“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action” – John Muir
9a The North Face® Lavaredo Ultra Trail
26th June 2015 11 p.m.
Cortina d’Ampezzo (BL)
Dolomites – Italy
119 km / 5.850 m+
Time limit: 30 hours
Sometimes I’m incredibly nervous before a race. Strange niggles and pains seem to pop up at every turn and my mind can’t seem to focus on anything but disaster scenarios. It feels as if I’ve never raced before and I worry that I’ve forgotten how to run entirely. In those moments, if the nerves outweigh the excitement, I know that I’m in for a real battle.
Luckily, before the start of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, I was feeling the exact opposite. Every cell in my body was craving the solitude of a long distance race and the redemption that only nighttime mountain air could provide. Since finished the Gobi Desert race with Free to Run’s Afghan Ultramarathon Team, my brain felt like it was in a million places. I returned to Gaza worn out, emotionally depleted and confused. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint where my feelings were bubbling up from or why, but I just knew I needed to sort my head out.
I wasn’t intimidated by the 119 km that lay before me. I was only thinking about how to make use of every step, every kilometer, and every meter of climb to run back into myself.
After a little pre-race stretching/dancing session, I headed down to the start around 10:30pm to join the thousand-strong crowd of runners. I tried to find Marie McNaughton in the sea of headtorches to wish her good luck, but unfortunately I didn’t see her again until the finish. I first met Marie at the Hong Kong 100 at the beginning of the year when she blew past me on the trail and I couldn’t wait to see what she had in store for Italy (she went on to finish 8th!).
Night starts are always brutal. I had tried to lock myself away in my room all day to sleep, but I was too antsy and excited. I paced back and forth in my tiny room, pounding water and race snacks (I had to replace them – twice), visualizing the next 20-25 hours ahead. I was also maniacally shoving bananas down my throat every hour or so to try to calm my dodgy stomach, which had been acting up all week (I do not recommend this strategy). I wasn’t going bananas, I had actually become bananas.
The race set off at a fairly quick pace into the night, following the main road through the town of Cortina before winding its way towards the mountain paths. I always hate the first couple hours of any ultra as runners jockey back and forth on the trail, trying to find where they fit in the pack. It is like one massive 3D tetris game where the geometric shapes come with arms, legs, and hiking poles. It feels hectic and chaotic, and I find myself just putting in my time until the crowd thins out and everyone just settles into their own pace.
There are five major climbs (with some smaller-seems-like-bigger climbs thrown in along the way) throughout the course. The checkpoints are fairly widely spaced apart (around 15-20km), which means that you have to be careful to fuel and drink up at each one. The first 500 meter climb went by fairly quickly and easily, which I was relieved about – so far, so good. I ran into the first checkpoint at S. Uberto (16 km) beaming and thirsty for pepsi.
Leaving S. Uberto, a few men had stuck right on my tail and I found their presence behind me distracting. I could almost feel the light from their headtorches piercing into my back like an apocalyptic sun. The light created a perfect silhouette of my body on the trail in front of me, which meant that I was literally chasing my own shadow. Hmmm.
It wasn’t until after the second checkpoint at Federavecchia (33km) that I really found my rhythm. The temperature was perfect for t-shirt running, the setting was quiet, and I let myself sink into the mystery of the night. My world consisted only of the space in front that got caught in the light of my own headtorch, and my shadow thankfully retreated behind me (where it would remain). I could feel my brain empty with each step. Thoughts and words poured out in droplets of sweat and nourished the trail underneath with my unanswered questions. I felt myself getting lighter, stronger, and more relaxed as I pushed into the night. It was the exact opposite of how I was feeling in Transgrancanaria in March.
The course funnelled on to a single-track trail for a while and I joined a small group of runners. We naturally adopted a peloton style of running, each taking turns in the lead navigating the crew and then rotating to the back. This spontaneous form of silent cooperation made me smile outwardly. I let the music from my ipod fill my ears (Ray LaMontagne, Empty; Ugly Heart, G.R.L; First, Cold War Kids; Flashed Junk Mind, Milky Chance) and felt the rhythmic clack of my trekking poles carry the beat.
Around 42 km we hit the Lago di Misurina and it was already starting to get light. Time was flying – and I felt like I was too. The 500+m climb to Rifugio Auronzo was difficult, but I knew that I would be reunited with my drop bag at the top (where I had a gatorade, face wipes, a new bandana and a diet doke waiting), so that kept me going. Why did I pack a diet coke instead of a regular one? I have no idea.
The view from the Rifugio was breathtaking in the true sense of the word – it took my breath away. I loved the night section, but now I was giddy with the sight of the mountains. The Dolomites are unlike any other place I’ve ever been. In the alps, it feels like there is a certain predictability to the mountain ranges… Not so in the Dolomites. Rocks thrust into the sky in disharmony, giving off the impression of an uncoordinated protest against gravity. This immediately put me at ease for some reason. It looked as if mother nature was defiantly extending its middle finger into the sky, letting everyone know it was going to chart its own course. There was something in that which resonated deep within. The mountains were exposed, raw and unapologetically steadfast. I felt comfortable, as if they were encouraging me to be the same. Don’t have to ask me twice.
I tried to move quickly through the rifugio, avoiding the temptation of sitting down with the other runners. I grabbed some hot, salty soup from one of the volunteers and poured the noodles down my throat (and t-shirt). Having been awake for almost about 24 hours at this point, I was starting to get really tired, so I turned to the red bull next. It might not have given me wings, but it did give me some legs.
My stomach was really starting to act up as I left the rifugio. I continued to play the ever-entertaining guessing game of ‘fart or poo?’ (runners, don’t even try to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about), finally ending the game around 8am behind a tree. I’m fairly certain a banana tree will now grow in that spot.
Now that it was fully daylight, we started to bump into other people on the trail, which was actually kind of fun. I adore racing in Italy because the Italians, men and women (okay, but especially men), make you feel like a rockstar. Hikers called out ‘Bellissima!‘ as we ran past. I’m not going to lie, I felt bellissima. Amidst the sweat, the dirt, the snot running down my face and the bloodshot eyes, I believed that beauty was oozing out of every pore. I suppose I was really just so immersed in the beauty of my surroundings that I felt like I was reflecting it back to those I came across. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation or the three cans of red bull coursing through my veins, but I found the experience almost overwhelming at times, bringing me to tears. I wanted to hug everyone I passed.
My legs – and knees – held up on the long 1000+m descent from Forc. Lavaredo, which was the highest point on the course at almost 2500m. The next section was flat and rocky through the valley, followed by another climb. At the checkpoint at Malga Ra Stua (75km) on the backside of the hill, I ran into a friend who warned me that it was 20 km to the next checkpoint. I was really fighting exhaustion at this stage, mainly from lack of sleep rather than physical exertion, and downed yet another red bull. All I wanted to do was curl up by the side of the trail and take a little nap. My stomach was acting up again with cramps and my bottles were started to bruise my ribcage. It was the only really low I experienced during the whole race.
The last 40 km of the course were brutal, consisting of a series of steep climbs and descents. My spirits were high though as I slowly got the fire back. I got a bit of a boost catching up to the runners in the Cortina Trail race, which was a shorter 50km(ish?) race that started on Saturday morning. It was really only in the last 20 km that some unfortunate butt crack chafing leftover from my banana poo experience in the woods caught up to me. I apologize to the Cortina Trail racer who I accosted around 100km for some painkillers (mine had fallen out of my pack). That ibuprofen may have saved my butt (literally my butt).
At one of the last checkpoints, I felt another wave of exhaustion wash over me and reached for another red bull. Most of the runners there were Cortina racers, but standing next to me was another equally sweaty and dirty male runner in the Lavaredo Ultra. He looked down at my bib to confirm we were in the same race and then gave me a very Italian-style wink. He didn’t speak, but in that wink and caffeine-fuelled haze, I actually imagined him whispering go for it, bellissima! into my ear. That one simple gesture transformed me back from a tired, gross runner into a bellissima trail warrior. I could have kissed him, but I was too busy making out with my can of red bull. (Chatting with some of my runner friends after the race, I found a wasn’t alone – a female friend reported letting some drool fall spontaneously out of her mouth after getting winked at by an Italian runner. Amazing).
Around 10 km before the end I caught up with another female runner in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, which was a pleasant surprise. Sometimes female competition on the trail can be a negative experience, but I am usually just get so excited to see another woman on the trail that I try to quell any competitive energy that might be directed my way. The woman in front was obviously much more of a professional (she was immaculate – not a scrape or drop of sweat on her). I asked her what her name was; she asked me what my team was (Team Steph, party of one?). She wasn’t in the mood to chat, so I just silently admired her impeccable attire from behind.
At the end of the last descent, the skies opened up and it started to pour. I slid my way through the mud and over the tree roots until I reached the final stretch of road. The rain washed the sweat away from my face and poured down my arms and legs… it felt amazing. Love a dramatic finish. As I reached the town of Cortina, I let out a few laughing cries of excitement. I am not sure whether I was ecstatic about finishing 119km or whether I was relieved to have left my stresses out on the trail behind me. All I knew was that those 19 hours on the mountains had “saved me from deadly apathy, set me free, and called forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.”
I finished the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in 17th place (female) and 136th overall (out of 745 finishers). The amazing Marie from Hong Kong (New Zealand originally) rocked the course in 16:28, finishing in 8th place. This woman is going places, so watch out 🙂 And she is just about the nicest person to run with (and drink post-race prosecco with). Can’t wait until the next time.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. In fact, I’m thinking of returning to the area for training before Tor des Geants in September. See you there next year?