Oliver Waugh has just returned from the 220km Albania Hidden Treasure 2018, a six-day, staged ultra-run through Albania’s rural and mountainous countryside. The race is supported, with overnight gear and food transported between nightly camps, but with temperatures of 35 degrees and higher, daily stages of between 38 and 55 kilometres and a total 8000m of ascent, it is hot and hard work. The event was organised by GlobalLimits, who also stage running events in Cambodia and Bhutan. See more about GlobalLimits.
Here Oliver Waugh gives his impressions of the event.
Why Albania Hidden Treasure? Why now?
A number of things drew me to the event. First I was keen to do a first multi stage race. Going supported would gently introduce me into the disciplines of administering myself over the week. I have also wanted to visit Albania and the reviews of the past GlobalLimits events were all very positive.
I am not an experienced or frequent ultra runner. I am 55 and completed a few long single stage events (100km to 100 miles) in the early 2000s, after which I stopped running. I started again in 2016, so Hidden Treasure Albania was my first multi stage event.
What is the race like?
The race uses the best of the Albanian countryside: we started in Berat, the UNESCO world heritage site, and finished in an amphitheatre in Butrint, another UNESCO site. Evidence of Roman occupation was frequent, from amphitheatres to bridges, and most overnight camps were in interesting places too: one night we stayed with an Albanian family in a mountain village. The scenery was spectacular throughout - mountainous and unspoilt. The Albanian people were extremely friendly and supportive, though no-one spoke any English or indeed a language that one could interpret. It is a very rural economy, almost subsistence in places, and aggressive sheep dogs were a notable hazard, causing frequent detours. Infrastructure is very basic, whether it is the roads, electricity or plumbing. Yet everyone we met was very friendly, happy and smiling.
There were 48 runners, half of whom had run a previous GlobalLimits event. Some knew one another already and clearly enjoyed catching up. Many also had experience of Racing the Planet events (which allowed me some useful comparisons for the future).
The run itself was split into 6 stages, mostly between 38 and 45km, with one day of 55km and the last day of 15km, and all, except the final day, were very hilly and of similar intensity. Water was provided at the checkpoints every 10-15 kilometres and the route was well marked, so there was no need for a map and compass or GPS, though the trails were always rocky underfoot and most people took a nasty tumble at some stage. There was also very little shade, which was an issue as the temperature averaged 35 c in the middle of the day. Everyone agreed that this was the toughest race that GlobalLimits stages. It was a challenge even for the hardened racers.
Were you as well prepared as you needed to be?
As I trained for the race I was reminded of the challenge that Londoners face in preparing for overseas ultras. It is easy to get the miles in: we have parks, rivers and canals. It was quite easy, by combining runs with travelling to and from work, to run 40 to 60 miles a week. The problem is that we have few hills, and those we have are not steep nor long enough - hill reps are no substitute for a steep 6km non-stop, uphill stretch. Running with a weighted pack went some way to building the strength in my legs, but in retrospect I should have trained in some mountains as well as doing my long flat runs.
I also wish I had entered a couple more races before Albania. I only ran a couple of 60km races in the preceding 12 months. I should have done a 100km race and maybe some more 60km races.
The other racers?
We were a complete mix of abilities, experience and ambitions. There were a group of serious athletes who live and breathe ultra running; others enter one or two races each year; and then there was me, the newbie. The youngest runner was 25 and the oldest 67. Racers came from all over the globe. France was well represented, as was Asia. There were teams from both Albania and Kosovo, representing the Balkans; their live podcasts during and post each run seemed to be enthusiastically followed at home.
Notable personalities included Dan, a veteran ultra runner (more about him later), Kev who was running to raise awareness for prostate cancer whilst slowly dying of the condition – a truly inspirational person - and there was Joe, who drank beer before, during and after each stage. He even wore a beer belt, like Duffman from the Simpsons. I was fortunate to be teamed up with Dan from the US as my room and tent mate. He is 67 and started ultra running at 50. In the last eighteen years he seems to have run an event about every two weeks, specialising in 100 mile runs. He has run two Trans 333s, one Trans 555 and Badwater, and he holds the record for the most Grand Slam 100s ever. His support and advice was invaluable.
Did the race organisation live up to expectations?
The organisation was better than expected. GlobalLimits is run by Stefan, a German, so everything was very efficient, right from the initial application to post race debriefs and photos. Stefan is very relaxed about the race itself. You can stop and have a can of coke en route and use social media in the evening. If you cannot do a day, due to injury or sickness, there is no walk of shame. You can rejoin the race the next day, though you do not receive a placing at the end.
The overnight camps supplied tents, hot water, medical support, toilets and electricity for recharging phones. There was a communal dining area and this, along with the layout of the tents, encouraged people to mix and chat. I got to know everyone on the event and the socialising and subsequent friendships were an unexpected benefit of the trip.
Each participant was restricted to one overnight bag weighing no more than 10kgs, which may sound spartan, but in reality was quite generous. Indeed most runners finished the event with meals and snacks left over.
The staff were excellent and I should make special mention of the medical team, whose administration, advice and care was of the highest order. They were selected for their experience in hot weather and mountains and I do not think that I could have been better cared for.
How did you get on?
I did better than I thought I would. The alpha male in me came out a bit and I found myself racing. I teamed up with a great Frenchman called Damien who was a bit fitter than me and we helped each other around the course. I finished between 6th and 9th place each day. However I was quite sick after the longest day from electrolyte imbalance and needed to take it easy on the subsequent day, which impacted my overall place. My final position was 9th.
What was the most painful moment?
For me the most painful moment was on the shortest leg at the end. We finished on a long uphill stretch on a very hot day. The route twisted around the contours of the hillside and I hoped and expected the finish line to appear around each corner. Six long corners later it finally arrived….
And your favourite moment?
I think the best moments were when you found a runner going at your pace, allowing you to talk as you ran. I enjoyed some great chats with so many different people from so many different countries and backgrounds. They were the best moments.
Preparation and tip top tips
A lot has changed in the ultra world in the 15 years since I last ran. Firstly there are so many more events, but there is also lots of specialist, expensive kit nowadays. The winners are a lot faster too.
I would use poles for this event. There was so much steep uphill that it made it worthwhile. I managed to get some poles for one day and it made all the difference.
Get a good vest, especially one that is breathable and has straps for poles. It was so hot that a vest does heat you up. Get a smaller vest, say 5l, with good breathability.
Use trail shoes with a good grip. I went for grip over cushioning and it stood me in good stead.
I would rethink my strategy on food and calories. I would take less freeze dried food and then only Lyo, which is the only company I have found who make edible freeze dried meals. I also took cous cous premixed with stock powder, raisins, cut up dried apricots, crushed garlic clove and some ginger - add hot water, a squeeze of a lemon quarter, a small tin of sardines in olive oil and you have calorie heaven. Some runners were sceptical of my slightly extravagant food choice at the start, but by day three were very envious, especially those who were only eating freeze dried food. Other ideas, take raitha bread or tortillas with peanut butter already spread on it. Also go to a Japanese store and get high quality rice and egg noodles pre-cooked and vacuum packed, then just add a sachet of miso soup
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