What a whirlwind Lavaredo was! It seems like I was just filling out the online entry form with the hope that maybe one day I would make it through the lottery. Imagine my surprise when I received that email with two little words “you’re in”. Fast forward seven months, filled with a blur of training, injuries, and overcoming injuries, and it was time to start the race!
The mountain town of Cortina, nestled in the heart of the Italian Dolomites, was pulsing with energy. Cafes were selling espresso and cocktails to the crowd, a healthy mix of athletes, families, locals, and tourists who had no idea what was going on but didn’t want to miss the action. And the center of it all was the church tower and the Lavaredo Ultra Trail banner, bright red under the bright lights. The announcer regaled the crowd, in both Italian and English, with details about the race. At 10 minutes until 11pm, the announcer requested all racers come to the start line. After the typical pre-race announcements of “thank the volunteers” and “watch where you’re going and don’t fall off a cliff!”, the announcer made his final announcement before the start. “The night is long and is so is the night. Enjoy yourself. Now ignite your lights and your hearts…tre, due, uno, FORZA!”. And we were off!
The streets were lined with people, clapping, whistling, and screaming “FORZA! FORZA!”. Despite what I had heard, the race started with a comfortable trot through town, which slowed to crawl at the start of the first hill where the road turned to trail. Which was fortunate since it allowed a fellow Coloradoan to catch up with me. He recognized the Colorado flag on my buff, which coincidentally matched his. We chatted for a while as the crowd slowly sorted itself out. As the crowd thinned, he pushed ahead while I maintained my conservative pace.
The next couple of hours passed in a blur. There was a long climb and then a quick descent, which could have been amazingly fun if I wasn’t stuck behind people who didn’t know how to run downhill. And then, as if appearing out of thin air, the first aid station was upon me. Since it was only 3 hours into the race, I only grabbed a couple handfulls of raisins and some delicious raspberry tea. Then it was time to resume the climb, up, up, up we went, following a mixture of paved roads, dirt roads, single track, and completely off trail scrambling. Once again we were at the top of the climb before I realized it and it was time for another descent.
Less than 100 meters (330 feet) from the top of the climb, I turned my ankle on a smooth section of the rocky trail. The pain was intense but eventually lowered to a dull ache, until it was overcome by all the other aches of running for hours in the mountains. Soon I was able to run down hill, and run downhill I did. Fast and furiously I passed runner after runner, spending a second or two thinking I was running too hard, but having too much fun to care. After all the reason I run is because I love it, so why not take advantage and enjoy every minute?
The downhill to the second aid station, and first major checkpoint, was on a bed of pine needles, a welcome relief from the miles and miles of quad-crushing dolomite limestone trails. I was on cloud nine and I sailed into the checkpoint, barely remembering to grab another handful of raisins, half a banana, and raspberry tea. I also made the mistake of drinking something called “isotonic” which would haunt me in the miles to come.
The climb out of the aid station followed slippery, muddy trails that made me thankful I was wearing my Salomon running shoes since they gripped the mud flawlessly. It soon turned into pavement as the grade steepened. At the bottom of the climb was the first time I would see Jason since I had kissed him goodbye many miles and hours ago in Cortina. The climb seemed to grind on and on, as my anticipation about seeing him grew and grew. When we finally crested the climb and started the gradual downhill, I realized I had another problem: my stomach. The isotonic was beginning to wreck havoc with my stomach and any running jostled my stomach and made me pray for a bathroom. So I interspersed my running with a lot of walking, hoping there would be a bathroom at Lago di Misurina where I would see Jason (I did not want to repeat the post-bathroom butt chafing that happened at the Leadville Silver Rush last year).
After what seemed like forever, I finally saw Jason’s smiling face along the bank of Lago di Misurina. As he was walking with me around the lake, another American came running up. “So happy to hear English” he said before he ran off into the distance. I didn’t realize it then, but those words that currently only defined the fringes of the race would soon work their way into hyper-focus.
There was no bathroom that was open at the lake, so I started the long climb up to Rifugio Auronzo and my drop bag. The climb was everything wonderful about trail running, and even helped me forget about my desperate need to use the bathroom. We passed through verdent pastures with cows lazily grazing (and some runners napping in the shade under rocks), pine forests with their floors carpeted by tiny wildflowers, and rocky, mossy, alpine vistas where the views stretched on into infinity. The climb up the mountain took a while but seemed effortless. I passed other runners struggling and couldn’t help but think of the words on the Statue of Liberty “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” as the conga line inched their way closer and closer to the rifugio.
The TripAdvisor reviews of Rifugio Auronzo state that it’s more like a road-side pit stop than a true mountain hut, but at 9:30 am on Saturday June 26, that rifugio seemed like a gift from heaven. I quickly collected my drop bag, changed my shoes, and restocked my hydration pack. After I returned my drop bag I finally used the bathroom! Much happier, I went through the line of food, which had the most delicious cheese, salami, and hot hot tea. I made the mistake of sitting down, which I quickly realized was way to comfortable and got on my way. But the stop was just a little too long and my legs had begun to stiffen.
After Rifugio Auronzo, the race course continued to climb for about 300 meters (almost 1,000 feet) until it crested at Forcella Lavaredo, under the shadow of the centerpiece of the race, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The course quickly turned downhill with a gentle run along a dirt road that too-quickly turned into steep, tight, exposed single track. That downhill killed my feet and by the time I made it to the more reasonable grade back on the dirt roads again, I could barely stand to walk downhill much less run. Over the course of the 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) between Forcella Lavaredo and the Cimabanche aid station, I stopped more times than I can count to adjust and readjust my shoes. The only relief for my sore, tired, bruised feet came at the river crossing where I could take off my shoes and numb the pain in the glacial stream.
After Cimabanche, the race course once again turns uphill, with a 600 meter (almost 2,000 feet) climb up and a 400 meter (1300 feet) downhill to the next aid station at Malga Ra Stua. And this is where my race fell apart. As the climb continued to grind on, I felt panic attacks coming on. I felt like I wanted to cry but every time I tried, I would only be able to squint my eyes and take shaky, uneven, gasping breathes. The increased breathing didn’t seem to get any oxygen into my lungs, which felt like there were on fire. I would stop and collect myself, but as soon as I continued on, the panic attacks would resume. By the time I crested the climb and began the descent into the aid station, I felt like everything was closing in on me and I was struggling to take even shallow breaths. I felt like I was bug underneath a microscope and that I couldn’t possibly take another step, much less run 44 more kilometers (24 miles) with 2000 meters (6500+ feet) of climbing and 2800 meters (9100+ feet) of descent.
At the Malga Ra Stua aid station, I grabbed some tea and sat in the grass, desperate to stop the panic attacks. When I talked about dropping, two very kind gentlemen offered to help me finish the race. They said I had come so far and couldn’t stop now. When I told them about the panic attacks, they told me to just follow them. I got up and started out of the aid station with them, and the panic attacks immediately resumed. With their encouragement, I continued on the downhill but the panic attacks quickly overwhelmed me. The thought of slowing them down and endangering their race only made the panic attacks more intense and I realized that I could not continue. When we reached the next volunteer, I asked if I could get a ride back to Cortina because I was dropping. The two gentlemen tried to convince me otherwise but I could see the relief that they would not be burdened with me anymore. I hopped on the official Lavaredo bus back to Cortina, filled with others whose dreams of returning to Cortina triumphant had similarly been crushed. The air was thick with unasked questions and regret.
After the bus dropped me off at the Olympic Ice Stadium in Cortina, I walked across town to the bus station, stopping along the way to cheer on Cortina Trail racers (the little sister of Lavaredo). While waiting the 30 minutes until the bus came, I tried to stay awake but all I wanted was to fall asleep. Even the hard concrete ground of the bus station seemed like the most expensive feather mattress at that point. Luckily I was conscious enough to realize the bus had pulled up, got on and took it back to the hotel. Thankfully when I went into our hotel room Jason was still there getting everything ready to meet me at the next aid station so I didn’t have to worry about trying to find him or figure out how to let him know I had dropped without having a functioning cell phone. After a shower and dinner at the hotel, I could finally close my eyes and rest my weary body and mind.
Ultras have a funny way of making everything in life seem simultaneously distant and hyper-focused. I don’t know why I had the panic attacks but I do have the distinct feeling that I just wasn’t strong enough mentally for the challenge of 119 km in a foreign country. The acute loneliness of being surrounded by people who do not speak your language bothered me more than I ever thought it would. Yes my feet hurt and yes I was tired, but I’ve pushed through much worse before and come out the other side relatively unscathed. I wanted that finish so badly, but in the end wanting it wasn’t enough.
Sitting here at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean on my way back to the States, it’s easy to think of the “could-haves” and “should-haves”. If I hadn’t run downhill so furiously in the beginning would my feet have held out long enough to finish. If I had asked Jason to meet me at more aid stations, would the loneliness not have been so acute and devastating. If I trained harder, if I had better prepared myself mentally, if, if, if. But in the end none of those ifs matter. Reality is what matters and the reality is that I left something unfinished. Lavaredo will be harder to redeem than Silver Rush was, but I will redeem it. One day, I will return to Cortina, victorious after running 119 km (74 miles) and climbing 5850 meters (19,192 feet) in the Italian Dolomites. The crowds will be screaming for me and only me and the announcer will welcome me home like the champion I know I am.
For now, I will turn my focus to the Rut in Montana, but a piece of Lavaredo will always be there in my heart, beckoning me to return.