Transylvania 50k – Chasing demons on the trails in Bucegi

After a few years of dreaming about it, I finally ran the Transylvania 50k race.

It’s not like I couldn’t run there any other day, but there’s something special that happens in a runner’s circuits when you put a bib number on his shirt and you wake him up at 5am to face neverending climbs surrounded by others sharing the same suffering. Yeah, it’s hard to explain why we love it so much.

Transylvania 100k is a race that has a lot more “spice” than others. It’s not your average run in the park, especially the longer distances – the 50, 80, and 100k. Compared to other trail races around the world, some that gather many foreigners, it really takes you to wild places and technical trails, to discover the true beauty of the mountains.

I learned once more that Bucegi mountains have a lot of potential, because they’re a heavenly place to run. But I think that at this point the race has just enough participants in order to matter, and also to keep things interesting. I’m sure that adding a few hundreds or thousands runners to the start line would easily be possible, but this would probably mean making the routes more and more accessible, sacrificing some really beautiful spots. 

Unfortunately, this year’s 50k missed some of these spots anyway – the climb to Saua Tiganesti and Omu, then Malaiesti checkpoint. Because there was a lot of fresh snow at altitude, and risky situations could occur (especially if the weather got bad during the race), the organisers decided to change the routes and keep things safe.

The 50k was supposed to have 47k, but with the last change of the Gutanu checkpoint location, they added a 3k loop that rounded the distance to 50k and a total elevation of 3300m.

All the updates were sent in advance, and we had time to prepare, but there was still a factor of uncertainty regarding the trail conditions and the weather, because the forecast showed a chance for rain and snow.

Sunny with a chance of bliss

A week in advance, Andrei and I did a route recognition on 43 out of the 50k of the race. We joined a group of other runners from Brasov who went on a shorter route, just to see what the trails looked like.

It helped a lot because I didn’t know the entire route and this way I could set my expectations a bit closer to reality. But the recognition also scared me a little bit – the route felt tough, even without the climb to Omu Peak, and the deep fresh snow made it even more difficult. On the descent from Batrana refuge we had to swim through snow.

Luckily, the week before the competition the Weather God played fair and didn’t send any more white powders to Earth. 

But as you can imagine, I spent the entire week before the race compulsively checking the weather. 

“Who should I believe? Meteoblue shows heavy rain and thunderstorms, while Windy shows some rain at 3pm. I choose to believe Windy and run fast, so that the 3pm rain catches me as close to the finish as possible”.

With all the confusion, I packed 6 jackets. Yes, six: a down jacket, a light windstopper, a Bonatti, a 100% waterproof raincoat, and two relatively heavy membrane jackets.

Everyone around said “go for the lightest” but I chose one of the membrane jackets. Plus an extra long sleeved top. I should have gone with the lightest and not carry the extra top, but the weather is so unpredictable up the mountain that it’s better to be safe.

I felt tired all day on Friday and I didn’t sleep very well either. I think I fell asleep around 1am and my alarm went off at 5am. Before going to bed I took another look at the profile thinking “remember, Carmen: Gutanu checkpoint has an aid station only on the way back, so between km 10 and km 23 there will be no food or water”. Of course I didn’t remember.

Photo: PB Light Drawing

At the start line I was only nervous about the rain that was predicted for the day – I don’t mind some rain, I actually love it. But when it lasts for hours and it also gets cold, then it’s not that fun anymore.

But on race day everything seemed fine. There was some light rain but after the first two kilometers on asphalt I took my jacket off and didn’t wear it again for the rest of the 50k, even if we still had some light rain drops here and there.

I started running and saw a girl in front of me – a very strong Moldavian runner that started quite fast. I thought “wow, with this pace she must be running the 30k”. Actually, she was running the 100k and also won it. I told you she’s strong.

Around me I had some familiar faces of friends competing in different distances, and who were staying at the same accommodation as we were. I took it easy on the first part, but I think it was a good idea because this way I still had energy for the final part. I knew part of the route, not all of it, but I didn’t know it that well so I couldn’t dose my effort very precisely. What I did know from other races was that starting too fast on a distance I’m not used to is not the smartest thing to do.

At km 10, at the first checkpoint, someone told me I was the second girl – of course, the one I just told you about was way ahead and I knew there’s no point chasing her, at least not so early in the race. So from that point on until the final kilometers I was convinced I was the second woman in the 50k race. I even corrected someone who told me “congrats, you’re the first” saying “I’m the second, but the first girl is way ahead of me”.

I had a sip of water at the first aid station and left without filling up my flasks, thinking there would be water at km 16. Foggy runner brain fooled me again. I asked the runners around and they confirmed: no water until Padina, which was some long hours away.

So from that point, I stopped at every thread of water I saw on the route trying to catch some in the flask, but it was rain water full of mud, so I didn’t keep the water in any of the 4 places I tried to get it. Eventually we arrived at a spring close to Gutanu (about km 15) where the water looked good so I filled my flasks with 1 liter of water, just to be sure.

Then, it was time to climb to Batrana Refuge. Steep and almost full of snow. I remember thinking I had to move quickly when I got up there in order not to get cold, so I started descending without taking any break. I was happy to see that the deep snow had melted a lot and it was way more runnable than the previous weekend. I let my legs go and after a seemingly endless descent I finally arrived to Padina. 

From there, although I had done the climb to Saua Strunga just a week before, I somehow missed it during the race 🙂 Typical Carmen case. I saw some tape making a left very close to the saddle, and followed it for a while, until I met some runners coming back down and telling me it’s the wrong route. It was actually the route for the 80k and 100k, but I thought it was just a slight detour and would take us to the same place anyway. 

One of the runners asked me “come on, Carmen. Which way is it? You were here last weekend, you should know” and I thought “Shit, my orienteering skills will take us all to Mont Blanc before they take us to Saua Strunga”.

We finally went back on track, after wasting about 5 – 7 minutes (on my side, maybe they wasted more). 

I was happy to start a descent again, but this one was trickier than I thought. A part of it was rocky and there was water coming down through the rocks from all the melted snow, and I just couldn’t move as fast as I wished. I was barely hiking, and lost sight of the group of runners I’d just met, so I was alone all the way down. I felt a bit frustrated by not being able to go faster and I felt that my quads were getting heavier with every jump from one rock to another.

Descending to the Gutanu checkpoint – the one that was added last minute – I started meeting a lot of runners from other races, coming from the opposite direction. Many of them were cheering for those of us coming down the forest road, but I wasn’t in my best mood ever – I was feeling that every little rock on that road was making me suffer. 

I had some water, some Pepsi, and started the ascent which made me curse a bit more, because it starts with one of those easy inclinations that you kinda know you should be running, but when you’re so tired, you just had a break, and you see all those other people coming from the opposite direction looking fresh, it’s a real mental challenge.

I alternated between running and walking, until I reached a really really steep climb through the woods. It didn’t look familiar, but I was praying Please God, let this be the climb to Saua Polite (the last steep climb in the competition)”. Guess what. It wasn’t. So we had to do that one, then run for about one km more and then climb the killer Saua Polite climb. 

While struggling to push one leg in front of the other, all I could think of was “this really is the last one, just don’t stop”. I was glad that I still had energy in my legs, no cramps, but I knew that there was still a relatively long way to go – 15 kilometers more that also had some ups and downs.

The descent from Saua Polite went fast, but not as fast as I did it in the training the week before. Back then, because we didn’t get to run at all, as soon as we got to this runnable descent, my legs were on fire. In the race, my legs were also on fire, but the kind of fire coming from burning muscles full of lactate 🙂

When I got out of on the forest road, I was surprised to see some arrows pointing left. I met another friend there who told me I was the first woman and probably top 5 in general in the 50k race. Precisely what happened. Thanks, Timea! <3

The previous route was making a left in Bran, but on this forest road that the arrows pointed towards, we definitely weren’t in town yet. I followed the marks that took me on another easy inclination, the one that is the most challenging because you have to climb running.

I was making a lot of effort to run and obviously switched to walking a few times. It felt extreeemely long. But there was another girl in front of me, from a shorter race, who was also doing her best to run. Her determination motivated me to keep going, even if my legs and my mind were fighting against it.

As I finished that climb I entered the “ridge” of a hill that is just above Bran, called Muchia Grajdului. Oh, man. You know those situations when you’re super pissed off on your better half and then out of the blue they do the sweetest gesture or the nicest surprise ever, that just makes you melt down and forget that you were ever angry at them? Well, that was the feeling I got running on the sunny and peaceful green hill, just above people’s houses.

Although I was on the final 5km and there were ups and downs that I had to run, I was almost by myself there (I only met one other runner) and felt like a kid playing on the hill in the backyard. It was beautiful and I was happy to be there.

Photo: Ionut Daniel Manolache

On the very last descent, I was expecting to hear the noise at the finish line, but I could only hear the cars on the road – sign that I was getting back to the civilised world 🙂 There was still a little bit of asphalt, a few hundred meters to enter the Bran Castle yard, and then – surprise – a flight of stairs that I had no idea about. Last push before getting to the finish line, where Mara high fived me, Andrei was taking photos (telling me that he had also won the men’s race and was all showered by the time I arrived, lol), and I got to pass the first through the finish line tape 🙂

7h 24min is a much better time than I expected. I’m really not playing the geek-who-says-she-didn’t-study. I actually had food with me to last me two more hours, and in my estimations I thought I’d arrive after 8-9 hours.

I didn’t set a place objective for this race, not knowing who the other runners are and how good they are, but I am happy I hit my time objective. I didn’t feel very competitive either – for the longest part of the race I was convinced I was the second girl with a lot of distance between me and the first, and I didn’t want to run from the ones behind me.

I felt well, no problems at all, and on the 50k I had three gels, two energy bars (Paleo bar and Extreme energy bar from GoldNutrition), and two slices of orange. The hydration was mostly water, but I also had some GoldDrink Premium with me and some Pepsi in the aid stations.

Photo: Victor Grigore

The new route

What would you choose between two long heavy climbs in the first part of a race and several smaller climbs?

Some say this year’s route was more difficult than the regular route, because it has a lot of elevation (3300m D+ in 50k) and because most of it was in the first 30k. Others say it was easier because we avoided Omu Peak. If you ask me, I think … well, I’m not going to tell you what I think. I hope we’ll all find out next year. 

Anyway, I still loved it and I had a few moments when I looked around and felt my heart pumping with happiness to be there. Imagine the view from Batrana refuge, with all the peaks on the horizon covered in a layer of soft white clouds, while the rest of the sky was clear. Simply amazing and worth every effort. And, like I said, I enjoyed even the last kilometers that people usually complain about.

What I also loved is that most of the places on the women’s podiums were taken by friends who live in Brasov, most of whom joined us for the route recognition. And those who weren’t on the podium had been volunteers, so they were also there with us. Congrats, chicas!

The organisers did everything they could to make sure the race went smooth – we met them on the route both on the recognition day and on race day, and I’m sure they also did their ultramarathons by checking the trail conditions almost every day and taping hundreds of kms of routes is not easy. Plus, there were lots of volunteers in the checkpoints and on the route, cheering for us and helping any way they could.

I have to mention the food: not only were the aid stations full of goodies, from pickles to fruit, chocolate, energy bars and so on, but at the finish line there must have been tons of pizza. I had 4-5 slices and decided it’s the best post marathon food ever in the world, because I usually can’t eat after racing.

And I also realised I prefer a richer refreshment point at the finish line than richer aid stations because I eat very little in those 😛 

I noticed again that there were many foreign participants – Moldova, Italy, Israel, Spain, UK and even Asian runners – but also many Romanian runners coming from abroad to run in Transylvania.

I hope that Transylvania 100k only increased everyone’s appetite of discovering the amazing trails in Romania and that we’ll see them again next year.

Thanks a lot to Datacor Running Team for all their support, to GoldNutrition for the fuel, and to everyone involved in organising the race! Cheers for another beautiful edition!

Foto: Nicu Chirobocea

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