Craig and I are on a two-month Balkan adventure, exploring central and eastern Europe. Now, before too many desk-dwellers grow green with envy, I must leap in to point out that I’ve not mentioned the word “holiday”. Holidays presume the complete absence of work. I freelance for a living, so the concept of being entirely free of work for any extended period of time simply does not exist in my reality, sadly. So I’m clarifying that we’re on a two-month adventure, yes, but that every few days we have a “holiday-interruptus” for me to work. That’s the joy of freelancing: have laptop, will travel (and work).
The ratio of work to play varies from time to time, but we needn’t go into that…
I believe any good travel adventure should involve as much time spent on trails as seeing important historic and cultural sights. And what better way of blending all these together into one great smorgasbord than to run an ultra in a region that is historically, culturally, gastronomically and even viticulturally bursting with abundance.
That’s why I picked Ultra-Trail® Vipava Valley (UTVV), a 53km race in the Vipava Valley in western Slovenia, near the Italian border, a region known for its wine growing, history and idyllic rural scenery.
While not part of the Ultra-Trail® World Tour, UTVV still falls under the Ultra-Trail® banner, and like many of the brand’s events it offers four distance options: 30km, 50km, 100km and a 160km. When I entered, it took all my self-control to not click on the 160 or 100k tabs. I’m slowly building my mileage again after my gut op five months ago, so I have to exercise maxi self-discipline to get that right!
For all those who love to blend travelling to distant shores with doing a race, this one’s an outright must-do! Firstly, the Balkans is a special part of Europe – it has the age-old history to compete with western Europe, and is far less chocolate-boxy in appearance and approach. It’s rustic and real, has no airs and graces, and doesn’t need to dress itself up in frills or flower boxes to thrill the tourist. The mountains are spectacular (Vipava is on the edge of Slovenia’s Julian Alps), the small villages and hamlets are rustic and quaint, the water in the rivers is crystal clear, and this time of year the forests are green and lush. Slovenia is riddled with national parks, and is biking, running and hiking heaven.
Enough background, and onto the event. The 50km race started from the quaint hilltop stone village of Vipavski Križ, an historic settlement that dates back to pre-Roman times, with a Capuchin monastery from 1636 at its centre. From there we ran through the vineyards of the Vipava Valley, through the historic hamlets of Velike Žablje and Erzelj (which dates back to 1275), Goče and Socerb, which lies on the border with Italy, and is dominated by the ruins of the Socerb castle.
The route was not all plain-sailing – like all great trail races, there had to be the cursable sections. For me there were just two: at 17km, we hit a 2km uphill section of mud so thick and smooth that it sucked every smidgeon of speed from the legs and cakes my treads into thick-heeled clogs. That type of mud. Urgh.
The other swear-inducing section was the final 2km of a 10km continuous climb, from the town of Padnanos (at 28km) to the peak of Mt Nanos (38km). Those last 2km were where the singletrack steepened, and the enormous communication mast at the peak just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Thankfully the view along that ridgeline was sufficiently spectacular to provide visual diversion from the pain of that climb!
Then followed 15km of descent comprising a few km of wide jeep track, one or two kays of tar, and the rest a rollercoaster of technical, forested singletrack perfect for bombing down! The route spat us out directly into the back of the town of Vipava and the finish lined with cheering crowds. The vibe was electric!
Having a winning race doesn’t have to mean finishing in first place. For me it’s about the bigger picture, the entire experience – from how the organisation of the event from a runner’s perspective, the route, views and conditions on the day, to how I felt throughout the race. On every level Ultra-Trail Vipava Valley was a winner for me – the race was superbly organised, the route was technical, and conditions were cool and clear to make the most of the great views (as opposed to the following day, which was cold and misty with minimal viz). From a personal perspective, I had my best race in years. I hadn’t planned to actually race this – I’m not back to full fitness after my health challenges of Dec 2018, so I ran with no pressure. I ran… and when I found it so comfortable, I pushed the pace to see what would happen… and when I found I could do that, I put the throttle down. I had nothing to lose. And it worked! I finished 6th woman, and 3rd in my age category (a ridiculously broad age cat of 35-50), which considering four days later I’d have been booted out that cat, made me most elated of all!
Check out my run on Relive by clicking here:
start: Vipavski Kriz main square
finish: centre of Vipava
vert gain: +2300m
vert loss: -2220m
size of field: max 300 runners
finishers: 249 (71 of which were women)
For more info on Ultra-Trail Vipava Valley, check out the website www.ultratrail.si/en/