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Lavaredo Ultra Trail 119km

Cortina is a town that has redefined itself as a centre for trail running after the national level winter sports moved away and surrounding this picturesque town are some of the world's greatest trails winding through some of the world's most striking landscapes. Lavaredo is a 4-day trail fest with the main event being the Ultra Trail - a 119km race through 5800 metres of climb.

Lavaredo Ultra Trail pre start

I've run it once before but with bakers cysts affecting both knees at the time, didn't last beyond the Federevecchia aid station at 21 miles! To compound the disappointment, as the race starts at 11pm, I didn't even make sun-up and spent those 21 miles in the headtorch-lit inky blackness!

So I decided to come back and have another go at it and two years later I'm here again lining up with 1,600 others in nervous anticipation in the town square at 10:30pm. The late start makes for a strange day. You don't know what to do with yourself, especially with regards to sleep. I woke unfortunately early at 6am and then managed to get a couple of hours of semi-coma later, but the day is a write-off beyond eating (not a bad passtime of course!). If you're a glutton for punishment, you can join a North Face team run in the morning of 11km in the mountains. I decided in nanoseconds that would be a terrible idea.

I've joined up with Alex (@Diet360_), Euan (@madonadventure) and Neil (@neil_sub), all of whom when asked about goals, suspiciously claim that mere survival would suffice.  Of couse I claim the same!  My suspicion intensifies when I learn Euan is running TdG and has completed the Dragon's Back! 

Every self-respecting race has a theme tune and with a couple of minutes to go, The Ecstasy of Gold from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly gets the hairs on the back of the neck standing up as the adrenaline and excitement rises; a forest of cameras held aloft to capture the moment.

A 10 second mass-participation countdown sends us down the main street with racous cheering from the route-lined supporters, soon replaced by almost total silence as the first couple of km unwind through the town and then join the trailhead; half-moonlight providing just enough illumination to faintly backlight the distant peaks.

There's climbing from the start but it's a fairly gentle introduction with many runnable sections all the way to the 33km aid station at Federevecchia.  It's very crowded initially and unsurprisingly our group breaks up, fleetingly reforms and then scatters for the remainder of the race.  Internationally acclaimed running author Adharanand Finn (@adharanand) is here too and we keep bumping into each other (not literally) for the first few miles.

Lake Misurina, Lavaredo Ultra Trail

Dawn breaks during the run up to Lake Misurina and casts a warm orange glow over the mountain summits fleetingly visible through the trees. It's a great feeling to put the night behind you and look forward to what you're about to experience. I had hoped to not have to see it again but..

The climb to the lake at 1,750 metres was hard but the one to the Auronza Rifugio at 48km and 2,300 metres was desperate. This is the Tre Cime stop and in and around it you're treated to absolutely astounding landscapes, but the gradient was the steepest yet and I was often reduced to a pitiful crawl, barely above dead stop.

View from Refugio Auronzo , Lavaredo Ultra Trail

I was all in. I stopped at the Rifugio for a coffee (the aid stations were often at Rifugios, but separate) which felt a little odd mid-race sitting in a restaurant, but with no coffee available at the CPs (!) I'm sure this saved my race. Isn't coffee great?! Despite being pretty smashed up, the next stop was Cimabanche - my drop bag was waiting there, it was downhill, there's the incredible Tre Cime.. so of course I wasn't about to stop.

Tre Cime, Lavaredo Ultra Trail

I flew (relative to the vast majority of the race) down the very runnable 5-mile stretch down to the 60km point and a 6km gentle climb to Cimabanche which was a bit of a drag. Not for the last time in the race, where that energy came from is a mystery. Relatively barren mountain trails gave way to forest, grassland and, at the lowest point, a serene lake.

A lot of time was frittered away at Cimabanche. I changed most of my gear for clean stuff, and stuffed my face as much as my heat-depleted appetite would allow.  The tomato on bread and olive oil was perfect - my favourite fare available at the CPs with its satisfying saltiness.  I also tried the odd thin and watery soup which featured almost microscopic cog-shaped pieces of pasta floating languidly in it.  It looked like someone had broken their 17th Century pocket watch and hurled it into a pond.

There's a 500 metre climb and drop to the next aid stop and the up part is an energy-sapping slog up a seemingly endless path where there's yet another up section around every corner. Many spectacular waterfalls provide a welcome distraction as the full warmth of the day beats down on the route march. The down run was much more fun and I could stretch my legs. I overstretched them as it happens and managed to fall heavily on a switchback corner but got away with very minor damage and a local pensioner hauled me to my feet. Incredibly my only fall in the race - there was no shortage of opportunities.

After yet another tough climb broken by a couple of bridges over vertigo-inducing views down to fast-flowing, impossibly blue rivers in deep gorges, there was chance to soak the cap and fill the bottles in a similarly azure-blue river. You can't beat mountain water!

Around this point, 50 miles in, I really started to struggle. I could not climb even the slightest gradient without a dull ache and tightness in the chest and, as it happened more often, started to think I might be about to have a heart attack! Hardly the ideal spot for a medical emergency. The next CP was a good 1,000 metres of climb away. I don't know how many times I had to stop but I could only manage a few metres at a time before finding something to sit on and let it pass.

My pulse rate wasn't going especially fast so I suspect it was something to do with a combination of the effects of heat and indigestion. Maybe that mountain water wasn't so pure after all!?

I felt immediately better whenever the sun went behind a cloud. It certainly cost me a lot of time and put paid to any chance of finishing before sundown but the prospect of having to pull from this race was far more of a concern than that.

Val di Travenanzes, Lavaredo Ultra Trail

There are a couple of points on the road book marked decorated by exclamation mark and I wondered what could possibly be coming that was worthy of such special notice given the climbs that had preceded them. The first turned out to be a mountain stream crossing which really wasn't any great concern - two volunteers were on hand to see you across. I noticed before the race that the rivers through Cortina weren't nearly as torrid as they had been two years before and presumed the snow had more completely melted this time and that this crossing could have been more treacherous had it not. Being swept over the edge would not have ended well.

After the waterfall, a shingle delta-like plain crossed with many fast-flowing streams ran on for several kilometers and flat was a welcome change. I was left with the distinct impression that the Italians don't like getting their feet wet - or maybe their shoes? - they would go to considerable lengths to find a way of crossing this network of streams without doing so, no matter how many detours and deviations from a straight line it took. I just went straight through them and the sudden cold felt fanstastic. I've always been lucky that I don't seem to get blisters from doing this kind of thing.

The respite of the flatlands gave way to a 500-metre climb to Forc Col dei Bos, the start of which was interrupted by the same problems I had climbing before. I sat on a rock, watched fellow runners stream past, decided to eat an energy bar and, miraculously, somehow, with an almost apologetic belch, that seemed to clear it!

There's a water stop 2,000 metres up in a picture-postcard setting of a mountain hut and drinking water flowing into a trough with a side order of a few cubes of cheese to keep you going before another 300 metre climb to the summit. Despite being able to climb again, it was still extremely slow going. One of the volunteers (I presume) was lugging a bag of what looked like litter-picked rubbish up the slope accompanied by his dog which had the unfortunate habit of getting under my feet and I worried I might stab it with one of my poles. Your man pleaded with it to get out of the way (or attack? Who knows?) in a rather ineffectual tone of voice which the mutt totally ignored. How ridiculous to expect a dog to understand Italian I think to myself in my strung out state.

Trail to Refugio Gallina, Lavaredo Ultra Trail

The run down the other side was in contrast total pleasure. A long, sweeping, hairpinned path winding down a stunning valley through a rock arch cut into the mountainside and again somehow my legs remember how to run and I (again, relatively) fly down the thing, passing runner after runner. As a small but significant bonus, by the time the Refugio Gallina hoves into view after one of those sketchy step descents seemingly designed to trip you up, it turns out to be at 95km, not the 93 shown on the route map and every positive counts at this stage.

view from Refugio Averau, Lavaredo Ultra Trail

The sun is starting to set quickly during the climb to the Rifugio Averau. It's a good 400 metres up and yet another extreme slope. You think you've broken the back of this race at 80km but it saves a considerable amount of punishment for the final third. The sun setting over the valley ahead of the Refugio was absolutely sublime, the slanting rays picking out intense greens in the meadows. I thought it reminiscent of the standard aerial shot of Macchu Picu with vegetation in place of the ruins but my poor braincells were mush at this point.

The trail down from Refugio Auronzo, Lavaredo Ultra Trail

There's still more climb and with added tricky, boulder-strewn terrain thrown in for good measure to Passo Giau and the last but one aid station at dusk. I missed the covershot photo of the fortress-like Cinque Torri formation ahead of the aid stop which is a regret. I just had to turn my head! So much spectacular landscape in races like these goes unseen if you forget to take a moment and look around. It's all too easy to focus on what's immediately in front of your feet.

There are just 16km left; 7km to the last Refugio which seems like a stone's throw on paper. I resisted reapplying the headtorch for as long as possible as if that would somehow delay the onset of night but soon there was nothing else for it. The 7km passed at a snail's pace and was made more frustrating by the large, white, hut-sized boulders that littered the landscape forming into tent cities in my mind like a kind of mirage. Several times I was convinced the checkpoint was just ahead and each time as I approached, the cheerily-lit white marquee with it's endless supply of hot peach tea would morph back into cold rock.

paso giau, Lavaredo Ultra Trail

There was no mistaking it when it did finally appear after an incredibly long amount of time, its lights picked out on the horizon, surrounded by black night, but also, and extremely uplifting, the lights of Cortina burning below.

The path to the refuge was straightforward but apparently no inroads were made on the intervening gap, a white sheet graffitied with 'charge! -10km to go!' hung on a rock seemed to extend it even further rather than offer the intended boost.

One more top-up of the bottles, 9km left. It was all but done, but there was a very steep descent on a greasy mud single-track to negotiate first and unfortunately ahead of me was someone even worse than I am at descending and terrified of falling. This was one of the few bits of the course where a fall would have been onto something soft! An ever-larger queue built up behind me and this guy and I really felt for him as he kept apologising in between plaintive wails as his foot slipped a little. Eventually I got passed and then the leg magic happened again and I was running hard. I could see I had the chance of getting in under 25 hours and I had half a mind that the Western States qualifying time was that (actually it's 26) so I put the hammer down and to my great delight found myself flying along again, passing many ahead of me on the easy surface which turned into hardstanding and then road as we hit town.

A few turns around empty roads and finally there was the main street and the church tower where it had all started over a day before. It felt brilliant to get the cheers of the crowds - I'm sure the numbers were much larger a few hours before but I was on clouds now and it could have been a couple of mangy dogs barking at the moon for all I cared.

119km and 5,800 metres of climbing through the most extraordinarily beautiful course was done and I accepted the finishers' fleece and free beer (lovely!) with an enormous cheesy grin plastered all over my face.

What an experience! I'm wondering if it's one I'd repeat. We'll see. It could certainly have gone a lot better but then it could equally have gone a lot worse. It was wonderful from start to finish but extremely testing. I feel very priviledged to have been able to take part.

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