Dirk Petersilie: International Trailrunner

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I met Dirk when we were in the middle of the Bucegi Mountains, running 50k through Transylvania, Romania. We became running buddies after leapfrogging on the trail for a while. As you can imagine, it was a difficult race–it was nice to have someone to chat with and help decide the best place to cross a flowing river. One of the best aspects of doing these travel races is meeting interesting people from around the world. Dirk is from Germany and I quickly realized he was a fellow world travel runner. After talking with him, he has certainly inspired me to get to Germany for some ultras, along with some other races around the world.

Hear a bit about him and his running and traveling life below.

1. How long have you been running? Since 1999 – First marathon was in 2001.

2. What is the longest distance you have run? 100km Biel, in Switzerland

3. Trail or road? Why? I prefer trail! The best combination would be trail AND mountains. I enjoy it because it is not the same pace during the whole distance, better landscape, and better for the mind and body!

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4. What has been your favorite race so far? I have done 53 marathons an 15 ultras, so I have some favorites. A few of them would be the Swiss Alpine Davos and the Virgin Marathon in Interlaken, both of which are mountain runs in Swiss Alps.  The Transylvania 50k in Romania was nice, but very hard, as you know 😉 Desert Marathon in Morocco!

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5. As a fellow traveling runner, what are some travel races you would suggest others to venture out and take on? All runs in the Swiss Alps. Transylvania100 for different tracks. Desert runs in Morocco are nice too! The Netherlands and Belgium have some nice trails, from marathon to ultra. Here in Germany we have the Zugspitz UltraTrail with some different courses. Also, the Helgoland Marathon on the island farthest from the mainland from Germany is very nice!

 

6. What is a race you would like to forget?  Getting Tough – The Race. It is the hardest obstacle race in Europe. After a bad illness in 2015, I did it 2016 for the 3rd time and it was my first DNF– 250 meters in front of the finish line.

7. What race are you training for currently? I train the whole year and “normal” marathons I can run whenever I want. Now I have no special focus. Maybe in the autumn some mountain runs somewhere or ultras in Germany or in the Netherlands.

8. What challenges have you come across with training? Nothing really–maybe sometimes the balancing act between family, running and my other sports.

 

9. The classic running question–why do you run? Running is a sport I can do every where, any time, and by myself. I don’t need a room, a hall, a court, a partner, or any special time to do it. I feel free during running and sometimes I have a lot time to think. I can travel to all over the world, put my shoes on, and I can run for sightseeing. When I participate in a race, I can meet and talk with new people.

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Transylvania 50K Ultra

What does not destroy me, makes me strong.

-Nietzsche

Just like muscles, when your mind breaks down, when it is depleted, it repairs and builds itself back stronger. I like to think after taking on the Transylvania 50k, I have built myself up stronger. Time will tell how lasting that strength is.

Transylvania was a beast of a race. Let me start with the elevation. The overall gain was 3,328 meters or 10,919 feet.

It is a race that goes through the Bucegi Mountains in Romania, which is part of the Carpathian Mountain Range. It started in Bran, a small town that houses the infamous Bran Castle, Dracula’s home. After the start, it went straight up into the mountains.

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Look at that start line. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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One of the harder moments in the race was when I saw the steep, snowy, narrow gorge that we had to climb. I actually gasped when I saw that. I am not a gasper.

I didn’t realize the climb would be quite this steep.

But, what does one do? One powers onward and upward. I took a quick bite to eat to restore energy. I drank some water from my hydration pack, threw back a salt tablet, and started, step-by-step up the gorge, following a line of runners. I was about halfway up the 900 meter climb when I heard a lot of yelling. Confused, I looked up and saw a man falling from the top. He was sliding, rolling, knocking people over as he fell, even catching air. A few men tried to stop him, but could not break his fall. By the time he was a few feet in front of me, two men had had time to plan catch him together. They thankfully were able to stop him from falling all the way to the bottom. After checking on him, offering food, and trying to figure out how badly he was hurt, we had to move on. It was not safe to stay there for long. I truly do not know if he broke anything, but there was no way any rescue team could have gotten him off that mountainside. He had to have continued to retrace his steps. After that, I made each foothold a careful decision. I went one step at a time, thinking I simply had to be okay and get up that gorge, without quite literally killing myself.

The steep, narrow gorge that we climbed. Go ahead, zoom in. Those are people climbing up.

With all that elevation considered, we also climbed up narrow gorges, endured hail for a few hours, ran with lightning that was too close for comfort, and a pushed on through steady rain the rest of the day. The sun did not grace us with her presence. With all that rain comes mud. The mud did me in. I was actually feeling quite well both physically and mentally, considering, until that mud showed up for most of the last 10k. I slipped, slid, and tripped my way down, which consequently led to swearing at the heavens and earth–swearing at the earth for what it unapologetically does; reminds us that it will forever be stronger than us. To be reminded of my own weakness, of all of our weakness, is an important and humbling reminder of nature’s power. There aren’t any mistakes in nature.

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Somehow, through all of its harsh environment, or maybe because of it, Romania managed to amaze me with its absolutely stunning scenery. The views were breathtaking and vast. At the top, it was still, quiet, and unpopulated except for the odd trail runner. We ran in the clouds, haunting and sweeping though and onward as quickly as they appeared. The air was pure, crisp, clear, even if it was a bit thin. The infamous Bucegi Mountain roamer was not spotted–bear, wolf, nor Dracula.

Determined to finish

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I don’t think anyone can exactly answer the big whys of our psychology. Why do we run? Why do we participate in voluntary pain and suffering? Why seek this kind of adventure? Maybe it is human evolution and our primal drive to win that makes us partake in ultra endurance. I’m not entirely sold on that theory. I do think and accept there is a fair bit we don’t understand about the human spirit, or the runners’ spirit in this case, but I can say I got a little closer to understanding my own humanity and capabilities. One thing I can say for certain, my mind and body is restless.

Running in the clouds

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I was prepared to repeat mantras to myself. I even had a few in my mental bank, but I ended up not really needing anything like that. I felt very much present and in the moment. I felt and thought about each step, each pain, each beautiful view. As I was getting closer to finishing, the kilometers felt longer and longer. I can assure you that a kilometer on the trail after running for hours, feels much longer and much more painful than most kilometers. Even through the pain I felt grateful, because as my husband reminded me right before I took off to the start line, if I am in pain, it means I am still alive. I finished with that thought in mind.

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50k completed in 11 hours, 52 minutes, 45 seconds.

Connectivity. Perspective. Humility. Gratitude. This is what I gained along one of the

hardest races I have experienced. Connected to nature and all of its give and take. Perspective of what really matters in life. Humility in knowing how simple and vulnerable humans are, and also how there will always be someone stronger than you.
Crossing severe terrain, massive elevation, and seeing unmatched mountainous beauty like this was a once in a lifetime experience and I am grateful that I was able to be part of it.

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Finishers’ Medal
I was even able to meet up with an old running buddy from our Thailand days while there. He did the 100k!

Check out this cool video by Chrash700 on YouTube (I even make an appearance or two):

And this one by Arie Fishler:

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I was not only able to see Bucegi Mountains up close and personal, but I also got to tour around Bran, where the infamous Bran Castle is; Dracula’s home. The night before before the race, we wandered around the small town, buying souvenirs and I tried a fresh pretzel from a local bakery (carb loading!). I sadly did not get the chance to try too many local Romanian dishes, but I would like to go back and complete the experience.

Market area near the castle

Usually, traveling takes the forefront of a lot of my races, but I just did not have the time to see enough of Romania due to only having the weekend for the race. Considering my race took all of Saturday, that did not leave much time to see much else. However, I did pick up some knowledge on Bran Castle, also known as Dracula’s Castle. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula with this castle being assumed as inspiration. Interestingly, Stoker never actually went to Romania. He wrote it from Britain using pictures of the castle to develop the setting. People have drawn comparisons between Vlad the Impaler and Dracula, whom was viewed as blood-thirsty and ruthless. Also, ghost and spirit folklore surround Bran; people that are normal during the day, but go around haunting and torturing others in the town at night. Perfect setting for a vampire tale, right?

View of Bran Castle

In the castle, there were torture chairs, game rooms, stone walls, windows that looked out onto hills, and small winding staircases that seemed to go on forever. One could easily imagine a vampire wanting to reside there for eternity.

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Torture chair

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A room with a view
My phone just took this picture by itself while inside the castle.
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Scari?

The castle was completed in 1388 with the purpose of stopping the Ottoman Empire expansion. Vlad the Impaler passed through Bran in 1459, burning surrounding villages and murdering hundreds of Saxons along the way. This is where he gets the ruthless reputation we all know him for. There were many kings, princes, and wars that passed through history here, where somewhere around the late 1800s, the castle started to fall apart. When Transylvania became part of the Greater Romania, Queen Maria restored it and used it as a residence. It eventually became a museum, and now legally belongs to Archduke Dominic, Archduchess Maria Magdalena and Archduchess Elisabeth.

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From inside the castle

After all the touring and race prep, we needed to work on our carb loading lunch. We ordered a few pints and just as they arrived, the storm rolled in.

Met some new like-minded running friends. They all completed the 50k.

Running into the 50k Ultra World

“Face your life, it’s pain, it’s pleasure,

Leave no path untaken.”

-Neil Gaiman

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Bran Castle, the starting point


Elevation, oh my!

That was my first observation of Transylvania100. The elevation gain for the 50k is 3,328 meters, which is 10,919 feet. That is not the peak elevation, that is the gain!

I have wanted to do Ultra for years, but haven’t felt brave enough, or been in the right place and time. The stars sort of aligned for this and I didn’t have an excuse not do it. Naturally, I signed up.

BIB Nume de familie Prenume Categorie Status
 5135 Gaines Tara United States Senior 18-39 ani / years  

It isn’t feasible to take my family, considering the costs of the flights and all that, so I am going solo. I haven’t traveled that far solo before, much less for the biggest race I have ever tackled. I am a bit concerned about the whole thing logistically. Luckily, I have figured out a coping mechanism–don’t think about it too much. Just run.

Run I have. I run on average 70-80 km a week anyway, and have upped that to about 90 km. That isn’t too much of a change in distance, but what I did do differently to start training is adding some elevation gain to my runs and trying to get that elevation gain on trails. I recently did a 24 km training run and was surprised by how much my legs were not used to that. I had to load up on electrolytes after each training run. Transylvania will be completely trail and in the Carpathian Mountains, so some pretty wild area.

I currently am living in Sarajevo, which is in a valley, surrounded by three large mountains and some other hills. This is fortunate for my training. During winter, I had been a bit lazy and done mostly flat runs. Lazy, and in fear of the ice on all the steep roads. This training has been good for me to kick myself back into action.

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Sarajevo from one of my runs, headed above the city.

For my training runs, I really have only done a couple of these longer, steeper, trail routes. Some of my others shorter runs I still sought out elevation. I am a bit worried that this won’t leave me prepared enough, but I am hoping that between these runs and my base fitness level, it will carry me through.

I am now at the tapering stage. I hate tapering so much that I haven’t actually started it. I will probably wait until a few days before to kick it down to 40 or 50 km a week, but that is also unlikely. Tapering is by far the hardest part of training for me and I often just avoid it all together. However, I do better in a race if I do taper, so this will be a mental struggle that I grapple with in the weeks to come. There are infinite considerations in the tension between what we should do, and what we want to do.

If you check out the website and look at past results, it takes the best runners much longer to finish than your average 50k. It is a little hard for me to tell based on names, as most of them are foreign names, but it appears that the fastest woman came in around 9 hours last year. It also looks like there will be snow, wind, ropes to help climb the trails, and did I mention, elevation? I am trying to plan for all four seasons in one 50k. If everything goes right, I am hoping to come in around 10 or 11 hours. At the end of the day, I just want to finish without getting lost or injured.

I am looking forward to seeing what I am capable of both physically and mentally. In these types of races, you come out a changed, improved person. I think if you can’t figure yourself out in a race like this, it isn’t happening. I hope to find balance in nature and, consequently, in myself. I must travel to an unknown land and an unknown place within myself to achieve this.

Cheers to what can only be described in my book as an adventure.

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Below is a video of the race from 2016. So much snow for May!