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  • © M. Papadakis
  • © M. Papadakis
  • © M. Papadakis
  • © M. Papadakis
  • © M. Papadakis
Crete as we Live it

Searching for cyclamens at Rouva’s forest - 2nd Zaros Trail Race

I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was April of 1999, and first-grade students of Biology Department of University of Crete had to visit Zaros for the course of Botanology. I believe now that most of us cared more about the trip itself and less for its academic character, so we did not pay much attention to what our accompanying professor was trying to say – until the moment when, exhausted, we got out of the steep canyon and saw them. A meadow full of white cyclamens… We were surrounded by trees and bulky rocks, we could hear only birds and the wind whistling, and suddenly, chit chatting stopped and all of us stood amazed by the beauty of the place.

It was love at first sight. The place was a true paradise. 20 years have passed, and since then, we had the chance to return there many - many times. Only an hour away from Heraklion, planted on the southern slope of Psiloritis in an amazingly wild environment, full of legends and history, Zaros is an ideal destination – for camping, hiking, cycling, for whatever takes us away from the noise of a large city. Having that in mind, the announcement for 2nd Zaros Trail Race was enough to persuade us! So, Sunday 13/05, early in the morning, me and my dear friend Giannis (crazy mountain fan!) headed south once again.

zaros trail 4

The race was organized for second time by the Cultural Club of Zaros and “Cretantrail” Zaros Running Team. We could not make it last year, feeling jealous for our friends who went, and were truly excited... This year however, we were luckier! There were 2 different races (11 and 25 kilometers long, and 700m and 1500m total ascent relatively), as well as a non-competitive walk. John and I would go for the long one, through footpaths (74%), dirt roads (24%) and cement (2%), and felt really amazed. Blessed be the foolish…

The wonderful landscape welcomed us amazingly. The artificial lake of Votomos overwhelms the village of Zaros, early morning’s mist forms shapes over the surface of water and the chill air hugs our bodies. And all around, the multicolored troupe of runners. Friends from all over the island, with whom we meet only at such strange places, embraces, laughs, teasing, warming up, race techniques and predictions – the slightly electrified atmosphere before a race start.

Just before we start, organizers welcome us and call us for a last briefing of the race. We will start by the lake of Votomos (400m altitude), we will cross Agios Nikolaos’ canyon and we will end to Agios Ioannis’ clearing (940m altitude, where we have seen the cyclamens), running by the side of Rouvas’ forest. From there on, we will uphill to the highest point of our run, Timios Stavros (13th km of the race), and then we will downhill to Pigadi (400m descent in just 2 kilometers). Next 2 kilometers will bring us again to 1200m altitude  at Dio Prini, and we will downhill again to Agios Ioannis. Agios Nikolaos’ canyon will bring us back to the lake of Votomos and the desired finish line. Sounds easy? Hmm…. People of the organization keep telling us that security should be our first priority. Τhey remind us the importance of showing respect to nature. They say that strong winds destroyed parts of the protective fence, and so we should be more careful there. They say that we should pay too much attention to one another, and that we should not forget to replace our supplies in food and water – and talking about all these, we head to starting line. Everyone smiles, but I look Giannis in a not very-optimistic way. And then, we shake hands, wish good luck, all around beeps the characteristic sound of gps finding signal, and we go. The party begins!

alex zaros

As we start, the pace is still slow. We are still crowded, our body needs to warm up a bit, uphill begins at once – so there is no point of pushing up so early. We begin slowly in order to end fast, as wise Stefanos Antonakis (a local legendary runner) always says… We get into the canyon, and the beauty is unbelievable. You can smell oregano, thyme and sage all around, the bells of the sheep produce an amazing soundtrack, and we try to find a chance to take our eyes from the pathway in order to gaze the view. As we surpass the first signs with the characteristic skull (“danger!”) someone wonders whether these are the photos of the ones who ran the race the year before! The pace in my group remains slow, but even so, the strongest begun to accelerate and depart. So long guys, “kalostratia”!

You can smell oregano, thyme and sage all around, the bells of the sheep produce an amazing soundtrack, and we try to find a chance to gaze the view

We proceed like this – we run through the river (its level is much lower than other years, due to the prolonged period of no rain during the last months) continuously in and out, and after a while we arrive at Agios Ioannis clearing. Some shepherds salute us, and they invite us to join them for a raki – a rather alluring proposition, but we chose to continue. Not so wise a choice apparently, and I realized that after only a while… The uphill that begins in front of us is terrific. The pace becomes even slower, and we start to walk. I cannot imagine how an ordinary person can run this… But there is no place for negative thoughts – we smile to the runners next to us in order to encourage one another (we do not talk anymore, in order to hold our strength), we focus on our pace, we have the theory in mind (small steps, our weight ahead, torso and hands moving like paddles, and we hope for the best), let’s do it.

Some shepherds salute us, and they invite us to join them for a raki

And somehow, like if the good God of the runners shows mercy on us, the uphill ends (only for a while, as I had to discover later) and we get into a dirt road, where we meet the first supply point. Sesame bars (“pasteli”), bananas, nuts, oranges – all most welcome, and above all, the smiles of the guys there that pushes us to continue. We smile and thank them, and we keep going. Psiloritis is appearing in front of us in all its magnitude, and the breathtaking view is compensating our efforts. Only when we see Skinakas Observatory we realize the actual altitude we are…

Dirt road is a real relief for our tired bodies, the pace begins to become faster, I catch up the guys in front of me and we continue together. We run and we ascend and we talk like we know one another for a long time, we enjoy the view, we overrun and we are overran – pure joy! As we reach Timios Stavros, we meet a supply point once again. We chit chat a bit with the volunteers there, I continue running on the road and they hold me back – “no, no, no, you have to continue THIS way”, and of course, “this” stands for a small pathway that dives into a cliff. #$%^, and other black thoughts….

zaros trail inside

From there on begins the downhill that shows the way back. We run under a green dome formed by oak trees, below our feet the fallen leaves form a thick carpet, and this time, we really run. Only the instinct of self-protection withholds us a bit… My company disappears, as I cannot hold their pace, and I will see them at the end. From now on, I follow the unorthodox style of “falling-not falling” (pointing my destination, and getting there is a combination of shrugging, slipping and jumping) again and again, hoping that I will complete this track in one piece. There is no chance for looking around this time, but there is something childish in this, and it just feels great. My question returns – how, in the name of God, the fastest ones run it?!

We run under a green dome formed by oak trees, below our feet the fallen leaves form a thick carpet, and this time, we really run

When I finally get down, my veins are full of adrenaline – but the real problems are in front of me. Leaving the trees behind, leaves us with no protection, and sun begins to burn us. And if this is not enough a new monstrous uphill is in front of us. #$% again… I catch up some guys in front, it is hard, but we finally are up. We shake hands, we smile in relief and we enter once again into a dirt road. But this time, my legs are really heavy, and I cannot run like before. It is ok, the view is at least breathtaking!

metallio zaros

We reach Dio Prini, a bit exhausted. I stop to catch my breath and visit the small church, and the aged ladies that take care of it wish good luck and offer me frozen water melon – you cannot imagine its taste! I just do not know how to thank them enough… And then, once again, we have the same show – downhill! We run, we slip, we jump, we slip again, we smile like small kids, we surpass bee hives and sheep flocks and we do not feel pain or fatigue – it is just amazing… We reach Agios Ioannis, where the life guards are taking care of a wounded runner. We do not know whether he will be able to continue, we wish all the best, and we continue in a more restrained way. It could happen to anyone.

This way, we enter to the last part of the race. Kostas M. runs with me, and having a company helps a lot. We run down the canyon we uphill some 3 hours before, we meet other visitors that head to the opposite direction and kindly leave us free space, we know that the end is near, but even so, it seems to be too much for our tired bodies. And suddenly – music, screams, laughs, applausing, Votomos Lake reveals itself… We did it! 

zaros termatismos

And then? You cannot describe these feelings. I am looking for friends, we hug each other, we shout all together, we keep moving afraid of the crumbs, we look absolutely satisfied and devastated in the same time. Magic! In searching of a place for changing clothes, I see some fearless guys that swim in the lake (where trouts and eels have the size of a small kid). I decide to take the risk – a frozen bath is all I need right now, and I am convinced that probably all the monsters of the lake should run away, compelled by the way we look (and smell!). It turns to be a wise choice. Refreshed enough, I catch up my friends at the finish line. We stay there to honor all the finishers, everyone deserves it today…

Now, it is time for the engine to shut down… Shoeless, I walk by the tranquil lake. I am holding a frozen bottle of beer and, lost in my thoughts, I leave behind the tence, the fiesta, the music, the noises. What a great day! What am I going to think the forthcoming days?

 I see some fearless guys that swim in the lake where trouts and eels have the size of a small kid - I decide to take the risk

The incredible hospitality of all the people behind this great race – their smiles, their joy, their encouragement, their supportiveness, their “meraki” (untranslated!).

The race itself was something to remember – signaling of the route was excellent, refreshments points were more than adequate and life guards were literally everywhere. Last but not least, the technical t-shirt we were given was of top quality, as well as the wooden medal at the end.

The amazing nature, the water melon and the bloody-red “isotonic” into the plastic can (wine equal to nectar, but unfortunately, I could not have more than a sip, or I would stay permanently to Agios Ioannis, singing “mantinades”). And… and… and the list is endless. I am thinking with deep respect all these people that, not so long ago, did that route daily under much harder conditions, and I wonder what we have lost by living in large cities.

Someone shouts my name, they call me back into reality. Stew is served, traditional rice smells incredibly, friends are waiting for me, I go. I cannot help it, I smile happily… Salute “kopelia” (untranslated again!), cheers, until next time!

Alexandros Stefanidis

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