The Story Of My First Mountain Half Marathon

On September 20th I finished my very first mountain half marathon, on the most beautiful road in the world, Transfagarasan, in a race called Transmaraton. What follows is the story of this race.

What Is A Mountain Half Marathon

Basically, a mountain half marathon it’s a 21k race, half of a normal marathon (hence, the name, doh) which takes place on a mountain road. It’s also called “trail half marathon” because it’s usually ran on trail, but this one is a bit different. The entire running circuit is on tarmac, not on trail. But the level difference, from start to finish, is more than 1000 meters, 1050 meters to be more precise, which qualifies this as a mountain race. And a very hard one too.

The Preparation

I trained around two months for this race, mostly on flat ground. When I started the race, yesterday, I have already run 3 half marathons in the previous 45 days, during the training, so I was in a reasonably good shape. I was also quite confident. (In the last two years, I also ran 2 full marathons, another 2 half marathons and a few other 5k and 10k races.)

Part of the preparation for this half marathon was for a full marathon I intend to run in 2 weeks, in Bucharest (the initial plan was to run it in Lisbon, but the initial plan changed, as many other things are changing in our lives 🙂 ). So, somehow, this half marathon should have count as a “long run” before the full marathon in October.

Getting There

We left from Bucharest a day before the race, around 4PM and we got to the chalet where the technical meeting was hold at 9 PM. Half of the driving was done on serpentines, in the dark. But most of the time, it was fun. At the technical meeting I picked up the race kit: the measuring chip, the official teeshirt and a few other goodies, like a frontal lantern. I also tried to understand from where we have to leave and where was the finish point, because I didn’t know nothing about that, I didn’t know the terrain.

The start of the race was from that specific chalet (Balea Cascada, in case you’re happening to be in Romania soon). From Balea Cascada, we had to run uphill 14 kilometers covering also a 1050 meters total vertical climb. The km 14 was the higher point of the race. At that point there was a tunnel and after the tunnel the downhill part of the race should start (7 km of going down continuously, on a 500 meters level difference). Sounded like fun. It’s important to say that I never trained on these conditions before, all my training was done on flat ground.

After we did a bit of socializing with the runners and the organizers (one of the organizers, Andrei Rosu, being a client of Connect Hub and the other one, Gabriel Solomon, being one of the first mentors in Open Connect) we drove uphill to the chalet where we were sleeping. Incidentally, that chalet was exactly near the tunnel, at the highest point of the race (Balea Lac). I just had enough time to prepare the running gear for the next day (I always lay down every piece of equipment I need, from socks to gels and protein bars before going to sleep, never letting anything to be done in the morning) and then we  got in the bed and fell asleep.

The Morning Of The Race

I woke up at 7AM. At 8:15 a shuttle car was expected to take the runners who were sleeping at the same chalet to Balea Cascada, the starting point. I didn’t sleep well, but that was somehow predictable. I did a little bit of stretching, a bit of my morning yoga routine (a few sun salutations), prepared a drop-off bag (some clothes to have at the finish, just in case I needed to change in something more comfortable) and then went outside, in the front of the chalet, to wait for the shuttles. Somehow, I didn’t have time to eat, but my girlfriend brought me a little bag with some dates and rice galettes, and that was pretty much my entire lunch.

I also had in a race strap 2 protein bars and one gel, deciding that I will run a bit “minimalistic”. There were 3 refreshment points during the race also, so I didn’t take any water recipient with me.

The shuttles came in silently, I stepped in and took the last place in a 12 places shuttle filled with runners. They were talking in low voice, trying to make jokes but they all looked pretty sleepy. At some point we saw a runner on the road and we started to cheer him up. He was from the ultra marathon race (which was basically 3 laps of a half marathon, namely 63 km). Those guys started at 4:30 AM. And it was 8:30 AM and they were still running. As we approached Balea Cascada, we saw a few more and we always cheered them up.

We got there at 9 AM. The start was at 10 AM. I didn’t have anything to do until 10 AM, so I just found a room (which happened to be the same room in which we held the technical meeting, the evening before), closed my eyes and tried to meditate. Or just relax.

Time flew pretty fast and, when there were only 20 minutes until the race, I stepped outside and started the warming up. I did a few stretches, a few sprints and then I went near the starting point. I also did a few sprints uphill, trying to understand how the run will be. The uphill sprints seemed unusually difficult.

The Race

At 10:00 AM we gathered near the starting line and Gabriel started to count backwards from 20. All runners cheered him up, we started to count with him and when he reached “0”, we just started to run.

The first part was relatively easy. I decided I will have a 5:30 pace (5 minutes, 30 seconds per kilometer), which should have taken me to the finish in less than 2 hours. During the training all the half marathons were finished in under 2 hours, with the personal best being at 1 hour and 52 minutes. But after the first kilometer, during which I had a 5:45 time, the road was still uphill and I started to have difficulties breathing.

Somewhere between the second and the third kilometer I stopped to catch my breath and I suddenly realized this is going to be quite tough. After 10 seconds I started to run again, this time a bit slower and started to think of a strategy. I decided I will walk the steeper parts and run the rest. Alas, as I was soon going to find out, the rest was quite “inexistent”. Pretty much everything was steep.

And then I remembered that we had to climb an entire kilometer during 14 kilometers of running.

Well, whatever, I said, then I decided to focus on the running and kept a rather good pace until kilometer 5. From this point on I started to walk briskly, almost like running, but not running, first for 100 meters, then for 150 meters, interweaving walking with running for the double of distance (200 meters running for 100 meters walking).

The part that wasn’t functioning well was the breathing. While I was walking, no matter how fast, I was able to breathe normally. But during running breathing was very difficult. I ran a few more portions and around kilometer 10 I was at half running, half walking (100 meters run for 100 meters walk). I ate the first protein bar at kilometer 9. I knew the last 3-4 km before the top were the most difficult and I didn’t want to lose time eating during that climb.

And then the final climb came out. The last 3-4 kilometers before the top were incredibly steep. Before entering that part, I was slightly over 7 minutes on average per kilometer. And I didn’t like that. At all. My “normal” pace at km 10 was usually at 5;30 / km.

I started to calculate my final time, based on how I ran so far. It was already half of the race and the total elapsed time was 1 hour and around 15 minutes. It became crystal clear that I wasn’t going to finish in under 2 hours. Even if I was running at 5 minutes per kilometer during the last part (8 km x 5 min = 40 minutes). Adding to this the last 3 kilometers before the top, which where the most difficult (an average of 7.5 km x 3 km = 22.5 min). The best time I could expect was 1 hour 15 minutes + 22.5 minutes + 40 minutes = 2 hours and 17.5 minutes).

But the last 3 kilometers proved to be much more difficult. I think I did 8 minutes per km because when I reached the second checkpoint, just before the tunnel, I was at 1 hour and 38 minutes. I stopped at the checkpoint to catch my breath and add some isotonic to the water. Before realizing, I spent 2-3 minutes at the checkpoint.

When I entered the tunnel, I was at 1 hour 43 minutes. And I still had around 8 kilometers to go. Luckily, they were downhill. Unfortunately, my breathing was completely chaotic and even if my legs were in a reasonably good shape, my lungs and heart didn’t work well together anymore. At times, I felt like a broken toy, with all the 3 parts (legs, lungs, heart) running well separately, but out of sync together.

The tunnel was almost pitch dark at times and incredibly cold. I felt that my higher abs were very tight and I realized it was because of the cold. When I got out of the tunnel I felt warmer, but the abs were still tight and that added up to the difficulty. If the upper part of the body is not relaxed, I slow down significantly.

But from the moment I got out of the tunnel I was able to run constantly and I stopped just 3 more times, first time for the last refreshment point, second time to take out an energy gel and the last time after I saw the finishing point.

That moment in itself was very special. Because the road was downhill, very downhill, the first thing I saw was the rooftop of the chalet. I was literally looking at the chalet from the top of it. I didn’t even know if that was the chalet I was supposed to reach, but I had a little bit of a hunch. It was the only one around. As I stared at that red object, I also saw the finish point, a green and red combination of inflated balloons. Yes, that was it. I was at around 300 meters above the chalet.

There were 2 distinct feelings I had when I saw that: first, I was sure I was going to finish. Second, I was incredibly frustrated, because the race time was way, way over my expectations. For the last 2 kilometers I did a bit of a sprint and I passed the finish point very fast. The total time of the race was 2hours 29 minutes. Almost half an hour more than I expected.

After I finished, a lady gave me the medal, a guy gave me a chocolate and Andrei, who was the MC at the end of the race, cheering up and congratulating all the finishers, gave me a hand shake.

And that was the race.

What Went Well

After I got over the initial moments of frustrations I realized that I finished a mountain half marathon in (almost) the same time I finished my very first half marathon, last year, on flat ground (2 hours and 20 minutes). I had to admit to myself that this was a huge progress. And I felt happy for myself.

So, the fact that I finished a mountain marathon in almost the same time I finished my first flat ground marathon, was the first thing that went well.

The second thing was the food. During the race I only had a protein bar and a gel on the descent. And I felt quite ok with that. After the finish I did a few stretches, I continued to move and in less than 5 minutes I was ok. Breathing was good, legs were ok, I felt like I could easily continue.

What Went Wrong

I didn’t train for that specific type of surface. It wasn’t the endurance part that didn’t went well, it was the pressure on the lungs and heart during the climbing. Running on flat ground is very, very different from running uphill, constantly, for 14 kilometers. Now I know that I have to train specifically for this for the next year race.

Also, I didn’t know the place before. I was on the Transfagarasan before, but never on foot, and never did the entire lap. I could have managed my efforts better if I would have known form the beginning the exact points for the climbing and for the descent. Well, now I know.

Another part that didn’t went well was the fundraising part. Transmaraton is a charity race. I was supposed to raise money for a cause, and I only raised 125 RON (roughly 40 USD). Again, I know that next time I will start sooner and use another approach. I will keep the target that I set up this year, 3000 RON (around 900 USD) and I’ll make sure I’ll reach it.

Another thing that will change next year is that I will do an ultra-marathon. I am very curious to know how it is to do an ultra-marathon on the mountains. Of course, I’ll make sure I’ll have at least 2 other flat ground ultra-marathons before that. And now you know a bit from my plans for the next year (at least when it comes to running 🙂 ).

But, until then, I will just focus on the next race (when it comes to running) on the next business meeting (when it comes to business) and on the next morning (when it comes to my day to day life).

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