This blog may turn out to be long – why? Well it was my first real taste of a proper mountain race and so many things happened – pretty much all good ( plenty of stark lessons learnt!)
The Transylvania 100km Ultra-Trail event is held every year in the mountains of Bucegi near Bran, in Romania. The pictures of the previous 5 years looked incredible – the scale of the mountains, the snow and ice, the mixed terrain (lots of rocks, snow gullies, water hazards everywhere, km after km of deep forest, steep vert and tricky footed descents – it looked tough and a little bit brutal tbh.
This year will be remembered for some “unseasonable” weather. At least four days in the last week leading up to the race saw a decent amount of snow. Daily updates from the organisers meant that they had no choice but to re-route the long distance courses. In fact the 100 km had to be reduced down to 77 km in the end. Owing to this fact and also that my colleagues were competing in the 30 km (starting 2 hours later) there seemed a bit of synergy to do the 50 km and aim to hit the finish line together.
I’ve been working in Romania (Cluj – capital of Transylvania) for over 10 years and so it was an easy decision to try and combine my love of ultra races with a chance to get colleagues involved for the weekend. What makes this event so appealing is that there are over 2000 runners from around the globe who can enter anything from 20 km, 30 km, 50 km, 80 km and up to the grand-daddy 100 km. I entered the 100 km (with very little on his mountain running CV to say he could do this) and all my Xoomie friends signed-up for the 20 km.
I have to be honest and say that very little specific training was actually done for this event – perhaps the highlight - picking up a pair of Black Diamond poles!. A few months of marathon training and an infected leg from Sri Lanka meant that this was totally “wing it” time.
A few helpful logistical things. If you want to combine this race with seeing a bit of Romania for the first time (and 100% you will not regret this decision) then the closest airports are Bucharest and Sibiu. Sibiu would be the recommendation as it such a beautiful and undiscovered gem and you are highly unlikely to party and shop before or after the race and that’s what you would go to Bucharest for. I found that the FaceBook page of the Transylvania 100km event was superb. There was a lot of generous posting from competitors sharing which airport they were travelling to and sorting our car-shares – so definitely look at that. If you are coming from UK then there are lots of great FAQs here - if not everything is answered then drop us a comment below. We are 100% going back in 2020 and probably going to pull a package together to take a group with us - if interested please contact us.
From an organisational point of the view the event and race were superb. We found some hardened Romanians giving the organisers some blunt feedback during the registration, but this seemed harsh. Most of it centered around the fact that the longer events (100 km and 80 km) had to be significantly shortened due to extreme weather conditions – We would agree that the serious chance of avalanches constitutes a fair reason to change things. Plus, the event itself is growing in popularity each year (which is awesome) and the organisers need a little bit of head-space to deal with obvious growth. I found the registration vibe to be perfect. The mandatory kit list is long, as you would expect, and everyone going through the registration process will randomly get asked about some of their kit – anything missing and there is a good chance that you can buy a replacement from the suppliers in the hall or you will be lucky enough to find another runner who will kindly give you spares. Be mindful that there’s extra kit required for the 80 + 100 km like over-trousers and GPS.
Bran as a town is small. The race itself starts in the grounds of the stunning Bran castle and you would do well to make the time to go inside – they have spent quite a bit re-doing things in this area (new Tunnel exhibition) so if you have been before there may be a stack of new things to check out.
Me and the Xoomie gang totally lucked out by booking an AirBnb stay at The Cow Shed. You can read my review here but safe to say it is just about the best place imaginable for a pre-race BnB – hosts Oana (Romanian) & Elliot (Deepest darkest Devon!) have spent 3 years converting their barn and it’s stunning – You’ll get an amazing nights sleep under the deep sheepskin covers, you will awake to the best cooked breakfast (all their neighbours providing the best local Romanian food/milk) and you can get access to Oana/Elliot’s amazing local knowledge. We ate out at a local restaurant but I am still regretting not staying for Oana’s lentils. If I could I would 100% book a few days at The Cow Shed and recover here as well. You are close to Brasov for a day trip (if someone else can drive)
Race Day – Normally the 80 km/100 km would start at 5:00 am but due to the weather mentioned above these races and the 50 km started at 07:00 am. The weather was gray, damp and with a constant drizzle. Heavy thunder storms had been predicted for around 14:00 pm. Locals has said that it was going to be a warm day but I took no risks with the mountain sections and snow/thunder predictions and carried a Montane waterproof and my trusted bullet-proof ski-jacket (both of which spent most of the day weighing down my rucksack!)
There is a fantastic mix of runners in this event – all levels of ability and voices from around the globe. The race started and the first few miles saw us leave the town and start off on a climb up a steep farm track. The track itself could only take 2 or 3 abreast and so the 500 runners in the 50 km felt pretty bunched for the first hour or so. Next up was a long stretch in the woods. This is where things became a little technical. I’d imagine that UK based trail runners wouldn’t find anything too severe in this section but to me this was a whole new world. Fast trail - single tracks - the noise of the runner behind you and pace to try and keep up with the one in front - it was relentless. The climbs in this section were steep and the downs were tight with plenty of dangers. If you stepped aside to let someone through then you would end up waiting for 20 runners to come by - so you kept your place.
When the first forest ended the first checkpoint appeared. As so many runners had passed me so easily on the last descent I looked at them all gathered at the checkpoint eating area and decided that I had my Tailwind and I needed nothing else. I cracked on and enjoyed that dumb feeling that I had gathered back a few places. Next is another forest section before you come out and face the Bucegi mountain for the first time. I loved this. This is what I signed up for. Just one big mutha of a mountain with tonnes of snow and a great big feeling of “How am I going to get over that”.
As you can see in my picture above the weather was still a little mixed - no sunshine and so it was definitely cool. Most runners had full gear on and my Black Diamond Poles became my new best friend. There appeared to be a well worn track that pretty much everyone was keeping to (I know that isn’t necessarily the best thing to do if you want to progress up the field but to a newbie like me this was absolutely fine. I felt good and was enjoying the fact that I was keeping up with those around me (who all looked like they did this type of mountain climbing every weekend)
Climbing this section was a dream. I totally get why ultra-runners love this style of running. You are definitely more pumped and conscious that you can hurt yourself more easily, that you are more exposed and a long way from proper help.
After the summit there was a glorious downhill snow section. Imagine running down a water-slide where every 30 seconds you just do one almighty long skid - kid in a candy shop time. Likewise nine times out of ten when you followed other footsteps you made contact with compact snow - that other one time the whole thing just gave in and you would be knee deep if not near waist deep in snow - classic.
Once through this section there’s another glorious downhill section where you drop down big boulders and through small water hazards - this definitely felt more like a Welsh section. Back now towards the valley and there was a river crossing. As you can see in the picture you basically wait your turn to leap from one boulder to the next two and then onto safe land the other side. The runner in front of me let out a massive scream when he mis-judged the first jump. He appeared to have done some damage to his knackers!!! Instinctively I waded into the water and clung onto the side of the first boulder and then went around him to the next two - I’m sure he was fine!
Checkpoint two was positioned not far from the delta between the 100 + 80 km race turn-off and my 50 km. So here there were plenty of runners properly taking their time to sit and eat and re-fuel. Guess what - the sun came out. It was pure bliss. I took a banana and some Romanian chocolate and stripped off a layer - sat there changing my Tailwind flasks and then skipped out again.
Here is the longest road section of the race - slightly uphill and exposed and I found myself totally on my own for the first time. Fair play to the organisers as there was a lot of “orange and yellow” marked tape hanging every 500 metres so you never seemed to go far without a good guide. After the switch to the 50 km route there in front of you is another whopper of a mountain and climb. It was here that I had my first proper “chimp” challenge moment. It doesn’t matter how many times I say this to daznbone heroes like Bryn Jones but the chimp has the way of catching everyone off guard. My legs just felt like lead and the sun was now beginning to to feel properly warm. I had been moving for close to six hours and I was weakening. There was a runner ahead of me and to be fair he was a big unit. I slowly made my way up to him but I just couldn’t muster enough strength to get past him. He had his ear-phones in and seemed to be in his own happy-state. As this went on I just became more of a zombie. Somehow another summit was reached and this coincided with the 30 km race merging. The top picture was captured as I began the next long descent over the rocky boulder trail. It had one of the gullies where you kept knocking your ankles against each other - for those of you who know that I came into this race with some infected bites I could tell that they were beginning to flare up.
I hadn’t really run or talked to anyone for the past few hours and it was so fantastic to see my friends Andreea and Ciprian making their way on different intersections of their 30 km course and they just hollowed a load of kind uplifting stuff.
On reflection, once you get off this section the toughest stuff is behind you - isn’t it. I think everything is tough when you are just about spent. Again there was another ridiculously long climb section in the deep dark woods - plenty of fallen trees to yank your tired legs over and warped trees that you had to find a way to navigate over their roots. I definitely had a few moments where I just “stopped”.
Out through another clearing and I bumped again into my buddy Ciprian - I was knackered and seeing him was a real high. We sat and shared a flapjack - I snagged some water - we laid down and soaked up the sun and it just felt heavenly - Thank you Cip .
The final sections of the race just came and went in a whirl. There was time for another endless and by this point very muddy section of down and then a slow road section up before you finally come to a place where the town of Bran comes into view. The sun at this point was just insane - there must have been a 30-40 degree swing in this race with the final section in a 30+ swelter.
When you reach Bran you follow the road towards the castle. You peel off into the grounds and theres time for one last uphill step section - you start to hear and then see the crowds of family and friends who are there to see their runners home. Et voila 9 hours and 29 minutes after leaving the castle the finish line was in sight.
A huge thank you to the organisers for putting on such an epic event
To all my Xoomie friends for bravely stepping up to try big ultra distances and to all the team support which we had which was immense.
Will definitely be back for the “real + full” 100 km