Makalu – 8,463m – February 1975
First of many Slovenian World Class ascents by
Nejc Zaplotnik, Aleš Kunaver, Stane Belak (Šrauf), Marjan Manfreda (no Oxygen), Viki Grošelj, Janko Ažman, Ivč Kotnik, Janez Dovžan
Alpine Warriors / L’Etoffe des Géants – By Bernadette McDonald
The story of these LEGENDS and many others, all around the World from the Himalaya to Patagonia is written in Alpine Warriors…the book that excited my curiosity about Slovenians and their country while I was travelling in the Australian bush in January 2019
They all have in common the Julian Alps where they honed their skills since the youngest age and a thirst for exploring higher mountains. Tickets outside Yougoslavia were extremely hard to get and meant competing with Serbs and Croatians to gain places on national expeditions. It made me wonder about the mountains who gave birth to World Class mountaineers like the High African Plateaus create World Record marathon runners.
I spent time on Google Maps – by far #1 in my visits history – looking at Slovenia and checked the trail runs. I found running to be a great way to discover a place and meet people.
Few facts about Slovenia:
- Roughly 2 Million inhabitants
- Italian, Austrian, Hungarian and Croatian neighbours
- 47km of coastline on the Adriatic
- 80% covered in forests
- Mount Triglav (Three Peaks) – 2,864m is the highest mountain that every Slovenian should climb once in their life
- 382 times smaller than Australia
- 27 times smaller than France
- Slovenia participated in the last eight Summer and Winter Olympics with about 40 medals including 7 Gold (rowing, shooting, judo, athletics and alpine skiing)
- Alpine skier Tina Maze is the most popular athlete with two gold medals in Sochi (Women – Downhill and Giant Slalom)
Ultra Trail Vipava Valley
- The Vipava river has a delta source formed of nine main springs, joins the Isonzo river in Italy (also called Soca river in Slovenia) and gave it’s name to the town where the race finishes
- Six races – The City Run – 10k, The Sky Run – 16k, The Legionar – 30k, The Gladiator – 50k, The Centurion – 100K and The Emperor – 100 miles
- Over 1,000 runners for the 5th edition of the event from 30 countries
I raced The Gladiator – 52K / 2,493m D+
I AM a fan of the film but it’s not why I chose this distance. I think 50k is a great compromise between distance and speed, duration and recovery time. So far, in my short experience in long distance running, I’ve recovered fairly well from the four races I’ve done previously and still felt like it was long enough to dig deep in my physical limits and mentally challenging – this race will not be an exception.
Thursday the 9th of May 2019
I flew from Toulouse to Ljubljana with a stop-over in Paris where my luggage missed the second flight. Just after landing, I gave my guesthouse’s address to the luggage services at the airport, jumped into a rental car and bought a pair of runners, shorts, t-shirt at the first Intersport I found on my way.
18:00 – Razdrto
I didn’t have to look long for a hill to do my last repeats. Nanos is just across the road…it looks steep but I’m too curious and want to make the best of the time left until sunset after a day wasted seating at the airport and on the plane.
As I climb, it gets really steep, I can hear stones rolling down a corridor and see a chamois, gracefully climbing at lightening speed….IF ONLY…
Unlike him, my road shoes are not adapted to the terrain and I try to imagine how hard it will be to run the whole race without trail running shoes if my bag doesn’t turn up on time. As I quickly gain elevation, running and hiking, I get better views from above the valley and it gets windy. My light jacket is in my luggage…but it won’t spoil the moment. About 45 minutes later, I reach the top at 1,240m of elevation where a telecommunication station is installed. I find a sign “UTVV100” which makes me think that we will be racing up there!! I meet a couple watching sunset over the Adriatic, fully equipped in warm clothes. They looked surprised to see me rocking up there, wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt in the cold wind…they wished me luck for the race and I carefully ran down the rocky hill to relax under a warm shower.
Friday the 10th of May 2019
10:00 – Vipava mainsquare race expo.
My favorite time before the race – Pick-up my BIB!
It’s the biggest bib I’ve had in a while, an elevation profile with aid stations displayed upside down – it was actually very helpful during the race though I think I prefer to write them down on my inner form arm and save a bit of space – smaller is better in this case.
I visit the beautiful town getting ready for the big day and have a chat with the local Salomon rep. at the expo to secure a pair of shoes just in case my luggage doesn’t make it on time. He’s an Alpine Ski racer and coaches a team of young guns in Serbia during winter.
12:00 – Lunch time
I have lunch at Gostilna Krhne – Gostilna stands for Restaurant. Food in the region has strong Italian influences, gnocchis, pasta, some sort of raviols…all home made. It will change a lot as we head to the Alps the following week with my friend Jean. Today I’ll go for Gnocchis with porcini mushrooms and promise myself that after the race I’ll also get a local coke, an apfelstrudel AND a coffee.
15:00 – Back to the guesthouse
I take my regular 17 minutes nap and as I wake-up, a text message from Air France informs me that my luggage has arrived at Ljubljana Airport. I can’t figure out when it will be delivered so I decide to drive all the way back. Fifty minutes later, a young lady manages to talk to the company in charge of the delivery and informs me that my luggage is already on its way.
I lost two hours overall but now I’m sure to have my gear. One source of stress sorted. Time to get back to Vipava, where the finish line is installed and Iwill traditionnally run the race final to get some mental references.
18:00 – Race final recce
It will be a very rocky and steep descent to the finish line. We loose roughly 300m of elevation in the last 2km, pass by an old castle “Stari Grad” and join a sealed road. A few laces down the steep and narrow streets I estimate at 10 – 15% incline, one last left turn into a narrow flat street and it’s the final stretch.
I know that once I will see the castle, my brain will recognise every step and I’ll be ready for the last battle. Most favorites are locals and raced here before, at least I know the top of the longest hill and the final.
I have dinner at my canteen – another dish of gnocchis and still no extra. I head home hoping that my gear will be there
20:00 – THE bag has arrived!
Back to the guesthouse, my host is waiting for me with a big smile 🙂
- Shoes – Salomon SLAB Sense 7 with a shorter, smaller, and widespread sole pattern for the dry terrain
- Socks – Stance with extra thickness under the toes I could have equally used the Thyos
- Hydration pack – Salomon SLAB Sense Ultra 8 – to carry the relatively short mandatory gear list
- 2 x 500ml soft flasks – plenty in regards to the temperature and distance between aid stations – Max. 10ks
- First aid kit, cell phone, survival blanket and food
- Shorts and T-shirt – I didn’t even carry the jacket as I didn’t expect rain or wind
By 21:00 everything is ready:
- #1 Pre-race drop bag that I leave at the start line including water, pre-race food, warm clothes, vaseline, soap and a towel – all I need BEFORE the race
- #2 Race bag with my RACE kit – as I don’t get like to get equipped to early
- #3 Finish line bag that will stay in the car with change, towel, toiletry and sparkling water with sodium
One last check on my phone, supportive messages from family, friends and coach Gary. Also an unexpected one from Mark, you know the couple I met the day before while training. He found me on Instagram after we met at Nanos and wished me luck for the race – it just confirms my first impression about how welcoming Slovenians are.
21:00 – Bed time
Saturday the 11th of May
4:30 – Breakfast time
Race starts at 8AM, I like to eat 3 hours earlier so I prepare my usual bowl:
- Yoghurt (goat milk as I struggled to find coconut yoghurt in Europe)
- Home made muesli with blended nuts (hazelnuts, brasilian nuts and almonds) oven roasted, with a bit of coconut oil and curcumin (Thanks Mag)
- Coconut flakes
- Chia pudding (mix of chia seeds and coconut milk)
- A pinch of salt
I get dressed except my running socks, shoes and backpack- I will only put them on before going for my warm-up so they stay dry.
It’s not my ideal setup as we need to catch a bus to the start line at 6AM for an 8AM start while it’s less than 20 minutes drive from Vipava . So instead of going back to bed I go straight to Vipava.
5:45 – Drive to Vipava
I drive outof Razdrto as the sun rises in my mirrors, great news, while the weather was very uncertain, it will not rain today and the temperature will not exceed 25 degrees. I park and jump on the first bus.
6:10 – Bus to the start line and final prep.
Everyone is quite communicative and excited. It is my case most of the time BUT when I’m within a couple of hours from racing.
I focus on the last steps:
- Eat and drink
- Find toilets to go 30 minutes before the start
- A quiet place for my warm-up
- Identify the drop bag area
Following Gary’s advice, I start eating before the start while I traditionnaly stopped eating from breaky until the start. I found a very quiet area by the church in the village and relaxed while the guys from Salomon were inflating the start arch. I stay away from the noise and go to the toilets slightly earlier than planned as I expected a big queue with 300 runners plus support crews… and there’s only one cubicle. Good on me, after waiting for about 20 minutes, I can gear up about 25 minutes pre-race start. Drop #1 bag and go for my warm-up. With a support crew I’d usually keep a jacket until seconds before the start but luckily it’s not too cold. I go for a recce of the start, a narrow street that dives into a steep technical downhill after less than 1km.
7:50 – START LINE
After finishing my drills, exactly the same ones I do before my intensity sessions, I join the start line. The favorites athletes are equipped with a GPS tracking device and a few get interviewed by the very energetic speaker in both Slovenian and English. I can feel a great vibe and a friendly atmosphere even though I wish I could speak Slovenian to share a bit more. However it’s a great excuse to stay in my bubble.
30 seconds to the start – I’m on the second line – I crouch, close my eyes, touch the ground and breath deeply. When I’ll stand again I’ll be 10 seconds away from a long effort.
8:01 – Vipavski Kriz – Alt. 177m – Start
As expected, the favourite, Marko Tratnik, two times winner and race record holder, leads the pack – followed closely by Nejc, who he was very friendly with on the start line. I reach the first technical section in 5th position and loose ground very quickly on the first three runners as I’m behind a slow-ish down hill runner who creates a 100m gap ahead of him. As soon as possible, I pass him in a turn and work on the flat to catch up with the leading trio. Marko and Nejc are keeping an eye on Jacob, a tall Polish runner just a couple hundred meters ahead. I stay quietly on their heels while they have a chat at 4:00 min/k pace.
I stay focused, eat and drink regularly – the first hill KM 8 takes us back pretty quickly on Jacob. We arrive grouped at the CP1.
8:40 – CP1 – 8k / 350m D+ / 38m54s
Rank: Group of 4 runners leading the race
We arrive at the first checkpoint – slightly misleading as you have a to run down a few stairs to reach the aid station…then run back-up.
Marko doesn’t stop so I do a quick water refill and catch him up. After a few minutes the leading group of four is back together. I can already see that Nejc is very green and not used to aid stations as he loses a lot of time.
I’m feeling good and I’m conscious that I’m over my ideal pace and take a risk if we don’t slow down in the next 5k.
I’m puzzled between letting them go, my guess is that appart from Marko none of the other runners will keep this pace, which will verify pretty soon. A couple hundred meters in the first long hill KM 16, up a muddy fire trail, Marko and I create a solid gap. We will not see Jacob and Nejc till the finish line. We take relays up the hill and cruise to the checkpoint KM 20.
9:43 – S10 – Stjak – Alt. 500m – 20k / 892m D+ / 1h42m13s
Rank: #1 in a group of two
My favorite time of the race, after sharing the first difficulties, we cruise on a road at the top of a crest in the middle of the wineyards. We exchange a few words and smiles, both with a lot of respect for the work done so far – I don’t know it yet but we are ahead of Marko’s race record time two years before. I stop for water and Marko keeps going.
After looking at the timings post race, we were :
- 15 minutes ahead of the previous year’s winning time
- 3 minutes ahead of the race record
- 1m30s ahead of our followers – gap created in less than 3kms.
It confirms that we are running fast and may pay for it sooner or later. It doesn’t matter, we are having a great time out there, running fairly easily, the terrain is undulating and we know the hardest part is yet to come. During a long downhill, I decide to slow down and give Marko some space. I eat, take a short bio break and will not see him again. It’s the wisest thing for me to do as I know inside me that I’ve already pushed the machine pretty far.
10:24 – S11 – Podnanos – Alt.168m – 28k / 1131m D+ / 2h22m36s
Rank: #2 +2 min from Marko
After a long downhill into the valley, across wine yards, horses and cows paddocks and small villages, we arrive in Podnanos.
I start the 10k / 1100m D+ climb up to Nanos culminating at 1240m of elevation. I can feel the effects of the fast, first half of the race. My heart rate is high, I breath loudly and can’t push for too long. I alternate running and walking. I soon realise I’m not carrying enough water. As we reach a road section – I stabilise my pace and cruise again. The leaders of the UTVV30, caught-up with me half-way through the climb, followed by Matic Calculovic, who passes me taking the second place away. I can’t keep up and accept to let him go.
With 18k to go I know it’s early to get passed but I have no other option. I keep an eye on runners passing me, mostly 30K runners, including Lucija, first female, who I encouraged as she flies up Nanos and will take the win in the 30k female category. I spot a couple of blue bibs (50k runners) and understand that I’ll have to pay attention if I ever want to come back. An Austrian runner, Olda, passes me 1km from the top and I can see Simon on my six.
I’m now 4th and increase my pace up top to keep Simon behind. As I reach the aid station, I refill my water flasks and drink some electrolytes. The crew up there boosted me massively while helping me to refill.
11:48 – S12 – Nanos – Alt. 1240m – 38k / 2100m D+ / 3h46m33s
Rank: #4 – 40 seconds from 3rd place / 2min from 2nd / 11 min from 1st
I’m in a pretty tricky mental space – 4th isn’t my target and I can’t see how my body will help me to come back
My downhill abilities are massively impacted by my overall exhaustion, mostly the lack of focus and every step is painful. I can’t make-up time without big risks I’m not willing to take more than 10ks away from the finish line. Simon gets closer but doesn’t close the gap. What I didn’t expect, Petra Tratnik, leading the women 50, passes me easy on a flat section. I’m now 5th overall.
12h14 – S13 – Alt. 792m – 44k / 2,350m D+ / 4h22
Rank: #5 – 30 seconds from 4th place / 1min from 3rd
As I arrive at the last aid station KM 44, I can see Olda leaving. Petra overtook him and he’s now 4th overall still 3rd of the mens race. It’s my chance to re-establish visual contact and start the chase to get back on the podium.
I barely stop, refill half a flask and decide to use the following flat section to take my chance. I’m feeling a lot better, water, electrolytes and food intakes I maintained all the way since the top of Nanos worked a treat and I can push the engine. In less than a kilometer cruising between 4 and 4:30 min/k, I’m back on Olda’s heels. Even a bit too quick to my taste as I’m not sure how he will react with 7kms to go. Anyway, I pass him and maintain the effort. You might think that for a guy that runs for nature, I’m being very competitive – it’s true – I love the adrenaline of a fair battle where everyone is pushing their limits. I can see Petra just a couple hundred meters ahead. Huge race for her, she’s now 3rd overall. I’ll pass her as well and keep pushing, never looking back again.
The steepest and longest section of the downhill starts. I avoid four big falls within 3 minutes – definitely a sign that I’ve dug deep. A fall would be disastrous, at speed, downhill, over sharp rocks and little energy to protect myself. With 4kms to go…it’s time to focus and give it all into the battle with myself, balance the energy required by the brain to focus on coming obstacles and the power to fire-up my legs. Don’t fall, don’t twist an ankle…I catch a couple of 30k runners and look at my watch to check the distance from the finish. How much longer until it all stops?
There it is, the castle, the rocks… I recognise the final. Two more sharp turns and I’ll be on the concrete in the village of Vipava. I can hear the rocks rolling, Petra finishes strong less than a minute behind. As I reach the steep streets, I can increase the length of my strides, a kid sprints down the hill with me until the last left turn…I can hear the noise of the finish line. I see the Salomon and Hammer nutrition inflatable arches…I raise my right hand and fly through the line screaming of joy, pain, satisfaction and rage. I came back, I finish 3rd overall beating the 5 hour mark by 9 seconds.
13:01 – Vipava – Alt. 102m – 52.8k / 2,493m D+ / 4h59m51s
Rank: #3 overall
- Marko Tratnik #1 – 4h37m57s
- Matic Caculovic#2 – 4h52m07s
- Petra Tratnik – #4 overall and #1 Female – 5h00m22s
- Olda Janecek – #5 overall – 3rd Male – 5h02m28s
- Ana Čufer – #11 overall – 2nd Female – 5h28m10s
- Nataša Robnik – #19 overall – 3rd Female – 5h56m50s
Jacob, our Polish friend leading at the start finished 9th in 5h21m44s and Nejc Did Not Finish.
Bostjan the race director comes to congratulate me. Then I turn back to the line and Petra is just 30 seconds behind, beautifully crossing the line where she joins her brother Marko, they are both winners on the 50k distance today.
I join them and Marko introduces me to the rest of the club, I recognise Lucija, who won the 30k and measure how talented the local team is. We all celebrate for a while and laugh about this kangaroo that got lost among the Slovenian bears. Their first question was WHY did you come to Slovenia. And I tell them about this book I read…
I staid on the line for a while, celebrating with everyone. It was packed for hours, runners, support crews, families…this race is like a local party where everyone is invited. Bostjan, the race director staid on the line and cheered every single finisher personally.
I drove back home to shower, change and take a nap then I came back to my favorite canteen for a late lunch and connected with every one who supported me from far away Down Under and in Europe.
Sunday the 12th of May
A pizza and a good night later…I went back to Vipava for the ceremony. Tarawera was special with the Maori’s speech at the closure and the welcoming of the last 100 Miles runners on the stage, Motatapu’s authenticity in a beautiful scenery is a unique memory…UTVV’s ceremony, in a jam packed town hall with locals is close to none. It felt like being in a big family reunion!
Cherry on the cake, Katie from Runcrew in Sydney was stopping in the Vipava Valley with a group of runners on their journey across Slovenia and Croatia with Rogue Expeditions.
I joined them for an exquisite dinner to make the best of the valley’s famous gastronomy.
To the race organisation, all the volunteers and locals who supported us along the trails.
All the competitors and especially the SD Nanos Podnanos Running crew
And every one who supported me before, during and after the race…
Family, Friends, Running buddies and Coaches, Clients…
I might be repeating myself: I CAN’T do it without YOU
- Fly back to Sydney
- Reunite with the crew
- Meet my roommate and fly to New Caledonia
- Ultra Trail New Caledonia 70k – 8th of June 2019
- Mid-june – Back to Sydney and push my projects further (Work, Fun, Friends, Running, Kitesurfing, Snowkiting…)