My ‘optimistic’ time has been forgotten hours ago; the more ‘realistic’ time has also been adjusted to a resigned ‘finish before dark’ time. The light begins to fade into the twilight zone as the Italian town of Cortina comes into view nestled on the valley floor below me. Just the final descent to tackle…I could almost taste that pizza.
The Lavaredo ultra-running race series is La Sportiva’s annual signature event set amidst the stunning backdrop of the Dolomites mountains. The classic 120km distance holds centre stage; accompanied by shorter distances of 80km, 50km, 20km and 10km. I was a genuinely grateful to be invited as part of the La Sportiva UK team to join the party; though made the tactical decision 80km offered sufficient challenge for my current physical, mental and emotional state. This choice was partly influenced by the fact, I’d already tackled the 120km in 2019 with a top ten finish as a heatwave swept across Central Europe (see blog post here) and doubted I’d be able to replicate a similar feat. Post-COVID I’ve been struggling to find my edge and inner mojo, the deep thirst and drive which fed my motivation to push beyond all limitations. Maybe it’s gone forever…
On Saturday 24th June 2023 at 7am nearly 900 runners gathered next to San Vito di Cadore lake. Every year a different local village hosts the 80km before it joins the 120km route and finishes in Cortina. I’m mindful the race profile involves 4,600m ascent with an initial 1,400m ascent and I’m keen to avoid another CCC circa 2019 disaster where I set off too fast and faded (see blog here). On the first climb from San Vito di Cadore I make the frustrating discovery a clip on my Black Diamond z-type poles is stuck. The prospect of using poles at the unequal heights of 110cm and 100cm for the next thirteen hours isn’t ideal. Firmly parking my annoyance aside; I ruthlessly track my heart rate, vertical ascent, breathing and subjective ‘feel’ to pace myself. My mantra ‘Be the tortoise’ circles on repeat in my head. The kilometres start to fall away as I settle into my pace.
The route holds echoes of my past from 2019; memories of Ben who dedicated so much time, energy and effort as crew in support of Team Watson-Psaila. His uncanny ability to appear on the side of a remote mountain trail in his baggy board shorts with dodgy tunes blasting from a speaker. A lot has happened in the last four years…though I’m at peace with my past and thankful for the present. Time passes. Distractions in the form of trail chats with a Czech runner discussing the vagaries of national politics; English shops with empty shelves and cost of living crisis. Supporters out on the trails shouting ‘Vamos (let’s go!) America’ or ‘U-S-A’ due to the incorrect American nationality on my race bib and day-dreaming about pizza.
Everything changes at the halfway point; Pian de Loa where the 80km and 120km races converge. A line of exhausted shuffling runners who’ve literally run through the night appear and the wide soft forest trail transforms into a rocky single track. My pace grinds to a halt in the steeped sided Malga Travenanzes aka ‘Valley of Doom’ trying to circumnavigate never ending bodies and protruding poles. It’s impossible to see; let alone track the ‘racing line’ where the indent of stones offers a path of least resistance. I feel my energy slowly leaching away as I inch my way towards Col Gallina.
These crowded trails remain for the second half of the race, it becomes more dodging and diving runners opposed to running. I’m not used to being surrounded by so many people and it’s draining unable to find or settle into my groove. Sometimes races go to plan, though more often unexpected challenges emerge. Ultra-running is the perfect metaphor for life. One step at a time takes me closer to the finish line where that spinach and ricotta pizza is waiting.
Kit check - Remember the 7Ps aka Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance which was regularly recited by CSgt Marriner, Zero Platoon CSgt during my British Army military officer training at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Luckily, I found a hole in one of my Salomon 500ml soft flask before the race though the wonky poles discovery out on the trails was too late…
Soak up the view - The impressive limestone rock formations are a world away from the rolling English countryside of Wiltshire. Wherever you’re running take a (safe!) moment to look up from the trail in front appreciate the scenery.
Post-race recovery - The night after an ultra my body remains in a state of heightened stress response. The Garmin ‘body battery’ remains severely depleted and my resting heart rate is elevated. It can take a couple of days for these physiological symptoms to shift back into my ‘normal’ range. Make sure to listen to your body and take training easy for whatever time period is needed. The danger of returning back too soon can delay your return back to full-power.
Massive congratulations to fellow La Sportiva athletes; Sophie Grant who crushed the 120km placing 4th in the 120km, John Samways who snuck under his 20-hour goal, Sally Fawcett who flew around the 80km in sub 12-hours and Jacob Snochowski and Sabrina Verjee decided to call it a day after battling with altitude and nutrition sickness. Huge shout out to Christine Finlay for team support and Steve Ashworth for capturing the magic in photos.