29 August 2013

2 Years of Trail Running

It is about two years since I got serious about trail running. I wasn't running that much before. I was more a mountain biker and a hiker. After two years I feel that I reached my peak performance and still enjoy trail running a lot so It is a good time to draw a line and take some conclusions:
  • 250 running sessions, cumulating:
    • 3800 km in length
    • An estimated 125km of elevation gain
  • Participated in 16 races including 3 full marathons
  • Ran my first half-marathon after half of a year (Brasov Semimarathon that starts/ends in my neighborhood)
  • Ran my first marathon after a year (the amazing Piatra Craiului Marathon)
  • It looks that I prefer full marathon length races as I prefer longer less intense effort rather than short and very intense. The three races I enjoyed most are all full marathon length (42km):
  • Met many interesting new people at competitions or on the trails
  • Made a few people to start running
  • Spent more time outdoors
  • Discovered many new trails in the area
  • The mountains around my city seem smaller than ever...
  • Discovered that it is enjoyable to in any type of weather
  • Lost 10% of my body weight. My weight stabilised after one year
  • I did not get any serious cold in the last two years
  • I tolerate hot and cold weather much better
  • Learned more about my body limits
  • Learned a few new things about sports nutrition and physiology
  • Got really extreme about travelling light...
  • Used 5 pairs of running shoes for different conditions - road, trail, race, cold weather etc.
  • Managed to wear out my first trail running pair of shoes
  • Started this blog

    Plans for the future:

    • Continue running, discover new trails, new mountains
    • Reduce the number of races and instead run just for the pure joy of running.
    • There are two races in my area that I really love and I want to do again:

    24 August 2013

    Adventures on Piatra Craiului Ridge

    Two weeks ago I did a reconnaissance hike in Piatra Craiului mountains on the north section of the main ridge, from Turnu Peak to La Om Peak. The grander plan is to hike along the whole ridge from Turnu peak until Funduri Saddle in an one day speed hiking tip. On good weather with good training and light equipment, it is a totally reasonable tour.
    Piatra Craiului Ridge as seen from the East from Bucegi Mountains - Photo taken on 20th of October 2012
    So yesterday, 23rd of August 2013, together with Cristian, an experienced trail runner and orienteering sportsman we set out to do the ridge hike. I wasn't convinced that it is the best day for this trip as the evening before it rained in Brasov and the weather forecast announced more rains for the next day, especially in the afternoon. However, the cooler weather was perfect for this trip.

    I had a very light equipment. No camera and no GPS device. The GPS is of not much use on the ridge anyway. The camera would slow me down and reduce my concentration during this technical hike. All the photos posted here were taken during the hike I did on the same route two weeks before.

    I had a small and light backpack. The most important items in the backpack were two bottles that contained 2.5 liters of water and isotonic drink; there are no water sources on the ridge! Then I had a bit of food with me: a few whole bread slices, hard cheese, an energy bar, and a chocolate tablet. I made sure that I ate very well the evening before and in the morning, so my batteries were fully loaded...

    In the backpack I also had a tubular Buff headgear and an ultralight rain jacket. Additionally I had a very small first aid kit; and of course, my telephone!
    On me I had normal trail running equipment: trail running shoes, t-shirt, tight shorts and a white running cap.
    View from the rocky ridge of  Piatra Craiului, on the steeper west side
    In the morning, I checked the webcam on Cheile Gradistei resort. This webcam shows the whole ridge of Piatra Craiului. The whole mountain was visible, with a thin layer of clouds high above the ridge. It looked quite promising. My hope was to finish the hike along the ridge before the forecasted afternoon rain...
    Piatra Craiului Carnation (Dianthus callizonus) - an endemic plant to Piatra Craiului Mountains
    We started the ascent from Prapastiile Zarnestilor, a spectacular deep gorge near Zarnesti town. The weather was cool and very calm, although there was a bit of humidity in the air. We reached the main ridge on Turnu Peak, at 1823m altitude in 1h45.

    On the way up to the peak, in a forest clearing, just before the first cables of the trail we almost met a bear. We heard a short bark like sound, from the thick bush, about 40 meters ahead of us. The sound was immediately followed by the noise of breaking tree branches as the creature that produces the noise retreated deep in the forest. Judging by the noises it must have been a large and heavy creature, most likely a bear. Of course, we stopped on the trail and made some more noise to inform the bear that we are there. I guess that the bear knew very well that there was a touristic path as it disappeared quickly out of our way.
    The forest clearing where we almost met the bear
    Turnu Peak is considered the northern most peak of the main ridge. From here we started the walk to the south, along the ridge. It is a very varied hike that makes one use all of his muscles... Although not terribly technical on good weather, the ridge has many rocky sections where one must use the arms to climb up or down. The trail goes up and down along the ridge, getting gradually higher and higher until it reaches La Om Peak, the highest peak in Piatra Craiului Mountain (2238m). This peak also marks the limit between the northern and the southern sections of the ridge.
    The ridge as seen from Turnu Peak
    As we hiked along the ridge, the weather was calm and cool. It was sunny down in the valley, but up here we were unxder a thin layer of clouds. There was perfect visibility along the entire length of the ridge. Just perfect conditions for hiking: dry, cool and windless. After hiking about half of the ridge, when approaching La Om peak, we heard the rumble of a thunder in the distance. It was to the north, behind us. Then every few minutes a new thunder. It did not sound that bad so we continued our hike ahead on the ridge. In fact we had no much choice but to hurry up ahead to la Om peak, where we had the closest escape path down from the ridge. So we would decide there if we continue or retreat from the ridge.
    On the north ridge. In the distance La Om peak (2238m)
    When we got close to the peak, a few drops of rain started to fall. Then... surprise! I could see a lightning strike just ahead of us, no more than 500 meters away. It struck close to the peak. Cristian who was 30-50 meters ahead told me that just before the strike, he felt his hair rising. That made him to immediately go lower, below the ridge. We both knew that the ridge is the worst place to be in a thunder storm. It did not look like a serious thunderstorm, but it did not feel safe at all to be on the ridge! We hurried ahead to the peak where the descending path starts.

    After I returned home I did a little research about lightning strikes on the Internet... It was quite terrifying to see that if your hair raises it means that there is a lot of electrical charge in the cloud above and a lightning strike is imminent!

    As we walked fast towards the peak, another lightning stroke; this time even closer to us. We now had a grassy slope below the ridge so we could immediately get lower. We walked on the grassy slope round the peak until we met the descending path. When we reached the path we rushed down the mountain. We could hear a few more thunders from the summit, but lower on the mountain slope it felt much safer.

    We met two hikers going up to the summit. We told them to abandon the hike at least until the weather gets better. They looked at us in disbelief. We were just 200 meters below the peak, and here it did not look too bad... It started to rain a bit, but the visibility was good, no fog, no wind, the clouds were higher than the mountain and the thunders seemed away.
    The ridge as seen from Vladusca pastures on the eastern side
    As we descended it started to rain quite hard. Soon we reached  Grind refuge, which is located at the edge of the forest. A few foreign hikers were also sheltering here from the rain. We just stopped for a couple of minutes, until the rain eased. Then we continued to run downhill to La Table cross-roads point, and from there back to Prapastiile Zarnestilor, where at the lower end was Cristian's car.  We ran the 8 or so kilometers until the car at a comfortable pace in less than one hour. Lower the valley the ground was dry. It did not rain here! A bit lower, in the town of Zarnesti it was sunny!
    Down in Prapastiile Zarnestilor Gorge
    We completed the hike in 6h15 including all breaks. We missed the southern section of the ridge, meaning that we did the same route as I did on the hike two weeks before. However this time we did it at a much faster pace. I think that given the weather conditions it was the best choice to abandon the hike along the ridge. The southern section of the ridge is very rocky with steep rocky sides so in case of a storm there is no place to shelter and no easy way to go lower. I felt a bit sorry that we could not continue, as I felt very well and I knew that I would have no problems to complete the whole planned hike.

    Next time when going up on the ridge, I have to be more careful about the weather forecast. In fact, thunder storms and lightning strikes are one of my biggest worries on the high exposed mountains. This time I thought that we could finish the hike before the afternoon rain that was forecasted... well, once again, the mountain showed us that we should not push our luck and that we should pay attention to everything that the mountain is telling us!

    This year I plan to visit Piatra Craiului again on the 5th of October when I want to take part in the Piatra Craiului Marathon race. In the meanwhile, who knows, on a clear weekend day, maybe I will attempt the ridge hike again.

    18 August 2013

    Reconnaissance Run in Ciucas Mountain

    There is one more month until the popular Ciucas Marathon trail running competition. A good time for a "reconnaissance mission" on the race route. Last year I ran the half-marathon race. This year I registered for the full marathon. More than half of the marathon route follows trails that I did not knew at all. I did this running tour with Cristian, a very experienced trail runner and orienteer. The route of the marathon is a bit changed from the last year race so Cristian was also curious to explore the new route.

    We ran 32km of the race route. We skipped the first and last kilometer through Cheia mountain resort and also the 5.5km loop between the second and the fourth check-points. I had my GPS device with me and I loaded on it the race track as provided by the organizers. It helped us to find our way on the new route sections although the orienteering skills of Cristian were often better than the GPS track on my device...

    Here is the the GPS track of the run as recorded by my GPS device during the tour:

    We started and ended our tour by the national road DN1A, near Cheia mountain resort, at an altitude of roughly 1050m. The official start/finish line is in the center of Cheia resort, a bit more than one kilometer away.

    First 8km of the route are through mostly beech tree forest, heading westwards along the foothills of Ciucas Mountain. The route goes uphill until the point where it separates from the half-marathon route. It then goes mostly downhill until it reaches the beautiful meadows of Poiana Stanei.

    From Poiana Stanei, the official marathon route has an 5.5km loop on the wooded hills on the right side of Stanei Valley. We skipped this loop as we did not want to run much more than 30km and we also wanted to reach the top of Ciucas mountain.

    From Poiana Stanei, the route follows the Stanei valley. This was the new part of the route which neither of us knew. The valley gradually narrowed. The forest road became a single trail that followed the bottom of the valley. Soon the valley narrowed and became an gorge. The trail disappeared but the trail markings showed us that we have to follow the valley uphill through the gorge.

    This was the most technical part of the route, with frequent small rocky thresholds between runable sections on the gravel and sand gorge floor.

    At some point up the valley the water stream disappeared. I guess that it flowed deeper below the gravel and sand. Without the water stream, moving along the gorge became easier.

    We enjoyed much the gorge. It was the surprise of the day. What I imagined that would be a rather dull run along a valley through the forest became a route full of surprises and small obstacles. However I would not like to be in this gorge during a flash flood caused by a summer storm...

    Out of the gorge, at about 1400m altitude we reached the high pastures of the eastern flank of Zanoaga mountain. Here we followed the GPS track and soon Cristian, with his orienteering sixth sense realized that we made a small detour from the marked trail which was shorter.

    Soon we reached the shepherd hut where the fifth race checkpoint will be located. A large pack of rather aggressive dogs "welcomed" us here... Luckily Cristian had his walking poles and gave me one of them. The shepherds were also there so they could call the dogs before we had to use the poles... I hope that during the race the dogs will be taken somewhere else, far from the trail... Especially that I do not plan to take walking poles with me during the race...

    Out of the forest we finally got a glimpse of the Ciucas peak.

    We soon reached Ciucas chalet where we stopped for some extra hydration as our water reserve was half consumed. I found the surroundings of the chalet very depressing. A large area around the chalet looks like a big abandoned construction site that scars the mountain. The chalet was full of pseudo-hikers having their lunch in a kitsch style decorated restaurant. We spent about 12 minutes here resting a bit before climbing the peak.

    From the chalet we started the final climb towards the Ciucas Peak (1954m). We met many hikers along the route. The peak was also packed with hikers. It was just a little bit windy and as our t-shirts were wet we decided not to stop here, but to make a short break lower, below the peak.

    We descended from the peak on the trail that goes to Bratocea pass. A pity that the entire trail is not included in the marathon route as this is a very nice trail for running and has great panoramic views. From Tigailor saddle we turned to the south back to the chalet, following the trail below the spectacular southern rocky side of the peak.

    We passed again by Ciucas chalet, but this time we did not stop there. We continued with the steep descent towards Berii valley. This is a really ugly and very steep dirt road, the main access to the chalet. Lower on the valley floor there is a water spring, just in the middle of the trail. We stopped here to refill our bottles with the fresh cold water that gushes out on two pipes. Soon we left the valley and headed south on the marked trail to Muntele Rosu.

    From Muntele Rosu, we followed another rather steep dirt road through the forest and we reached a beautiful meadow that offered us beautiful views towards Zaganu Mountain. The half-marathon route follows Zaganu main ridge, while the marathon route goes around it.

    From the meadow until the national road near Cheia, where the car was left, the route follows an almost flat but very rocky dirt road. I ran slowly here. It was quite hot, I felt quite tired and did not want to twist an ankle now, towards the finish.

    It took us less than 5 hours to return back to the car. Not a bad time as we ran quite relaxed, stopping several times during the route. I also stopped many times along the route to take photos and I ran the downhills at a safe and relaxed pace, making Cristian to wait for me on almost every descent...

    I liked the route. I found the most enjoyable parts to be the Stanei valley gorge and the Ciucas peak with its wonderful 360 degrees panorama. However I think that the half-marathon route which I did last year is more spectacular as it follows the entire Zaganu ridge.

    So now I am a bit more prepared for the marathon race. See you there!

    13 August 2013

    Piatra Craiului North Ridge

    Piatra Craiului is considered by many to be the most beautiful massif in the Carpathians. Its long svelte white ridge rises more than 1000 meters higher than the surrounding area. Once on top one can only be amazed by the narrowness of the ridge and the steepness of the rocky mountain sides.

    The ridge of Piatra Craiului is a popular hiking route. It is usually covered in two one day hiking stages. On Friday I did a day trip on Piatra Craiului with three other good hikers. It was a beautiful but rather hot summer day. We set off very early so we could get up on the main ridge before the weather became hot. We then covered the entire length of the north section of the ridge from Turnu peak to La Om peak and returned back to the car that was left close to Zarnesti - a town located at the bottom of the mountain, the main access point to Piatra Craiului.

    Most routes in Piatra Craiului are quite technical. I would never recommend hiking on the steep trails to the ridge or on the ridge with a large backpack. Set your base camp at the base of the mountain and do day trips with light equipment. Do not forget to carry enough water. The whole mountain is limestone, meaning that there are no water springs in the high area.

    I haven't been for many years on the north ridge. It was a good refresh trip as I plan to do a trail running trip to cover the entire length of the ridge in one day. Last year I hiked the southern section of the ridge so now I am quite familiar with the entire length of the ridge.

    I can say that on fine clear weather, if it is not too hot, with light trail running equipment and good training, there should be no issues to cover the whole length of the main ridge, from Turnu peak to Funduri saddle, including the ascent to the ridge from Zarnesti and the descent back to Zarnesti.

    Here are some of the photos I took on the day trip.
    Piatra Craiului North Ridge, a set on Flickr.


    And the GPS track of the day: