Hell in Paradise: The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail
Every winter, the cobbled streets of this little town are overrun with Europe’s most discerning ski set, because while headline destinations in the French and Swiss Alps grab all the attention, Cortina remains somewhere for those in the know only. Come summer time, this same town is also host to one of the greatest ultras in the world, The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail, and just as it is with the skiing, so this race too is only for those in the know.
Because the world of European ultrarunning is dominated by that ultimate of annual heavyweights, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the Lavaredo is able to exist peacefully in its long shadow. This means entries are easier to come by, on-trail traffic is lighter (the Lavaredo typically attracts around 600 starters while the UTMB runs to over 2,000), and the atmosphere is blissfully easygoing.
Which isn’t to say the Lavaredo’s challenge isn’t tough. In fact, it’s little short of brutal as this years 61% finish rate shows. Seventy-five miles long, the race sends competitors up and down seven summits en route to the finish which means 6,000 metres of vertical ascent (and the same again to descend), almost all of it on rough and ragged trail. The race starts at 10 pm Friday, which guarantees all competitors at least one full night on their feet, while a 32-hour maximum means some finishers will push through two. Throw in unpredictable mountain weather, cold nights and roasting days and the Lavaredo is a serious test for anyone.
It’s also a bucket list race and a half. Because not only is it the perfect excuse to rock out in Italy and gorge yourself on spectacular food and wine for a few days (a post-race blowout in Venice doesn’t come cheap but is highly-recommended), it’s also perhaps the most beautiful ultra there is. A UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, the Dolomites are an endlessly changing kaleidoscope of mountain marvels and along the route you’ll run through everything from Avatar-esque lush forest to ice-blue river rapids and waterfalls that look like they’ve been stolen from Canada’s backcountry via Alpine glacial valleys and mountain ranges to rival Colorado’s finest.
Frankly, it’s a knockout. For the pros beating seven shades out of each other up front for the glory it would all be over in around 13 hours. Enviable when you consider some folks would be out there twice as long and then some, but less enviable when you realize most of the pros’ running would be done under cover of darkness. In a cruel blow, they’d be flogging their guts out in one of the world’s most jaw-dropping locales, and they’d hardly see an ounce of it.
Me, on the other hand, I’d be seeing plenty. Living in London and with a start at the UTMB looming, the Lavaredo was the biggest of my training races. 17 miles longer than anything I’d run before and with 2,000 metres more climbing, I hoped I was ready as I made my way to the startline beside the ancient church tower in Cortina as 10 pm ran nearer and the butterflies ramped up.
Keeping it Italian, we were serenaded with Ennio Morricone’s ‘L’Estasi dell Oro’ (check it out if you hadn’t heard it – it’s such a barnstormer Metallica regularly play their own powerhouse version as a show opener) as the countdown began, and moments later we were off into the night and the wilderness beyond as an exuberant crowd cheered us all the way out of town. Plenty went for the traditional Italian good luck cheer of, ‘in bocca al lupo’ (which literally translates as ‘into the mouth of the wolf’) while some of the ones who’d been enjoying Cortina’s bars a little more enthusiastically went with, ‘in culo alla balena!’ Best not used at the dinner table, this literally means ‘into the ass of the whale’…
Keen not to either end up in a whale’s backside, or to leap into a wolf’s mouth, I reigned myself right back in the early stages – I know my limits and have paid the price painfully for confusing my intentions and abilities before in similar situations
I was so far back, in fact, that as the road out of Cortina gave way to a narrow, winding wooded path up into the cooler air of the mountains I was all but last. Yet even in the dark, it was still magical. The pine-fresh air, thick with heavy humidity was a delight and as I plodded my way onwards and upwards, I couldn’t help smiling.
The first checkpoint, Rifuge Ospitale, loomed out of the forest blackness a couple of hours later looking like the house out of the Blair Witch Project and I arrived there in the company of several chattering Italian runners – Italians make up the vast majority of entrants here, and being up in the mountains don’t expect everyone to speak English. Smiling, gesticulating and a liberal sprinkling of ‘ciaos’ and ‘grazies,’ however, will get you through most situations easily enough.
While British aid stations tend to be meager affairs compared to what I hear of US ones (water, biscuits and a cheery smile is normally about as far as it goes), I was expecting big things at the Lavaredo, especially knowing how passionate the Italians are about their food, so it was a bit of a letdown to find little more than a bit of cheese and bread with some dark chocolate being about it.
Rolling on into the night and glad I had plenty of food stashed in my pack this was hardly a drama though, and soon the dark times (mentally and literally) of the night were being washed away as dawn began creeping in.
For me, this coincided with the most incredible piece of singletrack trail I’ve ever run. A winding ribbon of soft, black earth, this hour-long section wound its way through a forest so lush and full of life it was like gulping in nature itself with every breath, especially as the night’s heavy dew had left every exposed inch of greenery dripping in freshwater. Better still, the trail fell and rose gently, meaning you could relax a lot of the time and let gravity do the work on the downhills before the uphill braked you naturally over the next rise.
It felt more like flying than running and I was sorry when it was over, although not for long, because I had now been deposited alongside some beautiful lakes, each one as still as a millpond in the early morning silence and hazed in drifting mist. Cruising alongside them was like being a running movie of my own making.
Well worth running all night for, which is how things carried on because a heavy stretch of climbing followed up to a main checkpoint just shy of the halfway marker. Here drop bags were stashed and I grabbed mine for a quick change out of my nighttime gear and into something lighter for what was supposed to be a seriously hot day ahead.
Now with daylight fully up, I was winding up towards the Tre Cimes di Lavaredo, the three jagged peaks that are the icon of this vast and vertiginous playground. Passing these made for an unbelievable morning run before the trail headed down, down and down on the longest continuous downhill stretch I’ve ever run. I wasn’t timing it – I was too busy enjoying the ride – but it was at least an hour.
But in a race like this, what goes down must also go up and the simple rule for this course is to always expect that whenever the trail goes up, you’ll be doing the same, and that whenever you think you are at the top of a climb you won’t be. Some monstrous climbing ensued but at least beyond lay some more awesome downhill trail with an aid station at the end.
An aid station with cold beer as it turned out.
I thought it was a joke at first, but the Italians – who as a rule drink very little, unlike Brits who tend to drink a lot – were all tucking in. With some fearsome heat on the way and over 35 miles still to go, I couldn’t think of anything worse. Intrigued, I asked an Italian runner what the deal was. “It’s good for salt and minerals,” he told me, explaining it was pretty normal to see beer on the trail in Italy. Still convinced a beer would end my race right there, and avoiding the offer of an even worse-looking beer/Fanta cocktail from a German runner, I headed back out for the hills with nothing but good old-fashioned water in my Camelbak.
Later, I’d learn from a Dutch runner who’d succumbed and tried the beer mid-race for the first time that it had indeed been disastrous. “I just lost all power in my legs,” he said ruefully.
Now the trail got tasty because there was a monster climb ahead that wound its way up through a huge canyon base. There was no shelter from the unrelenting sun beating down on full power as we crawled through here like ants under a microscope. It was fierce in the extreme, and this section took around three hours to clear for me despite now being about mid-pack. There were no aid stations here and the lack of water was really kicking in for me and plenty of runners around me as, increasingly dazed and meandering, we staggered to the canyon summit that never seemed to get any nearer, and the aid station salvation we knew lay beyond it.
Having pulled through that stage though, there was no doubt in my mind a finish was within reach. Two chunky climbs lay ahead before the monster descent back into Cortina and many of these miles would be on rough and ragged trail that twisted feet and ankles with every step, but with the ‘roasting canyon of doom’ now behind me, anything seemed possible.
Even the Prosecco (Italy’s own version of Champagne) that was proffered at the final aid station seemed like a good idea, and it certainly helped take the edge off the final descent. Here, mentally, you’ve finished the race and are on the home stretch, although in reality what’s coming up is the toughest section of trail yet.
Gnarled, rutted, rocky, muddy and steep beyond belief this is a leg-breaker of a section and needs some serious digging in when your legs are 70-miles tired already. I’ve blacked as much of it out as I can since, but my key memories here are of swearing. Repeatedly, and at everything. Somehow though it all came to an end and there was tarmac under my feet again.
The lights of Cortina twinkled through the trees down below, so tantalizingly close, but unsurprisingly the trail wound the longest route possible to reach them, while cruelly minimal route markers (hidden by a tree as I later discovered) sent me into the wrong village where I was lucky enough to be directed the right way by a passing local.
Even so, a shade over 24 hours since starting, I found myself back in Cortina’s square beneath the church tower, older, wiser and infinitely more knackered than I had been the day before. It had been an epic race, and if you ever want an excuse to hit Europe and race somewhere truly magical, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail is a must.
A Great Video About The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail
At the sharp end of the field it was a two-man race between Iker Karrera and Sebastien Chaigneau, two men who will both be fighting over the top places at the UTMB this year. After spending much of the night together (no, not like that) Karrera sensed his advantage and slowly pulled ahead as Frenchman Chaigneau succumbed to stomach trouble. After throwing up and clearing his stomach just before halfway, Chaigneau was able to push on but couldn’t close the gap Karrera had pulled, coming home 16 minutes behind the Spaniard. Nemeth Csaba of Hungary pulled in a strong third an hour behind Chaigneau, while in the women’s race the hard-charging Italian Francesca Canepa took the honors from technical trail specialist Fernanda Maciel and Katia Fori.
- Iker Karrera (Team Salomon Santiveri) – 12:26:29
- Sebastien Chaigneau (The North Face) – 12:42:30
- Csaba Nemeth – 13:42:03
- Zigor Itturieta (The North Face) – 14:00:41
- Christian Insam (Gherdeina Runners) – 14:29:05
- Francesca Canepa (Courmayeur Trailers) – 15:58:02
- Fernanda Maciel (The North Face) – 16:29:02
- Katia Fori (Technica) – 17:28:39
- Margaretha Fortmann (Salomon) – 19:18:19,
- Marta Poretti (Friesan Team) – 19:19:58
For more details on the race go to www.ultratrail.it.
Thanks to: The North Face.