The Tran­syl­va­nian Bear Race is an event with real bite, finds RW’S Rhalou Aller­hand

Runner's World (UK) - - RACE -

WHEN I FIRST HEARD TRAN­SYL­VA­NIA hosted a marathon, my heart skipped a beat. Like most peo­ple, my lim­ited knowl­edge of the cen­tral Ro­ma­nian re­gion springs from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Drac­ula, the first and fi­nal sec­tions of which are set in Tran­syl­va­nia. I’m a hor­ror fa­natic, so the op­por­tu­nity to run through forests still pop­u­lated by wild bears, wolves and the oc­ca­sional bat was my twisted idea of heaven.

Most run­ners don’t seem to share my thirst for mis­ad­ven­ture; only 40 were tack­ling the marathon and even fewer (18 brave souls) were tak­ing on the 80km op­tion. But I sus­pect once trail-lovers get wind of this hid­den gem the field will bal­loon in size. And it should.

I was ex­pect­ing (OK, hop­ing) for thun­der and light­ning when I ar­rived in Ro­ma­nia, so I was slightly dis­ap­pointed by the glo­ri­ous sun­shine. For­tu­nately, the coun­try­side didn’t let me down

and as we drove to the start line in the tiny Saxon vil­lage of Vis­cri I was re­warded with sights of horse­drawn carts, wind­ing dirt roads and pic­turesque me­dieval vil­lages that were straight out of a fairy tale. Not to be seen, how­ever, was a car­riage drawn by four wild-eyed black horses and whipped along by a ter­ri­fied driver…

That night we were served a de­li­cious pr­erace dumpling stew fol­lowed by shots of Pal­inca, the lo­cal – and very po­tent – plum brandy, in a rus­tic lodge blessed with fur rugs and a roar­ing fire, be­fore snatch­ing as much sleep as we could hud­dled to­gether in a wooden barn.

After wav­ing off the ul­tra run­ners at 8am, we lined up an hour later to be­gin our race. The route (which turned out to be 47km, rather than 42) fol­lowed a rolling path through ver­dant forests and mead­ows packed with wild flow­ers to­wards Sighisoara, the sup­posed birth­place of Vlad the Im­paler and a UNESCO world her­itage site billed as one of the best pre­served me­dieval towns in Europe.

The ad­van­tage of hold­ing a trail marathon in a re­gion vir­tu­ally un­touched by ur­ban­i­sa­tion after decades of com­mu­nist rule is that you re­ally do get to run off the beaten track. After an hour I re­alised there was not a build­ing, py­lon or aero­plane in sight. Were it not for the gen­tle foot­fall of my fel­low run­ners I could eas­ily be­lieve I had stepped into a dis­tant and fan­tas­ti­cal past.

As if to bol­ster my reverie, in a vil­lage en route we saw sev­eral lit­tle imps (cun­ningly dis­guised as lo­cal chil­dren) steal­ing the pre­cious route mark­ers. For the first of sev­eral times that day I got com­pletely lost. For­tu­nately the 3G sig­nal was re­mark­ably good so I lo­cated the race sup­port and re­turned to the path.

After a cou­ple of hours my fel­low run­ners drifted away and I was alone in the woods. This re­gion is home to about 8,000 brown bears and 4,000 wolves, so I was hy­per­vig­i­lant and a lit­tle ner­vous. Slow­ing down for a drink, I spot­ted large paw prints in the mud by the side of the path. Sud­denly the si­lence of the for­est was bro­ken by a loud roar from the un­der­growth. The week be­fore I left on my trip I’d done some re­search about what to do in the event of an en­counter with a wild an­i­mal. When it came to bears or wolves, the con­sen­sus seemed to be: don’t run. Stand tall. Back away slowly. It all seemed very log­i­cal. Me? I didn’t even stop to iden­tify the source of the roar, choos­ing in­stead to run the last 10K like a bat out of hell, which seemed oddly ap­pro­pri­ate if not en­tirely sen­si­ble.

The fi­nal mile was a re­lief in more ways than one, as it took me into the an­i­mal-free cob­bled streets of Sighisoara. The mix of wind­ing al­ley­ways, me­dieval tur­rets, or­nate churches and the im­pos­ing 14th­cen­tury clock tower made the many, many miles worth the ef­fort

But just when I was think­ing about my re­cov­ery beer, the race threw up a one last chal­lenge. In or­der to com­plete the race we had to run (or crawl) 175 steps up a steep walk­way to reach the fin­ish line. I clam­bered across in eighth place feel­ing like I’d sur­vived an epic (al­most eight-hour) odyssey.

That evening we were treated to a ban­quet in the cel­lar of our ho­tel, fol­lowed by en­ter­tain­ment cour­tesy of a Ro­ma­nian folk band – and enough lo­cal wine to leave a lot of bears with a lot of sore heads. It was a suit­ably bois­ter­ous end to a re­mark­able week­end.

The Tran­syl­va­nian Bear Race takes a break in 2017 but will be back in June, 2018 tran­syl­va­ni­an­bear­

FO­CUS, NOT FEAR No wolves, no bears and cer­tainly no vam­pires (at least not un­til it gets dark).

TIME’S UP Cob­bling to­gether the en­ergy to reach Sighisoara’s 14th­cen­tury clock tower.

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