Trail Running In Bulgaria

Destination Dirt logo[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Gancho Slavov. If you’re interested in writing about trail running where you live, please contact iRunFar!]

Why?

Maybe you are tired of running the same races and looking for something different, or perhaps you will be traveling to Bulgaria for work, or maybe this idea struck you as so outlandish that you may actually give it a go. In any case, Bulgaria is a small, mountainous country on the Balkan Peninsula, and it has plenty to offer.

Where?

There are many options, depending on your preferred distance and terrain. We have to start with the classic Bulgarian ultramarathon, the Vitosha 100k. Dating back to the early 1980s, this race is the Bulgarian version of Western States. (At least this is how I feel after running, watching, or reading about it for 16 years.) The course (D+, two qualifying points for UTMB) is a relatively fast and runnable loop, but the cumulative elevation gain of about 2,000 meters (about 6,500 feet) is just enough to test your hill legs. The race has historically been fairly competitive, and after a lull during the post-socialist transition years, this tradition was restored. Next, the organizers are trying to raise the international profile of the race. Things could hardly be simpler, logistics-wise, with the start/finish line located just a short drive away from Sofia Airport and accessible through public transportation. And if you like a nice, long warm-up, you can race the course by mountain bike during the day, rest for a few hours, and run the race starting at midnight. (Special prizes are available for the double.)

Top Bulgarian trail runner and orienteer Hristina Kozareva on her way to winning the 2013 Skyrun Maliovitsa. Photo: Georgi Radev

Top Bulgarian trail runner and orienteer Hristina Kozareva on her way to winning the 2013 Skyrun Maliovitsa. Photo: Georgi Radev

The other Bulgarian ultra is Persenk in the Rhodopes. With its roughly 5,000 meters of vertical over about 120k (D+, three qualifying points for UTMB), Persenk is definitely much tougher than the Vitosha 100k. The inaugural race in 2013 was run in unseasonably cold, stormy weather, yet most people talked about coming back. The course is spectacular and the race is organized with a lot of enthusiasm, so I expect that this event will rapidly be gaining popularity.

If you prefer shorter distances, there is plenty for you to do as well. A year-round series of trail races, with distances ranging from six to about 20k, takes place in various mountains and hills near Sofia. In addition, Salomon is sponsoring/organizing several ascent-only races to the summits of Vitosha and the two highest mountains of Bulgaria (Rila and Pirin). The first skyrunning event in Bulgaria, Skyrun Maliovitsa, has been a real hit, and other similar races will probably start popping up in the near future.

With Whom?

The trail racing scene in Bulgaria is as diverse as anywhere: from ‘proper’ runners, elite orienteers, and cross-country skiing Olympians, to people who just like to go out for a run and prefer to do it off road (and everything in between of course). The popularity of trail running in Bulgaria is growing very fast, and the days when I used go to a race and know most people are long gone. Several Facebook groups (e.g., ultrarunners, runners in Sofia, casual runners) and specialized websites exist where people communicate and organize training runs. If you are planning a trip, contacting one of these groups would be a good first step (and do not feel like you have to do this in Bulgarian). Bulgarians take pride in their hospitality, and runners are a particularly friendly bunch, so if you get in touch early enough, you might be able to get a place to crash and a ride to/from a race.

Kiril Nikolov (Disl) is a world-class orienteer and mountain runner. Photo: MtK Sport Ltd.  (e.g., sixth at the 2013 Dolomites Sky Race),  who is also setting/attempting some very ambitious Fastest Known Times in the mountains of Bulgaria.

Kiril Nikolov (Disl) is a world-class orienteer and mountain runner. (e.g., sixth at the 2013 Dolomites Sky Race), who is also setting/attempting some very ambitious fastest known times in the mountains of Bulgaria. Photo: MtK Sport Ltd.

Shaban Mustafa is one of the best Bulgarian road  marathoners, but he also does extremely well in the mountains (e.g., eighth at the 2013 Jungfrau Marathon). Photo: ???

Shaban Mustafa is one of the best Bulgarian road marathoners, but he also does extremely well in the
mountains (e.g., eighth at the 2013 Jungfrau Marathon). Photo: unknown

Sochi XC-skiing Olympian Andrey Gridin leading (and eventually winning) the 2013 Skyrun Maliovitsa. Photo: Georgi Radev

Sochi cross-country skiing Olympian Andrey Gridin leading (and eventually winning) the 2013 Skyrun Maliovitsa… Photo: Georgi Radev

...but these two guys (Bozhidar Antonov - left and Toni Petkov - right) made him work hard for the win. Photo: Vladislav Terziiski

…but these two guys, Bozhidar Antonov (left) and Toni Petkov (right), made him work hard for the win. Photo: Vladislav Terziiski

Maria Miteva Nikolova had a great 2013, with a win at the Vitosha 100k  and very solid finishes at Lavaredo Ultra Trail and UTMB.  Here at Skyrun Maliovitsa. Photo: Vladislav Terziiski

Maria Miteva Nikolova won the 2013 Vitosha 100k and has had very solid finishes at Lavaredo Ultra Trail and UTMB. Here at Skyrun Maliovitsa. Photo: Vladislav Terziiski

So What?

Bulgaria has outstanding natural resources and trail networks, as well as a rapidly growing and fervent trail running community. I hope to see you at some of our races or training runs!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you a trail runner in Bulgaria? If so, can you tell us more about the trails, races, and community that make your country’s trail culture special?
  • Have you traveled to Bulgaria for trail running or racing? What kinds of trail opportunities did you find there?

There are 13 comments

  1. kzem12345

    This was really cool. The pictures alone demonstrate the massive difference in the terrain used in races there and in *most* of the races here in the US. Unfortunately in the US (or at least I'll speak for the San Fran Bay Area) we seem to have this local obsession with grooming the crap out of every trail in reach. Makes it hard to train on interesting stuff when I could likely strap on a pair of roller skates instead of shoes for most of the local trails. Gancho- appreciate what you have! I'm jealous!

    1. ganchoslavov

      Thanks! Ironically, I often think with fondness about the groomed trails through spectacular Douglas-fir forests that I used to run on in Oregon. Grass always greener on the other side?
      Gancho

  2. BillyBarnett

    So stoked to read this! I was in Bulgaria this past July and was blown away by the beauty! The people are friendly and the food is fresh and cheap! The town of Bansko is a great base for exploring the mountains! Bulgaria is a culturally rich and stunning country. I want to go back and explore more! There aren't many places that sheep brains can fuel a long run!

    1. ganchoslavov

      Thanks – this looks like a great website/group! I know embarrassingly little about E Bulgaria, but will rectify this at some point.

  3. @unknowndest

    Wow. I'm in Bulgaria at least one week per month, and I'm lucky enough to be based in Karlovo, right at the foot of the Stara Planina and have therefore access to lovely trails. Great country, nice people, good food.

    Next year I might have a go at the Vitosha 100k…

    1. ganchoslavov

      Karlovo is a great place to be for a mountain runner! You have probably heard about the semi-organized ultra СтаРа Планина 100х24 (http://planina.e-psylon.net/viewtopic.php?t=7455&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=0). I did part of it a few years ago, and it is well worth it. Then, of course, there is Kom-Emine (http://www.disl.bg/#!live/ck0q). But you will be hard pressed to come up with a bad run, just about anywhere you go, except the main roads. Enjoy!

    2. ganchoslavov

      Lucky indeed! You have probably heard of the semi-organized ultra СтаРа Планина 100х24, and of course there is Kom-Emine. Enjoy!

    3. ganchoslavov

      Lucky indeed! You might have heard of the semi-organized ultra Stara Planina 100×24, and of course there is also Kom-Emine, for which FKT attempts are likely to come thick and fast. Enjoy!

  4. markdorion

    Funnily enough, I have a young Bulgarian friend (who is also a top class ROAD ultra runner), Tztevan "Sopan" Tzekov, who travels the globe seeking the best ROAD ultras, specifically multi-day events. I believe TZtevan has been the youngest finisher to date of the world's longest ultra, the New York Self-Trans 5000Km (3100 mi). I am also trying to get him to come to my backyard mountains here in New Mexico for our trail-and-road event, the Sugarloaves "S.U.V." on Jan. 31, 2015. Again we are expecting runners from at least five countries at our fun, down-home backyard event.

  5. davidayin

    I was fortunate enough to live three years in the Rhodope Mountains as a Peace Corp volunteer and was thrilled to see this article in iRunFar's Best of 2014. The trails are beautiful and varied. One can spend several days traversing the Rhodopes Mountains and the Stara Planina on a network of trails. There are comfortable huts spaced at regular intervals along the trails that make multi-day trips pretty cushy. A room and a meal only cost a few bucks. Another bonus are the fruit (cherries, plums, pears, apples) that line portions of the trails. Good eats. The springs that are every where in the Rhodopes have some of the tastiest water around. One can run pretty light staying at the "hizhas", drinking tasty spring water and eating wild fruit and mushrooms.

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