But Alen Paliska, the biggest of all dragons, father of them and race director of “100 Miles of Istria” desired that trophy for himself. The medal is now hung around his neck all the time and no one dares to take it! His grim look can instantly stop your heart and his black skin, darker than a moonless night, is capable of filling with fear all your happy memories! In order to protect his treasure, Alen the Dragon, designed a very demanding course of 170 kilometers and 7.120 meters of elevation gain that started from Labin, in the east coast of the peninsula of Istria, and ended west into Umag, where the beast’s lair was located.
The treasure of treasures attracted a fellowship of 13 Greek men that set off for an unexpected journey to claim this precious prize! It was an unusual party that left Drama, Greece, heading to Croatia with only one goal, never stop until fulfilling its purpose. Among those men, there was a young little Hobbit, named Theoharis Baggins. It was me, trying to be the fastest of all Hobbits. On its way to Croatia the Greek team was forced to find an alternate route due to an evil sorcerer that guarded the Bulgarian-Serbian boarders. This powerful sorcerer was an ally with Alen the Dragon and blocked our entrance in Serbia. The only thing to do now was to enter Serbia through Fyrom’s boarders. Ten hours later we entered the country having travelled 600 kilometers more and being extremely tired. Nevertheless we thought that we had escaped the sorcerer but we were wrong because he was aware of our presence! So he casted a fierce storm to make us go back! Thunderbolts ripped the sky in two and even the highest mountains were shaken like leaves when thunders struck! But the sorcerer’s spell was fading away while we headed into the mainland. After a while we managed to see the clear sky and thousands of stars above us as we approached the Croatian boarders. However, the storm caused us a lot of trouble! All our bags and stuff, which were loaded inside the trailer, were soaking wet. Furthermore a thunderbolt fried the electronic systems of the Croatian boarders causing a little mayhem! After a 29-houred road trip we finally reached Umag, exhausted from our journey and ready to face the biggest of Alen’s trials, the 100 mile race.
At Umag’s waterfront there was a big, white tent which was the headquarters of the organizing team, and next to it the arch of the finish line was set up. Everyone was interested for the 100 mile race where athletes from 28 different countries had chosen to compete with each other. Inside the tent the staff of the “100 Miles of Istria” race, as well as a lot of volunteers, were trying to assist all the competitors in order for the last to be prepared for their race. Besides that, there was an expo with lots of trail running gear and presentations of other trail races. One of them that seemed very promising was “Dalmatia Ultra Trail” held for the first time in October 2016. As for our little friends and also everyone else, there was a ping pong table and a golf practicing spot inside the tent. It was like a feast to celebrate the warrior’s quest to defeating the Dragon!
Two smiling forest fairies gave me my “armor” and their blessing for the long journey I was about to begin. I found a quiet spot and prepared myself. Each athlete’s race bag had a “Salomon” technical T-Shirt, a pair of “Compressport” compression leggings, both custom made with the logo of the race, our BIB number, a big plastic bag (drop bag) for Buzet aid station, a smaller bag for our staff and clothes to hand over before the start of the race and the so called “road-book” which was a detailed elevation profile graph with multiple information about the aid stations and the distance between them. Before leaving the tent I met Master Elf Daniel, PR manager of the race, and Lady Elf Ivana, responsible for the athlete’s accommodation and hospitality. They were friendly and smiling all the time and that filled me with warmth and courage!
However Time flies and all the runners had to board inside the charted busses that would carry us to Labin, east of the peninsula of Istria, for the start of the 100 mile race. On my way there I met another Greek, Syrakis Dimitrios, who also visited Croatia to participate in this big event. Who could imagine that his brother, Syrakis Georgios, would win the first place in his age category, the next day in the 42 kilometer race? The Greek flag was waving and we all were very proud of him!
You could only hear joyful laughs in picturesque Labin and loud music, beating like war drums, pumping our hearts and making our legs tremble of excitement! Despite midday a lot of people awaited us, a noisy, colorful crowd of runners, to start. Therewere only a few moments left until we set off for an adventure that would physically and mentally test us so I decided to spend them by taking some photos of the Greek fellowship, the athletes and the rest of the team which would support us during the race. Nikos Kasmeridis, Thodoris Kotopoulos, Nikos Maggitsis and Mihalis Papadopoulos were my companions in this journey that was about to become real. Seconds before we begin I remember Alen the Dragon flying over our heads and counting backwards to 10 with a big, malicious smile drawn on his face that couldn’t hide his satisfaction for the struggle we had to endure.
Before finishing the first mile of the race I had already left my companions behind. From Labin we followed a steep narrow path that was taking us down, towards the sea, going side to side with a little gorge. Everyone was running like a mad man and I just couldn’t stop wondering if I had registered for the right event. There was no way we could last for long following this crazy pace… Shortly after the start we reached Rabac, a little seaside village. We ran across the coastline in front of cafeterias, fish taverns and lots of people who were cheering for us. It was then the hot sun, the cool sea breeze and the weariness of the road trip that were constantly pushing me to lie down and rest! Instead I managed to overcome this tempting desire and went on. While exiting Rabac, some smiling volunteers sent us to follow a trail road which was gradually going up. After a few meters of elevation gain I witnessed a spectacular, panoramic view of the Adriatic Sea! From the first moment I visited Istria I felt like home because sea and mountains are a frequent combination in Greece. Before reaching the first aid station, I had a last opportunity to run again near the sea because after that point the course would start climbing the mountains towards the inland.
As I was entering Plomin, to find the first aid station of the race, I saw a lot of people waiting to welcome us. They were clapping and cheering trying to encourage us to keep going. At the aid station, among the volunteers, there were also our trusted assistants, members of the Mountaineering Club of Drama, of the “Les Trailers” club and of the Organizing Team of “Virgin Forest Ultra Trail”, doing everything they could to support us. Alen the Dragon was there as well waiting, like an apex predator, to devour every runner who wasn’t feeling good.
I left Plomin following a trail road that was crossing a beautiful forest of pine trees. In the beginning it was going up but very soon I was descending, running left and right for a little while. Then the trail road switched places with a narrow path thatwould lead me, after lots of kilometers through dense woodland and many alpine meadows, to the highest point of the race, a summit located in 1.400 meters altitude. It was getting darker and colder as I moved higher and higher. Many runners called this sierra the “Misty Mountains”* because last year, due to fog and heavy rain during the night, a lot of athletes were forced to abandon their race.
This year’s weather conditions were by far a lot better but cold wind still wouldn’t let you rest while on high altitude. Then my struggle got even harder because I had to cross one of the rockiest terrains I have ever run! In order to reach the summit I should literally follow a path that went through rocks and stones! There was no track and I could only hope that the little red flags were pointing the right way! Nevertheless each summit is unique and I felt the same as I was between the earth and the dark sky, under a wonderful, silver moon. The part from the summit until the third aid station inside the forest, at Poklon, required good reflexes and eagle’s eyes! The route was descending as fast as it previously led us uphill to the summit and I had to be extremely cautious if I wanted to avoid roots, rocks and branches that were hidden underneath the fallen autumn leaves.
When I saw the tent with the staff and the volunteers of the aid station I sighed with relief. I had managed to arrive there in one piece. Food menu for the athletes now had one more dish, prepared by the chef of our team. Many tasted the hot, Greek soup and wanted to know its secret recipe. Only “Lembas”** bread was missing from the table. “Farewell, my friends!” I said as I disappeared again in the dark night.
The hardest part was over or at least that was what I thought because the truth was way different! The next 46 kilometers until Buzet aid station were very rough. In fact I don’t remember much of this part of the race for my mind saves only happy thoughts and images. The four remaining summits which we had to cross until Buzet broke me down. There were lots of uphills and downhills full of sharp rocks and stones inside the track. Each time I tripped over a rock I was swearing, I won’t lie to you.
I even cursed a lot of times the one who decided that it would be better to cross this part of the race at night! However, in Man’s darkest hours simple things occur which can lift you up and get you going. In ultra-trail races such things is the making of a new friendship, a prize worth more than any other treasure! I met there Nazareno Salpistis, a fast hobbit from Italy and Julia from Germany who managed to win 2nd place in women’s category. Together we ran a lot of miles, that didn’t seem so hard during the night. I also met another Greek when I reached the aid station at Trstenik. His name was Paris, he was from Mytilene, Greece, and he had hung a Greek flag inside the tent! What a warm welcome he gave me…
Later I found myself wandering alone the last few kilometers before Buzet aid station. This part of the race was not so rough although there were still rocks and stones scattered all over. Here, for the first time I felt insecure because I could not see a lot of red flags! Plant growth made them less visible at night. Apart from that the trail marking was very frequent and you knew that if you wouldn’t see a sign in the next 10 to 15 meters you should go back. The organizing team had made an excellent job!
When I entered Buzet, a little town, only dogs were awake barking everything they were seeing. There was no one outside, not even a single soul, and I could only hear the sound of my footsteps on the pavement. After a little while a volunteer showed me the way to the town’s basketball stadium where the next checkpoint was. The main aid station was well prepared, ready for all the runners who would arrive. You could also find there cooked food, pasta with tomato sauce, soup and meatballs with potatoes cooked in the hoven, apart from the rest of the snacks which were offered in most of the aid stations. Volunteers were smiling and willing to help you in many ways. Only Alen the Dragon was disappointed, huffing black smoke from his nose, because all the runners were unstoppable until now. I found there my trusted assistants, the rest of the Greek team. They camped inside the stadium and they would only depart when the last Greek athlete left Buzet. I owe them all a big “THANKS” because they helped me change my shoes and clothes, brought me food and did everything I asked them. While wearing new shoes I noticed my feet and toes. They were swollen and looked exactly like real hobbit’s feet! I said “Goodbye” to my team as I left Buzet, full of energy and with a good mood. It was the last time I saw them before the finish line.
The first half of the race was over. There was no way I could get scared by the 50 remaining miles with a total elevation gain of 2.500 meters. Besides, the breaking dawn would be enough to make me run fast again. Later on I would find out, for once more, that the total elevation gain doesn’t determine how hard or easy is a trail race.
The course from this point on was more of a tour in some of Istria’s most beautiful landscapes and little villages. The route was mostly moving onto roads and trail roads following a pattern which elevated us from 0 to 400 meters altitude in a few kilometers only to lead us back to sea level the same way. “Aahhh, the sea… I wish it was in front of me now…”. As time went by the sun got up for good and the heat was increasing! In my mind it was a typical Greek, summer day! As the sea was still very far I tried to compromise with a gorgeous lake created by a big dam. The 8th aid station was the best in terms of location according to my opinion. I sat down to rest my legs and watch the calm surface of the water. It was so nice that I just didn’t want to get up so I left a part of my thoughts in order to return there another day.
The next miles were proven to be the toughest of the race. My body was suddenly shutting down the switches one by one bringing together all sorts of problems. I was tired, drowsy, exhausted, dizzy, having also an upset stomach but I knew I had to keep on going. Despite me doing my best trying to face all the above I just couldn’t stand the heat and the sun which dehydrated me faster. The only thing to do was to wait until Motovun aid station, where I would try to overcome these issues.
Motovun is a little village, built on top of a green hill in the middle of a plain. Some of the buildings there were very old giving a medieval touch in the race while its little streets and plazas reminded me of Pelio in Greece! The view from the top was irresistible! I sat down in the aid station and ate prosciutto with bread and cheese and drank some cola. I left Motovun with my belly doing funny noises but after a mile or two I was already feeling better and possessed by an unexplained fury which forced me to run faster and faster! In the next few miles I have managed to overtake 5 or 6 runners, Julia was one of them and asked me where I found such strength. In fact I was so furious that I passed from the aid station at KM138 without noticing it. I would definitely be out of water after a while but that didn’t frighten me. I knew I could find somewhere an animal waterer. Finally, I jumped over a fence and filled my flasks from a water hose. Hopefully the dogs inside the fence were tied with thick chains because I instantly drove them mad when they saw me! Oohhh…! What a nice feeling to drink cold water when you are really thirsty…
The finish line was only 20 kilometers far from me! And then I met Jakub Hajek from Czech Republic. He was a member of our “Rodopi Ultra Trail” family and a fan of Rodopi Mountains in Greece so our acquaintance was inevitable! I was surprised when I realized that indeed this is a small world so I suggested him to finish our race together, hand in hand, the RO.U.T style! To show me that he agreed, Jakub wore a buff with the RO.U.T logo on it!
We could now see clearly Umag’s buildings as we were running the last few miles through some fields. My journey would very shortly come to an end. I held Jakub’s hand and we crossed the finish line together. Alen the Dragon congratulated us, spared our lives and gave us two medals from his treasure! My Czech buddy bought me a cold beer to celebrate the end of our quest that took us 24 hours and 35 minutes to complete.
This is the end of this hobbit’s story but not of the rest Greek athletes who were still competing! My companions were living their own epic story, facing their own struggles which sometimes made them have visions! However they all did succeed and that is what matters the most…
Our return to Greece was without any problems. We traveled across the Dalmatia coastline and spent one night in Dubrovnik, one of the most fascinating cities of Croatia! Before saying “Goodbye” to this amazing Greek team, I caught myself holding the finisher’s medal and whispering “My Precious…”. But that is a whole different story I’ll tell you some other time.
View this photo set on Flickr
Photos: “100 Miles of Istria”, Lezpouridis Theoharis.
*Misty Mountains: This term refers to an imaginary sierra in J. R.R. Tolkien’s novel.
**Lembas bread: Special bread made from the Elves that was said to be very nutritious.
Notice: The term “Hobbit” originally refers to J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel and I only borrowed it to write my race report.