Romania – The largest population of bears in Europe, and where Dracula turned out to be the nice guy…
They said it was the toughest race in Romania. I would extend that to Europe. Maybe the world. Imagine deep jungle-like forests full of bears and wolves. Mountains so high and steep you have to use your hands as much as your legs. And chains, ropes and ladders when your bare hands are not enough. Extremely technical trails full of rocks making it hard and painful to run the rare short parts that are flat enough to run faster than you can crawl. This is Transylvania. The magnificent view that strikes you when you finally reach one of several mountain peaks covered in the race makes it all worth the trouble. Maybe. I originally planned for the Dracula course with its 106 km of running and a total of 8500 meters of ascent. The plan would change.
After a long day of traveling we finally arrive at hotel Wolf late monday afternoon. The hotel is rated with four stars but Romanian stars are apparently not the same as the stars I’m normally used to. At least the room is big, very big, plenty of room for two persons to do pre-race Yoga. Very handy. Following the same ideas as in Switzerland a while ago, we try to find out a way to go high up in the mountains to prepare for the race. It’s very useful to see the trails in advance, and also to get used to the heights. The race is not until friday so not many people have arrived yet, but we do meet the lovely couple Krister and Laila that are also planning to go for a run in the mountains. Both of them very strong runners, and Laila would turn out to be stronger than I could ever imagine.
Tuesday around lunchtime we take a taxi to Busteni about one hour away. Me and Margrethe, Krister and Laila, and my friend Johan. Yes, that’s five of us, me in the front seat and the other four in the back seat. This is Romania. In Busteni a cable car will take us up to Cabana Babele at 2206 meters above sea level. The cable car looks like it has been bought second hand from an abandoned ski resort in the alps. The line is long and only a few people can go at the same time, but after a little more than an hour we can finally board. From the top there is another cable car going down to Pestera, one of the main checkpoints of the race, on the other side of the mountain. Me and Laila are eager to try out the trails and our legs so we run down the 600 meters of descent, while the others take the cable car. We have a quick lunch where the only open kitchen improvise to give us a sandwich before we start our climb up to Omu Peak at 2505 meters above sea level. That’s 900 meters of ascent in about 5 km. A good start for this preparation run. Margrethe who is doing her first real trail run starts to realize what this kind of running is all about. I get a bit nervous, not because of her ability, but because we are not actually running at the moment and I’m not sure what she would think about that. Soon enough we reach the peak though, and our reward does not disappoint us. Indeed a striking view over the hills and valleys.
We decide to continue by running the race course backwards down to Bran and to hotel Wolf. Even though I had a map and knew we might be running back to the hotel instead of taking the cable car and taxi, I did not bring enough energy for this run. Big mistake. However, after a few hours we finally reach Bran again after running 25 km with 1100 meters of ascent and 1900 meters of descent. A good practice run before the race. It strikes me that for Margrethe it was almost the same distance and half the meters of ascent as she would do in the race. Not optimal this close to the race of course, but anyway I think it was a good preparation. We wake up wednesday morning with severe soreness in our legs. Well, two days left, it should work. Wednesday and Thursday are spent sleeping, eating and doing Yoga. I really enjoy this somewhat forced relaxation a few days before the race. Far away from work and other duties.
It’s thursday evening the day before race day. I plan what to wear and pack my backpack. Figuring out what to bring, and what to put in my dropbag. I plan to eat some kind of energy once every hour, which means either a gel or half an energy bar. In addition I plan to eat whatever I find at the aid stations, which seems to be not that much. It’s quite a lot to bring, so my backpack gets really full. I’m not really nervous at this moment, but rather excited and really want to get out there. It’s almost midnight, and the bus to the start leaves at 5:00 am. Time to go to bed.
It’s still dark outside when we arrive at the starting area. I register, and my backpack is checked for the mandatory equipment. First aid kit, windproof jacket and headlamp among other things. The atmosphere is calm and relaxed. People are excited about the adventure that awaits them, but no one is stressed as far as I can see. Dramatic music, countdown from ten, and off we go. I run together with Laila, and neither of us wears a headlamp since it’s close to dawn. It’s dark and a bit difficult to see where to put my feet, but shortly we get to a slightly wider path where the visibility is better. Soon it gets steeper and I decide to alternate between running and walking. Laila keeps running, and I let her go thinking I would catch up with her later. But I never did.
After a few kilometers the course diverge from the marked trail and the vegetation gets really dense. I’m on my way up to Omu Peak for the first time in the race, it’s steep and slippery and it feels like I’m in the jungle rather than the woods. It’s not even a path or a trail anymore, it’s a small stream and my feet immediately get wet. Trees and logs everywhere blocking your way. I try to use my poles but it’s almost impossible not to say dangerous since they get stuck all the time. I’m starting to have a bad feeling about this. “This is NOT what I’ve signed up for”, I think to myself. I have to work hard with my mind and try to let go of all my negative thoughts. “Come on, go on, it will get better!”. Little did I know that it would get worse. Much worse. It feels like I’m in the jungle forever, but finally I get out of the forest simply because I’m now above the tree line. Last part up to Omu Peak is incredibly steep, and at the top it’s so windy I almost get blown away from the trail. I can’t see anything, and I can’t hear anything. Always trying to stay positive I see it as a great way of testing if my jacket really is windproof. Fortunately, it is. Even though it’s lightweight, the Mammut MTR 201 Rainspeed Jacket gives really good protection against both wind and rain.
I only brought around one liter of water from the start and I don’t have very much left but it supposed to be water at Omu Peak so I’m not that worried. However, due to the weather, or the bad roads, or some driver suddenly wanting more money, I don’t know, but there is no water. In fact there is nothing here. I get my sticker – you have to have them all not to be disqualified – and Andrei, a Romanian runner I got to know last time I was here, shows me the way. The next part of the race is a descent of 1300 meters and then back up to Omu Peak again. Evil. Pure evil. Besides, you have to be really careful following the correct path. Yellow line, then switch to red triangle. Later I learned that this was where many runners lost track and some of them had to drop out of the race. This is also where a few runners spotted bears. I’m really glad I don’t know that at this moment.
Given that I have almost no water I manage the second climb surprisingly well. As I get higher in the mountains I find water in a spring. It’s cold, clear and tastes good, but I really hope they have more water at Omu Peak this time. Part of this climb I do together with Viktor who will really impress me later by actually finish this extremely difficult course. We arrive at Omu Peak for the second time, and they have Coke! “Yay!!”. They also have two bottles of water to share with all runners. I get my share and refill one of my bottles. I’m starting to hear rumors about bear encounters. The guy leading the race obviously ran into a bear – not literally I hope – and the two female leaders ran past him and are now in the total lead. Viktor stays a few more minutes while I start the 1000 meter descent down to Pestera. The extremely difficult terrain and the fact that people have spotted bears and aggressive dogs makes me worried. Would it really be safe to do the second part during the night, I wonder. As I rush down the rocky trails one of my water bottles suddenly explode in my face! “Pooofff!”. My face gets sprayed with water and I realize that I got sparkling water at Omu Peak and not still water. I can’t help but laughing at this truly refreshing moment. As I continue, I press the valve on my bottle every ten steps or so to release the pressure in a more controlled way.
On my way down I run past the non-official photographer Mikael. He takes a few pictures but tells me that I ran on the wrong side of his wide angle camera. Without a word I turn around and run back up again, and down a second time on the correct path. Anything for a good picture. Mikael laughs, and tells me that I’m top ten in the race! Happy to see a dear friend I stop and chat for a few minutes while Mikael takes pictures of people running by. “You know what”, he says after a while. “You are not top ten anymore”. I have a big smile on my face and I don’t really care at this moment, but start running again. Maybe my mind has already made the decision to stop after the first loop. That would be the same course as Vlad the Impaler, just under 60 km.
At Pestera aid station we finally get plenty of food and drinks, and I have soup, cheese, water and coke. I talk for a while with Per, the race official, and some fellow runners. Viktor joins me, and we decide to continue together. He has some trouble with his knee and will not run that fast he says. Perfect for me, I am in no hurry and would appreciate the company. After leaving Pestera there is a 500 meter ascent also called “the cave challenge”. We climb with our hands and feet, crawl through narrow paths, and try to stay upright by holding on to chains and ropes when it’s too steep to climb. A beautiful waterfall crosses our way, and climbing up next to it is a real challenge. A narrow path just wide enough for both your feet with a small wire that doesn’t feel too secure to hold on to. A step a few centimeters too far to the right and it will hurt. Best case.
After reaching the last peak the rest of the course is not that demanding. A long descent back down to Bran over about 15 to 20 kilometers. We run with a comfortable pace due to Viktor’s knee and it’s nice to finally be able to run for a bit. This is actually the first part of the course where it’s possible to run for several kilometers straight. But due to the very demanding trail and the several dangers hiding in the dark I decide that the first loop is enough. I will not continue in the dark. My body works perfectly at this moment, and my energy level is high so I wouldn’t mind another 50 km or 5000 meters of ascent. But it’s simply to dangerous to go on. I don’t have the experience required to do this kind of adventure race, and I would be a fool to continue possibly running alone during the night. Viktor is 100% sure he will continue. I’m 100% sure I will not. I admire his courage, and I’m very impressed of his skills, but this one is not for me. There is no hesitation and it feels great to take that decision since it’s with my mind and heart. Not because I’m hurt or of fatigue.
Margrethe is waiting for me when I reach Bran and gives me the best hug I’ve ever had. This is the first time she’s with me in a big race like this, and I notice I have trouble controlling my feelings at this moment. In a good way. I look fresh and alert so of course she expects me to continue, and gets very surprised when I tell her I will join her back to the hotel. “No way you are quitting now”, she says. “Get back out there!”. But after a while she understands why I made the decision and that it’s no use trying to convince me. “But if it would have been because you were simply tired, I would never allow you to drop out!”. Since I was prepared to run over 100 km and I adjusted my effort accordingly, my body feels great after slightly less than 60 km and 4400 meters of ascent. A strange feeling.
The next morning I join Margrethe, Johan and Krister to the starting area for their races. Margrethe is doing the Silvania 30 km course, and Johan and Krister are doing the Vlad course I just did yesterday. I don’t know how much sleep Krister had during the night, but apparently Laila is leading the race together with two other women and I promise him to stay and wait for their arrival. It shouldn’t be more than one or two hours away. They start off their journey and I wish them good luck and tell them to stay away from bears. The sun is shining, and I enjoy waiting at the end of the ski slope together with other acquaintances in the finishing area. Suddenly people start to shout. “There they are!”. “It’s them, it’s them!”. I see three small dots high up in the ski slope and they are getting closer in a lightning speed. Laila is one of them. They finish the 106 km long course after just under 26 hours. An amazing achievement, and it feels unreal to be there seeing them crossing the finishing line. Words cannot describe how impressed I am.
Later that afternoon, another woman impresses me. I have had some worrying messages on my phone during the day, and it seems my phone has not been cooperating with the Romanian mobile network very well. But suddenly I see a big backpack with blond hair running down the ski slope screaming “Weeeee!!!”. It’s Margrethe finishing the Silvania course and I can’t stop smiling when I see her. I had been nervous all day, or all week actually, not knowing what she would think of this craziness. Turns out she loved it. Well, a rough start where she seriously questioned my judgement, but what a feeling of accomplishment!
After the race I had my doubts doing it again. A few days later though, I might think otherwise. I might return, but if so, I need to be better prepared. Both mentally and physically. If Margrethe would join me? She has already booked tickets…
A picture is worth a thousand words: