Emerging from dense forest I turned a corner to finally catch sight of the iconic church tower which stands guard above the finish line in the centre of Cortina. It’s just 1.6km away. I knew it was exactly 1.6km because a few days earlier I’d painstakingly measured the distance during a recce of the last 6km of the route with Ben. 1.6km doesn’t sound like much, but with 118.4km and 5,800m+ of ascent already in the legs every single metre counts.
Rewind seventeen hours to 23:00 on Friday 28th June 2019 on Corso Italia in the uber-trendy Italian town of Cortina nestled in the Dolomites. At the end of June each year this town, which is described by the Lonely Planet as “one of Italy’s most famous, fashionable and expensive ski resorts” and usually attracts the jet setter and aristocratic crowd, welcomes a different clientele: the ultra-runner. Over 1,800 sandwich themselves along the Corso Italia in the centre of Cortina ready to take on La Sportiva® Lavaredo Ultra-Trail. A sea of Lycra stretches as far as the eye can see. Nervous energy crackles through the air building to a crescendo as the starting gun goes off leading to a collective surge forwards. Everyone takes their first step on a journey into the night, ready to greet the dawn on Saturday morning and for many, dusk on Saturday night finishing well into the early hours of Sunday morning.
I personally find late night starts distinctly anti-social. While it might sound attractive to spend the entire preceding day finely honing your lounging skills, trying to catch a nap and generally resting, I’d prefer to tackle the route at a more civilised hour after breakfast and a cup of tea. The logic maintains starting in the evening you’re relatively “fresh” heading into the dark with the trickier challenge of running under torchlight. Personally, I find it’s slightly disorientating. My body and mind momentarily yearn to be snuggling under my duvet as opposed to heading onto the trails.
Banishing these thoughts from my mind it’s time to focus. I’ve never started an ultra-distance race too slow. Fact. Fresh, fully tapered and itching to get going, the temptation to storm off the start line is strong. Italian racing snakes hurtle past me on the initial 2km road section pushing out sub-4:30 mins/km; then sprint up the first climb - a 500m ascent. Let them go – I’ll undoubtedly meet them again further down the trail. Remember, the real race only starts at halfway (or even later!). TOP TIP: You can never start an ultra too slow.
The 120km route winds through the stunning Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage Site. It takes its name from the distinctive three peaks of the Tre Cimes di Lavaredo, a carbonate rock dolomite which creates a unique limestone scenery which unveils itself as dawn breaks on Saturday morning. Spectacular. My inner Geography geek is temporarily awakened as I’m surrounded by gargantuan geological features and memories of University lectures emerge from my unconscious mind.
Descending from Tre Cimes di Lavaredo and heading towards the next big set of mountains, the sun rises higher and higher in the sky and so does the temperature. Despite years of working, training and travelling globally from one climate to another and (usually) packing appropriately, something went askew with my weather gauge this time. Having experienced sub-zero temperatures on Snowdon two weeks earlier, I was determined not to be caught out and zealously over packed assorted gloves, hats, buffs, and enough thermal layers to clothe an entire football team. If only I had checked the weather forecast for the Dolomites and realised a heatwave was ready to fry central Europe. Throughout Wednesday and Thursday before the race, I watched different blobs of red and orange intensify over maps of Europe as temperatures soared into the thirties.
My hot weather kit, tried and tested in numerous desert races, would be really useful in these temperatures. My white cool wings which were invaluable during ULTRA X Sri Lanka multi stage adventures back in April would be ideal. However, they were less than useless in a drawer over 1,500km away. Similarly, my “Sahara” cap would be great at protecting the back of my neck from getting burned as the sun beat down on my back heading up the exposed valley towards Malga Travenanzes. Also in a drawer 1,500km away. TOP TIP: Always check (and recheck!) the weather forecast and pack accordingly.
Ben fully embraces his volun-told support crew role magically conjuring up bananas smothered in chocolate peanut butter on demand at aid stations and taking on the mantle of “Trail DJ” pumping out tunes along the route on his portable speaker to the particular delight of Italian, German and Spanish runners. I can hear him before I even see him (side note: his musical song selection and canny ability to be playing “Blow My Whistle” by Flo Rida as I run past is beginning to get worrying). His piece de la resistance comes just after mid-day on Saturday at Col Gallina – “ice-in-tights”. He has somehow persuaded a mountain café to sell their entire ice supply and presented it to me packed in a pair of tights, which I hang around my neck to keep me cool. Genius. Thank-you Trainer Road podcast for that top tip. TOP TIP: Ice-in-Tights!
Now into the home straight with less than 25km to go. As suspected, the early racing snakes are dropping back having burned too many matches early on and now paying for it under the heat of the afternoon sun. It is a pleasure to reclaim places as we round the final peak at Mondeval and start the long descent back down to Cortina. Deep in the forest I hear music where Ben is waiting; a quick hug (never underestimate the positive energy of a hug) and reassurance that my position is safe as I wonder whether I am descending fast enough and we go our separate ways. Before I know it, there it is. The church tower. Just 1.6km to go, and the prospect of another UTWT top 10 finish awaits (8th this time, and fifth time in the top 10). TOP TIP: Have I already said that you can never start too slow?!
With the race over it’s time to rest, relax and recover. I always try to factor in sufficient time post-race for my body and mind to rest, relax and recover, both in the short term over the next few hours, but also over the next few days, weeks and even months. This integral part of the training cycle is often misunderstood, sidelined or viewed as “inconvenient”. I’ve even observed a fellow athlete proudly state “I don’t do recovery” cramming back to back events into their race calendar. Everyone recovers differently, though we usually massively underestimate the amount needed to properly recover, especially alongside other travel, work and life commitments. Give yourself permission to take time off. TOP TIP: Prioritise the 3Rs – Rest, Relax and Recover.
I can’t help shift a minor niggle as I take in the beauty of the mountains as we leave the Dolomites to head back to Venice aiport. While we had headed over to the Dolomites a few days early to decompress from back to back work projects, check out key sections of the route and enjoy the Italian delights of Cortina with Germanic undertones, that hadn’t really scratched the itch. During the race I spent the majority of the time with my eyes firmly locked on the path in front, picking my way through the technical terrain as any lapse of concentration would inevitably mean a trip, fall and/or face plant. Catching a fleeting glimpse of this world, along with that spectacle of the Tre Cimes at dawn 48 hours earlier has left me with a strong desire to return to explore further. I think I’ll have to come back. TOP TIP: Give yourself plenty of time to pre and post-race to explore Cortina and the surrounding mountains.
Single-Stage Ultra Kit Recommendations
WAA Ultra Bag Pro 5L – I switched up my usual Salmon S-lab 8L for the new WAA Ultra Bag Pro 5L which easily fitted the minimal mandatory kit list and my usual nutrition stash. Marketed at €99 this light weight bag (195g) offers great value for money.
WAA Skort 2.0 – One for the ladies. The re-vamped 2019 summer season skort has been designed in lighter material, with a wraparound skirt with integrated shorts and a multitude of pockets. Available in glacier blue, paradise pink and light mint. Paradise pink definitely brightened up any momentary trail wobbles.
Precision Hydration – The heatwave meant this race was all about hydration. Finish times were slower and DNF rates higher due to high temperatures. Being a salty sweater loosing 1187mg of sodium per litre of sweat (discovered during my sweat test at the Running Show in Birmingham in January) it was essential to preload, maintain and replenish salts. During the summer season developing a hydration strategy which works for you becomes even more important. Everyone is different and it’s definitely worth checking out Precision Hydration’s sweat test to create a hydration strategy tailored specifically for you.
Veloforte bars – These have become a core component of my nutrition strategy; the perfect balance of squishy dried fruit interspersed with crunchy nuts. I opted for ZENZERO with zingy ginger undertones to tantalise the taste buds and CLASSICO with a tangy orange marmalade-esque twist. There are six other flavours to test out – use “rfmcoaching” for a 20% discount.
33shake Chia Seed Gels – These pack a powerful punch. After a chance discovery during Marathon des Sables when my tent mate kindly donated a chia seed gel before the notorious long stage which was a complete life saver these have become an integral part of my nutrition strategy during ultra-races. This new concept to the “gel" world is a universe away from classic sticky sugar-packed gels where the combination of four natural ingredients is refreshingly simple. My absolute favourite is to mix it up with a shot of coffee for that additional caffeine hit. Another discount code offer: "annamarie33"
Fruit Cocktail - Never try anything new on race day. It’s a standard rule. BUT, passing through aid stations my body sometimes yearns for what’s on offer. This time it was the rows of syrupy fruit cocktail in cups which caught my attention and the immediate sugary high hit the spot. Listen to your body.
Now in its 13th edition, La Sportiva® Lavaredo Ultra Trail is firmly established on the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) circuit* and has been in my race bucket list for several years. Unfortunately, my UTMB obsession in 2017 (and poor admin of not registering in time!) followed by my cousin’s wedding in Morocco in 2018, meant a wait till 2019. If you’re considering venturing beyond the British race scene to check out the European trails (which I totally recommend) this race series offers a range of options from the fully monty aka Lavaredo Ultra Trail (120km, 5,800m+); then incrementally shorter distances with the UltraDolomites (87km, 4.600m+), Cortina Trail (48km, 2,600m+) and Cortina Skyrace (20km, 1,000m+). Stunning scenery by the bucket-load and Cortina is simply delightful to mooch around pre/post-race.
Train Smart. Run Happy.
Note*: For the 2019 season the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) has expanded to encompass twenty events across the world which start at the end of January with the Hong Kong 100 and wrap up at the beginning of December in Cape Town. The UTWT race calendar has four different categories with Series Bonus, Series, Pro and Challenger events; each with a different allocation of finisher points which translate into the annual and three-year rolling ranking. La Sportiva® Ultra Trail is nominated as one of five Series races which typifies the high level of competition, endurance and technical challenge involved.