Thursday, June 26, 2014

Velebit Ultra Trail100K Race Report

Velebit Mountain Croatia

Let’s start with I’m a big fan of Croatia – the geography, the people, the spirit. After running the 100 Miles of Istria earlier this year I knew I wanted to come back. And when Simun Cimerman, RD for the Velebit Ultra Trail 100K invited me to run his race in Paklenica National Park in the Velebit Mountains, I had an excuse.

I flew from Rome to Split, which is a quick 45 minute flight. While driving the 90 minutes north up the coast to the race I realized that I was driving on the very same road that I had bicycled in 1984 on an around-the-world tour. I reflected on the myriad differences between today – and Yugoslavia at the time. My mind wandered to long forgotten memories. An excerpt from my journal, “we pedaled on in the dark with the road faintly luminated by the dim lights of the Lada police car. It was not clear where the police were directing us. Their sternness, and displeasure with our presence and dismissiveness of the requirement to register with the police in the last town as dusk had approached led us to believe we were being asked to ride to a location where we were to be roughed up, intimidated and likely robbed. Their intent was uncertain so we carried on without taking action. We rode in this suspense for more than 40 minutes before arriving at a roadside bar. There we were forced to enter the establishment against our desire, and told we were to drink together. Perhaps our value as humans was our ability to buy alcohol. To our complete surprise they bought us drinks (and more drinks), we ended wearing their hats and taking pictures of ourselves, and then they asked the proprietor to allow us to camp (illegally) behind her establishment. Tired and drunk, we crawled into our bags having experienced yet another unsuspecting turn of events.”

Vaganski Vrh Peak
I had been warned by Simun that the Velebit 100K was something that I would have experienced never before and to expect a very technical course. “Yeah right,” I thought to myself. "I’m from the Wasatch Range and I’ve run in mountains all around the world. How technical can some mountains in Croatia be?" The short answer to this rhetorical question is – VERY!

But I get ahead of myself. With a 5:00 am start I was confident I would be finished well before dark and enjoying a nice dinner and good glass of Teran wine while I watched the sunset over the Adriatic Sea. This confidence was reinforced as the first 4km were a fast gently climbing trail. Then, the trail turned into a dry streambed and climbed straight up. The terrain in many ways reminded me of Mount Olympus, dry and arid and mostly rock. I hung with the lead pack and tried to assess their ability. Quite quickly I determined that these kids were much more agile and adept at working through the rock than I was. I told myself "let them go and hopefully you can reel them back on the runnable sections." With that consolation I fell back into 5th place.

Once we reach the top of the first climb I tried to make up some time. While moving too quickly I caught my left foot on a root and while catching myself from falling augured my right foot into a rock. Immediately I knew, “Houston, we have a problem.” The pain in my foot was intense and I while I had no idea what the damage was, I knew it would be a long and painful day.

Once the 47K runners took a different route I learned I was in 2nd place. This gave me encouragement to continue and not dwell on how much each step hurt. Kilometer 20-40 was a runnable section, following the Croatian Patriot War Road, the frontline during the 1991 – 1995 Croatian War of Independence. One could still see remnants of bunkers and battlements, and the signs along the road and trail reinforced the warning of race officials to not leave the course as there is still unexploded ordinance in the area.

Best to Stay on the Trail
After 40K the “fun” began as we climbed Mount Sveto Brdo, a most spectacular peak and then descended to almost sea level before climbing to Vaganski Vrh peak. It was during the first descent that Marko Prot moving swiftly caught up with me. As we descended through a tangle of roots and rock he kept repeating, “Jay, this is f*ck.” “Jay, this is f*ck.” It might have been the best part of the day listening to Marko so articulately describe my sentiments of the trail.

I don’t know how to describe how unrelenting the course was. It either seemed like I was picking my way through rocks, climbing absurdly steep ascents, or tiptoeing down scree and through shoe catching rock knowing that any mistake would hurt. The mistakes for me were many as evidenced at the end by my bruised and lacerated hands from myriad falls and tumbles. There was just no getting into the groove and running which is my forte.

"This is F*ck"
Marko and I ran together in a seesaw like manner – Marko pulling away on the descents, me catching up on the flats, Marko pulling away on the ascents, me transitioning faster in the self-service aid stations. Marko had an ailing stomach. I had an aching foot. We made for the perfect miserable companions!

At 85K, on the final big climb of 2,200 feet in 2.5 miles I could no longer hang on to Marko. There are times when people pass me or leave me behind and I am frustrated and angry. And, there are times like when I watched Marko march away from me when I feel good inside admiring one's talent and fortitude. I was glad that I had been able race with Marko over the last 5 hours, and I was glad to see him pull away knowing that I would likely not be able to catch him over the final miles.

The last kilometers were a sufferfest. I was wrecked and barely caught myself a number of times from what would have been disastrous falls. I was depressed by thought that it would take me more than 16 hours to cover 100k. I questioned the wisdom of me being there.

Finish with Marko Prot
Yet, like all races I knew it would soon be over. And, while I had hopes of placing better than third, I would be proud of my accomplishment and already begin thinking about racing another day. And as always happens, the finish was soon in front of me and it was over.  While I was completely wrecked and knew that the pain of walking down the 2 flights of stairs in my apartment Monday morning with my broken digit would be worse than anything I had experienced that day – I relished at what a magical day I had enjoyed with my good Croatian friends in their wonderful country. And when asked would I be back, the answer was an unequivocal, “yes!”