“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish.
If you know Game or Thrones, you’ll know the quote by Petyr Baelish. Whilst there are many specific and more subtle meanings in this quote within the story’s context, I think it’s apt to the the recent experience of running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. A 120km trail race through the mountainous Dolomites.
It was chaotic. People clambering to ‘climb the ladder’. It was literally a climb – With over 5,500m or elevation, it’s a hilly run. Many attempted it, some 1,800 runners. Many failed and were broken by it – nearly 30% of the starters didn’t finish. Many succeeded, they clung to it. Why? good question. Illusions of grandeur perhaps, but the ‘ladder’ was certainly real and we all fought for our moment on the ‘iron throne’…
It would be too easy for me to follow he route of Game of Thrones comparisons. It would be trying too much and really there are no comparisons. I merely thought of that quote as repeated to myself early on that ‘this is chaotic”.
We were staying in a hotel situated on the final approach to the start/finish. This was great for making it easy logistically and something I’m not used to. About an hour before the start, Sonia and I casually rocked up to the crowd of runners. There were 1,800 doing the 120km and it was carnage. Absolute mayhem. We couldn’t get anywhere near the starting pen. We couldn’t even make it onto the road. Runners and family/friends blocked the streets both sides and the shoving began. It was like the rush hour on the tube. Somehow Paul found us in the massives. We spent the time waiting for the start getting intimately fondled and prodded from all angles. We waited as the elites were introduced and the MCs spoke about the event. The Epic theme music replaced the classic rock anthems and the countdown began. As the count hit zero the runners charged.
They charged forward and that meant many charged into space that wasn’t there. The pushing and shoving intensified as people impatiently tried to squeeze through people and barriers. Bunch of bellends the lot of them. After minutes of being shoved I’d been pushed into the start pen and was able to move of my free will. But not very far as the stampede bust through the barriers either side and runners clambered in where ever they could and the pile up continued. Selfishly, without thinking of Sonia or Paul I ran. I wanted away from these assholes. Away from as many of them as I could before the bottleneck of the first climb. I was charging through the street, a gradual incline, at a near 7 min mile pace. I was sweating already. I passed Yvette, Kevin and Jess and ploughed forward. A few km later the bottle neck came and I kept to the outside and filtered in. Now I could begin to relax a little. We’d climb. It would be like any other race – runners would fumble with poles. People would bunch up and some would squeeze past. I’d power up. Poles kept in the bag for the first climb as I always do. Finding my space and freedom as we ascended 500m or so.
The track was mostly gravel. One thing I noticed in the torch light was the fine mist of dust kicked up by the runners. I could see it and I could feel it. In my eyes and gritty in my throat. It wasn’t pleasant. But the climb wasn’t too bad. The gravel path soon widened and there was plenty of space. This was very much the case for the first two climbs and their subsequent descents. The Paths were wide twisting switchbacks, Easy to climb and very runnable. Many runners were running up them too including Cajsa who passed me early on.
The climb was followed by a fast descent as we approached the first aid station. Here the tranquillity of the night was replaced by the air of assholes again. The pushing and shoving returned as the small aid station was woefully inadequate to support thousands of runners charging in.
We piled up like clubbers 3-4 deep at a bar. Arms reaching through like a zombie apocalypse storming a safe-hold. Shouts of “aqua, aqua” filled the tents as the volunteers struggled with demand. I couldn’t understand why they were filling small (~2 litre ) jugs with water to then pour them into the runner’s bottles held our. It was so inefficient as 1-2 runners would be filled whilst the rest waited for the jug to be replenished. It took a long time before I had water again and I was refilled and able to head back out into the night and more wide gravel climbs and fast descents.
Despite the chaos I was enjoying the run. It felt good. I felt quick. My average pace was far quicker than usual in such races. No doubt helped by the wide and forgiving tracks. I was smiling as in continued on and began the second climb to Forc Son Forca (which was higher than the first). I recall the vast openness of the night. The climb through the wide roads broke free from the trees and the dark night sky with shinning stars covered us like a blanket. the higher we climbed the clearer the night sky became. In the quietness or the climb it was surreal and almost relaxing (panting aside!) and thankfully as we descended again and reached the second aid station it was thankfully was far less crowded. At some point during the night I whacked my right foot on a rock. I can’t recall exactly how it happened whether I kicked a rock, slipped and scrapped it or twisted it. I remember it happening though and breaking the night silence with a groan as I felt the rock scratch through my trainers on the outside of the foot. It was throbbing now but not preventing me from running.
It was now gone four in the morning and I was over 20 miles in. As I climbed the next, biggest yet, climb towards Forc Lavaredo, I sensed it would soon begin to get light. And as I climbed higher and higher the night sky became evidently more vibrant and blue. Dawn was coming. In the darkness of night cowbells rang out from the forest and fields around us. Cattle were beginning to wake and birds began their morning rituals with songs calling out from the trees. A short descent through the forest kept the light at bay for a little longer before we broke free onto the first of many lakes. Morning was here. The mountains glowed red in the morning sun. I stopped for pictures as runners ran on around me.
As we circumnavigated the first and then a second lake I continued snapping away. This is one of my favourite moments of any such race – Enduring the night and being treated to a spectacular sunrise in incredible places. And this was special. I captured the reflection of the mountains in the water and smiled to myself as I began the next stage of the run and continued to climb to Forc Lavaredo. The day ahead would inevitably be tough with high temperatures predicted.
The climb was the next challenge as it became steeper and steeper and seemed to go on and on. As I powered up, fresh off the sunrise treat, a voice called out. It was Paul. He must have legged it through the streets last night even quicker than I. I’d assumed I’d be ahead of him as I was the first of us to break free of the start line. We chatted away as we climbed. Both agreeing how great we’d found the run so far, despite Paul acknowledging how tired he was from a lack of sleep and how close he was to falling asleep on his poles.
At the top, incredible views awaited as we saw layers of mountains extending in all directions. A few pictures and some hot noodle soup for breakfast and we were back out. The next section continually presented us with rocky mountain panoramic views before we were soon presented with the iconic Tre Cime rocks – Three rocks formed at the peak. Huge. We were dwarfed in their shadows.
Paul was in pain here. His knee very uncomfortable and making it difficult to run the descent. Miraculously though it soon fixed itself and he legged it on ahead, rapidly descending as the gravel tracks subtly began to become more rocky.
The descent then turned into a behemoth of a downhill as we dropped over 1000m. A glacier stream was soon roaring beside us as we ran switch backs and long straights that were loose rocks. Mostly small but very loose underfoot. Paul ran on ahead as I struggled with the terrain. It immediately brought back memories of the riverbed in Trans Gran Canaria and my face winched. I walked and skipped a lot of the decline chatting away to a guy from Yeovil. He shared stories of his runs and was quite experienced with numerous podium finishes but had rolled his ankle during the night and was struggling a bit. We kept going until the sound of the water intensified and we reached the bottom of the descent around Landro. Up ahead we had to cross the fast moving river. Whilst not too wide, it was knee high and runners were contemplating which of three approaches they’d choose – (1) plough straight in and through (2) remove their shoes and socks and hobble across the rocks (3) continue further on and try to hop across larger stones and avoid the water as much as possible. It wasn’t a question for me. I was a numero uno runner. I grabbed a photo and waded in. It was glorious. With the early morning temperature already excessive, the ice cold water was a relief. It numbed my sore feet which were burning from grinding on the rocks and chilled my bones. I dunked my hat and drenched my body before running on.
Next was a very gradual climb of about 7km to Cimabanche which would mark the half way point. This whole section I was aware of from the profile as it was the best part of 20km from the aid station at Rif. Auronzo (before Tre Cime) to the ‘halfway point’ at Cimabanche. A fair stretch in the middle of a scorching ultra. I was glad I was here so early in the morning before it got too hot. I power hiked on. My foot aching from the bump in the night. It was getting hotter as we carried on. I talked to several runners including a French guy who was also suffering from a rolled ankle. Common theme here? Despite acknowledging how little running he’d be able to do, he pointed out we were still hitting a sub 20 hour pace. I laughed. This was ridiculous, but he was right. The night really had been rapid!
Runners from the Ultra Dolomites 90km race soon started powering past (and I mean powering as the lead runners ran the incline!) and the atmosphere intensified a little as I cheered them on and the half way point came into view. For the first time along the race there was support and we were clapped into the aid station. Inside it was small. I grabbed my drop bag and found Paul and his brother Nick. I joined them, grabbed a whole bottle of coke and began my halfway ritual of a wet wipe shower and change of clothes before dumping any unnecessary extra kit in my drop bag. Paul headed out and I told him I’d catch him up after a shit. Yep. Toilet talk. It’s gonna happen in an ultra race. Your body needs to function and running and eating will give you a need. Frustratingly I couldn’t relieve myself prior to the race so expected I’d need to at some point along the way. Whilst I wasn’t desperate, now felt like an opportune moment. I dropped my bag off in the van to return it to the finish and sought out a toilet. There were two portaloos. Neither with toilet paper. Whilst I had my own stash, I didn’t want to unpack my bag to retrieve it and couldn’t stand staying in the stench of the hot box any longer than I needed. I left. I shared my frustrations with an Italian lady. This was quite ridiculous – with the two races meeting here at Cimabanche, there would be over 2,500 runners passing through. Add in a few hundred more for friends/family/crew/volunteers and locals, two toilets is pathetically insufficient. It made me think that, despite the best efforts of all the volunteers, the aid stations and facilities were just inadequate for the scale of the race. The only negative on an otherwise excellent organisation.
Anyway, I was back out running again. We passed under a major road via a storm drain (some runners were injured hitting their heads here!) and I was climbing again towards Forc Lerosa. Soon I rejoined Paul once more. Then everything changed as we descended from Forc Lerosa….
We were about 70km in. 50km to go. The race changed. What so far had been a fairly “easy” and enjoyable run became and absolute bastard. Fuck the second half. It can fuck right off. My optimism left me. My desire to take photos and embrace my surroundings went with it. I didn’t hit a particular dark place. But I wasn’t enjoying the run any longer and I don’t want to recall the second half. I’m not ready to talk about it in the same detail. It can fuck right off. The short version goes a little something like this…
The ‘Valley of death’, ‘death canyon’, ‘hell’, ‘shitsville’, ‘that shit bit’. It adopted many names. A long, very long, stretch of rocky terrain (loose fist sized rocks) that extended in a canyon/valley far beyond one’s eyesight. No one was running. It wasn’t runnable. We crossed streams after streams, many of which were again knee high and the current strong. Runners embraced them. Some sat in them. We all drank from them. Each one became like a party as we escaped the heat momentarily. It was fucking hot. I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. There was no shelter from the midday sun at high 30degrees. We trekked on and on. Soon climbing. Every time we came across water runners would set up camp and cool all over again. The river was our lifeline. It cooled us. Iced our pains (to the point it was painfully cold even!). Nourished and hydrated us. Without it who knows what would have happened. The scenery was breathtaking. The adventure was painstaking. There was no obvious end or path in sight. The stretch continued into the distant horizon.
Hours later we emerged at a ‘water station’. I sat and waited for Paul to arrive. He did. I felt shit. He looked shit. So I probably looked shit too. He verbalised it. He was struggling in the sun and questioned whether he could continue. It wasn’t a question for me. He was going to continue and finish. We had over a marathon to go. We still had a few km to climb out of the death valley. He had no choice here but to keep going forward. We rested then set off again.
As we neared the summit, Paul was wobbling a little as he climbed. We were seeking shade. We needed a break from the heat and he wanted to be sick. We passed a guy laying against a rock. We checked up on him, Like everyone we encountered he said he was feeling the impact. Not far passed him a huge rock offered a shadow and shade. We took the offer and sat down, exhausted. We hydrated and ate. We cooled a little and farted a lot. I’d reapplied sun cream at the previous water station but was feeling the burn. Then Paul heaved. He threw his guts up with a thunderous roar disturbing the other runner resting. Like before with his knee he was instantly better. We carried on.
The rest of the run followed a similar theme – We walked. Slowly at times. We hobbled over the rocky terrain. Before each descent were steep inclines. Some where tough and the sweat dropped off us. More and more runners ran passed as we slowed and slowed. Each check point ticked off the kilometres. 40 became 30 became 25 became 20. Hours passed in between. Each stop Nick was there supporting and encouraging. A long day for him. The mountains were beautiful. But we cared little about them any longer. We wanted it to be over. As we navigated the ‘Cortina’ trail up and down some ridges of the mountains we visualised the end. Paul was feeling a little rough again, his feet and knees hurting. My feet were destroyed. Hot spots and blisters making my walking pathetic. At the penultimate aid station of Passo Giau I sought out the medical team to treat my blisters. As I took off my socks there was nothing there. Hot spots yes, but blisters no. What I did have though was a bit of trench foot. I needed something and and they agreed to “wrap” my feet. As they did I saw the swelling on my right foot. A large lump which they addressed with padding. That knock in the early night had done some damage it was raw and bruised.
Strapped up we headed back out, Navigated the final climb and began the long descent to the finish. The last aid station marked 8km remaining. We took a moment (longer than planned because I’m slow and a fiddler with my bag) layering up as it would soon be dark as we hit the forest and as we left saw Reka arrive. She was on the 90km and ran straight through the aid station and said “are you coming” as we laughed her off.
We power walked and skipped down hill for the the next 5km or so. Gravity moving us faster than we wanted. The descent was a little technical and very slippery in the moist soil of the forest. Like the end of any ultra, it dragged on. Occasionally the lights of Cortina flickered in the distance. Always far away. Always far below. It never seemed to come closer. About 3 times in this section I rolled my ankle. We were mostly silent other than the expletive rants every time we hurt ourselves. The only entertainment was Paul’s increasing inability to walk. As he powered forward and tired he constantly tripped himself up with his poles. Numerous times he came close to stacking it entirely.
We broke free of the forest and were welcome to a “2km to go” sign. The church tower at the finish line stood out in the distance and we walked on. Finally we hit the Main Street. We put on a ‘brave face’ and ran the last few hundred metres through the town. The party goers and supporters cheered us in and we faked it till we made it. High-fiving supporters down the finishing stretch. We held hands and crossed the line together. The rest of the team there to see us finish just before 11pm, some 24 hours after we started.
We shared the sunset and sunrise over the Dolomites. We shared the darkness of the challenge and the literal highs and lows of the adventure. We shared a beer as we collected our finishers rain jacket (ironic given how fucking hot the day had been). We shared an adventure in the mountains we’ll never forget.
It really was a race of two halves for sure. The first 66km we’d completed feeling strong in under ten hours. The next 54km took over 14 hours. I learned a lot this weekend. Some key things for me were:
- Never to get too comfortable or underestimate a run. The illusions of grander I had at half way and possibly getting close to a 20 hour finish were naive. Anticipate and expect what lays ahead, never forget that these challenges, marathons even, will chew you up and spit you out.
- Mountains are rocky. They always are and will be. Why I think some runs will be ‘easier’ I do not know. I should expect rocks. I fucking hate rocks.
- The decisions to wade into the water I stand by. At the time they were the best. The fresh coolness very much needed. But the consequences and impact on my feet were severe. I should have expected this too. Trench foot is a bastard too. I should have attended to my feet earlier than I did.
- Chaffing. I chaffed bad. On my lower back from my bag. I’ve a red strip the whole width which is now quite raw. I should have addressed this properly but I never bothered. I need to sort this out as it’s a horrible sensation and not conducive to running.
- Sharing the trails in such an epic race is one hell of an experience. Having someone around you is so underestimated. Paul and I helped each other through. Gave each other strength. You can’t put a value on that. In October We’ll be running 150km in Poland. I’m so glad Paul will be there again at my side. That will be another whole new challenge! Thanks Paul (and Nick for all the support!)