Running a six-day ultra in Croatia

What is it like to run 260km over six days in the Croatian mountains with 12,000 metres+ of elevation? Ruth Martin reports from the front line of TRIBE Run for Love Four

running in Croatia
Pic credit: Phil Hill

The Event: Tribe Run for Love Four is a 260km multi-stage ultramarathon taking place in Croatia following the Velebit Trail and traversing Croatian National Parks, coastal trails and island adventures, all to raise money to fight human trafficking and modern slavery. Nearly 80 runners cover the full 260km with a further 150 runners joining for the final half marathon on Krk Island. Runners sleep in shared tents with a very welcome hotel stay after the longest day of running and the last night! No need to run with a tent as this is all set up for you along with your camp bag being transported along the route, luxury. The event is supported and made possible by Ultra X.

The Journey Luton – Zadar

Luton-London/London-Paris/Paris-Munich/Munich-Zagreb

(In a bid to reduce my carbon footprint, travel to Croatia is by train. For slow travel options, check out Byway Travel who create bespoke, eco-conscious trips.)

For a few hours I skip around Paris, drink coffee, dodge traffic and sit in a garden where a group of singers are performing. I arrive in Germany tired and hungry, the night is settling in.

Munich train station is alive with activity. It is Friday night, groups of people board the night train with bags of alcohol, ready to get off at the stops along the way for a party. By 11.30 on Saturday morning, I am sitting in a coffee shop at Zagreb airport, waiting to meet the other runners who have flown in. By this point I have been travelling for over 30 hours. I’m knackered, ready for a shower but also buzzing that I have managed to get to Croatia without getting on a plane. Finally I meet up with everyone else and the whole adventure starts to feel a bit more real.

Sunday Morning 

We meet outside the hotel by the pool for a shake out run. The heat prickles my skin, my shirt feels damp from standing in the sunshine let alone running.

The heat is the kind that sucks your energy, the kind that suits lounging on the beach with a book and an icy drink in hand. Not the kind of heat suited to 260km of running.

A kit check of the extensive mandatory kit list follows (including full waterproofs, base layer, gloves, hat, emergency blanket, whistle, first aid kit, compass plus capacity for 1.5 litres of water and 800kcals of food – only to be eaten in an emergency! Is it any wonder that packing for a multi-stage ultra is so stressful? We then board a coach, heading for the campsite by the sea that will be home for the next 3 nights.

Day One 25 miles

After a fitful nights’ sleep in a tent with five other people (five amazing women) the anticipation and excitement to get going ripples through me. Then, we’re off.

I have never been a technical runner, the rocky descents make my heart race with terror. I pick my way down tentatively, clawing at the walls of rock banking up the sides watching in awe as fearless runners seemingly fly downhill, calling out like wild cave men. The early conversations of the morning seem like a lifetime ago when we make it back to camp 10.5 hours later at 5.30pm. Just in time for some dehydrated noodles.

Day Two 22 miles

Today, we run through what the locals call the ‘Garden of Eden’, a beautifully green landscape snaking along the river Zrmanja. Storms are forecast, a scree slope is mentioned. I find myself in a state of euphoria.

We slither through a river waist deep water where the trail has dipped down and the shock of the cold is exhilarating, energising even. I feel my feet shrink back down to size, after the inevitable swelling from running a marathon the day before and 15km into day two. The 30°C heat of the day is beaten back by the fridge-like reset of the river.

My lack of fear on the scree surprises me. It’s almost like I can’t be bothered to entertain it which is the very opposite to how I approach challenges in every day life where fear will often paralyse me.

Day Three 30 miles

“This will be the hardest day…stick together.”

The words from the day three race briefing which are given every morning before we set off reverberate in my ears. We’ve been warned this day will be tough, ‘Don’t start if you don’t feel like you can do it,’ helping to scare ten people off from starting and a few more planning to attempt to get to checkpoint one.

I look out at the shimmering Adriatic Sea stretching out from Starigrad. The campsite sits right on the shoreline, and it is alive with activity, probably a shock to the regular holiday visitors. Water bottles are being filled, oats and coffee consumed, packs packed and re-packed. I find myself crying, choked with emotion at the daunting day ahead but also reminded of the simplicity. How many more difficult things have I done in my life? I’m reminded why I’m doing this too. Yes, it’s challenging but how much harder is it to live without freedom? Tribe’s mission, and the whole purpose of the event is to raise awareness of modern day slavery and raise funds that will help support the survivors of human trafficking. When the going gets tough, this is worth remembering.

It is this concept that I carry with me throughout the day, how lucky I am do be doing this, however hard it gets, this is by far and away so much easier (and more enjoyable??) than so many other things.

running in Croatia
Pic credit: Phil Hill

Throughout day three, I am reminded that it is the people who make completing things like this possible. A group of us band together. First there is Hannah and Margaret; both strong, accomplished women in work and life, we form a trio from the start, glued together, laughing at the Alpen-esque scenery and I feel as if I’ve made friends for life. Steve joins us, an ultra running legend, originally from Minnesota whose storytelling and good humour will get you through anything and Rich, a running coach by trade who will do anything to ensure everyone is ok. Amazing Emma, a GP, whose determination to keep going will continue to astound me throughout the week and lovely Wayne, quiet, insightful and full of wisdom. All determined and stalwart. Laughing, joking, swearing and cursing. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

After almost 14 hours, covering nearly 30 miles we cross the finish line into camp as a group. It is after 8pm. The realisation that I’ll be getting up at 2am the next morning slowly dawns as I try and eat salty noodles…

Day Four 50 miles

4am is go time. The long day. My nemesis. The one I am determined to finish, whatever it takes. We are excited by the flat road, buoyed by the darkness, that feeling you get when you are running when everyone else is probably sleeping.  Forest floors stretch out. We are a trail of headtorch lights, streaking the pre-dawn.

It is heaven. The magnitude of the miles ahead disperses as I skip over tree roots and skirt around rocks. In these early hours, I feel like I’m sleep running. It is only when Lauren tells me we’ve done 20 miles that I realise I have probably been in some kind of daze for the last five hours. Following the tip, tap, tip, tap of the person in front of me. Talking. Not talking.

After CP2 (or was it 3?), we climb up through a woodland. My breathing is hard and laboured and I wonder if I might die in this bed of golden leaves. A dip. A period of doubt. I walk. I nibble some food. I talk to myself, winding around the mountain ridge.

After another 3 hours I reach the next checkpoint. A yellow tent looming up large at the very top of a steep climb. I eat a sliver of a cheese sandwich and I feel as if it is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. The hit of savoury salt after all the sweet (slightly squashed) stuff is magical. Renewed and boosted by the ever supportive volunteers, I press on. Onwards. Up, down, around.

There is no reason for me to stop. This is exactly where I am and what I’m doing today.

The last 20kms looms. I meet up with Tas, a junior doctor in a busy London hospital (the first time I met her for a training run, she’d just finished a string of nights and I’m in awe). We shuffle and run, walk, bargaining with the tape markers ahead of us. A trio of wild dogs emerges from the woods,barking and running after us, baring teeth. Adrenaline spikes, our hearts racing. Inside I’m totally out of control but I reason with Tas, tell her to just walk, be calm. We back away, Tas pointing her running poles at the dogs, they don’t follow. Then the familiar arch of the finish line appears and all of a sudden we are sprinting over the line.

I feel so exhilarated!

running in croatia
Pic credit: Photo by Phil Hill

Day Five 18 miles

At breakfast, I feel surprisingly good. Although I am tired and my body is aching from the sun, I feel pretty good. Maybe it’s just the thought of having a real cup of coffee after four whole days without my usual elixir that is making any niggles disappear. Whatever the reason, the coffee is worth the wait. I queue for a second cup and make up a honey roll to stash in my pack for later.

After a two hour coach ride, we arrive on Krk Island ready to take on 18 miles. By this point in the day, the sun is a ferocious orbs of heat circulating in the sky.

We set off running through the town, along the beach, then up, climbing again. My right quad hates me and I limp in to the first checkpoint.

A bit of tape, some coke and a hug, off I go again. I take a wrong turn. The trail is marked out for us using red and white tape but in the haze of the sun, my brain foggy, I miss the next strip and I’m too tired to follow the map on my watch. I am clambering up a mountain, no-one else is in sight and I think this is it. My brain is frazzled, energy zapped and I decide to retrace my steps.

It takes forever to go down and get off the mountain. When I finally reach the road, the crew finds me and picks me up in the support van. ‘Shall we drop you at the next checkpoint so you can keep going?’ Tom, one of the race crew asks me. Part of me wants to curl up in the van, drink, eat, not run another step. Instead I climb out of the van, set off again and once again get to experience the joy of the finish line feeling.

The Finale Day Six 14 miles

My sister Hannah joins me for the last day and I couldn’t be happier. Seeing her familiar, smiling face after a week of testing my absolute limits both physically and emotionally is just the energising boost I need. My body is wrecked with tiredness. A void of hunger makes my entire body feel empty. But there is also an extraordinary feeling of ease in my body. The half(ish) marathon is hot, rocky, exposed but also incredibly beautiful, the perfect way to end this crazy week and I get to run it with my sister.

running in croatia
Pic credit: Phil Hill

The Journey Home Zagreb – Luton

Back on the train again.

Zagreb-Zurich/Zurich-Paris/Paris-London/London-Home

We wander around Zagreb under the hot sun, waiting for the overnight train. I wonder how I ran 50 miles just a few days ago. Frequent stops are required.

After 15 hours on the train, we emerge into the neat clean lines of Zurich. Everything looks sleek, efficient. We drink smoothies looking out above the city. Next stop Paris – noisy, grey, full of traffic but the air hangs heavy with Parisian chic. Dwarfed by our bags, we slowly meander across the city stopping for vegan choc chip brioche and coffee before the final leg of the journey.

Tribe Run for Love Four was incredible and unlike anything I’ve ever done. My favourite part about the whole experience was the pure simplicity of it all. All you have to do is get up, eat, run, eat and sleep.

The endurance made me drop my guard and barriers so I made incredible friends, and the lack of routines or responsibilities is totally liberating. I’ll be back for more.

Feeling inspired to take on a new adventure or challenge? Our all-in-one complete digital training platform and 1-2-1 coaching options can support you to work towards your running goals, be that 10km or a multi-stage ultra.

Try our membership now FREE on a 14-day trial.