Štefánik Trail solo challenge

I never had chance to run this officially 140km long race in the past. May date was simply not working for me while I was still in Hong Kong. I signed up for the 2021 edition though. However as the 2020 one was cancelled due to Covid situation a virtual challenge was announced. Without thinking too much I signed up. All I needed to do was to run the whole route in one go anytime between June 15 and Oct 15. What could go wrong, right ?

Well quite a lot actually 🙂 . My intention was to go totally solo, on my own, without any pacers or support. Having been back for only couple of months I would not even be able to organize the support. It was much simpler to just rely on myself. This however meant to carry all I would need with me, including most of the food, quite a lot of water as well as some basic change of clothes for the train ride back home. Once I started to research the route it became clear that the logistics of food and beverages will be the main challenge. There were few places early on where getting some drinks and snacks was possible. Very few… And whether I would be able to buy something depended on what time of the day I would get there. I found online where in theory I should be able to get some water from springs along the route. I could only hope that the info was accurate and up to date.

My trusted UD backpack never carried as much stuff as this time. I could not believe how much I could actually fit in 🙂 . I had with me about 10 energy bars, pack of figs and dates and some home made rice balls mixed with salted dry seaweed. Three soft flask (2 filled from the start, one extra for later when more reserves may be needed) and one more flask with filter in case I get desperate. Then the usual primary headlamp with spare power and a back up headlamp, power bank, first aid kit, stronger waterproof jacket (I deliberately picked hot and sunny days with no rain forecasts but one never knows in the summer…), change of clothes, sports towel, sunblock, headband for the night, money, phone, route plan with potential F&B points. On the train they gave me a bottle of water. I decided to take it with me too just in case (what a wise idea it proved to be…). Poles I left home. Haven’t used them since Andorra last summer and I realized that life is easier without them – one less thing to worry about 🙂 .

One thing to mention – this was for me the first ever visit to these particular hills / mountains. I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

So in the proper self support fashion after really poor and short sleep I hopped on the rental bicycle at 4:45am and jumped on the train at 5:20am. Just before 7am taxi picked me up and dropped me at the starting point. I knew where to go but then to actually locate that exact place from where to start took some time and about 3 warm up km of confusingly walking about. No particular reason just the not yet fully awaken brain in action. At the end the starting point was about 200m from where the taxi dropped me off… Plan was to start about 7am but with taking a later train after deciding to sleep an hour longer plus all that unplanned sightseeing it was almost 9am when I finally started moving.

Mohyla gen. M.R. Štefánika – the starting place

The early section was mostly road down from the monument to the town. Outside the town I noticed a gas station. All that TV advertising promoting their coffee corner did the job. Early on quick coffee break. Who knows when I could taste coffee again…

Horalky and coffee

Easy and uneventful part to Dobrá Voda followed. The only thing to mention was the top of the climb where 2 cyclists greeted me with big grins on their faces and question “you can’t afford a bike destroying your knees like this?”

In Dobrá Voda I stopped in local pub for big cold draft Kofola. At the end of the town was the spring as promised so I drank some water too and topped up 3 of my bottles.

Rather easy and relaxed section followed. I just jogged enjoying the nice weather. Crossed a major road without getting run over by a truck and entered a green area again. It was getting warmer and I started to wonder if I should have filled up all 4 my bottles, not just three…. Soon I entered some area full of holiday houses. At the crossing of paths I noticed sign towards a pub some 250m away. Unfortunately in the opposite direction. I could do with some cold drinks though so I made that detour. Unfortunately when I reached the place it was closed not to be open until late in the afternoon. Some extra distance for nothing…

After this however I climbed back up on the ridge and enjoyed some of the most beautiful section of the route. The terrain was a bit technical with path covered by lovely vegetation.

I took it carefully as there was no point risking some tripping or tumble. I had nowhere to rush anyway. Except I really craved for some cold drink. I hoped that I will have more luck once I descend down to the reservoir.

When I got there I had an option to turn right as the navigation was indicating or to the left where the bar looked better. Had a one draft zero booze beer and large bottle of sparkling water to refill my soft flasks. I just was not sure when I can find the next spring and having enough to drink in this heat was becoming a concern…

After this break I followed the GPX to the other side and then backtracked my steps back up to the forest and up the hill. Another beautiful area mostly under the cover of trees. But at times the route lead me above the trees. The views were amazing – I was on my own surrounded by hills and forests as far as I could see… It would be a crime not to stop and enjoy…

Now I had a bit technical at first but not too difficult downhill section to Sološnica ahead of me. I was not racing anyone so I took no risks on the way down. Only thing on my mind was some food and cold drinks I hoped to be able to get in Sološnica. On the race days this is a location of a major check point. On a regular mid week day it is a sleepy town with everything closed at 7pm… I was already starting to panic a bit but lucky me – a very old style local pub was open. One those few remaining places where cigarettes still rule the day – I had tears in my eyes the moment I entered. But I had no other choice as no service on the terrace 🙂 . I quickly ordered one Kofola, took it outside, downed the whole half a litre of it in few seconds, returned the glass and rushed away. This was all I managed in a place where I was hoping to get some proper food and drinks and some rest …

With the drink still sloshing about my belly I started to walk up the hill back to the forest. At the entrance of the forest I decided to pause and take out the headlamp. It was still light but the forests are pretty dense here. Not much light makes it through the canopy of trees even during the middle of a sunny day. Was better to be prepared for a quick dusk.

Right next to me I saw a small sign post showing some animals that belong to some footprints one can spot in these woods – deer (no surpise, met many on the day already), wild boars (a very different beasts here from those tame pigs in Hong Kong), wolves (that nobody ever sees)… I took notice, hoping the pigs and piglets stay away…. They did not…

Maybe 15 minutes later as I was happily climbing up the forrest (still in daylight) I first disturbed some large deer – by now, after meeting dozens already earlier in the day I did not really pay much attention. Then just moments later as I was entering another one of those lovely narrow paths through the green forest vegetation I heard another noise. First I thought another deer but the noise was different and very warning like. I did not see what it came from but I heard and saw some shuffling in that tall grass or what was it. And then right there in front of me on that narrow path 3 piglets … How I did not notice them earlier I have no idea… It was immediately clear to me what was making those warning noises. I surprised myself not panicking, just walking back where I came from about 100m. There I waited and watched. The noises stopped but those pigs were not in any hurry to leave. They were moving on their way slowly, luckily away from me and away from my path. When I eventually spotted the big mama I could see the size… Surely not a one to mess with… Once they were gone I continued. I told myself that this was my wild pigs quota for the day used up. What are the chances of running into something I have never before ran into in this country more than once during one run… Spoiler – actually quite high 🙂

It was quickly getting dark now. I turned on my headlamp. All of a sudden there were deer everywhere. Jumping out of bushes and running away. But it was funny how their behaviour changed once it got really dark. They stopped jumping and running away. Just looking up, their eyes shining in the darkness – moving quietly like spies hoping I do not notice them. If they only knew how clearly I could see them with my Lupine 🙂 . I have never seen this many animals around me in the wild. It was a very bizarre feeling being most likely alone in these woods with all these animals around.

Eventually I reached a point where I knew I need to deviate from the trail and do a bonus climb on Vysoká – I am not sure if this is actually part of the race route but it was part of this virtual run. So I went. This was one of the highlits of this run. Lovely steep climb with nice night views up on the top of the ridge. I actually met 3 people up on the top – most likely star gazing as the sky was supposed to be full of shooting stars that night. I thought I may pause there for a while but all the mosquitos up there changed my mind.

As I was running down I started to wonder if I have enough water. This was to be my main concern for quite a while from now. Lucky me shortly after rejoining the original trail after the descent I reached an intersection with a sign pointing to the spring about 300m away in the wrong direction. I made the detour and went for the water. I was really thirsty so I drank quite a bit right there and refilled all the bottles I had, including that bottle from train that I still had with me…

The next place where I hoped to be able to get something was Pezinská Baba some 11km away. But it was just a hope. I knew that the likelihood of finding some supplies in the holiday resort in the middle of the night is very small. I was moving slowly through the night – one reason was I really did not want to trip anywhere while alone in the woods, another reason was making sure I do not make some wrong turn. The route was for some reason illuminated – probably old route markings – small reflective squares fixed to the trees – that made life easier in the night. But nevertheless not being familiar with this area at all I preferred safety before pace. So these hilly 11km took me more than 2.5 hours.

The entry to the resort area was full of deer again, they were simply everywhere… As I thought everything was closed although there were few stargazers around here too. It was not total fail though. I found a coffee vending machine. I am plain black coffee sort of person but here I mistakenly selected option with sugar – did not exactly taste good but body surely appreciated some of the caffeine and sugar.

I decided to take a short break. I turned off my headlamp for a while and watched the sky full of stars. And indeed I could see several shooting ones criss crossing the sky. I realized that the last time I saw a shooting star was at the night during Formosa Trail in Taiwan one and half years ago – how much has everything changed since then …

I checked my route plan chart where the next water source would be. My tired eyes and brain mixed up the info I had printed somehow convincing me that only 3km away … Three km passed, 5km passed, 10km passed – no springs no water. I was moving quite slowly trying not to miss the water when it eventually appeared. And all this under the watchful eyes of deer. They were everywhere. I swear in all my life I did not see as many deer as I saw on this run and especially during this night… Still at this point water was all I could think about. Not that I did not have any. My problem was I had no idea for how long the water I had will have to last. Mentally this was pretty tough. I checked again my chart and realized I missed a 9km block… So all the water I expected was to be about 9-10km further than I believed. That meant sometime now…

Eventually I spotted the sign pointing to the spring – but as luck had it the spring was dry… According to my pre-run notes there was to be another one some 2km further. Not yet panicking too much I decided to move faster and get to that water.

Before I found water I found a road. Not that I was keen on running on road but after almost 100km spent almost exclusively on trail and in the forest a bit a smoother run sounded like a nice break. It all lasted for about 50 meters. All of a sudden I stopped realizing there is a piglet standing right in the middle of the road about 5 meters ahead of me. And another one on the side of the road on the grass. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I am not hallucinating. The piglets were still there. Question was where is the mama … I did not dare to go closer so I backtracked to what looked like safe distance. Problem was that from that distance I could not see clearly in the dark what is ahead. Right at that time I received a message from Mark Green – something about what not to do when you meet a bear – what a timing 🙂 I turned the power of my headlamp to the max hoping I would be able to see what are the boars doing. Still I could only clearly see the piglets. There were some silhouettes of something larger seemingly moving further down the road but I simply could not tell whether it is real or it is just my brain playing mind games with me. So I decided that while I am waiting for who knows what I may as well take a nap. I walked back to the forest, found a nice comfy tree stump, turned off my light and went to sleep for 15-20 mins. I woke up feeling a bit cold, walked back to the road. I could not see any piglets or pigs any more. I decided to go ahead. The air was clear. Right down the road was a hotel, no wildlife in sight any more, for now… I was following the red trail marker down the road but my watch beeped notifying me I am off the route. Somehow during my route research I missed the fact that at some point the route deviates from red trail. I backtracked and followed the yellow or blue one, can’t recall. Probably both.

Here the most bizzare experience happened. Roughly 4am, all dark and all of a sudden large hornet appeared buzzing like a drone, orbiting around my head and then suddenly flying right into me, hitting me in the forehead. And then again, and again … Till now I had no idea these buggers are awake at this hour… I recalled some article that said that the only thing to do in this situation is run – so I ran, as fast as my 100+K tired legs allowed me… The hornet was gone. For a while. And then it came back hitting me several times in the head again. This time I could not run as I was going uphill… Frankly I don’t know what happened but the attacks stopped. Perhaps that big buzzing bugger suffered concussion from all those head on hits… This was really weird… Guess I am lucky I was not stung.

In all this hoohaa I forgot I am thirsty but once the adrenaline levels dropped down a bit the thirst was back… I was now back on the red trail approaching the woods around Bratislava. It still took several more kilometers but not far from Kamzík TV tower I finally found one spring. With a notice ‘not suitable for drinking, reason pH’. Bugger off with pH. I drank as I had to, knowing that doing this occasionally is still safe. It was except I actually lost my voice 🙂 . Anyway I felt refreshed so I kept moving. But soon I realized that sleep is overpowering me. I was all of a sudden falling asleep as I was walking up the hill. I found another tree stump and decided to take a nap. I looked ahead, saw a bench swearing in my head that the bench was occupied and I had to sleep on the stump. There was no bench and there was no one sitting on it 🙂 . I was mildly hallucinating now 🙂 .

After 5-10 mins nap and got going again. The ascent to Kamzík was neverending. I guess this is a routine morning run for many locals but for someone with 110 or so km in legs this just took forever…

Eventually I managed to navigate all the path although not sure if 100% correctly and I made it to the TV tower and beyond. As expected this early in the morning all the shops and cafes and restaurants were still closed. No luck.. But now I was just few km from the city – there must be heaps of places where I can get food and drinks. Or so I thought 🙂 . The route through the city did not pass any shops or open restaurants until I made it near the University dormitories. The sun was getting up, it was getting really hot again, I was seriously craving for some soft drink and some real food… Then I see a notice board “SUBWAY – open daily from 9:00” – I looked around and saw the shop. I checked my watch 9am sharp! I dashed quickly most likely the first customer of the day – half sub, big Pepsi, coffee. Eat, drink and go 🙂 .

This really kickstarted me again. I had new life in my legs for the penultimate section to Devín. After few more km roadside I entered the woods again and ran happily most of the distance really enjoying the morning trails under the trees. The steep descent to Devín was quite fun. And a large cold draft Kofola in the first restaurant I found tasted heavenly. A bit of looping around Devín towards the castle and I was ready to embark on the final 14-15K back to Bratislava. I wanted one more Kofola before leaving the place but the waitress in the next place I stopped in was not exactly helpful so I decided not to waste my time and just go…

Where Danube and Morava rivers and Austria and Slovakia meet

At first it looked like this will be quick finish. Very hot now but mostly flat and road, for about a kilometer until the route turned uphill. The initial panic was replaced by short lived relief when I realized I am turning on another flat road, just a bit up the hill, away from the traffic… For about a km… Then back to the forest up and down zigzagging on the trail. It was becoming very frustrating, my tired brain could not really see any sense in this routing other than to add some extra distance. But this I could all deal with. What was super annoying were the swarms of little flies flying into my eyes. Instead of properly moving forward I kept swinging my arms trying to get rid of them before they land in my eyes. To no avail. I had my eyes full of them. I washed them out with the water I still head. The moment I opened the eyes they were full of new flies… I was losing it. I hated the flies, myself, this run, whoever created this route through this place – as we all are when the end is near and yet so far and we are so physically but mainly mentally tired….

Then I hit the road and some houses and I was back in the city. No more flies just a steep descent to the bank of the Danube and the final quick dash to the Štefánik Statue. Then I realized where on the bank I am and where the statue is and I had a complete mental meltdown. It felt like 150C, sky was blue just with the golden bugger shining right down on me and the end was somewhere at the very other end of the city. I was not able to run anymore, my brain just gave up. Normally running along the river should be nice and calming experience. For me these final 7km were the toughest of the whole run. Pure suffer fest that was made worse once I started passing all the cafes and bars on the riverside with people sitting out and drinking their cold drinks… These final flat 7km took me about 110mins – that pretty much sums up how I felt. When I finally reached the statue I felt nothing. I did not even take a picture. I just stopped my watch and went to look for the first place that serves beer. I had 2 large ones in a quick succession and that was the end.

But despite the frustrating and full on struggle style ending I am pretty happy with how this all went. This was my first experience going totally unsupported, solo this long distance through an area I have never been to before. The experience of spending the night in the woods alone with all the wildlife was really something else. The food and water rationing added some extra spice to the challenge. Not sure I would want to do something like this again anytime soon. But I am keen to find out next May how different this run is in a race with CPs and much lighter backpack 🙂

Strava link here

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