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Racing around Dracula’s castle

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11/12/2018
 

Wolves? Bears? No big deal. Athletes taking part in the Transylvania 100 ultra run in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains risk encountering something much more dangerous: Count Dracula. That’s if you believe in vampires, of course…


Garlic is not really something ultra runners tend to carry. But there is one race when it might very well come in handy: The Transylvania 100 starts and finishes in what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most mystical places – Count Dracula’s castle in central Romania, a region otherwise known as Transylvania. No one has actually seen the legendary landlord of this centuries-old fortress on any of the previous runs, but then he is probably not particularly keen on the starting time of the race, which normally involves bright spring sunshine. That said, the runners don’t cross the finish line until after dark, so a bloodthirsty reception could well be on the cards. All you need for that extra thrill is a firm belief in vampires…

 

Even without the Gothic trappings, this event has plenty of thrills to offer. The Transylvania 100 is one of the toughest ultra runs in the world. The uncertain weather conditions alone make the course through the romantic, fairy-tale landscape of the Carpathian Mountains one of the greatest challenges in the runner’s calendar. In May, when the race is held, it can be the start of summer – warm with the first midges (more blood-sucking creatures!) – or it can be bitterly cold with snow and ice. High up on the summit of Omu Peak (2,500 meters) for instance, there is a mountain hut where the snow can sometimes still be knee-deep in May. While skiers are still racing down the slope into the valley, athletes competing in the Transylvania 100 are struggling uphill in running shoes and looking forward to stopping for a quick breather in the hut. The race covers 100 kilometers along gravel paths and rocky trails, across rivers, through marshes and, as we mentioned, snow. It has a total elevation gain of 6,500 meters. With its dense forests sheltering bears and wolves, its rugged ridges and wide valleys, the landscape of the Carpathian Mountains is captivating even without the legend of Count Dracula.

Photo credits: Transylvania 100

 

The most famous town here is Bran, dominated by the infamous 14th-century castle. Whether the undead really live here is presumably something you could argue over with the local tourist office. The castle achieved international fame at the end of the 19th century, when Irish author Bram Stoker published his novel about a vampire count. In the story, the hero, Jonathan Harker, travels to Transylvania where he meets Count Dracula in a castle very similar to the one in Bran. As a result, Bran Castle became the key location associated with one of the world’s best-known horror stories. More than half a million people travel to Romania each year to visit this mysterious place.

 

In May, however, it is ultra runners rather than vampire fans who cause a stir at the foot of the castle as they wait with full packs at the start line, ready to embark on their own personal Transylvanian adventure. Ambitious ultramarathon runners are particularly keen on the Romanian race because the list of winners is still short – the third edition only took place in 2018. The record holder is Balint Bartha from Romania, with a time of 15 hours, 35 minutes and 25 seconds. The next race starts on May 19, 2019. Anyone taking on this challenge through the Transylvanian wilderness of the Bucegi National Park must be prepared for anything – sun, wind, rain, snow and fog during the day and at night, slippery alpine pastures, forests where you can easily lose your way and icy mountain streams. It’s a dream come true for hardened ultra runners. The mandatory kit list alone gives a hint of the adventures in store: Besides a compass, whistle and headtorch, it includes trekking poles and snow spikes. And garlic? That’s up to you…

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