Montemuro Vertical Run provided the stunning setting for the Valsir Mountain Running World Cup’s first Gold Label race of the year.

It was also the World Cup’s first taste of Portugal, so many of the runners weren’t sure what to expect of the 10.2km course with 980m of ascent. Would it be a fast and furious route, or would there be technical sections?

With a top field of athletes from Kenya, Italy, Spain, Finland, Ireland, and of course Portugal, who would emerge at the summit of Montemuro Mountain first?

The promised rain stayed away on race morning, and an overcast sky provided near perfect race conditions, at around 20 degrees Celsius.

The route started in a small village just outside of Castro Daire, with a reasonably flat kilometre loop round the streets, and then made its way up, up, up to the summit at 1200m with one downhill kilometre in the first half. The track was mainly wide and runnable, with just one nasty, steep, technical section right at the end.

Photo: Gulberti

The women set off first, at 10am, and Joyce Njeru (KEN) set the pace, with Susanna Saapunki (who is from Finland, but lives in Italy) right on her heels, leading the chasing pack.

Those chasing athletes included Camilla Magliano (ITA), Lorenza Beccaria (ITA), Maria Ordonez Marina (ESP), Vivien Bonzi (ITA), Charlotte Cotton (BEL) and talented Portuguese athletes including Rosa Madureira and Joana Soares. We were in for a great race.

By the halfway point Njeru was in the lead, but she wasn’t running away with it. Saapunki was chasing hard and was going to make her fight for it. Around a minute separated the two, then Magliano was just under a minute behind. It was still anybody’s race, with Madureira, Soares and Beccaria not far behind.

A 10 min head start

The men set off 10 minutes after the women and it was a fast kilometre loop to start out with. With no Henri Aymonod, due to injury, we might have expected to see Geoffrey Ndungu (KEN), who had some great results last year to finish third in the overall World Cup standings, taking it on.

But it was fellow Kenyan, Patrick Kipngeno, who we haven’t seen in our World Cup races before, who led from the start. But with a field including Zak Hanna (IRL), Marek Chrascina (CZE), Andrea Rostan (ITA) and Paulo Gomes, Cesar Costa and several other strong runners from Portugal, it wasn’t going to be plain sailing.

But Kipngeno has a 10k PB of 29.22 and a half marathon best of 1.02.42, so it was clear he could set the pace, but could he sustain it and beat runners with much more experience in the mountains?

At halfway he was looking comfortable and he wasn’t letting up on the pace! Hanna kept him in his sights though, and continually tried to close the gap. Rostan, Chrascina and Ndungu were also chasing hard for third at this point.

Photo: Gulberti

Who would be first to the line?

Because the women started 10 minutes before the men we waited at the summit finish to see whether it would be a man or a woman crossing the finish line first. Njeru and Kipngeno actually looked like they may finish together but in the last few metres Kipngeno just overtook his compatriot, taking the win for the men in 50.45. Njeru crossed the line moments later to win the women’s race in 1.00.33.

Saapunki was just under a minute behind Njeru (1.01.19), showing what an exciting prospect she is for the women’s World Cup this year. Magliano completed the women’s podium in 1.04.23, having a great run.

For the men Hanna held onto second, finishing in 52.37. Afterwards he said that he could see Kipngeno ahead of him at many points of the course, but when Kipngeno surged he just wasn’t able to match his pace without risk of blowing up.

While Kipngeno is clearly a runner to watch this year, Hanna has also had a great impact with his first World Cup race of the year. Rostan rounded out the men’s podium with a strong run, finishing in 53.02.

Cesar Costa coming home

A notable name in the men’s top 10 was Cesar Costa, who finished in eighth place. He lives in Switzerland now but Montemuro Vertical Run is in his home town, so he returned to take part. He is a vet 45 now and his past mountain running achievements include a second place at Sierre-Zinal in 2011, finishing in 2.31!

Athletes said afterwards that they enjoyed the course, with its wide, runnable tracks and mix of terrains. Montemuro has definitely put Portugal on the radar for mountain running races, and that reputation looks set to grow as we head back to Portugal for our next Valsir Mountain Running World Cup race on July 3rd: the Silver Label One Hundred Douro-Paiva, our next long mountain race.

Find the full results for Montemuro Vertical Race here.