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Third time lucky for our ultra running Irishman

by @garyfallsover
Wednesday 1st June 2016
Third time lucky. Third time’s the charm. As if somehow the Gods of chance were tired of seeing my grumpy  face on a start line and would finally decide that this was the year they’d  allow me a Transylvanian finishers' t-shirt. 
Now though I’m a believer in the magical sky fairy I’m not really one for fate, or luck or destiny or whatever name people choose to call the ability to abdicate responsibility for your own life to a whim of the universe. I’m a firm believer in sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the fact that without hard work and perseverance nothing good will come of trying to travel 100k over remote mountainous territory. And in this case, rather unusually, I was absolutely and completely right.
So those of you who’ve read my column before will be familiar with my history in Transylvania, essentially a mix of stupidity and accident which meant I had cumulatively only seen about 60k of the course. So for those of you who don’t know the race it’s a pure mountain series of 30/50 and 100k routes in the Transylvanian Bucegi mountains starting and finishing in the grounds of Bran Castle. Now all that sounds pretty reasonable, after all mountain 100’s are a staple of the ultra runners diet. But this one is slightly different as unlike other races it’s almost completely unreasonable. I mean unreasonable in the sense it goes into stupidly steep snowfields. And then down steeper snowfields to bear filled woods. And there’s wolves. And dogs bigger than the wolves, who not unreasonably are afraid of the dogs. Can you imagine a dog that makes a wolf shit itself?
 If that’s not enough to contend with approximately 1.3 kilometres of the course is flat and even that bit is on a camber.Uphill.  Imagine a race built on a rollercoaster then filled with rocks and snow. And wolves.  I mentioned the wolves didn’t I?
So yet again I found myself in Bran a day or so before the race, meeting up with old friends and making new ones, including the boisterous and friendly bunch from the Mud Crew endurance team from Cornwall. I did my level best to scare the beejesus out of them at drinks before the race but thankfully the RD Andy Heading came along to calm the nervous and assure them that despite what I’d said mammoths hadn’t been seen in the area for some time. 


But my joking with the guys disguised a deep unease and though I was happy to laugh with the guys I was dreading this race. I knew from the previous years exactly how tough it was and I also knew I was woefully underprepared. I have a complicated relationship with running, best described as ‘ I fecking hate it’ and the months previous to the race had been some of the busiest work wise of my career so far. So suffice to say that with a catalogue of DNF’s behind me and a less than stellar prep I was already sandbagging like a Mississippi farmer.
Now as we all know the most difficult part of doing an ultra is managing the social media and this one was no exception. I had hoped to stay under the radar on the approach to the race but someone who looks and sounds and writes remarkably like me couldn’t keep his bloody mouth shut on fb or twitter so every man and his dog knew I was out in Romania again and most of them, or at least those who hadn’t muted me already, knew this was my third time.
So for the third time I found myself on the start line. And it was totally fine. Honest it was.  I jogged out of town with a couple of grannys heading home with their shopping,  was over taken by the town drunk pinballing his way home between the parked cars and actually felt time slow as I hit the first hill.
Every second I felt a new niggle to take my attention away from the previous niggle which surely was leg cancer! You can get leg cancer mid race right? Is foot Aids a thing? It sounds like a thing.
Today however I had a simple plan. I would not quit. Too often I’ve let myself be defeated by my own thoughts and today I was determined that wouldn’t happen. The climb up to the highest point Mt Omu  seemed interminable, the winding forest section opening up onto an incredible mountain vista, dramatic rock columns spiking up from the ridgeline. This year the weather was almost perfect for running, cool enough for just a long sleeved top, the forecast low temperatures not yet arriving.


Onwards and upwards, in and out of snowfields until we hit the steepest section, those that had gone before us having kicked steps into the snow to gain some purchase. Ropes to guide us, stuck in a single line dependent on the speed of those in front.  It seemed so steep I was sure if I stood up straight and reached out I could touch the snow in front of me. But like all things I had to end and finally we crested to see the building containing the  refuge in front of us. A quick check in and out and away again, passing some snowboarders making their way to the top.
Down into Malaiesti CP and then up again to the peak for the second time, different route but equally tough. I looked longingly at the route the 50 runners branched off on, almost wishing for a reason to cut my day short. But nothing that would play well on Twitter came to mind so off I went.
This was my lowest point, the second ascent of Omu. Every step laboured. Every second filled with doubt.  But every race is comprised of highs and lows and for me that was the end of the crashing lows. Even later in the race when I couldn’t eat I never again felt the same despair. Annoyance yes, definitely bloating and maybe even some constipation but no despair.

The descent however was easily the most fun part of the course, deep snow and relatively warm temperatures made the snowfields difficult to run but fantastic to slide down, a variety pack of bum sizes making distinct trails all the way to the bottom.  I knew this was where my race ended last year and was cheered by the fact that at least I had made it this far without yet pinging some part of my body into the local A&E. But an untimely reminder of how fickle the racing Gods can be was the sight of a prone runner wrapped in silver blankets in the middle of the trail at the bottom,  roughly where I had been found by Mountain Rescue the year before. The worrying  sight of the downed runner was somewhat lightened by a chirpy ‘Hey Gary’ and I recognised my friend Steph’s voice, an incredibly talented and unfailingly happy athlete from Canada. A quick check she was ok and in the capable hands of another runner and I was off again, her fall a reminder of how small the margin can be between success and failure on a race of this difficulty.

From there on in my race became very simple, into a CP at the bottom of a treacherous descent thanking God I had survived and promising the world if I never had to do that again, looking forward to the relative safety of a nice gentle uphill. Followed by about three minutes of happiness until the trail kicked up again and I was back to my default setting of cursing all humanity. 
The CP at Busteni meant desperate times forced desperate measures. I had been suffering stomach problems for a while, not being able to take any of my food in so I resorted to minesweeping the leftovers like a student on a Freshers night out. It was only when another runner starting looking for his bottle of coke that I realised that not quite everything might have been leftovers.  Sheepishly I sloped out, refuelled by coke and warmed by embarrassment, ready for the 1000m climb to Piatra Arsa.
Well there would have been a huge climb if we would find the trail. Runners criss-crossed the forest floor desperately looking for any sign of the right way to go, half a dozen voices in half a dozen languages all shouting in frustration. Out came the GPS which delivered us to a vaguely remembered route and there we were again, a piece of tape marking the way.
 But what a climb. If Omu had been dramatic and severe this was just niggly and irritating. The kind of climb that sits behind you in lectures and flicks paper at your head. It was the kind of climb that leaks sounds from headphones, always just on the side of irritating but never quite enough to get truly angry at. It was on the climb that I forged  an alliance with a Scottish runner called Robbie, spending the next 15 hours together trying to decipher each others accents, almost every sentence responded to with an apologetic ‘sorry’ or ‘what?’.
Gary TV

We were about a mile short of the peak CP when I realised we wre only 15 minutes inside cut-off. I knew then I could just coast along and I’d have my excuse. Timed out. Just one of those things.

And there it was that I finally found some of the determination I had been looking for over the past year. Instead of just accepting my fate and admitting defeat I sped up to the dizzy heights of a ten minute mile, coming into the cp with a few minutes to spare. Unnecessarily as it happened because I’d completely miscalculated my timings but hey ho, it was the thought that counted right?
Up and down. Swear. Repeat. The reservoir at Bolboci appeared sooner than expected and the cheerful volunteers sent us on our way, correcting gently our poor attempts to thank them in Romanian. Myself and Robbie playing a game of ‘ Bear or tree’ as we wound our way up through the forest. 
Headtorches on, chasing the pool of light higher and higher, tap tap from our poles and an occasional curse as our feet found an unseen rock. Little talk except for an occasional grumble about why the mountains had to be so high and so rocky!  A warming cup of tea at Strungulita and a gentle reminded to eat and we were off again, my headtorch off to conserve the battery, the light of the full moon sufficient to guide my way. 
I knew then I’d finish. Barring accident or injury I knew that at some point in the near future I’d see that finish line. Though the last kilometres felt like miles there was a finality to every step. Like I knew I wouldn’t have to come back next year to do it all again.
 And so it was that after just over 28 hours of running, hiking, walking and moaning myself and Robbie ran through the gates of Bran castle and under the finish line banner. A sight and a journey that I’d been looking forward to doing for the previous two years.  A medal, some comfortable grass, an ice cream and the company of my wife were all that I wanted right at that moment and happily all were easily at hand. Happy is the man who knows that his journey is at an end.
But of course the journey doesn’t end there. Promises of ‘never again’ are soon forgotten and the memories of sights seen take precedence. So in all likelihood I’ll be back. Maybe not next year, maybe not to race but I’m sure I’ll be back. For finishing this race hasn’t really answered anything for me. It just means I finished a race. 
But for now I’ll take it.

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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