You can hear it. Above you, in the trees, you can hear the howling of the wind. Snow is falling and has been for a few hours,up to this point of the race. Snow was on the ground, along the trail as I made my up the trail. The monster was waiting, shrouded in clouds and ominous. This right here is what I live for. Hard conditions in a tough landscape.
As I broke the tree line and made my way up Učka, kilt and sandals in full effect, I was in my element. Doing things the hard way, having to identify and overcome problems. You want to run with the big dogs, you can’t just sit on the porch and watch. You need to mix it up and get out there.
Well, there is another reason… probably the only reason I need to come back. As much as I love the course, with some steep mountains. Grass covered rocks, Hum, Motovun, single tracks next to a river and an old railway tunnel. I totally dig the finish line, chute and spectators. I am all about the culture at this event. From the first day I showed up in Umag, 3 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by this culture surrounding this race.
From the moment people realized that this guy from California, was slightly crazy for running in sandals. Looking the part of the surf culture my state is known for, I was wrapped up in the culture and accepted as one of their own. Everyone is made to feel important and wanted to be there, from the race officials and volunteers, even the spectators.
As I made my way up the mountain, one step at a time, paying particular interest in every step. Ice and packed snow are not best friends with sandals and I had to make sure my kilt was in check; this is still a family friendly event right! Haha, I still wear shorts underneath, but we don’t need the kilt blowing open.
The faster 110k runners were flying past me up the hill, just stay slow and steady. Get up and down Učka and move on to the rest of the race. Made it over the top and plugged along to the aid station, with these fast flashy blue course speedsters ripping by me. I was out of the snow and feeling good, all my homies were in the tent and I was ready to start phase two of my race.
But this is where the race culture and me are intertwined, I am not a racer at all. Not here anyways. Volunteers pop out from behind the tables to take pictures with me and show the one we took in years past. Pass knuckles out to competitors, high five the crew and pose for pics when I see a camera go up from across the room. I will never say no to someone who wants a photo with me. That is how I evolved in this race and I carry this version of me into other races across the world.
What I noticed mostly about this event is the immense pride the Croatians have here. Not just that it is their race but it is their country/region/city/community. Hearty, funloving, outgoing and endearing. So much so that it bleeds into the race. No matter where you are from you feel like this is your squad and you are rolling with some heavy hitters (I could have just said V.I.P. or family but it is my story). So if a volunteer, staff, first aid, course marshal or bystander wants a minute of my time… it is theirs.
Racing is a funny thing, rarely does it go your way. You get through on hardship and something else comes up, kind of like life. I left the aid station and ran down a gravel road, attack minded and feeling great. Sometimes the course punches you in the face to wake you up. From the road we made a right turn…. the beginning of the end.
As soon as we made the turn it was mud and miles of it. I can deal with sections of mud but not the lengths in which it was presented to me here. Like a sweet little “Welcome to Croatia, fool”. Haha! I always have issues in mud with my sandals and this race had mud in spades. I tried to stay positive and work through it. Saying it will dry out soon and I’ll be able to run and get back some of the time I am bleeding. But it just wasn’t working that way for me.
I would see my friends at the aid stations, like you do and discuss war wounds and horror stories. Amp each other up and head out. Except for me,story time and some pictures. I love this race! I meet the neatest people and have a blast hearing their stories. The volunteers are absolutely amazing and seeing them light up, when a new runner comes in, sets a little fire in you. Like I said, they are a proud people and want to have their best foot forward.
Smile, thank you all, big wave and bounce. We are racing, that is the deal. More mud, more problems, bleed more time. Would I have a better time in shoes, most likely I would. In mud for sure, maybe descending on rocks. But I dont make it easy on myself, I may even set myself up for failure. Like having three races in three consecutive weekends on two continents. Not my brightest moves, but whatever, dream big right? In the end, that is what we are. The middle and back of the packers, dreamers and a lot of heart. A sight to be seen in person for sure.
So as I was making my way through the mountains, chipping away, knowing I can run the back half of the race. My sinuses started getting congested and my breathing was diminished. That was something to consider as I went forward. I was still moving alright, it was barely snowing and the mud was alot better than before. But I was having trouble breathing. I also had to start considering my up coming races.
Being ambitious usually comes back to bite me more often than I would like it too. By the time I made it to the aid station I knew it was over for me. I could have kept going,but I wasn’t going to make my next two races and a finish here was likely, but not a given. They tried to keep me going at least to Buzet. The midway point and course change, hot food and showers. You can get a second wind there. The first responders tried to keep me going (pictures with them) the volunteers (more pictures) and fellow runners (yep, you get the gist) but I knew.
The neat thing about dropping is the conversations you have with people. This was my third time to the race but I never knew how close I was to the Slovenian boarder. Learning more about the area from locals and the optimism and disappointment of other racers who didn’t make it. But in the end, a human experience is still a great way to break the ice. You learn alot about a person, by the way they handle adversity. The Bounce Back Effect if you would.
So I made it to Buzet via a ride and saw my friend Dali. Chatted briefly about the conditions. Caught a ride back to Umag with her and fast American ladie by the name of Anna. When we were at the headquarters Anna and I headed out to our hotels. Making small talk, comparing notes and making the best of a bad situation (race wise) and talking about Texas.
I noticed Valentina coming up towards us with her phone out, old hat for your boy. She congratulated us both, learned we both dropped and then layed it down for Anna! Haha you see Anna didn’t know who she was walking with. Valentina said she saw me on TV, Anna’s eyes popped (I never see the TV spots) and then asked to take a photo, then with all the class in the world… invited Anna to join. I later told her we would never see that photo but Valentina proved me wrong.
So when it is all said and done all I can say about this race is this…
Every race is unique and has it’s own vibe but this race is more of a community event and it shows. I was taken in as family straight away and I think the world of everyone involved or associated with 100 Miles of Istria. This event has such a cool vibe, people from outside of Croatia just meld into the flow. Everyone makes you want to do better, go more places and see more places.
Am I going to be back next year, heck yeah I am. I am kind of famous around Istria and they are like my family now. Never underestimate culture Alen and Marco work hard at it. But why stands out is how the see Istria and Croatia. Pride in where you are from and wanting to share it. This is the culture the race is built around. I recommend this event to everyone because it is that good.
I am so glad I scrolled back up to this race, Istria was and still is the best choice I have ever made. See you next year Motovun.
Foto 100 Miles of Istria