Written by Richard Stillion - https://richyla.wordpress.com/
12th-14th April 2019
Race Director: Alen Paliska
Kazufumi Ose 18:38:58
Katja Kegl Vencelj 23:16:54
100 Miles of Istria is 168 kilometres (or 105 miles), in the most north westerly county of Croatia. I had been looking for races abroad, preferably in holiday time so my family could bag a trip to Europe too. Unfortunately, there aren’t many – UTMB, is one, but I didn’t have the points to qualify and there was one in Annecy. I was on the Ultrarunning Community Facebook page when a post came up about 100 Miles of Istria which was around Easter time. Turns out Drew Sheffield and Andrew Ferguson (Centurion and Mud Crew Organisers) had both done it and thoroughly recommended it. It was part of the Ultra Trail World Tour, so it should certainly be of a high standard in organisation, so I began my persuasion tactics upon the wife – the times of turning up at some random place and “oooh look they have a race here, I’ll just see if there are any places for me” were long gone. There were four races of varying length Red, Blue 110km, Green 67km and Yellow 41km (ooh and a kids race). I did think about doing one of the shorter ones but then thought if I finished them and felt okay, then I’d be annoyed at not doing the longest one, so Red it was.
Logistically we decided on flying into Venice (there were more frequent flights than from Pula in Croatia) and we would drive along a dual carriageway, from Italy, through Slovenia and then into Croatia. It was only approximately 2.5 hours in total and was fairly straightforward.
Training had been going well, I’d been focusing on core as well as running and had been doing boot camp and stability ball classes. I was feeling good up to 3 weeks before the race and suddenly my hips, the age-old issues, started to play up. It was so frustrating, this was going to be a difficult feat for me, and the last thing I needed was to worry about injuries so close to the race. I think they’re sometimes referred to as phantom niggles – the body starts to fret and make up stuff. Suffice to say I cut back my training and just hoped for the best.
We flew out to Venice and the car journey went without any issues. We were going to stay in the hilltop town of Motovun and the approach was in the bottom of the Mirna valley. Motovun came into view perched up high and I suddenly wondered what I’d got myself into. Motovun was an aid station at mile 80 and it was one of the lower hills I would need to climb. It looked rather high from where I was driving!
We settled in for a few days, visiting Buzet which would be the halfway point of the race. We went to the race registration in Umag (which was also the finish line) the day before the race as my wife would need to know where to go to pick me up. There was a smallish queue when we got there but it seemed to take quite a while for it to move. I got chatting to a few guys who had come over from South Africa. I think there were 52 countries represented in all and I think most, if not all, of the flags were flying in the sports hall above the registration area. On the wall beside the queue were some boards with all the competitors names which was a bit of a brief distraction in the wait, trying to spot your name.
Registration required proof of id first, move along to mandatory kit check – which I thought was incredibly basic – move along for bib presentation and drop bags, then along for race merchandise which were socks and t-shirt and a bottle of ale. You were given two drop bags, one for the halfway point and a small one to take to the race start, I guess for last minute things, but I didn’t bother with that one.
When we arrived in Croatia, we’d had some pretty heavy downpours and thunder and lightning. Checking the weather forecast, it looked pretty mild, maybe slight rain on the mountain range at 8c and then sunny and 18c in the lower section the day after. There were warnings in the rather large race guidebook that the mountains did have their own microclimate and all sorts of weather conditions, including snow, should be accounted for. I packed a few extra things as well as the mandatory kit list – a few extra grams wasn’t going to affect my “performance”.
So, race day started bright and breezy, but sadly the race didn’t. That didn’t start until 4pm. We had to be in Umag for the bus to take us to the start at 1pm. I briefly chatted with Louise McWilliams here. She was one of seven Great Britain competitors – Great Britain doesn’t include Scotland in this race – for some reason in this race it is listed separately. There was no one from Scotland this year but Paul Giblin has won this race in a previous year. There were many buses, but the bus we had to catch was numbered on our race bib, which I thought was a nice touch. On the reverse of the bib was the list of aid stations and an elevation profile which I looked at quite a bit throughout the race.
There was certainly a nervous tension on the bus, broken by one of the many photographers who jumped on briefly to take a photo – this is the happy bus – he quipped, which gave a few laughs more from nerves I think. Off we went and I took in some of the scenery on the way, huge amounts of wooded areas and valleys, and then the Ucka mountain range came into view. The buses parked outside Labin and we walked about a kilometre into the town. The wind had picked up here and was pretty cold with added rain. Like most people, I headed for a café to grab a coffee. The rain abated and I just perched myself on a bench and waited and watched people go through their pre-race rituals. A drumming band from Trieste started thumping away about ten minutes before the start which was a welcome distraction. The long wait, from planning about 15 months before, was about to start. Would I make it to the end of the first strip of road, would my aching hips hold out? Let’s see. We were off. Me, for the first time ever with poles, which I’d panic bought a few days before coming out to Croatia (many thanks for the advice VLT!).
We went along a road and then turned onto a narrow track which caused the inevitable bottle-neck queue, these things almost always happen at the start. Soon we were heading through a wood down to the sea and then running along a promenade. Not for long, for sure enough, the first of the uphills began. This was about a 500 metre climb and warm work.
Eventually reaching the top, there followed the downhill at which point my headtorch clattered to the floor. I couldn’t understand it at first but then I realised one of my coat pockets must have given out – kit fail already! There was a large power station at the bottom of the hill and we crossed some sort of irrigation channel, I’ve no idea what was in it. Onto sea level again and the first of the checkpoints at Plomin Luka which I think was about 10 miles in 2hrs15 which I was happy enough with. I shoved some oranges and bananas in with a nice bit of custard slice, then got going on the long ascent onto the Ucka mountain range, about 800 metres on this section. It was hot work on the sheltered side of the mountain and I was cursing the lack of breeze.
This changed when I crested this section of climb onto a more exposed area, cold, high winds there to greet me. This was a rocky sort of section where I was hopping over some of the boulders here and there. I realised how cold I was getting, my hands becoming a bit numb. I got my coat on, buffs and gloves and carried on and up. It was also getting dark so I pulled my headtorch out. I was getting buffeted about a bit here and my poles, made of carbon, were getting blown about too. Despite so many reflective flags which were marking the route, I took a slight detour until someone yelled at me to correct me. Eventually, I reached some woods which provided me with a bit of respite from the wind. I started heading downhill and around a bend away from the wind. I eventually reached another aid station at Prodol and decided I’d pull out my merino wool baselayer – it’s been on many a trip with me, but I’ve never used it before, but it would pay dividends on this next section. I can’t remember too much other than following the trail up until I came upon a very steep section. I could see headtorches quite high up so knew it would be a fair climb. This would be to the top of Mount Vojak at 1396m (the highest point of the race). I was concentrating where I was putting my poles and my feet, but I noticed wisps of dew dropping down and just assumed it was rain from earlier being blown off the trees. Then I looked up. Ooh, snow! I thought. That’s nice! I eventually caught someone up who commented on what a tough climb it was. I agreed. I then came upon two marshals who took my number. Bravo! Good luck! They said. I didn’t really comprehend why they’d said it until I looked up; way up this time, I could see head torches, and this was a fully exposed snow-covered mountainside. I’d never experienced these conditions before but there were plenty of markings despite the snow, so up I went. I saw someone coming up behind me and before I knew it, it felt like he just stepped over me. And then another. I couldn’t understand if they were so fast, why had they been behind me? I then cottoned on that the second race (Blue) had started.
The next bit was pretty annoying as I kept getting out of the blue runners’ way as they pummelled past as it lasted for quite some time. I quite enjoyed the snow climb, there were enough tracks for me to follow so I didn’t lose my way. I got to the top and there was a viewing tower which I’d seen from google images and it seems to get pretty busy in the summer time.
Down I went on the other side and it was pretty steep in places going through a wooded area which eventually came out at Poklon aid station which marked the marathon mark for me at 8 hours which is pretty much what I’d got in my mind time-wise. The aid station was too warm for me (fair enough though the volunteers needed the heat) and it was pretty cramped as there were crew/family in the tent too who were behind barriers.
I had some crisps and a cheese sandwich and then needed to change my headtorch batteries. I enlisted the help of one of the crew on the other side of the barrier as my hands were quite cold and it was a bit fiddly changing the batteries. She wished me good luck and I went outside. The cold hit me a bit because of the warmth of the marquee but I got going along a road. A car came up to me here and the car had the window down.
“Back!” he shouted. I wasn’t sure why and then I think I heard someone shout that I’d gone the wrong way. Amazing that you can just switch off and miss the markers which were in abundance.
There were four more peaks and two aid stations to get up before the halfway at Buzet. I can’t remember that much about them apart from some more snow – not as much as Vojak though. The marshals in some parts of the race must have had a lot of runners coming through so it must have been pretty hectic at times, as some of the aid stations I went in were, trying to jostle for food or drinks. Eventually, I started to make out the outline of the hills and realised dawn was on its way. I had one more hill to climb around 1100m before a long steep descent to Buzet at near sea level. I find it frustrating when the legs have had enough of running as this would have been fantastic to run down. Instead I was just careful where I was treading and got down to Buzet in one piece and reached the halfway main checkpoint which was in a sports hall. I got my drop bag here and had some food. My back was a bit compressed here and I tried to stretch it out. A medic asked if I needed some help and she put some cold spray on it to take the inflammation down a bit. I topped up headtorch batteries, brunch bars and gels, but didn’t change any clothing, I was happy with my choices. Just a touch more sudocrem between the cheeks which was working wonders for the anti-chafe!
It was about 10am when I left, so 18 hours in – again what I’d been realistically hoping for in my mind. The morning warmth was coming through and it was going to be a pleasant hike for the day as I headed south west towards the “world’s smallest town” of Hum. This route was for the red route only so I was expecting it to be fairly quiet. It meandered alongside the river Mirna, leaving town and into a wooded area. I had to make four crossings of the river (about 10m across and halfway up the calf) as the stepping stones looked a bit precarious so I thought it safer just to wade across. I don’t like getting my feet wet for fear of blisters. Every time my feet seemed to be drying out, I came across another crossing!
Eventually the gradient climbed and I went on to proper road for quite a way. It took a while but eventually I “hit” Hum and the route took me round the outside then into the one street town. It was pretty quiet here and I didn’t spend long (I tried not to stay too long in any of the aid stations) and I was soon on my way.
This was one of the lower points of the race altitude-wise and it was largely fields with a smallish incline heading towards the reservoir at Butoniga. I fell into chatting with an Italian chap around this point (he spoke excellent English) who’d done Istria 3 times and another race in the Dalmation area. He went into a bit of a jog after a while and I carried on my way until I crossed the reservoir’s dam wall and reached the aid station.
I was looking forward to this next section as the next aid station was at Motovun where the family were staying – they were tracking me as I’d hired a satellite tracker (https://www.racedirector.co.uk/). I just needed to get up another hill around 400m, down again, then up into Motovun at 300m. I appreciate it’s not hugely mountainous, but I’ve heard this race described as “lumpy”, which I think is apt enough! The view from the first climb was stunning showing a lush green valley with the river Mirna cutting through like an artery, wooded hills either side and Motovun, like an island in the middle. Beautiful!
I was nearing Motovun and right on cue, a lump of salty sweat hit my eyes, stinging them and causing a ton of cuss-words to emanate from me, just as my son came round the corner. He’d come down to greet me which was great. He kept me company as I slowly climbed upwards. Our house was right by the route and it was fantastic to see everyone. They came along with me to the aid station where again, I topped up with water and a bit to eat. I hugged my family and went off downhill, 80 miles done and 25 to go.
There was a long, flat mile here heading towards my penultimate hill of about 400m. It was getting dusky now and in my fatigue in the gloaming of the woods I was beginning to hallucinate a bit – some tall reeds bent over looked like a grim reaper to name but one.
I reached the top of this climb and this was the first and only time I couldn’t see markers as to where to go. I ended up hazarding a guess and headed in the right direction to Oprtalj aid station. I then wound downhill and I think it was along here that one of my poles broke. This was the first time I’d used poles and I’d really got to like using them, so when one died, I felt rather at a loss, punting away with one pole! I got stuck behind one guy here, I didn’t feel like putting on the after burners and leaving him for dead but he was also going slower than I’d have liked. I managed to find a spot to overtake him thankfully and carried on. There were also some old train tunnels around here which used to be a train route from Italy, but is now a long walking/cycling route called the Parenzana.
The next checkpoint was Groznjan. I wasn’t sure where it was but I came across a small town with a lit up church where two people took our numbers. I was walking with a couple of other guys here and for some reason, probably fatigue, I asked them if it was Groznjan. They said yes it was, and I asked them if there was no aid station here to which they said no. I assumed that they’d done the race before and took it for granted that it was indeed the aid station. I thought it odd, but let myself think it was true and I then thought I was ahead of schedule – you can tell how addled my head was here as I must have known it wasn’t Groznjan. Suffice to say, my excitement of reaching the next aid station – one which I thought was the last, only to find it was the real Groznjan – was somewhat dampened. When I say dampened, read destroyed. I was utterly, utterly crestfallen, not just at the fact it wasn’t where I thought it was, it was that I’d let myself believe in something I must have known wasn’t right. I tripped over my bottom lip moving towards the food tables, and couldn’t see for blubbing. Well, I could really, but there was only one thing for it. One of the marshals suggested I might want to warm up inside but I just wanted to get this done. So off I went, heading for the final (proper final) checkpoint at Buje. The profile suggested pretty much downhill all the way here – again, on fresh legs, this last section could have been done in no time. It was largely flat and straight through a wooded area on wide forest track. I could hear an animal around here sounding like it was sneezing. No idea what that was. Eventually, Buje, all lit up, came into view. It took a fair while to get to it mind, including closer trail through another wood but birds were singing even in the night time. The Buje aid station was in a courtyard and the marshals looked tired and cold here. Again, I didn’t want to stop, I changed my batteries as I didn’t want a battery fail on the last leg, grabbed some bread and cheese and headed out of town. Two guys went past me here and I “bravo’d” them but they didn’t give me much of a response. The final 12-13k was extremely dark. Fields and tracks including one boggy area where I dropped my charger – the only boggy bit I came across as well! I went past the two guys who had gone past me and just walked as quickly as I could. I noticed the soil was extremely red in my torchlight and remembered that Istria is divided into three by its soils – grey, white and red. Birds were singing again – Croatia’s national bird, the nightingale, scops owl, chaffinch and cuckoo. And frogs. Lots of frogs. This lifted me a bit and I recorded it while I was walking.
Lights eventually came into view but I’d no idea which direction the finish was. I realised I was walking by a deep irrigation ditch at this point and I passed another two people. Finally, I went over a bridge and onto tarmac. I was trying to work out which way to go and managed to spot a couple of markers. A couple of people were bravo-ing me in which was really nice being it was the early hours. Across the road and round the corner and there was the finish line. It seemed really dark but I made out my family. They were tired and cold after waiting and I wanted them to come along the finish line with me but they seemed a bit out of it. They eventually came with me and I crossed the finish line.
I was hoping for photos with the boys but they shied away for some reason, so I got my photo alone, was given my medal and another guy shook my hand and I had a bit of a chat with him. I then got a bit of fruit and that was about it. Someone told me there was a complementary meal at a restaurant nearby, but my feet were caked in mud and my family were cold and tired. I was tired. So we thought we’d give it a miss. I went in to the sports hall to grab my drop bag from a tired looking marshal who I thanked and then walked by a load of empty massage tables – no one doing the graveyard shift sadly, although I didn’t really feel too bad to be honest. Our car was parked next to the sports hall so we got in and drove back to Motovun. I was surprised to see some runners just leaving Motovun as we went up the hill. I was glad I didn’t have another 25 miles to go. I got out of the car and my blood pressure had dropped so I started shivering and my teeth chattered. My sons ran up to the house and got some blankets to wrap round me as I clambered stiffly up steps after steps to the house. I had done it. 100 miles of Istria!
Huge, huge thanks to Alen Paliska and all at Sportbox for putting on this incredibly organised event, including every single one of the multitude of volunteers, especially those guys on the mountains, the photographers (free to download), and the Istrian people in general. I can’t fault anything if I’m honest – the marking was incredible!!
If I could change one thing it would be the start time, simply because I was travelling through two nights and because of the night, I couldn’t see the amazing scenery – that said, I wouldn’t have heard the nightingales which was worth the night alone. Maybe I should run faster. Or just run at all. I can’t recommend this race enough, it’s hilly without being enormous, it has generous cut offs, it has stunning scenery – it’s a great entry level race into Europe if you’re a novice like me, or you can definitely run it hard if you’re experienced. Top drawer stuff.
Enormous thanks to my family for putting up with me moaning about my hips from three weeks before, and thanks for waiting in the cold, early hours for me to crawl to the finish.
Thanks to Ultrarunning Community FB page with questions by Paige Morrow and Mark Thornberry that pricked my ears up to this race in the first place – followed by Andrew Ferguson’s and Drew Sheffield’s comments recommending it. And Drew again for putting up with a few banal questions from me.
Big thanks to anyone who followed me on the tracker provided by Mr Chris Mills at https://www.racedirector.co.uk/
My thoughts on the race a few weeks after…I’m absolutely delighted at finishing at all as I’ve only managed to finish one hundred miler and failed two, so it was beginning to get to me a bit, whether I’d ever finish another – well I did and it’s a great feeling. On the other hand, I still feel like a fraud – I just can’t run these things after a while, my legs simply don’t work. I tried it, but realised I may as well just pace at 3mph as it wasn’t any different to my “running” – I take part in ultramarathons, I’m not an ultrarunner! I can finish 50 milers okay, but 100s are a different beast, I wish I could run a few more miles in them.
A word on Istria in general.
The Istrian area of Croatia is stunning. I’d happily go back when I’m older (!) and just stay in Motovun, drinking wine and enjoying the scenery. And eating truffles! The food is good, homely stuff served in farms as part of their agritourism, with homemade gnocchi and pasta with fresh ingredients such as their local truffles and wild asparagus, and it is inexpensive to boot. The Parenzana is a great trail for walking or cycling – we hired bikes for one day and spotted plenty of lizards and orchids.
There are also a few seaside towns worth a visit, notably Pula with its Roman colosseum. If you haven’t picked up on it yet – I loved the place!