The Transylvania 50-K
The inaugural Transylvania 50-k was to be one of the toughest races I have ever competed in. Even amongst the non-English speakers, 'brutal' fast became the mot juste. I had planned to compete in the 100-k, but a grim bacterial throat infection ruled that out. Competing in the 50-k was always going to be better than a DNS, but it was still an unappealing proposition, considering that minging infection.
The Transylvanian mountains conveyed a dramatic and forbidding appearance. From the balcony of my guest house, just outside Bran Village, I looked up at them, seeing their tops out of grey clouds only a couple of times during the week before the race. During a training run, I had become soaked through, having floundered in deep, boggy mud in heavy rain. Knowing the racing calibre of the event organiser, Andy Heading, I was confident both race and route would be excellent and a challenge.
During the briefing, the evening before the race, we were issued with maps and a printed course description. The route would be marked, but the markings would switch when there was permanent trail signage already in place. It was all clear and navigation was therefore not a concern. We were warned about the local wildlife. Bears inhabited the area, as did wolves and lynxes, but all were rare. The real dangers were the Carpathian shepherd dogs, there to protect the flocks from the predators. They were a known risk to hikers, but the race was being held in May to ensure the flocks were not at pasture, and shepherds had informed the organisers their dogs were either in the farms or else tethered. All appeared in good order.
The race began at 6 in the morning, in the shadow of Dracula's castle, Bran Village. This immediately ranked the race in the top three of best starting locations, up with the Spartathlon and Yukon Arctic Ultra. The drizzle was persistent as we spewed out of the castle grounds onto the high street. A hundred yards later we turned off onto a smaller road, which led us to a forestry area and the trails I had visited on my training run. It was all uphill, but the gradient increased the further we went.
Entering the forest the drizzle eased off, and soon our paces spread the field. Moving up along single track trails in pine woods, the trail conditions were good - soft but not boggy. A few puddles here and there ensured my feet were soaked, but, as ever, the cool feeling seemed welcome. High up the hillside, a view to my left showed me I was level with the clouds, within the first hour of the start.
A short run across an opening at the top of a hill also brought me passed a patch of snow. More was to come. A steep downhill section, through some technical trails in the woodland, kept my interests up and senses focussed on the task at hand. Another opening, a section across long grass, a stream crossing, a gentle climb, and some more hill work. The first checkpoint. I was carrying snacks with me, but took a moment to pull on a waterproof jacket, as the rain was looking to return. Back into the woods and uphill.
These were no longer hills. The route was now definitely a mountain trail. Climbing up above the treeline the temperatures dropped and rain became stinging hail. It blasted my uncovered legs and face, causing me to pull the hood up and try and protect my eyes. My fingerless gloves were not up to the task and my fingers became numb. Next it was time to run through snow. At the top of a climb a thick layer of snow rested on the mountain's shoulder, and all of us in the first twelve seemed to arrive there at the same time (some due to a navigational hiccup), and we all charged through the deep snow on a steep descent.
Leaving the snow, the trail continued to descend. Down along open hilltops into woodland, emerging into pastures under a now brilliant blue and hot sky, with a long, gentle descent to a village and the second checkpoint. The climb back into the mountains was an incredible effort, but the air had cooled and grey skies had returned. More woodland, more hills, and then the final checkpoint - the same location as the first - and a return across the long grass and tough forest trails to Bran. The route had been adjusted with the repeated 10-k, due to dangerous mountain conditions on the original route. I did not mind. The familiar ground gave me a confidence boost and I moved well.
The sun was out as I rejoined the road that led me to Bran, as arms that had been cold earlier on were now at risk of sunburn. The finish line was above the doorway into Dracula's castle, the most epic finish line I have ever crossed. I sank down at the side of the steps and proceeded to fill my face with food and drink. There I remained for about three quarters of an hour before moving on to the athlete's rest area. I was knackered, beaten-up, and supremely exhausted. Had I the energy I would have been exhilarated too, but that would have to come later.
An eleventh place finish was not something I would ordinarily have been proud of, nor an 8 hour 40 minute 50-k time. As it was, the first 12 came in over a 2-hour period, from 6:58 for the Romanian winner, to 9:06 for 12th place. The 15-hour cut-off was certainly appropriate for the terrain and conditions, with the 36 finishers spread fairly evenly between 6:58 and 14:34. The winner of the 100-k came in at 18:29. I would love to see what timings some great mountain runners could do this route in, in similar weather. Reflecting back, I maintain the race is one of the most brutal I have ever competed in. I loved every minute of it, and hope it becomes a great success in the coming years.
The race website is: www.transylvania100k.com.