Šmarna Gora Run WMRA World Cup Race // Ljubljana, Slovenia
A note from Freetrail: Liam was at it again over the weekend on the second stop of his Euro Tour. You can find results for the races here – and if you missed out on stop one go back and give it a read!
I made friends with a lovely couple from Finland at Rookie Szn stop number one and they were kind enough to give me a ride to stop number two! One of them happened to be the winner of the women’s race – Susanna Saapunki – so I was in fast company!
About one hour into the four hour drive to Slovenia, the couple I was third-wheeling realized they forgot their passports back at the hotel. Luckily, our fellow Canadian friend Rémi, saved the day as he was also traveling to Slovenia from Italy but not until the next day.
The next couple hours of the drive were spent talking about the rise of athlete influencers on social media and whether we’ll be prevented to cross the border without passports…. ya know, classic road trip convos.
We arrived unscathed from border patrol at our hotel in Smlednik, Slovenia. A entirely different vibe than the Dolomites… it had a similar landscape to the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon – vast farmland with mountains in the distance. Although Slovenian hospitality was matched to Italy, the star-rating of the new accommodations was not, and my spoiled Rookie Szn-self was already missing the sauna.
Our hotel sat about 20 minutes away from the capital city of Ljubljana and my exploration itch began to surface shortly after arrival. During our dinner the first evening, my first impression was “I’m gonna have to get creative with my time this week,” so I started researching how to secure a rental car. I was beginning to crave some autonomy and a car is the vehicle to freedom when you’re in a place without Ubers or buses. The cars were ridiculously inexpensive… 60 euros for the entire week. The catch? Manual cars only and that is a skill I’ve dodged acquiring my entire life. Entering Liam’s brain… “F*ck, if I have to parallel park, that’ll be a nightmare. I mean, there’s no better opportunity to learn it than right now, right? S*it, what if I destroy the transmission? Ah, the story will be sweet though.”
I decided to send it, rental car booked! The next morning I watched YouTube videos for an hour in preparation of what was to come. You should’ve seen the face of the rental car guy when I drove away in shambles. 100% he was thinking “Silly American!”
The course is four miles away from the hotel, so the rental car ended up coming in clutch most days. That is, after learning stick on the side of a two-lane road with my flashers on for an hour (not too many parking lots in the suburbs of Ljubljana). I’ve loved the course so much I’ve gone to it three days in a row to run. Think of the race course as the Griffith Park of Ljubljana, it’s heavily traveled and well loved. You know that legends have shared the trails with you when there’s permanent signs hanging at the top and bottom.
On Wednesday, me and Rémi Leroux, a stud VK specialist out of Canada, ventured into the city. We had gelato, explored the castles and visited the famous central market where we laid eyes on the most delectable fruits and veggies. I got the brightest red raspberries I’ve ever seen but unfortunately my iPhone doesn’t do them justice.
On Thursday, I was voluntold (persuasively asked by the fellow Finnish athletes) to drive our 4-piece crew (myself, Rémi Susanna and Ville) to Lake Bled – a beautiful body of water with majestic castles, boats and mountain views. It was a 30 minute ride each way and it was the first time the Finns were in the car with me since my bumpy debut-stick shift day and I had no choice but to impress. Tell me I’m wrong, but I received a lot of oohs and aahs from my gear-shifting smoothness so I’ll deem it a success. A big thank you to my teachers and parents for nurturing me to be a quick learner (and to not let down the Finns).
I decided to race Friday’s Šamara Gora Record as well, a miniature vertical race that takes the most direct route to the summit of Šamara Gora. It’s sort of the prologue to the World Cup 10-kilometer race so most people run both. One mile and about 1200 feet resembling the Manitou-incline type stairs in certain sections. I thought I might as well run my third ever vertical race and get the pre-race jitters out while attempting to get as close to the super-nasty record of 10:59.
Thursday evening was very low key at the hotel. The race officials passed out our race bibs and one of the dopest goodie bags I’ve ever received. Fresh socks, the comfiest merino wool long sleeve and even a beanie! Clearly preparing us for the winter ahead, and I’m not mad about it.
For the vertically inclined mile long event I sent it with the lead pack and held on for the majority of the way. My strategy was to run it like I would a flat mile, afterall all that’s what I know best. Keep it relaxed until 400m to go and then try to make a move. … and that worked until it didn’t. With just 50 meters to go, the course turned a hairpin corner into a final stair ascent and my legs simply could not respond to the to the demands I was sending their way. I was passed for the final podium spot and ended up fourth with a grin under my grimace of pain – amidst the fellow three collapsed bodies I knew my effort had been maximized.
We celebrated at the award ceremony, feasted on donuts, shuffled the 1200 feet down in the sunset, then fell to sleep with ease, just to repeat the same effort in the morning.
We awoke Saturday morning to perfect race day weather. 50ºF and zero wind (Not like wind really matters for trail running anyway). I followed the eventual runner-up, Kenyan Lengen Lolkurraru, through a fast first kilometer on the gravel road – coming through somewhere under three minutes. We had the field gapped by 10 seconds and I felt like I was in a cross country race as I took the lead a mile in and put a 10 second lead on Lengen. I felt so freaking alive. It would be naive to think I could run away from the field so I continued to press hard knowing that the hardest climb of the race was awaiting and my rookie ascending skills needed as much distance on the chase pack as possible. I hopped, lunged, and power hiked my face off to the highest point on the course, at which point I was caught by the Slovenian hero Timotej Becan, whose technical skills made me question my existence in this sport and whose legs made mine look and feel like tiny toothpicks.
The first extreme descent began right at the halfway point and my adrenaline resurged. We bombed down a steep yet runnable trail for a bit over one kilometer. In a typical up/down style race, the halfway point usually means the majority of climbing is over, however we still had another 1,000 feet of Slovenian- style-steepness in less than 5 kilometers. I held my position on the downhill. When I reached the 2k-to-go mark, you still have a bit of climbing left to do, and not gonna lie, it felt daunting. At this point, I was preparing myself to just hold on versus dig deep… aka I was in the hurt locker. It requires a whole new level of grind and a whole new echelon of fitness to “start cranking it down” with a kilometer and 600 feet of climbing left to run. The timing of any sort of “kick” is nonexistent as the battle of fitness leans toward “who can blow up the least.” In the end I finished in 6th place, 50 seconds back of the winner. Short term, I improved over my performance in Italy – long term, I’m in it for the journey, and we are just getting started!
There are many factors that funnel into a good day or a bad day on race morning, but showing up ready to game no matter your preparation is the only way to prevail. I’m going to continue pushing myself to try new things. Immediate success is obviously more desirable, but patience for podiums is definitely the mantra after stop number two of the euro tour.
Who would’ve thought that renting a manual car would be a metaphor for my second World Cup experience – onto the World Cup final in Gran Canaria!
Side note: For those following my sleep journey from stop number one, I have an update. I went back to my usual 10pm lights out with just five minutes of idling before falling asleep, plus my usual pee break around 4am. 😊