No-one said it would be easy, and no-one was correct. The Two Castles Mountain Ultra in Cyprus was sneakily tough. The race organization is low-key, relaxed, fun, but with great attention to detail. Organizers, Bryan and Chris aren’t after a big field, they simply want to offer a few people the opportunity to tackle the route in a jovial and friendly atmosphere.
For me, the challenge going into the event was to run well, but to run it as a training event in preparation for Ultra Sierra Nevada in a couple of months – so minimal recovery time needed.
The Two Castles Lionheart Ultra is 80km-ish and runs pretty much the length of the Kyrenia Mountain range in Northern Cyprus. The elevation gain is about 2800m, so about half that of Ultra Sierra Nevada.
We arrived at the Race HQ at Bellapais on the Friday before the race start. Flying from Qatar into Larnaca was straightforward. We met a fellow runner, Walter, travelling from UAE (yes, word had got around the Middle East that this was a relatively local race – just 4 hours flight from Qatar), hopped into a hire car, bought extra insurance at the border, and travelled on to the race start.
There’s a definite difference between the two ‘sides’ of Cyprus, mainly in the countryside. The south is somewhat more commercialized and greener, the northern side feels more rural and arid. Folks from both sides are friendly and eager to welcome visitors.
Friday afternoon and evening were filled with eating, race briefing, and more eating. I knew it would be a long race day and wanted to fuel up sufficiently. Steve and I enjoyed a lovely meal in Bellapais on a mountain-framed restaurant terrace, overlooking the sea as the sun set.
Race brief wise, we were reminded that it was ‘snake season’ and to stay calm should we get bitten. Noted!
A final kit check and it was time to get some sleep before boarding the coach to the start at 3am. (Yes, 3am!). Unsurprisingly, it was a quiet ride to the start line as many of the 40 odd runners tried to catch a few extra minutes shut eye. We exited the bus in darkness at Kantara Castle, just able to make out the outline of the castellations in the inky light.
At 5.00am prompt, we started the race and were quickly powering off down the tarmac, questioning who knew the way in the darkness. Luckily, hitting 3.5km, the dawn broke as we trooped onto the first trail of the day, pretty much still bunched together.
At about 7km, I had to stop for one of my regular pee-breaks, trying to protect my modesty in a shrub, as four or five runners trotted past. Dropping down a short fire break we hit the first CP at around 10km. No need yet for water top-up, I stopped long enough to give my number and carried on. I was now close behind the leading lady, Julia. I stayed close to her heels until about 15km. The jeep track was easy undulating running, but it was warming up and quite humid, and I decided to back off. This was after-all to be a training run, and I wasn’t going to get into a cat and mouse race.
CP2 passed, the route takes a drop off onto single track and the real fun begins. I slid my way down in my old Brooks Cascadias…desperately wishing I had my new La Sportiva Ultra Raptors on and feeling glad I wasn’t Steve, who’d made the decision to run the first 50km in Brooks road shoes! No snakes spotted yet.
We don’t have any single track in Qatar, and we certainly don’t have any steep downhill. I was therefore getting a quick cramming session in downhill running, smashing through bushes as I attempted to brake and turn. I’ll admit to the first bum shuffle down one steep part. I didn’t want to batter my quads this early in the race.
A small uphill road section and I was into CP3, bottles refilled, a handful of jelly sweets, and on my way to CP4. Another bum shuffle off road and it was sticks down and climbing up single track to a wider uphill jeep trail. It was starting to feel pretty warm and I was conscious to monitor my heart rate and effort levels.
The CP4 volunteer contingent were great (as were all the support teams) playing very mellow and chilled out music. I refilled, grabbed some water melon and was on my way. Jeep track underfoot, the trail wound uphill, and uphill, and leveled, before more uphill. Surrounded by thin forest, there were wafts of cool air every so often and it was okay temperature wise. I knew there was some trickier stuff coming and was ready for the left turn off the trail and dip through woodland on an old rocky river bed. The trail then turned right before petering out and hitting the infamous Heartbreak Hill.
The trail is rocky here, loose in places, and with stunning views over the countryside if you’re not too chicken to look (like me!). I heaved my way up, sticks down, moving slowly, with a keen eye out for snakes – this looking like prime snake sunbathing territory to me – before hitting a small shaded trail. I could see three runners ahead in a group, they appeared to be kneeling down (was it prayer time, I thought). As I approached one stood up and I could hear him requesting help on his mobile. I shouted to ask if they needed more assistance but they were okay, so I carried on my way on single trail, standing aside as one of the group passed me to enter CP5 just ahead.
The spiritual half way point of the race at 50km, I changed my shoes from my drop bag (I’d not bothered with this option at CP3). Drank plenty and carried on my way. I’d been nibbling all morning, and wasn’t feeling much like tucking into my sarnies, so picked up a few more Naked bars and headed back out.
Road gave way to single track and I was happier in the Ultra Raptors. Crossing a picnic area, I suspected there was a female runner behind me, but couldn’t be sure and soldiered on. Wooded track opened out into jeep track and I kept on following the tape markings. I spotted the Five Fingers mountains and knew I’d be turning soon towards CP6. Duly turning, I was soon climbing up a steep rocky trail, clambering over rocks, and more premier snake territory.
I could just see a runner in orange up ahead, but by the time I’d made it through the gap in the fence to the CP he was already heading out up the road. I never did see him again.
I knew the next bit was tough, so took a rest, had a drink, refilled my front bottles, also being persuaded to fill up the bladder in my pack. We had to be able to carry 2l, my front bottles account for 1.2l, and the CP volunteers didn’t want to let me leave without an extra supply in my bladder.
I toddled off up the road, glad for the feeling of the cool water on my back, before crossing a busy road, and hitting the hard trail between CP6 and CP7. The sun was high, and the rocks hard and I slowly made my way up along the trail. There was no track, just rock….more top snake land… and I didn’t even attempt to run. I was just keen to sight the next piece of tape from the last, eager to stay on course.
It was hot, but there was still the occasional waft of fresh breeze. My shoulders started to get tired, and I dumped the extra water pretty quickly, glad to get the extra weight off my back and feel the benefit of the cooler air without a layer of plastic and water insulation between me and it.
Progress was very slow, I stopped at one point worried that I’d missed a marking, tried to get the previously trusty Viewranger up on my phone, but giving up when it showed me a map around our Doha neighbourhood instead of the Two Castles route.
Not sure what happened on the gpx upload there. The name was correct but the map very much wrong. Geeing up a bit when I spotted some tape, I pressed on and was soon into CP7.
I’d already decided I was having a sit down, a good drink, and a banana before I tackled the pesky stair climb up to Buffavento Castle. I knew I was a little dehydrated as my left ear had started ticking. I’ve had this before at Al Andalus and read that it’s when your body takes fluid from wherever it can find it, including the inner ear fluid. I’d been a little lax on my electrolyte intake and probably deserved it.
Happily refreshed, and buoyed by the news that I was only the fifth runner through, I embarked on the stairway which is the route to Buffavento Castle. The lead woman, Julia, passed me on her way back down about a third of the way up. I plodded on, a little shaky on hitting the old stone, rather than concrete steps. I’m really not good on steps at heights, and get a bit of vertigo. Finally, sumitting the castle, I had my photo taken by the infamous volunteer, Martin (who refused to be bribed into meeting us all half way), before trudging back down the stairs shakily. Going down is always worse than going up, vertigo wise. I’m sure the views were amazing, but I’m afraid I couldn’t partake.
Hitting CP7 again, I drank some more before set out on the last 9km. About 2km more of boulder shuffling – I even managed a little run – and still no snakes – before I was into pine forest and on very steep downhill slope. Darn La Sportivas won’t bum shuffle, they just don’t slide, so I had no option but to stand up and slowly plod down on tired legs.
Finally, hitting jeep trail, I followed the arrows left and headed uphill. What? I thought it was downhill from here!
Undulating track for 3km, before I met a sign…7km! What? OMG? Still 7km to go, and then I saw ‘Mountain Goat’ – it made sense now, this was the 7km point for the Mountain Goat runner doing a 10km race…that meant there was 3 more km to go for me. Phew!
I was suddenly aware of a another runner behind and the lead 30km Braveheart runner went flying past. There’s a 30km race over the last part of the course, and he was moving fast. I tagged onto his tails as long as I could, gradually running out of energy and back into the post 70km ultra shuffle/walk.
Another runner came past, this time clutching a single water bottle…Mountain Goat I thought…and then a small group cheering me on and eager to help me home. I held on behind them as long as I could. Eventually the track became road and the Mountain Goat sign read ‘9km’. Just one more km to go. Running down the road, the goats were gadding past fast. Even kids skipping jauntily back down the hill, before turning left, and to cheers and shouts I made it across the line in 12:01.
Congratulated by Chris I recovered on the line, realizing that I looked like I’d been in a fight with a mountain lynx. Forget snakes, my arms were covered with scratches as I’d thrashed through the undergrowth.
Despite not seeing a single snake, I was home, a little battered and feeling okay. I’d seen plenty of lizards of all sizes and shapes, but guess I was just too noisy and heavy-footed for the snakes.
[Thanks to Bryan for the photos. Except the montage at the top of Buffavento, which is of course Martin’s proof we made it up there.]