Lavaredo Ultra-Trail by UTMB 2022
If you love running in nature and you look for a personal challenge, consider ultra-trail running, and come to the Dolomites for the LUT.
A classic race, probably one of the most beautiful routes, now part of the UTMB World Series, the LUT attracts top elite runners and, with a maximum of 1700 runners, it goes oversubscribed in days. Cortina d’Ampezzo, the pearl of the Dolomites, is the fitting centre for this race. With high season being the winter ski period, the LUT summer appointment sees the town invaded by trail runners from all over the world, and not many other tourists.
Everybody in town seems to know what is going on, in race week, as beside the LUT, there are sister races for 20k (Cortina Sky Run), 50k (Cortina Trail) and 80k (Ultra Dolomites), with a total of more than 6000 runners.
All around Cortina are unspoiled mountains, valleys, rivers, and these offer the backdrop and the hard terrain for the LUT 120 km / 5800m positive elevation race.
I was coming from my first “Did Not Finish” for an ultra in 2021 (Val D’Aran 100 miles) which put a serious doubt on my ability to complete tough ultra-trail runs. The LUT was my opportunity to rebuild my confidence. I signed up nearly six months before, and my training didn’t really go very well up until the beginning of April: injuries and lack of fitness were keeping me far from the necessary conditions, and I wasn’t sure I could try this race. But May and June were good months for training, and I finally decided to come and compete.
A few weeks before the race I downloaded the latest GPX file from the organization and I analysed it with my “geeky tools” (my own python analysis tools). This implies also looking at the terrain type on satellite maps (Google Earth, in particular), predicting how long I would stop at the various aid stations, and estimating my form on race day respect to previous “long” races in similar terrain, for which I had all the data.
I came up with a “best case” prediction where I would finish in 23 hours. This would give me a generous margin from the cut-off time of 30 hours, but I knew it was optimistic: all had to go to plan — no major energy or pain crisis, no incidents, no injuries, perfect weather, reasonable terrain underfoot, never getting lost. There is so much that can go wrong in this type of races.
Before the Run
I arrived in Cortina on Monday evening, 4 days before race start. I needed to see some of the terrain, and taste some of the climbs, more to calm my nerves than anything else. Training in London doesn’t allow you to build “mountain” confidence, although over the past 6 weeks I managed to regularly do my weekly long run on trails not far from home, in the company of many of my fellow Dulwich Runners.
I managed to go twice to “recce” parts of the course: a climb that I would do over night, from Ospitale to Passo 3 Croci, and a little tour around the Lavaredo 3 Peaks, from Rifugio Auronzo to the 3 Peaks, and then down to the Misurina Lake. During these runs I crossed many trail runners that were also going up to check the sites.
My feelings swang between “imposter syndrome” and “wild excitement”, “what am I doing here — this is not for me” and “I want the race to start now”. I was as ready as I could be. I just needed to fill up with pasta the day before, and try to get some sleep on the day.
Kit, Food and Hydration
The mandatory kit for this type of races is an endless list, and you basically have to double up on your clothing, if you want to get changed halfway through.
Key elements to carry in your rucksack include: waterproof jacket and trousers, long sleeve top, long warm trousers, hat or bandana, warm and waterproof gloves, whistle, sunglasses, medical tape, bowl and “spork” for warm food, beaker, bottles for at least 1 liter of water, at least 2000 calories of food, some money, suitable trail shoes, emergency blanket, headlamp with spare batteries or second lamp, power bank, GPS, smartphone with emergency numbers and race app.
In terms of food, I was carrying 4 energy gels (2 caffeinated), 2 clif bars, 2 clif blocks, 2 nuts bars and 1 protein bar. I also had 6 electrolytes tablets for the water. My bag was about 4.5 kg, including water and food.
My drop bag for halfway change had a full change of clothes and shoes, some additional food and drink items, sun cream and vaseline.
The wait was finally over. I couldn’t believe it. The training, the travelling, the mental preparation, the resting. Now all I had to do was actually to race.
I went to drop my bag with a second kit and a few other items at 9:30pm. I would find it in the “life checkpoint” of Cimabanche, at 66 km, a good place to get changed into clean clothes and maybe enjoy a little food treat.
By 10pm the main village square was already full of nervous runners, some stretching, some still adjusting their kit. The weather was still very uncertain, the rain was coming and going, and some more rain was forecast for the following hours. Some, like me, chose to wear their waterproof jacket, some went for long sleeved tops, and some other for short sleeved. The temperature was around 14'C, but it would drop very quickly once we went into our first climb, straight after the start, and even more during the night, and going up to over 2,400m of Lavaredo by sunrise.
My trekking poles were packed under my rucksack — other people decided to hold them in their hands from the beginning. Very few didn’t use them.
Every minute closer to the 11pm start and the tunes played by the organization got more and more dramatic. The top elite runners were presented about 15 minutes to the start, all the bib numbers under 300 were called near the start line, then everybody else followed, with a tension that you could breathe. A long, long snake of runners was filling the whole of Corso Italia, up to the start line by the white bell tower. “The Ecstasy of Gold” from Ennio Morricone, memory of old “spaghetti western” The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, was playing full volume, and I think I stopped breathing.
The public were banging their hands on the boards, were shouting names and words of encouragement. I was surrounded by runners moaning, laughing, crying, shouting, the high mountains were waiting for us, now hiding in the dark. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, … the noise in our ears was so loud, music, people cheering, trying to reach to us and pat our back. One kilometer in, and all the noise had gone, the village lights had gone, we turn left to climb up, and now only our breathing, the sound of our steps and trekking poles, and the dim light of head torches were creating the atmosphere.
The Night Hours
The first climb was on easy terrain — we moved from the asphalt roads of the village to a forest road with a few switchbacks and in an hour or so I was at the top — I kept repeating to myself to take it easy, that the race was long, and there was plenty of time to do well, if I kept myself in one piece and with some strength, over the next day or so. In this spirit, I was climbing at around 600m vertical per hour. When the incline is over 10%, horizontal speed doesn’t make much sense (unless you can run in these conditions, and then you are at the top of the race) and vertical speed is a better metric. I knew I could perhaps hold 750m/h for a while, but decided to stay at a lower effort. I let a lot of runners pass me, and I just thought that I was in the wrong position, and it would be fine to be towards the end of the group — and just focus on finishing the race and enjoying it.
I was focused on myself, on my next steps, on the people, the obstacles and the dangers around me, on the feeling in my legs, my arms, my back, my breathing. But every now and then you need to zoom out, especially if you feel comfortable, and think about the bigger picture. How was I doing respect to the others? Or respect to my predictions? We were still bunched up pretty closely, I always had 5–10 or even more runners in sight, and sometimes, when our perspective opened up, I could see a long snake of perhaps hundreds of runners, spreading out in the distance, ahead and behind, with their little light shaking up and down. I let many pass me, but I wasn’t last. That would be scary.
It was raining now, not very hard, but enough to be soaking wet. My waterproof jacket was doing its job well, but my headscarf (which I was wearing mostly to protect from the lamp on my forehead) was dripping wet, and most importantly, my shorts were soaked, which was very annoying. I would discover several hours later that this was a bigger issue than I thought at the time. It continued to rain for over one hour.
The first descent back into the valley was initially runnable, then it got very steep and technical, and it became hard to keep my pace flow. I found myself several times holding my breath in the descent. It’s hard to breathe normally when your steps don’t follow a rhythm, but they are constantly interrupted by your braking and changing direction and altering your stride. For a few seconds you may look like a tap dancer, moving quickly on your toes, from stone to stone, going down swiftly and skipping all obstacles. A moment later you may have to stop in front of a large jump, balance, and take a more considerate step. A big breathe would relax me for a moment, while my eyes would scan the terrain ahead of me for the best place to place my next steps.
With the incline changing constantly, it’s sometimes necessary to adjust the headlamp up or down a bit to light up the right spot on the road. You push it down when you go downhill, and up when you go uphill. Closer to you when you are slow, further away when you are faster. You don’t want to use your neck movement to do this, or a few hours later you will be complaining of neck and shoulder pain. I had a bit of that by sunrise, and I had to massage myself repeatedly, when luckily I didn’t need the light for many more hours.
The 18k of the first checkpoint at Ospitale arrived fairly quickly, after two short runnable section and a short ascent. Just before this point I drank my two main flasks and took them out of their pockets, ready to be refilled. The checkpoint was quite full of people, so I had to queue for the water fountains (cleverly built, as in the rest of the course, with a pipe and many taps) and also had a couple of bits of food (crostata and lemon slice). I was out fairly quickly, and I knew I was on time with my prediction. A tougher climb was about to start — it was the one to the 3 Croci Pass that I had recce’d a few days earlier, so I knew what was expecting me in terms of terrain, length and steepness, and where the toughest parts would be, and I took it quite lightly. The part with loose stones, by what looked like a massive dry riverbed, was where it was difficult to even walk, but for most of this part, the terrain was not too bad, just very steep (> 20%) in points.
Another hour of climb was now complete. I knew where I was, near the station of a cable car, at the top of Val Padeon, and just under Monte Cristallo, one of the beauties near Cortina, but it was totally dark, and I could only see the lihgts of fellow runners and the brightest stars in the sky. We were at around 2100 meters, so basically no trees around us, just shrubs and grass, but mostly a stony path. We crossed the cable car way and started our way down towards Passo 3 Croci. The first 2 km of this descent were worrying me: it was a very steep, very narrow path, exposed to a big drop, and with many obstacles like broken wooden steps and the metal rods that would hold them in place, loose and sharp stones, pot holes, and lots of very uneven ground. I took it with very light steps, which was tiring. If I was hoping for some recovery time after a long climb, this wasn’t it. Luckily after a couple of kilometers, the trail opens to a forest road, still very steep, but wide and more even, so here I relaxed and continued my descent to the Passo and the next checkpoint.
Passo 3 Croci was also the first formal cut-off checkpoint — I was over 1 hour ahead of the cut-off time (4:21 instead of 5:30, at 28 km) so all was good and on track. At the checkpoint things were still fairly chaotic — a lot of people moving around quickly for water, energy drinks, food. Running poles everywhere, flash lights in your face, hard breathing, someone changing clothes, checking shoes — too hot or too cold, sweaty, uncomfortable, we are all in a different mind. Focus is important, so you don’t forget important elements. I put my electrolytes tablet into the bottles (half per bottle) while arriving at the hut, I ate some crostata with jam and two slices of lemon and orange, I drank a cup of coke, and filled my bottles. I knew I had 15 tough kilometers ahead of me, so I needed 1.5 liters of water with me.
I always use the first steps out of a checkpoint to do a full check-up — 28 km done, no particular pain, rested in the few minutes at the aid station, and in no more than 1.5 hours I should start to see the light of the day. That was a great feeling.
What followed was a welcome runnable stretch downhill, in the middle of a pine forest, and then about 1 hour of climb, still deep in the forest, that would take us into the valley leading to the Misurina lake. It was during this climb, at around 4:30 in the morning, that on our right side, in the distance, I noticed some lighter shapes, of a pale pink colour. Wow! It was the mountains, the dolomite stone starting to reflect the twilight. It was an intense moment — our third long climb of the night, all around me heavy breathing, no talking, but I was close to 3 or 4 other runners, so I shouted “look on our right! Isn’t that beautiful”. The pale light was coming through the trees of the forest we were in, like ghosts. The pinkish colour was coming down from the sky, filling up more and more of the valley. When the climb was over and we had an even better view of the mountains, the first light of the day was now shining on the far away peaks, which were now a pale brown, and it was slowly coming down into the valley. Our feet and the terrain, full of obstacles, were still very dark, and my light would stay on until the Misurina checkpoint, which I reached just before 6am. I was now 2:30 ahead of the cut-off time, the night was behind me, and with more than 1/3 of the course done, it was a great feeling.
Climbing To Lavaredo
The Misurina checkpoint was just before the lake, where a few hotels and restaurants welcome tourists. This was again a quick stop for me. A little bit of food, water refill and the usual cup of coke and some citrus.
I was adamant to proceed — this was another worrying part of the course. I had recce’d it two days before, and the steep part just above the lake was scary. But to my surprise, once we passed the lake and did the first climb, we turned right into a different trail. It was a single trail path, quite steep, but not the scary section I was expecting. My GPS complained a bit that we were off course, but I was following the orange way markers, so there was no doubt that this was just a change of course from the organization, maybe due to the bad conditions of the other path.
We were heading for the 2300m of the Rifugio Auronzo, it was steep, often requiring very high steps and the full support of my running poles. It was relentless. For the first time I felt tired and in need of a break during my climb. Not a great feeling when you have to stop on a narrow path, and let a few runners through while your hearbeat slows a bit. But I’ve been here before many times. It is important to carry on and find a pace I can sustain. It wasn’t long before I reached the Rifugio. The checkpoint was just for water refill, and it would be another long 18 km before the next proper checkpoint, the largest of the race so far, offering the possibility to access my “drop bag” with a change of clothes. Incredibly, I was within 1 minute of my predicted time, 8:30 into my race, a bright light all around me, shining on the pale dolomite stones, now covering every inch of terrain above and below, left and right, ahead and behind. A two-minutes stop, and I realised that it was cold. I remembered the weather forecast. It would be perhaps 3–4'C and feeling like below zero with the windchill, at the top of Lavaredo. I had to keep moving.
The next kilometer was a low incline up towards Lavaredo. This offered me the possibility for a quick check-up. Things were starting to feel harder now. First signs of fatigue up the last climb, running now felt a bit painful on my right ankle, knee and hip, so I had to do something to protect them and adjust my stride, and I had a long stretch ahead of me, which involved steep but runnable downhill parts. My shorts were still totally wet from the rain a few hours earlier, and from the sweat. There was no way I could let them dry, and most importantly, wet shorts had been chafing between my legs due to all that rubbing for over 8 hours, and it was hurting, perhaps more than my feet. Not a pretty image, but I opened up my shorts to visually check, and to feel with my hands, and it was not bleeding, but it wasn’t too far, bright red and purple areas, they were so painful. I swore to myself for not carrying vaseline. I put some before the start, but obviously not enough, and I didn’t think about the wet conditions that would wash it away. My vaseline was in my “drop bag” at 66 km, so I would find it there. A small relieft in my mind.
But now the 3 Cime of Lavaredo. They were standing just above me. Sticking out over 500m from my course, they were majestic giant teeth — a brief thought came to mind — this was the bottom of the sea over 100 million years ago. You could see the layers of sediments all the way up to the top, and you could see how the peaks were shedding their friable stones all around them, from small shards to boulders the size of a mansion. A last steep climb, which I took very easily, took me to the “Forcella” where the road forks and we turned left into the valley which would bring us to the Cimabanche checkpoint nearly 15 km later.
It was impossible to resist, and I took and asked to take, a couple of pictures. I was happy to be up there just under the iconic peaks that give their name to this race. A photographer was waiting there, to take what would be a unique shot for a race like this. Turning into the valley we went from sunshine to the shade again, and it felt really cold.
Now the descent. Most of the terrain in this race is on hard stone, even on forest roads or single trails, you put your feet on loose stones or firm stones of all sizes and shapes. More or less rounded depending on who did the work: a glacier will produce sharp shards as through millions of seasons it grinds through the mountain sides; a torrent will produce rounded ones, men-made roads tend to be on the sharper side, just collecting stones from the base of the peaks.
Every step on the hard terrain now was generating some pain. My run wasn’t flowing much, with me holding my steps as low as I could, especially on the steepest bits, and my breathing feeling interrupted and shallow, almost trying to halt the pain at the level of my abdomen. Focus was on the current stretch, a very long one, as trying to think about the end of the race, how long I still had in front of me would prove fatal. I knew too well that the comfort of the “life aid station” was often the reason for so many “Did Not Finish” (DNF in the ultra-trail jargon). You come around your half-way of the course and you are in so much pain and fatigue. All you can think about is that you have to do all you’ve just done again, and you don’t see how it can be possible.
Your mind plays with you, and you need to play harder. Focus on your next step. Turn your ankle more outwards, as it is less painful like this on your knee and your hip. Run 2 minutes, fast-walk one, repeat, repeat. It doesn’t matter if a few runners pass you. There’s a long, long way ahead, and time to make up for every delay, if you stay in one piece. Remember, you are here to finish, after last year’s DNF in Val d’Aran. You are hours ahead of the cut-off time, and you are running, you are running!
Look around you, Andrea, this is beautiful — the mountains are waking up, the hard terrain has given way for some flattish soft forest terrain, you have covered more than the 57 km of your DNF in Val d’Aran, and you are in one piece. The temperature is warmer now that we are under 1500m. I pack my waterproof which I wore for the past 10 hours. My t-shirt is soacked in sweat but it’s ok as long as I keep moving.
I reached the bottom of the valley, a lake there to greet us, and the background ahead of me is of incredibly beautiful mountains, perhaps 10 or 20 kilometers away, difficult to say. I want to take a selfie, and a kind runner behind me offers to take a picture. Then 2, 3, no wait, move ahead it’s even more beautiful. Ok, thank you, enough. Let’s move on!
A girl working at the Salewa shop in Cortina, who was a local and also a trail runner participating in the 50 km Cortina trail the day before, warned me that this part of the course would be tricky. I could find it warm (after the cold at the peaks) and easy, but the low incline of the last 5 km before the aid station (perhaps 2–3% gradient) could be an energy drain if I tried to run it. So I decided to hike it as fast as I could, at around 7 km/h, with the help of poles, and I only ran the last 200–300m to the aid station (it’s always a good feeling to reach a station while running).
This was a big aid station: much more food options, energy drinks, many more marshals and helpers, medics delivering massages, check-outs and encouragement. A lot of people sitting down with many hours of effort painted on their faces.
I grabbed a warm broth with some noodles. It smelled delicious! Then I took my drop bag which had a lot of important things for me: some additional food to carry for the second half, a full change of clothes (and shoes if needed), vaseline, and a bottle of energy drink. I then found a place in the sun on the grass and I sat down. I wanted to rest well, but not overdo it.
Not running on the last stretch was the right decision. I came to the station with a fresh mind and a clinical approach. All was very efficient. I quickly downed my energy drink. I had the warm broth in less than 2 minutes (it was great that they served it in carton boxes — environmentally friendly, and I didn’t need to use my rubber bowl). Then I proceeded in the more delicate part. I took out fresh clean socks, shorts, t-shirt and waterproof. I tried to dry my chest with the “old” t-shirt, I put the clean one on, I removed my shoes and changed my socks — oh what a great feeling! I kept the same shoes (Saucony Peregrine 11) they were working well and I didn’t want to risk. I had my La Sportiva Jackal in my drop bag (La Sportiva was a very popular choice for this race) but I left them there. Sitting on the grass I covered myself with my used waterproof, so I managed to strip off my shorts, apply ample (ample!) amount of vaseline on very sore, very tender skin between my legs, and put on clean shorts. I discovered after the race that with that move I collected a good bunch of grass into my shorts. You can’t be perfect. Finally I replaced my headscarf and my waterproof with clean ones, and put them in my rucksack, in a plastic bag, so they wouldn’t get wet. I took some additional food and electrolytes with me (I left the clif bars, which I couldn’t stomach, and I took High5 gels and a couple of nut bars). I filled my bottles and I was on my way. A big lesson for the next long race would be to wear shorts with a short legging inside, not so much for the “compression” element of the legging, but because there’s much less rubbing from the shorts.
My watch beeped for a 30 minute last kilometer, which means I stopped for about 20 minutes at the station. This was all to plan. Surprisingly, I was still well within my plan, under 12 hours at this stage. A steep climb and a steep descent would take me to the next checkpoint. Energised, and happy about my progress, I took the climb in good spirit. When I got to the descent, which was very technical, and only in parts runnable (for me!) I discovered that my foot, ankle, knee and hip pain and subsided a bit. I was still taking it easy. I remembered that my fellow Dulwich Runner and good friend Gower Tan recommended an approach “first 40km control, second 40km concentrate, last 40km compete” in the days before the race. Christina quickly corrected it in “last 40km crazy”. I wasn’t sure about the last 40km either, but I knew I was in the middle part and I needed to concentrate. It was a constant check of my conditions - I was scanning my body, fatigue was evident, pain bearable, hydration and nutrition was ok.
I was hungry, but I wasn’t sure I could eat more. With high effort, digestion can quickly stop and make you sick. Your body has to prioritise your muscles and your brain. Little energy is left for digestion. This was one of the main reasons for DNF in a long ultra-trail race. In 120 km you can easily burn 10,000 calories (especially if it takes you a full day, as it’s my case). Many runners become incredibly hungry during the race and fall for cheese, salami and chocolate snacks. Some discover that they can’t digest them, or just eat too much altogether, their stomach stops working, and suddenly they are sick and with no energy. If you lose fluids (whatever the escape route) it can take hours to recover the minimal energy to move on, in this type of terrain.
I reached the Malga Ra Stua, one of the rare places in the course that are reachable by car, and I had another bowl of warm broth and noodles. I remember that I ate the bread of two bruschettas, and pushed the tomatoes and some olive oil into the broth. I couldn’t stomach sweet stuff any longer. I also had coke and warm tea. I was tired and I was taking it easy. I went out in the sun and laid down for a few minutes. It was hot now in the sun. I texted a few friends. A lot of very tired and silent runners around me.
It was a fairly long stop, about 20 minutes, but it felt like it went very quickly, and it was time to move on. I was still in line with my predictions. But I knew what was coming. After a few kilometers of descent that would take us down to 1400m, we would reach the Pian de Loa checkpoint. This is where my low energy started to play. I was convinced there would be water here, or even food. But this was just for marshals to scan our bibs and record our time. At this point, 80 km into the race, we turned into Val Travenanzes, to face “the big one”.
This valley would deserve a book to describe the non-earthly landscapes and the chills you receive from this uninhabited stretch of land between two massive mountain walls. An ascent of 11 km would take us to the top of the route, from 1400m to 2400m, basically a 1000m ascent in one swoop, but in reality, if you listened to the people who have done it (and still wear the scars) it changes gradient very often, with stretches over 25%, a middle part of very slow rocky terrain but modest gradient, and a top part which is both steep and technical. Tourist guides describe it as a 4–5 hours hike… going downhill, as there’s a cable car not too far from the top.
The initial part was into a forest, on a path climbing the mountain wall on our left, so, while it was steep, it was still quite fresh. We were in the middle of the day, and I was aware that we could get the hottest of the sun right during the crossing of this valley. A temporary cloud cover was giving me some hope that it wouldn’t be too bad.
Once the first part finished, we moved from the left flank of the valley, right in the middle. This was basically like a massive riverbed with a slight incline, and the main difficulty was in the loose stones underfoot, the frequent crossing of small streams (I wouldn’t want to be here when it’s full of water!) and the heat that was now coming in — no wind and light reflex from all angles. I was boiling.
People were following the rare orange waymarks, or better, the beaten path, turning light brown, from the hundreds of runners ahead of us. It was a bit of a zig-zag.
The GPS was fairly useless in this part. We were heading for the next checkpoint at Malga Travenanzes, and this is where, for the second time, my memory failed. Again, I was 100% convinced we would have found food at this stop. I was hungry. Yes. I had some gels with me, which my body was refusing to have — I needed salty things and I thought they were coming.
We left the riverbed, and started to climb on the right flank of the valley now. It was steep, and it was another long kilometer before we reached the Malga. And to my surprise… only water. From a cow’s drinking through, and, hilariously, from a kid holding a jar and shouting “acqua gratis, ma solo nel bicchiere, niente bottiglie, ce ne va troppa” (“water for free, but only on your beaker, no bottles, they take too much water”). So, I filled up my bottles at the through, I asked the kid if he lived there (“Yes”) and how he got there (“Like you did”). Short and simple answers. I decided to move on quickly, I was tired, hungry, and I made a big mistake.
Why stopping at the Malga if there was no food? Well, stop to have the food you are carrying anyway, id**t! I didn’t listen to reason. I just carried on, now past 89 km, on a very steep trail, going up — there was no way to do this part “easily”. I bit into my nuts bar and nearly throwed up. Too much effort — the food wasn’t even getting into my stomach; I couldn’t chew as I could hardly breath. Bits of nuts everywhere in my throat, I was coughing, and I drank to clear my throat. It took several minutes to feel better. I thought I was close to the top and I could eat on my way down, after the peak, when I could move at low effort. But I was still 2 long kilometers from the top, which took me over 40 minutes of hard effort, and by then, I was really low on energy. I hadn’t eaten properly since km 75, nearly 4 hours earlier, it was so stupid. I felt empty. I bit some more into my nuts bar. I knew it would take a long time to feel better. I couldn’t even think of having an energy gel. The throught made me gag. I was still 4 km and a lot of climing from the next checkpoint of Col Gallina, where I could rest and have something warm.
I knew I was still 3 or 4 hours ahead of the cut-off point, but I also knew how things could get serious very quickly, so my focus now was on maintaining energy, so I could reach the next checkpoint and have the determination to restart for the final 25 km, which would be hard, and partly in the dark.
I left my body follow the gravity down the steep descent. For some reasons most of the leg pain had gone. Maybe my body was now focusing on energy and not pain. Several times my ankles twisted on top of stones, and I was grinding my teeth to hold things together. At the bottom of the descent I knew now I had a steep couple of kilometers to the Rifugio Col Gallina. Come on, one more effort, then we can put things back together.
My hiking got slower and slower, legs feeling without strength, my upper body leaning more and more on top of my trekking poles, my breathing fatigued. But I got there. Col Gallina at last. Warm broth again, with rice, this time. Salty, tasty, delicious in my stomach. It felt like being able to breathe again. Within minutes my digestion kicked in again. I checked my phone for messages. During the course I sent a few short messages and some pictures to Gower, who had patiently posted them on my Facebook page, and I noticed that quite a few people were following my progress, checkpoint by checkpoint, on the race app. A lot of friends and family telling me not to give up, and that the hardest part was over. No more big inclines before the end. I wasn’t so sure. I remembered that the last 1000m of positive incline was “hidden” in the final part of the race, in small but painful chunks.
I was now over 20 minutes behind schedule on my predictions. Nothing, really, with what I had just gone through. I could have easily stopped and be hours behind by now.
I was sure I would be there for at least a few hours into the night, which wasn’t a great feeling, especially because now there was a part all in high altitude. I had to cover 15 km all between 2000m and 2500m. It was nearly 6pm and I knew it would get cold again soon.
High Mountain Running
When I started my next climb to Rifugio Averau, involving nearly 500m uphill and 200m downhill, I had renewed trust in myself. I felt re-energized, and I wanted to move quickly, to do as much as possible in daylight. I just didn’t know what was expecting me. I had already gone through many 2000+ meter points on the course, but in all cases it was a big climb to go up, and basically a big descent to come back to “valley level” (perhaps 1300 to 1500m). Now I was climbing high to stay there. For a long time.
This was the most technical part of the course: a terrain made of stones, loose or well planted, of all sizes. It was hard to follow the waymarks, and often I had to look in the distance for other runners, to try and follow them. It was the slowest part. I often had to use my hands to go up, or my bum to jump or slide down rocks. The trekking poles were useful to propel myself onto a high step, or to slow my jump down from large rocks. Other times they were a nuisance as I had to use both hands to climb up or I had to hold to a stone while on a narrow footing.
Several times I had to move around boulders, to discover there was no path, and take a different route.
My watch beeped km 100 in the middle of a stony field, still on my way to Rifugio Averau. I was slowly making progress.
At some point we saw a building and someone said it was the Rifugio, but instead it was the terminal of a cabin way. I reached the Rifugio at 7pm, only to refill bottles. This time I remembered there would be no food and I had my own food.
If there is one picture that explains the type of challenge in high mountain trail running, it’s this one.
With uninterrupted views for tens of kilometers, it’s hard to understand the proportions of the objects in the photo. From the far away peaks, the trees and what we are directly facing. What you see in the foreground is the course terrain, basically made of large boulders, and loose stones of all sizes.
You struggle to find space and a stable footing, as you plan your next steps. Whether you go uphill or downhill, you can’t flow into any type of rhythm, run or skipping. And you often have to step up as high as your hips, or step down a meter or more, with the help of your running poles.
You have to walk around large boulders, or choose a path which is longer, but safer and less painful to cover. There’s a lot of “hidden” distance and elevation in this terrain, and you simply struggle to progress.
You can’t see a “trail”, a path, all you have is some markings from the race organizers, and you normally can see one of them, or none, and hope you’ll see one soon, so you know you are still broadly on course.
Having other runners ahead of you gives you a clue as well, hoping they are on the right track.
Because the steepness changes all the time, and you have large obstacles in front of you, you can’t see very far on your path. You have your immediate perspective in front of you, a few meters ahead, and a background possibly kilometres away.
This picture was taken after around 99 km, on my way from Col Gallina (2057m) to Rifugio Averau (2419m) and Passo Giau (2243m). The official stats say that I had to cover around 600m up and 400m down in elevation.
It took me 2 hours and 13 minutes to cover 7.4 km… very slow progress.
What might not be obvious is how many runners there are in this picture, but spotting them can give you a perspective of the obstacles around them. Ah, and there’s also an orange course marker, if you look well.
Clue: they are on the top right side of the picture.
The following 3 kilometers to Passo Giau offered pretty much the same challenges and it took me an hour to navigate the terrain, and get to a station with food. I was again in desperate need for something warm to put in my stomach, and I went again for broth and rice. It was so good. We received a lot of encouragement from the people at the station. We were now just 17 km from the end. We still had 7 km of high mountain terrain to negotiate and perhaps another hour or so of daylight. It was 8pm when I left Passo Giau.
We went through an unexpected technical checkpoint, scanning our bib, at 108 km in Mondeval, in a very impervious place. It was very cold and windy, at 2250m altitude, and it was quite desolate. Standing on top of a large boulder was a marshal in full winter coat, thick gloves and woollen hat. He must have been there for many hours! As we were passing, he was leaning down from the boulder to scan our bib and wish us well. “It’s all downhill now”. I knew that to get to the finish now I would just need to be careful and not get injured. It was already almost dark, but I hadn’t taken my lamp out of my bag yet.
The terrain now opened to a wider road, on stony ground, it was runnable, and I did run those two kilometers, road almost dark, I nearly tripped a few times, and I passed a number of runners who, at that stage, could no longer run. You could read so much pain in their stride, in their lack of balance and care they used on every step.
I was surprisingly ok on my legs. I was hoping so much for a nice runnable section on the last 10k.
The Final Part
I reached the Rifugio Croda Da Lago at 9:30pm, 22 hours and a half into my race. I was tired, yes, it was dark now, and I had to take some more food and prepare for darkness. No surprises after so long on my legs. I put my headscarf and lamp on. It was feeling cold.
I ate quickly, drank some coke and asked a marshal how was the descent towards Cortina. He said “well… the first part is not great, but then the last few kilometers are good”. I asked, “is it about an hour?”. “More likely two” he replied. That demoralised me a bit and put the “first part is not great” into context. Well, it was horrible.
The organization warned us that they had to change the course in that part, due to some forest works going on. Basically we descended into a stream, following the direction of the water, having to step on wet stones and tree roots, on very uneven, muddy, slippery terrain. And with very limited visibility from the headlamps. I lost count of how many people have fallen down around me. A guy opened up a gash on his forehead by tripping and headbutting a tree. He made it to the end over hald an hour after me.
I fell at least 3 or 4 times, luckily with soft landings. I was swearing, it was hard to stand up right, impossible to actually run. It wasn’t possible — this last surprise so close to the end. How long would it last? It was a good 5 kilometers and nearly an hour later when we emerged into a forest road, having lost a lot of energy, and all hopes of finishing within 24 hours. Now the course was more runnable, but I had very, very little left in the tank. I was alternating jogging and running. We entered the outskirts of the village with 2 kilometers to go, a few runners around me trying to spend their last energies. We had a bit of undulating road ahead of us and then crossing a bridge and entering the center of Cortina.
This is when I could take off my lamp and my headscarf. The cowbells were ringing at all corners. When I entered Corso Italia from the North side, the bars and cafes were full of people enjoying their drinks. I started to shout “Yeeees, yeeees” and people were cheering me and giving high-fives, shouting encouragement, following me for a few steps. I was running towards the finish line, the bell tower in sight, lots of people on the sides of the road making noises. I passed 3 runners on the final stretch asking them if they wanted a “sprint finish for the public” but they declined, gingerly moving towards the end. I had the energy for a last dash and a jump.
Surely the most beautiful ultra-trail run you can imagine.