A guide to the Transylvanian Bear Race

13 June 2016, 14:32

This post is intended to help guide anyone wishing to run the Transylvanian Bear Race next year, as there’s not much information out there beyond the official site. You can read my race report here, but this post is more laying out the logistics and my opinions on how you can make the most of your time in Transylvania over the race weekend. These are all my opinions and I might have an error here or there, but basically I’m answering all the questions I had before running!

Viscri main street
The main street in Viscri (no really)

Viscri view
View from the Viscri fortified church

Pre-Race & Viscri

  • Flights & transfers – The race organisers did a good job of laying out all the flight options from London to the race start. I opted to go for the more expensive flight into Targu Mures (aka “Tirgu Mures” or “Transilvania”) airport which arrived very late on Thursday night, and I’m glad I did. Transfer times to/from Targu Mures were only 90/60min instead of the 4+hr transfer from Bucharest, and it meant I had the whole day on Friday to relax around Viscri village. Transfers were in vans, and the ride was comfortable right up until the potholed, dirt track leading into Viscri. Note that you should bring along a torch and a map of where your accommodation is located as the drivers just know where you drop you off and that’s it.
  • Money – Definitely bring some cash in local currency (Romanian Lei) before you get to Viscri, as no one takes cards. There is a cash point in the Arrivals hall at Targu Mures airport (and presumably at Cluj and Bucharest, too, as Targu is tiny!). There aren’t many places to spend money in Viscri, but there is a small shop selling snacks and drinks, a bakery, the fortified church (8 lei entry fee), the ladies selling hand knitted socks (about 30 lei a pair), and also lunch at Viscri 125 (also around 30 lei) on Friday if you arrive early like I did. There are plenty of cash points in Sighisoara so you really only need enough to get you through the day in Viscri.
  • Viscri accomodation – I stayed in Viscri 129 guesthouse, which was on the main street and only a few doors down from Visccri 125, which serves as Race HQ and appears to be the only hotel, restaurant, and wifi in the village. Others who stayed at 125 were very happy with it, and I was pleased with 129, too. Experience Transylvania were super helpful in arranging my arrival at 3am and getting some groceries in the fridge for my arrival, so they certainly get two thumbs up from me! Accommodation in the open hayloft is included in your race entry, but you need to provide your own sleeping bag and mat. I didn’t see the loft myself (as it was up the hill by the fortified church) but I’m told there were plentiful toilets but no showers, and you’d be advised to bring ear plugs and eye masks as the cuckoos and cows are quite loud in the morning!
  • Viscri village sights/amenities – Viscri is a tiny village – there are seriously only three roads, and you can walk around the entire village in about 10min. The only reason people really ever come here is to see the fortified church, which is well worth a visit for the views as well as the local history museum, which I found genuinely fascinating. You can also see the terrain of where you’ll be running the next day! Some others visited the village bakery, where you can watch them make traditional loves, and there are a few ladies selling hand knitted socks and caps on the street leading up to the church. Every morning and evening the cows go through town on their way out to pasture (and let themselves into the right house each night!!) which is about as much excitement as you’re likely to get. As a result, there are cow patties everywhere so you might want to leave your heels at home, ha! I was also surprised to find that the villagers tended to speak German instead of Romanian.
  • Registration/briefing/pasta party – Friday night there’s a mandatory race briefing followed by a pasta party at Viscri 125. The latter consisted of pasta in a meat sauce or veggie sauce accompanied by bread, with a cash bar on hand if you fancied beer, wine, or the local plum palinka/moonshine. Directly after the race briefing was registration, where you signed a waiver and picked up your number for the next day – all very low key!
  • Fundraising – The race is in aid of the European Nature Trust and you’re expected to raise £200 to help fund their efforts to educate the local children in conservation as well as buying up forested land to preserve. The TENT guys were on hand to help tell us what they do, and the education bus was open to poke around, too. They’re a really small and friendly charity doing a lot of good work on the ground in Romania, and IMHO the fundraising amount is quite reasonable!

Viscri knitting lady
One of the ladies selling knitwear in Viscri

The Race itself

  • Route / elevation – The ultra course is ~88km and the marathon course is 47km, and you can see my Strava run details here, which include the elevation. Marathon runners had the option to be taken further up the course in a horse and cart so that it’d be closer to true marathon distance rather than starting at the church. This was still 45km, but cut out the incredibly boggy first few km, but on the downside you also miss out on starting at the church, so it’s something you’ll need to decide for yourself. Note that only the ultra course goes through the surrounding villages – on the marathon course, the only civilisation you’ll see are at the start and finish.
  • Running surface – The vast majority of the marathon course is along a mountain biking trail, marked with crushed white chalk stone (the ultra course uses this too, with added diversions to the villages). Since it’s designed for mountain bikes, the turns are banked, there are twisty chicanes up and down steep gradients (which you’re welcome to run straight through!), and the occasional jumps nearing Sighisoara. It rained heavily the night before our race so the path was pretty much continuous mud and puddles, but much easier to run through that the logging trail in the first 2km.
  • Course marking – As nearly all of the marathon course follows the mountain biking trail, you really only need to follow the crushed white stone, but there are places where it’s not easy to see. The race organisers tied hazard tape to trees every 50m (red for ultra, yellow for marathon) and even spraypainted arrows on the road in a few places. I personally found it pretty easy to follow even in my marathon-brain state but apparently I was in the minority who didn’t get lost at all.
  • Feed stations – There are checkpoints at kilometers 13, 24, 31, and 37 on the marathon course (a few extras for the ultra, but I didn’t write those down!). These were really just a volunteer with some bags of snacks (crisps, haribo, cookies, bananas, etc) plus bottles of coke and water by the side of the trail (no tables or chairs). I should point out that there are no toilets along the course, but you’ll be running in utter solitude for long stretches of time so squatting in the forest to do your business is really no biggie (but pack so loo roll in a ziploc just in case, as the race has a strict NO LITTERING policy so you’ll need to bring your tissue back with you).
  • Required kit list – The race website listed a bunch of things that runners needed to present at registration and every checkpoint, so I brought all these with me only to find out that they were only vaguely recommended. The only items we were actually required to bring along were a water bottle and a waterproof jacket (and even then there was no checking at the feed stations, start or finish). The torch was mostly for finding your way around Viscri at night, and the map case and compass were replaced by an offline map app, and the whistle was presumably to ward off bears and sheepdogs, but we weren’t really told what do to in case of bear sighting anyway, as they’re really rare with the amount of noise and smells runners produce!
  • Recommended kit (IMHO) – These are all highly subjective, but I’d recommend trail shoes, a good running backpack, a waterproof jacket, water bottles or camelbak, whatever nutrition suits you, plus a backup phone battery and the aforementioned loo roll in a baggie. But back to the shoes – about half wore road shoes (including the first lady!) and were fine, but I was very glad to have my trail shoes, because we ran through really thick mud and standing water, and my trail shoes drain and dry off much more quickly than road shoes. But ultimately wear whatever you’re comfortable running 5+ hours in! Also weather depending, you may want suncream or sunglasses for the 4km or so in the meadows where there’s no shade. I used bug spray but I think the mud washed it off anyway – the bugs were only an issue if I stopped moving entirely.
  • Maps – Instead of paper maps, we were all told to download the View Ranger app onto our phones and load up either the marathon or ultra course map in case we got lost. To be honest, I only opened the app once during the race, and that was just to see exactly how close to Sighisoara I was when I started to hear road noises.
  • Photographer – There’s a very friendly race photographer, Paul, who followed our progress in a 4×4 as well as by mountain bike. But there’s only one of him and we all got quite spread out, so I only saw him once at the beginning of the race, though the organisers took photos of everyone at the finish line, too. If photos are important to you, get practising with those selfies!
  • Wildlife – You are very unlikely to encounter any wolves or bears! Frankly, the professional sheepdogs are scary enough, but the shepherds were briefed ahead of time that we’d be coming through, and kept a close eye on them. I did see lots of birds, snails, a couple frogs, and a family of piggies, though, and heard lots of cuckoos in the forest (though strangely, no squirrels!).

Sighisoara main square
The main square “post race” beer area in Sighisoara

Sighisoara beer
The local beer, Ursus, is rather good!

Post-Race & Sighisoara

  • Finish line & goodie bag – The race finish goes through the centre of the old town, through the main square (where you’ll get cheers and beers from those who’ve already finished!), up the infamous wooden stairs, and then the road winds upwards again at the top of the stairs, finishing at the very top of the hill. This year we received a beautiful, hand crafted ceramic finishers medal, embroidered teeshirt, and a canvas tote bag. There was water at the finish, but most of us just went back down the hill and had a beer in the piazza cafes instead. We were also given access to a piazaa hotel to have a shower and change, though if accommodation changes in future (see below), you might just check into your hotel afterwards instead.
  • Post race party – The post-race party was in the basement event space of one of the piazza hotels, and really was just a sit down, two course meal. Drinks were extra, and there wasn’t any music or entertainment. It was also very casual, so don’t bother packing nice clothes or dancing shoes or anything! It was really just a great opportunity to chat to the other runners and find out how their races went! There was nothing formally organised for Sunday morning so say your goodbyes at the party unless you make specific plans to meet up the next day.
  • Sighisoara accomodation – I won’t go into the details here as I’ve already contacted the organisers, but our included accommodation was extremely disappointing. I’m told that they’ve learned from this and that it may not be included in future anyway – just know that there are loads of reasonably priced hotels in Sighisoara, so if a good bed and hot shower matter to you, just book your own room for the night.
  • Sighisoara sights/amenities – Sighisoara is a decent sized town with a roaring tourist trade so all the amenities are there – cash points, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, the works. The main attractions are the citadel/church at the top of the hill, which has some interesting frescos and crypt, and the clock tower, which includes an extensive museum and views from the top. Both had entrance fees, but I can’t recall what they were. There’s also “the room where Dracula was born!” but Tripadvisor said this was tacky so I didn’t bother…
  • Flights & transfers – The pickup point for transfers back to the airports was from a restaurant just off the main square – very easy to find. Make absolutely sure you don’t miss the transfer time, though, as it was everyone’s responsibility to be there. If you’re flying back out of Targu Mures airport, use up your local currency before going through security, as the two shops on the other side of security/passport control only take Euros. But really, buy any snacks or souvenirs before you leave Sighisoara because the airport selection was really dire.

View of Sighisoara
View from the clock tower in Sighisoara

Things I wish I’d done: had my husband fly in to Targu Mures after the race and spent another week driving around the Transylvanian countryside! Several others thought to do this and I was so jealous!

I should also point out that there’s a mountain biking trip through the same area in Transylvania, run by the European Nature Trust (who are the charity partner for the Bear Race and are really lovely people!). One of the five days is the exact route of the Bear Race marathon, and I can attest that the trail is perfectly suited for cycling!

If you’ve got any other questions about something I’ve not covered here, feel free to leave me a comment below, but as time goes on my memory might get a bit hazy!

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Transylvanian Bear Race - race report

7 June 2016, 13:39

I have never felt more grateful to be on a start line than I did standing in front of the fortified church in Viscri, Transylvania, in Romania on Saturday. I’d heard about the Transylvanian Bear Race over a year ago when my friend Rhalou ran the first ever one and raved about it, sharing amazing photos and saying it was the best race she’d ever done (and she’s run a lot of races). So I signed up pretty much immediately when it opened up for 2016, and couldn’t stop talking about it for the past 9 months or so. People loved the name and the crazy premise of the race (to run through Europe’s last unspoiled virgin forests, with wild bears and wolves, through medieval villages, and finish going up the steps to Dracula’s castle), and I was excited to finally run my first trail marathon after running five road marathons. For me it’d be both an adventure and a new physical test.

But I was quite seriously ill in January, and didn’t really recover enough to do any running whatsoever until April, meaning I had to defer London marathon and DNS Cardiff Half. I managed to party pace Hackney Half in the searing heat, but cramming in 6 weeks of training and only one really long run in for this race was not ideal. But my 3.5hr run along the North Downs Way gave me confidence that I could at least complete the race, and my legs felt marathon-ready, even though overall I knew I still wasn’t back up to my usual fitness level.

Bear Race start
Before the start, complete with Run dem Crew tee, custom-sewn bear shorts, and trusty backpack

The Transylvanian Bear Race is actually two races – you can choose to run either the “marathon”, or the ultra. I chose the marathon because I’d been wanting to run a trail marathon for ages, and I credit my staying at a race distance for a number of years before progressing in distance for my only ever having one injury in 14 years of running (from a track session, no less!). So I felt I wanted to stay at the marathon distance a while longer before possibly moving into an ultra at some point – and this ultra is 88km, over twice the marathon distance! I only discovered a month or so before the race that the “marathon” distance was actually 49km the previous year, and as it turned out, 47km this year after cutting out a section through a village. With 576m (1890ft) of climb and challenging terrain, this is not your standard marathon – I’d also learned that last year’s winner finished two hours over his road marathon PB, and that if you get in under 6 hours, you’ve done really well!

Bear Race selfie at Viscri
Start line selfie with the fortified church at Viscri

I stood on the start line feeling ready for adventure, and almost immediately after we took off, we encountered two miles of the boggiest mud I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to both English cross country meets as well as Glastonbury!). This made it difficult to even walk, let alone run, and I know I used up far too much energy early on just getting through it (as did everyone else). But I was fortunate enough to not lose a shoe (as others did), and when we finally hit the proper trail, it felt amazing to finally stretch out my legs and find a comfortable running rhythm. The vast majority of the race just follows a very well maintained mountain biking trail through the forests – while it was designed for cyclists with nice banked corners and shallow gradients (think zigzags up the hills which runners could easily shortcut), the entire route was lined in a crushed chalk stone which made it easy to follow but also really nice to run on.

Bear Race view at clearing Bear Race selfie with vista

But there were a few twists and turns along the way, and a few places where it wasn’t immediately obvious which path to take (as there were some logging roads in places, too), and the race directors marked the route with coloured tape at 50m intervals – red and white for the ultra, and black and yellow for the marathon. Talking to other runners afterwards, I seem to be in the minority that didn’t get lost at all, and even in my braindead state at the end, I found it easy to just follow the white chalk path (we were also supplied with an offline trail map app but I didn’t need to use it at all).

But those are purely logistics – the experience of the race was both the hardest run I’ve ever done and also the most rewarding. 90% of the route is in the forests, which were just stunningly beautiful. For large stretches of the race I ran alone in the forest, and I could turn 360 degrees around and not only see no other humans, but see no other evidence of humans other than the path. The sound of the cuckoos in the trees while I ran, with dappled sunshine streaming through the forest canopy is a memory I’ll take with me forever. And it was like that, over and over, for hours.

Bear Race forest selfie

We got really lucky with the weather – the forecast in the week leading up to the race called for thunderstorms on the day, and even at the pre-race briefing we were told that waterproofs were mandatory. It rained heavily in the days leading up to the race, leaving the path as a near-continuous string of puddles and mud despite the chalk, but the weather during the run was gorgeous – sunny but shaded in the forest and about 20 degrees Celsuis (70F) with a light breeze.

Bear Race - muddy trail
Fairly representative photo of the muddy trail

The meadows, however, were another story. Apparently only 4km of the course is not in the forest, but as soon you stepped out of the tree line you were hit hard with two things: 1) omg the vistas across the mountains were incredible, stretching for miles and miles fading into faded purple mountains, with no houses or human evidence in sight. And 2) the beating sun caused the temperature to be at least 10 degrees © hotter than in the forest, which, combined with the high humidity, made running a real struggle. Once the initial boggy miles were out of the way, I settled into a pretty good rhythm in the forests, running about 6min/km (9min/mi), chatting with various other runners for 10-30min at a time, and just stopping at the checkpoints to fill up my Camelbak and be off on my way.

Bear Race - with sign
Posing with the directional sign at the 3rd checkpoint at 31km

But right after the third checkpoint at 31km (19mi), we hit a meadow and I just melted. I’d already been running for about 4 hours at that point, and every time I attempted to jog a little, but my body just said NO. So to avoid heat exhaustion, I ended up walking the entire 2-3km of that meadow, despite attempting to run several times. This meadow alone easily added 30-40min onto my time, but as soon as I hit the forest again, the cool air hit me and I could pick up running again. Once we were on the mountain biking path, we were pretty much alone until the last descent into town, apart from 2 or 3 weathered local shepherds keeping an eye on their flocks (who’d be warned in advance that we’d be coming through and to kindly keep their enormous sheepdogs out of our way!). Whenever I’ve been on trails or public footpaths in the US or UK, I’d come across people out hiking or walking their dogs, or even out running at least once every half hour or so. But in Transylvania, there wasn’t a soul using the path that wasn’t part of the race, which I just found odd, but also a bit sad. Sure, we were running through a very remote area with only a handful of villages for miles around, but it still felt like somewhere so beautiful should be appreciated a bit more, and not just by 65 sweaty Brits on one day a year.

Bear Race - meadow tree
The only shade in that entire blazing meadow

But back to my race – after the molten meadow, I picked back up running again in the forest, but without the same vigour as before. I’m blaming it on the heat, but it could also just be the fact that I’d been running for longer than I’d ever been on my feet before. By the time 5 hours rolled along, I was still a few kilometers shy of the 42km marathon mark, and I “celebrated” by recording a little stream of consciousness video diary on my Go Pro, which was thoroughly amusing but rather rambling so I edited it down for time!

Bear Race - stairs at Sighisoara
The stairs at Sighisoara (actually only half of them!

Bear Race - acid trip selfie
My “acid trip” selfie taken on the stairs – I swear I wasn’t pulling a face, this was just how I felt!

Just before the final zigzag descent into Sighisoara, I started to hear some road noises and another runner came up behind me in one of my walking breaks, so my new friend and I made the descent into town together, feeling equally startled by the sudden appearance of people, taxis, and chickens, and then running on pavement, cobbles, and having to cross the road! Once we got into the main square we were greeted by an almighty cheer from the finished runners enjoying their beers in a piazza cafe, which really helped pick up the legs to get to the almighty covered wooden staircase leading up to the citadel. My new friend started running up the stairs (!!), to which I promptly said “F— that, I’m walking up!”, then once at the top, it was a short curve round to the very top of the hill, where the finish line was marked with a few stones, cheers of congratulations, and a hug from my friend Ruth (who said I “looked fresh”, hahahah).

Bear Race - finish line

My official time was 6 hours 22 minutes and 57 seconds, which was about 2.5hrs longer than I’d ever run before (my 3:52 finish at Copenhagen marathon in 2013). I’d also finished as second lady, apparently, too, so in case you’re thinking that this was a really slow time for 47km, just let that sink in (and in fact, my time this year was faster than the first lady’s time last year)! That time is much more of an indication of how difficult the terrain and conditions were than any particular comment on my performance on the day – I know one runner who took nearly 12 hours to finish!

Bear Race - medal

I’m leaving out a lot of race particulars here on purpose as I’m writing another post as a guide for anyone who’d like to run it next year (and you should!!), but the medal we were given at the finish is probably the nicest one I’ve ever received in all my races. It’s a glazed ceramic medal, handmade by local artisans, and is such a wonderful and fitting reminder of the race – it’s beautiful to behold, but also a little rough around the edges but absolutely bursting with charm.

Transylvanian Bear Race, 4 June 2016, 6:22:57

This race was in aid of the European Nature Trust, a small charity whose aims are conservation of the Transylvanian forests through buying up land as well as educating Romanian schoolchildren in a travelling conservation bus. You can donate to my fundraising here if you’d like..

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A long run on the North Downs Way

25 May 2016, 15:44

Marathon training has been short and sharp this year thanks to my several-month-long illness this winter, but now I’m finally feeling back on track and back to full strength, and the training plan from Coach Babs is reaching its crescendo. Last week my plan called for a 3hr run that would mimic conditions for my upcoming Transylvanian Bear Race. I could just run around the Thames again, or pop down to Richmond Park and run around that for a while, but my recent travels to Istanbul gave me an itch to explore a bit closer to home.

My first thought was to go to the South Downs Way, but then I remembered the North Downs Way is both closer and mostly in woodland, and would be even better. The North Downs Way is one of the long distance trails that England excels at: 153 miles of well-marked trails running roughly East to West south of London in Surrey and Kent.

Start of the NDW run
Selfie when I started my run…

This ticked all my boxes: trail, hilly, and unfamiliar! It’s marked well enough with signs, but not so well that I didn’t have to think, and it gave me a great “dress rehearsal” to test out my trail shoes, backpack (with CamelBak bladder inside), and homemade flax gels. But most important of all was the mental training – namely, practising walking when the terrain demands it rather than just forging my way ahead up steep hills, rocky descents, and gullied narrow paths that I really shouldn’t be wasting my energy on.

I had a rough look at distances on a map before I started and reckoned that Guildford would be a good starting point. But it’s also a little hike between the train station and the NDW itself, and not signposted from the station or town centre at all! Thankfully, I anticipated this and printed out the instructions for the beginning of a Guildford walk in book 2 of the Time Out Book of Country Walks. I honestly think I would’ve struggled to find the trail on my own if I didn’t have these (or a good map!) to follow. Since I was checking the directions every few seconds, I didn’t start running (and my GPS tracker) til I reached the North Downs Way proper.

Trail heaven

I’d forgotten from my weekend trail runs in Hampstead Heath in years past how much better I respond to running on soft surfaces! It’s been a while, but it was obvious to me during the brief paved section near Denbies how much kinder the trails and grass were to my feet and joints than the hard pavements. Thankfully 95% of the NDW (or at least the portion I covered) is trail, varying in width from bridleways and logging trails down to a few overgrown portions requiring nimble feet to avoid nettle stings from both sides.

One main advantage of the North Downs Way over the South Downs Way IMHO is that the North is almost entirely in woodland. I love running in the woods, but it’s also preferable on sunny or windy days, as you’ve got a lot more shelter from the elements.

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on



Video of the solitude…

Buuuuuuuut, the downside is that the entire NDW route is hilly. Like, really hilly! Box Hill has the reputation for being one of the biggest, steepest hills in the South East, and the road up it is absolutely covered in cyclists at the weekend. The pedestrian route is less crowded, but also has steps cut in to the trail that are so steep you could practically climb up with your hands. I’d run up these steps before at the start of the Three Molehills race a few years ago, but my legs were fresh then instead of having run for over two hours already so they were a bit of a surprise!

Box Hill steps

If you’re thinking of hiking or running the NDW on your own, I’d highly recommend bringing along a good map, either a printed Ordinance Survey (OS) map or a digital one like the RouteBuddy offline trailhead map I used – well worth the fiver I paid! On the left is the general map my running app gives me (about the same info as Apple or Google Maps) – it’s fine for cities, but I was running blind in the woods – compare that to the map in Route Buddy on the right! (The NDW path is marked by a series of red dots.)

Map comparison

Even though there are signposts everywhere for the NDW, there were still several points where I wasn’t entirely sure which way to go, and also it was useful for checking my progress – like a big “You Are Here!” on an OS map. And also it worked in those places where I had no mobile signal, too.

Sometimes with these long runs, you can build up the scale of it in your head so much that you get overly focused on the amount of running ahead of you and forget to enjoy the experience. But with this run, I thoroughly enjoyed the woodland solitude. I thought I’d want some music or podcasts after a few hours, but as it turns out, saying hello to dog walkers, watching where I was going, and listening to the birds and my internal monologue kept me occupied enough for the entire run without bothering to get my headphones out.

North Downs Way selfie after 3hrs
Selfie taken after over 3hrs of running!

When I originally looked at the map to plan this run, I thought I’d run from Guildford to Redhill, but with all the little twists and turns, by the time I got to Reigate I was already over the 30km and 3 hour mark so I grabbed two bottles of water at the concession stand (the only one along the way!! Take note and bring more water than I did!) and walked the 2km down the hill(!!) to Reigate station, where I grabbed a direct train back to London.

Elevation of NDW run
Elevation profile of the run, with Box Hill approximately in the middle

I haven’t harped on about it much here, but I’m actually doing a bit of fundraising in conjunction with the Transylvanian Bear Race. The official charity of the race is The European Nature Trust (TENT), a small charity who work with local schools to educate children in Romania about the importance of preserving the forests I’ll be running 49km through in (eep!) 10 days.

I even recorded a little video on the trail to tell you about it!

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on


If you’d like to donate a bit of spare cash to TENT, I (and the bears and wolves*) would really appreciate it!

* not the vampires though, those guys are jerks.

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Running in Istanbul

23 May 2016, 13:45

Out of the blue, a few weeks ago I got the opportunity to travel to Istanbul. My husband was speaking at a conference there with his flights and hotel provided, and I was able to come along for just the price of my own flights. For £100 on BA I got a very nice short break!

Having never been to the city before, of course the first thing I did was Google “running crew Istanbul” to see if Run Dem Crew equivalents were there, and it turns out Istanbul Kosu Kuvvetleri (“Istanbul Run Force”) have been going strong since 2012! So I popped a quick email to them and within hours their captain, Ruya, had invited me down to one of their Thursday night sessions in Maçka Park.

IKK flag

Most of IKK were running a big race later that weekend so I was told this would be an easy shakeout run, but seeing as how I had a long run in my training plan the next day, this was perfect for me! So about 20 of us left our belongings in the park (along with a someone to watch it!) and we split up into two groups, one running 5km and the other 8km (I went with the former for the above reasons!).

IKK with their flag

I found myself near the front, going at a nice clip but not so fast that I couldn’t have a good chat with the guys around me, talking about running in the city, how they fit it into their lives, and how we shout out all the hazard in RDC – they’ve now added “bollard!” to their vocabulary!!

IKK - with me afterwards

We ran mostly downhill to the waterfront to a pre-designated turnaround spot, then it was back up the hill to our starting point. It may not have been the steepest hill, but it was a long one, and made me appreciate how fit the IKK runners are from running these hills all the time!

We then regrouped for a special yoga session led by an American expat, and afterwards we headed off to a nearby bar for burgers and beers with a few of the guys. It was so great to be able to chat with them about running and life and global politics and everything in between, and IKK made me feel so welcome! I was nervous before heading to the park as I didn’t know anyone and I feel really awkward in social interactions like that, but Ruya and the others really made me feel right at home. And now I’ve got an exclusive Run Force shirt to show off in London, too!

The next morning, however, my alarm went off and I did. not. want. to. run.

Honestly, 99% of the time, my alarm goes off, and I’m up. But that morning, I procrastinated and whinged for 90min before actually getting my kit on and heading out the door. I’d packed biker length shorts and a teeshirt, knowing it’d be hot but wanting to wear as much as I could get away with, but I honestly got stares (full on stares) from the hotel staff before I’d even left the lobby, so I knew it was going to be a tough old slog.

My training plan said 2hr45 at easy pace, but I just had so much to battle besides the running – it was hot, humid, and hilly (though mostly downhill, which has its own dangers!), the roads were full of cobbles, plus I got more stares AND honks than I have in my entire life combined. It’s probably good that my Turkish only extends to the basics!

Istanbul selfie at top of hill

Because I was running from the hotel through a residential district, then down to the Bosphorus and along the water, I had to keep stopping to check my offline map, too, and the waterside was more often than not closed to pedestrians by fences and industrial yards, so I had to run on pavements alongside busy roads, dodging other pedestrians (the IKK guys told me later that the waterfront going north is much better!) and constantly checking my footing for trip hazards.

Istanbul - steep cobbled street
A steep, cobbled street

When I reached the Bosphorus, though, I was greeted by an utterly beautiful seaside scene, so you can keep thinking it was all this sublime, even though I had to dodge a million fishermen’s wayward hooks about 5 feet to the right!

Istanbul - Bosphorus and boats

In the end, I only managed about 2hr15 but I’d run the coast down over the bridge into Sultanahmet, and figured that the point would be a good turnaround spot, then heading back to a metro station at the next bridge down the Golden Horn.

Istanbul - selfie at Sultanahmet point
Selfie with a Sultanahmet flag and statue

I really try to stick to my training plan as much as possible, but in this case I also knew when to call it quits! It may look like I didn’t cover the time or distance on paper, but considering the stress and elements I battled, the effort level probably exceeded what I needed out of the session!

Istanbul run map

But there was also a bonus at the end of all my hard work – our hotel had a reeeeeeeeeally nice spa!

Istanbul - spa after run

I love it when a masseuse actually gives me firm pressure when I ask for it, and this lady did a great job! Next time I’ll go for an authentic Turkish hammam, but I was too knackered to search one out this time around. And we loved our short break here so much that there will definitely be a “next time”!!

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Homemade flax gels recipe

11 May 2016, 15:37

This post will not be for everyone, but if you’re trying to cut down on the amount of refined sugar you eat and really don’t like the idea that you can only run long distances by sucking down sugary gels, well, then hear me out…

I’ve experimented over the years with various cakes, cookies, and tiny pies to eat while on long trail runs (the Feed Zone Portables book is ACE for this!), but these give more of a slow release burn rather than a sharp uptake in energy needed for racing, so I’d begrudgingly gone back to gels (my favourites being Torq and Shot Bloks, which my stomach tolerates just fine). I ran into a friend of mine, Lauren, after London marathon and she was telling me about the homemade flax gels she’d made to get her through the race and that they actually gave her a boost, so I was intrigued enough to give it a try myself.

Homemade flax gel recipe
Ingredients:

  • 1 ripe banana

  • 1 cup oats

  • 1/2 cup ground flax seeds

  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt

  • boiling water

To make: mash up the banana in a bowl with a fork until it’s no longer chunky. Add all the dry ingredients and the honey, and stir together. Add boiling water to the mix, stir well, and let cool. Note that both the flax and chia will naturally make it thicken, so you probably want to make it runnier than you’d expect. The above fills 4-5 of the below pouches, so is plenty enough for a few runs.

I took the gels out on a few trail runs and I loved the taste – like delicious porridge from my childhood! The gels also gave me a definite boost after I ate them, too, which is fantastic. The only downside was that they were hard to transport – Lauren said she had hers in a ziploc bag she just sort of squeezed into her mouth, but I tried a little tupperware, which I then out to scoop out with my finger. Not great.

Flax gel

But then someone suggested reusable baby food pouches! Not having any children, I literally didn’t know these existed, but they’re brilliant – double ziploc opening on the bottom to spoon the goo in, seal it up, and then you’ve got a secure cap and sucky straw at the top. They’re freezable and dishwasher safe. Even the smallest, 100ml ones are a bit bigger than an iPhone 6+, though, which means they’re a tad awkward to fit into shorts pockets (though fine in backpacks) and of course you need to carry the empties with you rather than bin them along the run, but I’m really happy with this new nutrition strategy for Transylvania now!

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Run Hackney 2016 - race report

9 May 2016, 12:20

When I’d originally signed up to Run Hackney again this year, I was hesitant because, not only was it two weeks after London marathon (same as last year), but it’d also be four weeks before the Transylvanian Bear Race, which would mean I’d be running 2.5 marathons in 6 weeks. This didn’t seem particularly wise for my recovery and ability to run another marathon (a mountainous trail marathon, no less) in quick succession, but then I got offered a place, realised that 150 of my Run dem Crew friends would be running it, plus I really enjoyed it the past two years… and, well, I could always just party pace it, right?

Well, plans changed somewhat when I was so ill for the first three months of the year – I had to cheer the Cardiff World Half Championships instead of trying for a PB (measly goodie bag for £56, and it turned out the weather was comically awful), and I had to defer London marathon to next year, leaving my original plans for Run Hackney a bit up in the air. Should I try for a PB on only a few weeks training? Or just enjoy it and have fun with friends? Or use it as a long run and an excuse to test out some new tactics for Transylvania?

Hackney Half kit

Well, another cold (low level, thankfully!) plus a scorching weather forecast put paid to any hopes of a PB, plus my running hasn’t felt entirely up to my usual standards since I restarted in April. It’s clear I’ve lost fitness while I was ill, and even my former marathon pace is a bit of a struggle, so to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really even have a finishing time in mind. I mostly ended up using the race to help keep others’ spirits up, but also to refresh my race memory ahead of Transylvania, and test out my new homemade flax gels in a race setting, too.

Me at Cheer dem
Photo credit: Caz Craig

Let’s get the obvious out of the way from the start – it was a brutally hot day. Even worse was that we’d been still having freezing temperatures right up until the week before, so it felt even hotter. Last week I ran in a merino long sleeved top and thermo leggings – today it was a skimpy vest and my short shorts. It was so hot that the organisers laid on weather advisory flags throughout the course, and by the time I was leaving, they were actually advising anyone still running to walk instead for safety’s sake. I drank about three times as much water during the race than I normally would (plus 3 bottles of electrolyte, 2 bottles of water, and a recovery shake afterwards, and my pee still told me I was dehydrated!), and the 5 or 6 misting showers on the course were downright compulsory.

The people of Hackney also stepped up, with quite a few hoses and super soakers turned on the runners, in addition to the usual tubs of jelly babies. The crowd support is definitely getting better year on year for this race, too – I remember the first year seeing residents walking down the street looking at us runners like we had three heads like “what in the hell are they doing??”, then last year really getting in the spirit of it, and this year there seemed to be a big step up in the number of crowds. They weren’t the loudest of crowds, mind – in several spots I had to do the universal hand gestures for “Come on and cheer us!!”, but I did get a lot of individual shouts for me in my Run dem Crew vest.

Me and Vicky
Myself and Vicky in the start pens

In terms of how my actual race went – I started out with a group of about 5 ladies from RDC, informally paced to 1:50 finish by my friend Vicky. The first few miles were pretty dense so there was a lot of stressful ducking & diving to keep with the group, and I always knew that the 8:20ish/mi pace was going to be unrealistic for me to maintain in my current state of fitness. So I’d always planned to fall off the group at some point and aimed to probably keep somebody else company who couldn’t maintain that pace in the heat, either. I ended up hanging on until halfway, but then I could feel myself really needing both nutrition and a bit of a cooldown as I could feel my face going hot and then goosebumped, which really wasn’t a good sign. So I opted to walk as I ate my flax gel (like a banana porridge goo – totally delicious, and I’ll share the recipe later this week!) from my baby food pouch and then when I started running again after eating I settled into a more comfortable pace.

Just slowing my pace by a few seconds and taking on nutrition made such a difference – I ended up having the best 3-4 miles of my entire race after the halfway point, really enjoying the atmosphere and feeling alive. It was also around this point, I believe, that I chatted with a guy, Julien, who I’d spotted in the start pens wearing an Anthony Nolan vest, and told him they saved my life 7 years ago. It turns out his mum is having a transplant this week, so I offered him/her all sorts of advice, and even ended up finishing within seconds of him. I like to think that even just seeing a lady like me run a half marathon will give he and his family hope that she can get through this and gain a full and healthy life afterwards.

Hackney Half cheer dem
Photo credit: Melany Rose

But back to the race – I felt my gel starting to wear off around Mile 10 or so, and I wished I’d either packed another or thrown in some shot bloks from my backpack, so it was absolutely perfect timing that Run dem Crew’s cheer point appeared in front of me! I’ve witnessed the power of “Cheer dem” at Mile 21 of London Marathon, and this was like its little sister – just as powerful, but in a shorter stretch of road. Honestly, this was such a needed boost – lots of cheers, high fives, and shouts of encouragement were just what I needed! I knew from running the course previously that the last few miles through the Olympic Park were the hardest of the whole race due to the lack of shade and crowd support, and the cheers from my friends were what powered me through.

I say “powered”, but really those last few miles were just a slog to the finish! It was a tradeoff between pushing myself to “just get it done”, and holding back to keep from getting heatstroke. Heatstroke was a very real possibility – I saw another runner collapse just in front of me at Mile 11 and, after myself and another runner helped him onto his feet, he couldn’t stand up on his own and we helped him to the curb where a group of spectators took over. While the casualties were in no way as bad as the 2014 race, St Johns Ambulance were certainly kept on their toes today and I wanted to avoid becoming a statistic.

Post Hackney Half

But eventually I saw Hackney Marshes and the finishing straight, and I even managed to pick up the pace a bit when I saw the gun time clock read “1:58:something”. Even though I knew I could subtract 6 minutes from that, there’s nothing more like a red rag to a bull for a runner than to see a clock so close to an hour like that! Then it was a matter of collecting my goodies (Hackney always lays on a decent goodie bag – this year it was cola bottles, beetroot shot, popcorn, yoghurt raisins, oystercard holder, bananas, flapjacks, water, and nice tech tee), and then collecting my bag from the bag check, where I had my own goodies in store. You see, I got the grand idea that since everyone tends to laze around in the sun afterwards, it’d be awfully nice to have some chilled fizz to celebrate. So I took a bottle of sparkling rosé from the fridge, inserted it in one of of those bottle-wrap frozen gel things, placed a frozen bottle of electrolyte next to it (another stroke of genius, I might add!) and wrapped them up in a chill bag and put it in my backpack.

Wine bottle post race

So after the race, after I’d had my recovery shake, done some stretching, and downed a few bottles of electrolyte, I opened up a cold bottle of fizz and shared it round! And yes, I’m pretty proud of Previous Me for both thinking of it and remembering to pack it all at 6am! It really helped to add to the celebration atmosphere in the race village afterwards, with the bhangra bands, group photos, hugs, and congratulations.

The founder of Run dem Crew, Charlie Dark, often says that race day is a celebration of all the hard work you’ve put into training, but as I ran around the streets of Hackney today, I realised more that for me, today’s race was a celebration of health and happiness. I didn’t get the opportunity to really train for this race, but instead I was just thankful to be healthy enough to run it at all.

Run Hackney, 8 May 2016, 1:52:21

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Holiday running and clawing my way back

6 May 2016, 15:36

Well, it’s been quite a year so far. As I said last time, I was ill from January through to the beginning of April, when I finally just started to feel a little bit better. This coincided nicely with a short trip we’d booked back to the States to see friends and attend a family wedding, so it meant I could make those first few tough runs back a bit more interesting since they were in novel places.

Running in PA

The weather was very wet when we were in Baltimore, so my first run ended up being up in Pennsylvania, where one of my best friends from Penn State, Brian, took me on a nice 10km tour of the country roads around Lewisburg, PA.

selfie with Brian

It was so nice to finally run with him – neither of us ran when we were at university, only picking it up later, and I often read about his crazy mountain running exploits on social media. Considering my illness and his looking after a toddler full time, we kept the pace easy and I really enjoyed it!

feet at Rock Creek

My next two runs ended up being in DC, where I saw on the map that Rock Creek Park wasn’t too far away from where we were staying. The first attempt to run there was cut short by wasting literally an hour trying to get into the damned thing on foot (only in America would they design a park to be driven through!!), but the second time I broke away onto some truly lovely mountain, woodland trails. I also found a few secluded roads with only myself, the black squirrels, and the odd cyclist or two.

Strenuous of course! Rock Creek Park
I even had a bit of fun on some “technical” bits of trail – by “strenuous”, they just meant “rocky”, okay!

My final run of the holiday was on a hotel treadmill, with piped jazz being blasted through the speakers (WHY???), purely so I’d be tired enough to sleep on my overnight flight. So it wasn’t all scenic surroundings, honest!

run selfie

Since I’ve returned home, I’ve been trying to get back into a steady training rhythm, seeing my coach on alternate Tuesday mornings, running with Run dem Crew on Tuesday nights, cycle commuting (11km each way) on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursdays, doing some short and sharp runs on Thursday and Sunday mornings, and a long run with some trail elements on Friday mornings. But I’m getting tired a lot more quickly (a 2hr run wipes me out like a 3hr run would) and my tempo runs are way off (my “fast” pace is at last year’s “marathon pace”!), which I know is a sign I’ve lost some fitness while I was battling all those viruses.

I’m running Hackney Half on Sunday again this year, but with the way my running has been, there’s no way I was going to be doing it at anything other than “party pace” — even before the forecasted heat wave! So I really will be just pootling round it in my shades and SPF70, soaking up the steel drums and treating it as a long run. I’ve only got four weeks to go to the Transylvanian Bear Race (omg!) so my focus is really on getting my mileage up and practicing long runs in my trail shoes, backpack, and homemade flax gels. But more on that (and the other posts I promised!) soon.

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Deja Vu

21 February 2016, 14:55

…and not in a good way. 2016 is starting off way too much like 2013 for my liking – that year I got ill in mid January with a horrific case of shingles which left me in constant pain, on an almost incomprehensible amount of painkillers, and pretty much screwed up my entire Spring and Summer of training. Having run Cophenhagen marathon in May 2013 on 6 weeks of training, it’s not something I’d really care to repeat if I can help it!

Without going into too many details, I’ve been ill for over a month now, with no sign of when I might be able to resume training. So at the most basic level it means I’m using up all my energy just to get to work (via my new cycle commute), function at work, ride home, and eat something before falling into bed at 21:30. That’s if I’m lucky – if it’s not a good day, I literally have to spend it entirely in bed, which drives me absolutely crazy because it’s just so much wasted time I should be spending doing things, arrgh!

My race schedule for the first half of 2016 was supposed to be: Cardiff half marathon (26 March), London marathon (24 April), Hackney Half (8 May) and the Transylvania Bear Race marathon (4 June).

I was hoping to train hard and try to go sub-1:30 at Cardiff, and go for a PB at London (sub 3:30), then do Hackney and Transylvania at party pace for the experience. But with missing a month+ in the heart of marathon training, there is now no way I can run London marathon this year, which I’m quite bummed about. Since mine is a GFA entry, I am able to defer it to 2017 at least. So, if I’m able to run at all by the end of March, I’ll now do Cardiff at party pace, cheer at Mile 21 of London marathon instead of running, and train towards a sub-1:30 at Hackney instead. Transylvania is a hilly trail marathon, so there’s no hope of a PB there, but I’d like to focus my training more on hills and getting my distances up again, which should be doable even if I can’t start proper training til April (see above, I have no idea when I’ll be well enough to run again).

And in the meantime, the topics I’d like to blog about keep piling up in my head, without enough energy at the end of the day (or even the beginning) to actually write about them. But you can look forward to the following posts when I’m back in the land of the living:


  • Cycle commuting in London as a complete newbie who would very much not like to die

  • Foam roller smackdown: traditional vs the new travel stick

  • Cycling accessories & gadgets that are actually worth buying

  • Minimalist vs Barefoot running shoes (yes, there is a big difference!)

  • Book reviews (about 5 different running-related novels)

  • How to use your resting heart rate to prevent overtraining


If there’s any of these you’d like to hear about first, leave a comment!

Bike and panniers

Until then, I’ll leave you with a shot of the only way I can actually get to work (so thank god cycling is a lot less effort than running!), my trusty hand-me-down 15 year old heavy-ass bike!

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Marathon Talk interview

22 December 2015, 12:12

If you’re a fan of podcasts and you’re not yet sick of hearing my weird transatlantic accent, then you should have a listen to my recent interview with Marathon Talk! I’m super excited to be included on the podcast, because it’s been a constant companion on my long runs for several years now. Martin and Tom interview Proper Athletes like Olympians and professionals, so I was over the moon that they wanted to talk to me!

My interview starts at 54 minutes 30 seconds in (just after the song) and we talk about the World Transplant Games, my bone marrow transplant and recovery, outlook on training, my bucket list marathon, how to get more women running, and how I have zero athletic prowess in my genes!

There’s lots of links in the show notes for this episode if you’ve been inspired to sign up for the bone marrow donor registry or to become an organ donor!

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Live Beyond podcast interview

11 December 2015, 20:29

Last year my friend and sometimes-running-partner Viv went off and ran across Europe. Like, from Poland to the tip of Spain.

Seriously!

She’s recently started a podcast where she interviews people who’ve done some extraordinary things and I was supremely flattered that she wanted to interview me! We talked about my recent successes in Argentina, my bone marrow transplant and recovery, as well as how my journey has changed my outlook about fitness and keeping things in perspective.

You can listen to the full episode above, but please do also visit LiveBeyond.co to listen to the other episodes, too, as I frankly think Emily, Sorrell, and Viv are more inspiring than I am!

And yes, I’m pretty sure my mother will agree that there isn’t an athletic gene in our family, but the stubbornness one is very strong!

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