Argithea Mountain Race

In the Heart of Agrafa

A competition review and more

JUNE 19, 2024 | PETRILO, AGRAFA | 10 MIN

Agrafa

N 39°16'15.7"
E 21°35'45.3"

As many times before, I was going to the competition by bike. On the second day in the afternoon, after covering 90 kilometers, I had one last, long and steep climb ahead of me. Almost 1000 meters up, but I believed that I would reach Petrilo – the starting and finishing place of the Argithea Mountain Race – in time for dinner. As I slowly climbed the steep slopes, my faith weakened more and more. Finally, I decided to check exactly on the map, how far I was from my destination. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that I could not reach Petrilo through any gentle valley. I have to climb the St. Nikolas Pass at an altitude of 1,500 m and descend 400 m. The total climb is not 1000 but 1600 m, and the distance is not about 30 km, as I thought, but 45 km. I was not able to do it. I stayed overnight in an abandoned hotel, in the middle of the forest, somewhere at an altitude of 900 m. I was in Petrilo the next day, just in time for a late breakfast. This initial adventure best shows how much I underestimated these mountains. I didn’t fully realize that what stretched out in front of me was Agrafa.

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Argithea and Agrafa

Agrafa is the most wild and inaccessible region of the Greek mountains. It is located in the central part of the country, to put it simply, in the triangle between the towns of Muzaki, Karpenisi and Arta. Such a triangle drawn on the map has sides approximately 60-70 km long, so it is an area several times larger than the Olympus massif or the entire Tatra Mountains (Polish and Slovak). Data on the number of inhabitants are not precise, but according to Wikipedia, the commune of Agrafa (smaller than the Agrafa mountain range) was inhabited by 5,983 people in 2021, which gives an average population density of 6.5 people/km2 (!). However, the numbers quoted do not give a full picture of how inaccessible and isolated this area is. Nowadays, there are asphalt roads in Agrafa (although sometimes they turn into dirts), but residents of many villages have to drive to the nearest store or gas station for two hours one way! OK, we are still in Greece though, on this two-hour stretch from home to the store, local residents have four taverns at their disposal!
Argithea, from which the competition is named, is a region in the northern part of Agrafa, and the longest distance of the competition – 30 km – although it contains six outstanding peaks, has the shape of a ridiculously small circle on the map of Agrafa somewhere on the northern reaches of this mountain world. More than that, the main organizer of the competition easily drew – and realized as individual projects – the routes: Agrafa 150 km and Agrafa 300 km, still staying within the most wild region of Greece. The Agrafa Mountains may not be the highest (they slightly exceed 2,000 m), but their steep slopes and very deep river valleys make the region exceptionally inaccessible. It is therefore hardly surprising that popular etymology translates the name Agrafa as a-grafa, meaning indescribable. And indeed, Agrafa has not been fully discovered yet. So let’s try to present it a bit from the perspective of a runner and explorer.

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I went to the Argithea Mountain Race mainly because of the main organizer – Sotiris Filipou, who is a great embodiment of the Greek organizer of mountain runs. What does such an organizer do in Greece? He is not involved in marketing and selling competitions, he is not desperately looking for sponsors, and even logistics are of little interest to him. A Greek mountain running event organizer builds and cleans trails. Without this, the competition could not take place. All Greek mountains are wild, tourist traffic is minimal and the paths become overgrown in the blink of an eye. Even against this background, Agrafa looks like a complete terra incognita. There used to be a developed herding here and thousands of sheep, goats and cows, so plenty of paths. However, shepherding disappeared several decades ago, and without it, paths ceased to exist. Sotiris invented this competition, settled permanently in Agraf and for two years he has been looking for old paths, renovating them, and mainly building them from scratch and keeping them from becoming overgrown with grass and bushes. He is also constantly looking for new, more attractive fragments, renovating and securing water intakes (there are a lot of them here), and even building new “shepherd huts” made of stone, now as a shelter for a few tourists. How can you not support such a mountain enthusiast who is completely devoted to working for others?

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Argithea Mountain Race

So what does Argitea Mountain Race offer? There are three distances to choose from, plus a vertical and a children’s run. Despite being tired from two days of conquering St. Nicholas Pass, I decided to start in the vertical on Saturday and in the main distance Argithea Skyrace 30 km on Sunday. Of course, from a sporting point of view, it was not the best decision. A 700-meter vertical (over 3.6 km) on the eve of a major competition is never the best form of pre-start rest, but it was my first time in Agrafa and I couldn’t wait to start getting to know it better. Besides, my friends came, and running together with Panagiota is always a great pleasure. The route starts in the village of Petrilo, deep in the valley and leads somewhere to the slopes of the Aforismeni mountain, to a place with nothing special, except for a stunning view in all directions. As if the organizer had measured exactly 700 m of elevation gain and decided to spare us further torment by deciding that 700 m was exactly what was needed for a perfect warm-up on the first day of the competition.

Lakos Vertical

The route is steep at the beginning and leads through a thick fir forest. Towards the end, the space opens up, there is an intensely green sea of ​​grass, interspersed with occasional clumps of trees. A landscape I know well from many places where the forest returns to places once taken away by sheep and goats, but it still makes an amazing impression. Especially since there are still only a few trees here, flowering meadows dominate, so nothing obstructs the views. Both in the forest and higher, in the alpine zone, we follow a narrow, well-maintained path (built a few weeks earlier). Only 3.6 km, so we run all the time, even in the steepest places, and even faster towards the end, because the terrain in the open space flattens out a bit. At the end, Panagiota and I have a lot of fun, because seeing the timed gate and our friends cheering us on, we race to be the first to reach the finish line.

This vertical of the first day perfectly defines what I encountered in Agrafa during the main competition on Sunday and for the next few days, when I wandered around the routes, unable to part with such an amazing place: deep valleys covered with huge coniferous trees and a huge amount of open spaces above. Everything very green, because there is a lot of water, springs and small rivers everywhere.
If this picture doesn’t remind you of classical Greece, it’s close to the truth. Even the bottoms of the river valleys in the heart of Agrafa run very high, about 1000 m above sea level, and that is why there are almost no deciduous forests here. There are also no cicadas, oranges, olives or avocados. However, there are a lot of just ripening cherries, and the temperature in June was much more moderate than on the plains.

Tsimi Peak (1911, right) on the Argithea Skyrace route. The mountain in the background is Karava (2184) - the highest peak of all Agrafa

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Argithea Skyrace

The Sunday start of the main distance of 30 km (and all the remaining distances) is also located in Petrilo, but in a different part, probably more important, because there are more buildings here, and the competition base and the finish line are located in a large square between the former school building and the church. The beginning of the route largely coincides with Saturday’s vertical. The only thing is that we start on the other side of the valley, so first we have to run down and cross the river. To the seven hundred meters of vertical gain, we add an extra 100 at the beginning. In addition, the uphill does not end somewhere on the slope like yesterday, we run further up to the very top of Tsimi. This gives us a 1,000-meter ascent at the beginning, all over a distance of about 8 km! There’s nothing like starting a competition with a bang.

Surprisingly, I’m not doing as well as yesterday. I no longer run all the steep sections, I struggle to stay just behind my running partner Panagiota and I desperately try to save my strength for the descents. The Argithea Skyrace was sometimes advertised as a race of six peaks. There is no way I can count these six peaks, it seems to me that there are much more, or much fewer, but counting is a bit difficult because in several cases we do not run to the very peaks, traversing steep slopes. In fact, only two huge massifs remain in my memory: the initial Tsimi (1911), with a 1000-meter ascent, and Voutsikaki (2154) at the 20th kilometer of the competition, with a short but absurdly steep ascent. Between them was a very runnable, 12 km, relatively flat (since my Strava says the lowest point in this section is at 1,472m) stretch of open space with wonderful views in all directions and endless shades of green. The paths are soft, sometimes it’s just cut grass in the place where our route runs, so we run as if we were running through a large meadow. It’s good that several photographers were located in this place, we have a beautiful souvenir from the competition.

Panagiota and me on the last meters of Lakos Vertical

#save_agrafa

Save Agarafa social movement has become one of the most important grass-roots protests against the destruction of nature in Greece. Thousands of activists, local residents and local authorities are constantly protesting against the plans of the government and private investors who want to build huge wind farms (650 windmills) in Agrafa, irretrievably destroying this landscape, unique on a Greek and European scale.

I don’t have much strength left, but I manage to overtake a few people on the descent. However, the Voutsikaki mentioned above effectively drains me of almost all my energy. I watch helplessly as other competitors overtake me. The approach is only 950 m long and has a level difference of 300 m, but it takes me over 28 minutes to complete it. I praise Sotiris in my mind that now it will be only downhill. And indeed, from Voutsikaki it is almost 10 km to the finish line. Again, 1000 meters of level difference but this time almost only down. At the beginning, a narrow, steep and hardly invisible path, then (according to the organizer) kalderimi – a traditional Greek stone road, but probably the worst preserved of all the ones I ran on the Aegean Sea, and finally a forest and a super-fast dirt road. Also, the last section through the village is traditionally exciting, along a narrow stone path that winds between the houses in such a way that it is hard to believe that there is a passage around the bend. The last meters are some ultimate Sotiris “joke” – to reach the finish line you have to climb twenty steep steps to the main square of Petrilo!
I finish after 4 hours and 34 minutes, taking 17th place out of 125 runners who finished the competition. 10 positions worse than vertical. Interestingly, Strava application rates my performance slightly better than I do. It turns out that it took me exactly 1 hour and 17 seconds to run from Voutsikaki to the finish line, which is the 5th result among all the competitors.

Agrafa all around

I stayed in Agrafa for the next four days. The excuse was to help clean up the trails, but really I just wanted to be there longer. I walked/ran again the entire Argithea Skyrace route, part of it in the same, part of it in the opposite direction. I ran the steep ascent to Voutsikaki, which destroyed me so much during the competition, in 17 minutes. I listened to Sotiris’ stories, watched huge rock slides that sometimes create large lakes in the region, visited local taverns, and met people. I was glad that on the way back I will have this huge bicycle dowhill from the St. Nicholas Pass to Muzaki, where sometimes I had to use the brakes to avoid overtaking cars.
During this descent I felt it getting warmer and warmer lower down. On the plains of Thessaly it was 35 degrees in the shade and cicadas were singing. I was in real Greece again. And I already started to miss Agrafa.

Argithea Mountain Race
Distance: 30 km.
Elevation gain: +2000/-2000 m.
Date: June 15-16, 2024.
Additional distances: 13 km, +700 m; 5 km, +100 m; Vertical +700 m
Start/Finish: Petrilo/Agrafa, Greece.

Group of friends after finishing Lakos Vertical, the first day of the Argithea Mountain Race

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