Monday 23 May 2016

Transylvania 100km - Romania

Transylvania 100km (also has 50km and 30km) is known to be a challenging course, with runners facing technical terrain, long ascents and descents, snow on the ground, and altitudes up to 2500m.... along with the local wildlife including bears and wolves (I saw a wild bear a couple of weeks ago and loads of Chamois though didn't hear of anyone seeing anything in the race). The previous 2 editions have had course alterations due to the amount of snow still on the mountains but this year we had the original courses. *some of the photos I took in my recces and have been sent from other people, I didn't have my camera out during the race*

I spent two weeks in Romania leading up to the race and stayed in Busteni which is about half way for the 100km then a couple of days pre race I moved to Bran where the race starts and finishes. I was able to recce out a third of the route and also explore some of the other trails in the area. My first day in Romania I set off up the hill and in a grand total of 11kms I covered 1700m finding lots of snow above 2000m and a lot of the route had chains to help ascend it was that steep. Over the next few days the snow melted dramatically in places although come race day there was still a couple of places with a lot of snow. On the whole it wasn't too bad.

So coming up to race day I had an idea of what to expect having recced what was the highest point of the course and got a feel for the terrain in the area. For comparison there is similar amount of elevation in the Transylvania 100km as the Lakeland 100 mile in the UK - almost 7000m.
Both the 100 km and 50km set out at the same time at 6am in the grounds of Bran castle. Here's a photo I took the day after the race.

So anyway... the start ... We set out with about 2km heading out of Bran on the road before picking up a track and following the markings up into the woods and beginning to climb gaining around 1400m in the first 10km.

After people had settled down a bit from the initial sprint through town I dropped into about 10-12th position though we were basically in a big pack, going into the woods and a group of about 8 missed a turning off the main track so I shouted them and we all piled up through the trees.

I eased past a couple of runners heading up the climb and it didn't seem long before we came out on to the ridge and got a real view of the mountains just as the sun was shining over the mountains too. The route traverses around a peak before descending 450m and to CP 1 at Cabana Malaiesti 13km in 2 hours 1 minute. One runner just ahead and 4 more in the distance. As we began to move across some snow I was looking up in to the end of the valley wondering where we might ascend.... You can see the trail of runners heading up the gully in the photo below (Thanks Steve!) This section has a fixed rope and basically you just had to kick steps into the snow as you dragged your body up to the top and onto the ridge to reach the high point and CP 2 Omu Peak at 2507m having climbed another 800m. Now 3 hours in there were 2 runners from the 50km and 2 runners from the 100km ahead of me. I'd expected to reach Busteni just under half way in 7-8 hours and so I was roughly on track.

As you can probably guess there's not a lot of flat on this route and being at the highest point it was now time to descend once more to reach the 3rd CP at Pestera 1600m. I couldn't see anyone ahead or behind but to be honest I was pretty focused on descending smoothly as possible through the rocky trail and occasional snow patches. The markings were a little unclear here and I saw some in the distance and headed towards them checking the gps. I then saw the checkpoint hard to the right and checked in before the next climb up to Cabana Babele and the Sphinx! 

It's a good honest climb initially then becomes a bit more gradual but fairly well covered in snow as I approached the 30km point the sun was strong and despite hiking through snow it was incredibly warm as I headed back to Omu for the 2nd time. Still no sign of any runners around until I saw a few people who had just began descending from their first visit to the Omu cp. When I recced this section the descent was deep in snow and running was a bit of a joke. I caught a glimpse of the runner ahead and pulled a 3 or 4 minute gap on him quite quickly. As I got close I saw him disappear deep into the snow well over his waist. I offered a hand but it took a bit of digging before he was out and we set off downhill, just a few minutes and we were off the snow and onto real trail. The terrain is awesome and I loved the descent into Busteni. I was just outside the town and couldn't see any markings at all after the previous section had been really well marked so became unsure of the route, I knew on the gps it was telling me to go right so I attempted to call the phone numbers printed on the race number for help. I can't speak more than a few words in Romanian and the lady on the other end of the phone couldn't help me so I called a Romanian friend who was helping at the cp in Busteni. Literally a minute later I got to the cp. A quick top up of drinks and I was off out the cp now in 2nd position heading up the ski slope. A couple of minutes and the markings disappeared once again so I was running through the woods trying to follow the gps again before I came across some more marking which was different to the gps. I took the markings and all was well! Just a 1100m climb up to the next cp.

The watch just ticked over to 50km in 7hr 59 and I knew I was on track to finish either just before or just after dark. I'd expected to be done whilst it was still daylight and packed a tiny head torch as even on a bad run I'd only have a bit to do in the dark. Aside from the final 5km the rest of the second half was all new to me, I hadn't recced any. The next few miles were quite straight forwards although I felt like I was moving slowly I was rolling along comfortable and just keeping focused on staying with the markers. The clouds started to roll in overhead and brought with them a shower of rain which would last about an hour I guess. It was at its worse as I hit the 75km checkpoint on a ridge and I stood under the tent for a few minutes and for some reason really felt like eating, so I took a few checkpoint snacks and then headed on before I had time to cool down. 

It was largely downhill to the next checkpoint and quite straight forwards except again the course marking was different to the gps file. I followed the marking and after a couple of km reached the small town and checkpoint at 85km. There's still over 1000m of climb left and I was beginning to wonder if the course would be 100km long or if there would be any bonus miles on the end. I'd not paid much attention to the final climbs and looking back probably would have taken a bit more fuel on to keep my energy levels up. I felt like I was barely moving on the final climbs though in reality I was making some decent progress. There were some flashing lights in places along with reflective markers to follow and navigation was pretty easy going.  I passed a couple of guys who were doing the 50km and I chatted to them briefly whilst I got my torch out and darkness fell. I might as well have taken a candle to be honest. 

The final 10kms were pretty muddy descending through the woods after the rain and also the 50km runners coming through earlier, I slid over a few times in my racing slick shoes but it wasn't long before I was coming out of the woods and onto a track which I'd run to a few days earlier. I knew it was only 5km from here (now at 101km on my watch already) just then I saw something to my left in the trees. It was two animals that looked very much like wolves and a couple of other sets of eyes reflecting in the trees as they turned and disappeared. I didn't have a great torch or a camera... though I definitely wasn't hallucinating I don't think they were dogs as most of the dogs seem to start barking when you see them... Either way they weren't interested and now I knew the remainder of the route back to the town I cracked on and pushed on the final kms before dropping out on the main road in town. I didn't see any more markings and wasn't sure exactly how you were meant to finish the route so I just stayed on the pavement and around to the front of the castle where we started and up to the finish line! (turns out this was right) in a whopping 16 hours 20 something minutes. Still, to my surprise in 2nd position though I never saw the leader. I thought 3rd might have caught back up though I wasn't moving as slowly as I thought at the time. 

Altogether the route is incredible, it would be ideal if there was less or no snow on the route as there wasn't a lot of running going on in that but it makes for a great adventure. I did have a few issues with the course marking, not up to the same standard as other races I've been doing in the past few months and to be honest without the gps I would have really struggled at a couple of points. The checkpoints were really good with plenty to eat and drink and all the pre race info and registration was flawless! Definitely a challenging event if that's what you're into! The area is fantastic and I'd be well up for coming back to explore some more! I've had a really great time in Romania and everyone I've met has been incredibly helpful! It was a very popular race with fellow Brits too this year so it was great to catch up with everyone who I've not seen for a while including the guys from Team OA events and Mr Ultra magazine himself! Dracula even came out to present us with prizes! 

I'm heading back to the UK this week briefly before going out to France to set up for the next coaching holiday in Morzine on the 12th June. My next big race is the Andorra Ultra Trail 170km in July though I'll be keeping busy with a few other events before that! The main goal with that one is to get around in less than 40 hours which sounds slow but is the hardest 100 miler I've heard of in Europe.

Monday 9 May 2016

Sky running Serbia - Bobija 56km +3000m

Whilst being over in Croatia for the 100 mile of Istria I thought I saw a race for the following weekend in the neighbouring country Serbia, turns out I got my dates wrong and it was two weeks after! Probably a good thing really. It meant that I had time to travel down Croatia and check out some potential locations for a coaching holiday and explore some mountains in Montenegro also, before flying up to Belgrade where the race organisers had arranged for me to meet some local runners who were traveling down to the race location on the Thursday night.
Before the race I'd been sent all the details of the race in English and everyone I spoke to was incredibly helpful and welcoming! The race itself begins in a small town called Ljubovija close to the Bosnian boarder and finishes at a mountain hut nearby so the race has a lot more uphill than downhill.  We arrived around 10pm and got registered which was quick and easy before I headed to my hotel up the road.

Before the race after looking at the course details, I'd thought anything just under under 6 hours should be a decent run considering the uphill nature of the course and considering it was likely to have some technical terrain. There was also a 26km run starting at the same time but turning off at a checkpoint about 15km in so made a mental note not to go that way! The weather on the morning was very low cloud and foggy, although I didn't notice it raining the ground was wet which I know doesn't bode well for the Brooks trail shoes I had with me.

From the start there was a group moving around 6 min miles through the town as we had a few kms before the first climb on a 4x4 type track. I sat just behind and just ticked along nicely as we started to spread out there was at least 10 ahead of me maybe 15. The funny thing about races with multiple distances is you can never be sure who's in what race... Sometimes the shorter races attract less experienced runners and all the 'competitive' ones choose the longer distance so they actually end up going faster than those on the short distance or.... Other times you get the fast ones doing the short distance and moving far quicker than those on the Ultra.... And sometimes it's just a complete mix!!!! Thinking about positions therefore fairly pointless!

The first climb was just about gradual enough to run and moving through the mist passing the first checkpoint I got my card stamped (prove you've visited the checkpoint) and passed two runners. Visibility was low and although the marking was great you couldn't see very far ahead. I could hear some footsteps behind on a couple of occasions over the next few kms as I was just doing my best to stay on my feet over some of the muddier sections.

Reaching the 2nd CP a volunteer pointed to turn left thinking I was on the 26km but when I said 56 they all told me right which is what the instructions said and also there was a big sign to direct us the correct way. This gave me an impression I must be near the front but still plenty of kms remain. A runner followed me the same way also doing the 56km and I noticed some fresh looking footprints in the mud.

It wasn't long before we hit the long descent, I was going as quick as I could with the slippery ground although it was quite rocky it would be quite straightforward to run in the dry. Suddenly I appeared behind another runner and the one behind me caught up also as we reached the bottom of the gorge together about halfway into the race. It was slippery single track through the gorge and then a good climb up to the next CP. I had to walk a couple of spots up here as it was slippery and quite steep in places but mostly ran. The route flattens out a little and the fog was thick. On one of the long switch backs I noticed there was nobody behind me and just carried on looking out for the up coming CP.
A few minutes later I heard a voice shouting although I had no idea what it was saying and thought nothing of it. The voice continued and after a minute or so I stopped and out of the mist came a guy gasping for breath. Turns out he was from the checkpoint and I'd run past before they were ready and he'd been trying to chase me after they saw the back of me. I had to run back with him to the checkpoint a few minutes away because he didn't have the stamp to mark my card. As we ran back a lady from the checkpoint had the stamp and I turned back around and continued on the route. I'd expected the two previous runners to catch me as it wasn't long since I'd seen them and after spending 3 to 4 mins there sorting out the checkpoint I must have moved much quicker on the ascent out of the gorge.

Some more climbing over an 8km section to reach the finish at 41km  but.... We have to do a 15 km loop from here before we really finish! I guessed by now I was most probably leading as the next checking was covered over and i caught the volunteers by surprise, although maybe not... I couldn't tell and kept the intensity up moving as well as I could between the occasional bit of skiing on the mud. I think I'd gone through the marathon distance around 3.40 from memory but I realised I was going to be far quicker than I'd expected unless there was something crazy ahead. I could remember there being a decent climb near the end but hadn't paid that much attention. Then.... The route began to descend... A long way.... This is only really going to mean one thing! I popped out onto a short road section just under 50km and reached the final checkpoint now rejoining the 26km route although they'd all passed through by now.

I checked the watch again and remember thinking there's perhaps a sub 5hr on the cards unless either a very steep climb coming up, like a scramble almost, Sure enough we turned off the road and the trail began to climb, quite steep but nothing crazy as we traversed a little across the hill.... Then there was a sharp right turn literally straight up the face of the hillside into the mist. Haha yes the elevation is coming alright! I pulled on trees, grass, dug my fingers into the ground to drag myself up the hill. It was an awesome climb and my body was feeling good for it as I pushed on. It did become more gradual near the top through the forest as I continued to run. I was passing a few runners from the 26km and knew that it must be close to the finish. It was all quite sudden as the mist was still lingering and then I spotted a building and the finish!

All over in 5hrs 8 minutes. I'd taken over 40 minutes from the previous record and arrived in first. I had a quick shower under a cold hose pipe to get all the mud and grit off before being whisked inside to where there was a hot fire and warm food. I spent the afternoon chatting to some of the runners also finishing and there were a couple of busses to get everyone back down the mountain to the town later on. Although a nice temperature for running I'm sure the views are usually much better usually.
I'd like to say a big thankyou to all the team involved with organising the event, I had a really good experience and was well looked after. Well done to all the runners of course and thanks for making my trip to Serbia a good one!