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.