Blidinje National Park, Bosnia and Herzevogina – 24 August, 2019
How did you find out about this race? I was watching a Kilian Jornet Salomon video and glanced at the comments. One comment read “Are you coming to Cvrsnica Ultra Trail this year?” I thought to myself “what is Cvrsnica Ultra Trail?” A quick search revealed some beautiful photos of the Blidinje National Park in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a race profile of around 50km, 2500m D+. Finishing study soon for good, I was spending plenty of time dreaming about the European summer I would be enjoying later in the year. Knowing almost nothing about Bosnia except “wasn’t there a war there not that long ago?”, it seemed like an exciting, unknown destination and it appeared to be open for business as far as tourism is concerned, having a great visa upon arrival ‘no planning required’ policy for New Zealand passport holders. I signed up early and was told to just pay when I got there so there was no firm commitment so to speak, until a couple of weeks out I said to myself ‘Lock it in. I’ll make the logistics happen somehow.’
After staying at the Sarajevo war hostel and catching a couple of films at the Sarajevo Film Festival, experiences in their own right, I stayed a night in Konjic, got the bus to Jablanica, then a taxi out to the Blidinje area. The staff at the Staza restaurant and pansion were great! I was given a souvenir of the old style of buildings from the area “For our first guest from New Zealand!”
Collecting my race pack, I met the organiser Ivan, who had been very helpful answering my emails in the lead up to the event and was just a great, friendly guy. After a short walk on one of the ski slopes, margarita pizza and nutella crepes at the restaurant proved to be a very satisfying pre-race dinner.
Training before K3 had been pretty ideal: playing in the Alps and getting some sweet, sweet vert. The last few weeks had been slack. I had suffered in the heat, especially on one outing in Croatia, during which I had found myself pulsing with hot flushes after a serious fluid miscalculation. Luckily there were no serious repercussions after some good rest. It was scary and sub-optimal none the less, and CUT was going to be a real challenge. I had scoped out some splits from Strava, but I knew the terrain in this area could be painfully slow. I got a taste of it in Croatia: seriously rocky with some overgrowth, the rocks nicely spaced so as to make foot placement awkward as hell, making a running pace a real challenge without serious ankle movement and trip hazards.
After a short bus ride with a small crew, we were at the start line and I did some stretches to fill the last minutes. Ivan gave me some updated info and then delivered the race briefing in the local language. Nothing critical you always hope, because I understood nothing!
At 8AM we were underway. The race info stated they expected the winner at around 3PM. I was targeting a finish by 4PM, stretching the approximately quarter splits I had found into four 2 hour sections. The first quarter was to get up and down the first climb, then out close to the second timing station K2, Q2 would be the 1000 metres up that followed, Q3 was the traverse along to the third high point, and the final quarter was the long descent back to restaurant Staza.
First up was a couple of kilometres on a dusty road. I typically cruise this sort of thing and am happy to not get any faster than 5 min kms. Once we were onto the first climb I got the poles out and set about settling into a steady, maintainable pace. Damn it was hot and sweaty in the exposed areas! It was a good climb with some very short runnable bits. This early in the race, it’s ‘head down and on with your work’ for me. There were about 800 metes in this climb – a couple of ‘Rapaki plus Vernon’s to start the thing off. A couple of people were close on my heels, but there seemed to be a bit of a gap in front.
With the first climb ticked off, and my number recorded at the first checkpoint K1, it was into the 800 metre descent. I was worried this might be super slow with the terrain described earlier, but it was more flowy than expected and I felt like I was moving pretty well. A guy kept getting close behind me, but I always seems to get away! The descent flew by and I was on my way out to the second climb, across a field of long grass that induced some walking. Things picked up and soon I was at K2, where the first aid station was located. I was greeted by several young kids running out with their bottles of water and orange juice eager to fill up my soft flasks! A warm, welcoming atmosphere was commonplace among all of the crew as the day progressed. Love it!
With Q1 down, I was approximately on track for an 8 hour finish! The next climb, up to the highest point of the race, and near enough to a kilometre of vertical, would be a real test. When you just get on with it, the details of a long climb can all tend to blur into one entity. This one was punctuated with the occasional passing of entrants in the other races heading in the opposite direction. Everyone was friendly and I called out “Alle, Alle!” as they had spread with enthusiasm in Italy. “Bravo!” seemed to be the local equivalent.
When you think you know the details of the course elevation profile better than you actually do, painful overestimation of progress can result. I kind of thought I was through ‘that plateau’ and half way up ‘that last bit of the climb’. I wasn’t! A structure loomed at a high point up above me and it was obvious that this would be the next checkpoint K3. Luckily, I’m basically a professional now, so I got back into a rhythm and got the job done. Sweet, sweet, cola and oranges awaited at the top and I met the guy who had commented on the Kilian video, initiating my journey to CUT!
The man and woman behind me were in and out of the aid pretty quick, and the man got ahead of me. This was a touch over half way for time, based on the previous winner’s Strava recording. I was on my way around 4:11, so the 8 hour goal was in tact. There was a bit of an out and back to the high point and I realised the woman in front of me had a handy lead, so maintaining my position would now be a good second aim to accompany the time goal.
Q3 was a nice change after the big climb. Some downhill back to a junction, flat / undulating runnable stuff, then a more gentle climb to the third and final high point. I was feeling good, particularly enjoying the flatter stuff and the friendly interaction with more competitors heading in the other direction. I even took back one place, passing as he adjusted his music. K4 beckoned and I was again greeted by a fun, supportive crew enjoying the nice weather relaxing at a back country hut! I turned down the offers of schnapps, beer and soup, opting for more cold pepsi and oranges. Now it was into the final climb, just a few hundred metres, before the long descent back to the Staza restaurant.
The second short out and back of the race confirmed the handy lead of the woman in front. After a high five and a somewhat cute photo at the turn around point K5, I was headed home. 6:03 at this point, so 8 hours was on!
The descent was pretty fun, but I certainly struck the tricky terrain described earlier in spades in this section! It was a real run, walk, run situation. As I impatiently approached the final aid station at K6, I was getting damn tired. I think I’d managed my food and drink well, powered by snickers (the ultimate mountain fuel), and the cola and oranges at the aid locations. The slackness of the preceding weeks was coming home to roost. The man with the music slipped past, looking much fresher than I felt, and navigating the terrain well. I knew he was gone, but could I still make 8 hours?
Finally K6 and a couple of friendly faces appeared. After another hit of my newly established replenishment combo, and some banter, it was time for the last 8 kms of the race, with the final part of the descent and the last push back around to Staza. “I wanted to run more!” “Everyone wants to run Cvrsnica. It is a walking tour. It’s all downhill and flat now so you can push it to the limit!” I had just under an hour to get the sub 8 done. There was a chance.
Damn I was tired though. I rolled down the gravel road, making OK time, but working much harder than you should have to when running down a nice gradient! Before too long I was at the turn off back into some fields and the structures around the ski slopes of Blidinje littered the landscape before me. Running in long grass, even on a flat slope, was really challenging now. I walked sections that seriously felt like they shouldn’t be walked. It was one of those days where you side with the “You’ve done the hard work, so no point doing something silly and hurting yourself now!” logic rather than the “This is it! The last few kms! Leave it all out there!” logic.
The course markers wound through fields and along a driveway guarded by an angry dog, who I hope was just as much of a nuisance for all the other runners, as the ski slope marking the location of the restaurant drew me closer and closer. Back to a jog for the last km, I ran triumphantly across the finish line, trying out a new ‘gun show’ pose. I wonder if they got that photo?! 8:06 was my final time. Just outside my goal, but reflecting on the un-ideal build up, and just reflecting on how insane and awesome it was to be there and to run the race, I was stoked!!
After more fun in the Balkans I was looking forward to a Christchurch trail community catch up with Sam Mowat in Bled mid September, and the Vertical Grand Serre, at the end of September. I’m hoping to be there, on one of the steepest VK courses in the world, to really push hard in a shorter effort! See you there!