Not many races start with a blessing by the local priest, a briefing on how to tame snarling shepherd’s dogs (raise your arm, hold a stick, shout with authority and never show fear) or finish with the village cow adorned with a floral wreath. But then, I wanted a running adventure, not just a new race personal best – and that is exactly what I got.
From my guesthouse in the Carpathian mountains I could see the first climb of the race. It didn’t look too terrifying – a lush green slope dotted with shepherd huts and ambling livestock, but the steep ascent proved tough – even on fresh legs – and left me with hands on my knees and calves screaming. For a moment I doubted my tame, UK-based hill training was sufficient to tackle Romanian mountains, but before I had chance to catch my breath, we were hurtling downhill at a frantic pace, with the experienced mountain runners leaving me for dust, effortlessly gliding down the valley.
Running through vivid green meadows filled with colourful wildflowers, listening to the distant sound of tinkling cow bells and babbling brooks, it wasn’t long before any doubts – and everything else – were pushed far from my mind.
Launched last year by fitness and nutrition coach and experienced ultrarunner, Anne-Marie Lategan, the three-day 100K Ultrabug ultramarathon starts in the village of Fundu Moldovei, Bucovina – a region famed for castles and ancient monasteries – and leads runners along winding mountain paths in the beautiful Carpathian mountains. Home to mysterious forests, remote villages and dramatic mountain peaks, it is the second-largest mountain range in Europe and forms a sweeping arc across Romania.
As a newbie to ultrarunning, I had no idea of how long it would take me to finish – and it was refreshing to start a race with no PB to try and beat. With a friendly and relaxed vibe, the fully supported Ultrabug was the perfect introduction to the gnarly world of ultrarunning.
The Romanian landscape was so breathtaking that I didn’t care how much the steep inclines – or my now burning quads – hurt, or how far I still had to go. The hours seemed to fly by, and while the technical mountain climbs and descents were challenging, the views from the top were intoxicating and mentally rejuvenating.
In stage one, I made the rookie mistake of not getting my fuelling and hydration strategy right, resulting in an energy dip in the second half and a couple of hill breaks. With temperatures rising above 30C I also made the mistake of not protecting myself sufficiently from the sun Cue very pink skin and dodgy tan lines.
However, crossing the line on day one with a beer in one hand and grasping the hand of a fellow runner in the other, while my body felt tired, mentally I felt completely refreshed and couldn’t wait for the second stage. I’ve only really run large city races, so doing such a small and sociable race was a revelation, with all runners cheered across the line and welcomed with a beer. Noroc!
I woke early the next day with my stomach rumbling and quads feeling tender, and staggered downstairs, questioning whether I could run the 50km (31 miles) “rolling hills” stage. Fortunately, the body is amazing at adapting and my legs loosened up as we ran five miles along the road, and before I knew it the first checkpoint was in sight.
Rollercoaster-running up and down the rolling hills, the temperature was hotter than the day before, with bright blue cloudless skies, so we were soon grateful for the cool shade of the forest – and my favourite section of the course, a 5km (three-mile) scramble up a trickling mountain stream. Learning my lesson from day one, I started eating and drinking from the first checkpoint, shoving down handfuls of salted peanuts, bananas, the odd sandwich and a cup of flat cola. This stood me in good stead, as I never suffered any real energy dip and felt much stronger than day one. Mainly because it hurt to put the brakes on, I also overcame my fear of descending the mountains at speed and began to love, rather than fear, the feeling of flying down the trails.
It wasn’t until another checkpoint that I discovered I was the first woman for the 50K stage. Until that point I’d been taking my time, and taking photos, but now my competitive nature kicked in for a final push to the finish – and hopefully another cold beer and plate of Mămăligă (polenta with cheese). I won the stage and finished third woman overall.
Sunburnt, scratched and muddy from scrambling up and down mountains, over and under stiles, trees and rocks, my first ultramarathon was one of the toughest and best things I’ve ever done. Many other race experiences fade almost instantly from memory, but this encapsulated every reason I love running.
I discovered that ultramarathons can offer a brief escape from modern life, the chance to explore wild places, keep you in the moment and make stresses of modern life seem trivial when you have a mountain to conquer.
The third Ultrabug 100km three-day staged event will take place next year from 3-5 June 2016. Race entries open at the end of July 2015 http://www.ultrabug.co.uk/
This blog originally appeared on the Guardian running blog.