Lessons Learned Trail Running in Slovenia: When the direct way isn’t the best way

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How do I get back down?


With the humid light diminishing towards nightfall, I had only a vague idea of the remaining terrain in my semicircle route to meet Amy and our two year old son Alistair at the restaurant on the far side of Lake Bohinj where Slovenian pilsner and bratwurst awaited me. I was on a jagged slippery moss dotted limestone scramble now and the trail hadn’t been safe enough to take a running step in 30 minutes. Now, the forest opened to a knoll perched above the lake and I could finally get a view of my surroundings. Way high up indeed. Of course I knew I had been climbing but not this far up. Now I was thousands of feet, three, four maybe, looking down at the lake which was seemingly directly below me as if I could cliff jump my way back down.  Normally I’m happy to climb to such heights but this time I felt a sense of dread that I’d have to safely maneuver my way down faster than I came up if I didn’t want to run in the dark or worse yet spend a night in the dark.

If it was a cliff like this down the south side then could I even descend the west side to meet her or was it far too steep? There was some kind of trail on the map that led down if I jutted to the north but could I even get to that trail? Fortunately my cell phone worked so I called Amy and explained that “Yeah, I’m not lost but don’t exactly know where I’m going and it’s going to be at least another hour before I get back down to lake level.” I wasn’t lost just yet. I had my bearings straight which in my book isn’t lost. But it felt like a wrong turn followed by some aimless pushing into the wrong direction would officially make me lost. I wasn’t sure whether to push on hoping for a mellow fast paced run down or face turning back to the trail that would be a dangerous slog of a descent. Hope is never a good plan but I really didn’t want to retrace my steps. In a time like this my thoughts turned deep: “Just think straight dammit, what would Bear Grylls do?”

90 minutes earlier, Amy had dropped me off on the east side of the lake where I set off with an undetailed map and an apparently swashbuckling plan to meet her two hours later after running up and over a mountain in Trigalev National Park. It looked doable based on my tourist map from our hotel in Bled, idiotic last words as those may be.  This kind of trail run was part of my motivation for starting this site – there was no real information online in English to help me plan a route or know what to expect. Hopefully someone can read this and avoid the mistakes I made and have a good time out there on the trails.

Starting out on the run, I had climbed up a tremendously steep trail with lots of sharp rocks. You know it’s steep when you pass a guy with gliding gear strapped to his back and pass a marked jumped point just 20 minutes into the run. From there the pitch got a bit more reasonable but still calf strainingly steep.

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The first hut, early in the run

I arrived at a hut, my first checkpoint from the map, and felt like I was ahead of pace. “Hey, I could even throw some add-ons onto this run and meet Amy in time” I grossly overambitiously thought. Then I looked at the trail signs that showed what lay ahead in all the directions I could go. None of those names matched up with what was on my now sweat drenched paper touro-map and to make matters worse they were all incredible hard to understand or remember. I’d look at a name on the trail sign, then look at the map then as soon as I saw the first name on the map I’d forget what I was even looking for. Names like “Planina Vodioni vrh.” Other languages seem to make sense in my brain. Like a lake is “lac” or “see” I can process. But “jezero”? What is that again? Isn’t that what was on my pizza at lunch?

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Say what?

“The hell with it,” I thought, “I’m ahead of pace, as long as I go in the right direction then I’ll be good.” Umm no. From there things seemed good for awhile, with the pitch easier and trail turning into a double track, I got the pace up and was feeling good. Then I turned north on the steepest trail I’ve ever attempted to run. Not only that but it was narrow, winding, and laden with big sharp white rocks protruding from the damp soil. There were some amazingly interesting little nooks and caves in the earth out there, places where you feel like you could disappear without a trace. There’s definitely goblins living in those crannies.

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After a mile of that and seeming to get nowhere, I retraced my steps. Now back to the start of that trail, I turned west on what quickly turned into almost a replica of the steep path I had just been on. I decided to stick with it this time, at least on this trail I was moving in the right direction plus I definitely didn’t want to have to turn back yet again. At some point when other paths fail, you just gotta punch it up the gut to get to your destination. Soon I was hiking. Then I was doing some scrambling as it got steeper. 30 minutes of that and I was at the rocky knoll high above the lake that I started this story with.

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High above Lake Bohinj

So that’s how I got there. Here’s how I got out. I continued west on that path, descending off the knoll and still not being able to run due to the terrain. Finally, joyously, the trail opened up and I could run again. Things would have been swell at that point if I wasn’t trying to beat nightfall. Then moving into a clearing, “is that a few old huts?” Indeed.

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At last, signs of people

I popped out into a meadow, and ran up to the huts. I saw something pinned to thee outside of the hut, maybe a map, but on a closer look it was just a price list for the booze they had on offer. $2 a shot, that’s a pretty good deal way up here. I found three couples, all holding shots of clear hard alcohol in their hands, enjoying what or them was a splendidly relaxing scene. They were incredulous that I had run all the way to the hut, and better yet that I was attempting to run all the way back to civilization that very evening. I asked what the fastest way back was and after a few minutes of thought and discussion in Slovenian, they pointed in the direction I had just run from. Ugh. That’s definitely not what I wanted to hear. Surely there was a faster way. I explained that I didn’t necessarily want the most direct route and that I could run fast on a smoother trail. They reconvened and recommended that I follow signs to Pri Jezero, a lake with a hut to the north east. I liked the sound off that. They snapped some pictures of me, weirdo that I am running on these trails, and I took off.

I ran a short ways on a nice trail in the forest and there was a sign that I was only 45 minutes from Pri Jezero. Boo yeah! In Europe the trails always say how long it takes while hiking at a good clip and I’ve found that I can usually run it in a third of the estimate time. Sure enough, just 15 minutes of hard running later I arrived at a beautiful scene, a tiny mountain lake, a hut, lots of free ranging cows with cowbells clanging galore, and lots of people taking in the scene with good food and beer on a deck ready to spend the night at the hut.

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I saw some trail markers nailed to a tree. One directed the way to the closest parking lot. Perfect, way better than I had expected. Now things were going swimmingly. 20 minutes of bombing down the downhill later and I was at the parking lot. Just what I wanted. I was still high up, at a rather remote lot but at least I could crush it down the road and get back to the lake ASAP. The road turned out to be essentially at the top of a pass so I had to run a longggg ass ways down, yes running downhill does get old after awhile, but it was all good even though my quads would not be good for the following week. The road wound me right back to where I had started with Amy and Alistair back there to pick me up in our Volvo rental wagon. Whew, finally done. My GPS had died but in the end I had run 3+ hours for 15+ miles with 5k+ feet of climbing.

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The long and winding downhill road

If you want to attempt this run, going from one side of Lake Bohinj to the other on the trails on the north side of the lake, here is the key that I learned. Don’t take a direct route like I tried to do. Hugging the lake trying to go a shorter distance will bring you up and over a ridiculously steep route that’s impossible to run at times. Make a wider arc and swing out to the north to hook around as it’s way faster. That way you still climb a ton but you miss the higher peak and stay relatively in the valley where the trails are smoother. Plus it’s actually more scenic a bit lower with the little lake and nice forest. From there you should be able to complete the half circle, something that I failed at. Good luck!

 

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I started in Stara Fuzina and was hoping to loop north over to Ukanc

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Amy, Alistair and I enjoy an evening ride in the backroads outside of Bled

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