Transylvania – the region in Romania where the Carpathian mountain range nestles next to medieval castles, and fortified churches are set into soaring cliff-sides – hosts an annual trail race called Transylvania100. There are four routes to choose from: 20, 30, 50 and 100 kilometre treks through the wilds, with some pretty brutal statistics. In 2017, my husband and I chose to run the 30k route, which would include a 2370m elevation gain, and a course that had an average gradient of 15%. 15%! Needless to say, this was in the small print and I discovered it simply by looking at the vast mountain I had signed up to climb, when we arrived a few days before the race J I now knew why a 30k race had a 15 hour cut-off.
My second surprise came when we went to collect our race numbers. There was no race briefing, as I had thought would be compulsory. Our kit was checked (a random selection of 2 items from an extensive list that had been provided beforehand) and I then found a large-scale map of all four routes hanging from the wall of the gym hall, with a race official there to answer any questions. After feeling a bit taken-aback that I wouldn’t be told what to do on the course, I actually liked being able to tailor my own “race briefing” from asking questions that concerned me the most (bears! Wolves! Course markers!) This race makes you take responsibility for yourself from the start. This worked well for me as we got there very early on registration day – it might have been more chaotic with more people around.
Our major concern was unfortunately out of the race organisers’ hands. The weather had been closing in all afternoon, and it seemed very likely that we would be running in rain, at the very least. The race website had indicated that the 100k race would be climbing in the snow, and we presumed our 30k race would see a little snow too. Back in London, running through some packed snow in the May summer sunshine had seemed like a novelty. Looking up at the heavy cloud hanging over the Carpathians, the idea of snow seemed both more likely and more scary.
The 30k route began from the castle in Bran – supposedly the castle that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel – and wound its way through the town and its suburbs, before ascending into the hills through some beautiful (and steep) forest paths. There were more than a few English speakers on the route, including a large contingent of US Marines, who had come over en masse from their base in Romania to take on the 20k race, and I soon found other compatriots on the course. I even found one competitor wearing her Mavericks Hampshire t-shirt! She was bossing the route and looked really strong.
As we neared the top of the first summit, my hopes of a respectable time were already dimming. The gradient was really tough, and it was all I could do to keep pace with the group I had attached myself to (the alternative – climbing alone – was not to be thought of: I was told by a local from Bran who was on the course with me, that this was the worst time for bears as mothers with cubs were emerging from hibernation, hungry!) A few of us stopped at the 8k point to put on our cold weather gear, as the mist was rolling in thick and fast. From now, things got interesting.
We continued on the course, and I saw my first snow crossing: a strip of compacted snow that was wedged into the furrows on the mountainside, that required precise and careful negotiation: one slip of the foot, and you would be sliding down into the mist and certain, painful injury. Luckily, previous runners had made deep imprints and as long as you kept your footing, it was fairly easy to negotiate. These soon became more and more common, and we summited the first peak in swirling mist and crunching snow underfoot. So far, we had been following the course markers of yellow and red reflective tape, but as we neared the summit, a teenager in a red marshal’s running jacket appeared out of nowhere to direct us correctly. This happened a lot as we traversed the distance between the first and second summit – it was reassuring to know that these ridiculously quick running marshalls were criss-crossing the route, putting us right and directing our steps. It was very necessary, as the mist made visibility very poor and going off-course was too easy.
Making our way on to the first check-point, the gradient was now punishing in a different way – the descent was quick, technical and fun, and it felt great to be running again after a few hours of pulling uphill. I was running with another girl from the UK at this stage, and we made it into the check point together. In my naivety, after a few slices of apple and some very salty cheese, carved from what looked like a 5 kg block, I felt ready to take on the next hill. Unfortunately, the mountain had other plans….as we began the brutal ascent for this last hill, the altitude started to make me feel a little odd. I felt exhausted, drawing more breath than necessary, and was struggling to put my feet in front of each other. This made me feel unsettled, as despite making connections en route, I was running this race by myself. I kept a slow climbing pace, drank as much water as I could and unwrapped my emergency stash – a sticky, chocolate covered nut and seed bar. The incredible slowness of my climb helped settle my head and nerves, and I started a conversation with the girl behind me, which also helped take my mind off the steepness of the ascent we were making.
She was busy telling me how she had climbed these hills as a school girl (and how much easier they had seemed then!) when I felt the first flutters against my rain jacket. The ever-present mist we were climbing into seemed now to have a current running through it, and the snow flakes began to settle on the back of my neck. As I looked onwards, I saw what seemed like a vertical wall of packed snow: I could just make out the girl in front of me, stabilising herself with poles before disappearing into the cloud.
At this point, I have to be clear that the compulsory kit for this race did require warm and waterproof clothing. However, it did not make poles, crampons or any kind of snow kit a requirement. It was a tough realisation to have, that I would be climbing what looked like a pretty steep glacier, without any means of fixing myself to the mountain apart from the grip in my shoes – with a steady fall of snow making visibility tricky. I’m not a nervous climber, or person (in general), but I felt under-prepared and was gripped with a strong desire to get off this mountain as quickly and safely as possible. This feeling was made only more intense as I heard the slow rumble of thunder, and watched lightening streak through the clouds I was climbing into.
Now, lightening safety was drummed into us as kids: you see lightening, you exit the mountain and return to the last safe point. The English girl I had been running with was still in sight, and we were both in favour of descending and waiting out the storm back at the checkpoint – about an hour’s distance from our current point. Only problem was, gravity and my Inov8 Roclites were the only thing keeping me glued to that mountain-side: I looked backwards and could barely make out the “steps” of other runners’ feet I had been using to ascend. A descent would be difficult and dangerous. As we were mulling this over, a shout of “rock!” turned our heads, and we watched a fair-sized piece of granite – unlodged by someone ahead of us – roll down the hill into the mist.
That made up our minds – it would be quicker to summit than to return, and probably safer too. It was a scary and unnerving last 30 minutes on that mountain side, with wind, snow and thunder to contend with. Summiting safely, I was determined to run down that hill like the wind, but was stymied by the swathes of snow that were now blocking my path. At last the route was clear, as the mist and cloud were getting blown over the peak: I could see the red and yellow tape but I had no idea where to put my feet! I was still agitated from the rumbling thunder, and began running rather haphazardly – sometimes getting it right and hearing gravel underneath the snow as I landed– sometimes getting it very wrong and ending up with one leg thigh-high in a drift!
I made steady progress and soon we were out of the snow and thunderstorm’s reach – only to now contend with a steady and robust downpour. The descent was also extremely technical: we were descending about 1000 metres in roughly 5 kilometres, so there was as much bouldering and scrambling as there was running. Sometimes the path was best negotiated backwards, using fir tree branches as holds; at one point, the authorities has nailed chains into the wall, so I free-styled that section using the chains like an abseiling exercise. This would have been a lot of fun if the slippery rocks hadn’t threatened instant ankle-breaks if your concentration wavered.
The worst of the terrain was behind us, and again, we started making steady progress towards check point two – the final checkpoint for our 30k race. I was humiliated to see that this race had taken me so long that my watch battery was beginning to die! We reached the final checkpoint – with still 10 kilometres to run – after 6 hours on the course. Determined to make it back before dark, I paired up with a Romanian girl and we decided to stick together and get the race finished. Unfortunately, in our anxiety to complete the course quickly, we managed to miss a critical junction on the route.
Of course, we take full responsibility for getting lost on the mountain for an hour J but my pride – which had already taken a few hits that day – was somewhat relieved to find out that we were not the only ones. There had been deliberate course tampering, with unknown individuals removing the course marking and reflective tape, something that had a huge impact on the final results for the 30k contenders. I’ll never understand why people want other people to risk their safety by being led off-course – and seeing as this was a junction that required you to take a small track into the trees – turning off from a big and important-looking jeep track – I feel this should have been marshalled in-person. To add insult to injury, I then realised that my mouth-piece for my water-bladder had been lost somewhere on course, and all my water had been slowly seeping out of this pipe. I had no idea as the rain was drenching us anyway! This was definitely the low point, but the sheer frustration of what seemed like an endless day on these hills definitely spurred me on. Never mind that the downpour had made the rest of the course – once we found it – a complete mudslide, I ran my heart out down through the forest and into the last 5 kilometres, where an undulating jeep track, sometimes calf-deep in mud, led us back to Bran’s castle.
Seeing my parents and husband at the finish line was amazing, and after 8 hours and 57 minutes battling with nature, I was most definitely done. Despite having completed that tough course in the worst of weather, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with my performance – could I have trained better? Could I have run harder out there? I had set myself fairly high expectations from this race, and having them dashed in such a spectacular manner (9 hours!) was very humbling. But I guess that is part of trail running: to enter nature’s domain and tackle what she gives you. It was important for me to learn that I won’t always win when I take her on, and sometimes, she will show me exactly what she is made of – and what I can’t compete with. In the end, “failure” in this context has enhanced my respect and love for the great outdoors, despite having my ass handed to me.
I began writing this piece as a kit review, but I have realised there is not too much I can say about the Inov8 gear I was wearing, apart from GO AND BUY IT! I shudder to think what some of those snow, mud and gravel conditions would have been like if I hadn’t had proper mountain shoes, light with good drainage and excellent grippy soles. Having run the 25k Ennerdale Trail Run in 2016 in some pretty abysmal weather conditions, I prioritised getting a proper waterproof jacket for 2017: I trialled two jackets from OMM and one from Asics, returning all three, until I settled on the Inov-8 AT/C Raceshell. A key feature of this jacket is the thumbholes, which helped keep the jacket in place despite a wide range of movement (running, climbing, scrambling). It kept me as dry as anything could have, and more importantly, kept me warm in the snow and wind.
It’s Carpathians 1 – Robyn 0…until 2018!
If you plan on entering the Transylvania race series, please read below for some top tips:
- A GPS watch is only compulsory for the 100k competitors, but it should be compulsory for all (or get a waterproof phone case and download the gpx file). After chatting with some Bran locals, it seems that course tampering has happened on at least two years of this event. You should not rely on course markings for these routes, and we didn’t see very many marshals on the second half of the course.
- If I did this series again, I will make it a buddy race. This is fairly common in South Africa, where race organisers take team entries of 2 to ensure safety and add an extra challenge to your race J but do the run with someone you can get lost on the hills with. I got lucky that I happened to be running with two strong girls, one of whom spoke the local language – but this was luck!
- Take more food than you think: the food tables were stocked, but the weather had wreaked havoc with a lot of the food supplies like bananas, nuts and cheese. And you could be out there for 9 hours J J
- Don’t play fast and loose with the compulsory kit: I needed everything on that list!