If you don’t try, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. And this pretty much sums up the North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2017. After a year and a half of pesky injuries (one broken arm, and a stress fracture to boot), I needed something to work towards. Yes, there have been marathons and a few ultras along the way but this jaunt up and down the Dolomites was what I like to call The Big One. The race of this year. My ultimate challenge. The goal that pushed me to get up in the morning at silly o’clock and run a fair old way before work.
And yes, I’d also kept it quiet. I didn’t want the fanfare of Marathon des Sables, I didn’t want to bleat on about my training plan, nutrition or the fact that I was rather anxious about actually arriving at the start line on time. All I wanted was to experience everything the race had to offer. And boy oh boy, it didn’t disappoint.
Equipping myself pre-race
In case you haven’t heard of the North Face Lavaredo Ultra, well, it’s a 120K race that starts and finishes in Cortina d’Ampezzo, a beautiful village in the Dolomites, Italy. So that means mountains, a checklist that included a water bottle, lightweight jacket, long sleeve top, emergency blanket, whistle, headtorch and trail shoes plus of course, a lot of balls. The fact that the race starts at 11pm at night may put some people off but with climbs and a few patchy parts marked on the map as treacherous, it’s not one for novices.
As well as a few months of training, I also ensured I had a few handy bits of kit with me. This included:
A Salomon S-Lab Ultra 5 Set Trail backpack – quite simply the lightest running backpack you could ever wish for. It’s totally worth the money as it was roomy enough for all my food, layers and checklist above. Honestly, it’s perfect for Ultra trails.
The North Face Flight Series jacket – again this was super lightweight, breathable and protected me when the heavens decided to open.
The North Face Better than Naked top – I usually wear running vests but am glad I choose this short sleeve number which covered my shoulders, protecting them from the unforgiving sunshine during the race. This allowed my body to breath and I had no chaffing at all throughout the race. Go to www.thenorthface.co.uk to find out more.
Inov-8 Rocklite trail shoes – after my feet failure in the desert, I was expecting the worst during this race. But thanks to these super-flexible lightweight shoes, I came out unscathed. Not a single blister! Go to www.inov-8.com to find out more.
1000 Mile Compression socks – when it comes to any distance, it’s all about those crucial details such as your socks. I’m sure these 1000 mile compression socks also helped prevent those nasty and painful blisters.
Black Diamond Distance Z Poles – I was tempted not to take any but after speaking with my running partner Kieran (manvmiles.com) who had tried the Lavaredo before, I quickly bought a pair, and they proved to be invaluable when tackling some pretty heavy climbs.
(Top tip: If you’re flying Easyjet and just want a carry on bag but want to take your poles as well, do a voluntary hold so your bag goes into hold and you don’t have to stump up extra cash for taking hiking poles. You may have to wait for your bag at the other end but it’ll save you £35 or whatever they charge these days.)
So onto the race
Starting and finishing in the beautiful village of Cortina d’Ampezzo, the North Face Ultra Trail takes you on a journey into the mountains. Forget the opening scenes of the Sound of Music, although there were many a meadow and lake that could easily fit right in, the route took in the rough and tumbles of the treacherous Dolomiti Mountains. Faced with just about every terrain I could imagine, for someone with a little but not much experience of running on mountain trails, it really was other worldly.
In fact, from the moment that I arrived in Cortina on the day of the race with an hour to get myself to the registration in the Winter Olympic stadium, I felt excited and slightly giddy about the journey ahead. Had I done enough training? Would my ‘Fisher Price’ – an old school Nokia – phone last the journey? (It did.) To think that in the morning I was boarding the plane at Gatwick, only then 12 hours later to be lining up to start with the sounds of Enrico Morricone filling the air. What on earth was I doing?
When a race starts past my bedtime and sends you up on a pilgrimage of lights into the mountains, I knew that it’s going to be something special. As for the course, well that was pretty spectacular too.
One minute I was hauling myself up narrow trails trying not to focus on the fact that I felt incredibly sick because your heartrate was pushed to the max (or it at least felt that way), the next I was attempting to fly downhill without tripping over the many rocks and branch roots in my way. Nothing about this course was easy to the rather novice mountain runner, apart from the company.
As I’d made a pact to do this race with my Marathon des Sables tentmate, Kieran. Having attempted this race once before, he knew about any little surprises such as a rather tough climb in the first half of the race. Usually, I like to go it alone but I can honestly say, having someone there, to chat to, or simply grunt at when we were going through the tough times, was beneficial in terms of moral and motivation.
It also meant we could share the accomplishments, such as reaching Tre Cime or the aid station at 66K. At this point, the race may not have exactly been in the bag but we felt that we could make it until the long and bitter end.
And it did end (just a little too soon)
The end was bitter…but only because we couldn’t do what we set out to do at 11pm the night before. My journey was cut short. Not by my partner’s injury but my lack of wanting to go on alone. After 20-odd hours of climbing, walking, running and stumbling, I didn’t want to carry on into the night by myself. Especially, when I saw that some of the course was looking pretty hairy.
We’d just come to the end of what they indicated as a “danger” zone and yes, there was a bit of scrambling, quick footwork and throwing yourself across onto ledges with sheer drops below. The alarm bells were going off at the thought of having to do some of that again, without Kieran behind me. It was also getting dark, the sky was clouding over and it looked like it was going to storm. And in the mountains, the storms are a mighty crash, bang and wallop. Not something I wanted to be caught out in.
Despite being well equipped with all the gear, I was feeling tired, exhausted and at that point where I could make silly mistakes that may cost dearly. I stepped away from my dream of finishing this brutal mountain race after a 90-odd kilometre rollercoaster ride.
Despite the fact that this one wasn’t to be, I absolutely loved being in the mountains and am feeling drawn to go back again. There is nothing quite like walking at sunrise surrounded by the grandeur of the Dolomites. Oh, they have won me over big time. I want to go back but this time, I want to prep myself a little better by trying a few smaller races or even heading to the Lake District for some Fell running. There really is an art to not only running the Lavaredo but mastering those trails.
Next time, they’ll be a next time…
Thank you to the Salomon and 1000 mile for their support and, of course, The North Face for all the gear, support, training and putting on such a well-organised race. For anyone wanting to sign up to next year’s race, the aid stations and all the support out on the course is outstanding. I may see you there.