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Adventures in the Dolomites: the Lavaredo Ultra Trail

by RunningPip
Sunday 2nd July 2017
I loved arriving at Cortina, the headquarters for the Lavaredo Ultra Trail we were about to set out on.  As we sat in the restaurant the night before the race, there was the most incredible hail storm I have seen.  Even the restaurant staff stopped to take pictures of the marble sized hail hammering down from the sky.  This was not the heat wave we were expecting, and I hadn’t brought a hard hat to wear.

Lav start
Pre-race hail stones and the stunning start line

The Lavaredo Ultra Trail is a stunning, 120km trail (5.8km vertical) around the Dolomites in North Eastern Italy.  In its 11th year, it is an iconic race, sponsored by The North Face, that has everything you would want from a big mountain European race - crowds, atmosphere, trails, sunshine, stunning scenery, good finisher t-shirt - but is small enough to not take itself too seriously, and still retains a sense of humour.  The day of the race, they had AC/DC ‘You shook me all night long’, and Gun and Roses ‘Paradise City’ blaring out of the PA system – both of which I had stuck in my head for the race, but particularly ‘oh won’t you please take me home’ as I put in another crushingly slow kilometre up a steep climb on the course….
Starting a running race at 11pm is a tricky one, as you might imagine.  Best laid plans can be undone quickly by the wrong type of dinner, as well as going into the race far too tired.  But as it was pretty much the longest day of the year, the sun started to come up after only a few hours of running in the dark, and things soon perked up.  
As the sun comes up, you get to appreciate the full splendour of the surroundings.  I’ve run a few races in the Alps, but none have felt quite as up and personal to the mountains as this did.  There is something about the huge limestone pinnacles that make this route so amazing – as well as giving it its name – the Tre Cime di Lavaredo being a dramatic part of the route.

Pip Tri Cime
The dramatic backdrop of Tre Cime di Lavaredo

From it getting light at around 4 in the morning, we had a good few hours of running until it got really hot at about 10, then it was really hot for the rest of the day.  A quite unpleasent 32 degrees, very little shade, sort of hot.  From 1pm onwards, some of the climbs were taking their toll on runners, with quite a few folk stopping for a little lie down.
I went through a few hours of horrible nausea, I think caused by the heat, the altitude, and perhaps not enough salts, despite trying to keep hydrated with Mountain Fuel.  Quite dizzy, with the odd bit of orange in my vision, I had a hard time trying to manage my heart rate and uprightness whilst going up some of the climbs.

Pip heat
Runners struggled in the heat of the day

Things I had hoped to do:
  • Not go out too fast
  • Save something for the second half, not just hang on for the finish
  • Stay in the moment, not worry about time or placing
  • Talk to people and meet people
  • Not faff too much at aid stations
What actually happened:
I didn’t really go out too fast, but I really struggled with the heat.  I thought it wouldn’t make much of a difference, but I wish I had slowed down a bit when it was really hot around 11am and I was in the heat of the valley.  I think if I had calmed down a bit then, I wouldn’t have felt so sick in the afternoon.
I did try to save something for the second half, but as above, got caught a bit by how hot it was.  Thank goodness there were lots of rivers and streams to fill up water bottles and wet your cap, else I could have been in big trouble.  I carried a litre and a half of water / Mountain Fuel with me, but due to the time between checkpoints, stream fills were life (well, race) savers.  I was hanging on for the finish, and there were a few times where I swore I was never running again.
That said, I did try to stay in the moment, and not get hung up on time or placings… BUT I had forgotten how hard it can be to manage expectations of distance and time.  A 20 minute kilometre in the mountains can be hard to manage mentally.  7 or 8 of them, back to back up a long slow climb is mentally challenging, and tough to deal with sometimes.  Stupidly I had a thing in my mind about a comment my brother had made to me on the UTMB “you were up to 20th Brit at one point”, so that was very much in my head.  I knew I wasn’t going to win this, but I did want to do well, so whilst I spent a lot of time enjoying myself and loving the running, loving the fact that my knees were fine and I had no blisters… I also had a few moments of despair, wondering when the hill was going to stop and if I should have a little sit down and rest.
I did talk to people along the way, and met a few friends, as well as making some new ones.  I seemed to talk a lot about watches, probably related to the distance we had, or hadn’t already run.  It’s hard to chat when feeling sick though, so for a lot of it, I just had to shut up and crack on, slowly.
I didn’t faff at aid stations, but I did make sure I was ready to leave each one fully stocked.  I had made a stash of Mountain Fuel powder in some foil packets, which should have conveniently poured into my bottles.  Need to work on that one a bit more I think.  I also spent what must have been 5 minutes searching the very small pocket in my pack for the fold up cup I knew was there, but couldn’t find for the life of me.
I ran the course in trusty Vibram five fingers, and my feet were remarkably good at the end.  The shoes however were a bit wrecked, and after 2,000+ miles, I’ve had to retire them.
This is a glorious race that I think should be on every ultra runner’s bucket list.  An amazing place, a very well run event, with a trail that just keeps on giving.  The last 10km are a real treat, a glorious bit of single track that even I could run down in my shoes with no padding.  A great way to end the course!

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