by Eric Liddick
“Holy s—! There’s no way we’re running up that, right?” Wrong, oh so wrong. Only six months before, and while sitting in the relative comfort of my living room, I came across an advertisement for the Transylvania 100k, a race beginning and ending at “Dracula’s castle” (yes, I am aware that Bran Castle is only loosely tied to Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but let’s roll with it).
Over the past few years, I watched as younger-onset Alzheimer’s slowly destroyed my father. His deterioration, as well as the fear that I might eventually succumb to this condition, underscored the importance of living in the moment, re-capturing the beauty of nature, and pushing my mind and body to the furthest reaches. Ultrarunning then, seemed only natural, allowing me the solitude necessary to face my own demons and mortality while enjoying the serenity and beauty of nature. And so, perhaps fueled by too much beer or extreme overconfidence or both, I decided that the Transylvania 100k would be the perfect foray into ultrarunning. I registered without much thought.
Until later, of course, when I began to read race reports out of the UK. Those reports warned of bears, wolves, thieves, injuries, getting lost, and a host of other threats. Bears? I immediately turned to the source of all truth – Wikipedia – where I learned that the Carpathian region of Romania contained the largest brown bear population in Europe. I made a visit to the bookstore and flipped through a Romania guidebook; no need to fear the bears, it informed me, except in May when mothers and cubs emerge from hibernation. When is the race again? May 21st! What did that survival show say? Play dead if attacked by a black bear, but fight back against a brown bear? Or was it the other way around? (For the record, if attacked by a brown bear, play dead.) I could feel my pulse racing. I think I started sweating. This didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea.
Of course, the bears and wolves and vampires would be the least of my worries from a physical standpoint. The Transylvania 100k (which was really more like 106k) boasted an intimidating 22,569 feet in elevation gain, with two summits of Omu Peak (8,218 feet) in the Bucegi Mountains. For someone training in the mid-Atlantic region, this seemed daunting. Not one to be deterred by a challenge, I pressed ahead under the tutelage of a fantastic coach who kept me grounded. But as I peered from my Bran pensiunea and stared up at the imposing Bucegi mountains on May 20, the stone gray offset by the snow-lined crevices, I found myself overwhelmed by the majesty of that range and the challenge ahead. This is going to suck. Embrace the suck, I kept telling myself.
Did I mention that the stars seldom align in my favor? A sudden onset of a cough, sore throat, and headache, coupled with approximately four hours of sleep, made for a perfect race morning. Determined to push through an already rough start, I choked down two bagels and made my way to the start line in the shadows of Dracula’s castle. After very brief remarks from the Race Director, a Vlad the Impaler impersonator struck his gong (literally) and off we went.
We ran from the castle grounds through the streets of Bran on our way to a more rural, pastoral setting filled with rolling cart paths. I knew from previous race reports, the elevation profile, and an ominous e-mail from the Race Director that I could expect a long, steep climb after leaving the friendly countryside. In truth, I underestimated what I would encounter. After approximately a mile and a half, we entered the forest, beginning a steep, long and labored 4,382′ climb in less than five miles. Welcome to Transylvania! I thought. This was the first of many punches thrown by the Transylvanian Alps. But those views. Approximately four miles into the climb, we left the pine forest and entered a clearing that afforded 360 degree views of the mountains and towns below. It was breathtaking and I managed to pause for a few quick photos.
We continued to the first peak around 7,907′ before a two-mile descent into the first checkpoint at Malaiesti. Although this descent offered a respite from the initial steep climb, it presented its own challenges. For, as much as the ascents were steep (in many places, we climbed a 60% slope), the descents were equally so, as well as technical. Although I planned to make up time on the descents, the terrain in many cases demanded caution and patience. After a quick bite and refill at Malaiesti, I set off for my first ascent of Omu Peak. Entering the race, I viewed the race as front-loaded, with the major climbs in the first 40k. This ascent then, would be one step closer to an easier back half. Or so I thought.
As the trail meandered through the alpine valley, I felt a boost of confidence: I can do this! No sooner did this thought enter my mind than I turned a corner and lifted my eyes to the distance. There I witnessed a line of “ants” crawling up a steep slope covered in snow between two rock faces. There’s no way that’s where we’re going. That’s insane! The insanity was not fully apparent until I found myself at the bottom of that slope looking up. I had no choice but to hike, one step at a time behind the line of “runners” before me. Approximately halfway up the slope, and as runners used their hands to aid in the climb, I noticed a cable attached to the opposing rock face. Periodically, a runner would latch onto the cable, using the anchored line to aid in the climb. Am I running an ultra or alpineering? After summiting this portion of the climb, we were “rewarded” with a more reasonable climb to Omu Peak along a snow-covered ridgeline with precipitous drops to either side. But after our Everest-esque ascent, no one could complain.
One ascent down, one to go, I told myself. A six mile descent into Pestera. Nothing to this. The snow, however, thwarted my hope for a rapid descent. The calf-to-knee-deep snow, which we found in abundance above 6,500′, made running difficult. I knew from previous race reports though, that past runners used an ingenuous work around: bum sledding. So rather than fighting the snow, we used it to our advantage, sliding down the mountain on our backsides. As a result, I achieved my fastest minute per mile pace ever: 3:30. The snow eventually gave way to a valley teeming with calming mountain streams, pine trees, and beautiful greenery. I danced through rocks and increased my pace on the more runnable trails, finally arriving at the checkpoint in Pestera. Three supporters were blowing vuvuzelas and I happily mocked them. It helped my mood.
From Pestera, we began our second ascent up Omu Peak, a 2,900′ climb over roughly five and a quarter miles. I watched as the gondola to my right effortlessly carried passengers from Pestera to the first peak at Babele. I cursed them while shaking my fist mightily (again, literally) at their comfortable cab. Unfortunately, I failed to remember that Babele was not the same as Omu Peak. When I reached Babele and viewed the famous rock formations, tourists staring curiously at the dirty, sweaty, and exhausted runner before them, I thought – mistakenly – that I had finished my second large ascent. When the trail did not go downhill, as I expected, I realized that I had suffered from a false summit. This realization sucked the energy from my body and I trudged ahead angrily.
Eventually I found myself at the familiar cabana on Omu Peak. I ate a few handfuls of potato chips and set off for the descent into the 40k checkpoint at Busteni where I could replenish with my dropbag. As with the first descent off Omu, I employed the patented bum sledding technique to snatch victory from the snow’s grasp and eventually found myself amongst the valley streams and forest. I chatted up an Englishman and Italian who planned to drink a beer together at the next checkpoint, and we ran together for the next few miles when we came across a young woman covered in an emergency blanket. Sadly, she had fractured her ankle on the descent and was awaiting mountain rescue. We kept her company until the next group of runners relieved us. The mountains had claimed another victim.
Arriving in Busteni seemed like a massive accomplishment. I had survived two ascents up Omu and, in my mind, the majority of climbing sat comfortably in my rear-view mirror. I restocked my race vest with nutrition and filled two bottles with Tailwind. My new friends, Luke and Lucio, finished their beer and we set off together for the last, but seemingly more manageable, climb up Piatra Arsa. While we discussed sticking together through the night – for safety from the bears and to avoid getting lost – we made no commitments to each other.
As we approached Piatra Arsa, a sense of doom fell over me. This looked (and was) tough. Over the next four and a quarter miles, we would ascend 3,392′ over steep terrain. This included a particularly hairy section that required climbing over large boulders. The presence of another anchored cable provided little comfort against the sheer cliff only a few feet away. Although we shrugged off the danger, we all understood the rationale behind a strict cut-off: no one should be ascending on this trail at dusk. I found relief when the checkpoint appeared from around a corner. A volunteer, who greeted us with cheers of “Bravo!” assured me that the remaining 50k would be “rolling terrain with small, easy climbs.” I wanted to believe him, but deep inside I knew that Transylvania would kick me in the proverbial gonads a few more times.
For the moment, we enjoyed the relatively gentle descent to our next checkpoint at Lacul Bolboci. We pushed on, focused on arriving at Lacul Bolboci before nightfall. The route offered open fields with no discernable trails, grassy pastures, a babbling ice cold stream, and more Transylvanian forest. We emerged onto a road encircling the lake and I found comfort knowing that we were so close to the finish. Or so I thought.
Before the race, I created a temporary tattoo of the elevation profile that I placed on my forearm. Whether the result of fatigue or poor light, I misread the checkpoint’s distance. I believed that, by reaching Lacul Bolboci, we had completed 75k of the race. In reality, we had only completed 60k. I remained blissfully ignorant of this fact until the next checkpoint at Saua Strungulita.
After warming ourselves with tea and pasta, and donning our headlamps, we set off for the next checkpoint under a full Transylvanian moon. The next six miles involved a gentle incline followed by rolling terrain along a ridgeline above an alpine valley. We could see the lights from surrounding towns and fellow runners in the distance. The ridgeline left us exposed to the cold wind, but the partly cloudy sky and full moon offered a new, heavenly experience.
Several men in a tent manned the checkpoint at Saua Strungulita. We benefitted from more warm tea and a crackling fire. But my morale plummeted when I learned that I had been mistaken at Lacul Bolboci and that we had yet to reach the 75k mark. I found myself in a dark place and stood by the fire pondering a reason – any reason – for staying next to that fire for the night. After failing to find a legitimate reason, and at Luke’s prodding, we set off.
The remainder of the night remains blurry. We ran the runnable portions and carefully descended the many steep declines through the forest. We became lost when we could not locate the course markings and relied on an outdated GPX file to crisscross farmer’s fields. We periodically blew our whistles or yelled, “Bear!” to warn any animals of our approach. I fell asleep while hiking some of the steeper portions, and am certain that I saw a wolf dart across the trail in front of Luke (okay, that was a hallucination). While none of us wanted to hold the others back, I am grateful for their companionship. I would like to believe that we helped each other fight through injuries and low points, but truth be told, Luke and Lucio helped push me that night.
Dawn broke. The sun’s rays gently pierced the canopy, and the forest came alive. Only eight miles or so to the finish! It’s all downhill from here. But it wasn’t. I knew I shouldn’t have believed that guy at Piatra Arsa. Transylvania needed to squeeze a bit more pain from us before it relented. Two more relatively-short but steep climbs annoyed me, but I did my best to remain positive and focus on the descent into Bran. Ridiculous as it may seem this close to the end, I kept thinking: If I see another climb like this, I’m done. I’ll quit. I refuse to do another climb. Yet even when we came across more short climbs in the final few miles, I ignored these ridiculous thoughts and put one foot in front of the other.
The Transylvania 100k is a no-nonsense, low-key and affordable affair. There are no fancy timing chips or tracking devices, no “full-course buffets,” and no race photographer pressure. The organizers temper expectations and suggest that competitors approach the race with a self-sufficient attitude. Competitors would do well to heed that advice. And, with an entry fee under $100, one cannot justly complain. In fact, the views alone are worth the price of admission.
I will never forget the encouragement offered by volunteers and supporters in the last half mile or the swell of pride I felt crossing that finish line. Like most, I experienced the spectrum of emotions during the Transylvania 100k and found myself in some dark places. The race taught me a lot however, and I am much better positioned both mentally and physically for future, more difficult, challenges.