Ohrid Ultra Trail
As we left the comfort of the hotel at 23:30 it was buzzing with activity. The packed restaurant was bouncing with loud music and dancing. Paul had hardly slept as his room was above the restaurant. Thankfully I’d grabbed some sleep earlier in the day. As we walked down the strip we realised this was common for a Friday night in Ohrid, North Macedonia. What was clear when we arrived at the Chinar Tree to merge with the small crowd, was that trail running was less common. Gathered at this ancient tree were just 40 runners huddled together near a modest start line preparing for a 100km adventure…
Upon arrival we sought out a person with a staff badge around his neck to ask about the route. Earlier in the day, when registering, it was indicated that the route would need to be modified due to the storms forecast for Saturday. We hadn’t heard anything since so asked what the route would be. He very clearly explained the situation, that heavy storms were forecast and so we would not be visiting Margaro or the other peaks on the route. We’d have an unchanged course for the first 50kms or so to Vojtino. Then we’d detour to Prevoj on a different route, skipping the big climb to Magaro by staying lower down and going around the mountain. From Prevoj we’d again detour and skip the peaks and ridges and instead head to Assan Gjura more directly on some access roads. The next section would be unchanged to Letnica but then once more we’d skip the last peak and begin descending more directly to the final aid station of Velestovo. We thanked him and he told us to stay close for the briefing. He introduced himself as Dejan, the race director. A few minutes later he gave the safety briefing, re-explaining the situation and route to the whole field before we then gathered in the starting coral with the modest number of spectators cheering us on as he counted down to midnight.
The race began and half the field vanished out of sight almost immediately, racing off through the cobbled streets of Old Town Ohrid. We stayed at the back, right at the back, as per our strategy to enjoy a slow first marathon. Natalia was running the 65km route which began at our marathon mark, Sv Naum, just after our cutoff. The intention was to run with her, so rather than bust a gut and then hang around, we planned to arrive between 06:00 – 07:00 and enjoy the night shift.
In the darkness we weaved around the Old Town. A series of cobble streets saw us climb up to the castle at 700m. Even here we ran on trails and single tracks as we made it to the lakeside and descended passed St. John’s church and onto the lake front where we ran across a very wobbly boardwalk before hitting the strip back towards the hotel. We ran passed the red flag markers which we’d spotted on our way to the start (we saw a few teenagers walking and waving them which gave us some initial concerns about the markings, which were unfounded). As we approached the hotel we could hear Lisa cheering from the balcony and waving us on. We were in a small group of maybe ten other runners, most of whom were Greeks and were leading the pack as we ran passed the finish line after a few km. We all cheered as one tempted fate and ran through the finishers arch. I hoped the timing mat wasn’t switched on already!
Along the lake front we heard the wild calls of nature with many many birds and insects singing into the night as we left the roads and Ohrid and headed onto the trails. It began with a gentle climb on a wide track road. We passed a place called Paradise Nest which was a series of cabins overlooking the lake and soon turned onto single tracks through the forest. Here we chatted with the Greeks who had all come over on a bus tour together. With some steady climbing on rocky trails we then emerged at the first aid station of Velestovo about 12km in. A quick refill and to Paul’s delight a cup of the ‘proper stuff’ – Coca Cola branded cola. We left knowing we’d be back here many many hours later when we’d descend back to Ohrid.
We left the aid station and continued through some farm land. I followed two runners and Paul held off as we couldn’t see any flags or markings. They couldn’t hear me as I called after them. I followed and found the trail and waited, calling back to Paul in the darkness who soon found me after he located the actual trail and looped around the farmland. The route then took us up off the quad track and onto a narrow single path that was very rocky. We continued on this, climbing higher and higher. Below us to the right was the darkness of a valley between two ridges. The second, higher one looming straight ahead, a silhouette in the night sky. The climb continued, alternating between rocky paths and forest tracks which occasionally opened up under the moon-lit sky. The air around us was cooling and the moisture of the night made us cold as our clothes became wetter with sweat and the mist. As we trod on through the mist we almost missed a turn which, thankfully, the runner behind spotted and called after us. This was the summit of the first climb and, the inevitable down followed. My word it was a beauty…
The tracks opened up wider. The forests cleared to open spaces. To our left the mountain dropped away to darkness and up ahead the orange moonlight reflect off the calm lake. It was stunning. We ran free, happy, enjoying the moment, hopping from path to path as we descended towards the town of Konjsko. We couldn’t stop commenting to each other about how amazing it was. It all ended too quickly as we rocked up at the next aidstation and commended them on their excellent spread of cheese sandwiches. We briefly chatted with the volunteers who were excited to see some UK runners (there were two other Brits out there somewhere too) and they told us they’d see us again at the marathon mark at SV Naum. So off we went into the night once more with our bellies and hearts full.
From here the night became a little harder. Naturally tiredness now began to creep in as the excitement of the start began to fade and our bodies fought back against the natural desire to be asleep. The terrain became red in the night as we ran through endless mud/clay tracks and our feet became heavier as they collected the dirt in their lugs. It was super sticky. We had a choice of that or the rocky tracks around the mud. I kept to the mud. The smells were a pleasant distraction though as the forests around us were lush, dense and green. After what felt like a long time of trudging along we caught another, local(ish) runner from North Macedonia. We all chatted away as the trails began to descend again, zigzagging down hill we flew and enjoyed the moment once more. We emerged onto a road crossing where we no longer saw the path or flags/markings indicating which way to go. Come to think of it, we’d not seen a flag marker for quite some time. Oh oh.
I quickly loaded the course to my watch knowing that we were still on the unchanged route so would be able to check our location. It was immediately clear we’d gone wrong, very wrong. We’d come off the mountain far sooner than we should have. We should be crossing this road about 5kms further along. We briefly considered the option of following the road to rejoin the course where it crossed. We decided not too. We felt we had time to recover, and that there was a small chance the next aidstation would be before the road crossing and we’d need to ‘check in’. It was also quite a main road, even though it was early in the morning it wouldn’t be the safest option. So we started retracing our steps back up the mountain.
Turns out it was longer than we thought. The switch back tracks deceived the radius shown on the watch. We weren’t getting back to where we went wrong anytime soon. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d run almost 3km in the wrong direction and also descended 300m which we then needed to climb. It cost us quite a bit of time! We finally made it back to where we went wrong and waited for the other guy to catch up to make sure he also ended up back on track. As we waited we realised the mistake we had made – there was a slight split in the path. After we took one track they merged once more and we remember acknowledging that and saying it wasn’t a problem. What we hadn’t seen though was that there was a sneaky turn on the other track which we therefore missed. We should have realised we were no longer following the markings, but we were clearly enjoying the downhill too much.
Now we were back on track we ran a little harder. The track was less enjoyable than the descent we previously took and was a little rockier. We kept going and were heating up as the morning light started to replace the darkness and we took off our head torches. It wasn’t too much later that we then descended the mountain where we should have initially and crossed the road once more. Shortly after this we passed through Trejca and after a short road climb we came across the next aid station where three volunteers sat at the side of the road. They acknowledged we were likely the last runners so we let them know there was one more on his way because we’d gotten lost. From here we had almost 9km to go to SV Naum. This section also included a little climb of around 200m and a corresponding descent. It was 05:50, the cut off was at 07:00. After a night of running this was now going to be tight. Tighter than I wanted to admit but thankfully Paul took charge and ran off for the next 9km and I just had to try and keep him in sight.
We followed the road before going back into the forest and soon conquered the climb (which thankfully took us over a saddle in two hills rather than up and over one of the higher lumps!) and were then descending the narrow and rocky single tracks through the forest. We caught up and passed one of the Greek runners and took a moment to enjoy the views near a a village and over the lake as the morning light broke fully into day. I love the end of a night shift on a long run when the morning breaks. It has a real empowering moment for me when your energy levels have dipped and start increasing again with the rays of sunshine. Running through small villages at this point is one of my favourite aspects of trail running as the paths take you in all directions as you explore the unfamiliar land. Here we briefly skirted a village and went back down to the level of the lake where we left the forest and hit upon a shingle beach. Bollocks to that. This wasn’t funny anymore. We were running hard! I was panting hard. I could see Paul looking back checking I was still in sight. My legs were aching and the soft ground didn’t help. Neither did the realisation that we were running on this for as far as I could see in the distance. I wanted to stop so much but calculated we still had 30mins to go to the cut off and possibly as far as 5km still to cover.
We left the beach and then hit upon what felt like an obstacle course. We ran in and out of farmland and had to climb over many fallen trees and duck through narrow overgrown passes. But the topping was the (admittedly small) river crossing that we needed to make. It was clearly quite deep where it met the lake and a rope was set up to help us cross. I ploughed straight in the thigh-high level without giving it a second thought. We just had to keep going. Time was no longer on our side. Running through the endless crop fields we passed a few more runners and for a brief moment between breaths I felt unbeatable. We didn’t stop to acknowledge them but sped on passed. Finally the turn into the monastery was clear and we ran through and into the aid station with 8 minutes to spare before the cut off. The first marathon hadn’t quite gone to plan!
As we arrived, Dejan and the lady from a previous aid station laughed as we explained our cock up and little adventure. We ate and drank as they told us we didn’t need to leave exactly at 07:00 and that they would be lenient with runners. They also told us the lead runner had pulled out after encountering a bear on the course, so to be observant. Great!
The 65km runners arrived and I found Natalia as the rest of them ploughed into the aid station and started raiding it. That frustrated me a little given some 100k runners were still arriving and needed the refreshments! I said goodbye to Natalia (we’d arranged to meet just after the aid station so we were out of the way of their start). After the manic run to the aidstation, Paul decided to stay with us from here also. We were both spent from the mammoth effort we’d just put in. We needed a break and the 30mins until Natalia would start was now going to be our rest and we were looking forward to it. We walked a bit and then sat in the sun a km down the route and cheered the lead runners from the 65km through when they turned up. The first two runners already had a very sizeable lead on the chasing pack. It was very impressive. We then picked up running again when Natalia showed up shortly after them.
From here the route took us through more fields and dense green spaces. We chatted with different groups of runners as they passed us including a few Americans who were living in North Macedonia. There was another river crossing which everyone carefully tiptoed across on some strategically placed rocks. I ploughed through once again to the delight of the Americans. I had wet feet anyway so it made no difference to me and had the benefit of knowing I had spare socks in my drop bag waiting later on.
From here we began ascending. This was now the biggest climb of the run and we’d be climbing 900m to Vojtino. So we climbed. That’s all we’d do. Head down and walk on. We played leapfrog with a few runners and followed the track as it passed through more forests and occasionally opened up onto vast rocks overlooking the lake. The views were beautiful and we took the chance to stop and capture the moments when we could. It really was stunning. Some how, out of nowhere the next aid station then appeared. We’d been so focused on just walking that the section passed by quite quickly. It was fairly small but we welcomed the opportunity to take on more liquids as it was very humid in the early morning heat. Here the volunteers told us it was maybe 4km to Provej, which would be the drop bag aid station. This was where the route was now changed and rather than climbing another 900m or so to the Magaro summit and descending down to Prevoj, we’d climb lower (maybe just a few hundred metres) and circle the mountain instead. It was a shame, but, at the same time we were now glad it wasn’t as far to go. We moved onwards.
The section wasn’t exactly easy though (easier than the off track 900m climb to the summit over 5km I’m sure!). The climb continued and in places it was quite steep and mostly the ground was covered in a deep layer of leaves that covered a multitude of obstacles – rocks, sticks, snow even! It felt longer than 4km by the time we left the climb and emerged into a grass mountain side that wouldn’t look out of place in the Sound of Music! We were delighted to find the aid station waiting for us. I immediately sought out hot food and my drop bag. I set to work freshening myself up and stocking up on the soup and pasta they provided. I was very hungry and empty and knew I needed food before it was too late. Paul and Natalia patiently waited for me and put up with my antics of snorting Tailwind which I’d spilt trying to refill my bottles.
As we left the aid station we were told we’d now follow a road for a few kms before finding a dirt/quad track. Again we were avoiding the climb to the next summit and were not running along the ridge. The road was indeed very long and the tarmac hurt our achy legs. At midday the heat was absorbed by the black surface and it felt like we were being battered from all sides. It was tough going. We weren’t alone though. We’d made a friend. A dog. He ran casually with us. Not a sound from him. Just a tongue hanging out. He seemed happy. We joked that he liked cheating on us with the faster runners as he’d run with us for a fair bit then would run off and chase the runners ahead of us before waiting for us to catch him up. He ran alongside us for many kms. Even when we turned off the road and followed the track again.
Here we could see Lake Prespa (the other lake hidden from Ohrid by the mountain range) on our right. Lake Ohrid was now hidden by the mountain ridge to our left somewhere. The views were stunning and we enjoyed looking back at the mountains behind us, wondering what if… and then it happened. Pretty much bang on midday as forecast the sky started to darken. The thunder started to rumble. The rain started to come. Natalia was having none of it and started running harder and faster. Me and Paul couldn’t keep up. Within minutes she was out of sight. We carried on, walk-running in the rain. We caught and passed a few other runners and eventually caught up with her at Assan Gjura.
Here at the aid station we sat under the shelter of the outbuilding along with many other runners from all the different distances. Some were coming, some were leaving. We took a moment to gather ourselves, re-calibrating our focus and thinking of the storms and what was left to run. As the rain eased off we psyched ourselves up and prepared to leave. Only we couldn’t. The volunteers and park authorities advised we didn’t as there were more storms coming. They made the decision to hold us all at the aid station for safety. We sat back down not knowing how long we’d be here. The minutes ticked by. Food was running low but we were all fed up of the same thing now anyway. They lit a fire burner and we all huddled inside a room that became our sauna. After a long time one lonely runner arrived at the aidstation from the 100k. She was very wet. Eventually, after about an hour and a half, they let us leave. Initially it was a ‘5 people can go’. Without thinking I selfishly grabbed Natalia and pushed to the front, indicating that us three would leave. My mind was on finishing. My mind was on escaping any risk of not finishing if they cancelled the race. I wasn’t primarily thinking of safety at this point. In my mind we could finish in a few hours and we were descending pretty much for the rest of the race, I felt they wouldn’t be saying we could leave if it wasn’t safe.
We set off. We were legging it. This section was flat at about 1400m asl. Trying to get as far as we could whilst it was dry. Within seconds the many layers we’d put on were coming off again. The ground was a waterlogged and there were puddles in all the tracks and the red earth was equal measures sticky and slippery. The skies however were clear and bright. For now… We ran on from side to side skipping the puddles and mud. Up ahead the sky was getting darker and the feint rumbles of thunder could be heard again. There was a lonely cow, mooing loudly in front of us. We prepared to pass it on widely. It was either distressed or it was warning us. From the left, there was a guy descending quickly from the mountain. He was running in jeans with a bottle of water in his hand shouting and waving. I thought he was chasing after his cow, lost in the storm. Of course he wasn’t. He was trying to get our attention. He directed us to go in the direction he had just come from. He explained that we were running straight into the storms which were about 40 mins away. He told us on the top of the climb there is another guy on the road who will give us further instructions. It was maybe a 10 minute climb, a very slow climb. Natalia went quickly. Me and Paul went slowly. I assumed that this was it, that this was where our race would end. I assumed here they’d be telling us to get in the car and we’d be evacuated from the storms.
As Natalia reached the guy we could hear the instructions he was was providing. He was directing us down another way. This wasn’t game over after all. There was still hope. I woke up from my false misery and we sped up for the last few metres of the climb to join them. He gave us his number for safety and topped us up with coke. Our instructions now were that we’d follow the dirt track road for a few kilometres. Eventually we’d find a turn on our lefthand side marked with the flags and that we should take this route towards Velestovo, the final aid station. He emphasised the path on the left and not the one on the right. The correct route would divert us around the storm and we’d skip the next aid station and head straight to the last one.
We ran on slowly as it was tough. My legs hurt so much. Natalia was fresh and strong and focused on getting down and out of the storms as quickly as possible. I was struggling behind with the inevitable painful ankles. Natalia would run off and wait for us to catch up before carrying on down the road. The route was gradual and not too bad but it was a dirt track and pretty painful on the tired feet. The thunder was growing louder and louder around us and the rain had started yet again. After a while I started to think we’d missed the turn. I check the original route and thought we’d run passed a turn on the that route maybe 1-2 km further back. I couldn’t understand it. How?! We didn’t see anything, we were being alert and would have noticed the marked flags and the escape route! We checked the local maps and could see that this path would bend back towards the storm slightly before connecting with another path which would take us towards the aid station we wanted. We made the decision to carry on and trace this route instead.
A few minutes later we found red flags on both the right and left. This was it! In all my confusion we were doing just fine and hadn’t missed the turn. We turned left as instructed. A few other runners passed us. I was still confused though and it didn’t make too much sense in my head but everyone reassured me that it was right. It wasn’t much further before we hit a little village and Natalia dashed off to the aid station. Me and Paul walked the rest of the path and filmed the view of Ohrid further down. It was beautiful and we could almost smell the finish now. It was pissing down, dark and moody, as we arrived into the aid station. Natalia was a little on edge and uncomfortable with the thought of leaving the sanctuary of the aid station and entering the storms for the final 8km. We reassured her and she emerged from the aid station with us to make the final decent to Ohrid. We made a run for it knowing we’d be finished soon. Far, far sooner than we initially thought. With all the diversions and lack of climbing we’d be coming up short on the distance and finishing whilst it was still light, which was a pleasant thought now.
From here we ran a different route back to Ohrid than which we’d climbed the night before. This one took us through the villages and down some grassy tracks towards the lakeside. The whole way I was behind Natalia and Paul. My legs screaming at me as I kept rolling my ankles on the uneven terrain. At one point I heard them both make some noise and saw Paul pull up suddenly. There were some locals re-cementing the road (during a storm!) and Paul had almost ploughed straight into it. They directed us around and cheered us on our way. Shortly after which we then needed to navigate our way through a herd of goats who were off on their own adventure. Further down we reached the main road of Ohrid. It was flooded. We had a short detour to cross the road around a petrol station to join the path to the lake. Paul went off, making a beeline for the finish. Natalia pushed me hard to get passed the last few 100km runners in our sight. She was running so strong.
Moments later we hit the home stretch and crossed the line, hand in hand. It was done. It wasn’t quite the race we’d hoped for, but the outcome was exactly as planned. At the finish line Dejan, the RD, congratulated us and handed us our medals. It was an incredible experience and an adventure we will never forget.
After finishing, two things were immediately clear to me. Firstly, how accommodating the Macedonians were and how well we were looked after by Dejan, his team and all the volunteers. Personally, I felt safe throughout and never had worries. We knew there would be storms. We knew safety measures were always likely to be activated, but it was the manner in how they were done which was impressive. With runners spread-out over so many different parts of the route it must have been a logistical nightmare to manage. But, we were informed, at registration, at the start of the race and during. The course was very well marked (it was our mistake which made us get lost early on) and the volunteers and Park Authorities were helpful and informative. Whilst we were held at Assan Gjura we were told the organisers were out monitoring the situation and confirming when it would be safe to leave. Having mid aid station diversions to avoid the storms was also something that impressed me. I felt so looked after and cared for.
Secondly, Natalia’s mentality impressed me and I’m so proud of her. She made no secret of her concerns and fear of the storms, in particular the lightening strikes. Yet, she ran, she kept going and she made it to the finish line despite her fears. What impresses me is how strong she is. I don’t share such fears so I will never fully understand what it must feel like to be battling yourself at such a instinctive level. I run without fear so can’t comprehend what it must be like to have your mind working against you when you are tired and exhausted. She never gave up despite the many, many opportunities she had to stop during the race, she just kept going. I’m so proud of her and her strength.