In the three years since I took up running, racing in the mountains of Europe has been a dream. For so much of my life I have been drawn to mountains. The Alps, the Dolomites, are unlike anything else I have experienced. Skiing them wasn’t enough, it just made me hungrier. I spent so many years looking for a better way to connect with them, first climbing, then paragliding but neither of these gave me a clear pathway to make it to the next level needed truly tackle the awesome mountains.
Trail running provided me with a chance to fulfil my dream in the form of an Ultratrail Lavarado lottery ticket.
Ultratrail Lavaredo was my A-race of 2016. Everything was carefully planned to build towards it, to harden my legs and sharpen my mind. The Buffalo Stampede Skymarathon, Mt Solitary Ultra, and UTA100 were the major milestones in the lead up. By the end of those three races, I was feeling strong, confident, and ready to race in Europe.
Monday – Arrival in Italy
Flying out of Sydney via Dubai straight into Venice was great. By Monday afternoon I arrived in my hotel just a few minutes above Cortina. The drive from the airport was spectacular. No sooner had I got into my room, I pulled my running shoes on and headed out to explore. I wore my Terra Kiger 2’s and almost instantly found some trails in the forest. I had planned a nice flat 5k but nothing is flat in the Dolomites. Instead I descended some really nice single track and fire trail to a small lake and hydro installation before finding the road back to the hotel.
Strangely I also passed another Aussie who was over for the race, the only other runner I saw! The Terra Kiger’s were my backup race shoe, but by the end of the run I had decided I wouldn’t use them as they slipped over the wet dolomite stone like ice skates. This decision would ultimately come back to haunt me.
Cortina is an outdoors paradise — full of adventure and probably a really bad place to be when you are supposed to be wrapped in cotton wool protecting your energy levels ahead of a huge event.
Heading out for dinner, it really turned it on and served up a spectacular double rainbow!
After dinner (pizza of course) I loaded up on maps and other guides. THERE WAS SO MUCH TO DO. Cycling, via ferrata and a million superbly marked trails to run. I decided Tuesday morning I would aim to get to the top of something nice and high!
The morning brought a 5k, near 1000m vertical run/hike up into the snow and ended at an old WW1 fort a few hundred meters below the summit of the Tofana, high above Cortina. My plan was to go all the way to the top but there was simply too much snow to progress any higher safely. Having a snack in the fort, I imagined the effort involved in building it and servicing it with weapons and ammunition. It really blew my mind.
The altitude was the same as that around the high points of the race and the air was thin. The effort to get there was certainly greater than I needed to exert, but I deemed the acclimatisation worth it.
The 5k descent consisted of a fairly inelegant slide down the snow before carefully descending the scree slopes trying to make sure I didn’t injure myself or blow up my quads.
For this run I used my race shoes, La Sportiva Akasha’s. They stuck to the rock like glue, although the snow did leave them noticeably wet.
I spent the afternoon relaxing and exploring some of the mountain road passes by car, before more pizza and an early night.
Come Wednesday I decided to check out some of the race course and headed to Passo Giau. This pass comes at the 103k point of the race. I headed up to Rif Averau, the final high pass of the race and then up to Nuvolau above to finally tick off my goal of summiting something.
Running back to Giau (in the correct direction of the race) I must admit I noticed that I wasn’t enjoying the rocky nature of the trail a whole lot. This probably weighed on me a little negatively, thinking about tackling it with 100k already in my legs. I passed the same Aussie, Ben, I had passed on Monday, had a quick chat, and headed back to the car.
By the end of my run, it was turning into a pretty hot day so I decided I would try and have a swim. Lago di Federa, also inside the last 10k of the race seemed like a good target to have a nice easy walk to. Whatever path I decided to use, however, was far steeper than the map indicated. After a few hundred meters of climbing I decided to turn around and chill my legs in one of the crystal clear streams instead of burning my legs unnecessarily.
Come Thursday, the day before race day, the event expo opened. Compressport hosted a social run with UTA100 winner Pau as well as Scotty Hawker, Majell Backhausen, and the rest of the Compressport team. It was an easy 5k along the opening sector of the race and a great chance to meet the team members. Not to mention score a free hat!
Afterwards I checked in and wandered around the expo. It was pretty good but probably only on par with UTA 100 this year, which goes to show the quality of the UTA event.
Friday – Race Day
Come race day I was kind of at a loose end. What do you do when you race starts at 11pm?
I decided to head up to Passo Falzarego and catch the cable car up the mountain and just spend some time chilling out up at altitude. By mid morning I was back in my room trying, badly, to sleep. I might have got a few hours. The rest of the afternoon I spent double and triple checking my gear and getting my drop bag perfect. In it was a full change of gear and a complete nutrition restock, including two fresh bottles ready to go. What didn’t go in was spare shoes. The Terra Kigers were cut.
I had also picked up a 1L bladder at the expo. I don’t really like bladders, but usually carry one at UTA100 because of the 2L water requirement. Because UT Lavaredo only required 1L capacity, I had left it at home. But the temperatures were getting really hot during the day, so I thought it wise to carry one. I would start with it empty but loaded with electrolite powder, ready to be filled with water once the sun rose.
At 7pm I headed into town to find parking and deposit my drop bag. The race also holds a “pasta party” from 7pm till 9pm. I had planned to avoid this as it just didn’t make sense to me to carbo load 2hrs before the race, but eventually decided a small plate wouldn’t hurt.
Come 9pm I was back in my car watching a huge thunderstorm roll down the Valley. Before long everything went black. Once the storm eased off a bit, I got my gear on and wandered to the start. Since no one was in the start area I decided to find shelter somewhere and relax.
The next time I looked, the start area was full. UT Lavaredo doesn’t do wave starts, and I had definitely missed scoring a prime position at the start. Personally I am not a fan of wave starts, but self-seeded mass starts can be even worse. I just don’t understand peoples inability to take a long hard look at themselves and seed themselves appropriately. Its surely not that hard. Not that it mattered too much. It’s a long race and there is plenty of space in the first few k’s through town to position yourself.
The race is 119k in total starting and finishing in Cortina. It’s almost split into 2 equal halves with a drop bag at Cimabanche at 63k providing a chance to reset things a little. The start is setup to most people pass the Lavarado high point around dawn, marking the completion of the main climb on the front half of the race. The back half also features one main climb. Apart from these two big climbs there are plenty of other big (certainly by Australian standards) climbs and almost no flat kilometers. Almost all the 5,800 meters of ascent come in the first 100k. The profile below (from the race site) is a useful reference to the names of places in the post.
Standing in a crowd waiting tends to zone me out. But suddenly I was awakened into the dream by a multi lingual countdown.
We were away. Once over the start line I comfortably jogged through the crowd and found myself in a nice position. The support through town was amazing. The closest I can think is the finish line at IM Australia in terms of atmosphere.
As we exited town I had warmed up so took off my buff and turned on my headlamp. This presented my first dilemma of the race. My headlamp was too loose so I tried to tighten it and suddenly the strap exploded. Now I was left fumbling on the side of the road 3k’s into the race trying to fix my headlamp as the rest of the field streamed past. Bummer.
Once out of town the road climbs and very quickly becomes firetrail. The atmosphere was still electric with huge numbers of supporters still lining sections of the course. At least I went to the toilet pre-start because every hairpin seemed to have 5-10 people relieving themselves!
I hadn’t set myself any hard time goals for the event beyond a rough estimate. A few Strava profiles that had been logged gave me some idea. I had decided topping the first climb at 1hr was a good goal, but otherwise my only real target was to not burn any matches in the dark and then roll through the next day. In the end, I cruised over the first climb in 59mins — bang on. I was also very wet. The storm coming through after such a hot day had made the first section noticeably humid and the wet ground had soaked my feet.
The descent was great. Still like a dream running through the dark. After a while it turned into a technical single track. This section did get a little slow as I struggled to find good spots to get through the conga lines that formed.
At the bottom of the descent the course crosses the main road. The cowbells, lights and cheering was amazing, even at nearly 1am in the morning!
By now I was running well and comfortably hiking the steeper sections. The second pass of the race came at about 25k and my goal was 3hr 30mins. I made it through in about 3:25 so I was still tracking really well.
By this point I was cold and put on my thermal top. This was the first time I have ever needed to do this in a race!
The next big climb was all the way up to the Tre Cime Lavaredo at pretty much bang on 50k, with the Lake at Misurina and a couple of smaller climbs in between. It was this section that was particularly hammered by the storm and the last few hours before daylight as I approached Misurina was a horrible, muddy, slippery, quagmire. On one hand I was still feeling really fast but every step was so draining mentally. I hate to think what it was like after another 1000 sets of feet passed through.
Arriving at the lake, it was nice to be able to put my headlight away and push on along some relatively groomed trail. This also marked my passing through my first marathon… just under 6hrs with 2000m of vertical.
The final climb up to Rif Auronzo, right at the foot of Tre Cime was great fun, almost scrambling over rocks. At this point I should have probably taken a rest but I felt good and inside the checkpoint was uncomfortably hot. The food options were also quite unappetising. Euro aid stations are stocked quite differently to Aussie ones!
At least there was Coke to drink. So a quick refill and I was keen to push on to the drop bag at Cimabanche. It was after all mostly downhill from here. A small amount of climbing took me up to Forc Lavaredo, the race high point just under 2500m. 51k in 7hrs 41m. From here it was 10k of descent and the halfway point. I had planned on blasting down this descent but instead I had to take it easy. My mud filled shoes were starting to cause problems and my feet weren’t happy.
Daylight revealed the spectacular scenery. It was never boring and very easy to keep your head outside of your body.
Before long I was collecting my drop bag at the 66k Cimabanche checkpoint. I felt relatively good and was looking forward to fresh gear and especially dry socks. I refuelled, restocked, an changed my shirt and socks. My feet didn’t look great but they were happy to be dry, temporarily. Fresh shoes would have been heavenly at this point. I also switched out my headlamp and spare battery for a smaller one. I was at least confident of finishing in daylight.
The immediate turn out of the aid station heads straight onto the ascent to Forc Lerosa. I must admit this felt like a cruel punishment. This climb, although not difficult, felt to be never ending. Still, I was slowly progressing through the field and feeling pretty good. The amazing scenery continued and the descent to the next aid station was great, passing through unbelievably green pastures filled with cows.
The descent continued along some single track deep into a valley before the last major climb of the day was to begin. In this section I hit a real low point. Passing a school group that was out hiking, one boy, who looked just like my son, put his hand on my shoulder to encourage me onwards. This just melted me and for a few minutes I was a bumbling mess. Even typing this now makes me ball up. What it did do was hit a reset button for me and once the valley opened up the spectacular scenery resumed and I pressed on. At a few points there were water troughs and they provided some wonderful relief from the increasing heat of the day.
The climb up to Col dei Bois beyond amazing. The entire Star Wars series could have easily been filmed here. Deep canyons, waterfalls, glacial streams and mountains carved by ancient glaciers. This 10k sector was also a boiling hot death march. Not just for me, but everyone around me.
Early on in this climb my Garmin went flat. This didn’t help, as it had been my best friend for the previous few hours, urging me on, telling me I was still progressing and letting me figure out how far the next milestone was. Now I felt alone in a barren valley of death. The Garmin fail also marked my second marathon complete. It took me just under 7hrs and logged another 1800m of vertical. Only 35k to go!
The toll was noticeable on everyone around me. In some areas there was grass shaded by large boulders and inevitably there was a runner sprawled out underneath, looking almost dead. At each passing I checked, and they assured me they were OK.
The course also crossed the river several times. Although my feet really just wanted to be dry, the cold water was so refreshing. This sector felt like it would never end at times, but eventually we were getting up amongst patches of snow. I knew the top was close. The altitude really started to affect me too, which made progress difficult. The huge North Face dome tent at the pass was a welcome sight. All the big climbs were now behind me and I could smell the finish. I took a moment for a small fist pump!
The descent brought me immediately back to earth. Just like down Lavaredo this descent hurt my feet bad. There really wasn’t any weird stride type I could use to stop my feet feeling like the bone was tearing through my skin. The only positive was that I passed the 50k race sweeper which felt good, and there were still plenty of people around me. But I was well and truly moving backwards.
At the Col Gallina aid station I cracked out a Mars Bar and Red Bull I had carried since Cimabanche and sat contently recharging. Despite the pain in my feet I felt confident and solid. Another milestone passed and only 26k to go.
The climb up to Rifuge Averau, was really tough. The altitude was now badly affecting my judgment and physical capacity. The air felt so thin and forward progress was at a snail pace. Pleasingly, at the Rifuge they were serving a super sweet hot tea. It was so good.
Having run this next sector only two days before, I tackled it confidently, knowing what was ahead. Maybe that was a mistake. My feet quickly reminded me of the state they were in. I sat down pretty much bang on the 100k mark and took my shoes off figuring that there must have been a few blisters and the Compeeds I always carry with me (but never seem to need) would fix everything. My feet looked like they were dead. They were soaked all the way through the skin and there was no obvious place to start with repairs.
I was not looking forward to the next 2k to Passo Giau at all. I remembered how much I didn’t enjoy that sector of the trail two days earlier and now my feet hurt so bad each step was torture. Most annoyingly, the rest of me felt fine.
I convinced myself that the aid station would have a giant Compeed style stick on skin that would get me to the finish. Progress getting to that point, however, hurt a lot.
From Passo Giau at 103km to the finish in Cortina at 119km the course would be virtually all downhill. All I needed was a quick fix, a miracle cure. Sadly when the Doctor saw my feet he could only clean the embedded grit in them and warned me I ran a severe risk of infection. He said the only option was to dry them out and told me to retire.
The dream was over after 17hrs and 43mins. Sixteen downhill kilometers early. I was returned to Cortina by minivan (not alone admittedly).
The worst thing was the rest of me felt so good. The next day my feet were dry and while they hurt extremely badly, I could walk perfectly fine. Compared to Buffalo Stampede or even 6ft Track, my muscles were in surprisingly great condition.
I felt a whole range of emotions from disappointment to frustration and anger. I was certainly done with trail running. I was annoyed that La Sportiva could use such a spongy footbed — surely they would know better or at least test their product. I was planning on sending them back and asking for a refund (admittedly now the shoes are literally exiled to the doghouse in my backyard). Mostly I just wanted to know how the last 16k would have played out.
Before long I was designing proper ultratrail running shoes in my head without all the compromises every other shoe in the market has. I had figured I should at least come back next year to do the 50k, just to do the back end of the course properly. Then without realising it, I was planning next years program based on building up to the full course again (notwithstanding I will need to win the lottery entry again!)
Trail running… don’t get hooked.
As a wrap
- Cortina is amazing. I could quite happily spend the rest of my life there and never get bored.
- I feel like my lead up combination of events was bang on in terms of what you can experience in Australia. BUT it’s pretty clear to me that nothing can prepare you for these races – they are another level. At least next time I will have a bag of experience to draw on.
- These are real big mountains. Lavaredo doesn’t have the altitude of some of the French races, but it is certainly an order of magnitude more difficult than the Australian races I have done (Hounslow excluded, but it’s a different kind of beast). I am not sure how to get the experience of racing at altitude with the scale of climb. Maybe repeats of Thredbo to Kosciusko???
- If you get the chance to race in Europe do. Otherwise just go there and enjoy the millions of spectacular trails!
Bring on 2017. The pinnacle of my dream is still to be conquered.