Monday, 30 May 2016

Transylvania 30k

Great finishers medal made of wood
The Bucegi Mountains

Well I seemed to have screwed that one up good and proper. What a muppet. Somewhere after the last checkpoint of the Transylvania 30k I took a wrong turn and managed to turn a 30k race into a 42k race. As I jogged slowly down the road to Bran and the finish line under the spectacular fortress of Bran Castle I fought back tears of disappointment, I was so angry with myself. My legs had felt surprisingly good on the descent after 11000ft of climbing over some fairly gnarly mountain terrain. I guess I had just let my guard down as the terrain levelled out and became easier and a moment’s lapse in concentration was all it took. I managed a smile for the camera as I crossed the finish line and then promptly consumed my own body weight in coca cola. I don’t even like coca cola.
Bran Castle
Now the big selling point of this race was that it started and finished in the grounds of Bran Castle supposedly the home of Count Dracula. This, at least, is the Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's creation, the 15th Century Prince of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes, on whom Stoker is supposed to have based his fictional character and who from all accounts appears to have been a thoroughly unpleasant chap. Count Dracula/Vlad wasn’t really a resident of the castle but it’s fair to say the connection between the two has been firmly linked both in myth and folklore and by the tourist industry. Count Dracula even fired the gun to start the race and presented the prizes to the winners at the end of the race although this was a very comedic Count Dracula. On arrival in Bran I walked round to have a look at the castle and the finish line and then went up to the sports hall for the registration which is where I felt the first moment of doubt. It was a bit of an eye opener as I don’t think I have ever been in a room with quite so many lean tanned fit looking athletes, and I seemed to be the only one without any piece of Salomon running kit. Clearly I did not belong. Oh well, too late to back out now so I queued up, had my kit checked, received my map, t-shirt and bear whistle (yikes!) before going in search of my complementary 3 course meal. I had an early night though which seemed like a wise move given what lay ahead.
Sleep didn’t come easily and I slept fitfully, more than once I jumped out of bed to check some item of kit that I managed to convince myself that I’d forgotten to pack so I was glad when morning arrived and I could make my way down to the start line at Bran Castle.
The race start
After Count Dracula had fired the gun and we all set off there was a small stretch of road before the climbing started…. and continued relentlessly winding upwards on forest paths shaded from the sun past the odd pile of bear poo (just to keep the heart rate a little higher) before breaking out of the treeline on to a ridge just beneath some rocky outcrops, As soon as I was on the ridge I felt the considerable temperature difference and pulled on a waterproof and some gloves and followed the snake of runners towards the little red and white igloo shaped mountain hut. There were patches of snow all the way along the course, mostly soft and trodden down by the runners in front so not too tricky but they were on a steep enough gradient that had the temperature been a few degrees lower and they had frozen then they would have been considerably more problematical. It was still necessary to proceed with a little caution given the angle of the slope. A chilly mist swirled on the summit and across the plateau but it was a reasonable path and quite runnable over the short grassy vegetation until the descent began. I’m not sure how many other runners were paying attention to the flora and fauna (probably only me!) but I was surprised to see a sort of alpine crocus beside the path. The descent to the first checkpoint at CP Malaiesti was rocky and steep and so I was glad to reach the checkpoint which had a variety of snacks on offer such as fruit and biscuits and orange juice. I had a couple of cups of juice and some dry biscuits and then set off again.
More climbing
Rocky outcrops on the ridge
Bran in the valley below
There was 5100ft of climbing in the first 10k
This part of the valley was wide and yellow cowbells grew amongst the rocks again something I really didn’t expect (when I say crocuses and cowbells that is what they looked like, it’s not necessarily what they were)
Every so often I looked up from climbing to try and figure out where we were going amongst those dark, jagged towering summits. The Bucegi Mountains form part of the southern Carpathian Mountains of which the highest is Omu summit at 2505m/ 8218 ft. which is where the checkpoint that the 50k runners had to visit was located. The 100k runners are even luckier, they have to visit the checkpoint twice meaning they had to climb the mountain twice.
At one point I noticed that there were quite a few people climbing up a snow gulley and so I guessed the area was popular with climbers too, until I worked out that there was no other route and the people climbing the snow gulley were in fact runners and that was the way out of this apparently impenetrable fortress of rock. My first thought was “REALLY???”
Runners heading into the snow gulley
There was nothing for it but to dig in and start climbing through the snow. Fortunately it was for the most part soft and you could step into grooves made by other people or kick steps of your own. I lost count of the number of times I lost my footing and slipped and so I was glad to find at about half way up someone had fixed a rope in place. I skirted round another runner who seemed to be making really heavy weather of things and carried on up. The only problem was that the runner on the rope below me was a bit bigger than me and so every time he slipped I was jolted outwards on the rope as if I was on some sort of fairground ride. Only less fun. After the race there were stories abound of runners making swift unplanned descents of this snow gulley which I can easily believe.
The rope to help you climb the snow gulley
The signpost at the col.
After what seemed to be quite a long time I reached the col and looked back down the gulley which was now filled with a cold swirling mist. I had to blink several times as I had been staring at the snow slope for so long my vision was a bit distorted but as I looked round I saw that the route markers led to the other side of the col where there was a steep-ish snowy descent which although it was no way near as steep as the side I had just climbed up, was steep enough for an exhilarating downhill run with the odd face plant thrown in for good measure along with sections of bum-sliding. The terrain slowly evened out and I started following the path across the plateau. It was here that I was a little surprised to meet a runner coming towards me especially as this runner had a race number on. It transpired that she was a competitor in the 100k who had followed the 30k route from the col and was now back tracking to CP Omu summit. Neither of us stated the obvious which was she was now very far behind (the 100k runners started two hours before the 30k runners) and had lost a lot of time so I asked if she needed any food or water and so topped up her supplies from mine. We wished each other luck and went our separate ways.
The descent from the col
For much of the time I was running alone and I revelled in the silence of the mountains. The field had spread out quickly although every so often someone who overtake me or I would overtake someone and then I would be alone again.

Now the real descending began, it was tricky and technical, steep, more snow, river crossings and sections of chains to help you down the steepest rock faces. To be honest if you have a little scrambling ability you would have been fine without the chains but I was glad that they were there all the same although when trusting my body weight to one chain  I did have a fleeting thought about whether the chain was actually attached to anything at the other end. At one point I heard another runner behind me. The twisting and turning path meant that I didn’t see him until he was right behind me but I certainly heard the yelps of pain as he slid and fell a couple of times. I found some good handholds and footholds and lowered myself down the last section of chain and turned back to assist the runner by pointing out the secure footholds. We ran together to the next checkpoint.
After what seemed like a lot of downhill I broke through the trees into a meadow and found the next checkpoint which was stocked with goodies. Feeling a little sugar depleted I attacked their stocks of coca cola and jelly worms. I didn’t think I liked coca cola but it’s got to be said it has amazing restorative powers. Same can be said for jelly worms.
By now, much to my surprise I was feeling really good. I had really expected my quads to be trashed by this point but that was not the case. I took stock of any aches and pains. I had cracking blisters on both heels which had been troubling me since 3 miles into the race but I decided I could do little about those as any plasters were just rubbing off so I would just have to man up and get on with it. My hands were a bit sore from pulling myself up on ropes and chains and even using them to support me on the rocky descents. I could not work out why my right shoulder was sore until it dawned on me that it was for the same reason as my hands were sore.
Back into the forests
Feeling pretty good I set off on the final stretch back into Bran. It was here that it all went wrong. I had followed the markings down a wide track, over a meadow, up a steep climb, through woods past farm steadings down to the road, turned on to the road only to discover….. I was nowhere near Bran. While I was climbing through the woods I had overtaken another competitor going in exactly the same direction as me. I hope he realised his mistake sooner than I did and was able to back track as he seemed to be having a very hard time of it when I passed him. In fact he sat down at the side of the track. Totally bemused I asked 2 different sets of locals which direction Bran was in and each group pointed me in the opposite direction. Helpful. I fished the phone out of my bag and switched on the mapping thing that it does only to confirm that I was indeed nowhere near where I should be. By now I was reluctant to trust any more random passer-by’s so I knocked on the door of a restaurant and asked the owner which way Bran was, my reasoning being that he was more likely to be a local and have local knowledge and he pointed down the road. It appeared as though my options were limited so I trotted off in the direction that he had pointed. After what seemed like an eternity my phone picked up a constant signal and I could see from the movement of the little blue dot on the screen that I was heading to Bran. I had run out of water a wee while ago and was getting really quite thirsty but resisted the urge to stop at the shop and buy a drink as I was desperate not to lose more time. 

Eventually I reached the outskirts of Bran and spotted another runner, a competitor in the 50k, and so I followed him to the finish line.

After claiming my fantastic medal I lay on the grass for a while before guzzling yet more coca cola (it’s a wonder I’ve any teeth left after all that sugar) and some pasta. It was nice to finish and amazingly my detour hadn’t meant that I finished last but it was still a bitter-sweet feeling. One careless mistake had cost me dearly. The most frustrating thing for me though was that I couldn’t for the life of me work out where I had gone so wrong, after all I had followed the course markings to the road hadn’t I? It was not until I had got home to Aberdeen and downloaded my Garmin that all became clear. The 100k and the 30k reach CP Poiana Gaura via different routes then both converge to follow the same route back to Bran. It was this turnoff that I had missed so rather than following the route into Bran I had managed to follow the 100k route away from the checkpoint and I had managed to turn a 30k race into a 42k run.

There was nothing for it but to go in search of more food and beer. It had also dawned on me that what was even worse was that in my hurry to get back down to Bran I had been running through the woods completely alone and had totally forgotten about using the bear whistle. I could have been prime bear fodder! And let’s face it, there’s a lot more eating on me for a bear than there is on some of those 100k runners. I went for a pizza and beer and watched as race finishers made their way back to their digs. Bran seemed full of people doing a strange straight legged kind of walk. 

The next morning I did the tourist bit and visited Dracula’s castle before meeting Andy and Marcus for a coffee and after exchanging "war stories" we ventured along to watch the prize giving.
The prize giving with the back drop of Dracula's castle
Count Dracula presenting the prizes
Bran Castle at night
View of the finish line from Bran Castle
A bit of gothic horror if you like that kind of thing.

Some tips for anyone fancying this race

This is do-able by public transport but if I was to go again I think I would make life easy for myself and hire a car. As it was I drove to Glasgow, flew to Bucharest, took a train to Brasov and attempted to take a bus to Bran and when that plan went pear shaped I took a taxi to Bran. Public transport is pretty cheap and the trains all seemed to run on time.
You could catch the fast train or the slow train. I chose unwisely.
Getting around was for the most part straight forward but if you do need to ask for directions or advice then ask males such as waiters or bus and taxi drivers or young females. Middle aged to old females are very unhelpful. Sadly most ticket booth sand information points seemed to be staffed by middle aged females and the last thing they are intent on giving you is information. In general though people in Bran seemed a whole lot friendlier than people in Bucharest

Despite being part of the EU they only use the euro at the airport and only use the local currency which is the Romanian lei. Make sure you always have small denominations of the local currency available as no one ever seems to have change although again this was definitely the case in Bucharest and less so in Bran. 

The race

If you are thinking of doing this race it really helps if you like climbing. There is a lot of it. And not all of the course is what you might describe as “runnable”, in fact I think “brutal” was the term most widely used to describe it. 

Although there is mandatory kit to be carried I took a view on it and carried more than necessary. It is a difficult course in a remote area and we were very fortunate with the weather but it’s not hard to see how it could be a very different story in poor conditions for example if the snow had been frozen. It was lovely and warm in the valley and at times I felt as though I was in danger of over-heating on the climb but a lot of the race takes place on exposed mountain summits.

I would possibly consider carrying a GPS too if I was to run it again. (What do I mean “if”?!) From reading other blogs of this race I have found that I am not the only one who has been lost on the course. The course for each of the 3 races are very well marked but just be aware that all courses are marked with the same colour tape. The 100k runner I had come across in the valley had followed tape marking the 30k and likewise I was doing the 30k but I followed tape marking the 100k route. I should add that the majority of the competitors had no problems so I suspect numpties like me were in the minority.

Some people ran with trek poles and some didn’t but I suspect the longer the race, the more use they are. In the unlikely event I ever do the 100k I would probably choose to run with poles.
If you found yourself struggling for any reason you could drop down a distance mid race so long as you let the organiser at the checkpoint know so 100k runners could drop down to 50k and 50k runners could drop down to 30k. If you did this then you couldn’t count for a prize in your newly selected race distance. And if you were struggling in the 30k then tough, that was the shortest distance available.

The aid stations were well stocked with biscuits, water, juice, fruit and sweeties. And coca cola. The further away checkpoints visited by the 100k runners also had hot food available. Like in all long hill races you had to carry mandatory emergency food supplies but i didn't really make much of a dent in my food stocks during the race.

I ran in leggings and a merino ice breaker long sleever (and of course the good old HBT vest). The advantage of full body cover meant that you were spared the full rays of the sun in the mountain air and your legs were protected at calf level from the scratchy effect of breaking through the crisp icy surface of the snow. I would carry sun cream next time so that would give me the opportunity to swap to a vest or a t-shirt if I started to feel too warm but it is something I wouldn’t dare do without sun cream as I am a wee pale Scottish person.

Wildlife – this area has a number of wild bears and wolves and these are the big brown bears but as far as I am aware no runner has wound up as bear tucker as yet. Each competitor was given a whistle to use to ensure that you made enough noise not to surprise a passing bear which apparently annoys them and believe me, you do not want to annoy one. A quick "google" has revealed that the largest bear captured in this area on record weighed in at 480kg. During the early stages of the race there was a pile of bear poo with power bar wrappers in it and so clearly bears haven’t yet mastered the art of unwrapping power bars. If I had seen a pile of bear poo with some trainers or a t-shirt in it I may have been a little more concerned.

It is a fantastic event, really well organised but at the same time it is brutally hard. I recommend it. The scenery is spectacular, the race organisation spot on and the race is low key and friendly. Plus you can buy bottles of count Dracula Merlot for a fiver and the medal and T-shirt are great. What more could you want?
Count Dracula Merlot

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Tiree - Tir-fo-Thuinn (the land beneath the waves)

 The start of the Tiree half marathon and 10k took place on a glorious stretch of golden sandy beach under beautiful blues skies. That’s the positive. The negative was that by the time I had stepped off the soft sands on to the road I was knackered and could do little as my Heb Half nemesis Hamish scampered away into the distance. I then attempted to stay ahead of the other female runners around me and became deeply engrossed in a couple of mini battles with another runner…only to see her take the turn off to the 10k finish. This was a factor that had escaped me in the excitement of it all so while my competitor had maybe another mile or two to go I had another 8 or 9 and had wasted valuable energy in trying to stay ahead of her, a runner who wasn’t even in my race. Well played Louise.
The start and first few hundres yards were on soft sand
I’d like to say that matters improved as the race progressed but I’d be lying, still once the 10k runners had gone their separate way the field thinned out and I felt a bit happier running alone through the low lying, flat, featureless landscape that is Tiree with its fields populated by oyster catchers, lapwings, plover, geese and the highly elusive corncrake. It is an island almost completely devoid of trees so there was nothing to act as a wind break to the winds that we were being buffeted by. The island after all is a renowned surfing centre so for this reason alone it’s never likely to be a pb course. The flat expansive landscape and long stretches of single track road meant that ever so often I would catch glimpses of Hamish just tantalisingly ahead but still I was unable to do anything about it.
Finlay heads towards the finish
Bert in action
I was blaming my enthusiastic approach to the previous day’s bike ride for the weary state of my legs (actually to be honest I was blaming everything under the sun) but for whatever the reason by mile 10 I was walking. That has not happened to me in a race in a VERY long time. After a torrent of abuse from Simon who fortunately hadn’t managed to film the whole sorry spectacle on his go-pro camera I slowly eased myself back into a jog although it was little more than a shuffle. And then, miracle of miracles, I spotted Hamish up ahead. And, even bigger miracle, I seemed to be closing on him. As I turned the corner just before the 12 mile mark Simon was there yelling at me and I couldn’t help sticking two fingers up at him…..all caught in full glorious technicolor by the go-pro. I went past Hamish and, as penance for this, I spent the next mile with my heart in my mouth as I waited for him to come back at me. 

The course turned a corner where the Mainland Mules support team had located themselves and on to the beach for the final few hundred metres. This was a little unexpected as I had thought that the finish would be located at the same point as the start line and so those couple of hundred metres of sand felt very long and very heavy going. However this didn’t feel nearly as far as the cycle ride back to the Millhouse hostel felt after the race. There was a fine number of Mules competing in both races with myself, Bert, Hamish, Davie and Heather in the half marathon and Finlay and John in the 10k ably supported by Eric, Allan and Simon aka the Steven Spielberg Wannabe.
A snow covered Ben More
It was a tad chilly out on deck
Solving the issue of global warming
Last year I thought that the May Day weekend had been unseasonably cold but that was nothing compared to this year. The view from the ferry, the good ol’ “Clansman,” was of snow-capped peaks on Mull, Skye and the Mainland and even a covering of snow on Tiree, something that is pretty well unheard of. The strange weather conditions were the topic of much conjecture with regard to global warming and Allan explained that it had something to do with the earth’s orbit of the sun but similarly to the “goats and garages” conundrum of 3 years ago I really can’t remember the conclusion but I have no doubt that between us we managed to come up with a solution to global climate change. (Did I really have to go mentioning goats and garages again?! It was a topic that we were all at pains to avoid all weekend)
The low lying island of Tiree with its dusting of snow
We arrived on a snow speckled Tiree where the white stuff was swiftly melting and made our way to the bunkhouse. This is always a nervous time for the organiser of these types of weekend. What would the bunkhouse be like? Would it be warm enough? What if the pre-booked transport doesn’t turn up? Thoughts such as these were racing through my brain. Much of my stress about the weekend had been about transport options to try and negate the need for everyone to take cars over and so without a doubt the discovery of the weekend was the “ring n’ ride” bus service which was amazingly efficient and ran in true informal island style. We used this option to get us to and from the post-race ceilidh which we all decided to go to not least because that race prizes were to be presented there and both Bert and Heather were winners in their respective categories. There was an incredible 362 entrants across both races so no wonder the ceilidh was packed although I’ve no idea how the island accommodated everyone. After the ceilidh we caught the party bus….err sorry… the “ring n’ ride” bus back to the hostel for some serious whisky sampling. It was only the next morning that phenomenon I have christened the Brian Factor came to light. Ok so after a heavy night on the booze what is the one thing you are going to want to do the next morning? That’s right, you want to get some shut eye. That is hard to achieve when someone is banging doors, stomping down wooden stairs in boots and TALKING VERY LOUDLY ON THE PHONE just outside your room at some god awful time in the morning.

Firstly an explanation. This was all Bert’s fault. This is a philosophy that has served me well numerous times in the past and no doubt will so again in the future. On race day Bert had acquired a friend by the name of Brian. Now Brian had arrived on Tiree with a tent and little else, least of all social skills, but as the weather was due to take a turn for the worst over-night Bert had taken pity on Brian and asked if he could stay with us in the bunkhouse. Reluctantly, and with some reservations, I agreed.
Group dynamics is something that those poor unfortunates taking management degrees have to study and the Brian phenomenon would have made a fascinating thesis topic. Brian was not what you might call an asset to the group. I tried to cut him some slack by saying that he maybe was not familiar with bunkhouse etiquette but the topic was greeted with gritted teeth by Simon, Hamish and Davie were somewhat exasperated and Heather was positively spitting feathers. I too changed my tune at the point at which it became clear that Brian had declared open season on the communal wine stocks. John, however was as sweet and tolerant as ever and took Brian under his wing. And, as Simon pointed out, if Brian wasnt there we would have just have to have found someone else to bitch about anyway.

Now we all have this charming British tendency to not say it how it is and to try not to offend. That is all of us except Bert. He is Dutch.  In studies on group dynamics the text books say that this type of situation requires a facilitator to ensure that everyone behaves as they should and so the group all gets along. So we need a facilitator. For next year I nominate Bert.
Pre race dinner
The celidih hall was packed
Prize winners
Bert was in danger of losing his prize of Tiree chocolate...
All aboard the party bus!
The hostel was wonderful and as a special treat David, the owner, let us see the waterwheel working and he even let us open the sluice gates leading from the reservoir some half a mile away to the mill building, the construction of both the mill and the sluice gates dating from 1802. Tir-fo-Thuinn is actually a nickname for Tiree, its true name in Gaelic being tir iodh* which translates to land of corn. And so explains the presence of a mill.

The Mill at Cornaig was commissioned in 1771 by the 5th Duke of Argyll. It was to grind the corn for the whole island, thus replacing inefficient horizontal mills, and hand mills or querns. Work began in 1802. A lade from Loch Bhasapol to the mill was constructed with a sluice gate at the loch end. This raised the level of the water in the loch and provided a year round flow to the wheel which is of the ‘breast’ type, as the water hits the wheel at mid height. The mill was completed in 1803, and from 1804 until 1945 a succession of millers lived and worked at Millhouse. However after 1945 the mill underwent a period of dismantling and decay.
The wheel was rescued and restored in 2006 by the Boyd family who are the present owners. Ian MacArthur, a local skilled metal worker, agreed to undertake this challenging project. The work was done in situ as the wheel was too fragile to move, but the original cast iron shrouds and central naves and shaft were still intact and are the ones you see today, over 200 years old. New bearings were engineered, and new larch paddles and sole boards were painstakingly replaced one by one. Even the bolts were made with square heads, to replicate the original (present day bolts have hexagonal heads).The sluice gate at the loch was repaired, and at the mill end a new trap door which acts as an ‘on/off switch’ was made to direct water either onto the wheel or down the shute. Amazingly, this is operated by the original handle which was discovered in the debris

David told us of various future plans for the building such as converting it into a bistro restaurant which would be a fine use for this historic structure. As I watched the waterwheel turn I wondered whether it would be possible to mill flour to be used in cakes produced and sold at the bistro. I suspect that there would be some EU health and safety legislation forbidding this though! It would be good though if the mill could be put to some practical use rather than just as a large water feature.
The empty channel

The walk to the sluice gate

Opening the sluice gate

We all got a turn
The water supply to the mill

Watching the channel fill with water....
.....and flow towards the waterwheel

Watching the working waterwheel

Once everyone had emerged from their drunken slumbers on Sunday people went their separate ways to have a look around the island. Simon and I went to look at one of the archaeological sites by the name of Dun Mor Vaul, a broch situated on an exposed hill on the north east of the island. It was occupied as a timber fort from the 6th century BC with its current stone construction dating from the 1st century BC.
Double wall structure
No jokes about old ruins please!

Unusually for Scotland Tiree does not appear to have a rabbit population but we saw a surprising number of hares as we walked to and from the fort as well as the constant accompaniment of the sounds of the island’s birdlife. Finlay was extending his stay on the island to go bird watching and I wondered if at some point I would finally get to see the elusive corncrake, however it was not to be.
Oyster catchers on the beach

Most people had taken advantage of either bringing or hiring bikes which was quite a good way of seeing the island – weather permitting – and needless to say the weather was quite a big topic of conversation given the number of ferry cancellations that the island is subject to due to high winds. We were very lucky, Friday afternoon was fine, race day was pretty good, dry and sunny, as was Sunday for the most part and we were able to get the ferry back to Oban on the Monday. There were a couple of storms but these passed over the island, departing as quickly as they arrived, and they were at night. Finlay’s sailing on the Wednesday after the race was cancelled and the last thing I heard Thursday was looking doubtful too. In fact, does anyone know if he has got back yet…?
Stand off on the isle of Tiree

Like visits to all Hebridean islands it definitely wouldn’t be a disappointment to be stuck on the island for longer than expected. Tiree is no exception to this.
It didnt really matter if it rained all weekend....

Expressing appreciation of art and architecture through the medium of dance...
Waiting for the ferry

Working out the kitty was all too much for Hamish
A tired little Hubert

*this is disputed according to Hamish Haswell-Smith’s guide to the islands. Apparently the name may be pre-celtic. I think that might mean bronze age?

The Mainland Mules role of honour

The half marathon

Bert – 16/153 – 1.33.11 – 1ST V60

Davie – 26/153 - 1.39.24

Louise – 34/153 (6f/86f) - 1.44.57

Hamish – 40/153 – 1.47.00

Heather – 47/153 (13f/86f) – 1.48.00 1st V50

The 10k

John – 35/209 – 50.48

Finlay – 71/209 – 56.39

A priceless Mainland Mules relic - I shall treasure it always