Sunday, 28 May 2017

Transylvania 20k - Bats, Bears etc

After a fairly disastrous end to last year training wise due to illness I had made good ground over the first couple of months of this year and was hoping to be lining up on the start line of the 50k in the grounds of Bran Castle, a race I am desperate to do. It was not to be. Due to the unique ability that I have at self-sabotage, this time signing up for running coaching that left me ill and injured in the space of one month, at times it felt doubtful I’d make any start line at all particularly having some pretty dire training runs in the hills in the weeks immediately before the race. However I got it together enough to make it to the start line of the 20k and amazingly I had managed to talk Simon into it as well. I will never know how I managed that.
At registration and kit check
Andy answering questions about the route. Nobody expected the course markings to be removed
Dinner time
All the competitors got a pre-race meal
 Having done the 30k last year I knew exactly what was in store for us. The 30k included something like the equivalent of two and a half times the ascent of Ben Nevis within the first 12k, the 20k had markedly less ascent but at well over 6000ft of climb it was still a testing enough day out. As we arrived and registered and went in search of our pre-race dinner and beers Simon was definitely nervous. I was a little more relaxed knowing that the 20k did not take in the snow gulley that the 30k does although there was a lot less snow lying on the course this year and there was no section of the course where chains are required to help you climb down the rocks….
Studying the map...
 The 20k runners started alongside the 30k runners with Vlad the Impaler starting the race with theatrical flourish and we were off through the streets of Bran. Simon appeared to have used all that pent up nervous energy to attack the first climb. I saw the pace he was moving at, decided not to attempt to go with him and fell back into a gentle trot up the hill, a pace I knew that I could sustain. As we left the road the climbing really started, first on a large farm track then on land rover tracks into the forest and then on to single track until eventually at a random location in the trees two marshals directed the 20k runners along a smaller path. 
The Bucegi Mountains, part of the southern Carpathian Mountain range

The start line at Catle Bran
Vlad the Impaler (C Transylvania 100k race)
And they are off (C Transylvania 100k race)
Simon went off fast on the climb
It was here that I realised I was ON MY OWN. And ON MY OWN in a forest populated by Europe’s largest population of bears and wolves. I did blow my whistle a few times and clapped my hands as I trotted and clambered down this path to the checkpoint as per usual losing places to the faster descenders. The route had several fallen trees blocking the path so it was not all entirely runnable, quite a lot of scrambling over these tree trunks was required.
Still climbing
 At the checkpoint I forced down some chocolate and cheese and then tackled the next climb. The wobbly legs suggested that maybe I had worked a bit too hard on the downhill but I soon picked off some of those who had passed me and I was running alone again, clapping my hands and blowing the whistle until I saw someone just ahead in a bright orange t shirt. Simon. Well, that gave me a bit of a lift as you might expect and I caught him up and suggested that he should have been making a bit of noise to ward off bears, a suggestion to which he scornfully grunted. Oh well, at least now I wouldn’t have to outrun the bear, I’d just have to outrun Simon.
More Climbing
And guess what...?
We reached the next checkpoint together and I immediately launched myself on the bottles of coca cola like a woman possessed. That stuff is just ace for distance running, pure nectar. I didn’t feel too bad at this point but Simon was beginning to flag a bit. He seemed to be carrying his own body weight in Jelly babies yet falling to eat any and if there is one thing you need to do in these races it’s eat. After the checkpoint we seemed to lose the trail markings and we met a group of runners coming back up the trail, unsure if they were going the right way. Simon had the courage of his convictions and said we were on the right track as the route followed the walker’s trails that were marked in paint on the trees but my navigation disaster from last year was still fresh in my mind so I stopped and back tracked a little. When it was clear that we hadn’t missed a turn off we all decided to carry on down the trail. It was here that I felt a bit wobbly, another runner had come past and so I crammed an obscene amount of Haribo sweets into my mouth and felt better 5 minutes later.
The view at the top of the ascent
I could see the tarmac road just ahead and the female runner who had sprinted past on the descent now seemed to be going backwards so at this point I dug in and went for it. As the course had been modified towards the end it turned out to be a bit of a longer run in to Bran than I had expected but I seemed to get stronger as the race went on (thank God for muscle memory) until eventually reaching the castle grounds and the very convoluted route through the grounds to the finish line. I didn’t have long to wait for Simon and as the weather seemed about to turn we headed off in search of beer. Race over, a beer in his hand and he had perked up a lot and was communicating in more than just grunts.
Happy (?) to be finished (c Transylvania 100k race)
Happy to be finished! (c Transylvania 100k race)
He's just about to strangle me for suggesting this race...
He's definitely happy now!
That evening in a break in the rain we went back to look around the castle grounds, the mere thought of this being Draculas castle creates an eerie atmosphere especially when the castle is lit up at night. The following day we lazed around, browsed the market stalls and the fantastic tourist tat that can be bought here and then attended the prize giving. With the two races, the 30k and 20k starting together and the field splitting and taking different routes through the dense forest it was impossible to tell how many were in front of me and how many were behind me at the finish so I was surprised and delighted to find out that I had finished 1st in my age category (old person) and was presented with my prize by Vlad the Impaler himself! We later discovered that Simon had finished 4th in his age category which I think was most unexpected too. This meant more wine and beer was required to celebrate and this had to be accompanied by ice cream, its compulsory.
The shops and stalls in Bran
Some pretty good tourist tat.
Eerie Castle Bran at night
First prize! Very unexpected.
Coolest trophy ever!
Race booty
I mentioned earlier that there was a lot less snow lying on the course? Well this year the precipitation of the solid variety was actually falling in the shape of hail stones. Happily by the time this had started we had finished and were munching on chips and beer but it was on for the night, the mountains were shrouded in mist and cloud, visibility was poor and unfortunately course markings appeared to have been deliberately removed. This led to runners getting lost, quite a few DNFs, and a hypothermic runner being lifted from the mountain by the emergency services. As the manager of Bran Castle noted at the prize giving it was as though Count Dracula himself had an evil hand in the weather. I was waiting for a flash of lightning as he said it.

Mandatory kit. Personally i think you need more for the longer races
Electrical tape is a girl's best friend. I was desperate to avoid a repeat last years blisters
Something both Simon and I had noted at the start line and it’s something I have noticed at other mountain events and that is how little some competitors carry in terms of kit. Ok you might have scraped together the basic stuff listed on the organisers list of mandatory kit but is that really enough to keep you warm in inclement weather in the high remote mountains? Last year I carried considerably more than that listed and although I didn’t need it I was glad to have had it all the same, it was kind of like a security blanket. (It was less of an issue for the 20k as this route doesn’t go above the treeline)

There were one or two whingers on Facebook immediately after the event blaming the race organiser for everything (Andy didn’t arrange the weather, honest) but most other competitors who responded to these comments appeared to be in agreement that if you venture into the high mountains the onus is on you, and you alone, to take responsibility for yourself. Yes the course was advertised as being marked but malicious removal of course markings really is out with the organisers control and the runner should be able to navigate. 

Make no mistake these are some very hard races, you can tell by the winning time of the 100k at 16 hours when compared to other long distance races. The climb, difficulty of the terrain, the sheer remoteness and the need to navigate make these races something else. So that’s the 20k and 30k done. 50k next year maybe? I think I’m too scared even to contemplate the 100k.They are fantastic events and Andy and his team do an incredible job putting on these races. Lets hope a few whingers don’t put them off holding future events.

Footnote 1: Again I didn’t see a bear. To be honest I am not sure if I do or if I don’t want to see a bear. The jury is well and truly out on that one. I, however, have no wish to see a bat.

Footnote 2: I did feel a bit sorry for Simon as the 20k didn't go above the treeline and once you get above the treeline into the mountains the scenery becomes a lot more dramatic. I pointed out that he was missing out on the mountains but for some reason he didnt seem to view this as a bad thing. I'm surehe'd just love the 30k course...
I love strava. It makes everything look like mount Everest.
Another picture of Castle Bran. Just because.

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