At 120km of trails through the world heritage Dolomites, and with 5,800m of climbing, the Ultratrail Lavarado course may not be the longest, or steepest, but it is the most magnificent. It sits in a sweetspot – providing an optimum level of challenge and enjoyment – and is a course with purpose and pleasure.
Coming into Utratrail Lavaredo I had high expectations. My UTA100 result was a best ever and I felt strong and confident. I will write a separate post on the days leading up to the race in the Dolomites, but in summary: everything went as well as it possibly could, apart from burning a bunch of nervous energy pre-race. I lined up at the 11pm start fired up and ready to go.
My race turned out a bit of a disaster. However, rather than write up a pessimistic race report, I figured I would get the bad stuff out of the way up front and not dwell on it the rest of this report.
So what went wrong? My body rejected my nutrition from the start. I was forced to switch to Coke from the first aid station and rely on an emergency stash of Haribo worms (I had 4!). By 70kms my tank was empty. I tried to phone home to get the OK to withdraw, but thankfully no one answered. As I approached the 103km mark, where I pulled out last year, I bonked completely and lay in a ball on the side of the trail in the blazing sun half awake, half asleep, before trying to pull myself together. I proceeded to walk off the side of the trail three times, sliding down the hillside. The massive volumes of Coke also turned my pee brown which was a bit of a worry!
Despite this, I still had an amazing day and, for the most part, the 120km were an absolute joy. I finished and had a result on par with my 2015 and 2016 UTA100 results so I couldn’t ask for much more. So back to the start line…
Right in the heart of Cortina, the start experience at Lavaredo is second to none. The atmosphere is electric and it is impossible not to get fired up.
This year I positioned myself right near the front nice and early. Shortly before the start I saw another Aussie, Ben Blackshaw who I had caught up with for a run earlier in the week. Ben runs at a far higher level than I do. As soon as the race started he blasted on by. For a moment, I considered trying to tag on behind him. I was already holding a good pace so sensibly just settled in for what would be a long day. My goal time for the 120k was 17hrs 30mins to put me in the top 100, with a backup plan to finish in daylight, or roughly 22hrs.
As the crowds thinned out we hit the first climb of the day. It’s relatively short, around 500m vertical over 5km, and my calves were a little tight so I backed off. At the top of this climb there is a flat fast section. Any spots I had lost I clawed back quickly and hit the first descent – a technical single track switchback section that is pretty fun in the dark. I continued to grab back places. Another short flat section and small climb then followed before the 18k aid station where I refilled my water bottles with Coke. Straight after the main part of the second climb began. This one 600m over about 7km. According to Strava, I was faster than last year on both the first and second climbs.
The second aid station at 33k came and went. My pace remained good, although the timing system suggests this was my lowest position of the race in 203rd.
I passed through the 40km mark (1/3rd race distance) in about 5h 20min which left me feeling confident about my goal time of 17.5hrs. I was also 20 minutes up on last year. But it was still early in the race.
There is something very special about running through the night and into the dawn, and when that dawn brings with it the high mountains of the Dolomites it is just amazing. This year I was noticeably further along the course when I put my headlamp away, just as the final push up to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo commenced. The colour up in the mountains from the sunrise is a well-earned reward for a hard nights work.
I passed through Forc Lavaredo, one of two high points on the course ready for the 15k descent to Cimabanche where my drop bag was waiting. This descent is an interesting challenge between grabbing back time and protecting your quads. I decided protecting my quads was the best option. Even so, by the aid station I had clawed back over 30 positions in the 33k climb and descent sector over Lavaredo.
Exiting the Cimabanche aid station I was under the influence of Red Bull and feeling reasonably good. Immediately the next climb commenced. This climb is relatively small and almost easy to miss but it tends to just grind on and on at a constant gradient, and as it snakes around the mountain consistently it gives you the false hope that it’s nearly over. I wasn’t fast but I was reasonably consistent, and after a short descent arrived at the next aid station another 11 positions better in a race high 161st. I guess I had no idea how well I was progressing and mentally I was struggling. The Red Bull had worn off by now. A couple of custom made Nutella sandwiches on soft bread (why do Europeans eat Nutella on dried out crispbread only?) from the wonderful aid station crew helped a lot but the weight of the next leg, a 20km sector featuring a 10km, 900m vertical climb up Val Travenanzes though the heat of the day weighed on me. This sector was where last year’s race fell apart and it felt like the same was about to happen this year.
By now I had been running largely in survival mode for several hours and I was over it. After my failed phone home attempt, I decided my only option was to press on. At this point I decided to switch to sightseeing mode. The valley is spectacular and there were so many people out just having a great day enjoying nature, I figured I deserved the same rather than suffering inside a pain cave. Mentally this helped a lot. I also had ticked off 70km’s in about 10hrs so figured if I averaged 5km/hr for the next 50km’s I was still in line for a comfortable daylight finish. Basically, I stopped racing and decided to walk it in from 50km’s out!
At least I had a spectacular few hours and had the most amazing time enjoying this valley of dreams.
I also knocked off the middle third of the race, passing though 80km’s in about 11hrs 30mins. By now I was about fifty mins up on last year, although to be honest I didn’t realise it. I guess having some better mental prompts on how I was truly progressing would have helped. I really should have had some pace charts and maybe I would have known I could press on harder.
I was happy to make the Col Gallina aid station. It turns out that despite my sightseeing stroll I had only lost 15 positions on the leg. I started to once again feel excitement about finishing this beast of a race. I had one big challenge left, the 7km leg from Col Callina to Passo Giau. Whilst short, it is the second high point of the race and it was hot. I bonked, but I already wrote about that up front. Somehow, I made it to Giau although I had lost nearly 20 positions in the process.
Last year my race ended here. This year such a thought never entered my mind, there was no question, I was going to press on. My mission was to begin at 17hrs not end.
What I wanted was a good refuel at Giau, but the 1000+ runners from the Cortina trail race who had already passed through had cleaned the place out. “No, I would not like a slice of Lemon, thank you, nor a slice of Salami.”
Whilst the organisers did a much better job with aid stations this year, there are five things I believe every aid station should have:
- Water (tick)
- Electrolyte (tick)
- Coke (tick)
- Salt chips/potato crisps (cross)
- Jelly lollies (cross)
So 3 out of 5 is a pass, but seriously, Salami, cheese, crispbread and lemons are at best luxury items.
Anyway, I quickly got out of there. The next climb immediately after Giau is short but sharp. With every step I was starting to feel stronger and was again moving past other runners. As soon as I crested the climb I was back to normal running.
One last short climb then about 9km’s of descending into Cortina to go. I started the decent conservatively. I had no idea what my quads could handle but they were holding up well and progressively my speed built. Slowly, high mountains turned into dense forest, before everything opened out again for the grazing land around Cortina. My 117th km was smashed out at marathon pace. Before long the clock tower at the finish became visible and I was entering the town. The finish atmosphere was every bit as good as the start with plenty of high five’s.
I was done.
My time was 19hrs 43mins 2 secs for 184th place out of 1515 starters. I basically split the difference between my goal and backup plans. All things considered, it’s hard not to be happy. I had an amazing, albeit extremely tough day, and I don’t do these races because they are easy. Physically I finished in much better shape than UTA, with minimal muscle soreness the next day. This proved to me I could have gone much harder had my nutrition been able to keep up. Mentally, the scars have healed quickly too. With my first 100mile race just over the horizon this is essential. I need to be prepared to let myself hurt again.
Ultratrail Lavaredo is simply the most amazing race through some of the most spectacular landscape on earth. It is challenging and rewarding.
To finish this post, I love the Dolomites and would love to spend enough time over there to properly immerse myself and explore the entire place properly. But next time, I think I’ll make it more of a holiday.