This is a weird year. When it started I was still in Hong Kong, preparing for HK4TUC and contemplating whether I should or should not cancel my registration for the 3rd Ronda dels Cims attempt (due to condition of my post-Ronda shoulder still not ideal). Six months later the world is (still) a mess, Ronda is no more, I am no longer in Hong Kong, international travel is pretty much non existent and I joined for the first time ever an ultra right in the backyard of my youth.
Remembering some hikes many years back and after few memory refreshing training runs in the hills around I had no doubts that this one will be a tough one.
I picked up my bib as instructed the day before but selected the sleep home/early morning taxi option rather than sleeping bag in the gym at the start.
Before leaving home I once more re-considered to use or not to use the poles. I stuck to my original plan to go old school without the damn sticks. The sleep was not the best but before 5am I was in the taxi and 5:30am at the start area. Quick bags drop, final check of my equipment and after short briefing off we were. All 300 or so souls spread over 34, 53 and 112km distances. About 120 of us were on the 112km distance.
First about 3km were up the road. I was going reasonably easy, 6-6.5 mins/km pace. Nowhere to rush. In Starý Dvor we turned right and the ‘fun’ started. The weather was fine on the day but the heavy rains and storm during the past couple of weeks left their mark on the forrest surface. It was muddy and very slippery. Before the race I considered this first 15km section as ‘just a warm up before proper hills’. The muddy conditions turned it into the toughest part of the race. Progress was slow and the main goal was to stay on the feet. I was wondering here if leaving those poles home was a smart idea after all… It was not much fun but I survived without any incidents.
At the end of this part just before K1 control point we had to cross the river. An opportunity to give the muddy shoes a bit of a wash. After K1 we went up the road few hundred meters and turned left to the proper mountains. Blue skies started to break through the cloudy morning skies. It has been decades since I last was on these trails but the memories of childhood hikes were quickly coming back as I was passing Štefanová towards Medziroszudce.
Then the first proper climb started. I was a kid when I last went up Veľký Rozsutec but I still remembered well the lovely technical ascent. I was so taken by the beauty of this peak that I forgot to turn left just below the summit. When you do an ultra a bit of extra elevation can’t hurt . Once I realized we are not supposed to go to the very top I turned around, rejoined the red trail and started the very technical descent to K2 control point. Steep, rocky with chains and some ladders – great fun!
Quick refreshment at K2 and I was ready for the ascent to Stoh. A very different beast – not technical at all but a steady long climb to 1607meters above sea. No switchbacks…
The descent was a bit different story – pretty steep but runable especially early on in the race when legs are yet to start screaming on the downhills . Good that the surface was reasonably dry here. After about 400 meters of elevation loss we climbed back up on the ridge and series of ascents and descents followed until the K3 stop at the cabin under Chleb. The skies were clearing up, sun was out and it was becoming pleasantly warm for me but hot for some others judging from the talk I overheard around me. The views were awesome, body still felt totally fine so it was all about taking it easy and enjoying the moment for me.
I was planning to clean up the mess from my by now dry shoes at the K3 at Chata pod Chlebom. But lucky me – right there before the check point a swampy bit laid between me and the CP. There was no way around it. Wet and muddy my shoes were again. There was no point taking them off now… This was the only control point where they ran out of sweet drinks before I got there. The sports drink was still available but that is one of the things I never take from CPs at races. Luckily the water melon supplies were plentiful – worthy substitute for Coke or Kofola. I topped up my bottles and kept on going.
As I was leaving the control point I received a message from a friend reminding me to enjoy the next section – the most spectacular section of the whole mountain range. It reminded me not to forget to enjoy the views. I was feeling well. I was still running everything runable. My climbing pace was good and steady without pushing too much – even though we by now already accumulated over 3500m of elevation there was still about 70km to go so one had to be smart. We skirted just below the summit of Veľký Kriváň – the highest peak of these mountains – and then followed the ridge all the way to Malý Kriváň where long descent to the next control point (K4) began.
Several runners that were around me until now dropped behind – a timely reminder not to get carried away. On the other hand I was looking forward to some cold drinks and more water melon. I saw some runners a bit ahead of me. I realized that after being surrounded by runners and hikers all the time since the start all of a sudden there was nobody around except for those runners ahead. I decided to speed up a little, catch up with them and see if their pace would suit me.
This worked well for a while. We ran through some open meadows and blueberry bushes for a while before entering the forrest again. But then one of the guys dropped back. A while later the other one managed to kick some root or rock splitting open his shoe exposing the complete set of toes. He stopped to deal with this issue (not really sure how…) and I was on my own again.
The rest of the descent was quite a fun ride. Steep path straight down with no switchbacks but not too punishing for my quads. Soon I reached the control point and still in good spirits. This was the first CP where I opted for one of the wide variety of non alcoholic beers on offer. This proved to be a good choice that I repeated at all remaining CPs trying out different flavours at different stops. I also downed few slices of watermelon and topped up my bottles. The next stop with drop bags was only about 7km away and basically all downhill.
It was quite steep at first but not very technical. The least painful option was to let the legs go and run fast. So I did that passing several people in the process. Just as I made it down the hill a new day must have arrived in Hong Kong. A message from Elliot – so I paused, took a photo of what still lied ahead and answered the message:
Few minutes later I was at the K5 control point down in Lipovec village. Kind of half way there although we were only at km 53 out of 112.
I had some soup with pasta and another zero booze beer before I went looking for my drop bag. I had a pair of clean shoes in it but I decided to keep the shoes I had. Dirty, muddy, messy but with healthier grip and claw than those in the drop bag. So I just dried my feet, changed the socks and went on.
I barely left the CP when a message from a friend “where are you” arrived. I was on the bridge across the Váh river and I duly reported my location. This was the first concrete section since the start, all 1.5km of it that included crossing a major road. Right after the rare route markings lead me behind the gas station and into the fields. One of my first steps off the road resulted in stark reminder that stinging nettle is a real thing.
Two guys passed me and went a bit ahead but after a while I could see that distance between us is not really changing. I was not in a rush here. I knew a big climb is ahead of me. There was no point wasting energy and gaining a minute or two by pushing too hard now.
The field ended and to my surprise I saw my friend and his wife there waiting to say hi. It was nice to have someone other than myself to talk to for a change for a while . We chatted a bit while they walked with me for few minutes on the very short road section. Soon I turned left into the forest and the major climb of the day could begin…
This was a proper monster. It went on and on. The climb was very steep and never ending. It did not take long before the 2 guys that passed me earlier ran out of steam and I was on my own again. Some part were lined up with vegetation that looked like the perfect habitat for the bears and for the first time I started to wonder if should activate the bear bell I had in the pocket . The mind was more focused on the climbing though so I kept pushing up. Through the trees to my left I saw the top of the ridge where the next CP should be. It looked like I may already be near the top of the climb but the looks can be very deceiving… When I consulted my watch I found out I still have more than a half of the climb ahead of me. At the junction of few paths a mountain biker asked me for direction. All I could tell him was that he was obviously on the wrong side of the mountain… At some point the steep became even steeper but eventually I made it out of trees. Ahead of me I saw a WWII gun and another runner (with his bear bell in action).
I stopped for a quick chat and photo taking and we continued together to the top of the Minčol mountain. In the meantime all the clouds were gone…
From here till we had 3-4km left to the CP mostly on the top of this beautiful ridge. It took about 45 uneventful minutes although as I made it closer to the CP the surface at places was very muddy. Lucky for my feet I always managed to find some way around through the vegetation although knowing what lives here I was not too keen on wandering through those bushes too much .
Soon I was by the Krížava TV tower and from here it was only a short drop to the tent housing the K6 control point.
The nice people at the CP asked me if I needed a blanket. I politely heroically refused the nice offer. I was not feeling cold. For about 2 minutes… Once I sat down and stopped moving the things changed quickly. I put on my windbreaker first to no avail. Soon I was shaking same as another guy sitting on the opposite of me – another blanketless hero. Did not take long and nobody was hero no more . Blankets on . I had some coffee, another one of those “beers”, some bread. I asked how much time in daylight we still have – answer was “about an hour”. It was about 8:20pm and with about 14km to go to the next CP (mostly descending) I decided to put the headlamp on before leaving this CP.
A beautiful section followed. At first I had to navigate more of those mud pools but few minutes later I had 360 degrees views that made the whole adventure worth the effort. Sun setting in the west, large moon rising in east, far far ahead I could see the unmistakeable silhouette of Kľak – the final climb of the race some 30km ahead . And under my feet a lovely runable trail.
I left the CP with windbreaker still on but after 10-15mins of moving I felt warm enough to take it off. It went back to backpack and stayed there till the end of the race.
All was great but it was now getting dark very quickly. And I was descending back down into the woods. I will not lie – I was quite nervous about the prospect of spending a lonely night in these wild woods. But nobody as far as I could see behind or ahead of me. So I turned on my headlamp and went on with it.
My legs were feeling good so I took the advantage of very runable descent and pushed on. But my speed did not make me any less nervous. I had the bear bell with me so I decided to use it. First I attached it to my backpack shoulder strap but quickly took it off. The noise was too much to handle for me . I decided to hold it in my hand and just let it ring now and then. Not sure if this really keeps the bears away but it surely made me feel more comfortable. Soon I however realized that the noisy stream running down along the path was making much more noise than my bell and I was probably the only one who could hear that damn ringing .
Anyway, nothing ate me as I was running down. I passed one runner visibly struggling on the descent – the only runner I met between K6 and K7… At the end of the descent I saw some houses. I silenced the bell to make sure I do not disturb anyone. As the luck had it the moment I was passing by someone decided to go out from the house. Gate opened, house door opened, dog appeared… Small but loud and determined I was bigger and louder though and that was enough to restore the order .
I thought that the K7 check point must be somewhere near but the CP was still about 3km further away in another village. All went smooth though and soon I was sitting down eating soup and drinking another zero booze beer. They worked really well for me so far so why change the routine .
There were 2 runners there – a lady and a guy – as I understood they decided to finish the race together. They left the CP a bit earlier than me but after about a kilometer I caught up with them. Their pace was good though so I was happy to follow their lead. We were climbing up the forest road. The climb was not very steep and the progress was fast and steady. Somewhere along this section I saw a pair of eyes shining from the bushes next to that road. At first I though maybe an owl but owl would be higher up on the tree… It moved a bit following me with the eyes. I looked away and kept on going. Till now I have no idea what that was. Maybe a fox, or a lynx or a smaller version of something bigger… I am glad I don’t know. Those 2 ahead of me did not even notice . (Edit few days later – after seeing same shining eyes in the news on TV now I know what they belonged to and I am really glad I did not know at that time…)
Eventually the road ended and we entered the woods. The lady started to have some issues. They both dropped behind me. I slowed down hoping they would catch up with me again. They never did until I briefly went off the route at a bit confusing junction. Soon I passed them again. I was beginning to accept the fact that I will have to navigate the dark woods alone again when I saw two fast moving lights getting closer. It was the runner I passed earlier before the previous CP and someone else who must have caught up with him later on. They quickly passed me but their pace was more less perfect for me. Bingo – I had some company!
I soon realized that the one leading our group was very familiar with this area. That made me feel even better. I also quickly noticed his routine – every single time we were getting from open area into something overgrown or under the trees he would whistle and make some other noises. Obviously nobody wishes to surprise a bear here .
It was a long way to the next and last CP – the distance from K7 to K8 was 22km. But being in a group helped. I still felt good physically and running through the night with some company helped immensely mentally too. The next CP was off the route – from the trails junction we had to run down 1.5-2km towards the village and then backtrack the same back up to start the final climb. Apparently something that RD loves to do to annoy the runners
The last CP was very quiet – we haven’t met any other runners there, only the CP crew. I refilled my bottles for the final 10km, ate some bread for change and downed another zero booze beer. We were roughly on 21h15mins of race time now. None of us knew what exactly the route up will look like. All we knew was that it will be a fitting finale to this brutal race. We believed that we should count perhaps 2hours for the ascent and then up to an hour for the descent. At this stage we all hoped we could finish in sub 24hour time. But it looked like a long shot… Last few sips of whatever we were drinking and we set off…
I quickly realized that out of the blue the guy in front set a pretty serious pace. It was not easy to keep up and we were still only on the not so steep road section returning back to where we came from… I was wondering where all this sudden burst of pacing energy came from . I had no intention to be dropped and left behind so I sucked it up and pushed on. Soon the ‘pacer’ had to stop to leave all he ate at last CP at the side of the trail. We however did not stop, the other guy took the pacing lead keeping the pace if not even accelerating it. By now we were on a proper trail and climbing up a properly steep slope! The vomit break did not seem to make much difference – soon the guy was back like if nothing had happened. When we passed by the waterfall roughly 40 mins after leaving the CP I realized that sub 24hours may be possible after all.
It was almost 4am, first signs of daybreak, the short summer night was almost over. Not the steep climb though. My Strava shows that the steepest section was 47.5% and I tend to believe that number… Surprise to us all we managed to finish that climb in only a bit more than 1 hour. I truly have no idea where all of us found that energy for this final push. But what goes up should also go down. That final descent was shorter than the final climb but the gradient was insane at places too…
The finish was near and literally in the sight on the other side of valley. We did separate a bit on the descent on the steep slope. I was in the middle but I decided to wait for the guy behind me to finish the race together. It felt like the right thing to do after running together for most of the night. We still had to climb up from the valley to the finish at the cottage a bit up the slope but that was just a minor inconvenience. 113km, 7109m, 23h08min30s (I switched of my watch a bit late, getting the proper beer was higher on the list of priorities). 27th overall and 25th among men in a race that almost half of the field did not finish.
I swore to myself years back that I would never run and overnight ultra here in these woods. And here I was, barely a month after moving back I am at the finish of what I learned (a bit too late ) is the toughest 100k in the country. And proudly without poles!
My first ultra in Slovakia and I will only have the best memories. Beautiful mountains, almost perfect weather (except for that mud at the start ), great organization, awesome volunteers and crew, bears stayed clear of me and the one bugger of a dog that ran after me I managed to deal with. And on top of it I had one of my best ever days of racing when nothing went wrong and everything went right. What else can one wish for?