8 May

A Toast To Portugal

Duoro ValleyWhen it comes to running in a different country, it is not just the promise of warm weather and spectacular scenery that attracts me but the food. Three years on from running the EDP Lisbon Half Marathon, and what sticks in my mind? The delicious Portuguese custard tarts, or pastel de nata that I scoffed, warm from Café Pastéis de Belém, one of the best bakeries in the city which sells 14,000 tarts per day and sits right near the finish line. 

RachaelGrowing Appeal
Clearly, I am not the only one attracted to Portugal, with a host of new running events popping up in the last five years and the number of UK visitors increasing by 8.6% in the last year figures were recorded - 2013. 

So, why run in Portugal? Spectacular scenery for one, along with the option to make a holiday of it by exploring its many UNESCO world heritage sites, or heading to the beach for recuperation, the aforementioned food, and a climate that ranges from approximately 61°F/16°C  in the winter to 78°F/25° C in the summer. Although, fair weather runners beware, the winter is renowned for being wet.
Decisions, Decisions
With so many events on offer, how do you know which to choose? The best rule of thumb is to consider what you want out of the race AND your short break.

If your aim is a personal best, choose an event that attracts elite runners and has slick organisation. Alternatively, if the race is merely an excuse for a healthy holiday, venture outside the cities for some of the more interesting regional running events.
A Capital Choice
For a city PB run, one of the most established races, the 20k Cascais Lisboa Classic will run for its 77th year this April. It attracts serious runners from local running clubs and offers a stunning route that traces the line of the coast from Estoril to Lisbon, finishing in front of the UNESCO listed, Jeronimos Monastery.

For a more laid back affair, particularly suitable for first time half marathon runners, the RocknRoll Vodafone Half Marathon in October is a good bet. Held in conjunction with the full marathon, you can expect excellent marshalling, and the kind of atmosphere that comes from this American-owned events company, who focus on having music stages throughout the race. 

The events have different start lines, with the marathon starting west of the city in Cascais, and travelling along the coast. The half marathon route in contrast goes across the Vasco De Gama bridge, one of the longest in the world, before an out and back route to finish in Lisbon.

These races allow you to enjoy an atmospheric weekend in the capital city, resting weary legs by jumping on the city’s network of old fashioned trams which trundle up the steep streets. (Easyjet flies from Edinburgh to Lisbon).
Maybe Madeira
Top of my list for something a little different, is the Funchal Half Marathon, now in its fourth year. The capital of Madeira, the city is named after the fennel which grows in abundance here. (TAP flies from London Gatwick to Madeira daily, with return fares starting at £146.) Blessed with a year long warm climate (expect highs of 16°C/64°F in March when this event is held), Madeira is called the floating island and you can expect to run down avenues awash with blossoms, and flanked by banana and mango trees. Which sounds like the perfect reward for a gloomy British winter spent training. And then there is the wine. 
Duoro valleyDouro Valley Decision
If you are a foodie and love your wine, Portugal is the perfect running destination. Cross the finish line in Funchal and you can celebrate with an ice cold glass of madeira, the famous fortified wine which comes from this island. Alternatively, head to the Douro Valley and the half marathon in May, and find one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world. While it sits close to the mountainous Spanish border, the race route is a flat one alongside the Douro river.

It means that you can hope for a PB and reward yourself with wine tasting at one of the many vineyards in the area, not to mention sampling grilled river fish or specialities such as roasted goat with new potatoes and the perfect runner’s dessert, aletria, vermicelli with cinnamon.

For the Douro Valley you will need a car or to catch a train or boat from Porto, (TAP Portugal flies from London Gatwick to Porto 14 times a week, with return fares starting from £126). 
Possibly Porto
On the other hand you might want to remain in Porto, the city from which Portugal derives its name and which is famous for yet another tipple, port.

You can negate the effects of any port tasting by running the Porto Marathon, or 16k distance which has been staged here every November for the last decade. The perfect race destination, with its UNESCO World Heritage centre, the city is beautiful with a mix of cobblestone alleys, broad avenues and shady city squares.

After the marathon, break your no booze training regime by tasting one of the many white, pink, ruby, tawny or late-bottled vintage ports down on the river bank as the sun sets.

Whatever you are looking for in a race destination, from city breaks to culture, food to outdoor adventures, Portugal has something to offer. In fact at this rate, I could be there every few months exploring the country, one run at a time. Hmm, now there’s an idea.