Last year I ran my first mountain half marathon, in a competition called Transmaraton, on “the most beautiful road in the world, Transfagarasan” (I didn’t say that, by the way, it was Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear, who said it after he drove on it). It wasn’t technically a trail marathon, because we ran on asphalt all the way, but it had 1000 meters level difference. I remember I was a bit frustrated because I didn’t expect such a hard climb. Especially the last 3km before the descent were very steep.
After I finished it, I promised myself I will run the ultramarahton next year. And so I did.f
Preparation and Getting There
It’s important to note that a few things happened since that half marathon. First of all, I ran a few ultra-marathons (between 60 and 70km) as part of the preparation for Ultrabalaton. In the spring, around Easter, I also ran my first 100km race, which was also my longest night race (12 hours, from 7PM to 7AM). Then, in May, I actually finished Ultrabalaton, a 222km long race. Apart from the expected damage after such a long ultramarathon, finishing Ultrabalaton had a very big impact on my endurance. A positive impact, that is. I can’t explain it better than: I can now run much further with much less effort.
So, when Transmaraton was approaching, I decided to improve my preparation not on endurance, which was ok, but on slopes. At that time I had no technique for climbing or downhill running, and I was getting tired vey fast when I was doing slopes.
I started by training a few times in my home town, on a small hill, called “Cetatuia”. It was actually one of my favorite places as a teenager and a popular place in the city, because on top of it there is a small church. To get there you have to climb 100 stairs. I did a few weekends there, trying to put as many climbs as I could. The full tour was 250 meters long and the level difference was 25 meters. I started with 4 tours (running until the top, then running downhill) and finished with 10.
Then I did a real trail training, a 21 km tour in the mountains, with climbing and really steep downhill running. That was tough, but really nice too.
And with a month before the marathon I did an official trail competition, another 21km, also in my home town.
At the end of this specific training, I knew a lot more about how to approach the ascent and especially how to run downhill, which apparently is something that very few runners really know.
Apart of this type of training, I did my regular speed and long run training, 3 times a week.
I made the reservations for the race with a few months in advance. There is quite difficult to find a decent place to stay along Transfagarasan, because the road is quite popular. And with a big event like Transmaraton, with more than 150 people attending, well, finding a place to stay was challenging.
Luckily, I found a room at a hotel just at the starting point. The race was scheduled at 4:30 AM, on a Saturday. I got there Friday evening, attended to the (very brief) technical meeting and then went to sleep. I got up at 2:30 AM and ate breakfast. That’s one of the things I learned after Ultrabalaton: it’s good to start the race with breakfast already digested. I went to sleep again and woke up an hour later at 3:30 AM. Did my regular morning routine: yoga and meditation, then put on my running gear and went downstairs, in the front of the hotel.
I decided to run very light, with just a hydration belt. I also had a backpack, and it turned out it was quite useful, but I decided to start the race without it.
The weather was incredibly warm. I think the temperature was somewhere around 22 degrees Celsius, which is very unusual at that altitude and time of the year. We were 26 runners and we slowly gathered at the start line. A short countdown, and we started.
It was pitch dark and the fascicles of light from the head torches of the runners were dancing on the road, ahead of us. Somewhere above us there was an incredibly clean sky, filled with millions of stars. It was silent, the only thing we could hear were our own steps. The road was slowly and steadily going up.
After one or two kilometers the group started to spread. There were 3 runners running on a compact formation and then scattered runners for about a kilometer. I decided to run in such a way that I won’t lose sight of the leading group. After another one or two kilometers I was running alone. In front of me, there was this pack of 3 lights, dancing and going up in curves.
I entered a state of relaxation and meditation for a few kilometers. As many of you know, running is merely a pretext to practice meditation for me. The longer the race, the deeper the meditation.
After 10 kilometers I approached the last climbing part. It was a 3km portion of steep slopes, the hardest part before the 8 km descent which was concluding the lap (we were supposed to run 3 laps, each of 21km). When I felt the road was becoming steeper, I slowed down. At the top of the mountain there was a tunnel, 1 km long, and also the second hydration point (the first hydration point was somewhere at the km 5-6, but I didn’t even stop at it, that’s how beautiful it felt to just run in the dark).
The last 2-300 meters before the tunnel I walked. When I entered in it, the sounds became suddenly louder, because of the echo. It was also way cooler inside. It felt very refreshing.
When I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, I sprinted. I knew I had 8 km of steep descent in front of me and I was ready to take advantage of the gravity. I simply let myself run, without thinking at the pace or at anything else. I just ran and felt the air on my body. It felt like flying.
Behind the mountains I could see the sun going up. Long shadows where lingering on the road, making a sharp contrast between the rocks and the grass. I was at 2000 meters altitude.
I got at the end of the first lap in abut 35 minutes. The total time for the first 21 km was 2 hours and 20 minutes. Last year I covered the same distance in 2 hours and 30 minutes, and felt crushed. Now, I had two more laps to go and felt quite good.
After I briefly stopped for a sip of water and a gel, I started to run again, towards the start point. The descent was now the ascent, of course. I slowed down a lot, conserving my energy.
In about an hour I was on top again, looking forward for the next 12 km descent. Once I passed the tunnel again, in the opposite direction, I just let myself flow. It was full day now and it was warmer and warmer. As I was approaching the starting point – and the end of the second lap – I started to meet runners who already were there. I calculated that I was the 8th or the 9th. Just for fun, because I didn’t have any goal regarding the finishing place. I was slightly surprised that I was in such a good position.
I finished the second lap in 2 hours and 40 minutes. It was 9:30 AM and at the start line the runners for the half marathon were warming up. The start for the half-marathon was in less than an hour. I greeted a few people I knew, who were running the semi, than started the ascent again.
In a few kilometers I realized something was wrong: I got blisters on the soles of my feet. Again. At Ultrabalaton I got some very nasty blisters and, from a psychological point of view, I developed a bit of aversion towards this thing. As you can see in the picture below, the blisters I got at Ultrabalaton were quite bad. Maybe the soles of my feet caught some “sensitivity” and are more prone to this, I don’t know. This time, the blisters were way gentler, but still.
Fact is that, around km 47-48 I felt the first – and the only, to be honest – frustration of this race. I didn’t have any muscle or joints problems, but the blisters in the soles were making running really painful. I could run faster, but I decided I won’t force. I had around 15-18 kilometers to the end, 8 of them on the descent. I decided to walk until the top and then try to recoup on the way down.
Meanwhile, the road got really crowded. The marathon and half-marathon runners were fighting their own battles now, and there were a lot more cars on the road. After 2 hours I got to the tunnel again. It was running for exactly 7 hours. I stopped for a chat at the hydration point, then, in 5 minutes, I started the descent.
This time, because of the blisters, things were a bit harder. I was still reaching a decent speed (between 4:30 and 5:00 per kilometer) but way slower than in the morning (when I was making 3:50/km). I stopped a couple of times to alleviate the pain in my feet and to refill my iso bottle.
The last 2 kilometers I ran as fast as I could, hoping to make it under 8 hours. I finished in 8 hours and 33 seconds. Got the 12th place, out of 26 runners.
It was the first competition ever in which I made it in the first half. Not that it matters much, but still nice.
The only “bad” thing about this race were the blisters, and even those blisters were there just for a couple of hours. They healed in less than 2 days. To put things in perspective, the blisters I got after Ultrabalaton healed in about 10 days.
Another interesting thing is that Raluca, my girlfriend, ran her first half-marathon too. She wasn’t officially registered for the race, she was what is called, in runners lingo, a “race bandit”. As a matter of fact, she was out for a walk, going to meet me at the finish line, when she met a friend who was doing the marathon. One thing led to another and, before she knew it, she was encouraging and pacing this friend. She finished the half marathon in 3 hours and 30 minutes. And, even she was a “race bandit” she got herself a medal too.
The next day I was fully recovered and we did a short hike, to a beautiful place called “Balea Cascada”, a big waterfall with a very special energy.
I think this race was the lightest, the most enjoyable and the less consuming ultra I did so far.
The running in the dark, the scenery and the overall states I experienced where I could meditate were absolutely fantastic.
I got word from the organizers that next year they will introduce a 100km race too. I really look forward to it, but it all depends on the Spartathlon. I want to run it next year and if I qualify, I should do it in the last weekend of September. So, a 100km just one week before Spartathon will be quite close.
We’ll see. 🙂
Running For My Life - from zero to ultramarathoner
The spooky thing about depression is that it sneaks in. There aren’t really trumpets and loud voices announcing: “Hail, hail, this is depression entering the room, all rise!” Nope. It’s slow, silent, creepy. It doesn’t even look like depression. It starts with small isolation thoughts like: “Maybe I shouldn’t get out today, I just don’t feel like going out”. And then it does the same next day. And then the day after that and so on. And then it starts to whisper louder and louder in your ears: “Why would you go outside, you loser? Didn’t have enough yet? Want more people to make fun of how much of a big, fat loser you are?”
And then you start to breath in guilt and shame, instead of air. Every breathe you take is putting more dark thoughts into your body.
Until you get stuck. You can’t move anymore. At all.
If you want to know how I got out of this space, eventually, check out my latest book on Amazon and Kindle.