Photo: Voicu Bojan

215 km

/ March 8, 2017

The place and the people

It’s -8 Celsius when we arrive at Tășuleasa in early April 2015 to record Tibi’s training for the great adventure scheduled for April 18, when he will run 173 kilometers from Piatra Fântânele to Cluj and then complete the 42 kilometer Cluj Marathon. We are shivering in a blizzard like two penguins marooned on a melting ice shelf.

Tanti Efti – in boots and warm clothing – is carrying out some delicate operation in the small greenhouse. She is happy to see the seedlings, investigates them and appears to have more faith in the tomatoes than I have.

“My dear, winter’s on the way out. It’s losing its grip and only playing the fool with us. Are you hungry? I’ve made a mutton and vegetable stew. Come into the kitchen where it’s warm.”

What is Tășuleasa Social?

Tășuleasa (Tășu) is a NGO located in the mountains along the Tihuţa Pass, the road that links Transylvania with Moldova. Named after the nearby mountain, Tășuleasa has been striving for 15 years to become an idyllic microcosm, a model community for the whole country. It is an organization that brings thousands of people together in one place. People prepared to give up their comforts and dig thanklessly on a hillside to plant saplings. All for the sake of a number of ridiculously simple principles such as: it is better to build than to destroy, it is more interesting to give than to receive, it is a finer thing to endow your own imperfect world with meaning than repeat the cynical cliché – “nice country, pity that it’s inhabited.”

Alin Ușeriu is Tășu’s creator and director, while Tibi Ușeriu, his younger brother, is the perfect second-in-command. Tanti Efti is their Mom. Around these three is a closely knit group of leaders that make things happen: Ana, Bum, Ștefan, Victoraș, Livia, Gabi, Miruna, Vulpe, and Andrei. Surrounding these leaders are thousands of friends, volunteers and supporters who have fought to protect and restore the forested mountains of Romania.

Training

“Well, aren’t you coming to have supper? Come on, it’s getting cold!” Auntie Efti calls to us from the kitchen. In silence, with slightly guilty expressions on our faces, Matei and I soak oven-baked bread in the sauce of a heavenly stew. Next to us, Tibi’s plate is filled with colorless gluten-free breadcrumbs, avocado salad, walnuts and green leaves. “So how does this man run 50 km a day on such a diet?” is the unspoken question.

After dinner, by the big warm stove in the dining room, Tibi tells us “this reforestation in Sibiu County has got me completely out of my rhythm. Tomorrow I’ll get a good run in. It’s good to eat a small, light meal in the evening and to go to bed early.”

I wake to the sight of snowflakes silently hitting the window pane. I spent much of the night in a lethargic state between dreaming and wakefulness, lost in an interminable running nightmare.

Step after step for 215 kilometers. We’re talking about five marathons! At an average of 1,200 steps per kilometer, Tibi is going to pound his legs on the pavement over a quarter of a million times.

What happens to a human body when it is subjected to the mechanics of such an effort?

We drive out of the campus gates and turn right down a narrow mountain road. Matei and I take turns driving, taking photographs and running with Tibi while we enjoy the fragrance of pine trees in dense forests, breathtaking mountain vistas and listening to whatever is on Tibi’s mind.

“Do you see that little house at the bottom of the hill? That’s where my grandparents used to live. In fact, that’s where I spent my childhood until I was fourteen. During the summer I was a shepherd and cowman. In those days, the school holidays meant hard work. I know all the boulders, all the cliffs, all the springs, the name of every high point in this area. I know where the forests used to stand.

In my runs, I’ve come face to face with bears, wolves, foxes, and sheepdogs. When the sheepdogs chase me, I have to defend myself with pepper spray.”

Then we move to the main road. This is where the fairytale ends. The environment is open and threatening. I felt more exposed and vulnerable than during my Communist Army medical examination when I stood naked on a scale before the board of examiners.

The cars speed past, whistling by, close to your ears. In dry weather, the trucks shroud you in a cloud of dust. In wet weather, you get a brisk cold spray and a blast of wind that throws you off balance.

We take turns at the wheel and hang out of the car window like laundry linen. Our hazard lights beat slowly like Chinese water torture. We change the scene, take shots against different backgrounds, drop into the valley, cruise by the lake, and climb once more to Pasul Tihuţa. And repeat the cycle all day, until night falls with a cold, dark vengeance.

The thermometer shows one degree above freezing, the wind is gusting amidst giant snowflakes. Poor Tibi, runs on undisturbed, with gentle, natural strides. I get goosebumps looking at him clad in shorts. He has an inner calm that is all his own.

That evening we meet up with a gang of volunteers back from a tree planting. Tășuleasa comes alive, as it does every evening, with a huge campfire, Van Morrison melodies, beer from a german donor and fresh food. Tonight, Livia prepares freshly caught trout from a nearby lake.

The Tășu volunteers are completing their fourth reforestation project of the spring and they’ve got two more to go. They have coordinated the energy of a couple thousand volunteers. Alin assures his brother Tibi, “We missed you, but everything turned out well. Let me get some rest and we’ll run together in morning, around 9:00 or so.” With that, Alin vanishes into the cold mountain night along the path that leads to his bedroom.

Although Tibi has only been running seriously for the last four years, he has enjoined a long list of friends into this inconvenient habit. Alin and I are two of the converts. As the circle of runners grew, Tibi fulfilled a dream of transforming an old Austro-Hungarian border patrol road in the Călimani Mountains into a marked trail that hosts an event that includes a bike ride, a trek, a marathon, a half-marathon and an 80 km ultra-marathon. This annual event, the Via Maria Theresia Marathon, is organized by Tășuleasa Social in partnership with Raiffeisen bank. When you ask Tibi about Via MT, his face lights up, as if he were in love.

Friday night before the run

A group of us are nervously gathered in the Tășu dining room, when Alin kicks off the final planning meeting by asking, “So Tibi, what do we do if you get as far as Dej and give up?” This is followed by a series of other questions, nearly all of which begin with ‘what if.’ We were all venturing far beyond our comfort zone.

Walking to our rooms, I ask Alin “What do you think? Can he keep going for such an appallingly long way?” Alin replies “Our Tibi is made of different stuff than we are. You, in fact, don’t know him, just like most people don’t. His story is more complex than what shows on the surface. I believe he has some secret resources known only to him.”

The worried Mom - Auntie Efti

“Oh dear, I’m so worried about my Tibi…How can anyone run such a terribly long way? If only God will keep him safe and not let some car run him over. When I was a skinny little girl, I actually walked to Bistrita once. But there weren’t so many cars back then. The road belonged to bullock-carts with wooden wheels. I remember doing the whole journey barefoot, rather than spoil my town-and-special-days shoes. In those days shoes didn’t grow on trees like they do now. I got there in three and a half hours, but I remember the trip back took me over five hours. Those were hard times, we didn’t have very much to live on.”

The soaking wet departure

The next morning begins with the sound of raindrops landing on the roof like thousands of tiny explosions. Worse than dust, heat or frost is the dampness coming from above. No matter what you wear and how many layers of mutton fat you lard yourself with, sooner or later the moisture works its way into your skin, causing your epidermis to wear thin, slowly turning it into an agonizing open wound.

“You wanted a bit of drama, it seems we’re going to have plenty today,” are Tibi’s first words to me. It’s not even 6:00 yet and he’s already bustling around the kitchen, dressed for the run in his black T-shirt with its white logo, smiling from ear to ear like a Bride/Groom on his wedding day. Around 8:00, Tibi starts his limbering-up while doing an interview for Romanian TV. He is so jovial, you’d think he was on his way to enjoy some beer and grilled meatballs, not headed to a pig-killing.

As we leave the Tășu campus, we find a small supporters’ club of neighbors clapping and shouting out encouragements. Tanti Efti fights back tears as nerves overcome her stoic face. Through a green tunnel of low-hanging pine tree branches, Tibi begins his first kilometer into the face of gusting sleet. His face is engraved with an inexplicable joy.

Our oddly-colored and hurried gaggle of runners was a curious spectacle sweeping through the countryside. For a while we ran next to an old man in a horse driven cart carrying a large white pig to market. In another village, two old women unobtrusively cross themselves as they timorously watched our group out of the corners of their eyes. It was a perfect metaphor of the old Romania and the new.

We pass the 50 kilometer mark in Bistriţa where an unexpected bunch of volunteer tree planters are yelling, shrieking and clapping for us all. The volunteers, who come in buses from Beclean, are heroes of a different kind, on the front line of saving Europe’s most spectacular forests.

The group is periodically joined by unexpected runners with nicknames like “Horse Trail” and “Tarzan.” The problem with the guest runners is that their infectious enthusiasm unintentionally increases the pace of the run.

Tibi’s rest stops become more frequent and his words become sparse. His unease is something you can almost touch. Sitting on the bumper of the car with a towel over his shoulders, he takes bites out of a salmon sandwich as if it were a piece of sponge.

As day turns to night, we reach the 100 kilometer mark, just north of Dej. We are joined by Tibi’s brother Alin. In his black balaclava, Alin looks like an oversized, blue-eyed seal. He is in a festive mood, trying to make all of us believe that we are having an incredible adventure, a great story to tell our grandchildren.

Although we have not planned for this, an organic wall of people forms around Tibi, as a swarm of bees changes shape and direction according to the flightpath of the queen. The cyclists are positioned on the side towards the road, those with brighter back lights forming the company’s rear-guard, while the runners, some five of them at the moment, are in a compact group, creating a human cage around Tibi.

On the way out of Gherla, at that place called Băile Baiţa, we are greeted by a supporters’ gallery complete with head-torches, cowbells and provisions. It’s so pitch dark that all you can see are shards of people. You identify friends from their voices. Among the gallery I recognize my wife, well swaddled up and with a thermos of tea in her hand, along with Andrei Dăscălescu, Nia and Mircea Miclea, and several other friends. Their presence was a comfort.

A cyclist lies down on his back with his legs supported in the vertical trunk of a tree, while Tibi gets treated for some nasty lacerations on his feet. Under glow of torchlight, Tibi squeezes his now swollen, bandaged feet into a new pair of running shoes.

What lies before us now is a relatively straight section of road, around 30 km in length, completely exposed to an obstinate, gusting headwind. Somewhere in the darkness of this road, my old childhood friend, Paul Borde, emerges on his bicycle. Crazily, Paul has ridden by himself out from Cluj to meet us. None of Paul’s clothes are on straight. Instead of a headlight he has a torch fixed to his handlebars with sticky tape in such a way that it illuminates his pedals more than it does the road. He’s half-frozen because he’s not wearing nearly enough clothing and he left his woolly hat at home, but he still brings with him a fresh breath of enthusiasm. Tibi smiles and hugs him, as if to steal a little of his energy. He gives all of us the feeling that there isn’t far to go now, Cluj is somewhere close by.

Soon we see an absolutely glorious sun is rising over the almost-frozen earth. But this natural beauty is mitigated by the smell of the derelict Bonțida pig farms. Adjacent to the pig farm, I pick out weary, pudgy gold-braceleted ladies in high heels descending the steps of an inn, steadying their thoroughly drunken husbands. We attempt to smile, but all anyone can manage is a fixed grimace reflecting lack of sleep and exhaustion.

The first stop in Cluj is an ambulance containing two doctors who (at the request of Horaţiu Morar, the organiser of the AROBS International Marathon) will decide whether Tibi can complete the final 42 kilometers of his run. Outside the ambulance, the team is worried. The Tășu supporters’gallery, with their placards and cowbells, are frustrated because they can’t see their hero. The tension is almost unbearable. Is this how it ends?

After a long wait and just a few seconds before an announcer proclaims the start of the Cluj Marathon, Tibi steps out of the ambulance. Stormy-faced and frowning, he then hurls himself into a sea of hurrahs and hugs. He is accompanied on the marathon by Toma Farcane and Horaţiu Iovanăţ, the official pacers. They are joined by Ștefan Antohi, the surprise kid from Iași, determined to bike and run alongside Tibi from beginning to end.

In the general chaos, like a colored wave, the now subdued running gaggle of humans begins to move past the starting line. The flock surrounding Tibi does almost a complete circuit around the stadium and then exits through the Someș gate into the streets of Cluj. They are the last runners to leave.

Things get very tough for Tibi as he has passes the 200 km barrier. After km 25 of the final marathon his body instructs his mind to refuse any kind of nourishment. The result is two steep drops in his blood sugar level, leading to fainting and brief losses of consciousness. Toma and Horaţiu are quick to come to his aid, flanking him closely, and holding him up until their friend can muster the strength to walk. With each struggle, he finds a way to run again. Cap pulled down over his eyes and head hanging, he seems far away from us.

Followed by a silent army of people, I am shaking as I run slowly at Tibi’s side. Unexpectedly, out of the blue, Tibi tells me quite simply that he loves me. “Yes, mate, I know, and I love you,” I reply. And I swear to myself then, on the spot, that one day, as a thank you for those words, I will tell the story of his run to the very best of my ability.

How could you not love him? Tibi awoke in each of us a latent, dormant instinct. Something that had been waiting, years, maybe decades, to be awakened. He demonstrated that it is worth believing in things that have never been seen or talked about before.

He reminded us that “comfort zone” is a synonym for hell. That we are explorers in a country whose borders we do not know, but which deserve to be searched out. That the only way we can discover our potential is by fighting the artificial limitations that have been imposed on us. He reminded us that we are “alive”.

29 hours and 50 minutes after leaving Tasuleasa in the rain, weighing 7.8 kilograms less, flanked by dozens of friends infected by his vision, Tibi Ușeriu crossed the finishing line inside the Cluj Arena. An indescribable atmosphere of grace was felt throughout the stadium at the moment he finished. Everything that came after the end of the race was more glorious than I had even dared to dream.

I left Tibi stretched out on a bed wrapped in icepacks, with a cardboard pizza box on his chest. His smile was crooked but kind of happy.

Postscript

This excerpt is from Voicu Bojan’s six part series on Tiberiu Ușeriu’s 215 kilometer run from Piatra Fântânele to Cluj in 2015. The full Romanian version can be found at www.romaniaone.org

In March 2016, Tibi Ușeriu was recognized by President Iohannis for winning the Arctic 6633, the world’s most extreme ultramarathon. His remarkable life story of redemption, love and community was recently published in his autobiographical book entitled “27 DE PAȘI”.