About Me

Harpenden, England, United Kingdom

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Trail Running in Bulgaria v.2

The version published on iRunFar was written in March, so I decided to update it.


Maybe you are tired of running the same races and looking for something different, or perhaps you will be traveling to Bulgaria for work, or maybe this idea struck you as so outlandish that you may actually give it a go. In any case, Bulgaria is a small, mountainous country on the Balkan Peninsula, and it has plenty to offer.

Top Bulgarian trail runner and orienteer Hristina Kozareva
on her way to winning the 2013 Skyrun Maliovitsa (Photo: Georgi Radev).
In 2014, Hristina also won the Vitosha 100+100k double
(see below) and the Olympus Marathon in Greece.


There are many options, depending on your preferred distance and terrain. We have to start with the classic Bulgarian ultramarathon, the Vitosha 100k. Dating back to the early 1980s, this race is the Bulgarian version of Western States (at least this is how I feel after running, watching, or reading about it for 16 years). The course (D+, 2 qualifying points for UTMB) is a relatively fast and runnable loop around Vitosha Mountain, but the cumulative elevation gain of ~2000 m (~6500 ft) is just enough to test your hill legs. The race has historically been fairly competitive, and after a lull during the post-socialist transition years, this tradition was restored. The organizers are trying to raise the international profile of the race, so if you think you can contribute to that somehow (e.g., by running it and then blogging or otherwise spreading the word), please contact them and they may be able to help with traveling costs and/or logistics. Speaking of logistics, things could hardly be simpler, with the start/finish line located just a short drive away from Sofia Airport and accessible through public transportation. And if you like a nice, long warm-up, you can race the course on a mountain bike during the day, rest for a few hours, and then run it starting at midnight. (Special prizes are available for the double.)

The other Bulgarian ultra is Persenk in the Rhodopes. With its ~5000 m of vertical over ~132 km (D+, 3 qualifying points for UTMB), Persenk is definitely much tougher than the Vitosha 100K. The inaugural race in 2013 was run in unseasonably cold, stormy weather, yet most people I have talked to were planning to come back in 2014 (I would love to hear more about this year’s race). The course is spectacular, and the race is organized with a lot of enthusiasm, so I expect that this event will rapidly be gaining popularity.

If you prefer shorter distances, there is plenty for you to do as well. A year-round series of trail races, with distances ranging from 6 to ~20 km, is taking place in various mountains and hills near Sofia, while another group seems to be fairly active in Eastern Bulgaria. In addition, Salomon is sponsoring/organizing several ascent-only races to the summits of Vitosha and the two highest mountains of Bulgaria (Rila and Pirin). The first skyrunning event in Bulgaria, Skyrun Maliovitsa, has been a real hit, and other similar races will probably start popping up in the near future.

With whom?

The trail racing scene in Bulgaria is as diverse as anywhere: from ‘proper’ runners, elite orienteers, and cross-country skiing Olympians to people who just like to go out for a run and prefer to do this off road (and everything in between of course). The popularity of trail running in Bulgaria is growing very fast, and the days when I used go to a race and know most people are long gone. Several Facebook groups (e.g., ultrarunners, runners in Sofia, casual runners) and specialized websites exist, where people communicate and organize training runs. If you are planning a trip, contacting one of these groups would be a good first step (and do not feel like you have to do this in Bulgarian :). Bulgarians take pride in their hospitality, and runners are a particularly friendly bunch, so if you get in touch early enough, you might be able to get a place to crash and a ride to/from a race.

Kiril Nikolov (Disl) is a world-class orienteer and mountain runner
(e.g., 6th at the 2013 Dolomites Sky Race),
who is also setting/attempting some very ambitious
Fastest Known Times in the mountains of Bulgaria.

Shaban Mustafa is one of the best Bulgarian road
marathoners, but he also does extremely well in the
mountains (e.g., 4th at the 2014 Jungfrau Marathon).

Sochi XC-skiing Olympian Andrey Gridin leading
(and eventually winning) the 2013 Skyrun Maliovitsa.
(Photo: Georgi Radev)

…but these two guys (Bozhidar Antonov - left and Toni Petkov - right)
made him work hard for the win. (Photo: Vladislav Terziiski)

 Milen Balabanov, 2014 Vitosha 100k champ. (Photo: Vladislav Terziiski)

Slavi Asenov, 2014 Vitosha 100+100k double champ.
Slavi also won Orehovo Ultra, an 80k sibling of Persenk.

Bozhidar Antonov, an all-around stud
and 2014 Persenk champ.

Maria Miteva Nikolova had a great 2013, with wins at the Vitosha 100ะบ
and Persenk, as well as very solid finishes at Lavaredo Ultra Trail and UTMB.
Here at Skyrun Maliovitsa. (Photo: Vladislav Terziiski).
This year, Maria repeated the Vitosha-Persenk ultra-double
and added a string of impressive results in international races.

So what?

Bulgaria has outstanding natural resources and trail networks, as well as a rapidly growing and fervent trail running community. I hope to see you at some of our races or training runs!


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