Last updated: 05-Dec-18
By Martin Ilott
The Virgin Forest Ultra Trail (VFUT) is a relatively unknown race outside Greece but offers an extremely challenging trail race through the virgin forests of Northern Greece as far as the Bulgarian border.
The 40 hour time limit may appear generous for the distance of 162 km. However, with nearly 7000m of ascent and some technically demanding sections, many seasoned ultra runners may find themselves battling the cut offs.
The trail courses through two beautiful forests: the fir forest of Fraktou and the virgin forest of Central Rhodope, a fairy tale land of dense deciduous oak trees and firs, impressive views, rushing streams and picturesque stone bridges covered in moss.
The VFUT is a perfect race for those who enjoy mountain trail races such as the UTMB and I would encourage the use of trekking poles to negotiate the terrain and support fatigued legs in the latter half of the race.
The easiest and quickest route to Paranesti is via Thessaloniki, a wonderful city with many historical and cultural highlights which is famous for its food. I flew directly from London Gatwick, picking up hire car to complete the 180km journey to the start village, preferring the slower back roads to more direct high roads with tolls.
Buses and trains serve the village and prices start from around 20 Euros return from Thessaloniki. I stayed at the Little Big Hostel in Thessaloniki, a charming and friendly hostel in the old part of town hidden in the narrow streets.
Greece is blessed with so many wonderful ultra races and I have been very fortunate to have run some of the classics including the Spartathlon, Olympian and Doliho and can now add the VFUT to this elite list.
As with the former races, the VFUT is well organised with superb aid stations, dedicated supporters and route signs of a quality and frequency that would impress any race director. There are 12 aid stations which are essential given the absence of villages on the course and the limited access any crews would have supporting their runner(s).
Two drop bags are permitted, and I placed night gear at the major checkpoint – checkpoint 6 at 60.7 km that offers warm fires, warm food and a marquee for shelter. The morning drop bag was placed at Checkpoint 10 at 127.8 km, although my arrival time was actually early afternoon as the climbs began to take their toll.
The start village, Paranesti is a good tourist location to visit the waterfalls and thermal springs in the area and is approximately 180km from Thessaloniki. There are two hotels and I stayed in the very comfortable Philoxenia Hotel, situated on a hill overlooking the village.
Runners of both the VFUT and 110 km NTR (Nature Trail Race) can benefit from free accommodation in a number of small houses on the outskirts of the village that can accommodate 6-7 runners and are available from the Thursday of race week through to the Sunday: an extremely generous offer that must be unique to ultra races in Europe.
Small grocery shops, a nice bakery and cafes and restaurants can be located in the village centre.
The race briefing took place on Friday evening and I spotted several runners from other Greek ultras. Rucksacks were carefully checked given the remote parts the route would reach. Essential equipment included two torches, a weather proof jacket, survival blanket and capacity to carry 2 litres of water and 2000 Kcals of food.
Mobile coverage is very poor in the region with signs nailed to trees where access may be possible (usually on the top of a painful climb!).
October temperatures are perfect for running. The days are warm, with T-shirt and shorts the only requirement, but the nights can be cold in the mountains as one ascends to nearly 1800m close to the Bulgarian border. The region has the nickname, the Siberia of Greece, with temperatures falling well below zero during the winter.
A good head torch is required for some Night sections with narrow foot-bridges!
Another fairy-tale bridge.
The routes of the various races were well marked but given the figure-of-eight route of the VFUT and the overlap with the shorter distances there is a possibility to follow the wrong race or reverse direction.
Please NOTE: when sat down always stay looking forward to the next route sign and don’t follow runners out of the aid station without first checking the direction of travel of the VFUT!
Route well sign-posted but ensure you know the direction of travel.
Typical of many trail races, the first climb of the day began with a 27km climb to the third checkpoint at 1200m. Gentle slopes on good trails became technically challenging steep ascents that reminded me of some of the trail races of the Chartreuse region in France.
A 10km steep descent followed before the next long climb of 40km that peaked at the high point of the trail, close to 1800m on the Bulgarian border. The 60.7 Km aid station is a good location to place night clothes and gear and to take in some warm food before a gruelling ascent over the next 20 Km.
A high-quality head torch is essential to traverse the route, cross narrow bridges and identify hazards on the course. The climb is lit with red beacons that point towards the stars, with only a race marshal and bonfire to interrupt a 4-hour ascent.
Close to the Bulgarian border.
A native saxophonist.
From 80km, a descent followed to 100 Km before a punishing climb and steep descent to the next major check point at 127.8 Km where there was an opportunity to freshen up: a change of clothes back into shorts and T-shirt, wipes, clean socks and toothbrush.
With less than 40km to go I had hope that the finish time would be close to 6 pm before darkness descended for a second night on the course. However, I exited the aid station in the wrong direction and pursued the 112km course for some kms, before being forced to retrace my steps back to the aid station when apprised of the situation by a race marshal.
Two further steep climbs and I was depleted of energy and fatigued as the hours crept by and it soon became apparent that I was going to be closer to the midnight cut-off than expected. The head torch was required for a further stretch as daylight faded.
Even as the finish approached, a testing river bed section slowed the pace to a crawl. Finally, dim street lights directed runners back to Paranesti.
There were fifty-four finishers inside the 40-hr cut-from 84 starters. I placed 47th in 38:53:31 hr (13th in the 50+ category). Greeted by the local major and race officials I sat wrapped in blankets, reflecting on one of the most exhausting and exhilarating races that I have had the pleasure to complete.
In summary, a superb ultra trail race in a beautiful part of the world. Highly recommended.
The VFUT started on Friday 12th October at 8 am with a finish cut-off 10pm Saturday 13 October. 162 km, 6887M of ascent Time limit 40 hours. Additional race distance of 110 km, 46 k 10km)
High-quality finishers medal to be treasured and a gift of seeds of local flowers.
All images Martin Ilott.