“You’ve just got to run for the enjoyment of it all; the views, the trails, the people..”, Seb Chaigneau’s words were rolling through my mind as I carried on pushing myself up the last major climb of the Cortina Trail, the middle distance course at The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail.
I felt good – sure, I was tired, but my legs felt ok, my breathing was heavy but maintainable and, most importantly, I felt really happy being there, in the moment. My mind was fully present for the entirety of the the 6 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds it took for me to cover 48km of wild mountain trails with over 2,600m of climbing and descent, and it was a whole new experience for me..
An accidental runner
I am not a runner. Well, certainly not a natural one. I don’t think I’m particularly well built for it but neither, in the past at least, have I had the presence nor motivation to really see what I can do running on the trails.
For me, running has often been a means to an end; training for alpinism or the occasional fun run. That is not to say I’ve not experienced the beauty of the sport, however. Last year at the same event I had an incredible experience running the shorter Cortina Skyrace before having an inspirational and moving experience supporting Mike Foote through his epic battle around the 120km main event.
Even so, I find myself a little ADHD with what sports I commit to – I truly love being in the mountains in any form but I struggle to force any one sport. This winter I had been planning on ice climbing as much as possible but conditions never really inspired me and skiing took over, as spring arrived and I wanted to run more, climbing captured my imagination. Each time, it seems, that I plan on working on one sport, life leads me in another direction and I’ve just been going with it.
Not ideal when you have a long race coming up!
Running for the joy of running
With no idea what running form I was in, nor how the run would actually go, my only plan was to go out onto the race and enjoy it. I am incredibly fortunate to live the life I do and to spend so much time in the mountains and I wanted this race to be no different. I was embarking on an epic journey in a stunning environment surrounded by wonderful people. Make the most of it!
I had been speaking to Sebastién Chaigneau – a professional trail runner for The North Face – the night before and his advice really stuck with me – he talked about the fact that the races he did best in were the ones where he removed expectation and just ran for the simple pleasure of running. Well, I thought, I could try that.
And that was my plan. The whole strategy before I started was going to be; run when I want to run, walk when I need to walk, keep moving, and enjoy the journey. I was acclimatised and had put in some long days in the mountains, this would be no different.
Feeling that I belong
As I came to the first feed station, rather a long way into the race at 24km and after 1,600m of climbing, I felt great; the trails had been steep but not too bad, the views second to none, but most importantly I had moved how I wanted to move. I resisted being pulled along or caught up in other runner’s strategy and I let myself move at the pace I wanted.
Though I might not have put enough running training in, the fact I had spent most of the week before up about 3,000m was paying dividends. A lot of the race is above 2,000m with climbs up to 2,500m but the altitude just didn’t affect me. This allowed me to move a lot faster than I planned and arriving at the halfway mark I as gobsmacked to see that only 3 hours and 23 minutes had elapsed – this put me a full hour ahead of when I thought I would arrive at this stage!
Not letting it shock me too much, I set myself to continue with a strategy that was clearly working – just enjoy the trails and move how you want to move. This is an environment that more and more I realise I am comfortable in, a place where I belong.
Being in the moment
The race was by no means plain sailing the whole way. The final 10km was all downhill, dropping over 1,000m and it was the hardest part for me – the final 5km the worst – but what I realised as I was coming through the final few kilometres, I had been present in the race the whole way. Time flew and, with a vague idea that I could get round in 8 or 9 hours, crossing the finish line in a cat’s whisker under 7 hours caught me completely by surprise.
With so much going on in my life recently, a part of me was looking for time on the trail to think, to process, and to reconcile things in my life but I never got a chance. I often let myself daydream while running but, for whatever reason, it simply didn’t happen during this race.
From start to finish I was there and only there – in the moment – something I have never experienced while running before.
Looking back on it now, I can remember every step vividly, every climb, every view, and every kilometre. For 30 seconds shy of 7 hours I was truly in the moment with no history and no future, no worries and no outside influences, and, most importantly, with responsibility to me and myself alone.
What is next
I truly enjoyed nearly every minute of the race, I never hit the wall nor had the massive low I have heard people talk about in ultras. The great thing about trail running is it is pretty safe – the objective dangers of alpinism or glacial skiing are not there but you still can find that limit to what you thought was possible and now I want to get closer to that line.
What am I capable of? How far can I go? When will I break?
These are the questions I want to explore and know the answers to. So next? Well, I guess I need to go longer, harder, and further..
Thank you, as ever, to the kind support of The North Face for inviting me along and everyone who made the weekend simply unforgettable!