Lavaredo Ultra Trail always seemed a step too far for me. After my last race in August I suffered an overuse injury of my hamstrings. My rehab programme was consequently blighted by an array of winter bugs, chest infections and full blown flu. I was barely able to string together more than 3 weeks of consistent training for 5 months.
Despite being a competitive runner since I was 19, the thought of running 120km was daunting.
I only started ultra running in 2015, carefully building up my distances. Lavaredo was going to be my most challenging race yet. It’s not just the vast distance but also environment and the terrain. Although I’m good at hill running, the Dolomites are impossible to replicate. Being a mum of two, travelling to train in similar terrains was unfeasible. I just had to hope that grit and 18 years of experience would help me tackle those mountains with confidence. Staying home in the Chiltern Hills would have to suffice.
The night time running was also a worry. I love my sleep. I haven’t had an all nighter since my children were babies. I made the decision that night time training be more detrimental than of benefit. I need to be up at the crack of dawn to be a Mum and would run the risk of getting exhausted. Becoming run down was something I wanted to avoid with my temperamental immune system. The 11pm race start was going to be a “suck it and see” situation.
With careful planning, endless support and guidance from Euan McGrath (@madonadventures) I started putting together some solid training. Listening to my body was vital. If I felt tired I would rest. My nutrition was military. Having a very full schedule could lead to my recovery being neglected. Following the basic rule of the “3 R’s”. Rehydrate. Refuel (carbs). Rebuild (protein) after every session ensured I stayed on target. Faster recovery meant I could train harder.
Introducing a structured strength and conditioning programme has been key to my progression. I had great support from Kriss Hendy (@strengthforendurance). Unable to train in the mountains I needed to build a strong, resilient body that would withstand the Dolomites punishing ascents and descents for hours on end. The gains I made over 12 weeks in strength were substantial. Now an aspect of my training I will never neglect.
With all this in place I managed to train hard for 4 months. I am so lucky to have so many influential people around me to guide and advise. No matter how experienced you are in a sport you would be arrogant to think you don't need advice. Everyone believed I would fly in the race. It was only when I had reached the last 3 weeks of training that I started to believe them.
Lavaredo Ultra Trail is renowned for its beauty and its tough terrain. Being part of the Ultra World Trail Series it’s attended by of some of the worlds top ultra runners. Even some of them have misjudged the course, suffered or even withdrawn. I had heard reports of “incredibly technical” and “ one of the “toughest races you can do”. It's important to respect for the challenge ahead but it's easy to psych yourself out. I’m naturally a pessimist. If you expect the worse, it can only get better, it's an approach that seems to work for me. Some good sports psychology sessions with Dr Josie Perry (www.performanceinmind.co.uk) got my head in the right place. The course was relentless yes, but I was prepared and it wasn’t anything as bad as I had predicted.
Crossing the start line in 750th place half way down the pack forced me into a very slow first 1/3 of the race. Queuing for the first trail was worse than getting onto the tube at Oxford Circus. Euan did a great job at keeping me calm and stopping me from wasting energy trying to push past other runners. He has great experience with ultra races. I trusted his guidance which meant I was able to keep strong for the later stages of the race.
The night running was tough. The rocky descents in the forests were hard to navigate especially with a head torch that was as effective as a match but kept thinking every step forward was progress. The trail was busy but silent. The moment dawn broke was like a renewal of energy. Seeing the mountains for the first time was unreal. The bird song was a welcome break to the deadly silence of the runners around me.
The first part of the course is very runnable. Great to a point but you run the risk of going out too fast. I had endless advice on keeping it steady for energy conservation for the second half of the course. Relentless climbs and technical descents. I listened. Every time I felt comfortable I slowed.
I reached the 66km check point at Cimabanche in 9 hrs 45 mins which was only 10km short of the furthest I had ever ran. I was still feeling mentally strong. I wasn’t running to a time but I knew I didn’t want to run into the night again. After a kit change and refuel I headed out at 10 hrs. It was my first descent after this mid way check point my knee gave way. I suffered all sorts of niggles and injury in training but no hint of a problem with my knee. It was agonising. I would power past runners on the ascents looking confident and then grind to a halt at the top defeated. A regular dose of painkillers did help but not for long. Hobbling the descents were agonising even using my poles as crutches.
At about 80km the course merged with the latter third of the runners from the 48km Cortina Trail race. A point where we begun a relentless 1000m climb up to Col dei Bos. This became a slow going battle. I had to constantly manoeuvre around slow climbing runners but the advantage was it kept my mind sharp. It ended being a blessing in the later stages of the race.
In this race there was a sense of team when I would come across a fellow ultra competitor amide the 48km runners. We all supported each other. I fell at 80km and an Italian runner stopped to help me. We couldn't communicate due to the language barrier, but walked aside me and rubbed my back until I was ok to run again. From picking up dropped poles, helping get drinks from bags to stopping with someone that is exhausted, you have to look after each other out there as it's a long way to suffer alone. A group began to form with another GBR runner. It was cat and mouse of passing her on the ups and she would pass my on the downs. We didn’t talk much but was nice to have her there. Even though we were competing, she motivated me to use the ascents to my advantage to make up time for my inability to get back down the mountain. I think I was the only runner pleased to see climbs as it meant no pain.
The last 10km was downhill all the way through the forest. A welcome sight for most but a disaster for me. I was dreading it and had no idea how I was going to get down to Cortina. I didn't refuel at the last aid station Rif. Cord da Lago. I really wanted to see the finish line I had visualised in my head for so many months. I reached the last check point in just under 19 hours. I had said to finish in 20 hours would be my best possible outcome of the race. This was now reality. A surge of adrenaline gave me renewed energy and the pain in my knee that I had suffered for the last 9 hours subsided.
The last 1500m was through a packed town. My body was happy to have the flat tarmac to run on. The finish line was by the clock tower that I had left 20 hours ago in the dark. Cheering people lined the streets and finally seeing familiar faces of friends and husband was golden. The relief that I had completed the race was intense. A mixture of happiness, exhaustion and relief. I could finally let go and my brain could stop pushing.
My race strategy was breaking it into bite size pieces. Keep it steady and run with caution. Reach each checkpoint, refuel, then concentrate on the next section. Just 9 separate runs with a fuel stop in between. It worked well and 120km past quickly. Apart from my injury my energy levels were great for the full 20 hours and I remained mentally positive. A great confidence boost for my first mountain ultra.
So many people had said to me “enjoy it”. I struggled to understand how this could be possible. 120km by foot (!!) running through the night, endless climbs and descents, pain in my legs that I had never experienced before. But I enjoyed it, all of it. The escapism for me was golden. As most of us with family, I live a regimented life. Juggling kids, work and training. The freedom of being in the mountains is so unlike my day to day life. It was just me with just one pure focus, to finish the race. It’s addictive and it's these feelings that make us runners search out constant challenges. What can my body and mind achieve next?