A dear friend told me, you haven’t lived till you’ve run a race in Europe.
Ok, maybe those weren’t her EXACT words, but the meaning was there. So on a recent trip to Austria, I searched to see if I could make any races in the area, and to my luck, I found one!
Now, you need to understand the serendipitousness of this endeavor – initially we were staying in Vienna for the majority of our stay, we chose to go to Salzbury as well and booked a lovely bed & breakfast there through Airbnb (here is the link to the place, it was amazing, the owner is very sweet and also a runner! which came in handy, as you’ll see later in the story). We had originally booked 22-24, I later found the race would be on the 25th, we would have returned to Vienna. A quick calculation of train routes etc. showed that I could get to this Mallnitz location by taking a train for 3hrs45mins!
Through sheer coincidence, we discovered that Mallnitz happens to be closer to Salzburg than Vienna! 73KM vs 500+KM. As we would have a car then, it would be a short drive away. And the rest as they say, is history.
To get to Mallnitz, you drive 60KM to a train, then pay EU 17 to board your car on a train that goes through a mountain to Mallnitz.
Arriving in the small town, it was everything you would expect a small town to look like, the one main road was closed off for the race, everyone was dressed in running gear or traditional wear to celebrate this annual event. I ran to the information office which had a poster of the race outside to ask where it was, the office was closed, a passerby saw my plight and asked if I needed help then directed me to go straight 200M and i’ll find the start line.
(more pictures can be found here)
Everything about the location screamed “picturesque”, small town race with a big crowd. I found the registration office, and they knew who I was ahead of time as I had already registered online, plus was probably the only one from “abroad abroad” as in outside the EU. I paid them EUR 20, got my bib and race pack which consisted of one bottle of water, 2 energy bars, a Salmon tennis cap (blue) and a coupon for a meal after the race. Now, EUR 20 is around KD 7, remember that. It was the same amount for both the 10KM and the 21KM. I opted for the former as I had not been running long distance in quite some time.
As the runners started showing up, they herded us inside to give us a briefing regarding the race. I was the only one that sat till the end for a “refresher” in English, although I got the gist of what the Austrian dude was saying initially. Red ribbons for 10KM, purple for 21. I told them I was used to running and that I run in high temperatures, they said, almost nonchalantly, that that won’t help as here the thing is all about elevation. They also said if I wanted to give up I just had to run to someone and hand in my bib number to get a ride back to the start line. I dismissed that as poppy cock. Little did I know I was in for quite the rude awakening.
T-20 minutes till the race.
(me mumsy tells me my face looked very tired, but I wasn’t feeling it at the time)
The whistle blew, and the runners were off, GPS synced and ready. We ran about 500M on road then veered into the forest, initially I was thinking, ok, this is doable. However the minute you got used to the terrain of grass, it suddenly shifted and became gravel, rock, mud, river etc. throughout the course of the run.
Believe it or not, Longshanks came in 2nd
My first surprise came when we passed through a meadow and I saw the largest black horse my eyes ever did fall upon. It was so gargantuan (especially next to the beige pony that grazed beside it) that I almost believed it to be a statue. That belief was shattered when I ran by it, only to have it turn its head towards me. Luckily I was not bitten.
The next shock came at the uphill that was mentioned during orientation. Initially he had said the elevation was “only 300M”, little did my feeble mind fail to comprehend the gravity of a 300M incline,, at an angle of almost 35*. I felt akin to a mountain goat, running on my tip-toes and much below my average speed to go up the harrowing hill.
Physics has taught us that what goes up must come down, well that theory is also true for what curves up, it must also curve down later, and just before you cheer at the downhill speed gain, keep in mind I was wearing the same shoes I run in in Kuwait, showing signs of wear and tear, smoother on the bottom. That, coupled with grass, and the fact that it was starting to rain so the ground was moist made the steep run down quite precarious, one wrong step and you would slip and fall flat on your face. Fortunately that did not happen.
After being passed by several runners more adept at mountain trekking than I, I decided mentally not to allow anyone else to pass. As always, there was one person hot on my trails, and as chose to forgo my earphones so as to be “in tune” with nature during my first forest run, I could always hear them behind me.
We came across a padlocked gate that fortunately had a volunteer standing by it to open it for the runners. It swung outward, away from the runners. Which was good. And not so good, as you will find out later.
Around the 6.5KM I almost took a wrong turn and was alerted by my pursuer, in sign language. I lost a few seconds in which he had caught up to me, but quickly managed to retain my place ahead of him. This game of cat and mouse carried on for several KM’s, with me begrudgingly deciding to just let him go and focus on finishing the race and not falling down and breaking my leg. However my inner competitor always roared in righteous indignation to allowing someone to pass me.
Another few meters, and we were faced with another padlocked gate, with no volunteer in sight. I stuck my hands out and pushed through, the door swinging forward before me. More uphills and downhills, and a pile of fresh manure followed (for the sake of this recollection, we shall say I ran over it).
Nearing the 8KM mark there was another gate, I sped up just before it so as to push through with authority and was surprised when I ended up crashing into it as it refused to budge! My competitor had caught up, and it took us a few seconds to realize that this gate swung “inward”, as in towards the runners, meaning you had to come to a complete stop to open the gate!
I was irate, at this point, my nemesis had caught up and taken the lead, and again, part of me wanted to relinquish the pursuit and just focus on finishing the race. However my inner demon refused to lose the lead we held for 8.5KM straight, and dug deep to find the strength to surpass him once more.
A very sharp right turn later, we were back in civilization, on paved road. It was only a matter of a few meters until we reached the finish line, and nothing can compare to the joy of hearing your name and country of origin spoken by a stranger to a standing ovation by a group of strangers.
In hindsight, the true beauty of the course could only be realized when you combine the actual task of running it, over hills and bridges, rivers and open fields, gravel and grass, with the aerial shot provided by GPS:
In addition, a review of their results posted online shows that I came in 7th place, which is not too shabby for my first forest run:
However, the reasons I would never run the Mallnitz marathon again is as follows:
1) Despite the registration amount, which was the same for 10 & 21KM, there was no medal for finishers, only first place. Given that the amount is exactly similar to what we pay here for 10KM (642marathon) I felt cheated in that I had no metal to show for it, only the bib.
2) The fiasco with the gates was quite tiring indeed, to have to come to a full complete stop in order to open a gate towards you whilst running is pure idiocy.
3) The people of Mallnitz, although extremely welcoming of me as a participating runner, were very speculative of my wife who accompanied me and were caught staring at her, a lot, due to her being veiled.
The only way I would actually re-run the Mallnitz 10KM run is if they did what all other races do and offered a finishers medal to make the moment more memorable.
The meal at the end of the run was a plate of pasta, with cheese sauce and meatballs.
I had two plates, I was very hungry.
Beef, not pork.