Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Transylvania 50K (Race Recap)

Bran, Romania
Saturday, May 19
Ultra Marathon #29
Weather - Rain, hail, thunder/lightning

Last year, sometime, I decided that I really wanted a "big" race for my 40th birthday. I spent a decent amount of time searching locally and didn't see anything that sparked my interest. I expanded my searching to see what might be an option internationally. As soon as I came across Transylvania, I knew I had found what I was looking for. The course looked more beautiful and terrifying than anything I had ever raced before, regardless of the continent. Boasting nearly 11,000' of climbing, this course was going to have nearly 4000' more than the Dirty 30, which I had suffered through in 2017.

Once Kristin and Alison signed up, we began planning our race specific training, which commenced on New Years Day - Mt. Morrison. For 4.5 months, we trained in every type of weather you could imagine. I did not miss any of my long runs, logging three runs of 20+ miles (including a 26 mile solo trail run) and 6+ weeks logging 5,000' of climbing. So basically, I went into the race with as much planning/preparation that I think I could have.

Race Day

I had obsessively been watching the weather all week. It was pretty much going to be guaranteed that we were going to have rain. Thanks to the hectic traveling, I had slept amazing the night before, and woke up with my alarm at 5:25. I had laid out all my gear the night before, so really, I didn't have much to do other than eat my bagel with peanut butter and get dressed.
I met up with the gals in the hallway and we walked down to the lobby together around 6:30. Our hotel was only a few minutes walk to the start line. I briefly thought about trying to get a cup of coffee at reception, but eventually decided that we didn't have time (sniff, sniff). Arrived at the start and the atmosphere was just surreal. Kristin looked at me like I was crazy when I made the comment "it feels like we are at the start of major European race." Uh, I guess we were. I was a bundle of nerves, went through the bathroom line, and then Alison (who was running the 20K) got our pre-race picture with the castle in the background.

We congregated in the very back of the group, knowing that we were going to have a very long day ahead of us. For months, Kristin and I had planned on running together. We had done quite a few training runs together, come up with our "safe word" and felt confident that we would both feel better about the tough terrain and not getting lost if we were together. However, Kristin had woken up feeling a little sick and warned me that she may not be able to complete the event, but said she was going to start and see how it went.

The race started right on time at 7:00 am. From this point, we would have three major time cutoffs. The first being 4 hours in, after we finished 2/3 of the climbing on the course. The second at 9 hours, and then of course, the final course cutoff at 15 hours.

Our strategy from the beginning was to not push too hard, anywhere. Basically, anything that felt like a climb, we were going to be run/walking or even just walking.

After leaving the castle grounds, with "Highway to Hell" blasting from the speakers, we turned right onto the streets of Bran. We were in the very back of the back, and followed by a police car. We were maintaining an "easy" 11:30 pace in the first few km (I changed my watch for this setting since that's how our map/elevation profile was listed).

We then, finally, moved off the paved road (and lost our police escort) as we entered the more rural parts of Bran, the dirt roads out of town. We struck up a conversation with a young Romanian that was wearing last year's race shirt. He had finished the previous year, so we felt better that he was in the back with us and that our pacing didn't seem too slow.

I had started in my UD jacket (the new one they sent to replace my last one that lost it's waterproofing), but was already getting warm with the climbing. Stopped to take off the pack and jacket, and to start using the poles.

The more we climbed, the more we realized that the sky was looking pretty dang scary. We were keeping a good pace, but we kept stopping for various reasons, and I was anxiously keeping an eye on my watch, concerned about our frequent breaks - and we hadn't even reached the hard parts yet!

From here we had a small runnable section (like maybe 3/4 of a mile total), where we entered the "forest." The trees were HUGE, and very, very green. The leaves (needles?) were very strange looking, I compared them to tassles people had hanging off their clothes in the seventies.
We finally reached the area where we were directed onto the trail by two volunteers. This is where shit was really going to get serious!! The climbing started right away. Thankfully, the course was not going to be exceptionally technical right from the beginning, just steep. I was not having to many issues with the climbing, the lower elevation of Romania helped IMMENSELY. Normally I struggle most with a high heart rate and not being able to breathe, but I wasn't having any of these issues.

Kristin rocking the climbs behind me!
I absolutely loved this section of the course. It was very serene, not technical, and just overall really pretty. I took a few pictures. It was at this point of the race that Kristin and I began having serious talks about whether we were going to stick together. She was not feeling well, having to stop to breathe and be sick, and I was really concerned about missing the buffer for the first cutoff. It was starting to drizzle again, so while I was waiting for Kristin I put my lighter UD rain jacket back on. We briefly moved into an opening on what seemed to be an ATV trail. Kristin finally told me to go on without her, she said she was struggling too much with breathing and high heart rate. She assured me she would be fine, so I went on without her. :(

And oh boy, did the climbing start. At this point, A would say something like "and this is why we have switchbacks!!" This section of the course reminded me a lot of Chattanooga, with all the trees and downed leaves. It wasn't raining very hard yet, so nothing was slick. There were some sections that were runnable, and I finally was starting to catch up to people.

One of the things I was most concerned about (outside of #alltheclimbing) was getting lost. I had downloaded the .gpx of the route and loaded it into mapmyrun so that I could tell at any given point if I was on course or not. I found the course to be very well marked. There were markings on trees and rocks and lots of yellow/red flagging. I had finally reached the "first summit" of the big climbs. A very short meadow section, where I turned around to take a picture of all the big trees that we had just run through. I probably passed 4-5 people on this section alone, mostly people that were stopping to eat/change clothes, etc.
The reprieve was not long, we were back in the woods in no time. This was the section of the course where I kept thinking "this is where it's so steep that the ground is in your face." I was definitely very glad to have brought my trekking poles, as those that didn't have them were really starting to struggle on these steep grades. I briefly spoke with a Polish gal that didn't have any, and she had last-minute not brought them because she couldn't check them in her bag. I'm so glad I had done my research on this. At the first mini-summit I turned around to take a picture of what I had just come up... unreal.

This tree looked like some sort of medieval torture device 

We were back in a very lush, green section of the woods. There were some downed trees that we either had to go over or under, and of course the climbing was just relentless. I was quickly losing the buffer that I had for the first checkpoint, so I tried to not linger too long, usually only allowing 10-15 seconds on breathing time when the climbing became too overwhelming. We then hit the next "summit" section. The fog was unreal. I was a bit disappointed that I wasn't going to have any of those amazing mountain views, but to be honest, I was also just worried about the cutoff, so I would not have had too much time to enjoy it anyway.
I was able to get some view of the valley, where everything was blanketed in a layer of fog.

It's about at this point where I can't seem to remember so many details of the race. I remember reaching this section and realizing that we were basically above treeline. I remember seeing across the valley a small building and asking my Romanian friend if that was our first aid station, to which he replied "you wish." Ok, I guess that means no, then?

We had a section of some downhill, but the course was already getting slick with mud, and I got passed by a few people as I didn't want to fall or get injured. I was wearing my New Balance Leadville shoes, the most substantial trail shoes I have, and I just don't have the greatest footing on these. We ran along the inner part of the valley and crossed our first snowfield, which is where I slipped and fell for the first time.

Ran across the valley and me up with a photographer (pictures to be posted at some point in the next week, so we are told). Back on the other side of the valley where we will do more climbing. We arrive at the section where we have to grab onto a chain for a small jump from one side of the trail to the other. Not as dramatic as I seemed to think from the videos I had watched, thankfully. (Edited to add aforementioned pics from the volunteer photographer!)

We were still doing a lot of climbing, but it wasn't the kind where I was hunched over my poles. It was more the slow and tedious climbing. We finally arrived at the first checkpoint, and it was just that. One guy who was taking note of our bib numbers as we passed through. To get to the first aid station we would need to descend some (of course), and then we would get to go back up again.

Looking back across the valley where we had been earlier in the race:
Now, I'm starting to get panicky. I don't have a ton of time to get to the aid station to meet the first cutoff. WHERE IS THIS AID STATION?? The trails are getting muddier. We are on a plateau, and I remember that we definitely had to go DOWN to get to the aid station. Where are the descents??

Turn a corner, and the climbs down began. In most races I can usually make up for my crappy climbing skills by bombing the downhills. Not in this race. Not even close. I'm not a tall person and there were certainly sections that required me using my hands to lower myself down. And did I mention that it was slippery? Finally, I come to a clearing and I can see the aid station! I have made it with about 15 minutes to spare. I filled my pack (we are spoiled in the US to have volunteers that help us do this!) and grabbed some food - mostly cheese and chocolate. Yum.

Not a bad looking aid station?
Next up was what I was dreading most, the infamous "chimney climb." I took a decent number of pictures at the base, as I knew we would be leaving the green lushness, for some alpine climbing.

The rain was starting to pick up. I knew that the highest points of the course were yet to come, so when I found a place where I could stop, I took off  my pack and tried to change into my tights. FYI, it is not the easiest to change clothes when it's raining and everything is covered in mud. Somehow I got my tights on and I also added my last-minute REI jacket as an additional layer. I was still in the same pace group as my Romanian friend, and we could hear people cheering from the top of the chimney. I said something to the effect of, "that's going to be us, right? In like an hour?"
At the very last section before the snow/ice, I pulled out my Yak Trax (purchased in 2010 before I ran in Alaska, and NEVER, not once, worn before this day). Luckily, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to use these, and I got them on without incident. Put on my mittens, and started the climb.
To begin with, this section is definitely single file. You are at the mercy of whatever pace the person in front of you wants to go. Which in my case, was SLOW. And slow was fiiiine by me. It was so incredibly slick. Again, I'm not a tall person, and some of the footholds were a bit far apart for  my comfort level. I usually tried to maintain a steady 20 steps, then rest for a second. I was incredibly glad to have poles on this section as well, and was really impressed when the lead 30K runners (most of whom did NOT have poles) were climbing past me. Somewhere, maybe 2/3 of the way up, my foot slid and I slipped about 15 feet down. In that microsecond I thought, "this is it, this is how I'm going to die." As soon as I was thankfully able to stop myself, I was immediately pissed off at having to redo the section I had just slid down.

Once we got closer to the top there was a rope that we could use to steady ourselves and help heave us over the summit. At the top was an amazing guy taking pictures and cheering us on. To me, he said "you are strong!!" And boy, did I feel like I was!
Photo cred: Bogdan Popa
I asked which way to go, and he directed me to my left (up yet another climb), "unless you want to drop to the 30K and then you go this way." I didn't even stop to think, I kept going for my race, no way did I come all the way to Romania for a 30K.

This section was not incredibly steep, but it WAS where it started to hail! As if the rain was not "interesting" enough, the hail was really coming down. It differed from hail in the us, as it was really more of a frozen clear rain, than the white balls.

We finally got to a summit, and this section was actually something I could run, finally! It was a little rocky, but it was wide and not overly technical.

We arrived at another checkpoint, and told that the aid station was still ahead. I came to this next section, and waaaaay down below I feel like I can see the aid station. This is the next time cutoff and I feel like I have plenty of time, and really, how far/long could it be?
The answer is in soooo many of my other posts/recaps. MUCH FURTHER THAN I THINK IT IS. This is where the downhill started to get scary for me. It was so steep, so technical and soooooo  muddy and slippery.
Because of all the rain fall, there were now little streams to cross on the course. There were areas where again, I had to "climb" or jump down to get to the trail below. I was so slow on this section, and all the people I had passed earlier were going around me now. It was frustrating. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I could see open field again, which meant a little more running. It also meant that water was pooling and it was soggy everywhere you stepped. It was a little difficult to find the trail in this section, as nothing actually LOOKED like a trail. But I just kept on. I had a handful of people in my line of sight in front of me and just tried to follow their general direction.

Everything was going just fine until we got to a roaring river. What. I can't see where I'm supposed to cross. There is no bridge, no rope, no "rocks," at least nothing that is currently above water. I'm not dry by any stretch of the imagination, it's still raining. But up to this point, my feet feel relatively dry (or at least not cold and wet). My Romanian friend comes up behind me and he just barrels through. Son of a... so I do too. The water is very cold, and it's probably upper calf deep. It's maybe 15' across, and the only good thing that came out of it is that I did not fall (although I came close) and my shoes looked really clean for a few  moments afterward.

Within ten minutes, I was at my last mid-course time cutoff. I had made it with about 45 minutes to spare. I spent a bit longer at this aid station. Filled my pack, had my first cup of coke, and had lots of food (cheese, chocolate and gummy bears).

I tried not to linger TOO long, and I headed out. The next section was actually on road. I enjoyed this as a break from all the slickness of the trail and ran most of this section. Then we got off the road and started our last long climb. Another section where switchbacks would be appreciated, but weren't there. Not more than 10-15 minutes into the climb, the rain really picked up. And, just for fun, the thunder and lightning started. I was with a woman from England and we spent a few minutes discussing how having metal poles at this point might not be the best idea. My goal was just to get up as quick as possible,  mainly so we could start going back down again.

I have no pictures from this section because I was too wet and cold and my phone was tucked away to stay dry. I ended up pacing with an older gentleman that didn't speak any English. After a long climb, we arrived at a little hut in the middle of nowhere. This was not a checkpoint, but merely a building the size of a shed, where we could spend a few minutes getting warm. As nice as the sounded, I just wanted to get to lower elevation, and quite frankly, I was getting a little tired of this race!

The downhill commenced, in thick fog. I was running what I could, but it was wet and muddy and gross, so I mostly settled for a jog with the poles. This was the longest that I was ever alone on the course, and I probably was never even really that alone, it just felt that way because visibility was so poor in every direction.

Finally arrived at our final aid station. This was just a tent in the middle of nowhere, being manned by two English guys. When asked how I was doing, I replied "I've been wondering why I make such poor life choices," which they both thought was hilarious. A half dozen or so of us were all there at the same time, including Katrina, a woman we met at the expo. I ate my body weight in cheese and chocolate and was treated to a cup of hot fruit tea. We were told there was only 13K to go, omg I can do this. I am somewhere in the vicinity of 11(?) hours on course and in my head, a 14ish hour finish seems possible/reasonable. As I understand - hill, plateau, hill, downhill, small hill, 5K on road with some hills in town. GOT IT.

I am the last to head out, just as a few others are coming in. I feel like I am moving really slow, but in my head, I have plenty of time. I finally pull out my phone just to get a picture of some of the mud. This is nowhere near as bad as it was in spots, but it gives you an idea of what it was like.
Meanwhile, it is still raining. We get out of the meadow-y section and are back in the trees. This is where we really have some of those scary steep descents (like the ones in the beginning, only now everything is wet and the mud is seriously above the ankles at this point). The faster 80K people are coming up behind me now and they must have magic shoes or balls of steel because they are blazing past me almost  like I am standing still.

The hills have lots of tree roots and I simply cannot stay upright. Every few minutes I'm sliding, falling, but at least always on my backside and not face first. My forearms and wrists are starting to ache from all the strain of gripping the poles to keep from falling.

Hit the very last big climb, and it is a soul-sucker. It is VERY steep, and every time I get to a "summit," it just seems to keep going. Due to the fog, I can't even tell where the top is, if there even IS a top. Every once in a while, there is a break in the trees where I can see the beginnings of a sunset - I have been out here a LONG time.

Just when I think I cannot take one more single minute of all this damn mud... I see the road. FINALLY. In my head, I think, a 5K!! I can totally do this!! Especially if it is on the road!!!
My legs are pretty trashed from all the climbing, as well as the "braking" on the downhills. Quads are screaming, and honestly, I"m just incredibly tired from being out on the course all day long. I employ a run as long as I can and take short walk breaks. When I had arrived at the road, I had an hour and twenty minutes, which really seemed luxurious to me!

After being on the road for maybe a mile or so, all of a sudden we are back on the trail. WTF. I thought we were done with trail when we got to the road. It's getting late and dusk has settled in. It is getting a little difficult to see, but in my head, I'm really almost done and I don't want to take off my back to find my headlamp.

I keep trudging along. At one point, my knee locks out and I slide and roll my ankle. I yell out "not fucking now!!!" I keep going, but starting to get stressed and upset as time is ticking by and I still have no idea when and where I'm getting off this dang trail!

I think I am finally done when I got dumped onto those dirt roads outside of town. Only it appears that we are still climbing. HOW ARE WE STILL CLIMBING IF WE ARE ON OUR WAY DOWN??

Ugh!!! So it's getting darker, and my watch has long since clicked past the 50K distance and I am still not there. I actually  miss my first turn of the day, but luckily realize it pretty quickly and pull up mapmyrun (which is still going, thankfully). I get back on course and finally decide I need my headlamp so that doesn't happen again.

Where the eff is the end of this race?? I have now less than 20 minutes until the course cutoff. I run when I can. 15 minutes. WTF WTF WTF. Keep going. Ten minutes or so to go and I finally see that we are getting dumped behind the sports arena where we had picked up our packets. YAY, THAT MEANS I AM CLOSE!! I am doing a run/walk at this point, but again, in my head, I'm really close.

We are directed to run through an arch. AND THERE ARE GD STAIRS. WTF. WHY AM I CLIMBING AND WHY AM I NOT DONE YET? 5 minutes to go. I am running up the stairs. Then I realize that I am behind a fence on the other side of the damn castle again. WHY WHY WHY??? I am run walking and watching my watch. I'm not going to make it. Back on the trail and it is foggy AF and I see a descent and it's just as steep as when we were on the mountain. 3 minutes. I said screw it and just slide down, there is no quicker way to get down.

I'm on the verge of tears. All of this way and this course, now over 53K, is relentless and never going to end. Back near the road, and I see the finish. Time has run out and I am not there. I hear people cheering, but I've missed the cutoff. I cross the finish line in 15:01:06. I missed the cutoff by barely a minute. Thankfully, they are lenient, give me my medal and I'm done.
Clock started 2 hours prior to my race, with the 100K
There are only a handful of people at the finish line, it's now 10 pm. I grab a few things to snack on and am starting to head back when I see Kristin and Alison. It's then that I actually shed a few tears. So many emotions all coming to fruition, and the frustration of finishing just outside the time limit.

The back of my tights, post-race
Elevation profile

  • Well, I wanted an adventure, and I got exactly that. Assuming that we had better weather conditions, I'd like to think that I could have completed this course about an hour sooner. While my biggest fear was the climbing, I really underestimated how hard the downhills would be, especially with the undesirable mud. As an aside, that is the only thing I did NOT - and could not - train for - steep, technical, muddy as hell, downhills.
  • In years past, there were many concerns and tales of people getting lost. They really did a great job marking the course, and other than the one turn I missed, I was never lost. Had I put my headlamp on sooner, I likely would not have missed it.
  • The mandatory gear list is NO JOKE. I am glad that I "overpacked" and brought more than I thought I needed. For ME, one rain jacket would not have been enough. I wore two jackets most of the race, and never felt like I was overdressed.  The one item I wished I had? Waterproof gloves. Also, even if you think your pack is waterproof, get one of those waterproof bag things to put over it. I had a waterproof bag inside my pack that held my extra long sleeve top & hat, but everything else in my pack was saturated when I was done.
  • While we had a half dozen checkpoints, there were only three points with aid. Plan to go a very long time without support.
  • It is no joke to quit this race. The next day I was listening to tales of people who stopped (in the 100K) and it was not easy to get them off the course. This is pretty much as far in the middle of nowhere as you can be. It was awful & glorious at the same time.
  • I will likely edit this post as I remember more, I just wanted to get as much written as I could remember. Also, I will add official race pics after they are posted.


  1. Awesome recap! Thank you for sharing! I'm looking to do my first ultra this year but a simple one hehe :).

  2. That's NUTS. But incredibly beautiful, and exciting, and you survived!


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