Douro Ultra Trail (25km) - race report

11 October 2017, 13:30

This weekend I flew to northern Portugal to run down a mountain, and it had been three years in the making. You may remember that back in 2014 I ran the entirety of Berlin Marathon with a guy named Luis who I only barely knew at the start, but by the finish line had become my brother. For the past three years he’s been trying to convince me to come and visit him in Porto, and this year I finally made it over, with my friend Alex in tow. I chose the Douro Ultra Trail race from a shortlist of Luis’s suggestions because the scenery looked beautiful, there was a 25km option (as well as 15km, 45km, and 80km) which seemed to be a good distance for having a good chat and not suffering too much. Alex has only been running for about a year and never raced a half marathon before but was keen for an adventure, which seemed to be the right spirit for this race!

Melissa race number selfie

I signed up over the summer, when entries for the 25km were a bargainous €20 (plus an extra €3 as I wanted the long-sleeved race tee). I honestly don’t know how they can put on a race for so cheap, as we ended up with the aforementioned technical tee, huge feed station, decent race medal, and a bottle of local wine, too! Having arrived in Porto on a delayed flight, we only arrived at Regua just as the pre-race briefing was starting, and to our amusement, was entirely in Portuguese! Luis and his friends translated what we needed to know, which was really only that there were some irrigation holes about 4km into our race that we needed to be aware of (in reality, the other runners were great about shouting out and indicating at each of them). Everything else was really already stated on their Facebook page and website, so if you’re travelling to this race in future years, don’t feel like you need to kill yourself to get to the briefing on time.

Alex and Melissa at the start Luis and friends at the start

We then headed downstairs to register, which was super quick and casual – each of us got a bag with our number (& timing chip), race tee, apple, and some local honey boiled sweets (hard candies). Our group then headed to an extremely nice local restaurant for dinner then to our hotel just before their midnight cutoff, ready to wake up at dawn to make the coach to the start in time. The ultra course is circular, beginning and ending in Regua, but the other distances start at other points on the route, with coaches ferrying runners to the start. The coaches for our race were super organised, each setting off once full and taking us up hugely steep and very narrow winding roads to the top of a mountain (making me very glad I didn’t choose the marathon or ultra races!). At the top of the hill was an open area with scenic views, bandstand, toilets (with no queue, omg!!), and two groups of traditional Portuguese drummers giving the whole thing a bit of gravitas. After basking in the morning sunshine for a half hour or so, the starting firecracker was pulled, and we were off downhill!

25km start area

And downhill… and downhill… actually, the first 10km were almost entirely downhill, with a mix of loose rock, scree, pavements, and even thick, fine dust that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sahara. Alex brought along his gaiters, which I thought were ridiculously overkill but actually worked out great, and I’d recommend them if you have them. The course elevation for the route this year looked to be almost entirely downhill or flat, but in reality there were still a LOT of hills. Not just steep hills, but downright ravines in places – I lost count of the number of times I had to use my hands to steady myself on trees, rocks, and the ground itself to scramble up or down a hillside, with only a few places having stone steps carved into the slope to help us out (and again, glad I wasn’t doing the ultra, where runners would be negotiating these in the dark!).

Melissa in vineyards

The result of the first 10km was to exhaust the brain, having to concentrate continuously on where the next footfall should land as well as attempting not to brake with your quads and knees (spoiler alert: my quads were wrecked anyway!). We went through several small towns along the way, wound through narrow, steep, and terraced vineyards, and absolutely stunning vistas. My photos don’t really capture the full beauty of the Douro Valley – every single scene we saw as we turned a corner could’ve been sold on a postcard or printed in a coffee table book.

Melissa and Luis official photo

Eventually we rounded a playing field and entered a larger town, where crowds of people lined the streets – we’d reached the start of the 15km “hike” option, where we got a boost from the runners waiting to start their race, but apparently missed the water stop that must’ve been there (at least we had our CamelBaks – on such a hot day, many others also missed it and were caught short before the only other pit stop).

Melissa posing

I’ve mentioned the heat, but it’s worth noting that it’s not usually 28C and sunny in October in the Douro – we hit upon a rare heatwave, so slathered ourselves in suncream, ran in our sport sunglasses and caps, and wore shorts and vests as a last celebration of summer. I wore my trusty Vivobarefoot Trail Freak shoes, which I hadn’t race in since the Transylvania Bear Race last year. These served me ridiculously well in the Transylvanian (and English) mud, but on the dry, dusty, and rocky Portuguese trails, something with a sturdier sole would’ve been a bit better (and I know understand why Vivobarefoot now make trail shoes for soft or firm ground!).

Melissa and Luis in vine canopy

In any case, Luis, Alex and I stuck together throughout the race, chatting to ourselves and the other runners throughout the race. I got very good at my two phrases in Portuguese (Hello and Thank you!), and I really liked that even with a small field (350 runners on the 25km, plus some of the faster 15km runners), there were no real stretches where you were alone, and the course was incredibly well marked with plastic tape at regular intervals so you really only just needed to follow the person ahead, or glance to see the next piece of tape. At the start, the three of us decided to take a casual pace, chatting, enjoying ourselves, and taking plenty of photos and GoPro videos to enjoy the day. There were definitely points where things got tough, but never any real low points where we stopped having fun.

Melissa and Alex in tough times Melissa and Alex selfie

When we reached the only feed station at 16km, we filled our CamelBaks and set upon the impressive array of snacks with abandon. As a salty sweater, I went straight in for the crisps, but kept coming back to the watermelon slices, too. I swear watermelon has never tasted so good in my life, so I thank the local boy scouts who spent the whole time chopping up fruit in the feed station building! Feeling fuelled but not full, we set off to conquer the final few kilometers back down into Regua, and seeing the Douro River was a big boost, even though only minutes later the course cut through a large section of vineyards that had recently been burnt by the wildfires that plagued this part of Portugal.

feed station

The whole race was a treat for the senses, but smelling the charred vines were in sharp contrast to the fresh air, flowers, and eucalyptus we’d enjoyed earlier in the day. Several other races in the area had been cancelled due to the wildfires, and indeed, we witnessed a fire with our own eyes on the drive back to Porto, so this part of the race really made us feel thankful for the unspoiled countryside we’d witnessed for the bulk of the race.

As we approached the riverside path, we looked at our GPS for the first time that day and saw we were several kilometers short, and were concerned that, even though we could see the race village, we’d have to loop around the town or something first. On reflection, our GPS measurements came up short because it’s measuring from the top down, as the crow flies. But we’d run through such elevation that the diagonal route we’d taken down and up created a discrepancy to the top-down view, meaning we’d actually run ~3km more than we’d tracked. You can tell I don’t run mountain races often – this is probably obvious to many people!

Luis, Melissa and Alex at the finish

We crossed the line at the race village, were awarded our medals and local wine bottles, and immediately the emcee started interviewing me and asking about my race and my world championships and how my health was! Turns out Luis tipped them off that we were coming and they’d clearly seen my number and put two and two together very swiftly, hahah. The race village itself was quite small, but had a good selection of food and drinks (free) as well as a bar (paid) for anyone who fancied something stronger after their race.

In the tradition of ultras, our race was held on a Saturday, which meant we were able to head back to our hotel to wash the copious dust, sweat, and salt off before heading back to Porto and exploring it the next day. We spent the morning hobbling about, exploring the city, marvelling at the vistas, and drinking or well-earned wine along the same river we’d run to the day before.

Melissa and Alex drinking our race wine

Having never been to Portugal before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but Alex and I both utterly adored our time there. I’d recommend the Douro Ultra Trail to anyone who’s interested, but do not underestimate the toughness of the course. As someone who can run a 1:45 half marathon without too much effort, I expect to run this 25km downhill in about 2-2:15ish but in reality, we finish in just over 3 hours! I’d imagine if I’d done the 45km it’d probably have taken me around 5 or 6 hours, so be sure you prepare and (if possible) get some trail experience on hard, rocky ground, which I think would’ve really helped me.

In terms of enjoyment, adventure, and value for money, you really can’t beat the Douro Ultra Trail. I’m only sorry it took me three years to actually take Luis up on his offer!

Douro Ultra Trail (25km), 7 October 2017, 3:04:18

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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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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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Run photos - Bohemia

6 October 2014, 15:08

Whenever we go on holiday, I usually try to bring my running kit along so I can go out and explore. I tend to head to the river if there’s one nearby, and my runs on our recent trip through Bohemia certainly followed this pattern!

In Budapest, I first headed to Margaret Island, which is a park in the middle of the Danube with a rubberised, 5km running track along the exterior of the island. I ran along here a few years ago and loved it, and have been dreaming about another run here ever since. The track itself is showing some definite signs of wear, but you can’t beat a good bouncy run followed by a dip in the Palatinus Strand thermal baths (also on the island)!

Budapest - Margaret Island

My second scheduled run in Budapest was only a short one, so I just ran straight up Andrassy Utca, which, despite being a major road, has a tree-lined, separated pedestrian walkway away from the shops, lined with benches! This lead me straight up to Hero’s Square for a quick sneaker selfie, then back down Andrassy to our flat.

Budapest - Hero's Square

I didn’t quite manage to fit in my planned threshold run while in Vienna (I find it difficult to fling myself round familiar streets at 6min/mi, let alone unfamiliar, dark ones!), but while we were in Prague I yet again headed to the river and found a little island to run laps around.

Prague - view of Charles Bridge

My final casual run of the trip was in Berlin the day before the marathon, which I just did a little recce of the Tiergarten, and I couldn’t help but take a little shot of my feet with the start line!

Berlin marathon

Some people may collect little sounvenirs of each place they visit, maybe a magnet or patch or little piece of jewelry, but the older I get, the less I want more physical stuff hanging around. We tend to bring back food from places we travel, and little runs like these are my own “souvenir”, allowing me to think back fondly on the funny little places I’ve found whilst travelling over the years. Some of the most unexpected places have revealed the best runs, and it’s so enjoyable to break up my routine with new scenery.

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Berlin Marathon - race report

2 October 2014, 09:05

I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted from this race. I wasn’t expecting to actually get a place when I entered the ballot nearly a year ago, but I was delighted when I got in (though somewhat less delighted at the €100 price tag). I figured it’d take some pressure off my performance in London, but as it turned out, I got everything I wanted in London marathon – a PB, a GFA qualification, and a BQ (Boston qualifier), too.

So all summer, I was left with the question of “what do I want to achieve in Berlin?” After training super hard for London, and then turning around and hitting the track all summer training for the British Transplant Games, I didn’t really have the drive to push the pain to gain a few minutes in Berlin. But what I had been wanting for a while was to run a really well-paced race, instead of going off to quickly at the start and then dying midway through and hurling myself across the line. So I ultimately decided that I’d use Berlin marathon to try to run an even pace, no matter what time that ended up being.

The timing worked out that our favourite (street food-heavy) festival in Budapest was the weekend before the marathon, so my husband and I took the opportunity for a holiday through Bohemia – starting with the food and thermal baths of Budapest, to the schnitzel and prater in Vienna, to the beer, beer, and more beer of Prague, and finally ending with the marathon in Berlin. I can’t say that a week of absolutely gluttony and beer is the best way to prepare for a marathon, but in all honesty, I don’t think it did much harm, either, and it ensured I got to the start line very relaxed.

Berlin marathon
The day before – it wasn’t this empty on marathon day!

After I dropped my bags off on the morning of the race, I headed to the designated gathering point that the Berlin crew (the wonderful Run Pack) had declared, where I ran into a bunch of our Run Dem Crew runners in addition to other friends from crews around the world I’d met in previous races. Since we were all in the same start pen, I ended up running with Christina from NBRO (whom you might remember from my Copenhagen marathon or Hackney Half race reports) and Luis, who lives in Portugal but runs with RDC whenever he’s in London. The three of us agreed to target somewhere around a 3:30-3:45 finish time, but keep it relaxed and see how things went.

Berlin marathon

We settled into a groove, with Christina keeping an eye on the pace with her watch, and Luis and I chattering away happily, pointing out the sites and weird facts we’d gleaned from the guidebooks, high fiving kids, and pulling faces for the cameras. Above all, Luis and I decided that we’d remind ourselves to smile and remember that we were lucky to be healthy enough to run and appreciate the gorgeous, perfect day. The three of us got to halfway in a respectable 1:50, all feeling good, but Luis and I needed to stop for the loo, so we said farewell to Christina, who went on ahead.

The second half of the race carried on much like the first – running at about 5:10-5:15min/km (just over 8min/mi), which felt relaxed and comfortable. We’d stop and walk through every water station so we could rehydrate effectively without getting it all up our noses, and Luis took advantage of the fruit on offer, while I stuck to my “gels every 5k” plan. Our pace dipped a little to 5:30min/km at about 30-35km, but we still felt great, and it meant we could take the mental space to really enjoy the atmosphere. I personally preferred the Berlin course and crowds to London marathon – the course was flat, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so leafy (it was a sunny day, but I hardly noticed!), varied, or interesting, and the crowds were present throughout, but not screaming in my face the entire time. Periods of relative quiet interspersed with a ton of charming little bands (some teenage garage bands, high school orchestras, jazz quartets, drummers, you name it!) meant we could appreciate the really loud sections even more when they came.

Berlin marathon

One of the great things about racing in a city which has a sister crew is that they always lay down an epic cheering station. Fuelled by beer and Jagermeister, Run Pack really outdid themselves at KM37, and the boost I got from them and a kiss from my husband really gave me the kick I needed to crank it up again to the finish.

Berlin marathon

In most of my marathons, I find that I get to KM40 and my pace picks up a little as I think “oh hey, there’s only 2km left – I got this!” but in Berlin, I was able to push the pace for the last 5km instead. I felt my form improve, I loosened my shoulders, and said to Luis, “Ok, let’s do this!”. We upped our pace back up to 5:10min/km and just blew through the last 5km, passing absolutely everyone, which felt amazing.

Berlin marathon

If you’re not familiar with the Berlin marathon course, you actually run through the Brandenburg Gate right before the end. You go through Potsdamer Platz, turn a few corners, and there she is – and even better is that you can see the finish line just on the other side. We were already flying with massive smiles on our faces when we saw the Gate, but Luis insisted we run through the central span instead of the closer left one (he was totally right!) and we gave each and every camera a big smile and gunfinger, which carried right up through the finish line, where I gave Luis a massive hug. Together we finished with the exact same chip time – 3 hours 46 minutes and 5 seconds. Nowhere near a PB, but I honestly didn’t care! He was the best marathon companion I could ask for – full of energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and great conversation.

There’s certainly something to be said about running relaxed – I finished this marathon with one blister on my right foot and a little patch of chafing under my right arm, but otherwise unscathed. I’d also worn a pair of my Threshold Shorts – my latest sewing pattern designed and sewn by myself. I’m super happy with how these held up to the marathon distance, and the inner pocket in the back held my final two gels safe and secure, too.

Oh, and the rumors are true – they really do serve (non alcoholic) beer at the finish line!

Berlin marathon

The ballot for next year’s Berlin marathon opens on 18 October…

Berlin marathon, 29 September 2014, 3:46:05

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Berlin Marathon - Follow Me Tomorrow!

27 September 2014, 19:21

Tomorrow I will run the Berlin marathon. It’ll be my 4th marathon, and my first time in the city in over 14 years. I accidentally got a ballot spot late last year, and I figured it’d be a good backup should things not go well in London marathon. But, having achieved everything I wanted in London, I was left with a bit of “what now?” in my goals for Berlin.

So I decided that I really just would like to run a well-paced race for once, with no real time expectation. Classic Melissa is to set off like a jackrabbit then steadily get slower as the race goes on, so this time around I’m just going to concentrate on going (what feels like) incredibly slow and see if I can maintain an even pace throughout, whether that means I finish in 3:15 or 4:00!

I’m happy to be representing the speedy boys in my crew by wearing one of the new Run Dem Crew Elites vests on top, and on my bottom half I’ll be wearing the lavender version of my newest sewing pattern, the Threshold Shorts. These are designed specifically for running so what better way to prove my confidence in the design than by running an entire marathon in them, eh?

On my feet will be my newest shoes, the Brooks Pure Drift, since they’ve got a bit more cushioning underneath, but are still lightweight and with ample toe room.

During the race itself, there are a few different ways you can track me:

1. The official Berlin marathon app (search for “Fehr”), which should show my position at every 5km and guesstimates in between. Note that the tracking portion of the site will only appear on race day – Sunday 28 September (the mass start is at 8:45am Central European Summertime).

Now, it’s very unlikely that I’ll be able to get a German pre-pay SIM with affordable data on the day, so the above may be the only option. But in case I do, the below interactive options also work!

2. Twitter – My Runmeter app will tweet from my account that I’ve started the run, and you can click on the link to see where I am, and/or reply to ANY of my tweets (including that one) to have it spoken into my ear while I run. The only issue here is that if the 3G is unavailable when I start (and it’s likely it’ll be oversubscribed at the start and finish), the tweet with the link in it won’t go out. You can still reply to any of my tweets though, to have it spoken to me (you can’t just write a new mention to me, though – it has to be a reply).

3. DailyMile – join dailymile.com and send me a friend request before tonight, and you can access the same tracking link, and also any comments added to my post while I’m running will also be spoken into my headphones. The advantage here is that Runmeter will poll Daily Mile something like every 5min throughout the race, so if the 3G is down at the start, it’ll just post it at the next opportunity, then updated as it gets info from my phone. My profile is here After you sign up, hit the “Add Friend” button on the left under my photo.

And if all else fails, the thought of a massive beer stein and pretzel at the end will get me over the finish line!

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Amsterdam marathon - race report

4 September 2013, 08:56

Amsterdam marathon, 21 October 2012
I wrote about my decision to run this here, but I’ll just summarise in saying that I never thought I’d run a marathon, even after running for nearly ten years at that point. But once the decision was made and my race entry paid, I’d realised that I’d need to follow a plan since I was well out of my depth. Luckily, I knew how ignorant I was, so I sought advice from pretty much everyone I knew that had run one, and they nearly all said to use Hal Higdon’s plans.

After looking through the various plans (and deciding exactly how many times a week I was prepared to run!) I settled on his “Novice 2” plan and followed it religiously all summer long. I highly recommend it, whether you go for the free version on his site, or the more interactive app.

It was my first marathon, and some of you may be thinking “oh, but she runs, I’m sure it was no problem for her”. Think again – that distance is no joke! I’d done all my training and got three 20 milers in, but it was still really tough. And up until 2012, I’d never raced farther than a 10km, so keep in mind that this is four times that distance!

On the day itself, it was my absolute perfect running weather – cold, cloudy, and with a hint of drizzle, and I was nervous, but as ready as I’d ever be. I’d wanted to finish in under 4 hours, but my “gold medal” time was 3:45, and to achieve that I’d need to run at 5:20min/km throughout (that’s 8:35min/mi). So I started off at my “easy” pace, which ended up being 5:05min/km, and that felt good. I was a freaking machine, maintaining that up through about 28km, when it started to feel tough, and I slowed down considerably from 30-40km, just keeping the momentum going and counting down every single km marker. I had two cheering zones from my running crew on the course, but my GPS running app, Runmeter, lets my Dailymile and Twitter friends speak comments into my ear while I run, so I had cheers of encouragement from about 30 different friends from all around the world, including some who’d gotten up at 3:30am to cheer me on! I cannot stress enough how much this helped me to carry on during that stretch of 10km when it was a real struggle (and which I now recognise was the infamous “the Wall”).

Amsterdam marathon

But at the 40km mark, we turned the corner out of Vondelpark, and I passed where I was staying and I knew it was only a short 2km to the finish, and that gave me the boost I needed to pick up the pace again, and – I’m still not sure where this came from – but I even managed a sprint finish into the Olympic stadium to finish in 3:48:23!! Which, umm, I’m stupidly happy with.

At the time, I was even happier because my time meant I qualified for a Good for Age entry into London 2014, but which later the organisers changed without any warning, stripping me of my place. Anyway, I hobbled back to my running crew’s hospitality zone for recovery shakes and hugs, then back to where I was staying for an ice bath (my host brought me tea and chocolate truffles to make it easier! Bless!), which I really think did help with my recovery. I had a few spots of chafing and two enormous blisters on my toes, all in brand-new places, but I was otherwise intact.

Oh, and not only did I run a marathon, but I ran it in leggings I’d sewn myself, three years after I had a bone marrow transplant.

Amsterdam marathon, 21 October 2012, 3:48:23.

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Copenhagen marathon - race report

20 August 2013, 16:49

Let’s start with my training history for this race: I lost 8-10 weeks of training due to an awful case of shingles (which I was still on two pain meds for at the time of the race), then I started to transition to forefoot strike about a month ago so my feet were still tender/damaged in a few places from that. Plus, I picked up a cold the week before the race so I was still really snotty & tired even as far as Friday, but ended up feeling about 85% on race morning.

This was a Bridge the Gap event for all the global crews to get together (like Run dem Crew, but all over the world!) so the Danish crew, NBRO, laid on a whole weekend of plans and had a special VIP tent at the start/finish, too. There were a bunch of us wanting to target 3:45 but after the gun went off, it was mostly three of us that stuck together: me (my 2nd marathon), Emily from RDC (her second), and Louise from NBRO (her third). Louise was definitely the strongest of us, and her pacing was rock-solid, not to mention giving us some sightseeing tips throughout the race! By 20km or so we were about 2 min ahead of schedule, but it was at this point that Louise broke ahead, and Emily fell behind me, so I’d run the first half of the race with these strong ladies, but ran the second half just me, my head, and my body.

Copenhagen marathon montage

Oh, and the rain. Did I mention it was chucking it down the whole race? I personally don’t mind the rain – I’d done most of my London training runs in it, and it meant there was no chance of overheating! I just felt bad for the spectators (of which there were many! And bands!).

The short version of the rest of the race is that my hips and quads just weren’t able to take the 3:45 target pace (5:18min per km). The former I blame on the frequency of cobbled stretches, the latter I blame on my recent forefoot striking building up my calves and hamstrings, but heelstriking during the race itself meant my quads were taking the brunt. When I realised that 3:45 wasn’t going to happen, I just settled in, tried to smile at as many spectators as possible, and breathe deep and calm. The 20s felt harder than the 30s to me, but I think that’s because I was still trying to maintain that pace then, and in the 30-kms I allowed myself to take a few walking breaks, though only of (honestly!) 10-20 second each. Just enough time to say “see hips? It hurts just as much when we’re walking as when we’re running. So let’s run again!”. Silly hips. They do lie, Shakira.

Copenhagen marathon official photo

Unlike Amsterdam, I stayed perfectly lucid throughout – no fuzzy headed haze at 30km, and it really was just my mind against the gnawing pain of my hips, quads, and my poor battered, blistered feet. But like Amsterdam, I got to 40km, and thought “2km left? That’s NOTHING! Let’s go!” I picked up the pace considerably in the final stretch and managed (what felt like anyway) a sprint finish for a time of 3:52:37. Not the GFA I wanted, nor a PB, but considering I’ve only really had 6 weeks of training, I’m okay with that.

Highlight of my race: passing by one of the soundstations just as Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” came on. That’s OMG MY SONG and I was jumping up and down to Louise & Emily and I just wanted to stay and dance. Thank you, anonymous race DJ!

Copenhagen marathon, 19 May 2013. 3:52:37.

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