Sea-to-Summit Slovenia: Two Londoners Organise The Country’s Hardest Ever Triathlon

Triglav at 2,864m from Piran which triggered the idea behind Sea-to-Summit. Photo by Jošt Gantar.

Laying here with blisters on eight of my toes and my (c)ankle wrapped in ice, it’s starting to sink in how much this Sea-to-Summit Slovenia Challenge took out of us physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s true that nothing worth achieving comes easy and I’m grateful that we accomplished what we set out to do whilst humbled at how much it tested us.

We completed Sea-to-Summit Slovenia in 23h 43min on Thursday 5 September 2019, 17min before our self-imposed 24h cut-off yet it wasn’t as smooth a ride as we had hoped for.

The weather played a big part. We had opted for a launch date between 2-6 September assuming that the Mediterranean summer would still be with us. Instead thunderstorms and even snow(!) were forecast for the entire week. However, there appeared to be an acceptable weather window, and if we didn’t take it, our next chance would not be until 2020. The only small inconvenience was a 12 mph northeasterly ‘burja’ wind forecasted during the paddle section, but we felt it was manageable (famous last words). 

Armed with our equipment checklist, nutrition plan, and a detailed 48h event schedule, we were ready. I packed over 80 items of equipment into five sport-specific bags for paddleboarding, cycling (both day and night), trail and even a post-race bag with comfort items (such as slippers for our battered feet). It was then time to perform a final bike check, strap up my ankles, eat as many carbs as possible and drop off Chris’ van in Krma ready for our re-arrival in 30 hours time.

Who said paddleboarding was easy?

Start: 12:19 PM, Finish: 4:49 PM, Distance: 14.65km

Moving time: 3h 53min, Elapsed time: 4h 30min

Av speed: 3.8 km/h, Max speed: 10.4 km/h

https://www.strava.com/activities/2684567130

On Wednesday 4 September, we breakfast-ed on toast and eggs, then set off on the 90min drive to the coast. The Tourist Board of Portoroz had kindly granted us a day-pass to enter Piran (a privilege usually reserved for residents only). After a few delays at the gate, we received a key fob and a parking spot. The Sea-to-Summit Slovenia Challenge was on!

The white capped waves reminded us of an old Slovenian sea proverb:  “When the burja sails, you don’t!”. Undeterred, we launched our small crafts, but rounding the tip of Piran, we knew immediately that we were in trouble. Strong headwinds and oncoming waves destabilised us. The supposedly ‘easy’ part to our triathlon had suddenly become very, very hard instead. Then and there, within 5 minutes of starting our challenge, Chris and I had to discuss: ‘what do we do now?’. We decided to push on and take stock at Izola. Since our bodies were acting as sails in the high winds, we were forced to sit down, shorten our paddle and keep low. What we didn’t know was what compounding effects this hard paddle might have on the rest of our triathlon. 

A brutal three hours and 10km later, we reached Izola – desperate for water, food and a sunscreen resupply. We met my partner, Živa, rehydrated, stuffed our faces with Burek (Slovenian pasties), and agreed to continue regardless. ‘Let’s go for broke and if we blow up spectacularly on the bike then so be it’ Chris said. So we set off again, settling into the final 90min stretch. Weaving through sailboats, we arrived in Koper exhausted after our grueling sea leg which had zapped us from the word go. It was now nearly 5 PM and we still had the small matter of a 194km bike ride ahead of us. ‘Here we go’ I thought.

Let’s cycle across the country in the dark

Start: 5:33 PM, Finish: 4:55 AM, Distance: 194.31km, Elevation: 2,002m

Moving time: 8h 49min, Elapsed time: 11h 21min

Av speed: 22.0 km/h, Max speed: 90.4 km/h

https://www.strava.com/activities/2685570021

Ross and Chris at the top of a 1,400m climb from sea level

A quick Red Bull, change of clothes and a tyre pump later: we were ready for stage two. My eyes still stinging with salt water, and two hours behind schedule, it was time to put our setbacks behind us and get grinding towards the night shift ahead. We settled into the ride and soon knocked off a 500m hill which took out a big chunk of elevation early on and in the remaining daylight.

Before long, the dark of the night became our new companion. We arrived in Postojna, our first scheduled stop, to be met by  Staša – Chris’ partner – with pizzas and other delights. We dressed up in multiple layers of high-vis and turned on all our safety lights. The resemblance to a Christmas tree was uncanny. 

There’s a strange serenity to cycling in the dark. The traffic died down after 10 PM and, flanked by support vehicles driven by our partners, we set our sights on our second scheduled stop 70km away. It’s 1 AM by the time we arrive in Valburga after cycling through Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. Too cold to hang around outside, we waited for the girls and jumped into their cars for a moment’s rest. 

Nutrition was now the triathlon’s de facto success factor yet it was becoming increasingly hard to take on solid nutrition. Our bodies were starting to reject food, a good time to force down a sandwich and switch to gels to ensure we were still taking on an adequate amount of energy. 

The final 60km to Krma went by in a blur. We reached the foothill of Triglav just before 5 AM tired yet happy to be on the home stretch, kind of.

This mountain won’t climb itself

Start: 5:28 AM, Finish: 12:02 PM, Distance: 17.67km, Elevation: 2,098m

Moving time: 4:57:16, Elapsed time: 6:34:32 (estimated)

Pace: 16:35/km

https://www.strava.com/activities/2684575200

Walking past snowy peaks of Mali Triglav during the last few hundred metres of the challenge. Photo by Ross Murray-Jones.

After changing into mountain gear, the urge to lay down and not get back up was really strong so we could only afford ourselves 5 minutes rest before cracking on. We had proper food prepared in the van but we simply couldn’t ingest it, opting instead for isotonic carbs, aka sugar, for some much-needed calories. It’s difficult to describe what we felt then; I likened it to exiting an all-night rave and making your way home zombie-fied during the morning commute. We’d pushed so hard for so long through the night as everyone slept, and now we were surrounded by freshly energised hikers keen to scale the mountain at dawn. Little could they imagine where we had come from or what we had endured getting there.

Now 3 hours behind schedule, we discovered our GPS watch batteries had run out. We would have to summit ‘blind’. Since we’d both climbed Triglav a number of times before, this shouldn’t have been an issue but we were understandably tired and our heads weren’t thinking particularly straight. Evidence of this coming from the fact that we both forgot our sunglasses in Chris’ van. It turns out no matter how well you plan, stupid mistakes can occur. 

We knew the clock was against us as we ran through the Krma valley. 

Higher up, in a haze, we saw a sign for Kredarica (a lodge on Triglav Glacier and a milestone on our schedule). We followed the sign assuming that was the way, however, unbeknownst to us, it was a significant 3km detour on our route. Without knowing, and in good spirits with our pace, we texted down to our support team at 8.20 AM. ‘We’re nearly there, we’re making good time’. We truly believed we were right next to Kredarica. Except we weren’t. We were still two hours away and clueless to the fact.

The summit is calling us

Triglav is the highest mountain in Slovenia and the highest peak of the Julian Alps with an elevation of 2,864 metres. Photo by Davorin Pavlica.

Turning a corner, we finally caught a glimpse of our finish line, Triglav, gleaming in the sun. It was beautiful. And that is when we realised we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. We also realised that to have any chance of reaching the summit in time, we needed to step up the pace. At the most technical and dangerous part of the whole Challenge, and when we were at our most exhausted state, we had to increase our speed. This was starting to get very real. I wondered if we’d ever get a chance to just stop moving.

We reached Kredarica lodge at 10.20 AM. I was exhausted and bonking badly, the consequence of climbing hard for over four hours. ‘I can’t do it, I can’t go on’, I said to Chris. Only 1,500m away from our goal, it all seemed over for me. I had neglected to pay attention to what my body needed and was now paying the price. I called out to Chris, ‘I need sugar and salt – I need to see what food will do’. As Chris went inside the lodge to see what he could find, I layed down and promptly fell asleep. 

This was hard. 

Unlike official long distance challenges like UTMB® , there were no crowds to cheer us on. There was just the two of us and a handful of (presumably) Slovenes looking at us a bit funny. To be fair, we must have looked a bit funny. Things weren’t looking good and I told Chris to continue without me but he was steadfast in his response ‘We’re doing this together or not at all’.

After what seemed an eternity but was likely closer to 10 minutes, my blood sugar levels spiked up and my body sprung back to life. Maybe it was Chris questioning if we should try again next year or maybe it was my inner David Goggins spurring me on, in any case, I decided I needed to see this through.

We put our helmets on, packed my poles away and began the final ascent to the summit. It was very much mind over matter at this stage, but my body was in poor shape. An altitude of 2,500m, exhaustion and a sudden spike in stimulants led to my heart working overtime. It was racing fast. I had to stop every few steps, control my breathing, and slowly bring my heart rate down before pushing on. We moved painstakingly slow. And I was a little scared about what might happen if my body decided it had had enough. 

We reached the summit at 12.02 PM – 17min before our 24h self-imposed deadline. Thankfully, Chris was there with me every step of the way, even carrying my rucksack the last few hundred metres. I couldn’t have done this without him. We’d made it but I’d pushed myself harder than I have ever done before, and found myself in a place I don’t particularly want to go back to. A quick text back down to the world below gets a response of ‘YESSSSSSSSS’ and ‘Well done boys’. We were happy, tired and proud.

All over, only one thing left to do: a small 6-hour hike back down the mountain to meet our support team. Next time, I think I might pick a summit challenge with a chairlift at the top.

Ross and Chris summit Triglav to complete the challenge in 23h 43min, 17min before the deadline.

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