The Most Beautiful Running Race You've Never Heard Of
The Lavaredo Ultra Trail is an ultra marathon staged in the Dolomites covering a distance of 120 kilometres, 5,800+ metres of ascent and a maximum time to finish of 30 hours. It starts on a June Friday at 11pm from the centre of the Italian town of Cortina (home of the 1956 Winter Olympics). The route passes through what is arguably the most sublime mountain scenery the Alps have to offer.
In 2018 there were 1,608 starters, 1,188 finished.
A leg operation at the start of the year meant only 100 miles of running in January and February. I did a further 500 miles in the remaining lead up time to Lavaredo, not enough.
I flew over to Italy on the Thursday (Ryanair, Treviso), collected my car and drove for two hours before arriving to my hotel in San Vito di Cadore a town 9km from Cortina. I collected my race number on the Friday morning and bought a couple of things at the expo and local outdoor shop (great variety and value for money). When I arrived back to San Vito di Cadore I fell foul of the local restaurants’ mid-afternoon closure hours. There was nowhere to eat so instead I picked up a few comestibles in the local supermarket, which was sufficient. I tried to sleep for a couple of hours but it was in vain; resting and moving as little as possible was still of benefit though.
I should point out that in the weeks approaching the race I experienced a persistent fatigue that sowed seeds of doubt as to whether I could even make the start line. It was no different on race day with my heart rate about 15 beats above normal and breathlessness. The altitude may have been a factor. I was also undertrained, didn’t have enough uphill work done and was well above ideal racing weight. In my mind to not run would have been crazy so instead I decided I would start and if necessary drop out early on. Considering all of this I reckoned it would take me about 26 to 27 hours to get around the 120km.
Cortina to CP1 Federavecchia, 33km (20.63m), 1,560m of climb, cutoff 5:30am
At 9:30pm I drove to Cortina, parked my rental in a free carpark, dropped my bag at the ice rink and made my way to the start. It was a warm night and so I was wearing a short-sleeved top that attracted a lot of stares. Clearly people thought I was underdressed, most other competitors had their jackets on. I decided they must know more than me so I layered up. People come from all over the world to take part in this race; Japan, Hong kong, China, Australia, U.S, Canada, Brazil, Finland, Poland, Germany, Ireland, GB, Italy etc., etc.
The start of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail is legendary with the famous Ennio Morricone track “The Ecstasy of Gold” playing just before the off. I waited at the back (rather by accident than design) thus resigning myself to the fact that it would mean getting stuck in the early bottlenecks in the course. The send off was one of my most memorable with the streets of Cortina thronged with well wishers cheering heartily. It didn’t take long before we’d left the town behind, started climbing and shortly after that hit the first and only real bottleneck which stopped our progress for a minute or so. The early kilometres/ miles were predominantly through forest along fire tracks; there were sections in the forest along single person tracks that made passing difficult.
So early on in the race it is easy to be daunted by the task ahead, so many kilometres, how can this be possible, it’s going to take so long, I surely can’t last. I banished these thoughts to the bottom of my mind. This first night was always going to be hard; mostly uphill, early doubt not yet conquered and darkness obscuring the amazing mountain views that help so much to encourage.
What struck me through these early kilometres was the numbers of people with trail poles that didn’t know how to use them; they would have been better off without. Also, there were many couples and groups of friends that would walk/ run abreast along the course, poles akimbo making it difficult for others to pass. And then there were the people who would check their watch whilst simultaneously flailing their poles dangerously, often stabbing people running alongside. Fuppin eejits the lot of them!
There was a feed station (Ospitale) 20km into this section offering a selection of food that would become familiar (and repetitive) over the duration of the race. Nuts, dried fruit, apricot biscuit cake, cheese, bananas, orange and lemon segments, thin pasta and cheese soup, white bread with olive oil and tomatoes, pasta with cheese, water, coca cola, iced tea and fruit cordial.
For almost all of the first night I was never very far from other runners and in fact for much of this time I didn’t need my head torch such was the ambient glow giving off by my fellow runners’ lights. As a result I didn’t have to change battery until very late on the second night! I arrived at the first cutoff Federavecchia at 4:30am, one hour under the time limit where I refilled my water, drank and ate a selection of the offerings and moved on glad to get away from the chaos of the feeding frenzy. 1,500m+ of climb in this first section (underfoot conditions were mostly untechnical), 4,300m left and 87km to go!
Federavecchia to CP2 Rifugio Auronzo, 15.5km (9.69m), 990m climb, cutoff 10:30am
The night had felt long and it had been very cold even with my jacket, gloves and fleece buff so I was glad when the sun rose bringing its warmth. I had stomach cramps the first 7 hours so at the side of Misurina Lake I sat down for a quick breather and took some chrystalised ginger and Deflatine. The ginger is disgusting stuff but it worked! With my stomach feeling better, the night over and a rising confidence that I should be able to finish my spirits were suddenly sky high. Without realizing it I had let a doubt hang over me in the approaching weeks as to whether I could complete this race and it was only now that I was shaking it off.
Long after leaving Misurina Lake we climbed to arrive at Rifugio Auronzo (located behind the famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo); this was familiar territory for me having been here in 2008 on a walking holiday and again in 2014. I arrived at 8:22am, just over two hours under the cutoff. The CP was in a big tent and it was here that I discovered the restorative powers of the pasta and cheese soup. I
hung around for way too long stripping off my cold gear and applying suntan lotion (factor 50 did the trick). The sun was well up now revealing a beautifully clear day with excellent visibility; the Dolomites were laid out all around me in their jagged and jaw droppingly stunning glory. 1,000m of climb done in this section (conditions underfoot were again mostly untechnical), 3,300m left and 71km to go!
Auronzo to CP3 Cimabanche, 15.5km (11m), 495 climb, cutoff 1:30pm
A short time out from Rifugio Auronzo are the iconic Tre Cime di Lavaredo which demand a stop to be admired. These are the most identifiable and photographed of all of the Dolomites and appear in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail race logo. I dallied awhile taking a few selfies before moving on. The highest point of 2,500m was passed through at this time. As I started the 1,200m descent from the Tre Cime I was feeling great, it was lovely in the early morning sun, not too hot, just perfect, and I was approaching the half way mark, 60km/ 36.5m.
The first half had taken me approximately ten hours, it would take me eighteen hours to complete the second!!! As I arrived at the Cimabanche CP at 11:40am (almost 3 hours under the cutoff of 1:30pm) I could see drop bags containing a kit change for those that decided this was a good idea. I had toyed with the idea the day before but decided I wouldn’t bother. With no means to shower before putting on clean gear, the use of valuable time to change and having two sets of smelly kit in my case going home I decided not to bother. I’m sure it would have felt great for a while but I didn’t dwell on my decision. Despite no gear change I spent at least twenty minutes in this CP, too long. 500m of climb on this section (underfoot conditions, the downhill was twisty and trippy), 2,800m left and 55km to go!
Cimabanche to CP4 Malga Ra Stua, 9.3km (5.81m), 605m climb, cutoff 3:30pm
We passed through more incredible scenery in this section and again I stopped to take photographs and video, each time falling further behind and eating significantly into my cushion of spare time. There were runners on the course now visibly struggling. I offered to help one guy that was wobbling quite badly but he had had enough and was quitting. The runners were very spread out by now and so at times it was easy to feel like you were on your own. It was hot too requiring careful attention to hydration; I took salt tablets as a precaution. I arrived at Malga Ra Stua at 2:48pm just fifty minutes under the cutoff; I had dallied way too much over the last 6 miles, I would need to be more careful. This CP had the full range of food including slices of bread with olive oil and tomato. I ate lots of that and more of the pasta soup. 600m of climb on this section, (conditions underfoot were mostly untechnical), 2,200m left and 46km to go!
Malga Ra Stua to CP5 Rif Col Gallina, 19.6km (12.25m), 1,210m climb, cutoff 9:30pm
On this section of the course I passed by a small ski hut called Malga Travenanzes (1,986m). I stopped here to gather myself and see if there was any food on offer. It was a weird little place in that it was marked as point on the course but offered virtually nothing in sustenance. I took the opportunity to layer up as it was beginning to get cold again. Around me were broken competitors lying spread-eagled on the ground. I realized at this stage that I had gotten my nutrition badly wrong and that I was now running on empty with a long distance to go to the next CP with food. The thoughts of eating a gel did not appeal which is a weakness in my mindset. I had some Tailwind with me so I took a couple of mouthfuls of that, yuck. The uphills were now a pure battle requiring me to stop often but the flats and downhills were a welcome chance to recover.
The two climbs before the next CP were a low point, a real struggle. The last few hundred metres before the CP was downhill and ahead of me a guy had a spectacular fall, spectacular because he came to no harm whatsoever. As he stumbled he somehow managed to outrun the fall enough that when he did actually go down it was reasonably gentle. I congratulated him on avoiding injury, and for the entertainment. I would meet this same guy a couple of miles later stumbling again, asleep on his feet. My arrival in Rifugio Col Gallina was at 8:07pm, one hour and twenty minutes under the cutoff. 1,200m of climb on this section, (plenty of technical stretches), just 1,000m and 26km left!!
Rifugio Col Gallina to CP6 Passo Giau, 7.5km (4.69m), 570m climb, cutoff 0:00am
Whilst I was sitting eating at Col Gallina I noticed a text from Ryanair; I had forgotten to check in for my flight the next day, they were going to charge me €55 if I didn’t do it now. With just enough signal I avoided the charge but used up a valuable ten minutes doing so. Food or no food I was really a spent force at this stage and so it was hard heading out again. I noticed around me a good number of runners quitting; a hard decision when you have done almost 100km! At the pace we remainers were going, the reality was another 4-5 hours before the finish line so for some this was too much. Messages of encouragement meant so much at this stage (thanks Miriam) as was my determination to get one of the finisher’s gilets! I was climbing again and ahead of me were three Italians. They stopped to let me pass and I said a couple of words of encouragement, however they had decided to quit and there was nothing I could say to change their minds.
With my brain very tired I was struggling to make sense of how far I was from the next cut off and felt that there was a real danger I could miss it. I have to say that I was in no way disappointed that I had taken so long to get this far. On the contrary, in my opinion I had maximized the time I had to enjoy the amazing surroundings. Also, the fact that I was now running a little short of time added a frission of excitement to the proceedings, could I make the next cutoff or not? I was knackered but I was enjoying myself. It was almost dark again and the stars were once more emerging. It’s a hell of a landscape to witness sunrise and sunset, a highlight of the race.
I was familiar with this part of the course having covered it in 2014 during the shorter Cortina Trail; nevertheless I couldn’t remember exactly the sequence of the climbs. My mind kept going over the possibilities and on more than one occasion I had to tell my brain to shut up you’re driving me mad! I was making reasonable time passing other “runners” and soon I was upon a guy that was swaying quite badly (the faller from earlier). He was almost asleep on his feet and in front of me stumbled and nearly fell. He then sat down saying it was time to have a sleep. I appealed to him not to take too long or he would miss the next cut off but he didn’t respond.
Each climb now was met with a sense of dread; if I went too fast I would feel weak and have to stop. The solution was to take very small steps whilst using the poles as an additional two limbs to push me forward. It was slow going but meant not having to stop so often. The downhills were not much faster as my quads were screaming in pain; I could have taken pain killers but decided not to. I had enough time to make it to the end and I didn’t want to mask pain and risk doing damage to my legs. What was great at this point were the flat sections, the only sections that didn’t cause me any pain. Sadly there weren’t enough of these.
Across the course there were race organisers with a scanning device used to record your current position, at Rifugio Averau at 9:53pm whilst being scanned I was told it was 20km to the end with 3km of that to the Passo Giau CP with its cut off of midnight. This 3km took me almost an hour (very uneven going) and I still couldn’t visualize where the CP was so my anxiety over potentially missing the midnight cut continued. I needn’t have worried; I made Passo Giau with over an hour to spare (10:46pm). I was relieved; barring a bad fall there shouldn’t be anything preventing me from finishing now. The last person in the list of retirements/ timed out eliminations made it to this CP at nine minutes past midnight, just nine minutes too late! How cruel to have gone that far and to fail by such a slim margin. I had approximately 6 hours to descend 1,000 metres and return to Cortina.
Passo Giau to the finish in Cortina, 20.7km (12.94m), 380m climb, cutoff 5:00am
The only sustenance I imbibed at Passo Giau was a cup of coca cola; I was utterly sick of the food that was on offer (a failing on my part as I probably needed the calories). In the dark, beyond the very obvious course markers it was still possible to see where I had to go by virtue of the head lamps of runners rendered as tiny specks of light ahead of me slowly going up the second last climb. I remember this one from 2014 when I had gone up it in daylight and in much better shape. This time my progress was tortuous as it was for my fellow competitors immediately in front and behind me. I employed the same small steps technique but still had to stop every so often. For a short while I kept company with a guy from Hong Kong who was also using the small steps technique. However in addition to stopping he would also sit for a minute or so before pressing on again. I decided to try this and so began a series of passing one another over and over again, one of us sitting the other plodding up. I think he was in some sort of shock as he kept saying “this is crazy”. It’s on sections like these that I realized, I may not be super super fit but I do possess an indomitable determination to keep on going. This is I think a very common characteristic of the back of the pack ultra marathoner. The “keep putting one foot in front of the other I’m never giving up” mindset.
I now know for a fact that physically I could most definitely have gone faster but subconsciously the mind held me back. The reason for this was simple; the fear of being robbed of the finish so near to the end. Thus trippable terrain was gingerly navigated, steep slippery slopes were descended carefully and my trail poles were utilized every step of the way. If it were a short race that I hadn’t prepared so long for or invested so much time in I would have been throwing caution to the wind and taking many chances of falling.
At last I now knew the sequence of climbs ahead and I was looking up at the FINAL ONE!!! Hooray!! In my physically shagged state it looked hard but it wasn’t actually that bad, a couple of hundred metres below was the last CP. I passed a large hand written sign that said “Only 10 kms to Go!!” and my reaction was WTF!!! This race was 120kms/ 75 miles long, if there were another 10kms to go that would mean I would do a total of 124kms/ 77miles!!! Aaaargh, this was not fair, I want to stop moving and go to bed……please, why have they made it longer?!?? Keep going Dave, keep going.
I’d hoped there would be beer in the last CP, there was the last time, but, there…… there was….no…b-beer, sob, not fair, feckin mean bastard organisers! And so it was bloody coca cola again; I threw a cup back and looked at my watch, 1:15am! Bloody hell, I hadn’t planned to be still up at this time and there was still another two hours before I could stop. It was now that the never give up part of my brain stepped in to establish order and trounce out the feeling sorry for myself thoughts. DRY UP YE BIG BABY, KNUCKLE DOWN AND GET IT DONE! I raised myself up, pointed myself in the right direction and started again to move.
10kms or 6ish miles to go; if I could maintain a 10 minute mile pace I was looking at just one more hour. Ha! What a laugh, no chance of such a pace. The route ahead was through a forest containing a treacherously dangerous path, very steep and very slippy, a recipe for a fall. I was glancing at my watch to monitor pace, 45 minute mile!!! FFS! I have to go faster! The pace was quickened, ETA 3am approx.
This forest went on forever, pitch black, foggy, deserted and endless, I was really spooked by it (I could be murdered here and no one would know). I'd been awake over 40 hours at that point so was clearly losing my reason. It was then that I saw the outline of another person ahead of me. I caught up and spoke to him. Disturbingly he had the look and calmness of a serial killer and when he spoke he did so in the kind of soothing tone Hannibal Lector uses just before he murders his victim! In my weakened mental capacity I freaked out, turned and sprinted down the hill through the forest not stopping for 3 minutes and every few seconds looking back to see if he was following. Of course.....he wasn't. The guy must have thought I was a complete nut!
After so many painfully slow miles it was a huge relief when the forest finally ended and I was back out to the streets of Cortina. The finish was I’m afraid a total anticlimax with almost everyone gone to bed. There was just the photographer at the end looking on. I didn’t care, I’d done it and I was happy. A couple of photos and then I got it…my North Face finishers gilet!
I finished at 3:20am one hour and 40 minutes under the cutoff. There was no feeling of euphoria at finishing, I was of course delighted to have made it to the end but to take 28 hours and sixteen minutes was very slow. I couldn’t complain too much though considering my lack of training and the decision to stop to photograph and video. If I really went for it, prepared properly and only stopped at the CPs to eat I reckon I could knock three or more hours off of my time.
I walked back to the ice rink to collect my bag and get my free beer and food. I then spent half an hour wandering the streets of the town looking for the carpark where I'd left my car! D’oh.
It was 5am before I got back to my hotel room where I packed my suitcase, showered and then slept for a solid three hours before driving back to the airport and my flight home.
1,608 started, 1,188 finishers, 420 DNFs (26%, 72 female, 348 male).
17 Irish started with 7 finishing. The first of these was Paddy O’ Leary in 13 hours 20 minutes, 6th place overall
I came first in my age category of M49 years and 359 days old.
The winner finished in 12 hours and 16 minutes.
The weather was ideal, cold on the Friday night, clear and sunny day on the Saturday with great visibility and not too hot.
This is a superbly organized race with nothing left to chance. The course marking is faultless and you are never truly alone with race stewarts in evidence across the route.
Don’t embark on this race without trail poles and make sure you know how to use them.
Salt tablets are worth bringing (IMO) although it is impossible to say whether it was them or some other factor that prevented me cramping.
Take the time to enjoy the route because nobody really cares what time you finish in and you’ve paid a lot of money to be here.
Take photos and make sure you’re in them.
Probably stating the obvious here, carry a portable charger. I carried two, one small one that I was able to stuff underneath my buff on my wrist whilst it charged my Garmin (model 630 can be charged whilst recording activity). The other to keep my phone and GoPro alive.
Don’t forget to practice your smile for the event photographers spread across the course. These guys know their stuff and are located at places where you will have a jaw dropping background behind you. They charge a very reasonable €29.99 for all photos taken of you; make sure your number is visible; this will save you having to trawl through multiple pages of unidentified runner photos. I prefer photos of me without my sunglasses on.
Carry chrystalised ginger and Deflatine for stomach issues.
Try to keep eating (I struggle with this one), the salty items on offer are good for giving the palate a break from sickly gels. I monitored the amount of coca cola I drank as I have found that too much raises acidity in the stomach to the point of causing gastric issues.
Keep an eye on the weather in the days before the event and make your kit decisions accordingly. I was very glad I carried decent gloves and hat on the cold Friday night.
I’m not going to advise on carrying gels (I’m just another recreational runner with only my own experience to draw on). All I will say is do whatever works for you and know that they are not provided at the CPs.
Try to build up your sleep in the week approaching the event and remember that whilst you may not sleep much in the hours before, lying still with the eyes closed is still of benefit.