I had gathered from the map of the course that the half marathon in Brașov (Romania) would be a bit mountainous. It actually looked more like an alpine hiking map. The difference in altitude to be overcome was indicated as 650 meters (= 2,130 feet).
Having arrived in Brașov the evening before, I spotted the mountain overlooking the town which is adorned by the Hollywood-like letters “BRASOV” (kitschy, but better than the “STALIN” which was displayed here in the 1950s). Terrified, I noticed that the mountain is not only high, but above all rather steep. I wouldn’t be able to set a personal record in this race. Snow is everywhere.
The next morning, an ice-cold wind is blowing across Union Square, making some of the athletes seek cover in nearby Saint Nicholas Church until the race will start at 12 o’clock. This is too much blasphemy even for me as a hardcore atheist. Some of the runners are wearing ski masks, hats, gloves and scarves. Well, at least I have a hoodie. I am not the only one to rub his hands in order to keep myself warm. The number plate which every participant must wear, includes the note: “In case of an accident, please call the mountain rescue.”
The starting signal is a salvation. Finally the body can get moving, the blood flows faster and warms the half-frozen limbs. At a quick pace, we move through the narrow alleys of the Old Town and reach a continuously ascending hiking trail after 2 km. Beautiful forest scenery with deep valleys. It begins to snow. Thick flakes fly into my face and soon cover the ground. The first runners turn into walkers, but I am still fit.
But soon the path becomes so narrow that I cannot overtake anymore. With my long steps, I walk faster than others run.
Then comes the ice. The steep path between the trees is as smooth as a mirror. Now, speed is no longer the relevant factor, it’s only about not breaking any bones. Uphill, I hold on to trees and branches. Downhill, I slide crouched down or with my butt directly on the ice. Again and again I slide down sideways, coming to a halt after a few meters in the snow. The more professional of the runners pull metal studs over their shoes.
On the ice, I move so carefully that I feel more on a wintery walk than a half marathon. Every 5 km there are drinks and food, with quite a range of choice actually: apples, bananas, chocolate, cheese, lemons. It’s tempting to hang around for a few minutes at the bar in the forest.
The steep way back into town turned out to be much worse: instead of snow and ice, it is mud and sludge which ensures one slip after the other. Soon, my shoes, my hoodie, my pants and my hands are full of dirt. (I have since twice tried to clean my pants, to no avail.)
Some runners precipitate themselves down the slope at breakneck speed, as if every second counts. At that point, I already didn’t bother anymore about time or speed. The course is ideal for a walk with beautiful views over Brașov, but it is of limited suitability for running, at least on that day.
Two and a half hours later I am sprinting through the finish line, not exhausted in the least. I still have enough energy to continue running to a friend’s apartment for a few more kilometers.
For a runner, it is unsatisfying if the course doesn’t permit the speed which fitness would allow. Although it is intended to be more challenging, for me the challenge is actually lacking in such races. But then it’s even more depressing to discover later that the best runners completed the course in half the time it took me. I have no idea how one can run the same speed on icy and muddy mountain slopes as on dry forest ground.
My next half marathons will be in Budapest in Hungary on 19 April, in Târgu Mureș in Romania on 24 May and in Tusnad in Romania on 6 June. The latter two will be quite mountainous as well, but that alone doesn’t bother me (after all I ran in Jerusalem in March), I just hope that it won’t be the rainy season then. After this experience, I definitely don’t need to take part in races like “Tough Mudder”. After all, I am not a child who jumps into any puddle that you put in front of it.