Cappadocia Ultra Trail

Cappadocia Ultra Trail – 2023

 Olga Klenovskaya’s report on the Cappadocia Ultra Trail race – distance 38 km

There are cities where a single event can feed them for the rest of their future lives. Take Salzburg, for example, where Mozart was born – and for the last several decades, the city has been selling memories of him.

The residents of Goreme in Turkey, where we held a running camp before the Cappadocia Ultra Trail, live off selling to tourists views of the lunar landscapes of Cappadocia (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and hot air balloons: feeding, entertaining, and providing shelter to a multilingual crowd of vacationers from all over the world. It feels like you’re on another planet. Outside the city are fantastic rock formations, while inside the city, there’s a continuous festival and fair.

The Cappadocian mountains are made of rock that weathers relatively easily and over time has formed whimsical stone pillars, mushrooms, waves, and phalluses. The main activity for tourists is to view them. By all possible means. First and foremost – from a hot air balloon: at dawn, you and more 20 other people are put in a basket, a diesel burner is turned on below the balloon (hence, presumably, it’s best to fly when it’s cold – i.e., at dawn), the balloon rises, and for 15 minutes you hang at altitude. 

On one hand, we observed that some balloons fly on a controlled trajectory (although most remain stationary in the air if there’s no wind). But on the other, at 7 in the morning, dozens of cars with trailers and buses roll along the roads around Goreme – to pick up the balloons and passengers from wherever the balloon decided to land.

Afraid of heights? No problem! You’ll be seated on a horse, a quad bike, a camel, in a retro car, and carried from one viewpoint to another, and you, hypnotized by the unearthly views, will continuously photograph the stone blocks and hot air balloons above them; buy countless ceramic plates, magnets, mats; drink tea with baklava at wild cafes on the viewpoints in the middle of nowhere.

But if you run, you have a way to see the mountains and balloons in a way that’s inaccessible to most mortals: run the Cappadocia Ultra Trail. Distances of 119, 63, 38 km – of course, the farther you run, the more you’ll see. To catch the hot air balloons, you need to run 63 or 119 km – they start early in the morning. Those who run 38 km will only get the stone mushrooms – but they are also beautiful.

Sasha (Alexander Elkonin – coach) and I spent 3 weeks in a running camp in Cappadocia before the race. And, of course, compared to other participants, I had an advantage: for 3 weeks, we ran on the race trails. We didn’t see the race markings on the trails only when we climbed two mountains – Hasan (3256 m) and Erciyes (3916 m) – both about 100 km from Goreme. Two training sessions a day, acclimatization, practicing all the specific sections (especially the stone gutters – such I’ve only seen in Cappadocia) really helped me to run the race with a good result.

The Cappadocia Ultra Trail expo and the race start point are in Urgup, a town neighbouring Goreme. The race organizers offer hotel bookings there as well. In Cappadocia, there are unique hotels – Cave Houses. These are caves inside a tuff cone: several rooms are carved out, and people live in them. Around Goreme, there are many such caves, both operational and abandoned, some that have recently collapsed: as if children had built a castle out of sand, and then one of its walls fell off. Inside, there’s still a stove, a chair, square windows carved out and glazed, carpets on the floor, and nearby on the ground lie separate pieces of the wall as if made of dense compressed sand.

Wikipedia says that the caves in the soft mountains of Cappadocia began to be carved out as early as the 10th century BC – it was easier than building houses. And even now, people prefer to attach houses to the remnants – that is, the remains of tuff cones. We observed such structures in Goreme.

Where does this exceptional stone, suitable to carving, come from? Mounts Hasan and Erciyes were once volcanoes. And 60,000 years ago, they covered the surrounding valley with lava and ash. This created a flat plateau of soft tuff. Then water and wind carved gullies in the soft rock, and the space between them turned into cones. In these cones caves are cut out for living – Cave Houses. There are even multi-level underground cities – caves and thousands of cells carved into the rocks, where Christian monks hid in the first centuries of our era. We visited one such underground city on an excursion one day during the camp.

The 38 kilometers at the Cappadocia Ultra Trail on October 14, 2023, were my first competition since September 20, 2022. A year ago, I ran the Moscow Marathon, and then life turned into waiting: first, I waited 7 months for permission to enter Israel, then for a visa that allows leaving Israel, and for the end of the heat. And when, after a year, I found myself in the starting cluster again, listening to the hosts’ greetings and the countdown, it was as if I woke up from a year-long sleep and felt alive again. This feeling came back to me on the trail – I was not running alone in pre-dawn Haifa but in a crowd of people, just like them, and if I now overtake that girl and the next one, I will be better than them – at least, by one line in the protocol. This is something I can do right now, it’s within my power, I can control it.

And the whole atmosphere at the start of the race – the flags, music, hosts who addressed the participants in 4 languages in turn (they immediately said in Russian: come to the award ceremony tomorrow at 1 pm – indeed, Russians took up a significant part of the podium) – all this together gave me a sparkling sense of happiness and celebration that I had forgotten over the last year. The organization of the race, by the way, was excellent – bib distribution, changing rooms, toilets at the start, hot food at the finish, timing – everything was thought out for the comfort of the runners.

 I ran and wondered at how strong are the people I was competing with. These guys and girls run uphill without poles and don’t gasp for breath, run light – almost without water. I, with my 50 km per week and the complete absence of speed work, came in 3rd in my category and 19th overall, only due to experience and strategy. In the 40+ category, you can already rely on them:

1. Knowledge of the Cappadocia Ultra Trail course.

Competing after 3 weeks of training on the race course against people who are seeing the track for the first time is real cheating. When on September 22, I first tried to crawl (couldn’t run or even walk) down the descent between the cones of the fairy chimneys, I wrote in our club chat: “The most important thing for anyone wanting to run in Cappadocia is to train for descending in stone bowls.” This is a very specific terrain, and I haven’t seen anything like it in other mountains. But after 3 weeks of running through the bowls, I was able to run through them, even slowly – this was enough to overtake those who didn’t have this experience.

2. Ability to run downhills.

To my surprise, I found that the most challenging sections this time were the flat ones. I remembered the words of my ski coach, Masha Novoselova – that on the flat, you have to work all the way, whereas on the hills, you can rest on the way down. And here I am, an asphalt marathon runner, enduring the flat and waiting for a descent, or at least an ascent. We ran plenty of downhills in the camp, and on them, I overtook everyone I approached – including a guy from the Mityaev Team – he caught up with me on the flat, I overtook him on the downhills, and so we passed each other four times.

3. Climbs.

We also worked on these at the Cappadocia ERA Camp. In Dagestan (at the Dagestan Trail Camp), Sasha set up a workout: a 2 km loop, one kilometer down, one kilometer up. Complete 8 loops as fast as possible by any means. Then, I understood that the fastest way for me was to walk up and run down with all my strength. And since then, I’ve stuck to this strategy (not claiming it’s equally useful for everyone). I walked with poles, repeating Sasha’s instructions from training to myself: “Load your arms. Lower your heel.” When you’re going uphill with poles, overtaking people without poles also seems like cheating, but that was their choice.

 4. Start correctly.

In race photos, I saw endless lines of people on narrow trails. And since we ran on these trails for 3 weeks in the camp, I understood that it’s practically impossible to overtake from the side. Therefore, I placed myself (and pulled Viktor and Katya – 2nd and 4th place in their category) in the 1st cluster. To avoid getting stuck in a queue on the trail. We still caught a queue – when the 63 km and 38 km courses merged, and those running 63 km were already very tired. But, thankfully, they themselves stepped aside and gave way to those who run 38 km.

5. Water.

I had a liter with me, and although it was heavy to carry, I drank enough. I refilled at the aid stations. Following an old marathon tradition, I also took another bottle into the starting cluster – I drunk after taking loperamide, thoroughly wet my head and cap. By 10 am, it was already 18 degrees Celsius, and during the day it reached up to 22 degrees, so pre-cooling helped for the first few kilometers.

6. Food.

Thankfully, the gels didn’t cause any unexpected reactions; I ate a gel every 5 km and, as Sasha claims, didn’t slow down towards the end. Red Bull at the aid stations was also very helpful.

7. Sasha’s presence with the ERA flag at the aid stations.

When I got my slot at the expo, I told the organizers that Sasha (Alexander Elkonin) was ready to volunteer at an aid station. They issued Sasha a “Supporter” badge – it allowed him to officially be at the aid stations and feed his athlete. But Sasha fed everyone – he spent about 40 minutes at each aid station, standing with the volunteers to pour water – luckily, he has vast experience. And when the main flow of the 38 km was ending, he jumped into the rented Duster and drove to the next aid station – to catch Viktor, me, and Katya. And no, Sasha didn’t give me any special gel; I was just happy to hug and kiss him three times during the race.

8. Acclimatization.

In Cappadocia, it’s not super high altitude (just 1000 meters), but still, during the first days of the Cappadocia ERA Camp, it was much harder to move around than after 3 weeks.

9. The right shoes

(Decathlon, exceptional grip on the surface)

and poles

(Aoniji – carbon, 4-fold, super light, with a new design handle – it allows you to grip the pole in 2 positions – upper for ascents, and lower for descents). This is not an advertisement, I am ready to provide a link to the specific model upon request.

10. Weather and clothing:

from 18 to 22 degrees Celsius, started the race in short shorts and our ERA branded tank top with wide shoulders (we specifically order it for trail runners – it, on one hand, exposes the maximum amount of body, and on the other, covers all the skin under the backpack and protects against chafing). It’s very advisable to run with glasses – not for the sun, but for the dust.

Technically trail on the 38 km distance of the Cappadocia Ultra Trail is simple.

The vast majority of participants ran without poles – just a total of 1100 meters of elevation gain, and the same amount of descent since the course is circular. The descents are gentle and run well, except for descents in stone bowls – where people slowed down, as well as on a couple of descents into ravines. There were only a few places with height variations where you needed to go down or up about one and a half meters. But with poles, even these exercises become uncomplicated. And glasses for dust came in handy.

The most challenging sections for me were the descents on cobblestones (about 5% of the distance went through villages, where the roads were at best made of tiles, at worst of granite cubes – those were the ones where I was afraid of falling). The most enjoyable (totalling about 10 kilometers) were the trails in the ravines, where there was shade even at noon, and there was a real desire to run. The poles helped to jump over streams. And, of course, the descents – after training with Sasha at the Cappadocia ERA Camp, I simply enjoyed them, amazed that I could run faster than the guys.

Immediately after finishing, we went to Nevsehir Airport to return the rented Duster (by the way, for our next camp in Cappadocia from 06.10.24 to 21.10.24, we also want to rent a car – it’s incredibly convenient). I spread out all the wet clothes on the grass at the parking lot to dry, so as not to exceed the luggage weight limit. There, in the parking lot, I wiped the dust off my feet – as a substitute for a shower.

In our times, it’s hard to predict and promise anything, but I really want to repeat this camp in Cappadocia and this race in Cappadocia next year. I hope that by then, peace will return to our countries, and we will be able to run and travel.

And a huge thank you to the organizers of the Cappadocia Ultra Trail – especially Cigdem, the running addicts who pulled me together for the race (Viktor Miroshnichenko, Ekaterina Veselkova, Irina Figurina), and, of course, my beloved husband Alexander Elkonin, who has been enduring all this and indulging (almost) all my caprices for 4 years.