26 May 2013

Hit The Top 2013

Since I started to be more serious about trail running I participated in quite a few mountain races in my area around Brasov. "Hit The Top" is probably the most challenging one. As the organizers claim, it is the race with the highest elevation gain in Romania. There are races with more cumulative elevation gain, but not in one go. The route of this race climbs more than one vertical mile in just 9 kilometers  returning to the starting line on the same trail. An iron heart is needed for the climb and iron knees for the descent! Due to the high altitude and steep slopes of the route, this race fits more in the sky running category rather than just simple trail running.

The number of participants is limited to 70. A good proportion of the racers are elite athletes. So even though last year I was right in the middle of the results table, it was the result I was most proud of!

This year the route was prolonged from Scara peak (2.422m)  to Omu Peak (2505m). Omu is the highest peak in Bucegi Mountains and the 2km from Scara to Omu are above 2300m so the race became even more challenging! The longer route, with a more than a third of it at altitudes over 2000m, seemed a bit to much for me. Also the time of the race, in May, meant that one could really expect any kind of possible weather ranging from a hot summer day to deep fresh snow of even worse very thick fog or a snow blizzard! Of course, the race would have been canceled or maybe shortened if the weather was really bad.

So instead of participating I made the decision to go there, do some trail running and also take photos of the runners.  The complete album with the photos I took can be found HERE.
After a stormy Thursday and a rainy Friday I was not too optimistic about the weather. The weather forecast for the Saturday was not too good either, but to everyone's delight, the sky cleared during the night revealing a deep blue sky on Saturday morning! The cool and partly sunny weather was very good for running.
At the second hydration point on Ciubotea Valley. It starts getting windy and cold !
In the morning, Nusu, one of the top runners, took me and two other guys by car from Brasov to Bran Poarta village, to the starting line. The other two were Manu from CPNT and Vlad, a young talented runner. Only Nusu was participating, so the three of us quickly started the ascent to Omu peak. We started just an hour before the official start of the race. We knew how fast are the best runners so we hurried up the mountain. It was a cool morning, just right for a quick uphill. It was nice and calm in the valley, but higher it was quite windy and it got windier as we climbed higher towards Omu Peak. At least the wind was pushing us from behind. 
The trail crossed a few snow patches
Going up towards Scara Peak. A panorama of Piatra Craiului Mountains and the  mountain villages in the Bran area
A look to the north. In the distance Postavarul and Piatra Mare massifs
Volunteers on Scara peak. Omu peak with the meteorological and the mountain huts are visible in the background
We reached the very windy Omu peak just before the first racers arrived. My plan was to take photos of all the runners, but sadly I did not succeed. After reaching the top I had to change my wet t-shirt and put on me something dry and warm. Although I had quite a few items of clothing in my backpack, including a woolen t-shirt, a fleece, wind jacket, gloves and cap, it was not enough to stand in the cold wind. It wasn't very cold, around 5C, maybe a bit warmer, but the wind was constantly blowing.

This is the GPS track of the race route that I recorded. The downhill follows the same path.
I went in a sheltered spot near the Omu mountain hut and put on all the clothes I had. I then rushed back to take photos only to find out that in the couple of minutes I was missing the first 5 runners were already gone! I then resisted out in the wind for exactly 45 minutes. By then my hands were so cold that I could not feel the shutter button of my camera. Back home I have discovered that most of the photos I took were tilted to the right - I guess that my struggle to press the shutter release button was rotating the camera.
Volunteers waiting for the runners as they reach Omu peak
The photos I took are not too bad taking into account the fact that I only had with me an small old camera. As the plan was to do trail running I wanted to be as light as possible. I was also afraid that it might rain and the expensive DSLR camera I would have use is not waterproof.
Runner reaching Omu peak
Running poles are very useful during this race
On Omu Peak
Waiting the runners on Omu peak 
More runners approaching the top
The countdown begins from the top!
Collision course?
After 45 minutes of taking photos I started to feel the first signs of hypothermia. My extremities were cold I started to shiver and feel all of my muscles contracting. I ran inside Omu mountain hut where they were serving pottage soup! Manu and Vlad were already there. It was so nice to eat the warm delicious soup! After finishing the meal I still felt cold! So we started running back, down the mountain. This warmed me quickly. Until the base of the mountains I stopped several times to take clothes off, eventually ending up in shorts and a t-shirt...
The Checkpoint on Omu Peak
I can smell it! More runners are coming!
The joy of reaching the top
Almost there!
On Scara peak again, during the descent
Descending from Scara peak towards Bran
Descending on Ciubotea valley. Snow stairs left by the runners
I am admiring all the volunteers along the route for their endurance! Especially those on Scara and Omu Peak. They had to endure the constant cold wind for several hours! At least most of them were well prepared with warm clothes. Although I could see that they were not feeling very warm they all were a bunch of happy enthusiastic people assisting every runner in the best way they could. And that included me. As I was in running gear, they would think that I was in the race. When I told them that I wasn't they told me that it does not matter and asked me if I wanted a glass of water or something else. I had plenty of water with me, but eventually, down in the Ciubotea valley I could not resist the temptation to dink a glass of diluted pine-needles sirup! It was delicious!
Volunteers on Ciubotea valley. Thank you for the delicious pine needles sirup! 
A look back on Ciubotea valley
Volunteers on Ciubotea valley
So this was the 2013 edition of Hit The Top from my point of view. First time for me to attend a race as supporter. It was nice and relaxing. Now that I know the route better, I may participate again next year.
The steep descent through the forest
The Salvamont (mountain rescue) hut
I hope that the runners I did not manage to photograph are not too angry on me. This is the best I could do. I also hope that those who can find themselves in my photos will forgive me for using a crappy camera...

Congratulations to Outdoor Romania and Ion Trandafir for organizing such a great trail running race! Congratulations to all volunteers and of course to all runners!
The finishing line
On Scara peak. The author on of this post wearing all the clothes he had...

See you in 2014!

The complete album with the photos I took can be found HERE.

24 May 2013


"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity"
Charles Mingus 

Simplicity: For me it is probably the best reason for trail running.
When running I am just using my feet for what they are supposed to be used for. My feet can take me anywhere on any trail. So I follow them wandering to the depths of the forest, to the mountain tops, along water streams, across meadows. I enjoy the simplicity of trail running, of being in the nature, observing and trying to understand it. I often wonder about how many things we humans try before (re)discovering the simple and the most natural things.

I used to cycle a lot, but the more technical trails in my area were off-limits, at least with my cycling skills. I also got bored cleaning my bike after each trip through the forest. If it was wet, then I would have to clean the mud. When dry, I would have to clean the dust from the chain. And sometimes I would not go out at all because it would be to wet or too cold to cycle and I would freeze when going downhill. I also got tired of the technical stuff: gears, brakes, frames, rims, pedals, tires...

When running there are no technical things to distract me. I also discovered that I actually enjoy running on any type of weather. When I run I observe and enjoy  the nature with all of my senses. Every day brings something different, something new. The changing lights and shadows as the sun is following a new path on each day of the year. The freshness of the nature when it is raining. The quietness of the snow covered landscape in winter and the foot-prints left by the animals on the snow. The rise and the descent of the seasons on the mountains in the spring and autumn when I often enjoy two or three seasons in the same day when running up and down the mountains. The joy of being on a mountain top in full sunshine above a sea of clouds.

Sometimes we just have to go back to the basics, leave out all the extra and often unnecessary stuff that the technological civilization overwhelms us with. Sometimes we should simply just go out and enjoy the nature and understand it. Realize that we are a part of it, and understand that our well being depends so much on the health of our fragile planet and that the health of the planet is in our hands.

Sometimes just try to leave the office, the car, the gym, the mall, the computer, the TV. Turn everything off and simply go out and enjoy a simple day in nature. Just put on your running shoes and hit the trails!

Simply go out and experience the real world around you!

20 May 2013

Ecomarathon Moieciu 2013

About two years ago, soon after I started to take running more seriously, I have discovered on the web that there are quite a few trail running races taking place around my home city Brasov.  A race that caught my attention was Ecomarathon in Moieciu de Sus. I looked at the photos and I immediately became enthusiastic. I had to register! The cross race of Ecomarathon Moieciu 2012 was my first ever trail running race I have registered to participate. At that point I felt that I am enough prepared for a 14km race but not for a full marathon. Looking back I can see that I did the right decision.
During 2012, with my beginner enthusiasm,  I have participated in quite a few more trail races held around Brasov. Mostly half-marathons. In October I was prepared to run my first full marathon, the famous and equally well organised Piatra Craiului Marathon. After that I knew that I had to return to Moieciu and do the 'whole thing'.
Moieciu "downtown"
One reason to return was that of all the races I participated in 2012, Ecomarathon had the most extraordinary atmosphere. And there are a few reasons for it:
  • It is very well organised and attracts good runners from all over Romania and also from abroad
  • The route has 3 loops; all of them start and finish in the center of Moieciu de Sus. This means that during the race there is lots of animation in the Start/Arrival area: many supporters, runners starting a new loop or finishing, good music, live comments and news.
  • The scenery is simply stunning and the route gives some of the best views of the mountains from all possible angles.
  • The route is not very technical and it is never very far from the village, giving the participants a sense of safety. Yet with 6 long climbs totaling 2400m in altitude this is a challenging race.
More about the route on the event website.

So in 2013 I returned to Moieciu to finish the job I started last year. I had to run the complete marathon course! Since the demand is high and number of participants is limited I registered early.
It was my second full marathon and I felt quite well prepared for it. I counted 130 running sessions in the previous year, mostly 10 to 15 kilometers of trail running on the hills around Brasov, sometimes longer until Postavarul Peak. The weeks before the marathon I did a few long runs of 25-30km, keeping a low pace. In this way I prepared my body for the long run without wearing it out.
Bangaleasa Valley with Bucegi Mountains in the background
This year I have booked a room for me and my family in a nice and quiet bed and breakfast: Dragoslovean House. Being close to the start line in the race day helped me to keep all the energy for the race. I did my warming-up just running the few hundred meters from the house to the start area.

I got my start kit the evening before the race. It contained a technical t-shirt with nice colors and the race logo on it. The kit also contained the latest issue of the Romanian runners magazine alerg.ro, an energy gel and a few other goodies. Of course the number and the timing chip were included. Everything was well prepared in numbered bags so the registration was very quick. I also registered my daughter for the children's race - This was free and she also received a nice start kit including a t-shirt with the race logo. After the race she also got a finisher medal; it made her very happy!

Before the race I have applied my "personalised" meal plan that I have discovered it works best for me. Some simple pasta with tomato sauce and a bit of cheese in the evening. Then a very consistent breakfast in the morning before the race. Quite a regular one, but the bulk of it consisted of integral cereals (muesli). I also had some cheese and quite a few slices of bread with delicious plums marmalade - home made by the host. The host must have believed that I didn't eat for days before the race as the breakfast table was meticulously emptied.

The big breakfast and especially the cereals were slowly digested giving me energy for the whole race. I did not feel hungry during the race and also a couple of hours after. The inflated belly forced me to run slower at the beginning of the race and this is a good thing in a long race. I only had a few bits of fruit (banana and apple) during the race. I carried an energy gel in the pocket, but this was just for emergency use. I did not touch it as I didn't feel the need.

The day was unusually warm for the first half of May. The air was however very dry so I did not feel the heat too badly. High on the hills there was a gentle breeze so it was quite pleasant to run.

Before the race I have studied the location of the hydration points and have decided that I am not going to carry a bottle with me. I knew that this is a well organised race and that they will not run out of water  The plan worked well. At each hydration point I knew what follows on the route so I drank accordingly. I drank both half plain water and isotonic drinks. Isotonic drinks are important when running hard on a hot day. I could see how much salt I have collected during the race on my t-shirt so obviously that salts had to be replaced.

I tried to keep everything minimalistic during the race. As the weather was warm and very stable I did not have to carry any extra clothes. So I just ran in shorts and a t-shirt without any bag. I had a cap and sun glasses. The sun glasses kept getting soiled with sweat, but they proved very useful. During the race I would take them off when entering in the forest so my eyes could adapt in an instant to the darkness.

Another decision along the minimalistic lines was to run without a watch! My mobile phone could tell me the time if I needed, but I never touched it during the race - I had the phone for emergencies only. Running without a watch was a joy! Instead of looking all the time at the watch and being stressed about the time and other parameters, as I often do when running, I looked at the amazing scenery and this was relaxing!

At the start line I positioned myself in the first quarter of runners. I did not want to be too in front to avoid a fast start, but I also did not want to be too behind and lose time overtaking.

I was familiar with the first loop from the previous year cross. The cross route is the same as the first loop of the marathon. The start time is also the same for both the marathon and the cross races . First kilometers are on the paved road and I ran at a comfortable pace, but not too slow. I was thinking that I should not be too late at that narrow bridge... At the bridge surprise! It is much wider than last year. 

On the first uphill I tried not to get too enthusiastic as I always overtake on the climbs. This time I had to keep calm as I had a long race ahead of me.
On downhills it is the other way round; I am mostly overtaken. On the last steep descent of the first loop I slowed down a lot. I was overtaken by at least a couple dozen runners. I did not care. I knew that half of them are running just the cross and that I will overtake again marathoners on the uphills. It was more important to me not to twist an ankle and also not to stress my muscles too much. After the first loop I felt quite fresh. I ran it quite slowly; it took me two more minutes than the previous year so my plan to stay slower at the beginning of the race worked.
On the last leg of the first loop, before the steep descent
The second and the third loops were a total surprise for me as I was for the first time on most of the route. The first half of the second loop has a long stretch of beautiful landscapes as the route rolls on the top of gentle hills through pastures. I enjoyed very much this part. It ended with another quite steep descent, followed by the longest climb of the race. I enjoyed this climb as it was through the cool forest and I overtook quite a few runners. After the second loop I started to fell a bit tired, especially that down in the village it started to be quite hot. Before starting the third loop I drank quite a few glasses of water and isotonic (reusing a single glass) and ate a few fruit bits.

The third loop was amazing! The route offered the best panoramas of the day and also reached the highest point of the race. By now runners were scattered along the trail. I ran alone the most of the third loop. I overtook a  few runners and I was overtaken by one or two towards the end of the race. Other than this it was mainly a solitary run, but being in a race I did not feel alone. I enjoyed every bit of it: the amazing views of Bucegi Mountains, the cool scented breeze, the parfumes of the alpine pastures and of the forest, the gentle sounds of the nature.
On the third loop. Photo by Laurentiu Pavel 
On the last kilometers I felt quite tired but I could still run as it was mainly downhill. There was a runner behind me and even though I invited him to overtake me, he didn't. I soon realised that he is outside the competition. He was very nice and told me that he will run with me to the finish line. We were chatting a bit and this helped me to forget about my tired legs. By now it felt as my legs were made of led.
I was overtaken by one or two runners on the last kilometer. I did not care. I did not want to stumble and fall on the last leg of the race so I ran carefully. The finish line was close and I was happy to finish the race in one piece and fresher than I imagined I will be at the finish.
Supporters encouraging a marathoner before the finishing line
I crossed the finish line, got my finisher medal and then looked at the official clock. Close to, but still under 5 hours! I could not believe! My target was around 5 and a half hours. You can imagine that I was very happy with my result!

So, this was my race. For the rest of the time I enjoyed the surroundings and the atmosphere: socializing with other runners, pasta party, walks on the hills with my family, kids race, awards ceremony...

Next year? Most likely I will participate again! It is a great race. The organizers and the volunteers were so enthusiastic and tried to do everything as best as they could! And they succeeded! The race was almost perfectly organised... And I only say so because there is no such thing as absolute perfect...

19 May 2013

Brasov to Bran Marathon

After almost two years of regular trail running I feel confident that I can cover longer distances outside competitions and outside my "backyard" trails on Postavarul Mountain. This summer I would like to do some long runs high in the mountains so I felt that is a good time to try a longer yet not too difficult run outside the trails I am familiar with.

It happened that this weekend my work colleagues rented a chalet in the beautiful mountain village Bran, on the foot of the famous Bran Castle. So let's attend this group event and make my appearance with style...

By car, on the main road, Bran is about 25km away from my home city Brasov. However, I am a trail runner and I really do not like running or cycling along main roads and on flat terrain... so I planned a better route on the foothills of Postavarul and Bucegi Mountains. I know well the route. I did it a few times by bike in the opposite direction. It follows mainly forest unpaved roads with little traffic. I also know that there are two springs well located along the way where I can refill my water bottle.

This is the track recorded by my GPS device:

I initially planned for a long 6 hours run as the forecast announces rather warm and humid weather. I am also not fully recovered after the 42km Ecomarathon race so I know that I have to keep a comfortable pace. It turned out that the weather was cooler than I expected, with the sky mostly covered by clouds so I could run without suffering from heat. I eventually covered the distance in less that four and a half hours - not bad at all for.

I started the day with a very consistent breakfast then I prepared my little running backpack and at 7:40 AM I started. I always eat a big breakfast before a long run. It includes lots of integral cereals as they would be digested slowly and give me energy during the run. Such a breakfast often keeps me full until well after the run is finished! The full stomach also keeps my running pace low at the beginning, forcing me to run economically. I then reach the energy peak about two hours into the run when the food is fully digested.

Below are some of the photos I have taken along the way. Some of them are shaken as I took many photos while running. The photos are straight from the camera without any kind of processing except down-scaling.

The run starts from my home in the picturesque, village like Schei district of Brasov.

I am heading south to Pietrele lui Solomon cliffs on the city limit. The last kilometer if the road to the city limit was asphalted lat week.

First dog of the day... A nice one this time. Dogs were my biggest concern as I was running alone. It is spring time and as expected, I met many flocks of sheep along the way. Every shepherd keeps a few dogs around. These shepherd dogs can sometimes be quite aggressive.

I start ascending on the popular "Drumul Vechi", the old road to Poiana Brasov mountain and ski resort.

I soon leave the forest road and follow a more direct narrow trail to Poiana.

I reached Poiana Brasov. A quick look towards Postavarul Mountain. I then cross the road and head to Stana Turistica.

In the distance, a first glimpse of the mighty Bucegi Mountains.

I follow a nice unpaved road with the view of Bucegi mountains in front of me in the distance.

I reach the road from Poiana Brasov to Rasnov

I follow the paved road for about one kilometer. It is quite early so the road is almost deserted.

I take a shortcut on a hiking trail through the forest

I reach the paved road again and soon I have my first spring water of the day. Time to hydrate myself and make sure that I leave with a full bottle.

I pass by the entrance to the nice Valea Cetatii limestone cave. It is still early. Just a couple of cars in the car-park. It will get much busier later!

The road continues downhill towards the town of Rasnov

I pass by the entrance to the famous Rasnov Medieval Fortress. The fortress is up on the hill hidden by the forest.

Plenty of bed and breakfast (pensiune) options in Rasnov...

I run for a while on the streets of Rasnov.

Interesting... this sign must be left from the marathon that was organised here in February.

I exit Rasnov and continue to the south on the unpaved and quite dusty road to Glajariei valley. This guy on the bicycle followed me for a few kilometers. it was nice to know that I am not alone on the road.

I am getting closer to Bucegi Mountains.

A warning for the unauthorized motorists. At this point I leave the main forest road on Glajariei valley and turn west towards Bran on a forest road with restricted traffic.

Soon I reach the second water spring of the day. Time for refreshments. I have a banana and an energy bar.

I am not alone. Some folks are carrying some logs in a trailer.

This was the only aggresive dog of the day. Barking and comming close to me, showing his teeth. It was the smaller of the pack... The big ones were just watching. I kept it at a distance with a stick that I grabbed from the road side.

The forest road to Bran at the foot of Bucegi Moountains goes uphill at first.

In a forest clearing I catch a glimpse of the Brasov depression and the round shape of the Magura Codlei hill.

The sign reminds me that I am on the border of Bucegi Natural Park.

A look back to Bucegi Mountains. It starts to rain a bit.

I am getting out of the forest heading to the pastures of Sohodol village. The uphill is over! From here it is only downhill to Bran, my destination!

A nice view to the south, along the Bran pass

Another look back to Bucegi Mountains

First houses

A look to the north towards Brasov depression

A view of Bucegi again.

The road is getting larger... so I am getting closer to "civilisation"

Down in the valley, Bran, my destination!

I reached the main road in Bran. A few more hundreds of meters and my quest is over!