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.
Climbing
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

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