A gang of us decided to do the Transylvania 20/30/50/100 k early in the year as road trip.
I had gotten lucky in the UTMB draw so I considered it a stepping stone on the way to my “A” race in Chamonix on September 1. I had always intended to do the 100k in Transylvania however, my coach (Don Hannon) talked me out of it a few days before the race as he was concerned that the recovery from the 100k would be too long, that it would compromise next month’s race in Lavaredo and that ultimately I would arrive in Chamonix burned out. Don feels that I’m over-racing and over-training and that it is showing in my performances.
It has been a frustrating year as I’ve been struggling with injuries since the Wicklow Way 100. I needed to do it to get the points for the UTMB but it was too close to my trip to Nepal and I’ve paid for it since. I have no illusions about the UTMB. It will be a far tougher challenge to complete than anything I’ve done so far.
To be honest, I was relieved when Don made his views known as it was clear from all the race reports that I’d read that the 100k was going to be brutal so I was happy to switch to the 50k race and I was looking forward to it.
The planning and organising for the trip went smoothly: Ryanair flights to Bucharest, car hire and drive to Bran. We had a extremely hard sell experience at the car hire place for additional insurance that I didn’t want. That was the only negative about the trip.
We stayed at a lovely B&B in Bran, Casa Medievala. Dracula’s castle itself is quite spectacular and well worth a look.
Fintan organised a medieval banquet in Bucharest on the Sunday night which was great and some of the lads went clubbing afterwards. I must be getting old – I wouldn’t normally skip something like that!
Registration for the race went smoothly. Checking of the mandatory kit was cursory at best. I wouldn’t take any liberties with the kit though – it’s needed for your own safety.
The race starts beneath the castle and follows the road out of Bran, rising gently for about 2 km. Fintan, John and I stayed together taking turns to lead up the first major climb to Saua Tiganesti. (1,400m climb in 10 km) This climb is comparable to the climb out of Courmayeur in the CCC to Tete de la Tronche. It’s a lovely trail though forest, steep and relentless.
It levelled out a bit near the top and I picked up the pace. John stopped to take photos so I didn’t see the lads again until after the race.
The next section was a steep 400m descent to CP Malaiesti. I was here in 3:15, 45 minutes inside the cutoff. Feeling good, I filled up my bottles with tailwind, ate some food and put on my gloves and jacket and headed off as quickly as possible.
Ahead lay an 800m climb to the summit of Omu at 2505m. The scenery was beautiful. The wind picked up a bit and the temperature dropped. After a while the entire trail was covered in snow.
There was a rope in place for the last few hundred metres of climb which I didn’t use. It was case of head down and keep going. Somewhere on this climb the lead runner in the 30k race passed me running up the hill – I kid you not, Strava says the slope was 40% at that point! It’s just incredible what people are capable of. So how did I feel? It was cold in the cloud cover, it was tough going but I loved every minute of it.
The course levelled out and at this point we took a left turn towards the Omu summit, while the 30k race went straight ahead for a more direct and very technical descent to Bran.
Our climb was relatively easy except for the sections of frozen snow and the cloud cover meant that care had to be taken not stay off the correct line. The course marking was pretty good but cloud and fog made navigation difficult.
I took the wrong line coming off Omu but realised my error quickly and didn’t lose much time. This happened a few times during the race, sometimes I shouted out to others who had gone wrong, a couple of times I was the one making the error. The key thing was not to keep going if there was no tape! I bumped into Sergiu from MSR near the summit!
The next 5 km or so was along the ridge, relatively flat and sometimes exposed. There was cloud cover most of the time. I was enjoying myself but relieved that I wasn’t in the 100k!
At various times I found myself running with others at around the same pace. Everyone was friendly and we were all doing our best to spot the tape amid the gloom!
There were occasional sections where scrambling was required and there were ropes or chains if needed.
The descent into Pestera (27.5) was long and runnable through a beautiful valley. I arrived there in just under 7 hours, 2 hours ahead of the cutoff. So I was making up time!
The heavens opened while I was stopped at Pestera. JP was there. He had bailed on the 100k – good decision. I emptied some stones out of my shoes, ate some more bananas and soup and headed off into the downpour. JP stopped to change his gloves and I went on ahead. We got separated at that point. There was a km or so of road followed by 400m climb over the next 4 km. Looking at the race profile prior to race, I planned to run this section but in reality I wound up hiking most of it.
The last 20k was mostly downhill. Here is where I lost most of my time. It took 4 hours! The actual trail was very runnable, part through a new plantation and the rest though mature forest. I would love to run it in dry conditions as it is a fabulous trail. On the day, the heavy rain and hail had turned it into a mud slide and conditions when going downhill or contouring were treacherous. So it was like this for the last few hours, running tensed up, knowing that my legs were getting trashed. I still enjoyed it. My downhill running has improved a bit but there’s plenty of more scope for more improvement but these conditions really showed up something I’ll have to work on. The last descent was a laugh. I did the first half on my back and the second crashing from tree to tree in ultra – Tarazan mode.
I eventually finished in 12:19, a bit slower than I’d hoped but happy. Mission accomplished – perfect training for the UTMB.
Finally, I’d highly recommend this race. A couple of pieces of advice: don’t skimp on the mandatory kit, it can get very cold and wet in the mountains. If you are considering doing the 100k I would recommend doing it with someone for safety reasons and for the company. Make sure you have your GPS working properly, otherwise you will get lost.
The course is tough, brutal even but absolutely exhilarating. You have to be prepared for that and accept it. It is certainly the toughest 50k I’ve done, a good deal tougher than the Art O’Neill, for example.
The 20 and 30 k races are also tough in their own right and the 100k – well, it’s off the charts!
Thanks to Paul Daly for the photos and Paul “Pants” Croke for modelling. 🙂