by Kevin Skiles
The thunderstorm abruptly ended and I stepped out onto the cobblestone street toward the start line of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the historic plaza in the center of Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy below the looming belltower that would soon toll 11 p.m. and our departure up into the mountains above town. Having gotten a good look at these mountains the last several days hiking with my family, taking cable cars up the peaks and studying the course, I was intimidated for sure and knew I was under-trained, but I’ve done enough of these big mountain runs to know that there really is no preparation that is adequate to feel confident before you begin – you just have to start, keep it relaxed and easy, and let the course come to you.
With a minute to go, the brooding western themed “ecstasy of gold” by Ennio Morricone played over the loud speaker. The steadily-building cadence of the song ushered us on our start. The sharp snare drum beats matched our footfalls as we travelled through the streets of Cortina past the bars and restaurants filled with buzzed, cheering fans. Cowbells, shouts and chanting quickly gave way to the hushed quiet of the mountain as we began climbing the first of many single track, steep mountain trails.
Prior to the race, I wondered how the 11 p.m. start would treat me, but I can say that it works perfect for this race, particularly if you can finish before the sun sets the second day. The first 20 miles serve to get you ‘out there’ in the mountains and running this section at night is probably a good trade to be able to experience the incredibly dramatic landscape the course has in store for miles 20-70 during the daylight hours. I stayed conservative during the first two climbs and resulting downhills. The downhill into Federavecchia reminded me of running into Le Chapieux during UTMB two years ago—steep, dark, sweeping views of the headlamps below and the European runners around me going insanely fast on a nighttime alpine single track descent!
I ran into my training partner Jerome Lourme during this stretch and it was nice to have some company. We were the only ones talking (it’s an American thing to talk during an ultra I’ve learned) and we caught up on how his son did in the Skyrace the prior day and we both remarked on how it was going to be an “interesting” day out here given that both of us were feeling pretty under-trained. This year, life (work, family, some volunteer opportunities) have taken my focus off heavy mileage training and I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t had a single week of training over 40 miles except for weeks where I raced an ultra. My inability to get any serious volume in has made me recalibrate my expectations because I still want to be able to finish and have fun while doing these races – so I have been taking the first half of each of my races much more conservative and I’m not that focused on finishing times, but trying to be more focused on how I feel in the later parts of the races—I want to be running strong in the second half. I’ve also been working on running much faster downhill because that is more technique-driven and less a product of fitness. This strategy turned out very well for Lavaredo as there is so much steep, but not too technical, downhill and I absolutely hammered every section of it all day on Saturday.
Dawn began breaking as I slogged my way up to Lake Misurina in a long conga line of fellow runners. The previous day’s thunderstorms and 500 or so racers ahead of me had totally wrecked this section of trail turning it into a huge, sloppy mud pit. After a few miles of this, we emerged at Lake Misurina and it was the first of many times this day that the mountains and scenery of Lavaredo would leave me speechless. I feel bad for the front runners of this race as they blaze past here in the dead of night. Seeing the peaks above Lake Misurina, the reflections in the lake and the multi-hued dawn light was jaw-droppingly beautiful.
The 3,000 ft climb out of Lake Misurina to the first of the mountain refugio aid stations was steep, but it went fast. Several of these climbs look more difficult on paper than they are in the race. And there was actually a fair amount of asphalt running in this section. Every several hundred feet, the trail would table-top for a bit and I was able to keep my heart rate from exploding due to this. And every time I needed a distraction from the climbing, the views of the mountains above offered themselves up. Just before 7 a.m., the Tre Cime of the Lavaredo came into view. This is the rock formation on the shirts and website that gave the race its name. I won’t even bother to come up with superlatives to describe how impressive this rock formation is – I will just repeat the thought that occurred to me as I saw it and then ran around it: “Everyone I know needs to come here and do this race.”
I cruised through the mountain refugio aid station after grabbing a coke (nice morning coke!) and headed around the tre cime past this cool little church where lots of hikers (and the Skiles family the day after the race) spell their names in white rocks on the ground out in front—very cool. I was really looking forward to the downhill from Tre Cime—it would be the first test of my strategy to see whether I could hammer these several-thousand-feet downhills.
Cresting the pass, I looked southwest toward the mountains I would be climbing later in the afternoon. The trail was smooth and I was able to run really well all the way down into the valley. Little streams and waterfalls were bursting out of the rocks and I dipped my hat in to cool off as the day was starting to warm up a little. I ran out of fuel at this point, got a little wonky, and had to hike some very runnable fire road portions of the course in the bottom of the canyon. It took longer than I thought to get to Cimbanche where I was able to restock my supply of gels, get a little more Tailwind and enjoy some of the meat and cheeses that European aid stations offer – it takes some getting used to.
Back on the trail the fire road quickly turned uphill into a relentless grade that is not too steep, I probably could have run it, but it goes on forever with lots of false summits. It was also totally exposed to the sun but thankfully there was another little stream that kept appearing next to the trail so I could cool off with splashes of water. So I hiked it. And during the hike I met a nice French guy and we chatted about our families and other races we had done and the time passed a little easier. When we crested the hill and began running downhill my new friend’s wife and three kids ran up to give him a hug and cheer him on as he entered the aid station Malga Ra Stua. It was a very nice scene and I couldn’t help but smile and think of my wife and three kids enjoying their day somewhere in Cortina.
The descent from Malga Ra Stua was steep and had some technical sections, but I was still able to run it really well. The Montrail Trans Alps FKTs were the perfect shoe for this race offering a good amount of cushion but remaining grippy and not feeling too “tall” or wobbly. I felt very confident and sure-footed on the ups and the downs. I had used the Trans Alps at the Quicksilver 100k to test them out but they were getting a much more serious test at Lavaredo and they performed great. I didn’t fall all day and the only time I had minor slips was in the really muddy sections were no shoe would have held traction. When I bottomed out in the canyon and crossed a footbridge I knew that one of the toughest climbs of the day lay ahead.
The climb straight up the heart of the Val Travenanzes is the longest of the race, going up 4,000 ft in about seven miles. It is not terribly steep, I’m sure a lot of folks run it, but I planned on hiking the whole thing. It feels very remote and wild and the crowds of runners I had been around for most of the race started dispersing here so I was either by myself or spread out for most of the climb. During the hike up the valley, you either see, hear or smell water around you all the time. A couple of the bridge crossings brought you very up-close to the roaring aquamarine river and then further up the valley the course crossed through the icy water that melted off a glacier an hour or so ago.
The further up the valley I got, the more my confidence grew that I would not only finish the race, but be able to keep hiking with authority and run the downhills fast. It seemed possible at this point that I might be able to break my stretch goal of 20 hours. When I summited Forc. Col du Bois, I could see the remaining mountains I’d have to traverse to finish the race laid out before me. It was a sweeping view of the several Cimes and Peaks that ring the valley of Cortina. This course, more than any other I’ve done, puts in you “in” the mountains rather than around them or near them.
With the long climbs now all behind me, I’d have several shorter, steeper climbs to navigate as the race sent me over a series of alpine passes above Cortina. I continued to hike as aggressively as I could; I was using poles and they were indispensable. I determined at this point there was no need to “save anything” for later so when the trail turned downhill I let my legs spin and ran the downhills really hard. The aid stations were not as spread apart on this part of the course, earlier they were 8–10 miles apart, but here they seemed to be about five miles apart. My fueling was going smoothly, I had plenty of water and had started drinking Coke at each aid station for the caffeine and sugar. Once you start with the Coke, you have to stay on it so I’m glad that each aid station after Cimbanche had Coke.
The steep hike up to Rif. Averau was not as brutal I was expecting, but the broken, rocky alpine terrain around Forc. Giau was trickier and more technical than I expected. That was some true mountain scrambling and my brain was tired from being up more than 24 hours – I had to go slow to make sure I didn’t break an ankle. Feeling totally “out there” in the alpine wilderness hiking around Croda Lago, the thunderheads that had been threatening in the distance started rumbling and distant lightning strikes put a little more urgency in my hiking. A few minutes later, sleet and frozen rain came down and I had to break out my rain gear. My slow going in here put a 20 hour finish out of reach, but I was still way ahead of my primary goal to finish before dark. I didn’t want to spend another night out here and I knew if I could finish before 9 p.m., Milly and my kids would still be at the finish line. After the race, I heard that Milly was texting Tony back in the states trying to figure out if I would finish by 9 and Tony, who knows me very well from all the hundreds we have run or paced together, could tell from 7000 miles away that I was closing hard. Thanks for making sure Milly and the kids were there in time!
Summiting the Forcella Giau marked the end of the climbing and it was now a steady 11 mile descent back into Cortina. This section was totally exposed alpine terrain with several-thousand-foot rock formations towering above. I felt lucky to be able to experience it during a thunderstorm as it made the scenery even more impressive. As soon as I dropped a few thousand feet, I emerged out of the weather and I was able to strip off my rain coat and start hammering down the mountain. I got a quick shot of Coke at the last aid station which is the top of a ski lift. Somewhere on the descent I lost the ability to convert metric into miles and I misjudged how close to the finish I was, and started my finishing “kick” way too early. While it was fun to bomb down the mountain as fast as possible, passing more prudent runners who were picking their way through the technical, rooted and muddy sections, it wasn’t very smart as I got tired and ended up hiking a couple sections of rolling/flat as I entered Cortina. Oh well!
Entering Cortina 21 hours after I left it the night before was surreal. It was about 8 p.m. and the crowds were still rocking and creating a very festive atmosphere despite the fact that it had started to rain. The music was blaring and it was a lot of stimulation after being in the wilderness for so long. It’s so fun to run these races in Europe with the crazy fans lining the streets as you enter town. A few hundred yards from the finish line I spotted Milly and my kids trying to stay out of the rain. My three kids jumped onto the course and ran the last bit of the race crossing the finish line with their Dad – how fun! It took me 21:23 to complete the race and I honestly enjoyed every minute of it. I was really pleased to have a good race even though I wasn’t in top shape. My nutrition and gear all worked perfect – no real low energy moments or problems with anything. The Montrail Trans Alps FKTs were the perfect shoe and I felt like the poles really came in handy ascending some of the longer, steeper climbs.
The whole family went on a hike around the Tre Cime the next day so I could show off some of the beautiful mountain passes I ran during the race. My kids seemed impressed and we even found a cool cave to climb up into that was made during WWI when this part of Italy belonged to Austria. This race made for a great centerpiece of my kids’ first trip to Europe and hopefully inspires them to take on similar adventures. Thanks to my wife Milly for her patience and support, to my fellow runners for making it such a fun day and all the staff and volunteers who work the race making it such a great event. Arrivederci!