Fighting to fill my lungs, the magnitude of what I had let myself in for started to hit home. We were barely 2.5km into the 20km of the Cortina Skyrace and we were only just reaching the first climb.
How was I suffering so much already?
The Lavaredo Ultra Trail
The Lavaredo Ultra-Trail is based in the stunning Dolomites town of Cortina and is an amazing mountain trail running weekend that, as of last year, consists of 3 events. A long, medium, and short course that takes the runners weaving in and out, up and down, and all around the stunning Dolomites and Tre Cime, a mountain I got to know personally last summer.
The main event is the Lavaredo Ultra-Trail that covers a monstrous 119km while gaining an obscene 5,850m of ascent. These numbers are a little hard to appreciate but this is, pretty much, 3 marathons back to back.
On ridiculously steep terrain.
The people that set off on this have 30 hours to get themselves around the course with the winners screaming round in a little over 12 hours.
The second event of the series is the Cortina Trail. At 47km it just scrapes into the ultra category (a race longer than 42km/26.2 miles) but those extra 5km should not make you discount the race. In essence, it picks up the second half of the Ultra Trail and clocks up an enormous 2,850m of ascent.
The third event is the Cortina Skyrace, that I was kindly invited to by The North Face. The Skyrace is 20km long with a little over 1,000m of ascent. No mean feat though a distance and profile I hoped would be not just do-able but enjoyable too!
The Cortina Skyrace
I really love mountain events as the outdoor world is pretty small and so you always know people who are taking part. I was excited to see how a few friends would do on the longer courses but I also found out that Robbie Britton and Nat White were driving across from Chamonix to give the short course a go.
As well as some Chamonix friends, The North Face had invited Graham from Sport Magazine, and Hannah and Emily from Twice The Health, to run the Skyrace too. What was great about these guys was that they had never run in a race such as this and so I got to see them experience the amazing sport of skyrunning for the first time.
Arriving late on Wednesday night, we all had the day to chat with North Face athletes, sort ourselves out and then rest up for the race that would kick of at 5pm. With a short afternoon nap, it wasn’t long until my alarm went off, however, and I started to get ready for the race.
Clothes on, water bottles filled, and Bounce Balls packed, I stepped outside and was struck by the wall of heat. Up until two days earlier temperatures had been low and rain had been persistent. That had changed just in time for our race – glancing at a thermometer outside a pharmacy en route to the start line, it read 35C. In the shade. Oh dear.
Looking for some tips for the race, I had spoken to Robbie earlier and he had given me some good information about strategy and the race. The course was to begin with a 2.5km stretch through town that ends with the first climb. This leg would only gain about 100m and so Robbie had said he planned on starting the race at dickhead speed – he aimed to race as hard as he could while he had the advantage on the so called flat before hitting the hills. With a steep pair of climbs after that gaining 400m and 600m each over 7.5km, it would be 10km of pure downhill before ending back where we started. A fast start and a fast second half, Robbie had said.
Running the Cortina Skyrace
The atmosphere was simply electric as I approached the start line. The town of Cortina had been overrun with runners and their friends and family but the town locals were clearly just as enthusiastic about the event as we were.
The temperature continued to stay high and, as the 300 runners lined up at the start line, the announcer reminded everyone about the rules stating that everyone must carry at least 500ml of water though the mandatory light jacket was unnecessary.
Nervously, Graham, Hannah, Emily and myself squeezed our way into the starting pen and, as I glanced towards the front, I spotted both Robbie and Nat, both in full race mode and focussed on what was to come.
As I looked at Robbie’s face, I remembered some of the information he had shared with me earlier in the day and started to get a little nervous.. The look on his face seemed to confirm his strategy hadn’t changed, he was going to start fast.
The countdown began, the bell rang and the crowds cheered. Robbie kept his word and flew out the gate pulling everyone else with him. Not wanting to be left behind, everyone set out at a quick pace and we pounded the pavement through Cortina, leading to the mountain trails.
My aim was to try and run my race and not get too distracted by people overtaking or slowing down. I know roughly how fast I could run the first stage and tried hard to stick to that speed.
Climbing high above Cortina
The heat, however, made it incredibly tough. By the time I reached the first climb I felt absolutely wasted. Struggling to catch my breath and my hamstrings on fire, I was seriously worried for the rest of the race. Climbs in races such as this really change up what muscles you are using and so now we switched from our hamstrings pulling us forward to our quads driving us up.
One of the great things about living in Chamonix is having access to steep hills, such as the Vertical KM, to train on, and I really felt the benefit here. At 400m over 2km, the climb was steep but no steeper than the middle section of the VKM and so I found the climb quite enjoyable. A little down hill and exit from the forest lead us up to the foot of the second and final climb. 600m of zig-zagging mountain trails that disappeared from sight round a white limestone spire. I could see the leaders already nearing the top and so I just put my head down and started grinding away, one step at a time.
The town quickly started to get smaller and smaller behind me, and I kept looking at my watch, watching the altimeter read higher and higher. I knew the climb topped out at a little over 2,000m and just kept that number in my head.
Except I hadn’t calibrated my watch before starting.
As my watch clicked up to 1,800m, I started to look around as there didn’t seem much further we could climb; maybe the race continues out of sight up another hill? Maybe I’ve made a mistake?
At 1,850m the ground leveled out and a volunteer shouted we had made the top. I carried on confused, desperately trying to get my legs out of climb-mode and into run-mode, all while trying to workout what had happened to the last 200m.
Racing back down to town
Piecing two and two together, I checked the total ascent so far and my watch read 960m. The penny dropped and I realised that, though there were a few little climbs left, we had, in fact, made it to the top, and now it was all downhill.
My plan was to try and race the descent as quickly as possible, making up for any lost time on the climb, and so I started down, throwing my body into it. The length of the descent started to dawn on me and running down 1,000m over 10km meant we were going to have a moderate decline the whole way, something I am not used to at all – at home it is either steep and technical or flat.
The descent just kept on giving and town didn’t seem to get closer and, just as I was starting lose faith, I reached the one and only feed station on the route.
I refilled both my water bottles, ate some food and, as I set off, smiled when the marshal said ‘Just 5km to go!’. My watch read 500m of descent and I started to relax a little. I was well and truly through the worst of it, now just needing to get down this last section so I went for it.
As I pushed and pushed my body started to push back and was stopped in my tracks by crippling cramps in my lower thighs. Thankfully a lovely middle-aged Italian woman spotted me and rushed over shouting ‘crampi? crampi?’. I nodded and she quickly bent double and started rubbing life back into my thighs. A little embarrassed but with fully working legs, I then set off to finish the race.
The cramps didn’t return and, before I knew it, I was running through town, through crowds of cheering people, with the finish line in sight. As I crossed the finish line I could not wipe the smile off of my face. I had done it and I was incredibly proud of it.
Finishing the Cortina Skyrace
I managed to cross the finish line 2 hours, 47 minutes and 53 seconds after leaving it and I was very happy with that.
At only 20km, I had almost underestimated this race but it truly packed an awesome punch. The trail running community can make anything less than a marathon sound not worthwhile but this proved that, no matter what the distance, it’s all about how you treat the race and what you put into it.
It wasn’t long after sipping a cool beer before I saw both the girls and Graham cross the line and we were all then able to enjoy the buzz of running such a wonderful race together.
I can say that, without a doubt, I will be back. Maybe next year for one of the longer courses..
I want to say a huge thank you to The North Face for inviting me to the race and letting me try out their awesome new trail running range that more than did the job during the race and that I am incredibly grateful for this introduction to trail running in the Dolomites.