30 July 2013

Fagarasi Mountains - The Transylvanian Alps

Less is more!
As this is a blog about running, I would usually mean that less of something means more running... However, this time less running means more photos. This Sunday I did a day hike on the main Ridge of Fagarasi Mountains. Vlad, my work colleague picked me up with his car at 5AM in the morning and we drove for more than 2 hours up to Balea Lake, at 2000m altitude, in the heart of Fagarasi Mountains, below the main ridge. We did a day hike along the main ridge, covering about 10% of the ridge length, between Paltinu and Mircii peaks.

In Fagarasi I get the feeling that the mountain overwhelms me, more than on other massifs in the Carpathians. Fagarasi are indeed the most massive and the highest mountains of the Romanian Carpathians. They really deserve the "Transylvanian Alps" nickname!

I took many photos on the way. I would not tell you the precise location of each photo... you have to go there and discover yourself... ;-)
Here is a selection of the photos. The complete album is also available on Picassa.

21 July 2013

Marathon 7500 - "Hobby Race"

Marathon 7500, organised by the CPNT club from Brasov, is a well established and unique endurance trail running  race in Romania. This year, 2013, the well organised race reached its 5th edition. The event is held in July in Bucegi Mountains, inside the limits of Bucegi Natural Park. The long route of the race criss-crosses most of the Bucegi Mountains, up and down, passing through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the Carpathian Mountains.

I knew about this race before, but until now, in my rather short (2 years) trail running 'career' I did not feel prepared for the challenge. Finally, this year I felt that I am ready for the "Hobby" race - the shorter of the two races in this event. It has the length of about 42km - similar to a marathon. It does not sound terribly impressive for an endurance race, until you look at the 3200m of total elevation gain which makes it a respectable mountain marathon race - the most difficult 42km trail race in Romania.

The route of the full "Elite" race measures about 90km and 7500m of total elevation gain. It is a very tough and truly demanding endurance race especially if one wants to get a good ranking. At a slower pace the 40hours time limit would give enough time for a good overnight sleep in a chalet/tent along the route. Some contestants do just that and enjoy the nature and landscapes at a slower pace - even with this approach it is still a very tough race!

Due to the length and difficulty of the route, with most of it high on the mountains with steep uphills and rocky downhills, all participants must race from start to finish in teams of two, keeping  no more than 50m between the teammates during the entire race.

I formed a team with my work colleague from our Bucharest office Andrei. We have similar ages, we both have mountain experience and during the last year we finished races at close times. And if no other subject to discuss during the race we could talk about work related issues ;-). Out team name was DOC, which is the short name of the company where we both work: DigitalOptics Corporation.
Before the race we did two training sessions together and both went well:
After the first training session we decided that we can form a team and registered out team in the completion.

So here it comes the 19th of July 2013. The Elite race started already at 6AM, while I was still in bed... During the day I prepared my equipment, packed my back-pack and then went to Sinaia, at the bottom of Bucegi Mountains, to meet Andrei. He came by car from Bucharest - the opposite direction. From here, with his car, we followed the beautiful but quite dangerous mountain road to the race start place, in the heart of Bucegi Mountains at Pestera at 1600m altitude. Our start would be next day at 6AM.

After the check-in at the hotel we rushed to the start/finish area to pick our race kits and to attend the technical meeting. The race kit contained two very nice technical T-shirts, the race numbers and a racing sheet. The racing sheet, a large folded A3 size sheet contained a detailed map with a short description of the route. One side had placeholders for the stamps that we had to collect from the check-points along the route. The location of the check-points was carefully chosen, usually at cross-road places so the best route from one to another is the official racing route... no room for cheating.

Our Filled Racing Sheet
The technical meeting started as planned at precisely 20:00. I found it very useful. The information about the route that I got there was really helpful during the race, especially for the sections I did not know.

The Technical Meeting

I was surprised to see how many participants had chosen to spend the night in a tent. The area around the start/finish area was transformed in a "tent-city". I was also thinking about this option for the night before the race. However as we did not want to depend on the weather conditions I booked in advance a room at Pestera Hotel - a decent hotel located very close to the starting line. I used to visit this hotel quite often 20 years ago when I was a student; I used to come here with friends for back-country ski holidays. Since then the hotel improved a lot.

Pestera "Tent City"

The start of the race was delayed about 10-15 minutes, because many participants arrived almost in the last minute and the organizers carefully checked the equipment of every team before the start. It wasn't too cold although the sky was clear during the night so it wasn't a problem to wait for a few more minutes.

As I did not want to be distracted during the race, I did not carry any photo camera with me. The photos on the way are taken by Andrei with his mobile phone. I also did not carry a watch, I just did not want to know the time during the race and be stressed about it. Actually, towards the end of the race I asked Andrei a few times about the time. I could also find the time myself, with a few button pushes on my GPS device, but I didn't during the race.

What a face! Am I still sleeping?

As soon as the equipment of the last team was checked, the usual start count-down followed. The participants, myself included, did not sound too enthusiastic at this early hour. We started rather slowly. In fact most of the others did not seem to be in a big hurry. A long race awaited us!

DOC team before the start. Don't we look enthusiastic? ;-)

 The first section of the race is a quite long climb along Obarsiei Vallei, from 1600m to Omu peak, which is the highest peak in Bucegi, measuring 2505 meters in altitude. Our plan was not to go too fast on this climb, use it as a warm-up for the next more technical sections and conserve energy for the later sections of the race. On uphills I am quicker than Andrei. This of no surprise as I live and train on the mountains around my home city Brasov, while Andrei lives and works in Bucharest, which is located in the middle of  the Romanian Plane. So for the whole climb I let him go first. The weather was nice and cool, even a bit cold in the sections exposed to the moderate strength wind - almost perfect conditions for running/hiking. We arrived at Omu in about 1h15, much faster than the planned 1h30.

On Obarsiei valley

Here is the complete race route as recorded by my GPS device during the race:

After a few glasses of isotonic drinks we rushed down Cerbului Valley... Well Andrei was rushing... I was kind of slowly moving. I may be fast on uphills, but on technical descents I am overly-cautious, especially on rocky technical trails. Indeed, the trail down Cerbului Valley is quite technical, although 99% of it is runnable downhill. This was the only section of the route where the rule of maximum 50m between teammates was seriously endangered... I was thinking that on downhills the rule should mean 50m in elevation... Andrei was quite desperate seeing me running like an old rusty man while several teams happily overtook us. I am sticking to my theory that I prefer a slightly slower but safer race.

A toast on Omu Peak at 2500m.

Wake up guys!

I am in fact not so sure that we lost too much time on this descent. Let me explain. The descent speeds are high, so the rate of which distances between competitors change is also high. Once back on flat or uphill terrain at lower speeds I always see that someone who looked far away during the downhill suddenly gets very close. Some say that you need to descent fast in order to get a good finish place. It is true, the best runners need to be good on any terrain, but if one goes downhill faster than his abilities he may not finish the race at all...

On Cerbului Valley

Halfway on the descent on Cerbului Valley we switched the places. I went first so the distance between us stayed well below the maximum 50m rule. We soon reached the bottom of the valley and Poiana Costilei (Costilei meadow). Here on a short uphill section we overtook half of the teams that overtook us on the descent. After Poiana Costilei we had another steep descent to the second check-point at Gura Diham. This time the descent was through a beech tree forest, with soft soil, partially covered in old leaves. As this is a very predictable and homogeneous surface, I felt comfortable to accelerate so that Andrei was wondering what happened... Until Gura Diham we managed to overtake the other teams that overtook us on the rocky descent.

We descended the 1500m from Omu peak to Gura Diham in about 1h08 which again was faster than what we have planned. True that in the last moment the organizers changed the last section of the descent to a safer and also shorter route.

At Gura Diham we spent a few minutes to fill our water bottles and hydrate ourselves. At just 1000m altitude this was the lowest point of the route. I also took an extra 500ml water bottle with me, knowing that ahead of us we have the hardest and longer climb of the day with no water sources along most of the way: 1500m of elevation gain back to Omu Peak, along the steep and exposed Bucsoiu ridge. I carried that bottle of water, unopened for the entire race. However, if the weather would have been warmer I would have need the extra water.

Until Omu Peak there were two more check-points. First one at Poiana Izvoarelor (also last hydration point until Omu Peak) and at La Prepeleac, just before the steep section of the route. 

Although we had the impression that we move too slowly, we managed to overtake two or three other teams until Poiana Izvoarelor. On this section of the route I lost my running cap; a nice high quality cap that I got in the start kit at Ecomarathon and I really like it. Moreover it was my only running cap. I knew that probably the next team will find and pick it up. Well, I was in race-mode I did not want to wait for them especially that there was no sign of them behind us. I described the cap and asked the volunteers at the Poiana Izvoarelor check-point to keep it if someone brings it. They were so kind that immediately set-up an expedition with the sole purpose of finding and retrieving my lost cap!!! I later learned that just as they were about to leave, the next team appeared bringing my cap. Thank you guys! I got my cap later during the day, after finishing the race, when the volunteers "returned to base". They were so kind that they looked for me in the crowd and told me that the cap has been found and it is on the way. Thank you!

At the end I was OK without the cap for the rest of the race. The weather during the day was sunny, but not to warm . I had a thick protective layer of sun-screen on my face, neck and ears. So much so, that at some point another racer looked amazed at me and said: "You have lost all of your salts! There is a white crust on your face"... then, he realized that it is just sun-screen...

One more note for the organizers. The rules of the race state that each contestant must have at least one piece of head-gear and if any piece of the mandatory equipment is missing the team is disqualified... Luckily I was prepared for colder and windier weather and I had in my back-pack a "Buff" head-wear piece... 
Half way up to Omu peak. Hey we look fresher!!

From La Prepeleac we started the steep section of the Bucsoiu route. At the beginning the trail crosses some thick young alpine bushes. At some point the trail splits into two options, one to the right and oen to the left. It is not obvious which is the right one. A month ago when we explored the trail we took the wrong (right side) one and realized it only after the steep climb ended under a rather steep cliff. It happened that during the race we arrived there in the same time with two other teams, so we could guide them on the correct way. It is strange that the organizers did not mark the correct way on this point, or maybe they did, but we did not spot it or it got lost. It could also be that they did the route down-hill and did not realize that there is a potential issue.

During the whole race I had my outdoors GPS device fixed on the back-pack chest belt so I could quickly have a look at it when needed. I had the GPS route of the race loaded on it. As the weather was good with perfect visibility there was not much need for the GPS device, but still it was helpful to confirm the route a few times, especially on the route sections that we did not explore in advance.

The middle part of the climb on Bucsoiu ridge has a few steep rocky sections aided by a few chains and cables. On fear weather there should be no problems. For extra safety the organizers installed a couple of ropes on the steeper parts that had no cables.

Just below Bucsoiu Peak. It looks like the uphill woke me up! I look fresher and fresher!

We reached Omu Peak about 2h50 after leaving Gura Diham. 10 minutes slower than the training a month ago. Not that bad, taking into account that we were well into the race, while during the training we started afresh with this section of the route. On this section Andrei felt that he is too slow. He asked me to go first and closely followed me. On most of the steeper sections I was careful not to get further than a few meters from him. So I was like the engine of a train - sometimes other teams would follow us closely. The truth is that I would not have been much faster alone, but surely more tired at the top. On this section we still managed to gradually overtake a few other teams. But it was hard work and sometimes they would overtake us again when we would briefly take a break.

The descent from Bucsoiu Peak. In the distance Omu Peak.

Towards Bucsoiu peak, Andrei looked quite tired and full of sweat. I insisted and offered him a salty gel so that he can put back some of the salts that he lost sweating. Soon after he got abdominal bloating. For the next hour and an half, until the problem went eventually away, I could hear him puffing several times while he ran behind me. I kept running, being too afraid to look back to and face the consequences... So basically, at my initiative we broke one important race rule... never try something new during a race.

We arrived at Omu feeling quite tired, but still with enough energy reserves for the rest of the course. We were told that we are the 10th team! We could not believe it! It was way better than we expected. Were we so well trained, or the other teams were less trained? I think a bit of both.
After at most 5 minutes of resting, eating snacks, drinking isotonic drinks and replenishing out water supply we continued the race. From here to the refuge in Batrana saddle the route is mostly downhill and follows wide high alpine meadows with gentle slopes. A joy to run here!
We could see a couple of teams ahead of us. They were quite afar and the distance from us seemed to slowly increase. Behind us we could not see any team until the finish line - for more than a third of the route.

From Batrana refuge we turned west and started the descent on the eastern abrupt towards Poiana Gutanu (Gutanu Meadow) where another check-point was placed. This is a beautiful and less explored part of Bucegi Mountains. The slope gradually increased. The middle section of the descent was quite steep and rough on limestone gravel.

Descending to Poiana Gutanu

Descending to Poiana Gutanu

Poiana Gutanu. Can you spot the flags of the check-point, down there?

From Poiana Gutanu to Strunga Pass (1910m) we followed a long gentle uphill on an ancient pastoral trail for about 4-5km, gaining 400m of elevation. We were feeling already tired. This route is very 'runnable' but we mostly walked on it. Once out of the forest we saw two or three other teams in the distance ahead of us. Sometimes they seemed closer, sometimes further away. We knew that the chance to overtake is slim and continued with the highest pace that we could sustain.

Approaching Strunga pass

The gentle descent from Strunga pass

We reached Strunga pass, collected the last stamp of the route, drank some water and started the descent on the wide pastures. It felt very warm on the gentle east-oriented slope. It was just after mid-day, the sun was shining and there was no wind. The slope was in full sunshine since the early morning hours of the day. We reached the valley floor, turned north and continued the route along Ialomita river, passed by Pestera Monastery and the Pestera hotel. Finally, a last brief steep uphill slope followed by the finish-line. On the last two kilometers we tried to run faster as we realized that we could make it in just under 8 hours. At the end we did the race in about 8h03 - to be confirmed by the official results table.

The Start/Finish area

In any case we were happy with the outcome. 10th team out of about 125 teams is not a bad result. The time was better than the 8h30-9h that we were planning for. The good and rather cool weather for July helped a lot. It was quite cool during the race except the last 5-6 kilometers. On all exposed areas we also had a cool breeze, that often pushed us from behind. We knew that the previous year the weather was much, much hotter and that the heat slowed down the competition.

The best surprise at the finish line area was the plentiful supply of tasty fresh watermelons! What can be better for hydration after a long run! The finish area was well organised. The very helpful volunteers also offered pasta, soup, snacks and even cool beer. They also had for sale T-shirts with the race logo at a very reasonable price. I bought one for my daughter as I knew that she likes the pale-green color of it; indeed she was happy with it although it is a bit too large. Maybe next year they will also print a few kid size T-shirts.
Four camping shower cabins were available for the runners. Since I was in the wilderness, I preferred though the more natural way. I went down the valley and took a quick plunge in the fresh mountain stream.

DOC team, one hour after finish

In my opinion the 2013 edition of the Marathon 7500, was a well organised event by enthusiastic, very helpful and cheerful volunteers. The atmosphere before, during and after the race was very pleasant and relaxed. We, the runners should think about and realize what a huge human effort was invested and how many sleepless nights the volunteers had, so that this long race can take place in the best possible conditions. A big Thank You to CPNT club and all the volunteers!

I think that with Andrei we formed a good and well balanced team. At least we performed better than we anticipated. For next year, Andrei is thinking about the Elite (90km) race... I am sometimes thinking about long races but I am not so sure about this one. It is a totally different breed of race that needs a different approach and much better planning. The length might not look like a huge hurdle, but the 7500 meters of total elevation gain is a killer in my view!

For now, this race was demanding enough for me. The steep descents caused me quite some muscle fever. As I normally avoid running on steep downhills, I am never trained enough for them. The good thing about this is that now, one day after the race I have to sit... so I can write this detailed report.

One more thing. In a way I feel that it is not fair that participants in both races got the same T-shirt and the same model of medal... The runners in the Elite sections worked much, much harder for that finisher medal than we did!

14 July 2013

Hike in Bucegi Mountains

The initial plan for the weekend was a hike in Făgărași mountains, to Moldoveanu Peak (2544m), the highest point in Romania. However, the weather did not look too good. No rains were forecasted but it looked like the high mountains will be covered in clouds - and indeed, they were for the whole day. So in the last minute the plan was changed to a hike in Bucegi Mountains; closer to home.

The hike started and ended in Bușteni town; the town is located just under the impressive eastern rocky abrupt of Bucegi Mountains. We followed a classical and popular route: uphill on Jepilor valley until the high plateau of Bucegi, then a walk to Omu peak (2505m - the highest of Bucegi), followed by a descent on the mighty glacial Cerbului Valley.

The summer so far was quite wet, with almost daily rains, especially in the mountains. So the pastures and meadows of Bucegi are greener than I ever remember. All sorts of flower were blooming everywhere! It was like walking through a garden!

During the hike I met several teams doing last minute training or just exploring the route of the next week mountain race Marathon 7500. It is a race for teams of two. I am going to participate with my running team mate and work colleague Andrei. We will do the shorter "Hobby" race, which is still a challenging one: 42km with 3200m of elevation gain - harder than any other 42km mountain marathon in Romania. The full race is quite insane: 95km and 7500m of elevation gain - now you know why is called Marathon 7500.

With just a week to go to the race I did a very relaxing hike, saving my knees for the race. I took photos and enjoyed the landscapes. During the race I will be concentrated on the path and I do not plan to carry a photo camera with me.

I managed to take quite a few photos along the route; many with flowers - not perfect photos as I could not spend too much time on each shot. All photos are taken with a 50mm equivalent lens. Some are cropped. Here are the best shots of the day.

A small waterfall on Jepilor Valley

Uphill on Jepilor Valley. It is a popular route, but not an easy one!

View from Jepilor valley

Heading to Omu Peal on the high plateau of Bucegi - here at 2300m altitude

A look to the south

An old Romanian 4x4 car still going strong!

Ascending clouds on Cerbului Valley

The large glacial circus of Obarsiei valley

The path on Cerbului Valley

The old chalet on Omu Peak

Clouds on Costila Mountain

Cerbului Valley

A sheep flock on Cerbului Valley

A sheep flock on Cerbului Valley

Jurasic parc...

Costilei meadow

One last jump