Monday, 20th January 2020
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A race report with teeth!

by @garyfallsover
Thursday 21st May 2015

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton tells a gripping tale of his (mis)adventures in Romania with heart and humour

A race report with teeth!

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I’m not supposed to be sitting on my couch, foot elevated and bandaged, mocking me from it’s exalted position. I should be wearing my finishers t-shirt, modestly telling tales of crevasses traversed, bears fought off and epic climbs tamed. But I’m not. I’m in my flat, laptop where it was designed to be, trying desperately to find the words to describe how I feel about, yet again, failing to complete this race.

Now I know what human nature is like and there’s a large part of me that wants to find excuses for my failure. Justifications and explanations, reasons I should be ok with it and rationales that make me feel better. But the simple fact is that I did nothing wrong that resulted in this injury and that in itself doesn’t comfort me in the slightest.

So in the words of  Maria in the Sound of Music let’s start at the very beginning. Both readers of this column (hi Mum) will remember my race report from last years race (HERE) where I suffered a dnf through what can only be described as poor planning. Well this year I was determined that fate wasn’t to befall me and I actually spent some time on race admin, booking flights with plenty of leeway for pre and post-race rest, a nice hotel close to the town of Bran, equipped with a restorative Jacuzzi and most importantly I was a man with a plan. More of that later.

Now I should say here that not everything was perfect.  I had ruptured some fairly important bits of my knee in Italy last year and I had only really had about seven weeks of consistent training in the build up to Transylvania. However thanks to my novel approach of actually listening to my coach and my even more novel approach of doing what he said, I was reasonably happy that I’d used those seven weeks as wisely as I could.

So off I trotted at silly o’clock on Thursday morning to catch my flight from Luton airport on the rather appropriately named Wizz air. I’m assuming it’s called Wizz as their policy seems to be to piss on any semblance of customer service expectations. But I digress.

Soon safely ensconced in the incredible Transylvanian Inn I headed off to the race briefing and met up with Steve Hayes, a friend from last years Spine race, frantically stuffing kit into his race pack as he hadn’t realised we were going to have to go through kit check too. Then into a briefing from one of the RD’s Andy Heading, who explained the route changes due to bad weather and  the inclusion in the race pack of an unusual piece of kit which I mentioned last year. Now to my knowledge most European races don’t see the need to include bear whistles in their race packs, but listening to Andy speak, it slowly dawned on a good many runners in the hall that this may not quite have been the race they had been expecting.

Having done the race last year I knew what to expect and decided to modify last year's plan slightly. This year I planned to stay firmly mid pack so that any hungry bears would eat the front runners, leaving me both safe and gaining easy places. Genius eh?

Myself and Steve had a quick chat over dinner and decided to stick together at the start and see how things went through the day, him mostly because he didn’t really know what to expect and me because I had seen how many packets of Percy Pigs he was carrying.

So bright and early the following morning I and another couple hundred hardy souls gathered in the morning light below Bran castle, waiting for the start gong. I was more nervous than I’d even been before and filled with self doubt. If for some miraculous reason the race had been called off I’d outwardly have been gutted but inwardly I’d have screamed with delight. The limits of my training nagged at me and I had a very real fear that my knee wouldn’t hold out and that my thoughts of a return to the TdG were just a frivolous joke.  Andy said a few final words about not being eaten and if we were please don’t litter the trail and we were off, starting like it was a 10k in front of a new girlfriend. I did what I always do, I spent the first couple of miles taking the piss out of everyone else running at way above comfort pace whilst myself running way above comfort pace. But at least I was doing it ironically.

A race report with teeth!

Fairly quickly we left the somewhat paved roads around Bran and started climbing through the surrounding meadows, every now and then through the trees catching sight of the imposing mountains above us.  Myself and Steve chatted amiably about how we’d feed each other to the bears rather than lose a place, asking ourselves the really important questions in life, like why is abbreviate such a long word and what is the opposite of opposite. We also had a bit of a chat about our plan for the race and decided that as long as we were moving well we’d stick together  but if either of us wanted to crack on he’d just go. We’d take it easy for the first fifty, staying well within our limits and would try to up the pace on the second fifty. A fifty I have yet to see as it happens.

At this time all was well with the world, the weather, despite the earlier forecasts, was playing ball with the temps in the mid teens, the sky was clear and every now and then, when I really really listened carefully, I was sure I could hear the strain of bears shitting in the woods. Or maybe that was just my imagination.

On we went, the field slowly thinning out until we caught only occasional glances of other runners as we passed through a meadow or clearing, most of this part of the course travelling through heavily wooded areas with only the sporadic blast of a bear whistle to remind us that we weren’t the only two out there. One of the huge attractions of races like this for me is not only the stunning landscapes we were privileged enough to be travelling through but the small size of the field and the remoteness of the area which meant it was possible to spend huge amounts of time completely alone. Though races like the UTMB and such are undoubtedly tough you spend almost all of the race nose to bum with the runner in front and never really get to fully appreciate the savage beauty of the scenery around you. Too busy trying to avoid being stabbed by wandering poles to appreciate the view.

But my race here was playing out well, my initial nerves were starting to fade and though I wished I’d had another few weeks training in me I was generally happy with how I was feeling. I matched Steve step for step up the long climb to CP Gaura, halting only every now and then to gag when he delightedly farted in my  face.  Cp Gaura came and went with only a short halt to replenish our water supplies and off again we went, into our rhythm now and happy that we were moving easily and were capable of more. Strunga and Pestera ticked past and the field thinned out even more with the 50K runners splitting off onto their route that would take them on their short loopback to Bran leaving only the 100k runners to take on the huge climb up to Omu, over 8200 ft above sea level.

And it was on this climb that things started to get a little more difficult. So far the trail had been sparsely but recognisably marked, but as we climbed into the cloud cover on the mountain and visibility dropped to less than ten metres all the markings seemed to tail off. Well above the snowline now we followed the trail of inov-8 and Salomon tracks into the clouds, stopping for a couple of minutes at  every junction to figure which offshoot was the right one. No real dramas and just one of those things we thought. But as we climbed further and further into the clouds it became more and more evident that the markings weren’t merely sparse they were entirely absent.  We were later told that the mountain ranger hadn’t been informed there was a race on that day so when he found the marking tape he just removed it thinking it was rubbish. Very efficient but not massively helpful for us.  But onward we trudged, every now and then out of the clouds appeared a group of Romanian teenagers dressed in the adidas tracksuits of invulnerability and carrying plastic bottles of beer. Every now and then the trail disappeared completely so we cast about looking for footprints, rejecting the more improbable until only the least dangerous seemed to offer a way, side stepping across snowfields praying they’d hold our weight until we could get to the next clear patch of ground. Eventually we found our way to the turning point at Babele where we met Andy, one of the RD’s who told us we had about another hour and a half to the peak and a further hour and a half down to the valley CP at Busteni, most of which were snowfields.

A race report with teeth!

Slightly over two hours later we arrived at the refuge on the peak at Omu, bought a coke from the little kiosk and made for the door, stopping for a chat with the marshall pointing racers in the right direction. ‘Stick to the right of the rock there, turn right at the junction when you see the signs change’ he said. Pretty simple really except within ten metres of the CP the signs disappeared and we were swallowed up by the clouds again. Oh well we thought, just follow the trail until we come to the junction and we’ll be fine.

And here’s where we made a mistake that not only nearly ended our race but almost our lives. You see one snowfield looks pretty much like another when visibility is rubbish and when you’ve been told the trail is down there and you find said field, you pretty much trust it’s the right one. It’s only when you’re sliding down on your arse, approaching 30mph and giggling like little children that you notice that not only can you no longer see where the field plateaus, it’s actually getting steeper and steeper.  

We both jammed our poles into the snow as hard as we could and spread-eagled ourselves in an attempt to slow ourselves down, which achieved only that we were sent into a bounce-bounce-spin-fli- repeat, bits of kit flying all around, eventually coming to a stop in a heap of powdered snow.  A couple of moments to gather our senses and a look further down the slope revealed we’d made the right choice. What had been a reasonable descent turned into a near vertical drop off, the bottom of which was lost in the clouds. Not that way then I thought. Because we’d slid so far down the slope however the sides of the valley had closed in on us revealing no easy way back for us so we traversed to the side, kicking steps into the side of the slope and testing our weight against them, trying not to consider what might happen if we slipped or triggered an avalanche.

Eventually we made it to solid ground and began casting about again for the trail, deciding that we must be a valley or two further away than we’d thought. A couple more slip and slides and finally the welcome sight of torn up snow indicating a herd of ultra runners had recently passed. This slope, though far more gentle then the previous, still enabled us to get a fair bit of speed with the added bonus of not so gently exfoliating the back of my legs and arse. And this is where my race ended. 

About half way to the bottom the sky cleared to reveal the incredible sights around us, the cliff faces to the left and right and the wooded trail appearing at the bottom of the slope. Steve got out his camera and as I posed for a photo I started to slide down the slope again, except this time my right foot broke through the snow up to the knee and my body kept going, rotating my foot through 180 degrees with a loud crack. I knew immediately I was out, the pain was excruciating and brought tears to my eyes,  Steve tried to comfort me but I knew I was done, another year's attempt to finish this bloody race gone.

While I moaned like a skint kid in an amusement arcade Steve set about informing the race organisation that I was out. He bounced from race HQ to mountain rescue multiple times and got the distinct impression that no one really knew what to do with me so we decided that as we were still above the snowline we’d at least try to get down to a flat part of the course and wait for rescue.

We bandaged up my ankle as best we could and I hopped and bum slid down to where the snow petered out and the trail was recognisable again. Phone call after phone call  was made trying to get mountain rescue up to us but we decided, as there was a storm front moving in, we’d try to get lower down to meet with them. So I limped along using my poles and Steve continued to fart on me where he could. Every few minutes I’d tell Steve to bugger off and continue the race and he’d tell me to piss off, make another phone all to MR and race HQ and update them as to our progress. Eventually, after about two hours of slowly descending, we met with four members of the Salvamont, the Romanian mountain rescue team, who promptly sat me on a rock and asked me if I wanted a cigarette.

A race report with teeth!

They then started to build what I can only describe as a cross between a luggage cart and a hospital gurney, strapped me in and physically carried/wheeled me down the trail. They explained that this part of the journey would have to be done by hand as it was still so rough but we’d meet a wheeled vehicle further down, which would carry me to the waiting ambulance. It was incredible to see the effort these guys put into getting me off that mountain with minimal equipment and I have nothing but respect for their efforts. Finally the promised vehicle came into sight and after another hair raising ride I was packed into the ambulance and sent on my way with shouts of ‘bye bye Killian’ from the MR guys. Piss taking feckers.

So that was my race done. An evening spent in hospital where I was x rayed but not examined in any way, had a plaster cast put on and was sent off to recuperate back at the hotel. Strangely I was ok with that. I knew there wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent the accident, I’d prepared as best I could and barring that freak accident, I’m sure I would have finished and finished well. And I was cheered by the fact that Steve wasn’t being held back by me anymore and that he’d be credited the hours he selflessly gave up in looking after me. Little did I know that Steve’s race was going to get a lot more interesting before it too finished prematurely.

Now this part has been relayed to me by Steve, it’s obviously his story, but he was keen for me to tell it, so people reading this would know what they might let themselves in for if they too fancied the race in years to come.

As he descended the mountain and finally found his way into the CP at Busteni  a couple of hours later he overheard several enquiries about lost racers out on the mountain. There was a very real feeling that the organisation didn’t really know what racers had passed through which checkpoint. Steve raised some concerns about a racer called Denzil who he was told hadn’t passed though the CP at Omu yet, some two hours after he was expected. He continued on again, making good time, moving through the field until dusk started to fall as he approached the reservoir at Busteni.

Walking along the concrete walkway he turned off his headtorch to enjoy the darkening night, when, just as he was approaching a set of concrete steps, a sound made him turn around just in time to see two fast approaching wolves, teeth bared and hackles raised. Screaming like a little girl he managed to fight them off with a combination of walking poles and banshee wailing and ran the last fifty metres to the cp and safety. Now I know Steve well, he’s not a man to scare easily but turning to find a couple of wolves stalking you would turn the bravest of men to jelly.

A race report with teeth!

Sadly he didn’t have the presence of mind to drop one pole and grab his camera but I think under the circumstances I can probably forgive him for that.

Shortly after that is where it all went wrong. Steve got lost about 40 minutes out of CP7. He tried to find the trail again, criss crossing and back tracking to pick it up, with no success. Knowing he was only 40 minutes along the trail from the CP he phones the race HQ and asked that one of the helpers there be sent along the trail blowing his whistle to enable Steve to find him. At this time he’d been lost for several hours, exposed on a mountain top with low visibility snowfields and cliffs all around. Twice this request was made and both time he was told they were just packing up and hadn’t left yet. After several hours Steve finally found a stream and followed it onto the valley floor where he picked up a road, which led through a gypsy encampment, where he was attacked by dogs, before finally calling it a day when it became obvious he wasn’t going to get back on track.

Though he again contacted race HQ asking to be put back on track, there was no further communication from them to ascertain whether he had been found safely and to his knowledge to this date there hasn’t been any follow up welfare checks.

Now my telling Steve’s story isn’t to beat anyone over the head with any perceived  failings in the organisation. Personally I think this is an incredible race and I’ll happily be back to try again. However it is a dangerous one, not only in terms of the terrain covered, the remoteness of the territory and the fact that there are dangerous animals around, but also in terms of the level of isolation runners are subjected to. Though our numbers were taken at each cp, the impression was that those arrivals weren’t being conveyed either further along the course or back to previous cp’s. There seemed to be no real idea of who was on what part of the course at any one time and if you did get into trouble, then you could only really rely on yourself to get you out. I’m eternally grateful to MR for getting me down but I was lucky that I managed to get myself to a point where I could meet them. If my injury was more severe or it had happened slightly further up out of phone reception I’m not sure what we would have done.

This is an incredible race but it’s not for the faint hearted. It’s dangerous. It’s more adventure race than ultra and you really do need to be comfortable in the mountains to take it on. I firmly believe there’s more to be done on the organisational side to keep runners safe but I’m sure Andy, Amanda, Vlad and Marius will take the tough lessons of this year and improve next year's race. But if you are considering it, treat it with the respect it deserves. It’s not Chamonix. If the course itself doesn’t bite you on the arse a wolf very well might.

A race report with teeth!


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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