Just imagine – you’re me, sat at home on a Saturday night with a glass of wine and browsing the internet when you come upon a report of an event in Transylvania. It’s 100km and starts at “Dracula’s Castle”. You skip through the race report, it looks pretty cheeky – then a flying stop to Skyscanner tells you flights are £80 and the race entry is only 85 Euros. To cut a long story short, on Sunday morning you awake, a bit blurry to an email inbox full of flight, hotel and car hire bookings – and an entry to a race somewhere in Eastern Europe. Then you re-read the race report and, in the cold light of day realise what you’ve signed-up for.
Several months later I find myself in a little village in Romania called Bran which, while very traditional just can’t resist the “Dracula” legacy that’s been bestowed upon it. There’s a market selling every conceivable bit of vampire-related tat, but the backdrop is the impressive castle and imposing Bucegi mountains that will shortly become my home. They’re called the “Transylvanian Alps” and live up to their name – spiky, craggy, snow-capped peaks rising into the sky – and tomorrow, that’s where I’m off.
“OK ramblers, let’s get rambling” – Seth, From Dusk Til Dawn (1996)
Saturday arrives and we gather at the start under Dracula’s Castle in Bran, a Vlad the Impaler impersonator gets into character, roaring, waving his sword and posing for pictures and selfies, even old-school legends have got into social media these days. 06:00 arrives and with the crash of a gong we’re off and through the streets of Bran towards the mountains.
After about 2km on the road the the route hits a ski-slope and starts heading upwards, this is nice… Clearing blue skies reveal the Bucegi mountain range behind us as we slowly climb – it’s the Disney, PG-rated version of Transylvania. Where wolves and bears are cuddly friends who get along with each other and roll-over and let you tickle their tummies. Today I really don’t care about time or place, so take my time and after a couple of costume changes am pretty much last at the top of the hill – but that’s OK.
Dropping off the first climb I miss a turn and have to backtrack a mile-or-so to get back on course to be met with my first real taste of Transylvanian hills. WOW – this is steep, really steep. Reality starts setting in, the reports I’d read were true and the 18.5-hour winning time from last year now seemed plausible. Coming out of this climb we hit Checkpoint 1 which was nestled amogst the mountains and made it all worthwhile.
I started passing people and caught-up with Jan, (whom I’d given a lift to from the airport) just before the point where the 50k split-off and bade her good luck before starting a nice, long snowy descent. This is where I really started loving the race, I was on my own in the wilderness – no-one in front or behind. Cruising through alpine woods and meadows was bliss and eventually I arrived at the Checkpoint just before the start of the climb to the highest point on the route, Mount Omu at 8,200′
Coming into the Checkpoint I recognised two Brits, Gary had written the article from last year so I introduced myself accusing him of “being the reason I’m here” – he apologised. The other was Steve who had a Welsh flag pinned to his backpack so I said hello from Cardiff. They both headed off up the mountain before me but will return later in this story so remember those names.
After refuelling with biscuits, soup and whatever else I thought might get me up this mountain I headed off up the ski slope. Make no mistake, this was a BIG climb – after 30-40 minutes I passed Denzil who filmed me with a GoPro and we briefly stopped to put on extra layers, hat, gloves and jacket as the clouds closed in. Shortly after I hit the snow line and the wind picked up, visibility was very low and the route generally followed poles in the ground but these were hard to see.
As the route got higher, it started to traverse around the mountain and I caught up with Gary and Steve scratching their heads about how to get across a near vertical traverse. It turned out we just had to suck-it-up and scramble across… A slip would have sent us flying down the mountain to god-knows where – it was pretty sketchy. Somewhere along the way a group of Romanian teenagers dressed in jeans, hoodies and trainers came along the other way looking like they were on a night out. I could hardly keep myself alive with full mountain kit – these Transylvanian Teens are obviously made of strong stuff.
The Omu checkpoint was nice, then I left and things went horribly, horribly wrong. The volunteer showed me the way off the mountain but I took a wrong turn and followed some footsteps which became less defined and ended up looking like they went vertically down. Visibility was 5-10 feet and the snow was deep – I was falling waist-deep into snow pockets, (this is called post-holing) and progress was very slow. Turning to my GPS to find a way out I headed to the nearest known co-ordinate which took me through snowfields with lots of exposure. Fortunately I had my poles with me and bent them arresting myself when losing balance. It took a long, long time but I got back on-track and made it back to the Omu checkpoint.
If there had been an easy escape route I might have stopped then, I’d lost so much time that I was in danger of not meeting the cut-offs. But there wasn’t – it would have been a shameful walk down with Mountain Rescue, so – I got out the GPS and resolved to stick to the line like glue and give it another go. Quickly it was obvious where I’d gone wrong and the route down revealed itself as I came out of the cloud into one of the most amazing alpine valleys I’ve ever seen – and a snowfield that looked like too good an opportunity not to do something I’d been thinking about for years.
“Butt Tobogganing” – or rather, sliding down a snowy hill on your bum… It had to be done and getting to the top of the slope it was obvious from the tracks that I wasn’t the only one. So off I went, and after a couple of false starts hit some major speed – wiping out spectacularly. I filmed it for posterity thinking it wouldn’t come out very well but it makes me laugh ever time I watch it, the YouTube video is here.
Carrying-on I came across Gary and Steve sitting on a rock, (remember them?) Gary had twisted his ankle and was waiting for Mountain Rescue and Steve was accompanying him. After expressing my condolences I carried on to the 45k point at Bustemi. A few chats with the staff there confirmed I was chasing cutoffs now having lost so much time earlier but I was in good spirits and headed off on the next big climb and into darkness.
“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
The next climb was long and sustained, it took me 3-4 hours to do 10k… I found a half-used canister of “bear spray” on the trail which was a bit unnerving. Oh – did I not mention the bears? Yep, Transylvania is densely populated with them, we were given a “Bear Whistle” at registration and told to blow it regularly to warn bears of our presence. Occasionally you could hear a shrill chip ring out through the foggy woods – who knew if it was a friendly “hey bears, I’m here” whistle or an “Aaaargh – I’m about to be eaten alive distress call”?
Towards the top who should catch me up than Steve, (remember him from earlier) and Alex (a young Romanian girl currently living in Worcester) and we arrived at the Checkpoint just after cut-off. But we were all in good spirits and well equipped so Andy, (the Race Director) was happy to let us continue and showed us the next part of the route. By now it was dark and we were high up in the cloud, visibility was low so this was going to be a long, hard night.
The only criticism I have of the race is that the tape used to mark the course just wasn’t reflective at all. In some races I’ve done the course markings stand out for hundreds of feet if you shine a torch in that direction. Not these, you had to be on top of them to find them – so in 5-10 metre visibility, on un-marked, grassy, snow-covered trails it was a very, long and frustrating night for navigating. But we got through it…
Steve is from Newport and a Spine finisher, he’s also a Dragon’s Back entrant, (if he can get the time off work) so we had lots to talk about. Alex plodded along with us, staying pretty quiet initially as her family met her at the next Checkpoint where Steve got attacked by a couple of wolves just before arriving, having to fight them off with his poles, (oh – did I not mention the wolves? yep – they’re out there with the bears too)
After that Checkpoint it was a long downhill and Steve went off ahead and we lost contact, Alex asked not to be left alone, (for obvious reasons – remember the bears and wolves) so I stayed with her and the long night was over, (From Dusk ‘Til Dawn if you like – it seems appropriate). The penultimate checkpoint arrived and there was 20km to go and 8 hours to do it. Alex was struggling with her knee but I said we should stick together and be the “biggest losers” coming in joint last place.
The final push was insanely hard, I’d run out of energy and the climbs were intense, long, 45+ degree vertical slopes but between us we made it. Having never met until a few hours earlier – by the time we got back to Dracula’s Castle we were firm friends, in those few hours we’d shared experiences that will last a lifetime. I said we had to cross the line together as we were last, and coming into the finish Alex’s mother said “everyone is running” so 30 hours and 55 minutes after starting, we broke into a jog and crossed the finish line, holding hands and waving our poles to lots of applause.
It was a brilliant adventure – I went into it knowing it was going to be hardcore and without a care for times or position and feel I really benefitted from that. Being able to step-back, enjoy the experience, relax and help others really worked for me. Don’t get me wrong – it was tough, really, really tough but something that will live with me for a long time.