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Mountain running is not a sport you can fake

by @garyfallsover
Tuesday 3rd June 2014

Race report: It's a case of "Do as I say, not as I do" as Run247 columnist Gary Dalton sets himself an impossible task at the Transylvania 100

Transylvania 100 - May 17, 2014

I have a bear whistle. A real honest to goodness bear whistle. How did I get such an item? Well I was given it at the race briefing for the Transylvania 100k with strict instructions to use it to warn bears of my approach. Now I’ve seen the Jungle Book, I know bears are clever creatures and I knew that after the first runner or two passed by they’d figure out when the next whistle approached lunch was on it’s way, so I resolved not to blow it and sneak up on the buggers. Clever eh? My brilliant idea gave me a warm feeling inside, kinda like weeing in a wetsuit but a little more socially acceptable. So that should give you some idea of the kind of person you’re dealing with here.  

This month’s column was originally going to be a race report about my first race of the year, the inaugural Transylvania 100k, however I think there’s more to be learned from my preparation for the race than I learned from the race itself. The last column was about how I look for my limits when I race, this one is concerned more with how I limited myself in the run up, how by placing limits on myself I made the whole experience far more difficult than it needed to be. And when you’re running a 100k mountain race it’s more than difficult enough already.

It's a common refrain within my house that whenever something important needs to be planned, for instance a family holiday or a trip abroad for a race, that I should always have the supervision of a grown adult to stop me thinking I can actually physically be in two places at the one time. So for instance, thinking logically, you would consider a solid mid pack runner like myself would look at a race on the Welsh coastline and think, ' I'll tell my wife to meet me at the finish line roughly three hours after the course record time' Not, as I did, an hour under. Nor would the reader, as I assume you are of above average intelligence, think that the best way to come back from a stress fracture would be to book three ultras on consecutive weekends. And having re fractured their leg mid race then then think 'feck it, it's done now may as well finish.'

 So every story needs a subject and for this month’s story I'll tell you about my journey to Transylvania to compete in the inaugural Transylvania 100K in the Bucegi mountains outside Bran. You know how these things start, it popped up on my facebook feed as another friend had 'liked' it and I immediately had race envy. I badgered everyone I knew and who was even slightly likely to have a space in their race calendar to come with me, sadly to no avail. Even my repeated posts of the imposing Bran Castle didn’t work, no one was even slightly tempted. I carefully considered whether it would suit my plans for the year, thought about the logistics of getting to and from the race, worked out a training regime to get me into the best shape I could be, researched the financials to make sure it was viable within my allotted race budget and after the three seconds that took I booked the race. And then forgot all about it.

 It was only about a month beforehand that my wife reminded me about it and asked had I left myself enough time to recover from our holiday to Egypt before heading out to Romania. Of course I had I replied, desperately trying to remember not only if I had booked flights but when they were for. Well it turned out I hadn’t and that the only flights now available were leaving from Stanstead, over 80 miles away, at 06:30 in the morning. Not only that but the only return flights available that would get me back in time for work the following Monday left Bucharest airport, a three hour drive from Bran, at 12:00 on the Sunday. Worry not, I thought to myself, it’ll all be fine, I’ll just have to make sure I don’t dawdle on the race. Easy peasy. So I booked the flights, car hire and parking at Stanstead and worked out that I’d return from Egypt almost exactly 16 hours before I had to leave for Stanstead. No matter, I’d be well rested after a holiday, right?

Well it turns out that it's not ideal race prep to spend a week on an Egyptian beach attempting to eat your own bodyweight every day. But a wise man would be prepared and have all his race kit prepared before he left so as to reduce the stress levels when he returned, wouldn't he?  Well as Forrest Gump said, ‘I am not a smart man’. Instead of using the time I had to relax and rest I rushed around trying to find clean kit, figure out what was on the mandatory kit list and work out what I’d need to bring. Not the best prep for a race and I was already putting myself in a bad position by spending mental energy on sorting stuff out that I could have squared away weeks ago. Instead of focusing on my race plan I was shopping for Haribos and looking for my lucky socks.

The Transylvania 100k is the brainchild of two UK runners, Andrew and Amanda Heading and their Romanian mountain guide partners, father and son Marius and Vlad Cornea. Andy and Amanda been visiting the region for years and had fallen in love with both, the incredible countryside and the warmth of the people. If all you know about Romania is some half remembered history lessons and some UKIP scare mongering, then I urge you to visit, I've been lucky enough to have travelled all over the world and I was blown away by the beauty of the place. I'll certainly be back again soon.

So upon my return to the UK I picked up some last minute emails from Andy, detailing some changes to the route - because of some unusually high snowfalls, the route would have to be changed to avoid some of the higher passes, with over a metre of snowfall the mountain had been returned to winter status by the local mountain rescue and it was felt that it would be too dangerous to put runners through it. However we were assured that the new route would be of the same distance and overall ascent/descent and would still cover large areas of snowfields. It should be said at this point that the sum total of my research had been to look at the distance and total height gain and arbitrarily decide how long it would take me to finish. Like most of us I suspect I tend to only consider distance and elevation when I compare races against each other, despite the knowledge that the terrain can be wildly different from race to race. I looked at this and thought that it was almost exactly the same as the CCC and assumed that my finish time would be similar. Unfortunately that completed my research into the race and that lack of knowledge and prep was to come back and bite me on the bum later.

Having landed in Bucharest airport - sometime in the late 1970’s judging by the amount of leather blazers and sideburns - I  eventually navigated my way to the Hertz desk and then managed not to kill anyone driving to Bran itself, despite their frankly lunatic insistence on driving on the wrong side of the road. As I got within twenty or thirty miles I had one of those 'oh feck' moments, when I saw the mountains looming up out of the flatlands around. These weren't the picturesque Brecon Beacons I was expecting or even the imposing tops of the Lake District. I hadn't seen mountains like this since the UTMB the previous year. These were the kind of mountains I'd need my big boy pants to climb and I just wasn't sure I'd packed them. And yet it didn't even occur to me that I might need to change my race plan, I still deluded myself that “it'll be fine, I've got this”. 

Transylvania 100 - May 17, 2014

One of the toughest things I find when I teach students is the ability to step back, analyse a situation and adapt your plan to achieve your aims.  Time and time again I've sighed when a pupil charges into a situation without taking a step back, looking at what was the wisest course of action and making a decision based on the facts, without the ego chipping in with an inflated opinion of its ability. Well in the days leading up to the race I had exactly that chance. I met a couple called Mike and Ness who'd come over early to help mark the course for Andy and Amanda and they told me in no uncertain terms how difficult it was. What the conditions were underfoot, how much snow was on the ground, how severe the slopes were and more importantly, how long it took them to cover the ground they'd marked. I told them that I thought I could finish in 18 hours and they looked at me in the way I imagine Forrest Gump got looked at when he came back from Vietnam, in that ' how the hell have you managed to survive so long' kind of way.

So my plan was to run faster than I had ever done before, over unfamiliar ground on a self-navigated course, through wild terrain, so I could return to my B&B in time to get my flight home, which I'd booked for before the race actually finished.

I'm afraid at this point I have to confess to actually believing a little in my own hype. You see at the beginning of the year I was lucky enough to be dragged around a race called The Spine in the UK and since then I'd gained a measure of respect from several people I have a lot of respect for in the running world. So I thought to myself, I haven't trained properly, I haven't prepped properly and my planning for this race has been abysmal but hey, I'm a Spine finisher, I'm a UTMB finisher, I've done the Richmond Park run, I'll just tough it out. And by thinking that I could rely on what had gone before, I imposed limits on myself before I even landed in the country. I didn't give the race the respect it deserved and ultimately I suffered massively for it.

Remember what I said earlier about imposing limits on yourself before you even start the race? Well I had doomed myself to failure and cheated myself out of a fantastic experience because I believed my ego over my ability. Now I have a long history of thinking my enthusiasm is sufficient cover for a real lack of ability and generally I can muddle through, but not this time.

So at the frankly silly hour of 6 am I and the other runners congregated in the lee of Bran castle and were set on our way by a Vlad the Impaler impersonator. Yep, you did just read that correctly.  

It was the first race that I'd ever had the benefit of a police escort out of town and the front runners took full advantage, heading off on the 2k of tarmac at 10k speed. I always start races swearing to myself that ‘I'll start as I mean to go on’ but when everyone else bolts off I have this irrational fear of being last, so I inevitably sped up. There's probably some deep seated fear of being abandoned in there somewhere. Anyway I digress.

After roughly 2k we hit the trail and this is where the 50k route and the 100k separated. I must admit for a second that intelligence nearly got the better of me and I almost took the 50k option, but fear not readers, this writer has indeed learned nothing in all his years racing and I followed the 100k route like the good eejit I am. And there it was that I sealed my fate and ensured that my experience in Transylvania wasn't a particularly happy one. For what followed was some of the toughest terrain I've ever raced on. As I was slogging up the first climb, one of the German runners turned around to me and said happily 'it's the Transylvanian Barkley!'

Now I've never had an opportunity to run Barkley, but I know he had and that was a bit sobering. And yet I still thought I was going to be ok!

What I hadn't factored in was the mountains of Romania do not contain the well groomed trails the alps do, there isn't the small towns and hamlets to break up the journey and in such a small race the support was basic. So I got my first shock of the day when we came off the relatively hard packed forest-trail and onto a single track, which promptly just start to go up. And up. And up again.

That first climb, mostly through ancient deciduous forest on single track, was over 5000 feet. Absolutely stunning to behold on the rare occasion I was able to force my lungs back down inside my chest and look up. From there we climbed above the snow line and the going slowed considerably.

At this point I was comfortably mid field so I was helped somewhat in that the trail was easily followed by just stepping into my predecessors footsteps. The downside to this, as I quickly discovered, was that, though we were following an existing trail, the snow in places was up to waist deep and fragile due to the recent drops. In places it wouldn't support your weight and you'd get a very unwelcome wake-up call when you suddenly disappeared into a drift. It was on this part of the race that I enjoyed myself the most, using my flipper sized feet to glissade down the snow covered mountain in as much an approximation of Killian Jornet as a 90kg rugby player can do. In my mind I was graceful and balletic, anyone watching might have thought I was being chased downhill by a swarm of hornets.

Reading all that back now it's amazing to me how it took me so long to cover what sounds like a relatively simple journey. I had in the back of my mind now the thought that I wouldn't be able to finish the race in the time I had allowed myself to safely return to the airport in order to catch my flight.

From there it was a blur of ascent and descent, a simple but enthusiastic checkpoint at a mountain hut then a fantastic descent to the valley floor before the inevitable climb back into the forests to the Cabana Diham cp. It was on this section that it went slightly wrong for me. Though I knew in the back of my head that I had grossly underestimated the difficulty of the race, I still felt I could do it justice and at least get near the end before facing whether I had indeed to drop or not. From the Cabana Diham there was a huge gap to the next cp, indeed the volunteers at the cp told me it would be 25k to the next station, but because of the language barrier I assumed they meant it would be at the 25k point, as I was averaging over two hours for 10k on this ground. I should have realised I was in for an ever tougher time. So off I went with my supplies topped up, with three kinds of biscuit and a tummy full of ciorba, a local vegetable broth.

What followed was one of the toughest sections I've ever experienced in a race anywhere. Looking back at the map it all looks quite innocuous, 20k in distance and just under 4000 feet of climb but I genuinely exhausted every swear word in every language I'd ever learned. And for a well-travelled ex rugby player that's quite a few I assure you.

Transylvania 100 - May 17, 2014

 After a couple of hours I had exhausted my water supplies and I realised I'd have to be very careful about how I expended my energy. I assumed I'd be able to refill my bladder from mountain streams but unfortunately my trail didn't seem to cross any. We were up into the snow line again, so I resorted to trying to eat handfuls of snow, but diverting a much needed blood supply to the stomach and reducing your core temp isn't particularly wise in any but the most extreme circumstances.

The trail was interminable. Every time I thought I'd summitted it switched back again. At one point I heard voices on the trail and my heart soared a little in anticipation of the cp but it turned out to be a couple of teenage lovers sharing a private moment, only to be interrupted by a sweary, sweaty Irish buffoon snorting about bloody hills and water. ‘But wait’ I thought, surely they won't have travelled far to find some privacy, surely civilisation is just around the corner?

Well it turns out that Romanian teens are made of hardier stuff than our playstation generation and it was to be another hour before I got to  the Piatra Arsa cp.

I'll take this opportunity now to apologise to the staff there, some English friends of Andy and Amandas and a lovely local girl who I metaphorically brained with some rapidly thrown teddies. They did exactly the right thing by sitting me down, shoving a hot cup of tea in my hand and agreeing with everything I ranted about over the next few minutes.

Normal service was soon resumed though I admitted to myself at this point that due to the loss of time and how long it was taking me to cover the ground I would have to drop from the race to have any chance of rest before driving to the airport the following day.

Physically I was fine, though the route was incredibly tough it wasn't taking too much out of me, but I knew that my self-imposed time limit of eighteen hours was a gross underestimate, I had doomed myself to failure before I even started simply through poor planning and that, for me, was the toughest part to swallow.

I've DNF'd races before but always for reasons that I was happy with. This time it would have been easily avoided, if only I'd been honest with myself about my abilities and planned properly.

So I trudged off. Now for me, once know I'm done, the heart goes out of me, sights I would have rejoiced in now just served to remind me what a numpty I am. I just kept thinking that if only I'd planned better then I could have enjoyed the race for even longer. For I was enjoying the race, I was travelling though some incredible scenery and I wanted to continue, I wanted to enjoy all that this incredible country had to offer but because of my own stupidity I couldn't.

Knowing that I was going to drop at the next cp meant that any time pressure I had felt was now off. I had one last climb though, back into the forests following the marker poles back and forth for miles, until finally we dropped down onto the valley floor, crossed back and forth through a melt water river, before a final descent to the lake at Bolboci and my final cp. 

It was there that I met Andys mum and dad and I believe Ciprian who looked after me for the following hours through my lowest point and possibly my only criticism of the race. During the race briefing the day before Amanda had told us that we should carry some local currency in case we wanted to purchase extra supplies at any or the mountain refuges. She also mentioned that in the event of a drop the race organisation would endeavour to help repatriate us, but it would be down to us to take responsibility for our own return. Now when I spoke to Amanda on the phone at the cp she told me that they didn't have any contingency plans for dropped runners and suggested that either I find someone at the refuge to take me back to Bran or that I find a bed there for the night and try to get out in the morning.

This quite frankly disturbed me because, although I had taken some money in case of emergencies, I didn't have the 300 Lei, about £60, that an opportunistic local was asking to bring me to the nearest town, the local taxi service wouldn't come up as high as the refuge and even if I did try to sleep there, there was no guarantee of a bed as the Cabana was block booked and in any case I'd have to sleep in the kit I'd been racing in for the last twelve hours, perfectly adequate when I was moving, but now I had stopped I was really feeling the cold.

So for a couple of hours I really didn't know how I was going to get back to Bran. Little did I know that in the backround Amanda and Ciprian were making every effort to get me home and several hours later my lift arrived! My two cheerleaders from cp2 and a Landrover, which was to be my transport back to Bran. I climbed into the back of the mesh covered load-bed, was swaddled in sleeping bags and several bumpy hours later was back where I had started 18 hours before, in the lee of Bran castle. A quick thanks to my rescuers and off I wandered to my hire car.

So there it is. A DNF. A particularly difficult DNF to swallow because it was entirely of my own making. Although I was in pain when I dropped, it was entirely manageable and normal after 52k and a dozen plus thousand feet of climb. No stomach or feet problems, my energy levels were good - my drop was purely down to my frankly piss-poor planning and preparation.

I had thought that residual fitness, mental toughness and desperation would be enough to get me around and I compounded that stupidity by not building in enough time to go to a plan B. I imposed limits on myself that I had no need to and by doing so I cheated myself out of an incredible experience. When I spoke in my previous column of searching out your limits and pushing them I didn’t realise that I’d find my own quite so soon after. Through entirely my own fault, I had imposed limits on myself before I even flew out to the race. I had ensured that my physical and mental state were almost as poor as they could be and I compounded those mistakes by not being honest with myself about my ability and fitness.

Mountain running is not a sport you can fake and by not being honest with myself I put myself in a position where a DNF was almost inevitable.

I had joked with some other runners before the race that we shouldn't blog or write about the race in the hope that we could keep it our little secret, but to be honest I don't think that's going to work.

This is too good a race not to become a classic. The warmth of the people, the stunning scenery and  it's sheer toughness I hope will ensure there's a stream of trail runners coming to the region for years to come. It certainly deserves it and in the Transylvania 100K Andy, Amanda, Vlad and Marius have created a race to be proud of.

Do this race, as long as you've prepared properly and I promise you won't regret it. Just treat it with the respect it deserves, don’t make the same mistakes I did…

Find out more about the Transylvania at www.transylvania100k.com


About The Author

Gary Dalton

Gary Dalton is a rugby loving, crime fighting, white Irish Muslim ultra runner. Despite all this he's not a complete eejit. 

Gary is originally from the west of Ireland and can't actually remember when he moved to London - he blames a heavy diet of being tackled by prop forwards and potatoes for the memory loss. He hates going out for runs, canals and borderline hypothermia and loves ice cream and going out for runs. 


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