June 27-28, 2014
As I climbed up the valley behind the incredible Tofane massif, I could feel the power leaving my legs, my vision becoming foggy, my stomach revolting, and my running partner Matt disappearing into the distance. We had joined up roughly 10km before and had been moving really well, passing numerous other racers and running what would have been walkable uphills. I was sad to watch him disappear, and felt myself descending into a crisis mode. If only it had gotten better.
My race week had started innoculously enough after a long plane flight over from Vancouver. I landed in Venice, on the northeast corner of the Italian coast, and after getting thoroughly lost in the rats nest that is Venice, I was settled for the night. The next day I bussed up to Cortina d’ Ampezzo, the city where the Lavaredo Ultra Trail would start and finish. The town is both quaint and dripping with wealth at the same time. As one of the premier ski destinations in Italy, wealthy Europeans have bought and developed innumerable resorts, hotels and apartments which line the pastoral valley. Above the wildflower lined fields, tower the incredible Dolomites. They rise with very little preamble, leaving huge exposed rock faces for the visitor to stare at slack jawed. I often found myself amazed as I rounded each new corner that a new group of these stunning formations was there to meet me. The region is rife with everything that these mountains bring to them. Rock climbers, hikers, runners, bicyclists, and petrol heads can be found in the summer, while in the winter downhill and cross country skiing as well as mountaineers take to the hills. The result is an interesting marriage of locals, outdoor enthusiasts, and wealthy tourists who desire to be in this beautiful environment and inhabit the region.
I spent the days leading up to the race walking from my campsite into town, reading, hiking around the valleys and trying to mentally prepare myself for the coming challenge without scaring myself too thoroughly. On the whole though, I was relatively confident. I was in the best shape of my life for the run, had completed a 50 mile race last year without being left completely destroyed, and had done so much specific training for the race that I felt I could do nothing more.
Eventually, I find that you just want to get the race started and not think about it anymore, so when race morning came I was excited at the prospect of putting to the test all of the work that I had put in. My good friend Colin had flown in the night before from Calgary, so we spent the day catching up, drinking amazing Italian coffee, and buying final supplies. I also spent time making last minute adjustments to gear, race schedule, and food drops under the veteran eye of my campsite neighbour Simon, who has completed races such as UTMF, Western States, and UTMB to name a few. His advice was sound, and a great reference point to my own thoughts at this time. We made a big dinner for the three of us at 6 pm, and I ate heartily, consuming two monster burritos with rice, salsa, and veggies in preparation for the 11pm start and a lack of solid food in the coming 24 hours.
At around 10 pm, Simon, Colin and I all drove to the start line and we made final preparations to our packs, shoes and clothes. The course is well supported with no more than 20 km between aid stations, though usually it was around 15km. Therefore, I decided to only carry 1 litre of water and enough food to make it between aids. Along with water and food all racers had to have the mandatory gear kit of tights, a long sleeve shirt, waterproof jacket, gloves and a space blanket which I stored in my Salomon Sense Pro 5L vest. As the minutes ticked down, I confirmed plans with Colin to meet at the first aid in 2 hrs, and wiggled my way into the packed starters corral. Simon and I pushed into the middle of the runners, 800 deep, and we were off!
The streets were packed with families, friends, crew, and townspeople and the excitement that rattled between the buildings left my skin tingling and my body ready to run. Simon and I parted ways, and I began to slowly pick my way up the field. My coach Joe had warned me of the ludicrous pace that the race starts, so I was not surprised to find hundreds of people in front of me. After a few km’s we moved off of the road, and started a long and gradual climb up switchbacks above the city. The pace felt awfully quick, but I was comfortable and fresh after barely running in the week before the race. Descending towards the first aid station of the course, there was a couple km’s of tech, slippery rocks, and the field began to stack up into a long train, with some runners making reckless passes only to gain a position of two. I came into the first aid right on schedule and quickly changed up my water and food and was off.
Over the next 3-4 hours I marched up hills and skirted my way through misty alpine meadows before being spit out alongside of Lake Misurina in the pre-dawn light. From there a congo line of runners began winding their way up an impossibly long climb to the 49 km aid station at Reufgio Auronzo. I arrived in 5hrs 50, around 100th place, and 1 hr 15 back of the leaders. The air was absolutely frigid at around 0 degrees, and luckily the aid was inside the chalet which doubles as a visitor centre when not hosting the race. Hot soup, tea, and food were supplied, and I looked around at the chalet, surprised to see complete carnage. Numerous racers were slumped over tables, head in hands, and looking pretty haggard. We had completed over 3100 m of climbing by this point, but had another 70k to go, I didn’t envy to be in their shoes in the coming hours.
I departed amongst the alpenglow of the rising sun, and climbed to the races highest pass at around 2500 metres. The descent off the backside for the next 10+km was simply stunning. I was treated to unobstructed views of the Tre Cime du Lavaredo, the mountains from which the race draws its name, and stopped numerous times to snap photos and (gasp) selfies! My opinion has always been that for longer races like this, I might as well stop to take photos so that I can show my family and friends what the race was like, and what the course was like. The minute or two I lose throughout the race is negligible, and since I wasn't competing for the top slot, I had no problem stopping to take it all in.
When I hit the valley bottom, I caught a group of racers and we began a flat runnable sections which lasted much longer than it should of. Our shot quads resulted in much shuffling, but I was able to set into a good groove, passing several runners in the process. During this time I also decided to eat a new bar to change things up food wise. Until this point I had been consuming gels, and Macro bars, with chips and bananas at the aids. This local fruit bar was coated in some kind of white waxy substance on one side, but I thought it looked edible and went for it. As it hit my stomach, I immediately became nauseous and cursed the #1 rule of racing that we all break: never trying anything new on race day. At the 66km aid I met Colin, and began downing Coke in hopes of turning things around, but it was not to be.
I left the aid with a group of 5 runners, and soon I moved ahead with a Brit named Matt. I was feeling slightly better, and felt a resurgence of confidence as we easily dropped the other runners and were moving well. At the top of the next climb we were treated to idyllic meadows, ringing cowbells from local herds and stunning vistas of new mountain faces. A steep descent brought me to a remote aid at 75km, where I switched into a t-shirt and donned my compression socks. I left feeling like a new man, and chased after Matt who had flown through the aid.
We were now faced with a 20km stretch between aids, and a near constant climb which was sure to wear you down. It was from here on that I intended to push with what I had left, and so Matt and I worked. We ran consistently and passed numerous runners. We soon noticed a considerable amount more runners on the trial, and realized that we were now on course with the 800 runnners from the shorter 48km sister race which had started that morning at 8 am. At first it was great to be cheered on and supported each time we ran by, but soon I began to silently curse those who appeared to be out for a leisure hike. The 48k runners were completely blocking the trail and moving at a glacial pace, even compared to my legs which were closing in on 90km, it made you want to scream! We called ahead as we approached, waved, forced out a smile, and nodded our heads as we trudged on, a scene which repeated itself for the next 7-8 hours to the finish.
Soon after Matt disappeared, I forced myself to do a mental check. I felt awful, had no power in my legs, couldn’t muster the desire to eat, and was watching my race and goals slip away. The reality was that my body was not done, just tired, and that I was in the Italian fricken Dolomites racing a race that had been a dream only a few years before. I was so lucky to be here, and a sour stomach was not going to end things. Emboding my gratefulness, I forced down some calories and resupplied with water at a water drop. I forged on to the pass at the top of the valley, stopping to get a windy and foggy photo before beginning the descent to the 95km aid at Passo Falzarego.
A quick stop at the aid resulted in me slamming a Red Bull to try and shake the mental fog, and revive my body after 12 hours of running to this point. This turned out to be a really bad idea. The next climb left me gagging as I walked uphill, trying to puke and start things over, but nothing would go. The 48 km runners empathetically asked if I needed help as I crouched beside the trail with my fingers down my throat gagging. With nothing else to do, I continued climbing into the alpine. It was midday with the kind of cloudy brightness that leaves you squinting, so I put my head down and suffered up the climb losing focus often to the point where I was starting to fall asleep while hiking. At the top I downed some water, and a brisk wind brought me back to life. I began to run again, and move determinedly towards the finish.
At the final aid that I would see Colin, I put down as many calories as I could, and lazily munched on some chips trying to get my stomach to turn around. The only comparison that I can equate to feeling that bad was when I got food poisoning in Thailand, and was left unable to eat for five days, puking up blood and bile by the final day. That is how my stomach felt as I crunched down on chips, bars and slurped back cup after cup of Coke. With 15 km left to go, I knew I would finish, but it was going to require me to dig deep. A quick high-five and thanks for the nearly 15 hours on course, and a sleepless night driving through the winding mountains, and I was off to tackle the last of what this course had to offer.
It was a sadistic person who designed the last 20 km of that course. The elevation profile showed short climbs of 300-400 m, but man did they ever have a lot of them. I crossed numerous snow fields, slipped and slid up snowy switchback after snowy switchback, and swore with incredulity as I looked at the next climb packed with runners when I was sure that I had finished the last climb. Finally, we turned a corner and began the 2200 m descent towards the remote aid at Croda Da Lago, and beyond that Cortina. The mood here was festive, with a band playing and people drinking beer, the finish line was only 8 km away so why not stop and celebrate! I only stopped to grab some water and Coke, and continued to descend towards the town.
Looking at the elevation profile for the course, it looks like you fall off a cliff in the last 7 km of the race, and did it ever feel like it. The trail was a muddy, rooty and slippery mess, one last hurdle from the race designers. I focused on the thoughts of finishing, of stopping moving, of eating something solid, of a hot shower. I was going to complete my first 100+ km race, and it was going to be on a course that was as challenging as I could have possibly hoped for.
The last few km’s brought me through the winding streets of Cortina, past cheering locals, through impromptu locally manned aid stations and finally up the hill to the finish line. The final couple hundred meters goes through the main shopping street of Cortina, and spectators were packed into streetside cafes and bars cheering, clapping, running along with family members, and generally enjoying this huge festive atmosphere that had enveloped the town for the weekend of the race. All the emotions of the previous night and day welled up, and I began to comprehend that it was over; I had succeeded in my biggest running challenge yet.
It was certainly bittersweet to cross the finish line. Here I was, having just completed a grueling 120 km race through the Italian Dolomites, and after receiving a finishers jersey and a pat on the back, you are sent on your way out into the world. I sat in the car with Colin as we drove back to our campsite, unable to fully process what I should be feeling; unsure if I should be ecstatic, crying, sleeping, laughing. I mostly felt numb, sick and pretty damn tired. Lavishing in the warmth of a hot shower, I thought back to the days events. Things had not gone to plan, but I had finished under my goal of 18 hrs, in 17 hrs, 45 min, in 68th place out of the 800 registered runners. I was still walking, had no blisters, no injuries and a heck of a lot of good experience in enduring a tough run.
After a well deserved nap, we headed back to town to grab dinner on the main street and to cheer finishers in to the homestretch. I ran into Matt, drinking beer with friends at a cafe, looking fresh as could be. We chatted over the run, and how he had pushed on impressively following my blow-up in the valley. I congratulated him on a great run, and we shuffled on to find a table to eat at.
We soon saw our neighbour and friend Simon, making his way down the road, another impressive race added to his resume. He came to join us, and we commiserated over our experiences, the course, the day and how great it was to be done. As I sat there in my chair and reclined, I couldn’t help but think how incredible this was to be sharing my love of the sport with runners from around the world in such a beautiful environment. The challenge, the commitment, the training, had all brought me to this place and it was all that I could have asked for. This camaraderie of a shared suffering is one of the many reasons that I loved this sport, and it will continue to drive me to run harder and longer for many days yet to come.
Running The Numbers
Location: Cortina D ' Ampezzo, Italy. 2.5 hours drive from Venice. Flight from Vancouver Int'l is approximately 15-18 hours with 1 layover. Round trip flight costs ~$1100 CAD.
Race: Lavaredo Ultra Trail. A member race of the 2014 Ultra Trail World Tour
Race Fee: $100 Euro or approximately $150 CAD. 800 runners per year
Distance and Gain: 119 km, 5 850m of climbing. 30 hr cut-off. Start 11 pm
Aid Stations: 8 aid stations, roughly every 10-16 km
Favourite Food: Pizza drenched in spicy olive oil
Favourite Drink: Caffè Americano