SO VLAD YOU COULD MAKE IT
The Transylvanian Bear Race is an event with real bite, finds RW’S Rhalou Allerhand
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 transylvanianbearrace.com
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.