) and brown them briefly on each side. Place on a plate (warmed if you wish) to wait for the rest of the ingredients.
  4. Heat the second tablespoon of olive oil in the skillet, still using medium heat.
  5. When ready, pour the eggs into the pan, and scramble them according to your preferred technique. I tend to stir mine irreguarly to create rather large, dry “curds,” but others prefer to use a constant stirring to create a softer, “wetter” finish.
  6. Add the ancho chile pepper or alternative spice to the eggs and mix through as you cook them.
  7. After the eggs have started to take shape in the pan, make a well in the center and pour in the pico de gallo you’ve made so that it will heat through. When the eggs have finished to your liking, turn off the heat, and stir the pico de gallo through the eggs to mix.
  8. Portion the eggs into the tortilla(s). You may split them between two wraps if you use 3 eggs and the tortillas are moderate in size.
  9. Layer the avocado slices on the eggs, followed by the yogurt, and then the sprigs of cilantro. Sprinkle with hot sauce, wrap up, and recover.