The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail is not your usual running race. It has a start, a finish and so on, but at 120 kilometres it’s a little longer than usual, and with a course that winds its way up and down through the Dolomite mountain range, bagging eight summits in the process, competitors also have the added delight of dealing with just under 6,000 metres of vertical ascent as they hammer their way to a finish. Then of course there’s the fact the entire race is run off-road which means plenty of blister-happy rough ground underfoot. Now add a dose of sleep deprivation to the mix because for those who finish (and almost 40 per cent won’t) the average time it takes to complete the race is about 24 hours.
While all this may seem extreme on paper, the reality of finishing such a race isn’t as superhuman as you might think. Five years ago I couldn’t run for a bus, yet having gently piled on the miles since those dark days I’ve fallen into the wild world of ultramarathons (this simply means any running race longer than a marathon) having found their combination of massive personal challenge and immense natural adventure addictive.
While traditional marathons herd runners through fenced-off city centres, hemmed in by high rises and barely-restrained urban chaos for a running experience that’s about as pleasant as commuting, ultras are regularly held across the most stunning natural landscapes on the planet. They provide the perfect excuse to get your outdoor fix, and travelling through such places on nothing but your own two feet is about as close to nature as it gets. Like I said, it can all get a bit addictive.
It was while searching for my next fix that I came across the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. At 12 miles further than I had ever run in one hit it ticked the challenge box, but it was the location that had me signing up in a heartbeat: the Dolomites also have a reputation for knockout beauty, so much so, they’re a Unesco-protected World Heritage Site.
As with many lengthy trail events, the Lavaredo starts late which meant 10pm on race day saw 600-odd runners all tooled up with headtorches, Camelbaks and other essentials cramming into Cortina d’Ampezzo’s ancient town centre as the countdown blared. Seconds later, we were off into the night.
At the front of the field, ultrarunning greats including Sebastien Chaigneau, Iker Karrera and Zigor Iturrieta hared off at a fearsome pace as they fought for the outright win, while at the opposite end of the field those of us whose challenge lay with the course rather than the stopwatch sauntered out towards the mountains and the night ahead.
Pace is everything in an event like this. Go too hard, too early, even by a fraction, and the result will be a soul-crushing blowup as you run out of energy a very long way from the finish. Unless you’re a hugely seasoned pro, caution is best in the early miles.
This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, having repeatedly broken myself long before the halfway mark after letting my intentions get seriously ahead of my capabilities. So for the first few hours of the Lavaredo I dropped a chill pill and meandered peacefully at the back of the field.
A benefit of this strategy was the tranquillity of it all and as the inky-black forest loomed all around and the trail, relatively benign for now, wound beneath my feet I wasn’t tangled up in the bottlenecks that can often occur at this stage either at narrow sections or during steep climbs.
Sucking in the pine-fresh air I speed marched every climb (running these is for the pros only, for the rest of us it’s too energy-consuming to be worth the fractional extra speed), and then steadily running everything else.
As three in the morning passed, so my tired mind began to rebel as it craved sleep. Always the worst time in a race like this, here your body’s natural rhythms do all they can to shut you down. The only answer is to keep putting one foot in front of another and to know that as soon as dawn breaks all will be well again.
Even so, there were some very weird moments to contend with including one runner dropping his pants at the side of the trail to relieve himself in full view of any passing headtorch (which unfortunately included mine), and the moment when I caught a pungent hit of cigarette smoke despite being deep in the middle of nowhere. I thought it was my mind playing up but it refused to go away, until finally I came across the culprit – an Italian runner ahead of me merrily smoking away while still trotting along. Now that’s hard-core.
As daylight crept back in I could at last ditch the headtorch, a relief as staring into its wobbling beam all night long gets queasily hypnotic. At last the environment around me began to come into focus.
I found myself on a singletrack earthy trail cutting across a hillside through the thickest, greenest and lushest forest I’ve ever been in. After a very humid night every inch of cool foliage was drenched and the mist hung lazily between the tress. The deep peace all around was wonderful, just the sound of my trainers padding through as I drunk it all in. Better still, the trail rose and fell, but never too steeply, meaning in many places I could let gravity do the hard work making the experience more akin to flying than running. Sheer magic.
Finally the forest gave way to a long section of trail winding around a series of stunning, misty lakes, before kicking up and turning into a long uphill grind to the 30-mile checkpoint where drop bags waited. Packed in advance, these could be stashed with any re-supplies and I took a minute here to ditch warmer night gear for lighter day gear (the forecast was for a total scorcher) before heading off.
Now the climbing continued, but the scenery took most of the pain away because this section headed up to and around the three jagged peaks that make the Dolomites’ signature landmark, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Lush forest had now given way to mountain mayhem of the highest order. It made for a breathtaking early morning run as I looped past this fabled trio of imposing monoliths before tackling the punishing hour-long descent on their other side.
Here crystal blue waters ran all around as the route made for the next aid station. Roughly ten miles apart, these are simple affairs and offer water, cola and snacks. Most at the Lavaredo also included cold beer, which many Italians were tucking into with gusto. All I could see in any mid-race boozing was dehydration and disaster so swerved it.
A good job too, because as the halfway mark passed and the day’s heat took hold I found myself funnelled into a massive canyon whose white rock walls and floor baked the sun’s rays back at me and whose sparse vegetation provided almost no shade. For three hours I climbed up that valley, and for three hours there was no aid station. I took to rationing the tiniest sips of my Camelbak and necking pure salt tablets to keep the dehydration-induced wooziness at bay. Finally summiting the valley’s head and dropping to the aid station below, I was in some trouble as battered legs started screaming and a badly overheating body tried to cry “enough”.
But it’s amazing how restorative some soup and flat cola can be and after ten confused and sweaty minutes I was reinvigorated and away again. Just two big climbs lay ahead, and then the precipitous 1,250-metre drop back into Cortina and the finish.
The climbs were killers, laced with rocky trail that twisted ankles at every step, but were eventually despatched. Another glug of cola at the last aid station and just ten kilometres to go. All of it downhill, and, I was to find, brutally technical with it. It was hellish, almost vertical in places, and full of gnarled roots, loose rocks, mudslides and gravel. On already dead legs, it was almost a bridge too far.
Only almost though, because with a shade over 24 hours on the clock I was tearing back into Cortina, adrenalin standing the hairs on the back of my neck on end and providing a deeply surprising turn of speed as I bounded across the finish line. Once stopped however and safe in the knowledge the running was over, my legs shut down and I staggered like a drunk to the nearest restaurant.
A magical race. Try something like this just once and you’ll never look at another city marathon the same way again.