UD Ambassador Gabe Joyes shares his thoughts on his Italian race experience.
Lavaredo Ultra Race

photo credit: Canofotosport

Everything was steep at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail—notably the 19k of long, grinding ascents and absurdly technical descents—but my greatest challenge in the Dolomites of Italy was the steep learning curve of international racing.

Just about 1900 runners from 60 countries toed the line of the hyper-competitive 120K race that is part of the Ultra Trail World Tour. There was a full-on party atmosphere in Cortina at 11PM as the stream of runners made their way through the city streets into the warm night time of the Italian Dolomites.

A mere six-days before the start of Lavaredo I co-race directed the Sinks Canyon Rough and Tumble trail races in Lander, WY, drove five-hours to the Salt Lake City airport, and then promptly hopped on my first international flight. I’d meticulously done my homework but would soon re-discover that there is no learning like experiential learning.

The tempo of the race was clearly allegro from the start, which felt good after counting down the hours all day. The early kilometers were on what we might call smooth bike paths in the USA, and there was plenty of fast running to do. I first noticed some surprising fatigue in my legs a mere 20K into the race, which was of course a cause for concern. I had been very intentional about my starting pace, but decided to still turn the heat down a bit since I knew the most challenging parts of the course were still ahead of me. Another 5K later I noticed that my vision in both eyes was starting to get clouded and blurry, like I was wearing foggy sunglasses. I had experienced this phenomenon once at the tail end of Bighorn 100 a few years ago, but I was shocked to experience a loss of vision so early in the race. However, I had never experienced an 11PM start before and I’d already been awake for nearly 24 hours.

This was a week with a few other firsts as well, like carrying around a 45 pound backpack in over 100 degree heat in Venice trying to find a bus to Cortina. I only speak enough Italian to avoid getting dirty looks from locals, and when it came to navigating the regions charter bus system I was woefully unprepared. After a physically and mentally exhausting series of miscommunications and missed bus rides, my wife and I were able to “communicate” with a bus driver by waving a wad of Euros in front of his face in order to get a seat on a previously “sold out” bus.

The heat in Italy was no joke—as someone who lives in the Northern Rockies I’m not sure I’ve experienced those kinds of temperatures in a decade. Even at night, racing high through the Dolomites was still a sweat fest; the race committee had even reduced the mandatory kit each runner carries so my Halo pack was extra light. As I crested the iconic pass at Tre Cime, early morning had illuminated the Dolomites in the softest of light, and even though the sun was still below the horizon, runners were treated to the most spectacular display of the Dolomiti cathedral of peaks. Even though my legs were more tired than I would have liked, vision still blurry, and already a little cooked, this one view and moment of the race made everything worthwhile.

I was just keeping things together going through 33K, which was the first crewed aid station of the race, and I didn’t have a crew, or even English speaking support to help me out (also another first for me). I could have really used it, as I started feeling dizzy, uncoordinated, and completely not myself as the course got steeper and the climbing intensified. The mid-morning sun came up hot and made my already disappointing racing condition worse. I tried to fuel, hydrate, take in sodium, slow my pace, and I even tried to just will my spirit up and over those craggy Dolomite peaks, but it was becoming obvious that physically I wasn’t up to the task. After a week filled with many fun, exciting, yet challenging firsts, my body had it’s fill even though my head and heart craved more. Disappointed but filled with gratitude for the experience, I ended my race early at about 95K. In many ways I would not change a thing about my first trip to Italy, but of course I learned many important lessons and hope to return again better educated and more prepared for another stunning tour of the Italian Dolomites.

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