Hell might be colder than we think…
In the shadow of Bran Castle, night time home of the legendary Count Dracula, on the outskirts of the Bucegi Natural park, we gather in the castle grounds, a few hundred eager runners waiting to a techno remixed beat of the theme music from Game of Thrones. The darkness is ours and it’s almost time to run the Transylvania 100k. A race that has been on my wish list since I started ultra running.
We set off out of the castle gates and along the main road before turning onto an unsealed road that was long and gradually inclined. We continued along until the foot of the mountains and stepped into the forest. The trails hit us with an immediate change in gradient and fresh smells front the pine trees and morning songs from the birds. It was enchanting.
From about 6km in, the trails became steeper again and my breaths were becoming more pronounced. The climb was long but broken up as we emerged into an opening above the trees before climbing along the side of the mountains. The views were spectacular as we traversed the first of many snow slopes.
The further we climbed the more the clag set in and visibility dropped. We were greeted at a timing point by some Marshalls who were blowing whistles, I assume to signal their whereabouts. I was with Carl and we decided this was a good time to layer up. We were glad of the wind to cool us down but we were now rather high up in the mountains!
We then proceeded to descend. The terrain was slippery with the snow. The trails were single track and narrow. We carefully placed our feet in the footprints of runners who had tread the path before us, crisscrossing our steps. The descent hit some forest and became very steep and difficult to descend due to sharp rocks and narrow gaps.
We emerged to the sound of a vuvuzela (an irritating sound!) being blown as we arrived at the first aid station. The aid station was understandable busy but well stocked with a variety of salty and sweet offerings. We took a moment to take on some fuel knowing that a ‘bit of a climb’ was coming our way. We started talking to a camera man. He welcomed us to the race and told us a little of the mountains and Omu – the peak we would soon visit. He pointed to the monster looming in the clouds to our left. He told us it was raining up top and that it was ‘like hell up there’ (where we were going). He laughed. We laughed nervously too, but we could tell he was being very serious.
From the aid station the climbing started straightaway. First easy along some rocks then long, slow treks along the snow fields at Tiganesti. I remember commenting how still everything was. The air. The sounds. It was like a vast emptiness. Just nothing. It was ever so peaceful and strangely hypnotic. We saw a paw print that we hoped was a bear (I did want to see one!). We were edging closer to the infamous Hornul Mare chimney (the iconic line up to Omu from the Malaiesti Valley). It’s notorious for its steep, difficult ascent with a gradient close to 50degrees. No picture will do it justice.
We decided to ‘spike up’ and put on our micro spikes. So glad we did. We could see other runners struggling without. We started chatting to a Dutch guy who was equally pleased he brought his spikes with him.
As we reached the bottom of the chimney it’s majesty was hidden in the mist. Perhaps a good thing. It took a while to climb. Up top a photographer greeted those who triumphed and climbed the beast. The smiles and jubilations where clearly seen on everyone’s faces. The views, despite being limited by the clouds were still pretty great.
After reaching Omu we began descending. First carefully along little snow slopes. Then as we got lower and the sun came out the trails dried into hard tracks with big rocks to scramble over. I started getting cramp in my hamstring. I knew I needed to up my fuelling when we next stopped!
As the trails became greener we did a little bushwhacking and later reached a river crossing and a wooden rope bridge that was very wobbly. A few of the 50km lead runners started passing us. This blew my mind. They’d completed the first big climb and the chimney section in about 2 hours compared to our 5 and a bit. How the hell did they climb the chimney so quickly?! From here a short jog to the next aid station. I checked my watch and timings and we were pretty much bang on the estimated time of arrival here.
From this point the routes went different ways. So at 27km it was time to say good bye to Carl as he went off on the 80km. My Climb started easy enough as we followed dirt tracks back towards the mountains with great views ahead of the snow capped peaks. Further up the roar of a beautiful waterfall started to dominate the air. To its right was another steep beast of a snow climb. I put the spikes back on and set off for it.
Up top, once conquered, it was a case of traversing more long snow fields as we made the way back towards Omu for a second summit. This time it started to get very steep. There were lots of runners up ahead in the distance. I managed to get passed some who didn’t have spikes and were struggling in the snow. Before the steepest part of the climb it started raining. It only rained for about 20-30 minutes but it was enough to dampen the mood. I thought that might be it and that it would rain non-stop as storms were forecast for later in the day.
As I was nearing the top of the climb I was confused. There were runners going in both directions. The confusion was because we joined the bit of route we previously came down along from Omu. I tried going the wrong way but was told off. I laughed with the Marshalls back at Omu summit when I questioned if we went that way earlier. Anyway. Time to descend the mountain again…
Here things went a little sour. The route down was spectacular but just snow slopes. Steep ones. I started down tentatively. Trying to find the best and safest line between the snowy sections and connecting to those rocks/paths not covered in snow. To the best I could I would follow runners ahead.
After a little while I was following two guys tentatively crossing a little snow slope. They both slipped slightly. Then I slipped more. I went down. At first I wasn’t worried, thinking my spikes and/or poles would help stop me. But I started gaining momentum. My poles hit the snow. They dug in deep and snapped as my momentum carried me on faster and faster. One went pop then moments later the other did the same. One pole ripped the glove (Leki glove system) off my hand, the other pole snapped clean off at the lower section). I saw a mound of rock and thought it would stop me. It didn’t. I was propelled in the air. I thought this might end badly. Somehow, I came to a stop. I don’t know how, but I did thankfully. It took a few moments to compose myself and then I made the decision to start climbing back up to the track and retrieve the broken poles rather than trying to traverse across and guess where to join the path somewhere different. I felt it might be safer to at least get back to where I think I should have been. As I slowly climbed back up I had to dig one pole out as it was wedged so deep. The other part of the broken one was lost deep in the snow somewhere.
Up top I was angry that I had broken more poles (this is my third set in two years!) But it fired me up to finish. I was 35km in and had a long way to go. Next we had a few hundred meters of descent to make. It was all sketchy and I slipped many more times. No where near as bad as before though! Sometimes I thought about just jumping on my arse and sliding down. But that was far too risky. It was difficult to find the way even when my momentum was under my control. Eventually I managed to cross at the bottom and was back on trails. I came across another chap with two broken poles too. He didn’t have spikes like I did, so I was in a better place!
I felt a little energised and jogged a little as the tracks took us along a combination of forests and snow crossings at lower level. I missed some turns several times as the tape markings were sometimes difficult to spot. We then had maybe about 5 km through forests. It was lovely. I was running well and felt a little better, I was certainly glad the hell of Omu was behind us.
Somewhere in the forest I stumbled across a little miracle. There was a black diamond pole just resting against a tree. I called out a few times and no one answered. So I decided to take it with me. Either I’d find the owner and be able to reunite them, or I’d benefit from having one pole. The forest was sometimes difficult to navigate. I met another guy who missed a hand written ‘turn right’ sign and I had to call after him. We turned off the path onto a grassy stretch. It was very easy to miss. We came to the aidstation at 45km in. I had noodle soup and changed some clothes. I made a very conscious decision not to change my socks. This was a silly mistake that would later bite me hard.
I set back out. Maybe 30 mins my behind my estimated schedule. Not bad considering the trauma. 45km done but still a long way to go. I decided to keep the spikes with me for safety (turned out I wouldn’t need them again) as we still had two climbs where we’d be above 2000m. From the aid station it was more forests (and wrong turns) and a massive climb back up to Piatra Arsa. In the forest I found a stick. Almost perfect for hiking / running with. I felt confident now I had two sticks of some sort again, despite their differences in size! I kept telling myself that once this climb was done, the bulk of the elevation would be overcome. We’d done over 3500 in the first 40km!
The climb was long and slow. I came across a group of Polish people I’d be running near for the most of the race. We rested part way up the climb and I took in the views and admired all the old rusty infrastructure (cable cars or mining cars?). Eventually the climb came out in top of the mountain. it felt like it took an age to climb. It was so hot and humid in the forest.
Up top required a bit more bush whacking along some snow lined tracks. The trees were a pain to push passed! Another aidstation with heavy techno music awaited just around the corner. I had some more pasta and coke and set off again. We were on top of the mountain and it was windy and misty. The route took us over and around a summit. Then we started descending. The terrain was now very British like. Similar to being in Brecon or somewhere. Very lumpy tufts of grass. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to run on but was by far one of the better parts of the course so far. It was a fairly easy down hill, pretty straight down the hill and then a skip (jump) over a river before more hill running.
At about 60km we hit the first bit of road in the race. And that was just to cross it. Crazy how ‘on trail’ the race is. 60km of purely trail is impressive. On the other side we soon entered more forests, running down hill with the head torches out as it was pretty pitch black in the dense forest. A Scottish guy soon caught us. He refused to get his torch out and kept running into trees. The trees in all the forests were a pain as they had sharp, stick like branches protruding and would stab you at any opportunity if you got too close. As would the fallen ones we had to hurdle over. So many of these throughout the run!
We then emerged out of the forest and into the aid station at the lake in Bolbuci. I had two slices of pizza and loads of coke here. I wasn’t really eating between aid stations any longer. I wasn’t too hungry but just didn’t fancy my foods. From here it was a long stretch to Moieciu de Sus. It started with a few km on road. The only road section! Before more forest climbing. Up into the mountains where there were flashing lights to help guide us in the mist of the night. Visibility was very poor and we’d be lost without the lights. It was a few km traversing the mountain top and passed the peak of Tataru and the marshal check point before a technical descent. It was a little sketchy crossing the cliff edges with limited visibility to begin descending.
Once we had though it was more forests. We passed some more people. I fell in the forest slipping on a rock. My lower back hit the rock and my fore arm a log on the ground. It hurt. Once back up we soon were on a wide fire/access track. I remembered this from our walk the day before. I started jogging consistently. Probably covered a few km before I had enough and started walking again. At the end, as we reached the car park area, we left the road and started climbing.
It was a steep climb. This whole section was disorienting in the dark. We climbed then navigated along the top. There were lights off in the distance which I thought might be an aidstation. I know from the day before we’d have to back up in the hills near where we left the access road. I was confused and trying to guess where two aid stations would be. We crossed behind farm land and through many horse fields. Needing to climb over fences to enter and exit each. The descent wasn’t as bad as it looked on the route profile. I think that was helped a little by the diversion. Rather than dropping straight down to the aid station we carried on around onto a road and walked maybe 500m along it to the aid station. It was a fairly quick turn around after some pasta as I tried to keep up with the group of Polish runners who now had about 3-4 other ‘hanger ons’ with them.
It was a steep climb through more forests and fields to the other side. It was hot in the night. After some time we were back were I recalled form the previous day’s walk. Running passed the picnic bench, the abandoned hut and joining the trail with the 50k route. Steady dirt track hiking for a few km to the next and final aid station.
I was confused by the remaining distance as the map profile and my watch were very different. Although I knew clocked a few extra kms with the diversion and getting lost. I checked the route in my Coros which said about 13km to go. This felt more accurate than then route profile that suggested more like 20k.
All along this section my eyes were starting to close. I was swaying side to side and was very tired, waiting for the caffeine to hit. I was contemplating a Power Nap at the aid station. It was just a tent on the mountain side though and nothing for me to take refuge in. The Poles left too quickly for me to follow. I ate and drank and then left a few minutes later. The track carried on a little longer before a nasty steep climb in the forest that got the heart rate higher. I was so warm now. And fed up of climbing over fallen trees. I stopped and took off my wind proof and arm sleeves. I needed to feel the cold. Thankfully the caffeine was kicking in and the morning light was starting to dominate. I wasn’t so sleepy any longer.
From the forests the downhill towards Bran started. More forest and some very steep muddy descents. Gravity was pulling me down with a stumble. After 40+k of running on battered feet each step was painful. As too was my right quad which was very limiting in my movement. After what felt like an eternity I got through the mud.
We left the mud behind and annoyingly started to climb again up a gravel road. Up along the top were fantastic views of red roof houses and green farms. It was stunning first thing in the morning. There was a photographer. My watch indicated 3 km to go finally. Finally less than an hour left to run. I plodded on painfully. Then one last steep forest descent and we emerged into the car park of the sports hall where we registered. 600m along the busy main road to go. Only we were diverted to the grounds of Bran Castle. Weaving through the houses and gardens up the steps and round to the front of the castle to the finish line. I walked slowly with the stick. A small gathering of people clapping and Cheering. I thanked them. I crossed the line and lifted my stick triumphantly in the air. I was so glad to have finished. Ale, Carl and Nick soon came to collect me and help me back to the hotel. they’d each finished their races too.
- Poles – I’m annoyed I’ve broken another set. Especially as I’ve only used these ones once before. Finding another and a decent stick definitely helped me overcome the last 60km!!
- The 100km route has a very tough first 40km. The double summit of Omu is bad enough but the effort of the Chimney climb and the technicality of the second descent was exhausting.
- I was obviously not thinking clearly when I received the drop bag at 45km. I knew my feet were wet and sore. I consciously decided not to dry them, nor change socks. I had some rationale why but it was definitely a bad mistake. Post race, my feet were in possibly the worst state ever – besides some trench foot I counter 10 blisters on one foot (the biggest one being the size of my thumb!).
- I’m not sure why just one quad hurts so badly (restricting movement) perhaps I landed on it after my slip and air time?
- The Aid stations were great. Each one had helpful volunteers and a good variety of food and and options. Sour worms were a delight for me.
- The Bucegi mountains are spectacular a great place to run
- The chimney is one hell of a climb and experience one needs to have!
- We didn’t see any bears.