The Slovenian Alpine Marathon by Dick Vincent
Dober-dan! Hvala! Those are two words that I was to say many times on this day. And each time they would become more meaningful. Dober-dan means " Hello or Good day". Hvala means "Thank you!"
I got the idea to run the Slovenian Alpine Marathon when an email coming from "out of the blue" ended up in the my inbox. Immediately it struck my fancy. I told Liz (Levine) about it and we started thinking about a European trip. Heck, my brother Jack lives in Switzerland. We could arrive there, drive through Austria, into Slovenia, and then come back to Switzerland through Italy. And with a chance to run in the Julian Alps, heck, it just sounded so good.
What, you say? Where is Slovenia? My initial sentiments exactly. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia is just to the east of northern Italy, and north and west of Croatia. It is a small country, about 3/4's the size of New Jersey. With a population of 2 million people, the Slovenian's realize that the world is not going to learn their complex language, so thankfully many speak English.
Driving the dark, windy road up from Ljubljana, the capital city 1 ½ hours away, we just missed the 6am bus to the start (from the finish). Liz and I were lucky to find a ride to Predvor, where I would start, with two volunteers that couldn't speak English. At Predvor, Liz would catch the bus to her starting point, Trizec, 15k away. After the wild drive to the buses at the crack- of-dawn, we could now just sit back and await the run. I was even looking forward to the task that laid ahead.
Liz has opted for the 35k race, having never run that far before. I figure that after traveling 6,000 miles to a race, I might as well get as much out of it as I can, so it is 50k for me. Both races start at same time; just that the 50k has 15k of rolling road miles (some dirt), before getting to the town of Trzic. Since she started at the same time of day, I had no false impressions of catching her.
Although this event is the pride of Slovenian distance running, there are only 350 starters from 14 countries, entered in the three races (10k/35k/50k). With just over 100 in the 50k ( only 75 would finish), I slid comfortably into last place. Accompanying me is Kevin Walls of Ireland, who has taken a year off and is biking around Europe. Having divvied up the money from his house after he and his wife divorced (a great "starter marriage" Kevin assured me), he flew to Germany, biked through the Czech Republic, then south through Austria, and arrived for a few easy days before the race. We coast through the first 15k at just over 10 minute pace, enjoying the scenery and awaiting the first challenging climb, the one everyone talks about. And it does not disappoint. Climbing 3,500 feet of elevation in 6 ½ miles is difficult enough, but this tops out over 6,000 feet so altitude plays a roll as well. "Systematic suffocation" I guess you could say.
Kevin and I are well entertained discussing topics from divorce, music, sex, religion and politics, however, the climb up this mountain has quieted us down somewhat. But off in the distance, as we approach the summit of the first climb, we hear a party going on! It is one of the many aid stations, well staffed, and this one has an accordion player cranking out tunes while the others sing along. The refreshments offered are somewhat different from the usual staples at North American Ultras. This one has raisins, some unidentifiable objects, fine Swiss Chocolate, wafers, and an assortment of drinks. A young woman, speaking broken English is insisting I drink something from the long stem glasses. "What is it", I ask. "Schnapps" she says with a sly grin "Drink, it is an aphrodisiac, you know" and then laughs out loud. At this point I have found the mountains to be daunting enough. Adding to that an alcoholic stupor, combined with a a rush of testosterone, is a challenge with more dimensions than I care to imagine, so I sagaciously decline the offer. As Kevin and I cross a fence, then chase a few more cows out of the trail, Kevin speaks again and I smell the fragrance of Schnapps on his breath. "Kevin, you had schnapps!"I said. "After all", he says laughing, " I am Irish"
We ran together through about 30 or 35k, and after my umpteenth emergency "pit stop", Kevin ran on to try to catch some of the runners ahead.. Although the course profile had indicted a hilly mid section to this race, those middle uphill climbs (as Liz would later agree ) were much more difficult and longer than we had concluded from the map. I was told at an aid station "One kilometer to the top". After 35 minutes of very steep climbing, I still hadn't reached the summit! I guess his English wasn't very good.
The last 13 kilometers are mostly a downhill run to the finish. My age old foot problems from over-pronating were flaring up, but otherwise I felt surprisingly well. I guess last place has it's privileges. At every aid station I would enter saying "Dober dan". Any attempt to speak this difficult Slavic language wins the favor of the Slovenian's. Since I was last, the aid station people were keeping track of "The American" with cell phones and walkie talkies. After having a political discussion at one aid station (the locals must have shared my view), I was now being cheerfully and festivally welcomed into every aid station. It didn't matter if some of them couldn't speak English. I could say Dober dan and Hvala, and they could smile and offer tones of encouragement.
With a brilliant sun, a perfect running day, and the incredible peaks of the Julian Alps surrounding me as I descended to Jezersko, it occurred to me that coming in last was the perfect placement for me throughout the day.... The final kilometers were along the flat road into the finishing park, with towering mountains all around. As I would pass a kilometer mark, a smiling young fellow on a motor scooter would pick it up. Prior to the race, I had given Escarpment Trail Hats to the race officials who had been so helpful in answering my emails and putting this event together. As I crossed the finish line, they were there to greet me all wearing their Escarpment Trail Hats. Liz, who had finished the 35 k over an hour faster than she had hoped for, was awaiting me, glowing with pride from having run a fabulous race at her longest distance ever. But this day was not over by a long shot, at least not for the friendly Slovenian volunteers and officials. The accordions were playing and the masses were singing Slovenian folk songs. The beer tent (and I suspect the schnapps wagon) was doing a brisk business. But one thing was for sure. On this fabulous late summers day, in this fabulous country, a fabulous and proud people were celebrating the running and the organizing of a race that was soon to be added to the great tales to be told..
As Liz and I finally drove away in our rental car, we stopped to take a photo of the mountains that we had run up, down, and around, all day long. There was a bit of sadness as the car doors closed and we pulled away from what now seemed like very good friends. Promises to return to this race were exchanged with other promises to come to the Escarpment Trail. Life is an enigma, and whether we will meet again is yet an unanswered question, but one thing was for sure. On this day it was great to be alive, to be part of Slovenia. Hvala Slovenia, many times over...