As Mike left the first aid station, to say I was worried, is an understatement. Here he was, 33km into the 119km of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and he was suffering from food poisoning – I was unable to even get off the sofa when I had something similar yet here he was, with 86km to go – more than two marathons to run.
This is the story of me supporting Mike Foote at the 2016 Lavaredo Ultra Trail. Part 1 of this awesome event can be read here.
They fight to carry on the Lavaredo Ultra Trail
Skipping to the next major aid station at checkpoint 5, we drove up the winding roads to the foot of Tre Cime, the aid station being the refuge I had enjoyed my post Comici-Dimai dinner at the summer before. The memories of that climb flooded back as we sat down waiting for the first runners to come in while the sun to rose through thick clouds and mist.
As runner after runner came through, Mike was nowhere to be seen. Jacques, Valerio and I all started to worry but so did Rory’s team. At the first aid station she had been in first place and looked strong but now she was AWOL too.
Finally, they both arrived and both looked like they should be anywhere else but taking part in an ultra race right now. Mike’s condition hadn’t change, it hadn’t worsened but he was still getting stomach cramps and still unable to breath properly. Running was impossible and he was having to walk/jog everything so far. Rory had also started to feel sick but for her it was presenting itself with vomiting and fatigue.
We were 48km into the race but still with a very long way still to go.
Both athletes took their time at the aid station, this was not one we were allowed to offer any physical help so we were just there as moral support and to plan for the next station where we could be more hands on. Eating, drinking, and trying to see some light at the end of the tunnel, Mike and Rory both took as much time as they needed to build up the mental strength to carry on.
Once again, following a smile and a joke, Mike showed his true colours by stepping out of the door into the cold and cloudy dawn, and showing me what ultra running was all about. The next stop would be at 66km and where we would be able to offer full support. As Mike disappeared into the mist, we headed to the car and down the mountain paths to the next stop.
The sun rises on a stunning day
Really worried now about their condition, both Rory’s team and mine joined forces as we made the drive to the next aid station. With 66km down, we arrived in time to see the leaders pass through but in full knowledge that our guys would not be here for a while. Fellow TNF athlete Jez Bragg was flying along and I also saw friend, and Chamonix local, Carlton Rowlands scream through.
Once again, athlete after athlete started to trickle in and we waited patiently, hoping beyond hope that everything was ok and that they were still moving ok. The sun had fully risen and the cold of night had started to give way to what was clearly going to be a stunning day out in the mountains.
The lack of sleep didn’t seem to show on anyone’s faces and, as I counted that I had been up for a little over 24 hours by this point, I was amazed at the strength and endurance all of these runners were demonstrating. Running this distance would be tough any time of day but with the race starting at 11pm, I can’t imagine any of them had much sleep in the afternoon before.
We had calculated how long we thought it would take Mike to make it here and, a little ahead of our schedule, we spotted two people jogging along together, stopping every so often to pick something up. As they got closer it was clearly Mike and Rory and, as they approached, I realised that Rory was picking up litter on the route.
If she wasn’t going to be racing, she might as well do something useful, she said.
Another checkpoint down
Mike forced a weak smile and, as he made it into the rest station, slumped down, doubling over onto a chair. He was clearly struggling but, what was interesting was he didn’t actually seem tired on his feet. It was his internal system that was suffering and not his legs that were shot.
As became a theme for the whole race, his initial apologies for suffering so much were quickly pushed aside and we sorted out his water bottles, food supplies, and a dry t-shirt. With a moment of doubt, he looked up and told us he wasn’t sure if he should carry on. We were all clearly there to help and support him no matter what his decision but it is difficult to encourage someone to push on when maybe they need to stop.
Rory was having the same conversation with her team but then, with a look between them, they both brightened up and declared that they were going to finish the race together, that if one of them was going to do it, then both would.
The teamwork, camaraderie, and friendship that was apparent between them was awesome and inspiring, giving all us a much needed burst of energy and enthusiasm.
Whooping and cheering, everyone at the aid station gave them a send off that we hoped would carry them the 7km to the next station – though short, a steep climb would not let this be an easy leg.
Packing up, what we were witnessing was starting to sink in. These guys had run through the night, covering over one and a half marathons and, with nearly the same again to go, these guys were simply not going to stop.
I have often thought of alpinism and mountaineering as being a competition for who is most stubborn, who is the most boneheaded to keep pushing on when every bit of sense in your mind is screaming Stop!
The same was becoming very apparent here. Yes, you need to be in peak physical fitness to complete these courses but, more importantly, you need a mental strength like no other.
Inch by inch, step by step they make their way around
As the came into the checkpoint at 75km, once again we were there to cheer and support. The sun was fully up and this location was in the middle of a beautiful alpine meadow. The dozens of volunteers at the station were wide awake after a good night’s sleep, and it was starting to feel like the end was in sight.
As Mike and Rory came in however, Rory just dropped the floor and buried her head in her arms. Retching from the illness coursing through her, none of us knew what to do. Is now actually the time to call it off, to stop and to cut our losses.
Live to fight another day, and all that? No, she wasn’t done yet.
Giving her a moment, we checked on Mike who was, though no better, at least not getting any worse. He seemed to have switched in his mind – the race was going to be done, he was going to finish, it was just a matter of when.
As he drank some water and ate some fruit, all of a sudden Rory bounces round the corner with a big smile on her face. A little taken aback, all of us couldn’t believe the transformation. Whatever moment needed to be had on the floor had been had, she had got it out of her system and was now ready to push on. Racing off, with Mike by her side, they were off again, almost as suddenly as they had come in.
The end is nigh
With 44km to go, they set off and we headed 20km along the route to the penultimate checkpoint. It was at this point that the Lavaredo Ultra Trail course joins up with the Cortina Trail, the 47km middle distance event for the weekend and, wow, you could tell.
A stunning race, and one that I really hope to enter next year, the atmosphere completely changed. Gone were the tired yet enthusiastic zombies from pulling an all-nighter and here were hundreds of runners with thousands of supporters, all fresh from a good night’s sleep. This created a much brighter energy that, admittedly, was much needed. However, it did feel like we were being cheated – our guys had already clocked up 95km by here but were being overtaken and pushed by those who started just 23km earlier.
The sun was out, blazing away and after a little bit of a wait, we heard cheers as Mike and Rory were spotted coming into the aid station. It was at this point the ultra running legend Lizzy Hawker came in too, providing an awesome The North Face team water stop and catch up.
The end really did feel very much in sight and, after a short stop, we said farewell know that the next point we would see them would be at 103km, and 15km from the finish line.
The next section flew by – though that might have been the power nap I had in the car.. – and the last checkpoint came and went. Mike and Rory both almost seemed to be looking better by this point. Maybe the bug had cleared their systems, maybe they just knew the end was in really so close. Whatever it was, the last 16 hours of the race was sinking in with me and the strength these guys were demonstrating was showing me something I had never seen before.
Witnessing something incredible
As I stood at the finish line, waiting for the Mike to come in, we all started to take stock. I had been awake now for 36 hours, we had been supporting the race for 18 hours, and I had just seen someone with food poisoning drag their body around nearly 3 marathons of steep and technical trail running.
The crowds started to roar with excitement and we knew they must be close and, as they turned the corner and came into sight, every single one of us had a tear in their eyes. Here they were, they had made it. Against all rational or logical sense, both Mike and Rory and completed one of the toughest ultra races in the world while battling crippling food poisoning.
As they broke away from the interviews and finish line crowds, we were finally able to celebrate as a team ourselves. I might not have been the one running the race but I know all of us in support felt the same sense of achievement, pride, and glory that was evident on Mike’s face. We had done it!
Competing or completing
In the words of Robbie Britton, there are two ways to approach an ultra – competing or completing. Neither is better or more valuable than the other but they are very different. Once Mike realised that competing was not an option, his whole focus switched to completing the race, probably the biggest battle of his running career to date.
The support that Mike showed to Rory and the same she provided for him coupled with the incredible effort and generosity of all The North Face crew who gave up their weekend – and beds – to help was magical. The front row seat to this show is an event that will stick with me forever. It has fundamentally changed how I see commitment, strength, and the grit required for to be a true mountain athlete.
Over a week has passed and I am still buzzing from the event. I want to race again this year, something short then next year step it up with the Cortina Trail. All of this, I dearly hope, with the opportunity to race the full 119km Lavaredo Ultra Trail for myself, in 2018.
It is a long road but this experience has most certainly provided me with the focus, commitment, and desire to make it a reality.
Thank you so much to The North Face for inviting me along and thank you, most sincerely, Mike for taking the risk with having me on your support crew. If you ever need a waterboy again, just give me a shout!