When I became aware of ultra running I heard about Lavaredo almost as soon as I heard about the UTMB. All the race reports spoke about the natural beauty of the Dolomites and reaching Tre Cime Di Lavaredo at sunrise and being greeted to a golden hued mountain panorama. I set my sights on this as my first foray into European ultra racing and knew I wanted it to be my first event. I had applied last year and was unsuccessful in the ballot, so tried again and finally I was in. It nearly was a non starter though, I was on holiday in Scotland when the places were confirmed and the email had been put into my spam and I almost missed the deadline to respond.
So onto Italy. I travelled out for a weeks holiday with my girlfriend Kelly and her children, with the race sandwiched in the middle. The race was full of firsts. It would be my first alpine race, first race over 50 miles and first race abroad. This made any kind of completion time prediction very difficult, the truth was I didn’t know what I was getting into. So I settled on somewhere between 15 and 20hrs.
The main event
So after a bean chilli back at the apartment I drove us the hour from Zoppe di Cadore to Cortina. I met up with another British runner I know from other races called Alistair who was also running, it was nice to have someone with me who I knew, to navigate the excitement and slight chaos of getting into position for a big race like this. We moved down to the starting corral and soon became boxed in and unable to move. We were trapped on the wrong side of the fencing though and I realised that to cross the start line we would have to run down the outside of the railings and then go back up the starting pen, we would almost be dead last if we had done this so I jumped the fence as soon as the countdown was over.
I focused on staying controlled but trying to move up the field through Cortina, I knew as soon as we hit the first climb the trail would narrow and the poles would come out and it would be very difficult to move positions. As expected as soon as we turned out of town I was greeted by a wall of pointy sticks, I nearly pulled mine out but figured I would still like to find some space and move up so ran the first climb. This is where the race really sank in, I was trying to manoeuvre around a lady on the path and as I pulled along side I realised it was Caroline Caverot. I kept climbing and the crowd was thinning out so I had plenty of room to run, I passed another runner and saw his number 81, I rather embarrassingly shouted John like we were old pals. It was John Kelly, the 15th Barkley finisher and someone I had been reading a lot about lately as he had recently devised and attempted the Grand round. As soon as we started to descend John wizzed by never too be seen again, and I was left to my own devices. I only stopped for some more water at the first aid station and continued on up the climb to rifugio Son Forca. The race was becoming a bit of a blur now, just headlights in the night. I also realised that I would need to stop running the climbs to conserve my legs and drew for the poles. This was my first big learning curve, I have no idea how to utilise poles in a manner that makes me still move fast. I had been practicing with them, poling up climbs and then running down but not on mountains and such long climbs because I do not live near any. A click clacking stampede would march by and I would watch their legs and try to move mine in time but they would still pull away and I was left alone again.
I came into the second aid station unaware of my position and starting to feel the effort. I made sure to stock my bottles back up with Tailwind and grab some food before continuing on. In my snack frenzy though I left one of my poles there. So if you notice in the pictures I am only using one, it isn’t by choice or some new technique that was just all I had from 33k onwards. On I marched up to Lavaredo itself, the sky beginning to change tones suggesting the first hints of sunrise. And there it was was the view from the rifugio down to a mist circled Auronzo, the sky glowing pink. The first big section behind me and the light to lead the way. I was passed by a few more runners on the descent, I was continually reminding myself that if I had any designs on being even slightly competitive in a long mountain race I had best start training in the actual mountains. They skipped down the rocks whereas I lolloped and swore my way through them.
Halfway and still feeling good. I was knocking around 50th place and I decided then that top 50 was the aim. I rang Kelly to inform her all was going better than expected and it might be much closer to 2 o’clock when I got back to Cortina and my lower estimate of 15hrs. I looked down at the elevation profile and it looked to me like one more big climb followed by a few smaller ones at elevation and then a long descent to the finish.
I was wrong, and hot. I crawled up what I thought was the last big climb, the heat making any semblance of a nutrition plan I had go out the window. I finally ran into Rifugio col Gallina, I was a bit dizzy, but thought the worst was behind me. A man whos name I wished i’d asked for saw me stood there gawping around and kindly refilled my bottles, I stuffed jam toast into my mouth and got ready to go. Last big climb he said, but I thought I had just done it, no more big ones after that though? I am afraid so was the reply. And so off I went, slowing down more and more, walking for longer and longer, feeling my skin burn in the sun, the only relief coming from soaking my hat in the mountain streams.
Finally the last descent, any thoughts about time and placings had long since past, i’d had enough and just wanted to finish. I wove my way through the seemingly never ending woods into town and finally crossed the finish in 17hrs 16mins 48secs taking 69th overall and 2nd British athlete. I was slightly disappointed but learnt loads about how to race a long mountain ultra, and I had a grand tour of one of the most beautiful places on earth.
- You can’t replicate running in the mountains, 1000m climbs need to be practiced both the ascent and descent, watching other runners I soon realised I didn’t know what I was doing
- Keep eating, even if you don’t feel like it, you will only slow down more if you are half starved and be out there longer
- Get as far up the starting pen as you can, it’s chaotic on the first climb
- Learn how to use poles
- Buff hat, invaluable for keeping the sun off my bald pate and out of my eyes
- I wore Compressport vest, shorts, socks and the free belt. All worked perfectly and I had no issues at all
- Nike Terra Kiger 5. Really comfortable but should of worn the wild horses for the added cushioning the course was very rocky and my feet were sore by the end
- Mountain king poles. Would of worked better if I had two the whole way
- Salomon S/lab 5 with pole quiver. Amazing gear loads of space, no bounce and super comfortable