Isn’t it funny how life gives you an answer right when you need it the most? This year’s Hercules Marathon race in the rusty autumnal hills of Valea Cernei, Romania, was exactly the feeling I had been missing and was looking for.
I’d been feeling tired and not so motivated after my previous race, Maraton Pirineu, in Spain. Actually, this sensation that I don’t really want to train and compete had been going on since after Marathon 3200, in July. I felt like turning the engines a bit off after that one and took a few weeks off from training.
After Maraton Pirineu, only three weeks before Hercules, where the last few kilometers on asphalt seemed like forever, I really wanted to put an end to the season. But you know that all those jokes about runners swearing they’re giving up racing and end up signing for the next one within 24h since their last competition?
Well, Andrei kept trying to lure me into running Hercules Marathon, telling me how beautiful the route is, how he’d been there every year and all I could hear was “another 44,5km with 2400m elevation gain!”.
I ended up signing up very late for the marathon race, although it didn’t feel like a good idea for my legs. But going to the half marathon meant I’d miss part of the route, and I knew that I could finish the marathon one way or another.
Hercules Marathon starts close to Baile Herculane, a thermal waters resort that is now just a ruin of was once a vacation highlight for our parents during the communist era. The hot water springs there are almost 60 degrees Celsius and they’re a real miracle for the post race muscle soreness.
Getting there involves an almost 6h drive from Bucharest, so it’s not one of the most accessible races for runners in the Capital. However, we were lucky to get a ride from Cristina and her boyfriend, both of them running the half marathon race. I want to drive like her when I grow up.
Land of legends
The evening before the start, I was getting a bit nervous. Can I actually run this distance again?, I thought. This has been the year with the most long distance races for me. Some, such as Lavaredo Cortina Trail, were really painful and their memory still haunts me.
I didn’t know if I was pushing it a bit to the extreme by doing another marathon, and besides, I felt completely out of shape. The fear of getting injured, of not being in a good shape, and the memory of previous painful moments in other races where I’d sworn I wouldn’t run a marathon in this life again were holding me back.
In the end I relaxed by remembering why I was there: to enjoy the route and the sights.
This thought helped me have a more chilled attitude towards planning the race. If a while ago I’d know a week before a competition what I was going to wear and such, this time I didn’t even plan my nutrition that well. I took a few gels in my belt, some Gold Drink Premium and two Gold Nutrition bars (Endurance Salt bar and the Paleo bar) and I relied on the aid points a lot.
When the race started, I was left behind as always. I don’t know how I manage to always start from the front but end up among the middle to last part of the line after the first kilometer. However, starting easy helped me a lot this time, because my batteries were full for longer.
Andrei had warned me: “you will probably underestimate the toughness of the last segment. By the time you get to km 35, you’ll wish it was over but you’ll still have a lot to go”.
That’s why I started easy, talking to other runners, catching my breath and smiling to the cameras.
The route started with 2k on asphalt and then a climb that was a good warm-up. It took us through narrow forest paths, climbing hills lined by pine trees with their heads in the mist, and reaching the foggy ridge. All around you’d see mountain tops making their way out of the clouds. “Wow, this is really amazing“, I said in loud voice to the runners around me a few times.
We passed through deserted villages, where people were minding their everyday life, carrying wood to heat their homes, while their dogs were looking at us a bit confused. I’ll never forget the two old ladies dressed in black and with their heads covered, as the habit is in the countryside, that were standing by the side of a fence looking at me while I was trying to run, and giggling. I greeted them with a “saru’ mana” and went on to the trails covered in dry leaves up to the ankles.
With every step through the rusty leaves, it smelled more and more like autumn.
I remember reaching the ridge and looking around in awe. It was probably the best running moment I’ve had lately. “Yeah, this is why I love this sport”, I thought smiling and running with legs that felt like feathers. I didn’t need any music, I didn’t care about the time, and by looking at those around me, I had the sensation that we share the same feeling: we were there to play.
I took it easy on the ridge because the single trail and junipers are pretty difficult to run through, but this only gave me the chance to rest and recharge my batteries.
When the descent ended, I was feeling rather fresh, but waiting for that moment everyone had warned me about, the wall. It never happened. Starting easy, enjoying the route, stopping at every checkpoint to eat and drink really helped me keep my energy high.
I had the salty bar, two gels, an orange and some banana slices in the checkpoints, as well as two or three glasses of coke. I carried a 250ml flask, but I think it’s a race that can be done without carrying water, if the weather isn’t hot.
For me, the weather was perfect, not sunny and mostly clear, except for part of the ridge, where it was cloudy. We got to enjoy some beautiful views, but they say there’s even more.
On the last 10 kilometers I was running the small easy uphills, the ones that actually kill me in races. I kept waiting for the horror part, but there was none. On the last part of the race I ran steadily.
Everyone was telling me I was the first woman and, when I realised there were only two kilometers left until the finish line and no other woman had overpassed me since the beginning of the race, I knew there was no way I’d miss the first place.
I arrived at the finish line in 5 hours 35 minutes.
It felt great to break that ribbon, even more so because I knew Andrei had also won the men’s race. A completely unplanned victory for me and a very deserved one for him.
Can you still dance?
The finish line was placed beautifully in a small parcel surrounded by trees. After a steep downhill, you reach the small finish area immediately, right after coming out from the forest, a bit surprisingly. There was nobody else there but runners, organisers, volunteers, and supporters. The atmosphere was that of a celebration between friends, and everything felt perfect – not too much and not too little.
Hercules Marathon is a race that gathered around 500 runners at the start line this year. It’s not the most commercial race, the route is really spectacular, and the overall feeling is that it’s organised with a lot of passion and care.
Our friends had finished the half marathon race and they waited for me at the finish line with the best refreshment: a fresh cappuccino. That and bathing in the hot springs at Hotel Roman were all the recovery I needed.
The rest of the day was all about celebrating, dancing, and spending time with the people there.
If you ever consider going to Hercules Marathon, take a few days extra, if the weather is good. We were not that lucky this time, but it’s really worth doing some trekking on other routes around and taking some more time to enjoy the hot springs.
I’m definitely going to keep this one in the box of the best running memories ever. I just hope it stays strong enough to remind me anytime I’ll be in doubt again that I can do more that I sometimes think and to stay true to that beautiful feeling that keeps me running.