Just over two decades ago, the destination of Bosnia was not on any tourist’s bucket list of travel destinations. The only people queueing to get onto flights to that part of southeastern Europe were journalists, Médecins Sans Frontières staff and United Nations representatives, and they did so knowing they would be risking their lives being there.
Between 1992 and 1996, Bosnia-Herzegovina (part of the former Yugoslavia) was immersed in the most brutal type of civil war, with full scale genocide taking place while the world watched in horror. In the capital Sarajevo, the civil war turned from violent conflict into humanitarian disaster as the Bosnian Serb army besieged the city, slaying thousands of innocent civilians in broadscale ethnic cleansing.
Twenty-four years on, the country is different. It’s no joyride, sure – the politics are complicated and the future stability of the nation is questionable, but its people have done their best to move on, to look beyond the political wrangling and to make the most of the many positives their beautiful country offers.
And beautiful it is! Vast sections of the country are mountainous – thousands of square kilometres of high-altitude rugged terrain span the central and eastern section, painting any trail runner’s or hiker’s dream. For four months of the year, the area offers top quality skiing, and for the remaining eight months, those same mountains are (mostly) free of snow, and perfect for trail running.
Holidaying in the Balkans as I was, and ever-hungry for adventure as I am, the notion of doing a trail race in Bosnia-Herzegovina was irresistible. I’d been Googling races in the area, as one does… and found the Vučko Trail, a 63km race in the mountains near Sarajevo. The date of the race would make our travel plans tight – we were due to fly home from Zagreb, Croatia just two days after the race, and we still had a few sights in Croatia we wanted to visit. But where there’s trail love, good things happen, and we juggled our plans to make the 800km detour to that once war-torn, now peaceful country for the race.
As an event the Vučko Trail has something for everyone – for beginners, a 13km (+610m); for longer distance runners, a 37km (+1450m); and for ultra junkies, the 63km (+3450m). I loved the race website’s description of the course:
This is a trail where we had to take a great care where to go so that elevation gain does not exceed +4000m. The other side of Bjelašnica, ancient roads and even more ancient legends, the Rakitnica canyon and the knife-sharp ridge of mountain Visočica. And all that spiced with breathtaking landscapes and stecak tombstones popping up all around. It is irresistibly reminiscent of our ancestors who would do this trail for breakfast while chasing sheep across mountain slopes.
I read that, and I was in!
The race village was at a ski resort in the mountains south east of Sarajevo, just a 30-minute drive from the city. Eight years before the start of the Bosnian War, the men’s alpine events of the 1984 Winter Olympics were hosted here, on the mountain of Bjelašnica – the name of which stems from bijel in Serbo-Croatian which means white.
By South African standards, it was a late start – at this time of year in that part of the world it gets light around 4:30am, yet the race start was 8am. The buzz around the huge Red Bull inflatable banner at the start line was electric, and I had to chuckle: many of the guys looked so psyched I half-expected them to break into the Haka! The hype was huge, the trail beards even bigger and the sponsored kit was being proudly strutted by almost every runner there – the atmosphere felt like the start of the Diagonale des Fous, only with a smaller crowd! Intimidation levels were at a max, and it’s the first time in years I’ve stood at a start line and worried that I might come last…
The route was exactly what I’d hoped for: apart from the first 10km or so which were fast runnable jeep track, the rest was all pretty much single track – it was technical and tough. Almost all of it was either UP or DOWN, with virtually no flat running. The views were exquisite, the drop-offs dramatic, and the climbs never-ending. And those mountains… I could almost hear the war cries of those ancient Slavic tribes echoing across the mountain tops.
What surprised me was how the course chewed up and spat out many of those rambos who were so hyped on the start line. Of the 117 participants from 13 different countries, there were only 37 finishers (30 men, 7 women). I had a great run – I pushed hard, blocked out the chest-beating vibes of most of the runners around me, and I ran my own race. By that I mean not only figuratively but literally – apart from about 15 minutes in all during those 10+ hours, I ran alone. It was fantastic, and if you’ll excuse the trail cliché, my mountain stoke was huge!
It was the unexpected finale for a fantastic two-month adventure in Europe: I finished 1st woman by almost 50 mins, and 6th in the field overall. At the risk of raving about almost all mountain races I run, this one is yet another to recommend for the bucket list. It was on a well-marked course and was extremely well organised, with strict safety rules enforced (mandatory kit was checked at the finish line – runners were penalised 30 mins per missing item; three strikes = immediate disqualification), it was competitive but with a personal-sized field, and the route is run over mountains and ridgelines that make the heart sing! Bosnia-Herzegovina is a fascinating country to visit, for many reasons, and the Vučko Trail was an ideal add-on to our adventure holiday.
Full results: www.stotinka.hr/eng/race/2320/total_rank
Want to know more about the Vučko Trail? Hop onto http://vuckotrail.ba/