For my end of summer holiday I chose to run around the coastline of Malta alone. In Part 2 of my run around the island I deal with fear of dangers both imagined and real. Enjoying stunning scenery and discovering the ups and downs of solo adventures. For Running Around Malta Part 1 click here.
Day 3: Sat Sept 8th 2018 – Bahrija to Birzebbugia
Back into the furnace
I wake at 6 am having slept unsurprisingly well. The Air BnB I am staying in is a huge house with large rooms and long, marble corridors. I pad downstairs to retrieve chocolate mile from the fridge and fill my drinks containers. Breakfast is the chocolate milk and a square of flapjack. I really hate eating breakfast so have to force down the sugary flapjack.
Having cut my run a little short yesterday (only completing 22 of the 25 miles I had planned) I am a little nervous about today. The forecast is for the temperature to be in the mid-thirties again, with humidity at well over 70%. As much as I didn’t mind cutting my day a little short yesterday I don’t want to do it again. I’m worried that I will fail again and I’m not sure if I can take that after Iceland. It probably doesn’t matter to anyone else but it’s important to me not to fail.
Hitting the road at 6.40 am I take a shortcut back to the coast. Shortcuts will be my friend. The sun starts to rise as I climb away from the village. This is no lazy sun and it soars quickly high into the sky. I want to get as many miles in early as I can, knowing the heat will be unbearable by 9.30.
The day starts well, other than a minor diversion through undergrowth – my mind adds snakes at every footstep! It is not yet 9 am and I have covered quite a few miles. A breeze blows in some cloud cover. If anyone saw me at this point they would definitely think I was mad as I raise my eyes to the sky, smile and mutter incantations to ask the cloud to stay.
Fear is not your friend
My route brings me to a cliff top path, which often edges close to a crumbling drop towards the sea. Rocks and stones add trip hazards to the equation. The only people around are a few cliff top fishermen who nod hello as I pass.
The sea, far below, is the most stunning colour and crystal clear. I am happy to stop and gaze outwards but looking directly down raises my heart rate. One stumble and I will be over the edge; my mind flicks over whether I could shed my backpack as a fell. Having negotiated a particularly treacherous section my path runs out. I look on the map at where I need to be then look at the landscape in front of me with a sinking heart. I am going to have to backtrack and then climb/scramble up some rocks to get back on route.
A slight trip on a rock sends my heart hammering again. ‘Breathe’ I tell myself, ‘fear is not your friend. Keep calm and you will be ok’.
Finally reaching a road I am glad, for once, for smooth tarmac to run on. This doesn’t last long. Soon off road once more and once more my track disappears. This is where being alone has its advantages and disadvantages. There is no-one to blame but myself, no-one to sort this out but myself, no-one to be grumpy at but myself.
I need to go straight up. People do come to Malta to climb but the rock had all looked too crumbly and loose to me. Now I find it is surprisingly grippy for my trainers and has great handholds. Where I can I put my backpack up ahead of me and climb up to it – it’s not helpful having the weight pulling me back.
Getting away with it
At some point in the morning I realise I have made a mistake – I may have blithely announced to people I was running around Malta but I haven’t given my route to anyone. This is not like me at all. Even when going on a long run locally I usually send a GPX to a friend and tell them they’re ‘in charge of finding my body if I don’t turn up’.
Of course, when I realise this I don’t have a phone signal. I have to wait until I do have one before messaging a friend back in England to put her in charge of progress monitoring and rescue coordination. I’m sure she is very grateful for this responsibility!
‘Visiting’ tourist sites
Emerging form the top of one of my climbs I see people everywhere. It seems I have climbed straight into the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples tourist attraction. Everyone else has paid to be here – I don’t like to tell them they can get in for free if they just climb up the rocks of the hill below. I stand out like a sore thumb as I jog sweatily amongst the tourists. Luckily a tourist site means a drinks stall! Despite occasional cloud cover the heat has soared and there has been little shade on my run. I buy water and the local bittersweet drink; Kinnie. As everyone else gets on their buses to go back to hotels I jog off up the road.
I am having major ups and downs now. It’s amazing what a sugary drink and time in the shade can do for your spirits. But the relief never lasts long. My toes feel squishy as blisters form, grow and occasionally burst. Nothing is gentle here and plants tear at my legs. I tell myself that each step forward is one step closer to the finish.
What are you afraid of?
In my head I consider what I am scared of today – always a fun game on your holiday. As well as the aforementioned chance of tumbling from paths I am also nervous of; dogs and hunters.
The countryside I am crossing is dotted with occasional properties and small villages. This means dogs. I love dogs but not all dogs love a random stranger on their territory. They frequently bark from behind walls and fences and I can only hope they are safely contained. In the end the only one which comes out to me is a chihuahua, yapping and bouncing. ‘Don’t be afraid’ its owner smiles. I wasn’t.
Shotguns are a greater fear. From the very start of the day I have seen shadowy figures lurking around. Shotgun cartridges constantly litter my path. The local delicacy is rabbit meat. I have seen no rabbits on my run; perhaps they’ve all been shot already. The illegal shooting of migrating birds is also rife. A friend of mine works out here for the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS).
When I hear the sound of a gun being ratcheted ahead of me I always cough loudly. I can only hope these guys are aware that I am near.
Battling the afternoon heat
As the morning wears on I slow down and walk more frequently. I meet a Polish hiker going the other way. We chat for a while. He has been wild camping and having a great time until being stung by a jellyfish while swimming – explaining the large bandage on his arm.
Midday is signaled by the firing of canons around the island. The noise is reminiscent of rumbling thunder and I fantasise about rain!
At some point I hit 17 miles and just as I think I won’t be able to run again that day my legs break into a jog. I’m pretty sure my brain had no part in this decision. If my body says ‘walk’ I walk, I’m in no real hurry.
A shortcut brings me through an industrial estate at 18.6 miles and like a mirage, a snack van appears by the side of the road. Stopping for juice and water I flop into a chair in the shade. The lady serving asks if I am hiking Malta ‘alone?!’ with raised eyebrows. I wonder if I really am a little crazy.
I have around 3 miles left to go today. Normally this would feel like nothing to me but now it feels like a marathon. The juice gives me the strength to run again, motivated by the thought of a shower and a lie down. At times today I feel as if I have summoned cloud cover and a breeze by the power of my thoughts and I try again now.
An evening in Birzebuggia
Tonight I am staying in Birzebuggia, a pretty coastal town loomed over by docks and industry. I eat and drink at a restaurant by the sea and chat to the owner about trail running in Malta. He sponsors some local races.
The town is very busy, it turns out today is Victory Day in Malta. My Air BnB host looks aghast when I tell him I will be leaving at 6 am – he is not planning on getting in until about 4 am from the celebrations.
It is still early (9 pm) but I decide to have one more beer and go to bed. As I go to the bar a local man offers to buy my drink. I smile but decline. He is insistent. So am I. In the end I manage to pay for my own drink but I have upset him. ‘For what?!’ he asks aggressively. I was never going to win in this situation. I feel a little uncomfortable as I finish my drink and head off for an early night.
Day 4: Sun Sept 9th 2018 – Birzebbugia to Valletta
Having done a few trips now where I move on every day I am used to getting organised the night before. I know exactly which possessions go into which dry bags and compartments. So, when the alarm goes off at 5.30 am (who does this on holiday?!) it doesn’t take long to get ready. I slurp a cup of tea and force down final pieces of flapjack before leaving the apartment just after 6 am.
It’s not yet light but straight away I’m running with sweat. The humidity is so high that it may as well be raining. As I climb away from the sea (every day seems to start with a climb) the sun rises. It is a truly stunning sight. I stop and say out loud ‘I love you Malta.’
The pleasure and the pain
Again I’m in hunter territory and as I climb a narrow country lane shots ring out around me. In man made sentry shadowy figures emerge in the growing light. The shots sound so close that my heart jumps wildly. As I stop to take photos another runner comes past me. I am heartened and hope these hunters are used to people taking early morning exercise here.
Last night I taped all my blisters and morning tea washed down a couple of strong painkillers to get me started. My feet have been throbbing all night and I had a vivid dream in which I woke with them swollen and totally purple. They are swollen but not as colourful as my dreams.
As always, the first couple of minutes are most painful. Once I get moving the pain subsides. I hope to cover 10 miles before 9am and the mantra ’10 before 9′ repeats in my head. At 8.45 I find a shop for drinks. I have 9.5 miles in the bag so quickly restock, rehydrate and push on to just hit my target in time.
Again I choose to cut corners to take today’s distance down from 25 miles to a more bearable 20. As I begin to pass through plush coastal towns a new feeling washes over me – enjoyment. I’m actually enjoying this and don’t want to rush!
Today the breeze has disappeared and I’m glad to find shade on some stone steps. A local lady checks I’m ok; I’m guessing I don’t look too spritely. It’s nearly 10 am and I only have 6.5 miles to go before I reach my finish back at the Triton Fountain in Valletta.
The painkillers are wearing off but I’m happy to reach the outskirts of Valletta. However, the area I’m in feels off. There is not a good atmosphere. I’m running beside a pretty busy road. Three men are walking towards me on the pavement. They move to the side slightly but as I pass the third one he opens his trousers and flashes at me. My mind freezes but my body goes into flight mode and I just keep running. It is 20 seconds or so before my brain kicks back in and starts to process what just happened.
I have to keep moving, just to put more space between me and him. But I wish I could stop and take a moment. I am scared and I am angry. Then I’m angry that I’m scared; that I have been given reason to be scared.
Most people are generally good
Before I came to Malta a female colleague asked if I was bringing a knife. I laughed off her question saying I was only taking hand luggage and that they get really jumpy at security when you pack a knife. She was serious though and told me she wanted me to come back safe. So, I said I would consider buying one before I set off.
I didn’t buy a knife. I truly believe that most people are generally good. We all have flaws but are usually more likely to help than harm.
I had felt secure running alone in that knowledge. Now I felt vulnerable. I wished I had punched him. Or laughed in his face. I decide to change my route and stay on main roads. It’s not a pretty place to run but there are lots of people around. My Garmin has stopped working and I am nervous to keep stopping to check the route on my phone.
Get yourself together
Rounding a corner I run straight into a cycling event. Surrounded by a sea of bikes I am forced to stop. I sit amongst the cyclists on the pavement and calm down. It gives me time to regather, check my route and feel ready to finish my run.
Back on the coast I realise I am entering the city walls of Valletta and my spirits soar once more. To complete the run I need to run all around the city and then back into the centre but I’m sorely tempted by the sign which reads ‘Lift to Valletta’.
I just ran around Malta!
Finally I arrive back at to where I started four days ago. I feel quite emotional and sit beside the fountain smiling to myself for a good 20 minutes. Tourists all around me are taking pictures. I must be in the background of many pictures that day, smiling at nothing.
Limping along the main shopping street I’m aware that I look awful and I stink! I choose a bar to relax in until I can check in at my hostel and soak up that fact that I just ran around a country.
Meeting Tony Soprano
There is one other person in my room when I get to the hostel. I shall name him ‘Tony’. Tony is Italian but speaks English with an American/Italian accent. He tells me he had to come to Malta because someone transferred him £118,000 in a business deal. It was going through a Maltese bank but never made it to his account. He is heading to the bank first thing tomorrow to locate his money. I’m not entirely convinced that Tony is not in the mafia.
Tony tells me he’s going out to ‘grab a salad’ later and asks if I am too. I wait until he is asleep on his bunk and sneak out.
Having existed on sugar and one good meal a day for four days it’s great to find Sesame noodle and dimsum bar that evening for fresh, healthy food. A few wines and I’m ready for another early night. Tony isn’t in the dorm when I get back. He gets in around 1.30 am – must have been a good salad.
Day 5: Mon Sept 10th 2018 – Being a tourist
Waking at 6 am, the heat in the dorm is stifling. So much so that as I lie on my bunk and catch up on social media I pass out! Coming to a couple of minutes later I decide I need to get up and find breakfast.
I don’t fly back until the evening so choose to spend the day strolling the streets of Valletta and swimming. Having breakfasted on strong coffee and qassatat (that’s an awesome cheese filled pastry) I feel a little more human. A little research takes me to an article on a secret swimming spot right by the city centre. I make my way there and spend a few hours doing what tourists are meant to do – relax!
How was Malta?
Many people have asked if I enjoyed Malta. It’s a hard one to answer. I achieved what I set out to achieve and that is enjoyment in itself. Malta really was a beautiful country and running the coastline gave me the chance to see so much of it. I discovered the joys of solo travel but also the pitfalls. Fear will never stop my adventures but it will certainly influence them.
The other thing people always ask is ‘what’s your next adventure?’ Enter your email address in the box below and you will be one of the first to find out!
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