05 November 2013

MPC 2013 - Piatra Craiului Marathon

I first heard about the famous Piatra Craiului Marathon (MPC) a little over two years ago, about the same time I became more interested in trail running. At that time I realized that such a race is out of scope for my level of training. For the next year I have trained and participated in several trail running cross and half-marathon races in the area around my beautiful town Brasov. I gradually became a better runner and by the autumn I felt ready for my first full mountain trail running marathon. In October 2012, Piatra Craiului Marathon was my first full marathon I have ever ran and my result was not a bad one: I was in the top 20%.

During 2013 I continued to train and participate in mountain trail running races including 3 full marathons. I slowly became a stronger and a faster runner. Again, the final year exam had to be MPC! During the summer I over-trained, reaching twice 100km of mountain trail runs in a week. I felt it in my knees! In the autumn I reduced my training distances and my knees recovered well. The week before MPC I only ran 20km to be as fresh as possible on the racing day.

So here I am, early in the morning on the 2nd of November, in the center of Zarnesti, waiting for the start of the 8th edition of this marathon. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the event was delayed for 4 weeks, as at the beginning of October when it should have taken place the mountains got covered in a thick blanket of snow that made such an event impossible.

Just before the start - Photo by Radu Dumitru
2nd of November sounded quite late and many, myself included were a bit worried... Would it not be too cold, maybe snowy again? Isn't the day too short? Maybe the trails would be wet muddy... Eventually, the 2nd of November 2013 turned out to be an absolutely perfect day for running in the mountains! It was a warm and sunny autumn day, with glorious blue skies and no wind on the mountain peaks! The trails were dry and just perfect for running! With these perfect conditions and feeling in a quite good shape, I knew that I should get a better time compared to last year.

The MPC route is a demanding one: 41km in length with more than 2200m of accumulated elevation gain. It has two long ascents, the second one being feared by most competitors. The route goes around the main ridge of Piatra Craiului Mountain and 90% of it is inside Piatra Craiului National Parc. The nature, the landscape and the views along the route are simply stunning!

Along the route there are all kinds of roads and trails one can imagine: from asphalted roads in Zarnesti, to dirt roads, single trails, culminating with very steep and rocky terrain. The descent from the main ridge of Piatra Craiului starts with a steep rocky descent. Here, the organizers mount every year several ropes to make the route safer.

15 minutes into the race. Photo by Flavy Teo
As on my previous races this year, I did not carry any electronic gadget with me... No GPS, no heart monitor, not even a watch. So I would not get any distraction and could concentrate on the running. I only had my dumb-phone with me so I could use it in case of an emergency. I did not carry running poles. I know that they would have been very useful on the steep uphill slopes, but I would have to carry them on the rest of the route. In the past I also had two bad experiences while running as I managed to trip over my own poles and fall flat on the ground... So I figured out that I am safer without poles. Actually, during the race, on the last uphill, the famous Diana climb, an endless climb through the forest, I used two wood sticks that I found by the trail... There were plenty of sticks and fallen branches on the forest ground just waiting to be picked. So I just used what Mother Nature offered me...

I  know form my experience that I should eat well the day before the race and in the morning before the race. By now I also know hat I should avoid overeating. In the morning I had my standard runner's meal: yogurt with oat flakes, sweetened with plum marmalade and a bit of honey.  The yogurt was freshly prepared by my wife, using whole fat milk and selected yogurt germs. The plum marmalade was the Romanian specialty one (called magiun); the only ingredient is sweet plums - no sugars added! So quite a healthy breakfast I would say. The fat yogurt and the whole grain oat flakes make me feel full for half a day. They are slowly digested releasing energy for more than half of a day.

I took with me two energy bars, as this was requested by the race rules. I finished the race without touching them. During the race I only had some grapes and banana pieces at the three official refreshment supply points.

On the ridge! Photo by Mihai Benea
I did not want to carry a backpack as I do not like to get sweaty on my back. I had a running belt with a 750ml bottle. I have chosen a bottle with a large lid, so at the supply points I can quickly empty glasses of liquid into the bottle. I made sure that I left each of the three refreshment supply points with my bottle full and I also drank a few glasses of liquid each time. During the race I consumed 50% water and 50% isotonic drinks.

The refreshment points were very well stocked with liquids, fruits, cheese and other snacks. The mid-course one also had yogurt and even hot soup. However I did not pay too much attention to what was available. I just looked for fruits, isotonic drinks and water.

The rules of the competition demand long trousers and long sleeves. Well, one can wear anything, but the compulsory equipment must then be carried in a backpack. I have chosen to wear long tights and a sports T-shirt with long sleeves. It wasn't going to be too warm so it was OK. On the long ascent to Funduri Saddle, which at 1950m is the highest pint of the route, I took my shirt off... I knew from the previous year that if sunny it gets very warm on this sunny mountain slope. I avoided to clip my number on the T-shirt so I could get it off if I felt too warm. I also carried the compulsory wind jacket tied on the running belt. I haven't used it during the race, but it is an important piece of equipment that I always have with me on the mountains.

Of course, the most important piece of the equipment are the shoes. I ran with my old by now Salomon Speedcross trail running shoes. I am very pleased by these shoes. They are very light but strong. The soles have a very god grip as they are made from a quite soft rubber. The downside is that they wear off quite quickly. I kept these shoes only for racing and after two seasons it is time to replace them with a new pair, although they are not completely worn-off so I can continue to use them for training.

Flying to the finish line. Photo by Andreea Dumitrescu
The race went on without any bad surprises for me. I was careful not to be too behind the start line. This was a good decision as I could go faster at the beginning so when the trail narrowed I was already with the faster runners without the need to overtake.

As usually I was constantly overtaking on uphills. On the steep downhills the situation reversed. I am a very cautions runner so many runners overtook me on the steep descents. Overall, my place improved during the race. I tried o keep a comfortable and constant pace and I managed to do it throughout the race. I knew well the route from last year so I could optimize my pace, knowing what to expect next. On the last long ascent, the feared climb to Diana refuge I forced my rhythm up a bit and again managed to slowly overtake several runners. This increased my confidence. From Diana to the finish line, the route is is mostly downhill and I was surprised how much energy still I had left so I accelerated  with ease and overtook a few more runners... runners that just overtook me on the steeper and technical part at the beginning of this descent.

The most difficult part for me was the last kilometer through the town... The descent ends on the town limits and the last km is flat on asphalted roads. But I kept running as lots of people were watching and encouraging the runners.

50 more meters! Photo by Anda Ignat
A last sharp corner, followed by a straight line to the finish. I cannot believe! I did it in 5h15! more than 30 minutes better than last year. I am in top 10% now! A result I am quite proud of! On the other hand I realize that it will be very difficult to get a better time next year. It would have to be a perfect day like this year and I would have to be in even better shape. In the meanwhile I know that I have to train more on steep and technical descents. That is hard for me because I prefer long gentle descents... after working hard to get to the top I do not want to get back in the valley immediately...

This year, MPC was again a great experience! The organizers, volunteers, sponsors, supporters, photographers and of course all the runners made it happen again. A big thank you to all involved in this wonderful event!

See you again in 2014!