I am not even sure if I have fully finished processing this race just yet. In all honesty, I am not sure I ever will. When Anton Krupicka describes a race as “probably the most beautiful I have ever run”, you know you are in for something special.
If the saying is true that life begins at the end of your comfort zone, then for 27.5 hours between Friday 24th and Sunday 26th June 2017, my life really was unequivocally in a new level of awe, discomfort, elation, despair and everything in between.
The Dolomites are sensory overload in every one of the five senses. The eyes truly have difficulty in getting your brain to process the level of out-of-this-worldness that is being taken in. The taste of the free running snow melt water that is the most delicious I have ever drank, the ears try and take in every sound from the streams to the insects, the touch as you try and pull yourself up one more climb in the middle of the second night that is so steep you’ve had to pack away your trekking poles and scramble with hands and feet. And lastly the smell that varies throughout the race- wild flowers, cut grass, dust, olive oil on bread in the aid stations, wild garlic, pine.
You might be able to tell I am a little bit in love with these mountains. However, as you’ll read below, just because you love something, doesn’t mean it’ll love you back. One blog I read before flying out described this race as ‘hell in heaven’ and despite trying, I can’t summarise this race any better than that.
After the disappointment of a lackluster effort at UTMB last year, 2017 had gone really well. I’d already completed 3 ultras in the build-up to this- Cotswold Way 50k in Feb, The Green Man in March and The North Downs Way 50 miler in May and felt I had increased stamina perfectly. I felt as fit as I had ever been and was ready to push myself to my limits to prove to myself that I was capable of a mountain race finish. At just under 6,000 metres of climb (and the same level of descent), half the race over 2000 metres above sea level and the distance of 3 consecutive marathons to boot, this was not an easy way to join that club. But I don’t do this because it is easy, I do this to test myself.
The race started at 11pm in the centre of Cortina d’Ampezzo which is a beautiful town in the heart of this mountain range. The town is surrounded by huge peaks and as just under 1,600 of us charged into the night there was electricity in the air. Thankfully this night it was just our nervous energy, as the previous few nights we had taken a bashing from huge thunderstorms, ever reminding us we are not in charge of these mountains. We are but a pinprick they will tolerate at times and only at times.
Tonight we were lucky and it was a beautiful evening, if a little humid. Everyone was running in daytime clothes and those who had started with a jacket on quickly removed it. After a mile or so through the town, we ran into the woods and the first climb of the night at a little over 500 metres gain. We bottlenecked at the entrance to the single track but this quickly made way onto fireroad and we could run two or three abreast up into the sky. Running quickly turned to hiking as the rhythmic click-clack of poles filled the air and we ascended into the cooler, thinner air, switchback after switchback.
Eventually we crested out and ran for a good few kilometres on gently rolling flat terrain before the first big descent. I am not a quick downhill runner. I am cautious and as a result whilst I found my hiking to be excellent, every place I had gained climbing was lost on the downhill. It’s not that I was just cautious, I also wanted to preserve my legs and whilst I have no doubt that a lot of the runners knew what they were doing, some were clearly carried away by the early exuberance and by the bottom I had seen a good three or four runners hobbling along on twisted ankles, their races and dreams ended in just a couple of hours from the start. There was no guarantee I would finish this, but I told myself whatever happens my race would not end from over exuberance or stupidity. I was not after a time, I was after a finish and this was all about self-preservation and self-management.
That said, whilst I was steady on the descents I wasn’t hanging around on the flats or the climbs. Being timed out of UTMB as a result of being too cautious and saving myself for the second night was, with hindsight, a more painful and humiliating experience than I had appreciated at the time. So with just 6.5 hours to hit 33k within the cut off, I was moving where I felt confident and safe to do so. At 18k we hit the first aid station and this was right on my schedule. The schedule being to hit 33k before 4:30am so I could bank 1 hour on the cut offs. I quickly moved through and headed into the second of the big climbs of Lavaredo, to Son Forca.
Over the last few months I have built up a strong hiking style and as we climbed into the small hours of the morning and my headlamp bathed the way, I felt really strong. It was hard going, but it was what I had trained for and my eyes were fixed on hitting the top and getting down to the aid station with time banked. As I crested the top I could see runners far fitter than I look, wrapped in foil blankets waiting to be evacuated down by Mountain Rescue. It was a further reminder than the mountains don’t care how well you’ve trained, how fit you look, but only on how you respect them and the distance.
We then descended down some hairy switchbacks with steep drops and I let the speedy ones past as I stayed well and truly on the side of the trail away from the edge. With poles being carelessly swung to maintain their balance and an at times complete disregard for other runners, I wasn’t going to let a kamikaze runner take me out of this race.
Eventually after a quad grinding hour, we hit the aid station and I was delighted when I glanced at my watch to see it revealed 04:12am. I was almost an hour and twenty minutes up on the cut off. I wasn’t about to get complacent, so quickly filled my bottles, ate some food and was on my way.
It is no exaggeration to say you can lose hours in a race like this at the aid stations. For me, one of my race saviors was telling myself I wouldn’t sit down unless absolutely necessary. It’s very easy to get cold, particularly pre-dawn when you are already soaked in sweat from the humidity and I wanted to maintain a rhythm and also keep gaining time on the cut-offs. I knew that later in the race I may well be walking a large portion, so I needed to bank time now. I was in my own little world not racing anyone but the clock and it felt good.
My other race savior was Tailwind. This is a powdered form of nutrition that comes in handy sachets which you just dump in your water bottle and shake. I would have one bottle of Tailwind and one of water (later two of water during the heat of the day) and I felt like I had high energy levels throughout. I didn’t once feel sick and even felt hungrier than normal at the aid stations where I supplemented with real food- favorites here being noodle soup, cheese, fruit and salami as well as delicious bread drenched in olive oil.
The course ascended to a stunning sunrise at Pianmaceto with a cloud inversion down in the valley. The only downside being the drone of mosquitos waking to destroy as much as they could that day. On the flip side, every time I heard their evil whine it forced me to run a little quicker through this relatively flat but high wooded trail section. As dawn surrounded us I broke out of the woods and arrived at the beautiful Lake Misurina, which I knew led to the third steep climb of the day up to the 50k point that the course is named after, Tre Cime di Lavaredo- the jewel in this races crown.
Fortunately, whilst the aid stations where sparsely spread out, there were regular opportunities to fill up on water from little taps dotted here and there, as well as directly from the mountain streams. So before this big climb, I refilled, prepared a Tailwind mix and got myself ready.
And it really was a brute of a climb. Eventually, I arrived at the 48k aid station at Rif Auronzo at bang on 8am and had now banked a total of two and a half hours on the cut off, which I was very happy with. The length and steepness of that climb, combined with altitude at well over 2000 metres now meant I was a little fuzzy here and needed to sort myself out before talking the long next section.
I downed a lot of coke, drank some noodle broth and took 3 bananas with me. Having refilled my bottles and feeling a million miles away from how I felt when I arrived- and at only 15 minutes later- I was on my way.
The next aid station wasn’t until 66 kilometres but was a focus point for my race because it was firstly over halfway by that stage and secondly, where my dropbag was with a fresh t-shirt and a can of sprite and fanta- liquid of the gods as the heat rose.
There was a lot of downhill here but I was still moving well, with limited issues and set into a nice steady rhythm. By the time we got to the bottom of the valley it was really warm and everyone took the time to get soaked in the streams and rivers. It’s just as important in the heat to keep the external parts of the body cool as well as keep drinking, so wherever I could I soaked my cap and Buff that was around my neck. As well as the Tailwind, I also partially credit my finish to the amazing P20 suncream I was using. This stuff is incredible and I didn’t burn once or need to re-apply often, although I did a few times to be cautious. To spend a whole day under the unrelenting mountain sun and not burn with my complexion- this stuff is a lifesaver.
By km66 I was feeling good still and quickly changed into the fresh shirt which felt amazing, downed the two cans of sugar and was out again. The next climb was probably the hottest of the day and the track we hiked ran parallel to a gently tumbling stream. By halfway up, this was too much to resist and I took my pack off, paddled in and lay down face first, holding my breath for ten seconds or so as the freezing water soothed my cooked body.
Like a new man, I got up and marched the rest of that hill with renewed vigor until I crested the top and jogged down the other side to Malga Ra Stua at km80 or so. Just a marathon to go, but the steepest climb was about to take place and we still had to descend for another hour or so before it began. A 10k climb of 1000 metre gain in the heat.
It was here that the wheels started to fall off. The chafing, which had been building became excruciating, despite constantly re-applying, the heat was radiating off the huge cliffs to the side of the trail, the terrain was like walking up the worlds steepest, longest gravel driveway and there were multiple stream crossings where the feet quickly got wet and rubbed as they dried during the climb.
Combine this with altitude increasing with each step and already almost 90k on the legs, by the time we came to what I thought was the top, I was hanging on in there. After a long period of flat through boulder fields it became apparent that this was a false summit and I was also 5k further back than I had thought. Distances become skewed in races like this and whilst 5k is often 25 mins for most people on fresh Saturday legs in the park, 5k here was well over an hour- sometimes two- and the trail only went up.
As we almost crested the top, there was a small sign saying ‘90k’. This may as well have said ‘you thought you were well over 100k, didn’t you fat boy?’. It was truly devastating and whilst I am sure put out there to encourage people, to me and those around me it had the total opposite effect. Still, we had signed up for this and we hadn’t come this far to only come this far, so down the other side we went. It was now just 5k to the next aid station and virtually all downhill.
It was now mercifully cloudy and starting to drizzle but I didn’t bother with the waterproof as it was still muggy and I was moving nicely when the leg muscles eventually realised they were finally no longer climbing.
Down, down, down until a little tunnel and up to a long since abandoned mountain fort and then down again to Col Gallina. I met up with a couple of equally broken Brits here and we quickly re-filled. I was the first out as I wanted to be moving, but it wasn’t long before they passed me on the next big climb. Having the map printed on our race bibs was excellent and allowed us to see what was coming, but it didn’t ever put it in context. I could see that the end was ‘rolling’ and no more steep, long climbs. How wrong I was. The last four climbs may not have been steep, but they were in every way as brutal and most of the next 20k was at altitudes of over 2000m before a huge descent to the finish at 1200m.
By now, running had long since been dispatched to ancient history and I was a broken shuffler. My back ached like never before I was drawn into a hunch. Without my poles I would never have finished. And then I heard the thunder. What a way to finish!
As I made my way out of the penultimate aid station with just 6k to go until the last one, at the refuge I had hiked to two days before the race so I knew the last 10k, I was on a mission to hang on in there. I got as much sugar down me as my body would allow and put the headlamp back on, the headlamp I had so desperately wanted to not have to use again. But the mountain dictated my pace, not me.
The evening before, seeing headlamps twinkling above me as I climbed was oh so pretty and it was a joy to be a part of this epic race. Fast forward 24 hours and having headlamps twinkling where I would have to climb almost broke me. The final climb was marked on the map with an exclamation mark and now I knew why. It had a huge drop to the side of it and for the first time in my ultra career to date, I was truly scared. I was exhausted and this climb was so steep that my poles were no use and I needed to use my hands to help me scramble up. By now it wasn’t fun and it was all about just getting to the finish safely, the time did not matter one bit.
Finally I crested the top and there, twinkling away 1000 metres below me and 11k on foot was Cortina. Whatever happened now, I would be home in three hours.
The last aid station was not pretty and I moved through the puddles of other peoples puke quickly. By this stage, I wasn’t quite sure if I was a runner, hiker or a pacer. The altitude or a combination of all things to have happened that day had well and truly fried my brain. I thought it best not to ask the question of what I was doing up there- to be pulled with 9k to go wasn’t going to happen and I knew I would be better as I got lower.
I shuffled the agonizingly steep last descent, not knowing if I was doing this or watching a movie of me doing this but slowly my senses recovered and I was almost home. I was bent almost double by this point and the pain in my back just wouldn’t let me stand up straight so I shuffled and shuffled until I finally came out of the woods and hit tarmac. I ran in with some French guys who asked if I was OK and I said I would be in 2k’s time. I encouraged them to go ahead, assuring them I was fine and before I knew it I was on the cobbled streets of Cortina to cheers of those who were still out at just after 2am.
I wondered all day how finishing this race would make me feel. I got a lump at the beauty of Tre Cime and wondered if the same would happen at the finish. As I crossed the line all I felt was shattered. I had just run one of the hardest ultras in the world and I finished two and a half hours inside the cut off. I wasn’t elated, I was just done. I knew the feelings of this day would take a while yet to sink in.
All I can say now is, that race is incredible. I’ve tried my best to describe how it was for me, but just like the photos, to know this race you have to have done it. I can’t get anywhere near what it feels with words. I just can’t. No one can.