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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Velebit Ultra Trail - A Story of Rock and Beauty

"I think I should be done by 6pm. If I go until 9pm that will just be crazy. There is no way it takes that long."

Bib in hand - mountain in the back
Velebit. A mythical mountain raises straight up out of the Adriatic Sea, hugs the coast of Croatia, and provides incredible landscape that I have never experienced before. The trails, the footing, the rocks were all completely new to me. As if I have landed on another planet. I knew that the race would be tough and long, but I've never imagined this - Velebit. The adventure that I was about to enter takes place in National Park Paklenica, a beautiful gem on the coast of Croatia.

At the start
Velebit Ultra Trail has been around for the past 12 years, 2015 being the 13th "running" of the race. This year's edition was shortened from 100km to 69km due to logistics. At first Amy and I were a bit disappointed as we really wanted to run at least 50 miles, but we signed up anyway, because why miss an opportunity for an ultra in a foreign land. With the label "From Dawn Til Dusk - The longest day edition", and with 5000+ meters (16000+ft) of elevation gain, this promised to be a long day on the mountain. Shortly before departure for vacation, Amy unfortunately ended up in a hospital with appendicitis. One minor organ later and she was forced to bump down the distance to 27km. She wrote a very extensive review of her shortened race (it was still very long) and also some very good details about our time prior to the race, so check out her blog for those details.
First climb
The race kicked off bright and early at 5am from the main town square in Starigrad, right next to the sea. Walking out of the hotel I was greeted by overcast sky, and blustery northern wind (bura), and temperatures hovering in the lower 60s. I wasn't cold and I knew I would only get warmer once we started moving. I did have a jacket that I decided to leave in my drop bag. We were allowed one drop bag that was waiting for us at the 39km check point. In addition to food items, and change of clothes, we were also instructed to pack water if we wanted it, as that check point had none. Even though I left the hotel with my headlamp on, I soon realized that it was very light outside and I really didn't need it, so into the drop bag it went. There was several mandatory items that were required for this race, the most important ones being fully charged cell phone and a first aid kit. After a very quick equipment check, a group of about 80 crazy people lined up for the start of the 13th edition of Velebit Ultra Trail. Without much pomp, someone counted down from 10 and we were off towards the mountain.
Up we go
Going from elevation 0 (zero), we headed up a small narrow street that almost immediately turned uphill. After running for less than half a mile, everyone slowed down and started hiking as the road got steeper and shortly thereafter turned into a trail. Right away a single file line formed and people started a long hike up the mountain. Immediately, it dawned on me that this would be a long, long day. The terrain was much steeper and footing a lot different than anything I have seen before. I was positive that after some hiking up we would be able to run some flat parts and downhills. Slowly we made our way pass the check point 1 with a combination of jogging and mostly fast hiking. Interesting to note for this race, as many in the US have not experienced this, was that at each check point there was either a person that would mark your name, or a punch tool that you used to punch a little card that each runner had to carry for the duration. At the end of the race, the officials would check your card to make sure you went through all the check points.
Veliko Rujno
After several long uphills and downhills we arrived to a large mountain meadow. Here I realized that I was kind of alone and was pretty sure that I was dead last. I was met by that fierce wind whipping all around to the point I started to question my decision to leave the jacket in the drop bag. The terrain got to be a lot better at this meadow, and I was actually able to do some running towards the first Refreshment Point (around 10.5km mark). This point was a short out and back, the only one in the race, and while I wasn't dead last, I wasn't that far off either at this point. I started thinking that it would be kind of neat to come in last. Almost like a badge of honor. Crazy thoughts go through your head at these ultras. Before I move on, you need to know about the refreshment point. Yes, it did have water and beer. And yes, it had some cookies and some bars. And yes, it did have some fruit. Most US based runners would have not liked or expected this. Fortunately, I was not wrong to pack all the food I would need for the day. The fact that there was only two official aid stations did not bother me. After all, the instructions did say that you had to be self-sufficient. Self-sufficient indeed.
From here the trail went up over another major climb that at parts was just silly. Sun had come out and it was getting warm. The footing was loose scree and the trail pointed straight up. I really got what I signed up for. I was loving it. Even though, I was not moving fast at all, I kept going onward and upward for sure. Peaking over that hill we bombed straight down to a mountain hut checkpoint where I got to see the first people from Amy's race. They were moving in the opposite direction of us, so while this was our CP5, for them it was only CP3. This was about 2.5 hours in from the start and only 10 miles in. This mountain hut would also mark the end of the big loop and return home many hours later. Of course the trail went straight up. The entire race was up and down. Looking back, I had 32 minutes of flat time. 32 minutes! Every up hill was long, steep and tough, and every downhill was long, steep and tough. At one point after the hut, the downhill seemed runable and I was moving at a decent pace, only to be passed and smoked by two mountain goats, I mean people that were moving so incredibly fast. I actually tried to keep pace and keep up with them, but soon realized that I would probably die if I did that. This was another level of skill that I am yet to reach.
Vaganski Vrh - 1757m
Reaching Vaganski Vrh at 1757m was the high point of the race, and in fact the highest peak on Velebit. It was a sense of accomplishment and excitement for me, and also the realization that I still had a long way to go. This was about 18 miles into the race and about 7 hours in. I figured if I could keep this similar pace, I would still be done around 7-8pm beating the night. I also started realizing at this point that I probably should have gotten some trekking poles. Sure enough, going back down into a wooded area, I found one stick, not a real pole, and shortly another that I used and carried for the duration. Well, one broke later, but one I did carry to almost the end. After this peak, we had another 10-12 km of constant up and down before we started the next major climb. We would also pick up our drop bags, which was a welcome site. I was glad to restock on food, water and to pick up my jacket and headlamp. I wasn't 100% sure that I would go into dark, but I wanted to bring it just in case. The terrain was somewhat runable after this point for about a mile or so before the hills started again.
Sveto Brdo - 1753m
Sveto Brdo (the Holy Hill) is a tad bit smaller peak at 1753m than Vaganski. Sveto Brdo was CP 15 at 41.5 km into the race, so still about 12 miles to go. While the first peak was hard but not impossible, the approach to Sveto Brdo was much longer and definitely a lot steeper. From the Check point 14, we would go almost 500m (1700ft) in less than 1.5 miles to reach the top. This was long and grueling and probably the hardest part of the race yet. I was ecstatic that I had those pole sticks with me. I believe it would have taken me much longer to make it all the way up without them. Sveto Brdo was to mark our descent towards the end. I was looking forward to going downhill and making up some time. Oh boy, was I wrong. The other side of the mountain was just plain crazy. This was the mountain goat territory. 60% grade. While descending this silly steep side, I kept looking down and seeing grassy fields, thinking, well once I get there, I can run and it will be fine. At this point, I was also starting to get worried about making all the cutoffs. I had to be at the next point by 6pm, and then following one by 7pm. I had some time, but I didn't want to risk it.
Views for miles
The grassy meadow that looked so nice from 2000 ft up, was actually not nice at all. It was a boulder field covered with grass, that not only made footing incredibly difficult but it was hard to see the trail markers. This made the going even slower, but again onward and downward this time I went. I made it to the Refreshment Point 2 (49km) well before the cutoff. Only 20km to go. And it is mostly downhill. Again wrong assumption. After leaving RP2 on a fire road, you went straight up another side of the mountain, and climbing and descending began again. The guy manning the checkpoint actually told me that it was all easy from here, and I really didn't need to carry my pole anymore. I only had 1 at this point as the other one broke on the descent. I left it next to the hut, only to change my mind at the very last minute and take it with me. Going up another hill proved to be a very wise decision. I was so glad for those sticks that I have decided to buy poles as soon as I get home. They will be invaluable in few weeks as I embark on yet another adventure at the Eastern States 100. I digress. I was hoping to make it to the mountain hut at this point by 9pm and beat the dark. Going towards that goal was interrupted by a sudden thunderstorm and rain shower. Just what the doctor prescribed. Bring it on mountain. I was actually getting pretty chilly from being wet, but just as fast as it arrived, the rain was gone, and the sun came back out and I was feeling good again.
Mines - part of the mountain was a war zone not long ago
I was on my last descent toward the mountain hut, when I finally realized that it was unsafe to continue without any lights. I could see light glowing through the trees somewhere below. I was going down a steep rocky side of a mountain and falling would be bad. I put on my jacket and headlamp and went to the mountain hut as fast as I could. Soon I was greeted by a guy that said, Good Job - 10km to go. In the dark. Down a mountain. The end is near. At this point another runner joined me who did not have a headlamp. It was pitch dark at this point so I decided to just stay with him and help him make it down the mountain. It was nice to have company for a bit. His friend joined us soon. He did have a light, but not very good, so 3 of us went together all the way down. One by one the miles slowly ticked by, but soon we were out of the National Park and once again on the paved road. I know I could have went a bit faster and jogged/ran some more, but really it wouldn't have made any difference at this point, so I stayed with the guys to the end.
We did it!
We crossed the finish line 18 hours after we started. My watch said that I did 9.5 hours of climbing, almost 8 hours of down, and yeah 30 minutes of flat time. I was greeted by Amy at the finish line who had a beer waiting for me. I was worried about her, as she had no idea where I was. It was so great to see her waiting.
All Check Points complete
Velebit Ultra Trail was THE hardest and longest race I've ever done. To truly go faster on this terrain one has to train on trails like this, and this was unlike anything we have here on the East Coast. Even with how tough and long it was, Velebit was absolutely incredible. Scenery was just breath taking and the mountains were spectacular. I had almost no low points in this race. The goal was to finish no matter what or get pulled at the checkpoint. The drop word never entered my mind. The race organization was excellent. While this race did not have any or many of the perks that we get to enjoy at American ultras, it was expected and there was no complaints from my side.
Both happy the next day
This is a race that you should seriously consider if you find your self in Croatia in June. It rivals any Sky running race on the calendar. I, for one cannot wait to get an opportunity to run it again. There is a talk of an even longer race next year - 140km with 50hr time limit. Who is in?

Velebit. Hard. Long. Beautiful. Incredible.
No medals but a rock!
Velebit Stats (according to Ambit2, not race site):
Distance: 43.91 miles (70.7km)
Time: 17:58:26
Ascent: 15066 ft
Descent: 15056 ft

Additional photos. Enjoy
Getting ready the night before
Prof. action shot. Photo Credit: Boris Kacan
Early on
Just awesome
Yup. Straight ahead. Follow the red dot
Oh hi there
Its hot...screee
Scree and boulders
I came from up there
View from the top.
Altras destoyed


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