After taking six of the previous eight months off, I finally started daily running again on April 23rd, the day I got back from a trip to Japan. The first week I began with 35-60min flat jogs, but only a month on I did my first race of the year—the Jemez 50mi—and after that knew that I wanted to find some kind of focus event for the first half of the summer. Ever since I DNFed in Trient, Switzerland (140km) last year, UTMB was always going to be the goal race for the second half of the 2014 summer.
In terms of relevance, there are two races that take up most of the oxygen in the North American ultra space in the first half of the summer: Western States and Hardrock. I couldn’t gain entry to either. Internationally, that left two options—the Skyrunning World Championships 80K in Chamonix or the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 119K in Italy’s Dolomites. The latter is one of the 10 events on the Ultra Trail World Tour, which my sponsor Buff Headwear is a sponsor of. Buff’s support there was an obvious deciding factor for me, but I was further attracted by the longer distance of Lavaredo and the chance to visit the incredibly beautiful Dolomites mountains. With 74 miles and 20,000′ of vertical, Lavaredo seemed like a perfect preparatory event for UTMB, requiring more time on my feet than a 50 miler, but without quite all the muscular destruction of a full 100 miler.
Preparation was as good as could be expected given two months of running, except that in the last 10 days before the race I suffered a significant sprain to my right ankle and a surprisingly painful deep bone bruise to my right patellar (courtesy of taking a rock directly on the kneecap during an otherwise routine trail bumble). The weakened ankle left me particularly anxious, because a couple subsequent re-rolls of it showed me that it had the ability to suddenly and unexpectedly make finishing the race completely untenable.
Either way, I showed up in Cortina feeling fit and confident. I was joined by a trio of top Americans—Dave Mackey, Mike Foote, and Rory Bosio. Dave self-admittedly is committing the typical ultrarunner error this year of trying to do too much, which has only been exacerbated by the explosion of travel opportunities for top runners in recent years (he’s also gunning for the five-event Leadman series this summer, which means he did the Leadville Marathon only two weeks before Lavaredo and will be competing in the Silver Rush mountainbike 50mi two weeks after). Mike was back for the full course after getting lost on a snow-shortened Lavaredo last year. As for Rory, after suffering through the heat of her hometown ultra in the Sierras each of the last four years, she was happily trading Western States for another trip abroad to indulge what is pretty obviously becoming her strong suit (most resoundingly displayed in her superlative victory and course record at UTMB last year): long, tough races in Europe’s alpine peaks. Like me, both Mike and Rory were using Lavaredo as a warm-up game for much more extensive UTMB-oriented trips in only a month’s time.
Race week was consistently rainy in Cortina, but at the 11pm start Friday night only a light mist was falling, and for us finishing in the 12-15hr range the precip was mercifully never any heavier than that for the whole race. Despite the dreary weather and late hour, the race start was of course jammed with spectators and this obviously seems to affect the runners as I was probably in 50th place the first couple of miles while still feeling like I was running too fast. Indeed, it took me a good 15min before I even caught up to Rory.
The frantic energy continued through the first climb of 2000′ or so. I was having a hard time finding a good rhythm as it seemed I was always fighting for the best line with several other runners, all whilst being overly careful to protect my ankle. About an hour in I pulled to the side of the trail to re-pin my flapping race bib (it seemed in danger of falling off completely) and because (unknown to me in the moment) we were at the beginning of a big descent down to the first aid station, I was immediately passed by probably 20 or 30 runners. Craziness!
I was happy to have my ankle survive this dark, misty, moderately techy drop before we jumped on several kilometers of flat fire-road, which put me back into desperation mode as everyone seems to tempo this kind of terrain right at their anaerobic threshold, or even over it. Eventually, though, the course turned back uphill and I rejoined Mike and we ran together working our way through to the front of the field as we ascended to the brief but thick fog of Forcella Son Forca at ~25K. Yeray Duran and I had topped this pass together and it turned out the only people left in front of us were prolific French ultra-ultrarunner Christophe LeSaux (he does sufferfests like Tor de Geant and Marathon de Sables) , TNF South Africa athlete Iain Don Wauchope, and eventual 3rd placer Lithuanian Gediminas Grinius.
After grabbing some more gels from my totally selfless crew of Marco and Maurizia—distributors of Buff in Italy (really, who wants to stay up all night handing out gels?)—it was back off into the darkness for an aggressive descent down to the next aid at 33K. Here, RD Cristina Murgia informed me that I was now in 3rd place, with Gediminas and Iain only a minute or two up. I caught both of them up pretty quickly on the now uphill course and when we merged onto another fire road I continued to run grades that they were hiking and just like that I had assumed the lead, about three and a half hours into the race.
With my ankle I couldn’t be particularly aggressive on the next section of the course into Lake Misurina—with a healthy paw it would’ve been a ton of fun on wet, slick, grassy, rooty, often-barely-there single track and half-track. As it was, I kinda just bopped along, trying to be patient in my anticipation of the sunrise. I arrived at Misurina—the base of the long climb up to the iconic Tres Cime—shortly after 4hrs of running and now that we were out of the trees could see that veteran Italian sky runner Fulvio Dapit was no more than a minute back. (Dapit “won” the Pikes Peak Marathon in 2005, but was disqualified for cutting some switchbacks on the descent, giving the victory to Buzz’s son, Galen; I was no more than an interested spectator on Ruxton Ave that day.) I was fine with him doggedly tailing me; we were barely a third of the way done with the day.
The climb up to Tres Cime was one of the highlights of the course for me—shorter than I expected, mostly steep-ish hiking, and increasingly alpine. My advantage over Fulvio was still only a couple minutes at the summit, but I could tell at least that my climbing legs were stronger than his. We traversed around the Cime on a wide cat-track before beginning the big descent on a similar style of trail that was bounded by walls of snow that towered above my head.
The just-beginning-to-lighten sky finally revealed the surrounding landscape and, holy moly, what beauty! If this is what we’d been missing during the night it’s a shame that any of the race is held in the dark—the Dolomites are a truly stunning place.
Over 5hrs in and my ankle was only feeling more solid as the run went on, so, combined with the rising sun, I felt much more competent on this descent, with my pace really only being limited by my lack of desire to batter my quads. Unfortunately, daybreak and the pounding downhill also seemed to finally loosen up my guts a bit and over the next hour or so I spent a bunch of time in the bushes at the side of the trail taking care of business. I was timing my pauses and altogether I lost 8-10min to the pit-stops and during the middle of one of these Fulvio passed me, frustratingly. I’ve actually never had that be such an issue in a race before; I’ll blame it on the 11pm start and not being able to adequately gauge my pre-race meals.
Eventually, this descent transitioned into the only tedious part of the course, ~8k of proper flat, fast, straight running on crushed rock road/path. Oih. At least the surrounding mountains were among the most striking and dramatic I’d ever seen—that is, until 20k later when I reached the fairytale final third of the course. The Dolomites really are something else.
I spent most of this road racing with Fulvio in sight but never able to quite catch up because of my stops with my shorts ’round my ankles. A couple K’s after the 67K Cimabanche aid, however, the course mercifully went back uphill to the Forc Lerosa. I quickly caught Fulvio on this climb (which was another fire road at maybe the most frustrating ‘tweener grade I’ve ever encountered) and then gradually pulled away, having a hard time picking between running and hiking and ending up doing approximately equal amounts of both (Mike later told me he ran every step of that climb—he’s a better man than I).
The main issue was deciding whether it was too early to start putting out the kind of effort that a consistent run would’ve required. I actually found this to be a significant challenge for much of the first two-thirds of the race. Because the race distance was exactly between a 50 miler and a 100 miler—two distances for which I am very confident in the respective effort-parsing strategies—I often found myself conflicted as to how much effort I should be putting out at a given point in the race. For instance, if it had been a 50 miler, I absolutely would’ve run every step of that climb without even thinking about it. And if it had been a 100 miler, I likely would’ve hiked even more of it than I did. Either way, at the top of the climb, I could no longer see Fulvio behind me and on the subsequent descent down to the cow pastures of Malga Ra Stua at the 76K aid he didn’t catch up either (he would drop here, unbeknownst to me).
With seven and a half hours on the legs and basically a marathon left to go (but what would turn out to be a freaking 5hr marathon!), I knew it was finally okay to stop worrying about conserving and instead start racing. This was liberating in a way—like, oh hey, now it’s fine that my legs are beginning to hurt!—and I started the long, long grunt up to the Forcella Col dei Bos with a smile on my face. This smile only widened as the course somehow became even more stupendously scenic.
We were working our way up the Val Travenanzes with giant walls of stone shooting up on each side, swirling mist, and frequent snowfield crossings. Eventually, we were right down in the gigantic river wash itself, picking through gravel and cobbles with basically no trail, just following the course markers. After an hour or so of this, the course gradually emerged from the trees and steepened for the final climb to the pass at 7600′ or so (we’d started 3000′ lower). I started losing my appetite for gels somewhere in here, however, and compensated by easing off the pace and filling up with Coke at the 94K aid Rifugio Col Gallina.
The rest of the course was a saw-blade’s profile that bounced around between 2100m and 2400m (which is alpine territory in the Dolomites) before a final plummeting descent back down to Cortina. Despite the still gloomy, swirlingly cloudy conditions, this last 25K was marvelously beautiful and by far the most sustainedly technical portion of the course. Beautiful in a you-only-see-this-stuff-in-postcards kind of way. When I reached Passo Giau at 102K and was told I’d had a 12min lead back at Col Gallina I did a few calculations and decided that unless someone put on a serious charge I was pretty comfortable with my chances and didn’t see any need to further bash my legs by charging the last 10 miles.
As such, I just maintained effort over the series of shorter climbs and then tried to comfortably cruise the remainder of the race (the final descent, however, contained some sections of steep, wet, slick, muddy, rooty, technical footing that my legs didn’t really appreciate after 70ish miles of running). The nice thing, though, was that I could finish the race feeling satisfied with the effort but definitely within myself, not completely spent upon the finish in downtown Cortina.
The town of Cortina and the whole race organization really puts on a top-level event here. The course is probably the most beautiful one I’ve ever raced and both Mike and Rory agreed with me that the race has struck a nice balance with there being great energy and support from the crowds at the start and finish but without quite reaching the fever-pitch intensity of UTMB that can be so overwhelming and even a bit of a turn off.
My final takeaway is that Italy is a ridiculously beautiful country. I spent my last day there limping around Venice, going for a couple of jogs along the waterfront, strolling amongst the tourists and pigeons and frescos of Piazza di San Marco, getting genuinely lost in the city’s famously labyrinthine constellation of corridors and canals, and drinking too much espresso. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that in Italy I had the fortune to experience maybe the most extravagant beauty I’ve seen anywhere—in the natural world in the Dolomites, and then on the other end of the spectrum, man’s handiwork in Venezia. I can’t say for sure that I’ll be back next year—the pull of WS, Hardrock, and even Nolan’s is pretty darn magnetic—but I’m certainly grateful that I had the opportunity and support to participate this year and would highly recommend the race and the whole Dolomites region for any mountain-loving ultra runner.