Run around an island - Gozo, Malta
The main thing that attracted me to doing an ultrarun in Malta is the 50k trail around the perimeter of the northern island, Gozo. It also didn’t hurt that there was a cheap flight from Stockholm and weather.com predicted it to be sunny and in the 50s, a nice change from the nordic cold at the time.
While I can do most of my trips in a weekend, this one took a little extra time because there were no direct connections from where I was working in Stockholm at the time. Besides the connection time, it’s also just a long flight to Malta located off the southern tip of Italy. Malta is the most southern EU member country, it’s so far south that Africa extends north of the island to its west.
When I told friends I was planning a trip to Malta their first question was whether I would do any gambling. Since they know I do these trips, they were not too surprised when I said I’d just be spending the time running around an island.
Gozo is the northern island and is less populated of the two major islands that make up Malta. It takes a car ferry to get to Gozo which makes it more remote by nature. The crossing time by ferry was a surprise as I figured we’d be able to across the channel without a wait. However, in total we took about 2.5 hours crossing since we had to wait for two ferries since there was a long line of cars when we arrived. The ferry ride was a great start to the nature part of the trip though since we got a good view of the cliffs along the coastline and were treated to sunny skies and a warm breeze.
The night we arrived we went for a walk to check the trail conditions and then have a late dinner. The hotel manager gave us a recommendation for a local restaurant and off we went. We only had about 30 minutes of sunlight for our walk but continued by moonlight for the rest. We welcomed the sound of the water lapping the shore and the deserted hillside after a 10 hour travel day. We didn’t go very far on our hike, and to be honest, I wasn’t very wowed by the trail because of its condition. However, this was an unfair judgement as the small amount of trail we saw was not representative of the day to come.
We had dinner at Tal Furnar that has a 100-year-old stone oven operated by four generations. The food was excellent and just what I needed to fuel up for the 50k the next day. I had pasta and desert to ensure proper calories for the long day ahead.
Breakfast wasn’t served until 8am at the hotel so we slept in a bit. We took our time, and I fueled up with banana pancakes, pastries and lots of coffee. While eating breakfast, we had a great view of the valley behind the hotel and the skies were clear. A perfect day for a run.
The first decision we had was which way to go since we’d be doing a complete loop of the island. My friend Daniel was along for the adventure and he planned on doing about half the run then hiking back across the island to see caves that Malta is known for. We went north because that direction seemed more convenient for him. It was a good choice too since we got to see the best views during the early daylight hours. I was super impressed that he ended up running with me for about 17 miles (27k). He wasn’t actively training, and this was the longest run he’d ever done. I’ve had a few opportunities to take people on their longest runs ever, and it is very rewarding, especially on an island as beautiful at Gozo.
The lasting impression I will have of Malta is running the trails along the cliffs high above the ocean. My mental image before getting there was one of beaches and rolling hills but what I found were high cliffs, lots of elevation change, and many trail types. I climbed over 5000 feet (1500m) during the 50k run. A lot of the trails are also just a few feet from a shear drop off to the ocean, so you need to be very careful of your footing. This was especially true on a short section after the ferry terminal with some tough single track. On the south side of the island is where the tallest cliffs were with the most rugged trails and wide open nature.
Some of my favorite parts of the run were the inlets where the ocean carved out deep recesses into the island. Unfortunately, one of the rock formations Malta is best known for, The Azure Window, crashed into the sea in 2017 and the area is now closed off to hikers. Despite that, the rest of the island offers 10s of views that are some of the best I’ve seen on any of my trips, including the Wied il-Mielaħ Window. I’d have liked to captured them all, but I would have never finished my run.
My goal was to finish the run by dark and I missed that by about 30 minutes. That was OK since those last miles were rough single track through dense underbrush and roads. It was a satisfying way to end the run though pushing the pace and striding onto the main street with the hotel.
It is a cliche, but words cannot do justice to the natural rock formations along the ocean. The smooth rocks, shear cliffs, salt pans, and crashing oceans, are something you need to see for yourself. It’s possible too for you to experience it if you make this one of your ultrarunning destinations!
After reflecting on this run for a few weeks, I’ve concluded Malta is right up there next to the Grand Canyon for true beauty. Whether you live in Europe, or are just visiting, definitely check out the flights and see if you can make this your next ultrarunning destination.