Written by Steve Hayes - https://stevedavidhayes.wordpress.com
I had decided to have a go at this race after reading my good friend Gary Daltons race report from his failed attempt in 2014 http://www.run247.com/articles/article-5097-mountain-running-is-not-a-sport-you-can-fake.html I met Gary during the Spine race in January 2014 and had enjoyed his race report. My girlfriend is from Romania so it made sense that I would have a go at this. I had been to Transylvania the previous February for a short visit and had been for a few walks up some of the mountains. They were very steep but equally beautiful and I wanted to return.
I flew out to Romania with my girlfriend Corina and made it to Bran just in time for the briefing in a sports centre behind the famous Bran Castle. I met up with Gary and his wife Ky as I was hurriedly packing my kit. I had forgotten about the kit check so I asked him what he was taking and stuffed what I could into my pack.
The briefing was fine. I expected the mentions of Bear whistles and warnings about wild dogs. There was a short Q&A after the briefing which I couldn’t really hear due to the noise from the 50km runners doing their bag checks. Once the briefing was over we had to get our kit inspected but the queue wasn’t moving too quickly so he four of us decided to go and get dinner first and return when it was a bit quieter. This worked out well. We were given a voucher by the organisers to have a meal at a local restaurant. Kit check went without issue. They did mention that I might struggle with my New Balance Leadville’s as they aren’t too grippy and the course is muddy. Oh well, that’s all I had.
Headed off to the in-laws where I would meet Corina’s parents for the first time. Not the ideal stress free environment I would have liked. Obviously a couple of Whisky’s were consumed to calm the nerves which in turn lowered my will power and before long we were enjoying several cigarettes (which I had given up a few months before). Too bad, I was on holiday! I can always find an excuse to get drunk and have a smoke. I headed to bed for about four hours of sleep. Not ideal.
The next morning, we headed off to the start line which we cut quite fine. We didn’t have to hang around for long before we headed off following our Police escort through the village, past some residential areas and up into the forests and mountains. It wasn’t long before most people were slowing to a walk and stopping to get out their walking poles. The route was pretty well marked with the European route markings on trees and boulders and there were still quite a few people around between the 50 and 100km races so getting lost wasn’t an issue. Time went quite quickly as I was catching up with Gary and enjoying the scenery. It was about 12km to check point one (Gaura) with a mixture of tough muddy climbs, steep forest descents and open fields surrounded by snow capped cliffs and mountains. The check point was basic, a couple of people with a small tent and a clipboard but they had sweets which went down well. Gary and I took a few photos and then we were off back to the trails in fairly good weather, a bit claggy but still just wearing a T shirt. The scenery was breath-taking and got better the higher we went and everything just felt a bit “beary”. Every now and again you would hear someone shouting or blowing their whistle, clearly with the intention of warning any bears that were around. Pretty pointless really as dozens of people had already ran past and made the bears aware that we were coming.
I can’t think of anything memorable in the 10km to CP 2 (Strunga) and can’t remember the check point either but I believe we were continuing to climb and were now at around 1900 metres. I think this is where the 50km racers cut off and went to the right and the field thinned instantly. I remember cliffs and high mountains to my left and a steep tussocky decent in front which Gary and I gingerly started down. We stopped when we were overtaken by a mountain goat of a runner with a distinct hatred for his own joints. He was bounding down and both Gary and I stopped in amazement with scrunched up faces waiting for the snap of a bone that never came. We continued down slowly, protecting out aging limbs until we got to the bottom, found a slight bit of civilisation in the form of a road and a couple of houses and then proceeded to get lost. We had followed the signs and the map and also a couple of other runners who seemed to disappear into the woods. We retraced our steps a few times, contemplated a couple of river crossings and eventually followed where we thought the others had gone. We came across what looked like a hotel under construction and saw a few non-race people before bumping into a few racers. We weren’t sure if we’d taken a short cut or if they had, as we didn’t know where we were in relation to them. We continued as a group up through the ski areas towards the Pestera check point which would have hot drinks, some food and a chance to fill up water bottles. This was quite a large check point and a relief to get to as we knew from here on would become quite mountainous and the weather may change. We tried to keep the break to five minutes, enough time to remove my shoes to empty debris out and meet a fellow brit living in Wales, Guy Mawson. A nice chap who I would end up spending more time with later on and a full week with in Wales a few months later.
We cracked on, heading up from 1600 metres to 2200 metres over about 3 kilometres with the weather worsening. We had a quick chat with one of the organisers and a photo stop at Babele – a rocky monument thing. The clag was down and weather was quite miserable but we were happy and continued plodding past the 30km point along fairly level terrain. We passed a young couple who looked like they were out for a stroll at 2200 metres in very inappropriate mountain clothing and we all exchanged odd looks. Snow was getting fairly deep toward the high point of the race and we had a very steep traverse to negotiate. Markings became fairly absent, visibility was down to about 10 metres and navigation was done by following Salomon footprints. Gary and I stopped for a while viewing a particularly dangerous looking traverse which was steep and icy with a cloudy abyss to our right to consider if this was the route and if it was safe. Guy Mawson then caught up with us and we decided to give it a crack. It was a bit of a mission with a steep drop off and knee to mid-thigh depth snow, sometimes with Lynx footprints inside the human footprints we were stepping into showing that we had company. This was all rather sketchy but added to the adventure. Again, we passed a group of locals walking around in trainers, jeans and hoodies and carrying cans of beer. I envied them as they were heading down the mountain. I was struggling to keep my footing and stay alive in trail shoes, these guys (and girls) weren’t showing any signs of a struggle. After a while of falling around in the snow we began the final tough climb to the summit of Omu at 2505 metres. We went into the mountain refuge hut for a quick drink and a mars bar before heading off to continue our race.
This is where the fun began. We left the hut in very poor visibility and were told “head down there until you get to a rock, turn left at the snow field and then enjoy the slide/sledge down until you get to the bottom” or something similar. My memory is hazy at this stage. We headed down, found a rock engulfed in cloud and stepped onto a very steep snow/ice field and began our hair raising decent. We jumped, ran, tripped, stumbled with glee down the snow field laughing at each other and having a whale of a time until we both found ourselves hurtling at breakneck speeds in excess of 30mph down a very steep sheet of ice towards what looked like a vertical drop off coming up a bit too quickly. Without saying anything we both seemed to acknowledge that we were about to plummet to our deaths and started using our walking poles, feet, elbows and anything else to slow our decent in an almost professional emergency ice arrest. This worked great and we stopped about 30 metres short of the cliff. This was probably the closest I have been to death and it was all rather exhilarating. We couldn’t see how high the cliff was as it was all hidden in clouds but we knew we had to get off this very steep, funnelled slab of ice, and sharpish. We edged over to the side and climbed up onto a grassy bank to discuss our options. We couldn’t climb down and we couldn’t traverse the ice at this stage as it was too steep and dangerous so we would start to climb until the slope plateaued somewhat and then we could traverse east as we had figured out/guessed that we had descended the wrong snow field and there must be several steep snow fields over from the correct one. We climbed and began our traverse using poles to steady ourselves and our feet to kick steps into the ice. This was all very treacherous and we slid down the ice several times cutting our legs and reaching quite fast speed towards the drop off. We eventually made it across and climbed over the tussocky ridge to find yet another very similar snow field which we tried to traverse. This one was interesting as it seemed to contain some rather large crevasses that opened up when I stabbed a walking pole into the ice. We had no idea what we were edging across and were quite concerned about avalanches once Gary had mentioned them! Another death defying ice field traverse and we came across a wider, less steep field filled with softer, more runnable snow and a load of footprints. We were right, we had gone down the wrong snow field. We started to run, jump, sledge on our arses which was all great fun until we emerged beneath the clouds and were greeted by an amphitheatre of steep, rocky mountains. After a bit more sledging and sliding I got my camera out and asked Gary to pose for some pictures. He started to slip and mid pose I hear a crack and some loud profanities. I watched as Gary’s leg appeared to stick in the snow and twist. I was 100% convinced he’d snapped his leg and he was too. He was in agony and pissed off that his race would be over. He had tried the year before and had to abort so this was obviously a huge blow. It also meant he would probably be out of TDG which I knew he desperately wanted to do. I felt absolutely gutted for him and he was in a great deal of pain.
Great trail markings! Very reliable. This tree was blowing around the mountain. We had to follow it
Gary with his sore ankle – A bit grumpy, even with good company
A few calls were made to the organisers and mountain rescue but help didn’t seem to be very forthcoming. We were above the snow line and the weather didn’t look like it was going to improve. There were no other runners around and we were beginning to get cold. The best option was to continue to descend at a slow pace towards where the help would be coming from, Busteni. Without a chopper there wasn’t really any way he could be rescued from where we were so we bandaged up the ankle and started the descent. Unfortunately, with only one good leg, lots of ice and a bent walking pole this meant lots more tripping, sliding, collisions with rocks and cursing. Eventually we came to the end of the snow and decided to make some more calls. Still no news about an estimated time of collection/rescue and a weather front was moving in. We had to continue to lower ground and did so for what seemed like a couple of hours. This was tough going over very rough terrain and we had to stop every hundred metres for a rest. It was hard enough for me with two legs but with one! Gary was frequently getting moody and telling me to piss off but I wasn’t about to leave him on the side of a very beary looking mountain. He would have been easy pickings. I made many more phone calls but still had no clarity on what was happening. It seemed we would have to continue like this for a while. We bumped into a nice Romanian girl who lives in England and she was quite happy to show us the huge hole in the bum cheek of her leggings and the nasty looking graze to her bum from sliding down the ice. So I thought I’d share it with you. Luckily no-one reads these!
We offered assistance and then she left us. We rested for a while until we felt uncomfortable and continued our journey until we met four lads from mountain rescue carrying a disassembled trolley to put Gary on. Once I knew he was safe I bummed a cigarette from one of them, enjoyed smoking it and said my farewells to Gary before continuing my descent.
Gary receiving treatment before being strapped to a stretcher.
Some nice views and the view we had down one of the ice fields
I was now about to miss the cut off but as I’d sacrificed a few hours of my time and usual protocol would suggest I would be credited the time I made some phone calls to ask them to keep the checkpoint open for me for a few minutes longer. I was passed from pillar to post and made numerous calls whilst running as fast as I could through some pretty gnarly forest trails. A really nice stretch of running, just a shame it was pissing down in the middle of a thunder storm and I was on the phone. I made it to the town of Busteni but once again the markings disappeared. I felt I was going the right way but there was no indication, not even a Salomon footprint! Corina and her dad were at the checkpoint and they were telling me the checkpoint was about to close but I just couldn’t find the right way. I was getting very annoyed and resorted to blowing my whistle and asking them if they could hear it just so they could tell me which direction to run in. Eventually I found them both walking towards me. After a quick hug and a chat I ran on for a minute or two to the check point to stock up on some food and drink for a couple of minutes. I was not completely surprised to be told that a racer was missing somewhere on the course. I left the check point after a couple of minutes and ran up a short but very steep ski slope or two and entered some woods where the trail markings disappeared again. With light fading and the woods being very thick I bushwhacked my way through the trees in the direction I thought I should be going – a complete guess. After running from a few wilds dogs I found a trail marker and started the 1100 metre in 6km ascent which I loved but I was trying to make up time and was pushing myself quite hard. Before I reached the top I caught up with Ioana, the Romanian girl with the sore arse and Guy Mawson who had also had some navigational difficulties in the snow field. We decided to stick together to the next checkpoint as it was dark and we were all a similar pace. The next check point was nice, warm drinks provided and an inside area to sit down. Andy heading the race director was there and we had a chat for five minutes, mainly about Denzel the missing athlete that they still couldn’t confirm had been found or not. Once Ioana had said goodbye to her army of support crew that were doing a great job, we headed off into the cold and snowy night with a few makeshift directions due to a change of route – along the lines of “walk on that bearing for five minutes and then turn right by the bush”! We had a bit of navigational difficulty in the clag and the red/white tape used to mark the trail was very difficult to see. The maps provided weren’t good for navigating accurately. Once we’d found the markers we followed a part frozen river for a while but had to keep crossing it as it meandered. There’s something quite fun about glacial river crossings at night but after 8 of them the novelty wears off and I was tired of having cold, wet feet. Eventually we stepped off away from the river, over a road, past a farm with more crazy dogs and navigated our way down towards Bolboci check point which was alongside a big lake. It seemed to take forever to get there as once we had gotten next to the lake we then had to follow the road around the perimeter of the lake to get to the check point that we could recognise from the lights. As the crow flies we were very close but by following all of the inlets around the coast we sometimes seemed to be getting further away and I was getting bored of it. I hate running on roads at the best of times but to be so close yet so far away was driving me nuts and I slowed to a walk and enjoyed some peaceful time on my own, letting Guy and Ioana run ahead. I switched my head torch off and enjoyed dawdling across the Dam wall that marked the end of the lake, gazing up at the amazing amount of stars. Once across the lake wall I went to climb the steps that led up to the guest house/restaurant which served as the check point for the last three competitors that were sneaking in just inside the cut off at about 23:00. I switched my head torch on to begin the steps and had the fright of my life. To my left I had two Wolves snapping at me with their hackles up trying to bite my legs. I’m still not sure if they were sneaking up on me or just heading up the steps to get to the previously torn open bin shed and the refuse they’d been eating previously. I only saw this afterwards. I think that is what happened and when I put my torch on we surprised each other but an animal instinct came over me, a fight for survival. The confrontation lasted just a few seconds but is ingrained in my mind. They were both snapping at my legs and I was kicking at them, stabbing at them with my walking poles and screaming at them with sheer aggression – FUCK OFF, FUCK OFF. Eventually one backed away and then the second before turning and running off into the night. This was probably the single most scary incident of my life, closely followed by sliding down the ice field just a few hours earlier! What a race. I ran up to the check point and Guy asked what was wrong. I put his hand on my chest as I was concerned by my heart rate and mentioned what had happened. I was annoyed and amazed that they hadn’t heard me screaming. He said they were probably just dogs but these bastards were not dogs. It wasn’t that they were bigger, they weren’t bigger, they were quite skinny and starved looking but they weren’t barking or growling, they were just trying to attack me. I am only grateful there were no more than two of them as they didn’t scare easily and if it was a pack I would have been wolf food. Anyway, once I’d had a quick sandwich and a bit of a rest we said goodbye to Ioana’s support crew and headed back out into the night for a 12km – 15km stretch to the next check point. On the map this area didn’t look too eventful and started with a climb along some logging tracks. I couldn’t shake the images of the wolves from my mind and I didn’t like being at the back of the three of us in case they picked off the weak one. I didn’t like being to the side near the trees and settled at the front and in the middle of the path. I kept a sharp eye out in front and waiting for the scream from one of the others. At least if I was further ahead I could reduce my chances of being eaten. I didn’t have to be quicker than a wolf, just quicker than Guy and Ioana.
The weather was getting quite bad with fog and cloud and we struggled to find the trail markers. Thankfully I had a very powerful head torch and with a bit of zig zagging through fields we usually managed to find the next marker without too many issues although we were certainly adding a lot of distance on to the short 10km leg to checkpoint Saua Strungulita which was just a tent in the middle of nowhere with a couple of volunteers in it to provide hot drinks and snacks. I don’t remember much about it but we left after a short lie down. Once we left, I felt awesome and felt I could really push the pace. Ioana was slowing down a bit and I really wanted to get this race done so I sped up downhill along the path heading towards some head torches about a mile off. I was running pretty good and had left Guy and Ioanna and then lost sight of the people ahead. The path was quite clear but the markers had disappeared. My head torch batteries went and at the same time I experienced a strong feeling of being watched and didn’t feel too comfortable about being stationary with no head torch in an exposed area so I made the quickest battery change known to man and continued on my way but with the absence of trail markings I couldn’t find the way to go. I went left along a path for a while, then back tracked and went right. I just couldn’t find a route. Eventually after going around in circles I couldn’t even find the path to take me back the way I’d come from. What a knob!! I got myself into a bit of a mess and every way I went was wrong. I headed north and ended up on a very steep slope of sheer ice. I managed to negotiate my way down it until there was less ice and kept running down hill until I got to some woods and a river but It wasn’t the right way so I went back up the hill trying to retrace my steps. It was dark, cold and cloudy with very little visibility. Once at the top of the hill again I tried traversing the snow fields but they were too steep. I tried going in every direction and I seemed to be surrounded by near vertical snow fields except one direction which was filled with shoulder height gorse and spiky bushes. I was getting torn to shreds going through them. This was all very frustrating and with the maps giving very little detail I faced reality that I was lost but I hadn’t given up hope of completing the race. I had called the event organisers but they weren’t very helpful. I was transferred to the Romanian organiser as he knew the land better but we couldn’t figure out where I was. I asked if the guys from the last checkpoint could walk towards my last known location blowing a whistle and he agreed but said it may be a while as they were breaking down their tent. A while later I was told that they wouldn’t be coming to look for me. I continued going in circles for a few hours trying to find a way off this mountain. I didn’t phone Corina as I didn’t want her to worry. By now I was pretty sure my race was over and I was very mad. Eventually as daylight came and I had a bit more visibility, the cloud lifted and I was able to find a grassy route down and eventually I found the source of a small stream. I followed this as it widened and turned into a river. After a few miles of passing absolutely nothing but thick forest I came to a logging track which I continued to follow for a couple of hours. By this point I had given up contacting the organisers as they had been useless and I was talking to my girlfriend who was talking to them and the mountain rescue teams and someone from Government to try and find out where I was. I was ringing every so often when I saw a sign or would try and describe what I was seeing. She would then relay that to someone else and would then phone me back to say they had no idea where I was. Most of the signs were saying things like “Keep out”, “private logging” etc.
After a while I saw my first human in a while. This should have been an exciting moment except this dodgy looking chap was squatted in the middle of the logging tack where I was walking, having his morning poo. Marvellous! I didn’t know whether to ignore him or say good morning or turn back. By this point he had seen me and I was only metres away so I walked passed, said Buna Dimi (good morning) without making eye contact and tried to get passed him. A few metres later, to my right I noticed a rundown caravan/shack/shed thing with about four or five more geezers stood having their morning coffee with their horses. As I tried to walk passed as inconspicuously as possible, everything erupted. Their dogs chased me, the guy who was having his morning dump was shouting stuff and chasing me, another bloke was kicking the dogs who were trying to bite me, another fella grabbed my shoulders in a protective way and they all started shouting and talking rather quickly in some foreign language! I was shitting myself. I tried to show them my map and explain I was in a race but they didn’t understand and seemed more preoccupied by my clothing, head torch and trying to search through my pockets for cigarettes. I must have looked a right state. I didn’t like the way the conversations were going and I was very scared. I sensed hostility. If these guys wanted to gang rape and murder me they could have quite easily done so and fed me to their dogs. No one would ever have found me. No one even knew where I was. After a few seconds, I asked if I could go back up the logging track towards where they said the next checkpoint was but they blocked me going that way and made me go down the track, the way I was going anyway. With a slight break in the conversation I made a run for it with the dogs chasing not far behind. I didn’t look back but was swiping my walking poles at the dogs behind me until they retired and returned to their owners.
I must have run my quickest 10km time ever down that logging track, looking over my shoulders every few seconds to check I wasn’t being chased/hunted down. I know it all sounds dramatic but this is exactly how I was feeling in my sleep deprived, dehydrated, starving and exhausted state. I was scared. I should have been happy that I was starting to see the odd house every mile or so but I wasn’t. I was worried about the dogs that seemed very aggressive and I didn’t really want to meet anyone. Despite desperately needing help, I felt safer on my own. Every time I phoned Corina with an update I climbed off the logging track and hid in the woods. Every time I was on the track I was running.
Eventually I found some signs and was able to ring the Mrs, spell the signs out to her and she would then speak to someone in the mountain rescue teams and would call me back to tell me to keep on going in that direction and I would come to a small village where she would pick me up.
This was a relief but it still took ages to get down this track. I went past a load of old disused quarry looking machinery and shutes etc before seeing my first sign of life in a while. Some people, cars, kids on bikes. No one seemed to give me any attention at all despite me being so relieved to be alive and see some normal looking humans. I made it to the village and collapsed to the ground where I waited for a couple of hours (seemed like more) until my partner and her dad found me. I was so relieved to have a cigarette and get into the car for a long drive home. I’d been on the go for well over 30 hours, the race duration and had covered many more than the 100 kilometres the race entailed. I’d had an adventure. I had a very strong feeling of regret that I hadn’t finished the race, my first DNF but I had an even stronger feeling of relief that I was alive. With time, maybe a few hours, these feeling reversed and the main feeling I had was regret at getting lost and not practicing sound mountain judgement. Through exhaustion, tiredness and the emotional upset of the wolves and worry of another wolf incident I just wasn’t thinking clearly enough. I’m going back to finish this race.
Overall the race was fantastic. There were a lot of dramas – dangerous ice fields, Gary’s injuries, almost missing cut offs and fear of missing cut offs, the Wolves, getting lost in bad weather on a mountain, the unfriendly locals in the woods etc etc but I had a great time and remember it well. The organisation was great in some ways but very poor in others. If it’s a marked trail, it should be marked. If not, more emphasis should be put on self navigation. This was somewhere in the middle. Attaching the marking tape to a tree that was uprooted and could be blown anywhere was just plain silly. The reaction and assistance offered to a tired competitor in the middle of the night was piss poor and needs to be improved. I still loved the race though and would highly recommend but be prepared.