Since midnight, we have been navigating the barren landscape of these desolate highlands. No other runners in sight. No path, just prickly low vegetation on a rocky underground. We follow blinking flashlights, attached haphazardly to those rusty black and white poles marking the route across the plateau. Sometimes, when the fog clears, we can see them for miles, leading us up another hill or disappearing in another valley. But during the white-outs in between, we have to use our GPS. Hurry! We try to speed up and avoid the looming cut-offs. We are only one hour ahead, and should we get lost, we might run out of time.
Halfway through the night. Suddenly, we smell a camp fire and bump into a small igloo tent along the route. Finally at the check point. Hans, my companion and 2016 Legends Trail finisher, dives into the open tent, mumbles something about 10 minutes sleep and closes his eyes. I slurp some lukewarm coffee from the thermos can of one of the freezing volunteers. The third runner of our group says we should be leaving in 5 minutes. I keep on eating pieces of apple, sitting on the ground. And think about the day behind us.
When leaving Bran Castle –alleged home of Dracula- this morning before dawn, the weather was looking fine. The steep climb steep towards the Bucegi Mountains was even warm and sweat was pouring down my back. Looking up those massive granite walls shrouded in dark grey clouds was a humbling experience to say the least. Little did we know what was waiting up there. Once we reached the first shelter, the view was reduced to less than then a couple of meters. The start of an adventure…
On the first big snowfield, I bump into Raf, one of the five Belgians in the race. Most of us know each other from the Legends trails and we all wear a tracker. Together with Paige, my travel companion from Brussels.
While we go up, we keep hearing voices hear voices in the mist below us and I notice there aren’t that many footsteps in the snow. Still runner after runner speeds past us. And they all seem convinced this is the right track. Way too late, I take my GPS just to observe this track is leading us further away from the course. And in the meantime we ascended more than 150 m above it… Return in our footsteps? In the meantime, Jos has joined us. Together with two locals, we decide to cross the valley towards the route below. Progressing on the stony downhill through the mist. And then get stuck… too steep. Carefully, we follow the contour on the map and traverse the boulders and snow fields until we hear voices about 50 m beneath us. One long slide later we are on the track. My heart is pounding. Serious detour. We are nearing CP1 with less than 30’ left. How’s that for a start of the race? The beginning of a DNF?
A short break later we speed towards the Omu, highest peak in the range. Some serious climbing to be done. This is the north side, plenty of icy snow left. Cold and wet up here. Incredible how underdressed some of the 50 K runners are. What happened to all their mandatory kit? The snow fields become larger and larger, and when we start climbing a kind of snow wall, I feel glad I put on those Vivo barefoot trail shoes. The aggressive soles provide much needed grip on the icy snow. Even though I wonder what would happen if one would fall and start sliding down this 50% hill. Don’t panic. Some rope. And more rope. And then… finally a ridge.
Somewhat later we reach the summit at about 2500m. The Omu shelter is barely visible in the fog. Navigation gets complicated.
This is the beginning of a long descent towards the next checkpoint, below 1000m. Having caught up on the time limits, I take a longer break and leave the CP with 70 minutes margin. Time to say goodbye to the 50 K runners, as the tracks split. I fail to do so and blindly follow them downhill. Treating myself to a couple of more kilometres and some extra climbing back towards the 100 K track. From now on, I will keep my GPS at hand, no more getting off-route. While I re-join the track that winds back to the Omu summit via the Southern route, Jos and Raf catch up with me. Exhausting. Above 2100m is where it really happens, a violent hailstorm blows in our faces for the next 10 km. Difficult to advance. Zero visibility. Hands are freezing while we climb the last 500m to the summit.
The hut is full of shivering people. Jos cannot seem to warm up again and decides to quit. He’s not the only one. When the CP closes, they al will be lead off the mountain by a guide.
Paige, who arrived before us, buys me some soup and coffee to get warm before I decide to take on the 1500 m descent. Steep. Complicated. Risky. Many get lost here. Legends navigation experience helps. Later I will learn that Raf took a wrong turn and wound up at the previous check-point. End of race for him.
Don’t like the snow fields laying over the route. Some runners ski straight down the slopes on their trail shoes. Too risky. I meet Ari, who shares my aversion for slippery snow patches. Nevertheless we progress well and stay close to the GPS route. At some point, we notice people clambering all over the valley, all scrambling down towards the next CP in Busteni. Where the rain is pouring down. Keeping the break even shorter, I am already on my way to the Pietra Arsa checkpoint. What a climb. Bears in the forests. Competitors keep on getting lost while the night falls. Up there, I meet up with Paige again. And there we go for the next section, a long way down towards the CP in Bolboci where we round the lake. Paige will sleep some here. Hans is there too, he’s having a field day. I thought he was way in front of us with Theo and Pascal, the other Belgians. I eat pasta and climb to the plateau. Where Hans and his Romanian travel buddy catch up with me. From there on, we move together. This is long. And slow. And tough. But we are Legends…
I stop my nightly daydreaming while Hans scrambles up from the tent floor and we are getting ready for the last stretch. About 30 km to go. We’re still at 1900 m and the night is cold. Soon we’ll start descending, running the long downhills. And keep on jogging into the first daylight. We are running late. Until we reach CP Moieciu de Sus, where one of the race directors tells us two hours have been added to the Bran cut-off. For the weather and for the obligatory detour we are about to make. All who made it this far, will finish, he says. Much warmer at this altitude. Still windy but sunny. We decide to leave our storm pants behind. They are completely damaged, ready for the garbage bin. Another 20 km to go. We have time, and we will finish. But it will be long. And painful. I really start to feel tired. My feet hurt. Wanting to arrive before the 30-hour mark, our Romanian friend speeds away. Endless track until the last CP, a tent staffed by another race director. Do you have coffee? Nope, everything here has been brought on horseback, he says. I check the cut-off time again. The extra 2 hours are still there. “And the UTMB points, will they still be valid?” “Do you really need to go to the UTMB after you’ve done this?” the guy laughs. We pursue our way through the forest. I message Sofie to check on Legends Tracking where Paige is. Apparently, she’s not that far behind. Probably she’ll catch up with us. Suddenly Theo, the fastest runner of all of us, appears out of nowhere from behind. Surprise, I thought the guys must be in already for hours. Has been sick. And got lost. And is speeding the downhill to Bran. For me it takes an eternity to reach the castle. No speed left.
With the castle in sight, Paige shows up behind us. We decide to cross the line together. Take the wooden medals, and the beers. And more beers. All Legends made it. This was tougher than expected, but very rewarding. Recommended, but not to be underestimated. And the mountain views must be superb on a sunny day. On such day, I might sandalize it. One day. Maybe…
Here some snapshots of marvellous adventure, with some excellent companions…