If you’d have asked me a few years ago to think up the most outlandish thing I might do in my life, running a mountain ultra starting and finishing at Dracula’s castle in Transylvania wouldn’t have even been close.
It’s such a big departure from the norm but last weekend Ally and I were on the steps to Bran castle waiting to go at 6am.
We signed up for the 50km race (there’s a 100k option too) a few months back and it would be our first overseas race to celebrate Ally’s 40th birthday earlier in the year and although it was a flying visit we planned to do the race (2 nights in Bran) and then have an extra night in Bucharest on the way back to at least sample the city too.
Our target was to finish what we knew from last years race reports would be a brutally tough (11,000ft of ascent) mountain race so we made sure not to get caught up in any massed sprint from the castle start and settled into the power hike that we maintained for the duration of the race.
The start and finish point – Dracula’s Castle in Bran
The course runs you briefly though Bran (which is a very small town) before turning up towards the first climb of a very tough start that effectively sees you climbing from the start up to the highest point (6,500ft) of the course at about 12.5 miles. There’s some respite on the way but it’s as tough a start to a race as you could hope for.
I knew roughly what to expect in terms of 30% gradient climbs but I think the first major climb took it out of Ally and Wane little more than they’d anticipated but once we’d eased our way up the mountain we all settled into the race.
Our initial plan was to try and get around in around 12 hours but it’s always hard to guess how running in this sort of terrain will go and while we were ultimately 5 hours down, our main goal was to finish and to finish while enjoying the experience.
The view from CP1
As it turned out, our power hiking pace was steady throughout the race and we got around 14 hours into the race before there were any real mental or physical issues and fatigue and we’d been very much enjoying the stunning route and mountains.
We were pleased to see CP1 as we’d thought it was due sooner than the GPS showed which I think was a result of some route changes and general inaccuracy of the race maps but at no point were we lost.
The course for the 50km race was sensationally well marked with tape the whole way around every couple of hundred feet would have some tape and combined with the remoteness of this area there are typically only single trails to follow anyway so navigation skills weren’t needed for us at this point.
Later in the race when the mist rolled in and darkness descended there were a lot of people getting lost though. More on that later.
It’s a remote race
This is a remote mountain race, it’s over terrain that would rival anything you’d find in the Alps and one very noticeable bit from CP1 to CP2 and onwards to the main CP3 was that unlike the Alps where each trail often has multiple routes going off to link to other parts of a valley or mountain there are often just single routes here which highlights that it’s not as busy a region.
It also brings home the fact that if you get into any trouble, it’s not always as simple as descending to the nearest Alpine village for a coffee and cake – descend in some of these valleys and there’s just nothing there. It’s very remote in places.
After about 5 miles of this race, we didn’t see another competitor until we were joined by a runner who had got lost getting to CP3 and she joined us from there (about 20 miles) to the finish.
Because of the remote nature of the race, CP2 literally was a couple of guys in a tent who had hiked up to 6,500ft carrying as much water as they could but it was a cup of water each and as the weather closed in at the top of the mountain we put on hats, gloves and jackets which were very much needed for this stretch even though it was generally a really nice and pleasantly warm day otherwise.
Weather closing in at the highest point of the course – 6,500ft up to CP2
Once we’d been through CP2 the next push was a big 10 mile stretch heading back to lower ground and through some stunning alpine meadows and descending through farm fields with cows grazing and bells ringing – could have been France or Switzerland easily.
The main CP3 is set up in a school and it was the first point where we could get a quick coffee and cup of soup along with the biscuits/sweets & cheese on offer. Having a warm drink and something savoury is always a nice break from gels and sweets and moods pick up quickly from there.
The climb out of CP3
Leaving CP3 is harsh though, it’s a 600m climb straight out of the valley back up to a ridge line and from there to the finish you spend a lot of time in the thick forest which we knew from the race briefing did have bears(!!!) and as it turns out from a less fortunate competitor – wolves – who he eventually fended off with his poles before then being the victim of an attempted robbery too.
You have to constantly make a noise, the bears are generally shy and the aim is to let them know you’re coming by regularly blowing on your race issue bear whistle. We didn’t spot any but can at least confirm that they do shit in the woods.
Our original 12 hour plan would have seen us finish with a couple of hours of daylight but it was very clear that wouldn’t be happening.
Progress however was solid and steady and we were covering the course well but the climb back up to the last CP (you loop back to CP1) was brutal. It just kept getting steeper and steeper but as long as you keep moving even if slowly then all is fine.
We didn’t stop for long.
Leaving CP4 gave us our only blip navigationally when the crew at the CP told us to go back along the trail we’d followed at the start of the race until we reached a junction about 500m into the forest where we’d then turn off to descend towards Bran.
After about 1km heading through the woods we spotted nothing to indicate a turn off and decided to go back to the CP to double check distances as the map also showed we should have been past the turn.
One of the CP crew kindly walked us to the junction (if they’d have said to walk until we spotted the flashing light and tape we’d have been fine) which was closer to 2km so take distance quotes and the map accuracy with a pinch of garlic salt. In fairness, the route was well marked and clear and had he not said 500m, we’d have been fine.
The last of the daylight
Not long after though, it got dark and we struggled a bit to follow the markers because the mist had settled into the forest and was just reflecting everything back off our head torches although there aren’t many junctions in the trails I can certainly see how a lot of the 100k racers got lost and disorientated.
There were a couple of really nasty stings in the final few miles of this course.
We descended a fair way only to find a newly marked part of the course essentially turning us 180 degrees and back up a stream running parallel to where we’d just come down.
Not a welcome challenge and one where Ally had a real low physically and mentally as we were probably at about 45km at this point but to her eternal credit, she never stopped moving and as a team we all just ploughed on with talk of the ever escalating number of pizzas and coffee’s we’d be eating soon!
There was another similar down and up climb before the last main descent towards Bran where you finally join a logging access road with the town lights in the distance although it’s tough descending the muddy and steep trails to this point.
The final kick in the proverbial nuts is that you get to the outskirts of the town and can see the lights very near and the Suunto said we’d ticked over the 50km mark in the woods and we’d then been diverted by race crew off the track and started climbing back out of town.
Head down, keep the legs moving. Sob quietly.
That was it though, we eventually come through the back of town to the sports hall where we’d had kit check the day before and it was a walk around the corner to the castle and the finish in 16:57 and a hard earned medal and a little cry from Ally and Wane who both went a long way out of their comfort zones but did so in style!
A nice medal to finish
The organisation and race
I’d heard a few racers had got into some potentially serious situations and mountain rescue had been out to help a couple of people and I guess that could happen in any race.
This is a serious mountain race in a remote part of the world though and while it’s a well marked route and a GPX file and route map are provided, if you get into trouble on some parts of the course you can suddenly be aware you’re alone.
The wildlife is also a real threat – bears were definitely in the woods and a few runners on the 100k reported seeing a mother and cubs we were lucky not to encounter anything but again it’s something to take seriously hence the bear whistle.
I’d fit a little bell to my pack next time personally. There are also boars and wolves to think about.
The required kit while not massively extensive did get thoroughly checked at registration and rightly so. I think I’d probably carry a little more real food next time as the CP’s aren’t well stocked due to their remoteness so total self sufficiency wouldn’t be a bad approach.
Suggested improvements for the organisers
We had a pretty drama free race really, the course was superbly marked and perhaps our only concern was when we crossed the finish line we had been on their list of runners they were “looking for”.
I don’t think we were exactly M.I.A but due to the extreme remoteness of some parts of the course, it might be prudent to look at making this a race that works using trackers or at least if someone is considered missing or behind schedule they could text the competitor to ask them to check in when possible (phone signal is surprisingly good in many parts of the mountain!).
The other improvement would be to mark the course with reflective tape and glowsticks as we found once it got dark the red/white road marking tape was hard to spot.
I tried out a Kalenji Trail pack because my normal Ultimate Direction AK vest wouldn’t hold all the required kit and it worked well although to be honest I don’t think I’d race with it as it just isn’t a snug enough fit for moving faster downhill especially and bounces around.
We took poles (£15 from Decathlon) and used them the whole way around. I know some people complain using poles is cheating in some way.
I’ve never felt that and they certainly made a massive difference both up and down the mountains. I doubt I’d race with them on much in the UK other than long races but in the mountains, they’re indispensable.
Worth noting that if you’re planning on taking only hand luggage, poles aren’t permitted and they must be checked into hold baggage.
As a holiday/adventure
This was our first race overseas and we chose it because our friend Wane had lived for several years in Bucharest and had sung the praises of Romania to us so we thought why not!
Our itinerary was very much a flying visit over a long weekend which made it tiring on top of the race but well worth it and was:
Friday – Fly out Blue Air from Liverpool & hire car from Bucharest to drive to Bran which was insanely easy – it’s literally drive straight for 2 hours, turn left and then left again and you’re there.
Saturday – We stayed in the Hanul Bran 200m around the corner from the start/finish for Friday and Saturday night. Very reasonable and clean although no kettle/coffee in the room and with a 6am race start was a pain not having a brew or being able to make porridge for breakfast.
Sunday – We set off back to Bucharest to drop off the hire car and got a cab into the city centre where we’d treated ourselves to a night in the 5* Athenee Hilton for only £82. Had a meal out and a few beers hobbling around lovely Bucharest.
Monday – We booked an afternoon flight back to Doncaster with Wizz Air so had the morning to walk around and went for a wander to keep the legs moving and saw the Palace of Parliament and had lunch in a half decent restaurant for about £10.
We might be back, it’s a big race. Exceptional value in a stunning setting. Make no mistake though – it can be dangerous if you’re not careful so be prepared and train hard.
As a short break it was superb – Romania is a country of contrasts between progress and patches of poverty but the people are very friendly and the cost of living in terms of going out for food and accommodation make it great value indeed. It’s about 3 – 3.25 hours flight from Liverpool/Doncaster so not too bad.
Final word goes to Ally and Wane whos achievement in finishing in such style clearly gave them both a memory that will last a lifetime and probably result in more “holiday runs” ;)