The Italian Job
Updated: Jul 3
Lavaredo Ultra Trail 120km: 23 June 2023
"Hang on a minute, lads, I've got a great idea"
Before the race
With the 6-day Dragon’s Back Race in September as my primary target race for 2023, I had deliberately focused my race schedule for the first half of the year towards mountain races with lots of vertical, quite a bit of technical ground, and with no more than 100 miles of distance, so that I could get plenty of race experience on terrain and over distances that would be similar to what I’d be facing on the Dragon without having to deal with extensive recovery periods that would adversely affect training. So after TransGranCanaria in February, Istria in April and the mammoth UTS 100 miler in May, the 120km Lavaredo Ultra Trail was next up for me, across the spectacular Dolomites that surround Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy.
Although shorter and with less vertical than UTS, 120km vs 165km and 5,700m vs 10,000m, with the bulk of the course being above 1,600m and a top altitude of 2,500m, how I handled the altitude was going to be a major factor in determining how well my training would translate into a good performance during the race. I’d therefore agreed with my wife Young Sil that we’d head out a week early for the race, and while she spent a week travelling to Naples and Venice with her sister Jenghi, I would spend a week acclimatising.
Rather than staying in Cortina, I’d decided to stay for 5 days in Alpe di Siusi, a plateau on the western edge of the Dolomites near Val Gardena, as the elevation there is closer to 2,000m, before driving to Cortina (1,200m elevation) a couple of days before the race. I arrived in Italy after a solid post-UTS training block, with plenty of hill interval work as well as plenty of runs in the heat, taking advantage of the hot weather we’d been experiencing in late May and early June. The only negative had been a nasty bout of norovirus that had cost me about 4 days of training, but by the time I arrived in Italy I felt fully recovered and ready for a last week of running before a relatively short taper.
Alpe di Siusi is a perfect location for altitude training. It comprises a relatively flat plateau, intercut with some streams and gentle slopes, where the elevation varies from 1,600m to around 2,100m, is surrounded on three sides by hills and mountains where the trails touch elevations of over 2,700m, and is provided with large numbers of well-appointed mountain refuges and spectacular scenery. I spent the first couple of days doing some easy 2-3 hour runs up to around 2,400m, getting used to the altitude and getting some vertical metres in my legs. The Saturday and Sunday were spent doing long runs of 5-6 hours, each with around 35km distance and 1,700m vertical, with the first being a tremendous traverse of the Sciliar massif and the second a traverse over the Forcella Sassolungo with a highly technical snow and rock ascent (ideally I should have been using crampons) and a super-steep descent via countless switchbacks. The final two days, with it being taper week, were restricted to 10k runs with around 400m of vert, just enough to get more acclimatisation and practice climbing / descending without causing any excess fatigue.
Right on the precipice of the Sciliar
The climb up to Forcella Sassolungo
I was feeling confident about the race and as ready as I had ever been as I made the drive from Val Gardena to Cortina on the Wednesday before the race, stopping only at the location of the first checkpoint to do a couple of hours’ recce of the 18-25km section of the course, which covered the second big climb (over 600m) of the race. Even at a walking pace, I was covering this in about 1h20m, which gave me further confidence in hitting the faster end of the 20-22 hour target range that I had set myself for the race.
With the hotels in the centre of town all being either fully booked out or extortionately expensive, we had reserved a chalet on the outskirts of Cortina, which judging from the map was about a 10 minute walk from the town centre. What I hadn’t bargained for was that it was up a steep slope with a climb of more than 100m to get back from the town to the chalet. After checking in, I managed to find the local supermarket and procure some supplies for our short stay, as well as a sports shop to get a couple of replacement headtorches for my faulty LEDLensers.
Thursday morning saw Young Sil and Jenghi arrive on the bus from Venice, and after picking them up we spent the day at Lago di Braies, a stunning lake surrounded by mountains on three sides and normally swamped with tourists and requiring advance booking just to drive there. Luckily, the end of June is still not yet the main tourist season in Italy and we just had to pay for a day’s parking while we walked around the lake, pausing for lots of photos along the way. We still had quite a bit of time left in the afternoon, so drove to do a “car recce” of a couple of the checkpoints later in the race – Col Gallina and Passo Giau – and agreed that Young Sil and Jenghi would try to meet me at the Col Gallina checkpoint during the race, which according to my plan, I should reach at around 2:30pm. After stocking up on yet more provisions at the supermarket, I cooked us all a large pasta dinner back at the chalet.
Registration at Friday lunchtime was very straightforward and efficient – a show of ID and you were quickly given your drop bag, T-shirt, bib, wristband and other bits and pieces, and the whole thing was over in about 5 minutes, with hardly any queue. Not even any check of mandatory kit! Not quite sure that you could get away with that in the UK for a mountain race, but TransGranCanaria had a similarly lax approach to enforcing mandatory kit. All very different from the Spine or Cape Wrath. After collecting all my things, I bumped into another British runner, Alastair Watson, who had DNF’d on the race with an injury back in 2019 and was back to finish it off. There were quite a few other British runners – 42 doing the 120k (out of 1,551) and then a number of others doing the 80k and 50k races. I had seen some of them earlier on as the La Sportiva team were doing a group run through the streets of Cortina and quite a few had been posting on Strava and Facebook in the preceding days.
I headed back up to the chalet to get a pre-race nap and try to bank some sleep before the night-time start. It probably wouldn’t make a huge difference as I’m normally quite good at getting through at least 36 hours without sleep, but I figured it certainly wouldn’t do any harm. When my alarm went off at 6.30pm I had a light but carb-heavy supper before going through my usual pre-race rituals – taping toes, feet and ankles, applying anti-chafing remedies, putting on sunscreen, filling drinks bottles, checking and double-checking drop bag, kit, food, headtorches and GPS devices, and so on. By 9pm I was ready and left along with Young Sil and Jenghi to walk down the hill into Cortina.
Start to CP1 Hopitale (18km)
Having deposited my drop bag at the Winter Olympics ice skating stadium, I made my way back towards to the centre of Cortina, bumping into Young Sil and Jenghi again as they tried to find an optimum location to watch alongside the route – the central thoroughfare was already lined with crash barriers and the crowd behind them was already two or three people deep, so they would have to find a space fast if they wanted to get a good view to video the runners at the start. We agreed on a spot on the right-hand side of the route a couple of hundred metres after the start line, so I would have to make sure that I lined up on the right hand side for them to be able to see me as I went past.
When I reached the back of the runners lining up, at around 10:20pm, there were perhaps already five or six hundred people in front of me. We had been told that we would be grouped by category (and hence by UTMB Index) for the start to avoid too much bunching in the first few kms, but the reality was that with the exception of the first hundred or so elite runners, there was no grouping whatsoever and it was very much lining up in the order that people arrived. As the DJs and announcers whipped up the levels of excitement, I tried to edge my way towards the right-hand side of the line-up to give Young Sil and Jenghi the best chance of seeing me. Van Halen’s “Jump” and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” pumped out the speakers as we approached the final countdown to 11pm.
30 minutes to lift-off
We were off! A huge roar went up from the crowd and we started shuffling forward before breaking into a jog. I briefly caught sight of a very surprised Young Sil as I ran past – I learned afterwards that she thought she’d already seen me go past and so had already turned her phone off. Luckily her sister was standing a further 100m down the course and managed to take a quick shot of me as I went past, which in turn reminded me that I’d not yet pressed “start” on my Garmin. The course was still lined with people cheering, clapping and high-fiving the runners – a wonderful atmosphere, made even more special by the sight of fireworks going off in the distance on the edge of Cortina. If only all ultras could re-create this kind of start-line energy.
As we ran through the town, I found myself being passed by scores of other runners. The pace was just ridiculous – I was running roughly 6 min / km and everyone else must have been going closer to 5 min / km pace. It would have been so easy to get swept up and go faster, but my legs felt a little bit sluggish and in any case the first few kms rarely make much difference in a 100km+ race. After about ten minutes, we turned off the main road and started the first climb of the race, about 500m of vertical up the side of the valley into the woods above Cortina. Although I’d not recced this section, on our trip to Cortina last year our hotel had been close by and we had been for a few walks in these woods, so the trails were rather familiar. The gradient was not overly steep – around 10% or so – but the sheer number of runners and the mass start with no sorting meant that the pace slowed to a crawl. Even with the track being wide enough for 3-4 people to walk abreast, congestion and ubiquitous hiking poles meant that passing was almost impossible and I was stuck in a conga line of ascending athletes.
Eventually the path started to widen just enough for passing to be possible, and as we passed Lago Ghedina and the Ristorante Saliola a few gaps had started to appear. Although it was almost midnight, the temperature was not particularly cold, and I was quite happy with my choice of just a base layer with some detachable sleeves, which I had already rolled down to leave my arms bare. Another twenty minutes passed, and the slope flattened out, while at the same time narrowing into a single-track path that followed the contours, underneath rocky outcrops on the left hand side and above steep slopes that cascaded down to the right. I’m sure that there would have been some lovely views during the day, but even at night it was very atmospheric. We were all now jogging, and the pace was comfortable with me feeling no particular need to push it any harder. I usually take advantage of flat and downhill sections to eat and drink, as the reduced aerobic demand makes it much easier to swallow while breathing, so I gulped down a gel and some fluids as we threaded our way up the valley past Fiames and the first descent of the day, a section of about 50 switchbacks that saw us drop back down again to the valley floor and the Rio Boite.
The remainder of the section to the checkpoint was fairly nondescript – the track was good quality underfoot, a cross between fire trail and asphalt, and even though there was a gentle uphill slope, I was able to keep up a decent 7 min / km jogging pace to stay on track for a sub-2h:30 split to the first checkpoint, which was my initial target. After crossing first the river and then the Strava Statale 51 di Alemagna main road it wasn’t long before the lights and tent of the first checkpoint at Hopitale appeared. 2hr25min had elapsed, only 5 mins behind my target and which I was very happy with given the large queues at the start and up the first climb.
CP1 Hopitale (18km) to CP4 Misurina (42km)
As I walked into the CP tent, I was met with a scene of utter chaos. There must have been a couple of hundred runners all crowded inside, some of them even sitting down and to eat (less than three hours into the race!) but with the majority crowded round the CP staff thrusting drinks bottles their way in an effort to get them refilled. I resolved immediately to get out of there as quickly as possible, and with the supply of electrolyte drinks nowhere in sight, I settled for just getting my drinks bottles refilled with water before pressing straight on again. I reckon I picked up at least 150 places at this checkpoint alone, just by getting in and out within a couple of minutes.
I was on my way again, with the comfort of the next section being one that I had recced only a few days earlier. It was clear that the field was already beginning to slowly thin out, and while there were still plenty of runners in front and behind, passing would no longer be an issue, and I also decided to turn up the illumination level of my head and chest torches so that I could be completely certain of my footing for the rest of the night. This section starts with a steep climb of 250m or so, followed by a more gentle climb and then another steep section later on – 675m of ascent in total over 6.5km. 10% is about the grade at which running transitions to power hiking for me, at least in the early part of a race, so I took the first climb at a hiking pace and was really pleased at how strong my legs felt. I was passing other athletes and picking up places on a regular basis. What tended to happen was that the runners were clustered into small groups of 5-10, with maybe 50-100m gaps between them, so I tended to power hike my way through one group before then breaking into a jog when the ground temporarily flattened in order to catch up with the group ahead. That gave me a rhythm and a sense of progress, which psychologically I find quite important in these hours of darkness where the temptation can be to drop your pace.
Recceing the top of the 2nd climb (25km), looking down towards Passo Tre Croci
The path on this section climbs up a valley between the high peaks of Monte Cristallo on the left and a small ridge on the right hand side beyond which lies Cortina, so along with the surrounding forest, it’s a sheltered location, and the air continued to be quite warm as we worked our way towards the head of the valley and the crux of the climb. Eventually the trees opened out onto ski slopes with the looming shapes of ski lift pylons and snow cannon and I knew that we were near the top of the climb so put in an extra effort to cover the last 50m or so of ascent. A car and safety crew were stationed on the saddle point and we were soon descending a steep rocky path with plenty of switchbacks. It was somewhat technical and somewhat exposed, but never so technical as to require slowing to walking pace, and my knees and quads felt strong so progress continued to be swift and I found myself occasionally overtaking some more competitors who were taking a more conservative approach to the descent. By the time we reached CP2 at Passo Tre Croci, it was 3h55m into the race and I had now moved to 5 mins ahead of my plan. It had been a good stage.
Although less chaotic than the previous checkpoint, it was still very crowded and I again stopped only long enough to refill my drinks bottles, this time also grabbing some snacks to eat as I left and an extra 250ml of electrolytes in my hand flask that I would drink over the next 5 minutes to provide some additional hydration for the next stage. Although the next checkpoint, Federavecchia, was only 6km away, it was a ‘virtual’ checkpoint with no water or supplies, so in reality the next stage was quite a long one with 14km of distance and a steep climb of around 600m to Lago Misurina. The big plus was that it would be getting light by the time we reached Misurina, so this would be the last stage where headtorches would be required, and if all went well, I wouldn’t be needing to use my headtorch for the rest of the race.
Coming out of the CP I tried to wash down the chocolate and Naak waffle with the electrolytes in my hand flask before almost immediately hitting another set of steep switchbacks as the path headed down towards Federavecchia. It was very easy on the lungs, quite easy on the legs, but mentally quite tiring as while I’ve improved immeasurably at running on steep downhills, I still find I have to concentrate the whole time on my footing, particularly given the number of rocks and tree roots that required negotiation. Federavecchia came and went, manned by another safety team and parked vehicle, and the climb through the woods to Misurina commenced. This was the steepest climb so far, but at least its early stages were on asphalted track so it was very easy to get into and maintain a rhythm with knees, arms and poles. A glow in the sky indicated that dawn wasn’t too far away. It was the best part of an hour before the climb flattened out and we (I was in a group of about 5 or 6 runners that were all going at a similar pace) started to jog along a single-track path that wound through the forest, hugging the contours of the slope with just occasional small climbs interrupting its gradual descent towards the plain around the lake. As the sky continued to brighten, the trees thinned out and turned towards the hotel at the head of the lake where a large marquee indicated CP4 and the point at which I would now be able to take off my torches and stow them away in my pack.
CP4 Misurina (42km) to CP7 Cimabanche (65km)
I was still feeling strong and eager to be in my way, but the far less crowded conditions of this checkpoint meant that I could take a couple of minutes to dispose of my accumulated rubbish (mainly gel wrappers) while stuffing myself with yet more chocolate, energy bars and fruit. Filling up all my bottles this time with electrolytes and again grabbing an extra 250ml in my handflask, I headed out for what would be a relatively flat and easy couple jog around Lago Misurina and then Lago Antorno further up the valley, before commencing the biggest climb so far, up to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo itself.
Lago di Misurina in the early morning light
As we jogged around the lake, I tried to soak in the tranquil surroundings – it had only just turned 5am and later in the day it would be packed with tourists – and took some photos while running, but it’s hard enough to capture the misty, soft light of dawn over a lake at the best of times, let alone with a mobile phone while running. It’s a winding ascent from here, through forest with quite a few sections on asphalt, but once past Lago Antorno the path steepens considerably and after about 30 minutes the forest gives way to a rocky track which traverses the slower slopes of the Cadini di Misurina mountains which lie to the south of the Lavaredo massif. I was finding it increasingly hard going and had been passed by a couple of runners from behind, but at the same time there were runners ahead of me that were finding it just as hard and I found myself passing others in turn. I chugged a couple more gels on this ascent, trying to maintain a steady flow of at least 75g of carbs per hour (excluding CP food) to keep myself well-fuelled, and these certainly helped but I still was feeling slightly heavier-legged than I expected at this stage of the race and wondered whether I was still perhaps carrying some fatigue from a heavy training / acclimatisation week right before my taper. Still, as the path finally flattened out and the glorious sight of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, illuminated by the morning sun, came into view, I glanced at my watch and saw that with the time being 6:25am I was now 10 minutes ahead of my target, so my worries were perhaps unfounded.
The Tre Cime di Lavaredo bathed in the morning sun
I stopped briefly to take a couple of photos – the sight was simply too wonderful to miss – and glanced inside CP5, which was in truth a relatively pitiful place, with help-yourself boxes of bottled drinks, no snacks that I could see, and not a lot of place to shelter. My bottles were still half-full, and with only a short and relatively flat climb to the Forcella Lavaredo followed by 14km descent to Cimabanche, I figured that I could get through to CP7 on my existing supplies.
Start of the long descent towards Cimabanche
The plateau surrounding the Tre Cime was quite exposed to the elements, and a cold wind was now blowing strongly across the path. Quite a few runners were stopping to put on gloves and an extra layer. I wasn’t feeling overly cold and simply rolled up my sleeves to cover my arms and pressed on, figuring that once I reached the other side of the Tre Cime and Forcella Lavaredo the wind would subside once I dropped down into the valley on the other side. Having hiked this path last September with Young Sil while on holiday, I knew that it was pretty flat and a broad, easily runnable track, only steepening somewhat on the final slope to the Forcella. It took less than 30 minutes to complete the loop around the southern side of the peaks and reach the col of the Forcella, at which point the sheer North faces of the Tre Cime appeared, illuminated by the morning sun. It was a beautiful view and I stopped briefly to take some more pictures and a short video. The Tre Cime are surrounded by stony altiplano, so the path first wound across this, descending gently for about a kilometre towards the Antonio Locatelli Refuge, before then turning sharply left and plunging into the canyons of the Rienza valley. The path followed the right-hand side of the valley, winding down the cliffs of the gorge with plenty of steep switchbacks as we steadily lost height. It was quite hard on the knees, and I was beginning to feel a little tightness in my left knee as the steep descent continued. But all the downhill training that I’d put in over the previous weeks, not to mention the 10,000m of downhill that I’d piled up during the UTS race a month earlier, had given my legs a lot of resilience and the pain remained a low-level niggle rather than anything more serious.
After the long uphill climbs earlier that morning, where the heavier breathing made it hard to consume much food and drink, I took the opportunity on this descent to swallow a couple of gels and finish off the fluids in my drinks bottles. Eventually, just as my watch ticked over to indicate 60km (and the halfway point of the race in terms of distance), the path flattened out, the valley widened, and we were on a broad fire-road surrounded by forest. There was still another 6km to go until the Cimabanche checkpoint, where our drop bags were waiting, but it was easy jogging with only occasional gentle uphill slopes, and while it seemed to take forever, this was more due to the monotony of the terrain and it only took 45 minutes before the checkpoint appeared, still 5 minutes ahead of target and well within the error margins of my split predictions.
CP7 Cimabanche (65km) to CP10 Col Gallina (95km)
The checkpoint at Cimabanche was worth the wait. Huge marquee with plenty of space. Several volunteers on hand to quickly retrieve your drop bag. Lots of food and drink options. There were maybe 30 or 40 runners spread around, eating hot food, changing clothes, stretching out, re-taping feet and attending to blisters and other minor injuries. There were quite a lot of supporters gathered outside as well, enjoying picnics in the warm morning sunshine. It was a festive atmosphere.
My feet were in reasonably good shape, and while my left knee was still nagging, I crouched down and felt no soreness in my quads or calf muscles, so decided to make this a short pit stop – no need for a change of shoes, socks or clothes, and no need for any re-taping or re-application of anti-chafing creams. I disposed of all of my rubbish, stuffed another 10 or so gels into my belt and pack and consumed a couple on the spot to give me some additional carbs, given that I’d probably under-fuelled somewhat on the descent from Lavaredo. I contemplated the stash of powders that I’d stowed in the rear pockets of my pack. I hadn’t used them so far and relying on the CP drink supplies had served me well. I figured that I could lose the extra weight and carry on with the same approach for the rest of the race, so took them out and stowed them away in my drop bag with the rest of my back-up supplies. Although I had put on sunscreen before the race, I reapplied it liberally in anticipation of what was going to be a hot and sunny day ahead, and also took a few puffs on my asthma inhaler – although my chest wasn’t feeling terrible, it had begun to feel slightly tight on the descent from Lavaredo and it’s always better to stay ahead of the situation when it comes to asthma and any breathing difficulties.
The only thing left was to stretch out my quads, hips and calves, rehydrate with some additional flasks of peach tea and take some paracetamol for my left knee and a couple of Pro Plus, given that it was breakfast time and there was no coffee being served in the CP tent. By 9am I was on my way again, less than 20 minutes after arriving at the CP and I quietly patted myself on the back for what was probably the quickest drop bag pit-stop I’ve ever managed.
The sun was intense, but with it still being quite early in the morning and with plenty of tree cover, it stayed quite cool and I jogged along the flat track by the side of the main SS51 road that led back to Cortina. After a quarter of an hour, the course crossed the road and started the long ascent up the Val de Gòtres, a narrow tree-lined valley with some quite steep sections without them ever becoming unpleasant. The caffeine in the Pro Plus must have done its job, as the tiredness I’d been feeling on the last few kms approaching Cimabanche disappeared and what felt like a second wind gave my uphill strides fresh purpose and energy. It took me just under an hour to cover the 5km and 500m of vertical to get to the top of the climb, and as I reached the top I caught up with Salim, a fellow Brit and UTS 100M finisher, and managed to exchange a few words with him before diving down into the steep descent towards Malga Ra Stua and the next checkpoint. Looking at the results afterwards, I picked up more than 50 places between Cimabanche and Malga Ra Stua, but can only recall passing maybe 10 or 15 other runners on the trail, which means I must have overtaken more than 30 people at the Cimabanche checkpoint – a graphic illustration of the gains to be made by developing an efficient routine around checkpoints.
There were some sharp switchbacks during the descent, but within half an hour from topping out at Forcella Lerosa, CP8 and the Rifugio Malga Ra Stua came into view and I pulled in to top up on fluids, again going for one bottle each of electrolytes and peach tea, with some extra fluids in my spare hand flask to wash down the waffles and chocolate that I tried to cram down my mouth. Another sub-5 min pitstop, and with the time only 10:30 I was back on track for a 20-hr finish, but a warning sign as I left indicated that the next CP would not be for another 25km at Col Gallina – with the toughest climb of the race and over 1,100m of vertical to cover in between.
The first part of the next section was easy enough – more descent through an increasingly narrowing tree-lined gorge with the river falling away to hundreds of feet below the path. After bottoming out at the Pian de Loa, where a few runners had stopped to refill their bottles at a water trough, the path formed a ribbon on the side of the gorge as it gradually climbed upwards towards a more open section of valley further ahead. As we passed the Gola di Fanes waterfalls, even though we didn’t get the perfect view, the scenery we were running through was spectacular enough. It was slowly getting hotter and I started to consciously husband my remaining water supplies, while looking for any opportunities to refill from mountain streams. An hour and half after leaving Malga Ra Stua, it had turned noon and the narrow gorge had opened out into the spectacular amphitheatre that is Val Travenanzes.
On the left hand side, the massive peaks of the Tofana range hulked above us. On the right, another ridge of tall mountains. At the bottom of the valley, the Rio Travenanzes wound through a flat moonscape of loose rock and scrub, with steadily-steepening scree slopes on either side between the river and the cliffs that lined the valley. The path threaded its way through this terrain, occasionally crossing the flood plain of the valley floor, occasionally climbing up one or other side of the scree slopes. The sun beat down and I could feel my pace begin to drop, particularly on the steeper uphills that interspersed flatter sections. An increasing number of people were overtaking me, some with incredible ease, and it was only after a while that I noticed the green wristbands and bib numbers that signalled they were the leading runners from the 80k race that had started in Cortina at 7am that morning.
As the heat continued to build, we came to a mountain stream from the side of the valley, right before a rocky outcrop on which sat a couple of safety marshals, and along with pretty much every everyone, I stopped to refill all my water bottles while drinking an extra litre of water for good measure. Although I wasn’t feeling any symptoms of dehydration, I was aware that I was losing between 500 and 1000ml of fluid every hour through sweat and breathing and since Malga Ra Stua had not been replenishing at anywhere near the same rate. I also took the opportunity to douse my arm sleeves and buff in water to provide some additional cooling. As I got going a few minutes later, I already felt more comfortable and for the next several km along the valley the path continued to take us next to and across other mountain streams, and every time I pulled out my hand flask to drink some more water, significantly easing what could otherwise have been quite a challenging stage in terms of hydration.
As we neared the head of the valley, the ground steepened significantly into scrubby scree slopes that climbed up to a col around 400m above the valley floor. It was steep and hot, but at the same time I knew that after this there was a long descent to the checkpoint at Col Gallina, where Young Sil and her sister would be waiting to see me, and that provided a big psychological boost. That and the knowledge that after this there would be only one more big climb left on the course. It did take a long time, but seeing the runners ahead of me winding up the slopes gave me additional motivation to keep up a steady climbing rhythm, and while the scree was loose in parts, it was not so steep or loose that climbing was overly hard. By 1.30pm I had reached the top of the col, and could both look back to the Val Travenanzes behind me and ahead to the steep descent into the Val Falzarego and Col Gallina to the right.
Descending from Val Travenanzes to Col Gallina
Switchbacks descending from Val Travenanzes to Col Gallina (from Cinque Torri)
The descent was on a broad, good quality track, with as many hikers and day trippers as there were ultra-runners. I had to stop for a few minutes to fix my race bib, which had contrived to work its way loose and was in danger of falling off, but otherwise it was an uneventful but long descent (with a short but annoying uphill section halfway down) that traversed across the front of Torre Piccola di Falzarego before plunging down through more switchbacks to the valley floor and the checkpoint of Col Gallina. The car park was absolutely packed. Scores of families were picnicking outside the CP tent. It was a carnival atmosphere. Young Sil and Jenghi appeared by the side of the track, mobile phones in hand, just before I reached the tent. 2:20pm and I was now 10 minutes ahead of schedule, with less than a quarter of the race remaining.
CP10 Col Gallina (95km) to Finish (120km)
It had been lovely seeing Young Sil and Jenghi, but I needed to get going if I was going to hit my new target of finishing in under 20 hours and there was still one large climb left to negotiate, the one that lay between Col Gallina and Passo Giau. The route started along a fairly gentle downhill path through light woodland and meadows in the centre of the valley for a couple of kms, before turning right and climbing up a ridge that protruded from Monte Averau, the first of a series of mountains that formed the right hand side of the Falzarego valley. We would climb up this ridge and then cross over towards a small col between Monte Averau and the next mountain, Monte Nuvolau, before traversing under Nuvolau and Ra Gusela towards Passo Giau – a spectacular route to follow.
The climb (from right to left) from Col Gallina to Rifugio Averau, taken from Cinque Torri
It was steep, but as with many of the steeper sections earlier in the race, the gradient was offset by many small switchbacks, with the path often reinforced by huge logs making it at least possible to make steady progress without having to concentrate too hard on finding the most efficient route. The tree cover thinned out as we gained height before giving way to rocky scrubland at the top of the ridge. After passing over the ridge to the other side, the path contoured horizontally for a while before hitting the stonier, gravelly ground of the ski slopes that led up to Rifugio Averau and the top of the climb. The prominent rock formations of the Cinque Torri lay to the left and there were large numbers of tourists and hikers making their way between the top of the Cinque Torri chairlift and the Rifugio. It had been hard work, particularly after almost 100km, and this section was my slowest of the whole race, taking an hour to cover just over 4km, but it had felt easier than expected and certainly far easier than most of the climbs had been at UTS a month earlier.
The trail into Passo Giau from Rifugio Averau (above the large boulder field in the centre)
With the refuge being yet another ‘virtual checkpoint’ there was no reason to stop, so I quickly ran down the zig-zags until the path started its traverse underneath the bulky cliffs of Nuvolau and Ra Gusela. It was a spectacular scene, but at the same time it was hard to focus on the scenery as the path wound through a boulder field with plenty of opportunities for stubbed toes, trips and accidents, and this slowed me down considerably, particularly as the blister on one of my right toes stung quite badly whenever the front of my foot hit a rock. Although it was only a couple of km, it felt like much longer and indeed looking at my splits afterwards, my pace on this section was only 4.8 km/h. I ran down the stepped pathway that led towards Passo Giau, and as I pulled into the checkpoint it turned 4pm and I was 15 minutes ahead of target.
Running into Passo Giau
Part of me thought that I could now afford to take my foot off the gas a little bit. With only 18km left, I could afford to go at 6km/h and still hit 20 hours. At the same time part of me was paranoid that I would start to fade at some point and so it was imperative to keep pushing hard to maintain or even further build a buffer in my timing. While, aside from the blister, I was also getting some low-level pain again in my left knee, I felt strong otherwise and with only one relatively short climb left in the race, I decided to press on. Filling my drinks bottles for the last time and grabbing a last handful of chocolate, raisins and fruit, I headed out and took the flat path that led towards the final climb to Forcella Giau and the large plateau of Mondeval.
The climb was steep with a lot of people feeling the effects of fatigue, heat and altitude (we were still at over 2,300m), but it was short at only 150m of vertical and within 20 minutes I crested the top and was on the Mondeval itself, following the path that bisected it as it headed towards the col of Forcella Ambrizzola a couple of kms away. I relaxed as I jogged along the path, relishing the prospect of the downhill that was to come and the prospect of finishing well under my 20 hour target. Suddenly I felt myself stumble over some stones in the middle of the path. I flew forwards, my hands splaying in a vain attempt to break my fall. Cue sharp pain from both kneecaps and palms. Cue blood. Copious amounts thereof. Cue lots of loud swearing. THIS ALWAYS BLOODY HAPPENS! Just when you think you’re in the finishing straight and everything is going smoothly, you switch off and trip over an innocuous stone on the flattest, easiest path imaginable.
I took a second just to check myself and it did appear that it was just some surface grazing rather than any deep cuts – I’d have to worry about antiseptic cream etc. later on, but for now it looked as though I had had a lucky escape and could carry on as before. I think only 3 or 4 people had gone past while I stood there picking myself up. I started running again, and while I had to continually wipe the blood from my hands and knees as I ran, it didn’t overly slow me down, so it was not long before I’d passed over the Forcella Ambrizzola and was hitting the first part of the downhill that led back to Cortina. While I continued to be overtaken by green-bibbed 80k runners with (relatively) fresh legs, at the same time I was also running past quite a few red-bibbed 120k runners whose legs were clearly shot and who had been reduced to a hiking pace even on the downhills. Within 20 minutes of starting the descent, I passed the final manned checkpoint at Rifugio Croda da Lago but with only an hour or so of downhill to go, I decided there was no need to take on any more food or drink so went straight through. The open track gave way to a narrower path in woodland with steeper and slightly trickier footwork required, but now that I could see on my altimeter the metres gradually ticking down, I had extra motivation to keep running the descent as hard as I could.
More green bibs went past. I passed more red bibs in turn. A few red bibs overtook me. Although our finish times ended up all pretty close together, there were quite a few changes in placings on this section. Occasionally through gaps in the trees I caught glimpse of Cortina, its size gradually increasing as I got closer. After around 40 minutes the path emerged from the trees onto a broad track that wound through grassy fields. Cortina was only a few hundred meters away to the right. Some people were still walking, but I tried to keep my knees pumping up and down and within 10 minutes was passing through the outskirts, coincidentally along the same roads that I recognised as leading up to our chalet. A couple of turns through the town centre and I was in the finishing straight, breaking into a sprint as the line approached. 19h35m and I’d picked up another 10 mins on the final section to break my target by almost half an hour.
I looked in vain for Young Sil and Jenghi and after receiving my finisher’s yellow jacket called them on my mobile – they were equally dismayed as according to the UTMB tracking website I was still at the last checkpoint! They had been waiting in the chalet for an update but for some reason the updates were being delayed and they had not seen any updated predicted finishing time for me. Not the ideal way to finish an ultra but 20 minutes later we were all together again.
Aftermath and Reflections
Finishing in the early evening gave me plenty of opportunity to unwind after the race – there are plenty of restaurants and bars in town and we grabbed a light dinner with some (alcohol-free for me) beers before driving back to the chalet, Jenghi having conveniently parked in the bus station car park. Although I found it hard to sleep that night – quite typical for me when I finish a race in the evening – I didn’t have any appreciable DOMS the following morning and after we’d checked out of the chalet we spent the day going up the Tofana and Lagazuoi cable cars as well as a walk around the Cinque Torri, all of which gave some great views of different parts of the course that I’d run the day before. We noticed a lot of race T-shirts, wristbands and jackets proudly on display! By 4pm we had to get back to the car and commence the drive back to Venice Airport in time for our 9pm flight – although there wasn’t a huge amount of traffic, the navigation took us over a seemingly endless sequence of mountain passes before we finally reached the Autostrada and left the Dolomites behind.
This is certainly the most beautiful race I have ever done, and perhaps one of the most beautiful ultra courses races in the world. There is simply view after view where you have to pinch yourself that you are racing through such spectacular scenery. Of course, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo itself gets a lot of the attention, and the view of these majestic three peaks as you approach them at sunrise is truly spectacular, but perhaps the greatest aspect to the course is the other scenery that you get to run through, much of which is not accessible by car and is on trails that might otherwise require several hours of hiking to get to. The Val Travenanzes in particular is just an incredible sight – remote, wild, surrounded by forbidding mountains, and at times it felt like we were running on the Moon. The canyons on the descent from Lavaredo to Cimabanche are also spectacular, as is the climb from Col Gallina to Passo Giao, passing the Cinque Torri and then right underneath the Nuvolau massif and Monte Gusela. It’s just jaw-dropping view after jaw-dropping view.
In terms of difficulty, I would place it somewhat in the middle of mountainous 100k+ races that I have done. It’s certainly not as technical at UTS, but I would rate it as being slightly more technical than TransGranCanaria (and a lot more technical than Istria), even if the technical sections are still pretty runnable and interspersed with some long flatter sections. I was quite lucky with the weather, as I would imagine that the rocky sections of the course would become a lot trickier in the wet given the limestone terrain, but the general pattern of weather in the Dolomites appears to be for dry nights and days with thunderstorms tending to happen in the late afternoon / early evening. While it was hot, the heat training I had done meant that I coped with it pretty well, and I would certainly recommend to anyone considering the 120k getting heat-acclimated in the weeks before the race. The last point, and perhaps most obvious one, is that the bulk of the race takes place above 1,600m altitude with a quarter above 2,000m, which means that altitude acclimatisation can play a big role in how you perform during the race. A number of elite athletes found that they struggled with the altitude, and even having spent a week at 2,000m before the race, I found I was getting a tight chest and occasional bouts of mild asthma during the race and afterwards had a chesty cough for a couple of days. I definitely think that it’s worth the time, effort and expense to get properly acclimatised before the race and am glad that I did so.
In terms of my overall performance and the training that went into it, I’m extremely happy and it’s given me a lot of confidence about the direction that I’ve been taking my training over the last year or so. 268th place out of 1,551 starters, 17th out of 233 in my age category (50-54M), and 6th out of 42 among the British starters were at the very top of my expectations in terms of placings. And my UTMB Index score of 568 is the third highest I’ve ever recorded, behind only 2022’s Summer Spine Race and Northern Traverse, both of which are very different, much longer, multi-day races. It’s my best performance in a 50k – 100 mile distance mountain ultra. It was great to also see that Alastair and Salim finished as well, and the overall finish rate for the race was pretty high given its distance and elevation at around 75%.
Some of the key lessons I’ve taken away from this (for me) are:
The importance of doing lots of intense hill interval work, to increase both climbing speed / endurance and my capacity to maintain running intensity on flats and shallower uphills deep into a race
Getting sufficient volume of steep technical downhill runs in before key races – plyometrics is great, uphill intervals are great, but ultimately there is no substitute for getting a lot of intense downhill volume in if you want to preserve your quads and ability to maintain downhill speed deep into a race
Staying on top of fuelling and hydration – I’ve been slowly getting better at this since my crashes on the Winter Spine and TransGranCanaria
Will I do the race again? I’d certainly be up for it and it would definitely count as one of my favourite ultras of the 20+ or so races that I have done. But there are so many other races on my bucket list – TransVulcania, MIUT, Echappee Belle, Diagonale des Fous, UTMB, TdG, not to mention the big races in the US – that it might be a while before I get round to running Lavaredo again. But it’s a fantastic race, a challenging distance / elevation profile, a spectacular course, great support and – first couple of checkpoints aside – good organisation. I’d highly recommend it, as if you like mountain running, you’ll love Lavaredo.
Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12 + Salomon Pulse waist belt
Shoes: Inov8 Roclite Ultra G320
Waterproofs: Inov8 Ultrashell (Top)
Socks: Waterproof: 1000 Mile compression socks, DryMax liner socks
Gaiters: Montane VIA gaiters
Shorts: 2XU compression shorts, 2XU ¾ length compression tights (back-up)
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart Zip (back-up)
Underwear: JustWears boxer shorts
Gloves: Cycling Gloves, Montane Minimus Waterproof Gloves
Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, 2 buffs
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945
Headtorch: Black Diamond Storm (plus spare)
Poles: Black Diamond Carbon Z