The 30km race is a portion of the longer 80km Two Castles Mountain Ultra racecourse, which encompasses the most difficult sections of the extended route. This was the first-ever trail race I participated in, and so I thought that the 30km race would be within my range of abilities. I trained for a couple of months, but only occasionally on trails, and boy did this race surprise me! Having done only road races in the past, this was a completely different type of activity and although I wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked, I had a really great time participating.
Now that the 2017 version is right around the corner (and, unfortunately, it will be the last occurrence of the race), I thought it would be appropriate to write a short review of the 30km portion. The Two Castles Mountain Ultra website has a nice description of each section, which I will paste below with some added commentary and photos. I hope this helps give a better idea of what you may be up against in this year’s 30km or 80km race!
Start to Checkpoint 1 (Checkpoint 5 to Checkpoint 6 of 80km Lionheart race) – 10km
The start of the 30km race was at Alevkaya (the 50km mark along the 80km route and the end of this year’s Wildheart race). There was quite a crowd of those participating in the race, but the spot is convenient as there are restrooms, a small restaurant, and a checkpoint for the Lionheart (80km) runners. The 30km race started at 1pm, at the height of the day’s heat (and it was a hot one!).
Leave Alevkaya up the tarmac road, over the ridge and down to the picnic site. Turn RIGHT. Look for the orange Raidlight markings taking you onto the trail which goes around the edge of the ruined Sourp Magar Armenian monastery. Now follows a relatively easy and picturesque stretch.
Follow the orange Raidlight tape, red dots and arrows. After about 5km you pop out of the trail at a trail information board with a narrow tarmac road on your left. Do not go onto this road! Look for the red arrows pointing you RIGHT through a very short stretch of forest. On emerging from the trees, watch for arrows pointing you RIGHT towards the Five Fingers range. As you run down the hill look out for arrows pointing you sharp LEFT.
This is a grassy track that will take you to another SHARP LEFT turn (watch for the red arrows). Follow this rough track up to the Five Fingers restaurant and checkpoint 6.
As the description notes, the race begins at Alevkaya, a rather non-descript picnic area along the Besparmak trail. You initially run up a paved hill but almost immediately dip down into a technical singletrack. The thing to be aware of here is bottlenecking. You are on singletrack within about 1km of the race start, so the pack hasn’t yet had a chance to spread out. There are a few spots to pass along the way to Checkpoint 1, but most of it is tight and technical singletrack with little buffer space. My advice is to embrace the initial slowness and not get too antsy about passing anyone just yet. Soon enough, the trail will open up and you’ll have ample opportunity to secure your spot. It’s also a very picturesque portion of the trail, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of the view!
After meandering through some nice, wide, and beautiful terrain, you will eventually go around a corner and pop out of the woods to a grand view of the Five Fingers:
After that, you follow a fairly easy and downward-sloping jeep track which feeds into the final climb before the checkpoint.
Finally, after a tough 10km, you’ll reach the checkpoint at the top of the hill.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 (Checkpoint 6 to Checkpoint 7 of 80km Lionheart race) – 7km
After taking in some refreshments, it’s time to embark on the most difficult section of the entire race. As described on the race website:
Time to grit the teeth as you wind up this picturesque but demanding trail to Buffavento Castle. Once you have crested the ridge, the trail becomes a delightful downwards forest path offering spectacular views of the castle and surrounding mountains. Red dots and green and white stripes are in complete harmony along here so you can follow both — note, NOT green dots, only green and white stripes. There is very little tape along this section – so look for the red dots and green and white stripes. BE WARNED — ALTHOUGH ONLY 7KM, THIS COULD TAKE TWO HOURS OR MORE — IT IS A TOUGH SECTION — CARRY PLENTY OF WATER.
When reading this before the race, a part of me thought to myself, “how hard could it be? It’s only 7km!”. Answer: really hard.
I can’t overstate the difficulty and frustration that this section causes, for a number of reasons. First, it’s incredibly technical. Soon after leaving the checkpoint, you enter on to a section of the trail that can barely, if at all, be effectively run. There are so many rocks to trip on, bushes to fall into (only happened to me twice!), and holes to twist an ankle in that it’s all but impossible to do anything but walk. Second, you must also constantly be scouting for trail markers which makes this section even more troubling. I got off-trail several times on this part due to being unfamiliar with the path and missing a mark or two. If this happens to you, go back to the last mark you saw and then look West toward where you think the trail should go. In all likelihood, there will be a marker on a rock or a tree branch that you missed.
If you’re like me, you’ll walk the majority of this section and it will be the longest split of the entire race. But fear not, the worst is yet to come! Before that, though, you are rewarded with some sustenance.
Checkpoint 2 to Finish (Checkpoint 7 to Finish of 80km Lionheart race) – 3km + 10km
The second checkpoint is in the parking lot of Buffavento Castle which is a bit of an extra, although compulsory, part of the race.
TOP OF THE CASTLE AND DOWN AGAIN (about 3km)
All Lionheart and Braveheart runners this year are obliged to ascend to the top of the castle and back down again (Mountain Goat runners are excused). Treat it as a ‘tourist break’ — leave your equipment at the checkpoint below, grab a water bottle and take a leisurely trot to the top (a climb of about 200m over a distance of about 1.5 km up a winding stone staircase). There is a special prize for the king and queen of the castle — first man and first woman (LIONHEART EVENT ONLY) to the top. Elevation at the top of the castle: 930m
This is without a doubt the hardest part of the entire race. After 20km of hard running (70km for the Lionhearts!) you now have to ascend 930m to the top of a castle! On a regular day this is tiring, but on weary legs it’s a nightmare. I walked the entire thing and held on to the railings, where available, for dear life.
There is a photographer stationed on top who will take a photo of each runner as proof that they made it to the top (or else get a 2 hour penalty!), so you’d better give your best smile!
The only saving grace of this section is that you can leave your pack at the bottom and head up load-free with the option of stopping at the checkpoint again once you descend.
Once finished with the castle you’re well on your way to the finish, but the last section doesn’t give you much of a break.
The end is around the corner but there is a tough section to get through before you can relax and glide down to the end. The first 3km is on really rocky trail before you hit easier jeep track. This section is marked with red and white tape and NOT orange Raidlight tape. The trail winds up past the second highest point of the route (760m) – and over a ridge down a winding pine-clad forest path, and then down an extremely difficult steep downhill rocky path of about 100m. Watch your footing, especially on tired legs. At the bottom of this descent, turn right onto a rough track which winds downhill until it hits a jeep track. TURN LEFT (follow the red arrows). From here on it is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, grinding up the last few seemingly never-ending uphills of the run, before the long steep down begins. Watch for the red arrows taking you off to the RIGHT and the start of the long down down down the hill — obey the arrows and follow them red dots! The sight of Bellapais way below will carry you to the finish line at Ambelia.
As mentioned, the first bit is extremely rocky and tough. You’re quite literally crawling on all fours over giant boulders for a portion, which again is fine when fresh but quite brutal when already exhausted. At this point, I was staring at the ground most of the time and just trying to hold it together long enough to get to the end. My legs were trembling and cramping, my feet battered and blistered, and my water pack nearly empty, but I pushed on toward the finish at a snail’s pace.
By the time the last hill came along, I was all but spent. I had walked most of the last few kilometers in an effort to alleviate the fire in my quadriceps, so I had just enough energy to push to the end.
After nearly 5 hours, I was finally done! Below is the GPS map and profile from my GPS watch showing all the statistics.
As this was my first legitimate trail race, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was most definitely the hardest race I had run to date, and it completely kicked my ass. My training was insufficient as I focused mostly on flat routes instead of heading for the trails as I should have. I also didn’t have a clue about the different nutritional needs required by these more extreme runs, so it was a learning experience all around. That being said, the event was wonderfully organized by the Cyprus Trail Runners and I am going back for more in 2017!
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Brandon Chase is a writer, endurance athlete, and guide based in Maine. He is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and spent nearly a decade overseas serving at embassies in Egypt, Cyprus, and Pakistan.
Along with a 98-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the West Highland Way, fastpacked in the Himalayas, and trekked around New Zealand and South Africa. He also regularly competes in ultramarathons at the 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile distances.