Translated by : Maruša Maligoj
> Slovenska verzija
Thursday, January 4
7:00 PM / Sistiana / Check-in
Klemen books us a room in a boutique hotel with fancy illuminated letters on its facade. The hotel staff raise they eyebrows in surprise when they see us carrying boxes full of food up to our room. No, we’re not having a party, we just need to move all of this in a wooden crate. What about breakfast at half past four in the morning? They push a plate with potica and cheese, and a thermo bottle with tea into our hands. We are allowed to eat in the room.
Later that evening, we take our boxes to the registration desk. I spit on the lid for good luck. The box contains everything I need to survive two winter days in the nature. In return I get a satellite tracker that gives me a sense of security. In the parking lot, we meet a team of Slovenians that are already setting off this evening. I am again hearing complaints about the organization. I don’t care anymore, I already understand why this competition is not popular among runners in pursuit of a good result.
Although I’ve never done it before, it is clear to me that no hundred miles are a piece of cake. However, S1 Ipertrail is a particularly difficult hundred miles. Six-and-a-half thousands meters of total elevation gain and climbs on unmarked mud trails, stone paths, through the bushes and over the rocks. Tomasso de Mottoni made it this way deliberately. To make the challenge complete, the race takes place in the month with short days and long nights, in the season of unpleasant and unpredictable weather.
Friday, January 5
3:30 AM / Sistiana
Shower, breakfast, clothes. The eternal doubt – what clothes to put on? How much backup to pack in my backpack? Trail running is an interesting challenge also because of the skill you need when choosing and packing things for a long trip. Clothes, food, water. Phone, camera, gps device, lamp, spare batteries and chargers. First aid. All neatly organised in pockets. You don’t want to drop the phone when you’re pulling out a chocolate bar. Or lose everything when you tumble down in the middle of the night.
At the starting line, we are a strange and diverse group. We trained in cold December, and we are haunted by last-year’s race, when everyone almost froze to death due to fierce Bora winds and severe cold. Today it’s ten degrees above zero, the forecast says Jugo wind and rain. Confusion. Some of us are in short trousers, others in thick windbreakers.
5:00 AM / Sistiana / Start
The Italians shoot themselves from the start line. I don’t care much. They are chatting all the time and making too much noise on the peaceful morning streets of Visogliano. Some guy’s carrying a metal mug on his poles, making jingling noises as he runs. Maybe he’s afraid of bears? When it seems that I’ve already lost contact with all others, a screaming group that has lost its way approaches us from the right. In time runners stretch out and the atmosphere in my surroundings settles down.
I start taking shots while it’s still dark. The photos on the small display screen look promising, but they are no good, as the focus switch got set to manual while I was shoving the camera back into my pocket. I take a fairly nice photo of the morning light above Trieste from a viewpoint on the Napoleon route. Later I remember that this was the brightest skies I’ve seen in two days.
The first stage is easy. I know the path well, and with Klemen we run side by side. The weather is ideal for running, ten degrees with a light drizzle. Two things make my stomach churn, though. Number one: in the morning I didn’t manage to unload yesterday’s pizza. Number two: will I be able to bring the cargo all the way to the camp? If not, I’ll need to get off the track soon. When I arrive in the urban area of Opicine, I won’t have a good opportunity anymore.
8:05 AM / Opicina / 22 km
The one hundred and sixty-seven kilometers of our route is divided into stages. Approximately every twenty kilometers there is a station where the organisers offer warm and cold water. My box waiting is also waiting there for me.
I take the first bowl with a ready meal – I choose boiled buckwheat. I add some nuts from another container, seeds from the third, cottage cheese from the fourth, cream … I realise that I’ve envisaged my stops way too romanticly. It takes too much time, Klemen is already waiting for me. I grab my food and leave, I guess I’ll just have to eat on the go. I forget to take my poles. For the first time.
The path is beautiful, it leads us through natural forest reserves along the edge of the Karst plateau with views of the sea and the coast. Then comes a steep, slippery descent into the Glinščica valley. An even greater challenge is the way back up on the other side of the valley. We climb up Monte Carso through a steep, sharp rocky scree. I tear a cuff off the pole. I guess that from now on, I’ll be training my fingers as well.
11:30 AM / Dolina / 40.5 km
Food preparation is making me late again. I eat on the go again. I realise that I’ve forgotten my poles only after a couple hundred meters. I wish I had more arms. The poles are slipping from under my armipts while I’m holding the bowl in one hand and the fork in the other. At the same time, I’d like to write a text report and Look!, Look!, What a beautiful scene, let’s take a picture! I take off my backpack and stow away the food, I’m not hungry anyway. Runners passing me make me nervous.
I catch up with them soon. When the paths split at a sharp angle, choosing the right one depends on sheer luck, as the track on the device is not sufficiently accurate. My advantage is that I’ve got lost on these paths many times before during my trainings, and I’ve memorised a couple of these intersections. Scenes from my previous visits are running thorugh my head all the time, but they are appearing in an illogical sequence, jumping a dosens kilometers back and forth along the way.
From Dolina to Socerb – grease mud, down to Osp – slippery rock, up past Črni Kal – over hard rocks to the plateau with forest roads. Along the way we visit the Church of Mary of the Snow. I come to Podgorje an hour and a half ahead of my plan. Last time I was here, this was the finish of an extremly difficult day of training. When I got back to my car that Sunday night, I realized that I am ready to finish the Iper.
3:30 PM / Podgorje / 62.5 km
I’m trying to organize my thoughts. The floor is wet and I have to take everything out of the box to get to the shoes at the bottom. As Luče leans down to look into the box, I almost start explaining to him what kind of a problem I’m dealing with, when it dawns on me that his presence doesn’t make any sense. But here he is, my captain, with a broad smile on his face. We look up into the fog that’s hiding Slavnik. You’ll get soaked to the bones. But there’s nothing you can do about it, go up already.
Halfway up to Slavnik I catch up with a runner who I’ve been seeing from the start. Now he is on my tail trying to strike up a conversation. I pick up the pace. Usually it works, sooner or later everyone shuts up (except Ero). Nevertheless I find out that he is Nikola, a Turk. Cool. He asks me if we can run together since he can’t find his way very well with a borrowed gps device. Sure, let’s go together. I realise I’ve forgotten to take spare batteries for the lamp. Company could actually come in handy.
We make progress through a thick fog in symbiosis. My light is on a minimum, just enough to see the track on the watch. Nikola is illuminating the ground under my feet from the back. In the fog, light at an angle is much more effective. I have alredy forgotten how difficult the route over Pleševice to Žabnik is. Even in broad daylight, I had difficulty finding the passages between the rocks, the fallen trees, and the arched branches.
Wind, darkness, fog, ice-cold rain. I try to focus on two things only: keep the point on the track and keep myself on my two feet. To keep moving, to keep going and to keep myself warm by staying active and eating! I drag through mud, rocks, branches, bushes. The only orientation is the direction I get from the track on my watch. The fog is so thick that even when I stand in front of the marking, I don’t see whether the path goes to the left or to the right side of the tree. We pass some runners, but obviously we don’t evoke enough confidence for them to join us. They do not follow, they follow their own path.
The part along the Croatian border is simple. You only need to be careful not to slip and fall into a sharp barbed wire. The Turk frowns when I tell him why the wire was put there. When we exit the forest, we are on the top of a ridge. The icy rain is falling horizontally. Nikola is hard on my heels and doesn’t comment or complain when we search a little to the left, a little to the right. I don’t ask him how he is doing. I know well enough he wants to get out of this hell even more than I do. He’s still wearing shorts.
I can’t see, but I feel the terrain under my feet. According to the details I’m recognising, I try to guess where we are. I’m trying to map the ground configuration to the memory of my last visit to this place. When I recognise the path leading from the ridge to the left, I know where we are. The turning point. There’s only three, four kilometers left until the end of this hellish stage. I’m screaming with joy and patting Nikola on his shoulders, as if we had just returned from Antarctica alive.
8:30 PM / Golac / 80 km
Come in to eat when you ready invites me a local. It doesn’t make much sense to change clothes, it’s still raining. I enjoy a really good jota soup, and then I start preparing the backpack for the next stage. I watch another team putting on dry clothes green with envy. Only later do I realise that they have decided to go back by car. DNF. Well, I can’t say I blame them, anyone who doesn’t know the route may think that the next stage is similar. It would be crazy to put yourself through another one like that.
I am so cold my teeth start chattering, and I’m unable to talk to my son when he calls me on the phone. I give Nikola five minutes to rest, and then we’re back on our feet. I can only get warm by moving. While running, I shake as if I’m connected to electric current. Now the road is a cart track sprinked with rocks, wide and clear. After an hour and a half, I am not freezing my ass off any more, despite still being soaked to the skin. Wool rocks.
Nikola begins to fall behind. I can’t say I don’t understand him. Oat snacks have turned my intestines into a gas factory. But when his light stays behind the turn, I wait for him. If he was half frozen before, he’s now dressed too much and is getting sleepy. I yell at him “No sleep ’till party!” Reinhold left his brother in the mountains, but I’ll leave no Turk behind. He’s a fighter. He’s taken the hat off so that the icy rain is falling on his bare head. But his eyes are closed. When we reach the next station, he lies down in the tent – only for fifteen minutes, he says – and he conks out.
Saturday, January 6
1:00 AM / Brgod / 101.5 km
Another jota soup, but more traditional – a thin cabbage soup with pieces of sausage. I wonder about the weather forecast. The rain stops in the morning, tells me a local guy. Nevertheless, I put on a pair of dry shoes because they weigh less. In front of me there’s a 45-kilometer-long stage without any access to a box. This part partially leads along smooth paths and roads, so the speed of running can be slightly higher. Tommaso thought that this was too easy, so he denied us a station.
I set off from the station alone. I jam the earphones into my ears and put my player into shuffle mode. Don’t really care what’s on, to be honest. A thick fog envelops me again. I can hardly see the edge of the road. Meditation. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. I check the system: no major complaints. Certain parts of the body ache for an hour or two, but then it gets better. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Sand, mud, water, mud, asphalt, sand, mud, … Stomp, stomp, stomp.
On Kokoška I finally change my clothes. I replace the plastic anorak with a windbreaker. In the next two hours, the wool I’m wearing dries up. Every now and then I catch up with the runners who started the day before. Salve and bye! I don’t let anyone disturb my peace. The fact that they still have so much to say to one another after 30 hours of being together astounds me.
6:15 AM / Fernetti / 128 km
In the morning dawn there’s a boy standing by the road with two chairs beside him. He calls to me to come over and take some rest. The water he offers tastes terrible, but I drink it out of politeness nevertheless. God knows how long he’s been standing here. Dark-skinned boys always end up with the most unpleasant jobs. I can’t muster enough kindness to sit down and keep him company. I open the third container with buckwheat that I’m carrying with me a little further on the way up to the hill.
Poles under my armpits, my phone rings. My dearest Baby wonders how I’m doing. Yum, yum, Great!, yum, as long as I get out of this fucking Karst soon. It keeps hitting its stones and rocks against my toes over and over and over again. She announces that Tone’s coming to see me. Then Tone calls me himself, he is already somewhere in the area, but he’s a bit too early so he’ll meet me halfway. How on earth will we find each other on these forest ex-smuggling paths?
The comfortable trance I’ve been enjoying comes to an end when the terrain becomes more challenging again and I need to focus. My legs are not reliable any more. I try to stay concentrated and evaluate every stone on which I step. Is it solid, is it slippery, is it spiky? I’ve twisted my ankles or hit my feet against them so many times. I’m sick and tired of karst! Sadist Tommaso, where is he taking us?! And now, I’ll have to deal with Tone, too.
10:40 AM / Gorjansko / 144 km
Tone’s jumping gracefully over the rocks in his fancy boots, while I’m smashing my toes against every single one of them. My shoes keep getting more holes and are starting to fall apart. The track leads us between fields, along endless karstic stone paths. It starts pissing rain again. I’m wondering how in the world could I have ever said that Karst has gotten under my skin?! You can’t ever walk around here as a normal person, let alone run?!
Then, finally, a sharp drop over the final edge and a long turn. Yes! This is the end of the stones and there’s just ten more kilometers left to the finish line! In the middle of the road we see the Slovenian flag and Ursl under it. Next to him my dearest wife and a set picnic table laden with yummy treats. Warm noodle soup, carrot with chicken, Christmas cookies.
During my 6-month preparations, I’ve trained my body, I explored the route, calculated the caloric intake, drew the outline of changing clothes, and learned how to navigate through the wild terrain. I prepared myself for a potential nervous breakdown and dwarfs which might jump at me from the bushes. What I wasn’t ready for was a surprise fan party.
The whole situation catches me completely off-guard. My body is tense, my stomach irritated, I feel hollowed out. The last modicum of sense tells me that after 10 kilometers I won’t feel cold anymore. I say I got to go asap, because I’m doing good and maybe I could even make it to the winners podium among seniors. Shit, I fucked up. I have extinguished the sparkle in my cheerleader’s eyes.
2:10 PM / Sistiana / 167.5 km
The last turn to the stadium. On the finish carpet sprinting ultras pass me by. Then, the finish line. A hoarse anchor keeps rambling on. A whole team of my fans is waiting for me at the finish line: Klemen, Ursl, Tone, Baby with a Slovenian flag. I find myself in a crowd of people. They are hugging me, talking to me, asking questions. Everything is so loud.
A thought crosses my mind; maybe this is how a jellyfish feels, all empty and soft with no organs to move its body around effectively? Don’t get me wrong, but I’d kill for a warm shower and some dry clothes right now. I’ve been wet for thirty-three hours already. Can we please go? Pretty please? To the hotel? I can run …
Shower. Bed. I am falling into a deep black hole. Thank you, Klemen, for the hotel.
Do or do not, there is no try
One hundred miles is a long distance. I took my training routine seriously. I spent half a year living according to the program “100 miles for dummies”. It paid off. Only 33 out of 77 runners made it to the finish line. It took the fastest one 28 hours, the the last 44 hours. My time of 33 hours and 10 minutes placed me 5th male overall. Among the seniors over fifty I placed second.
I would have never been able to get through this adventure without help. Ursl, who teaches me how to run and has saved my knees. Sasha, who leads me down the path of a warrior. Mito, who teaches me how to count to three hundred through push-ups and squats. Luče and Tone, who run with me when everyone else gives up. Anže, who always gets me the best equipment. And Jan, who reassembles and sets my body every single time.
I’m most grateful to you, Baby, for always welcoming me into your warm embrace when I return home.
A few months later I realised that finishing Ipertrail was a two-edged sword. Of course – most of all I feel proud and satisfied with my accomplishments. I had never run a trail longer than 56 kilometers before. Covering such a long distance in such a race had been science fiction for me. The fact that I’ve completed not an ordinary, but a very tough 100 miles makes me feel almost immortal.
On the other hand, this powerful experience has raised the bar. What other challenge that’s nearly as demanding can I take on? Two weeks ago I ran through Istria. My training after S1 was easy, and that’s why I decided to opt for a shorter distance, only 110 km this time around. Beautiful track, well-organised event, but … Somehow I found it a bit too easy?
I am having long conversations with Tommaso and Miha about Iper. As an organiser, Tommaso has a problem. Selling such an event to the masses is extremely difficult, since it’s so much different from popular running events. Most people find it badly organised. Not many runners bother to understand the idea, let alone embrace it and take part in such an adventure.
For those of us who do understand it, Iper was a game-changing experience. I can only admire Tommaso’s enthusiasm and courage to have implemented this splendid idea.