Wet. Shivering. Frozen dreams. Four words to sum up our Transylvania 50K experience which ended after 8 hours at KM27. We managed to hurdle the most difficult portions – the first 5 kms of steady ascent followed by 4 kms of steeper rise, the hilly climbs among collosal boulders leading into a mile of a 70-degree ice wall. But then the mountain gods seemed to have other things in mind.
Van and I arrived at the Romanian capital of Bucharest 3 days before the race and travelled a good 3 hours to Bran via bus. Along the way, we met an Israeli named Ari who was doing the 100K edition and other crazy ultras thereafter. The third week of May in the northern hemisphere is the week before summer starts officially but in these parts, the weather can easily shift from sunny to cloudy and cold and that’s what we experienced many times as we roamed around the inviting towns of Bran and the neighboring Brasov & Rasnov. We packed in some good mileage of walking, climbing (going up the hilly Citadel) and exploring (spelunking in the caves of Valea Cetatii) just to shake off the nerves. The day before the race, we got our race kits after presenting the long and specific requirements for the race. Both of us were on tenterhooks on what lied ahead of the alpine mountain range, mostly on the steep climb in the early part of the race and the erratic weather.
A good 300 or so participants for the 50K edition showed up near the grounds of the Transylvania castle (the 100K runners were released an hour earlier) before the 7 am start. The weather was sunny and cool and the atmosphere was jovial. Our backpacks, though bursting with the required provisions, were surprisingly bearable. And we were off.
A mild ascent to the town’s pastoral farmlands had us moving constantly. Soon the climbs steepened towards the lurking evergreen forest in front of us. The paths would widen and shrink as we gained more elevation. This was what we had come to expect so our moods were upbeat, what with all the verdant and primitive landscape at every turn. A steep climb towards a giant obelisk of a rock had us hiking but more awe-inspiring views of snow-lined peaks welcomed us near the first peak. After a few hours of continuous climb, the ground flattened a bit so we knew we had survived the testy first 9 kilometers. A few more struggles and we found ourselves flying down towards the first aid station (Km. 12, Checkpoint Malaesti) after a little over 3 hours. Amidst a fairy tale-like setting surrounded by behemoth peaks, the station was bursting with varied food offerings but we concentrated on pickles, pretzels, gummy bears plus a few energy gels.
We traipsed among pastoral meadows as early signs of snow appeared. It’s one of the highs we had during race – being able to jog while marveling at the verdant land bordered by colossal rock formations. Then the elevation of the uphill began to intensify. And it was no longer fun. Suddenly, a white hill appeared in the horizon and we saw the long line of climbers conquering it. At this time, we had latched on a new found friend George, who’s a young Romanian doctor working in London. Or maybe he realized we needed his dire help for the struggles ahead and he never abandoned us, especially during the continuous steep climb along the icy stairs of the Chimney (KM16). I never looked down during that ordeal and tried to keep my pace regular and moving while Van had the scare of his life after nearly slipping a few times while looking down at the yawning valley below (for a fleeting second, his brain whispered, ‘And so this is the end’).
Finally, we reached the top but the minor climbs at the peak never let up. Many a time, the visibility was almost zero and the wind velocity was quite strong as we had our hypothermic struggles (at 3 degrees Celcius) searching those darn ribbons. Thankfully, George was there to lead us along the summit. At this time, we had put on our final armour (gloves, buff masks) against the harsh surrounding but the cold and the wind were piercing and a bit unbearable. A few more climbs and we entered a weather station where hot drinks and food were sold. It was a relief for us tropical denizens whose coldest experience in trail running was high up in the mountains of Kalinga at night.
Venturing outside, under poor visibility and a worsening weather condition, the going became tension-filled while the clock kept ticking away. Along with the rain, pellets of hale pummeled our jackets and we could no longer feel our hands and faces A lot of waiting and backtracking coupled with the strong rain and winds just heightened the uncertainty. Finally, on our way down, a series of towers greeted and guided us, as haunting views of hills and mountains appeared and disappeared with the ever moving clouds and fog. When the elements cleared up, the views were amazing, sending positive vibes and getting us moving. George waited for us a number of times as we negotiated along shrubs and bush areas and the more challenging steep trails around boulders and narrow waterways.
Traces of the meadowlands appear from afar but it would take us over 30 minutes to finally reach Aid Station Pestera (KM 26). It felt like entering an oasis of food, comfort and warmth. As I was munching on the yummy snacks soaking wet, I started shaking furiously as the metabolism slowed down and the inevitable cold set in. The support team got into business, as I stripped off my wet garments and got my feet immersed in a warm water bath. In that state, any thoughts of going outside and finishing the race simply evaporated.
And so culminates our edited journey with me shaken, stirred and shivering (and the salvage team trying to thaw me back to normalcy).
And yet looking back – I feel that we could have finished the last 23, mostly descents, within the last 6.5 hours or it might have been too foolish. Aaaah, the regrets and tribulations of another DNF (did not finish)! Don’t worry I’ve moved on and the lessons I’ve gathered from this adventure I will take with me to the next. For in the face of cold harsh conditions, we also witnessed and experienced some of nature’s most awe-inspiring sceneries and creations. Some of which I may never do again like walking and climbing along hardened ice (slippery but manageable with a pair of poles), being assaulted by the raw beauty of the steep Carpathian mountain ranges outlined by melting snow and sharp ridges and surviving my first alpine encounter.
I have to thank some kind hearted souls who heeded our last minute requirements for this race (all in taped seams and seamless zippers) – Cheryl Bihag for the pink TNF jacket, waterproof pants and ice claws, Atty Jon for the TNF jacket (sent via LBC hours before my departure), Keshia Fule for the Gopro wrist holder and my patient Rossana who lent her Gopro camera. Thanks to Majo, Aldean, BoyP and Jael for the invaluable tips, fellow trail runners and Team Marupok for all the training runs. Cheers!