Lavaredo Ultra Trail
Every race has a lesson. Some of those lessons require some digging, but others scream it out loud. This lesson goes in the latter category. Lavaredo Ultra-Trail’s lesson is this: Don’t get ahead of yourself.
When I took a shot and missed the Western States Golden Ticket at Sean O’Brien 100k, then took another shot at Lake Sonoma 50 and missed, the little dream seedling of running LUT began to sprout. The Dolomites have long been a bucket list mountain range and photos of the race portrayed terrain we had to see. It might have remained a seedling of an idea, and the Pacific Northwest has plenty to continue to explore, but Rachel and her endless enthusiasm and throw-caution-to-the-wind way of being nurtured it to life. If not now, when?
We were floored when we caught our first glimpse of these peaks when we rose out of the Padan Plain from Venice. My descriptions will fall short. Rock rising out of bright green fields and forests, and...that’s all I got. We were here and amazed. It was hard to believe that a day and a half before I was writing final comments for my students and attending end-of-the-year teacher meetings. This summer was off to a very good start.
Rachel would race the Cortina Skyrace 20k the day before my race. She had recently recovered from an injury and only put in three low mileage training weeks before racing. She was here to have fun, but it didn’t show when she threw up just 15 minutes before the start. Still, she put her resiliency to the test, lined up, and then raced with all kinds of class and talent. I spotted her in the first mile through the town where she settled into a smart and comfortable clip, then jogged up to a higher point where I could cheer her on, trying to temper my excitement because I had a long race ahead of me the next day. A few of the guys came racing by and then my Rachie comes cruising through in the lead! I was stoked and screaming like crazy! I enjoyed the long descent and anxiously awaited the finish. And, of course, Rachel won, and I was very proud of this remarkable woman.
The next day I was invited to the Elite Runners Presentation according to my ITRA ranking. This was not a local ultramarathon race. People came from around the world, I knew their names and racing resumes, and I felt I didn’t belong. I was announced as racer number 15 (the winner of the Beacon Rock 50k!) and went to the stage in my Chacos, Runners of the Wild tee, and jorts. That I didn’t belong was made clearer with every successive elite runner announced looking fancy and truly next level. These were the champions of the Ultra World and my pipe dream of a Top-10 finish dimmed to a pinhole.
The starting line and early miles LUT would start that night after at 11 pm. It turned out advantageous to prolong the jet lag from travels two days before and I took a long, hard nap the afternoon before the race. I felt refreshed and eager for what was to come. The main street through Cortina was packed with racers and spectators. The atmosphere gave me shivers and Rachel had tears in her eyes. People were taking pictures before the beat down and everyone was so happy. A crowd lined the starting chute and habited balconies, announcers in Italian and English built the suspense and excitement. I went through my dynamic warmup routine and breathed deeply both to revel in the moment and calm my nerves. I said goodbye to Rachel, she would meet me 20 miles into the night, and walked down the starting chute and found a place towards the front. The countdown, cheesy and perfect, began with Ennio Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold blaring in the background. Then we got down to racing!
Those first miles were blazing fast at the front of the field, and I had no intention of going with the leaders, reasoning that no one could run this fast 120k through. I estimated my place between 30th and 40th and felt confident to relax and let the night slide by as I found a pleasant and dreamlike state. I passed an individual here and there while contemplating where I was and this privilege to do something I love in this far-flung place of the world.
Though I’m normally meticulous with notes for my crew and a detailed race plan for myself, I had no such preparation here. Only the day before we connected with Chris and Keely and made a plan for Rachel to join Chris to the crewing checkpoints in their rental. In hindsight, this was a lifesaver. The race’s aid station food was unfamiliar and while I drank the orange sugar drink they provided, I had no idea what I was fueling my effort with. Seeing Rachel at 4 points in the race lifted my spirits and gave me the sustenance needed to continue. They encouraged me that I was, in fact, having a pretty good race. I’d steadily moved 30th at 20k to 20th at 50k.
The climb to Rifugio Lavaredo in the earliest hours of the morning was bitterly cold, but when I reached the top I saw what I’d wanted to see for so long. Jagged layers of rock stretched as far as I could see but brightened only slightly before the sunrise. The Tre Cime, Three Peaks, took a
commanding portion of the landscape and looked marvelous. I had no idea where I was or where I’d come from as the night had disoriented my path. I chased the headlamps in the distance, stayed calm, and appreciated the moment. At 66k I was in 14th and knew it was time to race.
The night of running and lack of sleep caught up with me on the next climb. I would look up the trail and swear a spectator was tucked in the woods ready to cheer when I ran by. Minor hallucinations, but hallucinations nonetheless; and my first! When I passed someone I would frankly remind myself to not get comfortable, to continue the hunt. Partially up the longest climb of the course, I began to dream about what this day could be. How many more could I pass? Could this be the race of my life? Another racer would come into view and I would drag myself closer, then pass without hesitation.
I pushed into 11th before reaching the last checkpoint I’d see Rachel till the finish. Others racers were taking their time and clearly hurting in the tent. One of the early leaders was down for the count, unable to continue. We made an efficient pit stop and Rachel looked at me and said, “You gotta go.” I left in 9th. I pressed into the next climb and passed one more. Finding my current position almost unbelievable, I erased the ideas I had back in Cortina that I didn’t belong here.
I was getting ahead of myself. I don’t always follow the “save half your energy for the final third of the race” philosophy, but LUT is the race to be conservative early. The final miles are the hardest of the race and some of the most beautiful. There were three significant climbs and the most technical sections of the entire course. Partially up this first climb out of the aid station I hit the proverbial wall. I kept looking and expecting to be near the top, but it curled around a rock outcropping and continued its imposing path. It was the first time I was being passed in the race...by one...then another...and another. I put one foot in front of the next, but my progress was slow. Fatigue is normal late in a race, but I wondered if this inability to climb was caused by more than being extremely tired. My hands were puffy and my breathing was shallower than normal.
Analyzing this race afterwards, I considered my nutrition and hydration tactics to trace my mistakes. Rachel was handing me 16 ounce bottles of Maurten 320 that I downed as additional calorie bombs three times throughout the race. I was finding salty foods hard to find at the Italian aid stations with unfamiliar fare. I didn’t know what was in the provided orange drink, but it lacked the salty taste I was used to. It was an experimental, on-the-fly approach for hydration and, I believe, a mistake that led to insufficient salt intake and overhydration that can cause hands to swell and shallow breath.
With 10k to go, I had still managed to pass one individual to put me in tenth. We crested the final climb, but he was hanging tough and I left the final aid station just as he arrived. It would be a race to the finish and I put my head down and descended with everything I could muster. I’d worked hard to get to this point, and I felt I could hold on. I went into tunnel vision and distilled my focus: the finish line in 10th. The trail hit a gravel road, 3k remaining, and course markings indicated a left, so I ran down this gravel road, expecting to run into town at any moment. After a mile, head down and focused on being done, it grew quiet and the road turned away from the town. I looked around for course markings and found none, and the realization reached into my emptied heart. I had taken a wrong turn.
I walked much of that mile back to the course, having given my all for 98 percent of the race. I discovered that the course markings were meant to guide me left down a trail on the other side of the road, and I was attentive enough to notice it. At the final checkpoint I was in 12th, but another two runners passed me shortly thereafter, and I didn’t put up a fight.
Running through town I made the decision that I still needed to celebrate. This had been one incredible night and day of running; some of the best of my life. I high fived the hands reaching over the finish chute barricade, smiled big under the finish line archway, and stopped running. I hugged Rachel and whispered what had happened, dejected. The results won’t show everything, but that’s my story. I’ll take away the new realization that I can scrape my way through a hard, hard trail and muster the grit to finish well and compete. I’ll also stay in the present moment until the final step.