Alison and I have finally arrived at Cortina. The biggest challenge of the year and our running career to date. It only seems like yesterday when we started the first of our events on new years day with two back to back park runs after a nights festivities. Since then we’ve run a tough trail half marathon at Anglesey, done a night run, trail marathon, our first duathlon, a two day adventure race, cycled the coast to coast and walked the Llangollen round. In between we’ve done a bit of training including our longest training run to date of twenty three miles (with hangover following the club trip 10k) swimming and a bit of biking. Having arrived at Cortina and looked at the mountains none of it feels enough.
We decide to head up via the cable cars to check out the views today in advance of the run tomorrow. The run is 47k, 2650m ascent and looking to be warm (23 degrees). You need to be self sufficient so need to carry your own water and food and have various bits of equipment stowed away in your pack. Alison and I opted for a couple of Salomon race vests. We are both excited at this stage as this has been on the horizon for about a year.
How to describe this run? Well the first 10k looks the hardest until you get to the second 10k which looks worse. After that I think it gets steadily worse until you reach the top where I expect my hamstrings will be simply destroyed. You then have to run down about 2000m which will destroy the quads. In short the entire body will be put through the mill. Looking at the view from the top of the mountain has clarified what a mountain actually is. It is big.
So having scared ourselves with the view from the top we headed back down to Cortina and went to pick up our race numbers. In the process of picking up my number I nearly pick up the wrong number – Mark Smith, but Alison noticed and saved me from running under the wrong number – clearly not something I have ever done…
On the way to get our numbers I jokingly say that I reckon I could win the top male veteran category from North Leeds – I mean how many north Leeds runners can be holidaying in Cortina. 5 minutes later we bump into a guy from Valley Striders and find out there are about twenty runners from Leeds in town. Go figure.
There are three events being run this weekend. The 20K sky race; the 47K Cortina trail and the Lavaredo trail which is a 119K. Alison first found about the Cortina trail from a work colleague called Steph who ran it last year. Steph has come back this year to run the Laverado trail – 119K, 5850m ascent with her boyfriend Paul. We meet up with them briefly before the race and they give us a heads up on the conditions. They are setting off that night at 11pm and hope it will take them about 21 hours. Yes seriously 21 hours.
That night we soak up the atmosphere and cheer Steph and Paul on before heading to bed. It is crazy thinking we’ll be asleep while they are running through the night but one challenge at a time.
We manage a pretty decent nights sleep and in the morning we are ready for the day; I’m way past the point of worrying about the race; there is nothing I can do about it now other then to try and endure and enjoy it so that is what I figure i’ll do. Steph and Paul have already been running for about 8 hours while we tuck into breakfast so really we’ve got it easy.
The walk up to the line is a little unnerving but we are ready as we can be; we skip the warm up figuring we don’t really need to worry about it with 30 miles ahead of us to get into our stride.
The mountain is looming over us and looks ready; it just winked at me.
The pre race briefing is similar to other race briefings in that I can’t hear it over the noise of the crowd and we get ready to start.
The count down commences and before I can think about it we kick off. The first couple of miles are on tarmac until we get to the bottom of the mountain where we’ll start the first part of the ascent.
I’ve talked myself into thinking there are only two big hills and then a couple of little ones. The little ones are about 250m ascent though and turn out to be the toughest and steepest terrain i’ve ever gone up. The two big hills are about 500m and 1200m but are a little easier as they are spread out over a longer distance. By the time we’ve run 20k we would have done about 2000m of ascent. The numbers don’t mean anything to me though until i’m on the trail and appreciate how big 2650m really is.
The GoPro comes off my head after about 12K as I start to overheat and get to the point where I realise I’ll probably keel over if I try and film this. I have to stick with the basics like trying to survive it. The GoPro has actually blown up from the heat i’ve been generating and I have to take out the battery to switch it off.
The running poles are a great help on the hills and are the only things getting me up the slopes; we run along the occasional flats and find ourselves walking the hills. Even walking on the hills is leaving me breathless. When we get to the small number of descents my legs are keen to unwind and stretch out and I make the mistakes of flying down them, skipping across the rocky trails on the way down. I end up running a couple of kilometers at 5k pace and then easing back as I realize I still have a mountain to climb.
Alison has noticed that I’m flagging and berates me for not eating so I sit down for a quick gel and slug of water. I hadn’t realised how depleted i’d got and I still have 25K to go. Alison is like the Duracell bunny and keeps on going. The heat is slowly hammering down on me and I’ve drunk all my water. The next water stop is a few klicks but I manage to find a stream to fill up from in the meantime. This is the coldest cleanest water I’ve ever had and goes down like a beer.
Along the trail we cross a few more streams; Alison wades across and I skip across trying to keep my feet slightly dry. Before long both our feet are dry again from the heat of the sun cooked trail. I slap on a baseball cap to keep my head from baking and push on.
The hill is getting tougher; the effort level is constantly rising; the views are breathtaking which is awkward because I’m struggling for breath enough anyway. Along the way we run along cliff edges and through streams. We are in and out of the tree lines and eventually hit a wide valley which is being battered by the sun and does a good job of sharing its pain. Every step seems to take us up further. The altitude is beginning to be noticeable and breathing is getting tougher.
The first 2000m grind me down and we finally reach the first top. It seems like things should get easier from this point; as we have our first check point and the chance for some real food and drinks. It is blessed relief to stop for a few minutes and I use the time to cram as much chocolate, bread, cheese and salami into my body as I can take and then wash it down with numerous cups of Pepsi. This is ultra food.
The final three ascents are killers; each hill is smaller then the previous but my god they are steep; I stop on the last one and have to get my breathing under control before I can start again. I am seriously unnerved looking at it. Alison is already fifty feet ahead and about 80 metres above me so I decide to crack on again. It is slow going; I feel like i’m climbing rather than running. I’m pulling myself up this hill but I don’t seem to be getting any closer to the top. When does this end.
Eventually; time stops functioning and my brain switches off. I just put one foot after another and reality fades out and then everything comes back into focus and I reach the top to find Ali is waiting from me. Yes we’ve completed the last ascent – we are at the top of the mountain. I don’t see the finish line? I can’t see the brass band. Oh yes we’ve still got 2650M of descent to handle and about 12K to go. We’ve run up a mountain; why? So we can run down it. What the hell are we doing.
When I visualized this event i’d always skipped the descent bit; figuring that going down hill was the easy bit. My mistake is epic in proportions as we fly down the trails, the impact my legs are taking is robbing me of what little energy reserves I have left – which frankly doesn’t feel like enough to get me to the local shop back home let alone 12K down a very steep mountain.
We keep going, and going, and going – the quads are like iron and each time I land on my heels I feel a shock through my back. I keep thinking about the core sessions I did with Liz our personal trainer and focus on keep my core tight and try as best I can to absorb the impact. I remember the hardmoors training sessions we did and try and keep my feet light and quick. I keep thinking about why we are doing this. Everything is hurting. It is so damn hot; my mouth feels like I am trying to gurgle with sand. My eyes are burning from the salt drenched sweat dripping into them. I am loving it.
Finally the trail opens up and we start cruising down the trails; they are wide and the incline is gentle and it is awesome as finally we get to look at the scenery and let our legs do their stuff. We hit the last check point and I down a keg of red bull and feel ready for the last 5K.
The last 5K has other ideas though and is a steep and technical descent through the woods; the trail is treacherous; with slippery descents and tree roots ready to trip us at every turn. There are a lot of turns and a lot of trips ready for the wary; forget the unwary they didn’t get this far.
The quads are failing; the back has gone; my arms are dead and we still have 3K to go as we hit the tarmac again. This is the longest 3K I’ve ever experienced as we run along the side of the village. It goes on for ever. Alison vanishes and then is back again. I’m not sure if I’m quite with it at this stage as my brain starts trying to calculate how long we’ve been going for. I keep trying to multiple six by three and when eventually I do come up with an answer – not the correct answer I don’t know why I was trying to do this sum.
We finally reach the outskirts of the village and hit the last hill which is only about 5 metres of ascent but it feels another mountain; we are so done. We enter the final stretch through the village and can see the end in sight. Alison and I manage to grab hands and some how we both cross the line together.
I read somewhere that ultra runners don’t ask how long you took to run an ultra, they ask if you finished?
Alison and I had finished.
Our little excursion took us just over nine hours. We go back and get washed up and while drinking a beer we think about Steph and Paul – they are still out there running. In the end they are on the mountain for about 25 hours; two nights and a day now that is extreme.
I take one more look back at what we’ve done; it doesn’t seem real – i’m so tired the mountain seems to grins at us.
Next year it says; next year you are doing the Lavaredo boy.