Running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail
To round off our 2017 mountain adventures we travelled across Italy from the Aosta valley to the beautiful mountain town of Cortina, in the heart of the Dolomites. We were in town for the weekend to experience the Lavaredo Ultra Trail weekend, a trail running festival which takes over the town from Friday to Sunday.
Lavaredo Ultra Trail races
The Lavaredo races that take place over the weekend are:
- The Cortina Skyrace: 20km and 1,000m of elevation gain and loss, taking place Friday with a 3.5 hour time limit (400 participants)
- The Cortina Trail: 48km and 2,600m of elevation gain and loss, starting on Saturday morning with a 12 hour time limit (1,500 participants)
- The Lavaredo Ultra Trail: the headline event, 120km and 5,800m of elevation gain and loss. The race starts at 11pm on the Saturday night, with a 30 hour time limit (1,500 participants)
There are so many reasons that we were drawn to visiting Cortina for Lavaredo Ultra Trail…
Firstly, the courses. All races follow their own, logical circuit around the area. No out-and-backs or repeated loops!
The climbs are steep, yet much of the terrain is (at least in theory) runnable. Although – see my race write-up below as I would beg to differ!
An excuse to visit a beautiful Italian mountain town and soak up race-day atmosphere? Even if you choose not to run, there’s plenty to do in the area, from hiking to chilling in one of the bars and restaurants lining the main street (while watching the runners leave and return from the comfort of a warm terrace with a beer in hand).
Scenery! The Dolomites remind me of Yosemite, California. Both feature dominant and distinctive mountains. They are undoubtedly one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world
How to get to Cortina
As we were already in Italy, having visited the Aosta Valley for some more trail running adventures, we collected our car from Milan Airport and drove to Cortina via a couple of nights in Lake Garda. Doing the drive all in one go would have been a bit much, and the lake was a perfect place to relax in before heading up to the mountains.
The roads in Northern Italy (once you leave the cities) are, in our experience, good quality and fairly quiet. So you have a few options, depending on where you are coming from. The easiest place to fly in to if you want the shortest drive, or a bus transfer option, is Venice. From there it’s only a few hours’ drive north to the Dolomites.
Where to stay
With Cortina being a mountain resort there are a variety of options, however note that Cortina is not as large as some of the other European mountain towns popular for trail running, such as Chamonix, so there is not quite as much choice.
We found hotel options to be reasonably priced if you book in advance. I would highly recommend the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Aquila, for its perfect location on the main street, and wonderful balcony views.
We stayed four nights, from Thursday to Monday, and paid less than EUR 500 in total, including breakfast, and our room was a top floor room with a corner balcony overlooking the corner where runners arrive back into the main street, and 180-degree mountain views. As it was a fair distance from the finish line, we weren’t disturbed by too much noise when resting.
Getting around Cortina
We didn’t need to drive once we arrived in the town. The bag drop and registration area was a few minutes walk from the hotel, as is the start line. We did, however, use our car to recce the route and explore after our race.
Race day experience
We were super-excited to have the opportunity to run the headline event, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. This was a longer adventure than I have done in the past, and I was particularly excited to experience running through the night around the Dolomites and seeing sunrise from those trails.
Starting at 11pm is fairly common with European mountain ultras, and I tend to enjoy running later in the day, so we prefer a late start vs. a super-early morning. The afternoon was spent eating and trying to sleep in a darkened room, before heading to the start line for 10pm, where we gathered with more than a thousand other nervous runners.
Being small, I felt a little vulnerable being crammed in surrounded by mostly male, larger runners, with big packs (what are they carrying in there?!) and poles everywhere (only 12%, or 188 of starters, were women, so this isn’t necessarily a surprise). I was fortunate to be running, at least for the first few minutes, with Alastair, so we stuck together as the countdown began, and his company helped calm my nerves.
It’s hard to find words to describe the atmosphere at the start of a big European mountain race. As with others, such as Matterhorn Ultraks and Transgrancanaria, there is a lot of noise, both music and cheering, and general fanfare as the crowd of spectators cheer you over the starting line. It can be stressful and tense, but I’ve taught myself to enjoy the experience and be grateful for the wonderful privilege it is to be able to not just run, but to run somewhere like this with this crowd of people.
Alastair and I separated early on as we made our way up the climb out of town. I knew I’d be near the back of the pack and didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself and tire in the first half-hour of a potentially 30-hour race! Headtorches came on, and soon I found myself on a narrow, steep muddy trail, in a queue of poles, bodies, and backpacks. I couldn’t see how far it went or how long I may be in there. I just did what I could to avoid poles, guard my space with my own, and put one foot in front of the other.
Life lessons: Ultrarunning has taught me more about patience and gratitude than anything else I have experienced
After around 40 minutes of slow movement, the crowd had thinned out and finally I had space to breathe. I won’t lie, that first 40 minutes was an experience I don’t want to repeat! (Note to self: train harder, get faster, and stay out ahead of the rump of the pack to avoid bottle necks). We were now navigating steady switchbacks up the first climb and there were 5-10 meters between me and the runners in front and behind me. I got into my uphill rhythm and kept climbing.
The next few hours or so were a blur of focus, poles, stepping and mindfulness. One foot in front of the other, sipping on Tailwind (complete running fuel mixed into my water bottles), watching my steps. The trails were not technical here, mostly mountain paths and portions on gravel skiing pistes. The night was cool, I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts and didn’t feel the need to layer up. I didn’t stop, not to put a jacket on, nor to relieve myself off the side of the trail, as I could tell many others were doing.
I reached Forc. Son Forca (around 25km and 2,200m high) at around 3am and inhaled the chilly mountain air. No point in wearing a jacket now, the next section was a steep downhill to the time checkpoint at c. 33km. I was all alone, at the top of this mountain, surrounded by moonlit rocks.
My Suunto watch was on a battery-saving setting, meaning it recorded my distance every 10 seconds. If I had kept my usual accurate method of recording, it would have died after around 12 hours. However, the inaccuracy of this setting meant that I had no real idea of what my average pace was… and I needed this to assess whether I was on-track for my target checkpoint times, and, importantly, whether I was in danger of missing a cut-off. Those slow, crowded first 40 minutes (and my habitually slow climbing pace) had meant that this was a concern.
Moon (and torch-) lit descents
I flew down the side of the mountain. Still on-trail, but with pitch-black drop-offs, which are always a real danger. The terrain was runnable, and wherever I could, I moved as fast as my nerves would allow. When I reached the next checkpoint at 28km in, I checked my phone. There was a small amount of signal, and I wondered how Alastair was getting on ahead of me. I looked at the time (around 4am) and remarked to myself how quickly time had passed.
I had run 5 hours through the night so far, and I felt good, with not an ounce of fatigue. Maybe it would come later?
Essential gear 101
It was this section that I truly appreciated my headtorch. Not just any old headtorch. The Petzl Reactik was, often, my only companion out there in the mountains. You need a torch you can rely on when running up and down mountains through the night – this torch stayed put and was comfortable for the whole 8 hours. For uphills, the lower-power setting was perfect. For this fast downhill, I needed a bright light that would help me spot hazards and not fly off the edge into darkness. The brightest setting lit far ahead of me and was so bright it felt at times as if I was running during the day.
Running out of time, and into daylight
I had 1h30 to get to the tightest time barrier checkpoint at Federavecchia. Fortunately it was mainly downhill and only 6km so perfectly doable. But I found it difficult knowing I was going to be so close to the limit. My lower back had started playing up already but I put it to the ‘back’ of my mind. My phone rang, and it was Alastair waiting at the checkpoint. He was struggling to eat, and was happy to wait for me to get there to meet him, but I had to get a move on. Another reason to hurry up…
The downhill to Federavecchia included slippery muddy forest trails. It took longer than hoped but I made it to my husband and the checkpoint with 20 minutes to spare. Dawn was breaking, it was a new day and I had made it! Alastair had saved me some bread and oil, and a couple of pieces of cake: just as well, as there was virtually nothing left when I arrived, and certainly no bananas that I had been dreaming about for the last couple of hours.
Sunrise with company
Straight up the next forest climb. I was excited to be with Alastair, but could tell his race was not going well, there is no way he would normally wait over an hour for me and then move at my slower pace thereafter, unless he was having a tough day out.
The climb was worth the increased back pain… We witnessed a stunning sunrise pink glow over the mountains, seen through gaps between the pine trees.
I can see it now if I close my eyes, a memory that will last.
We took a grainy iPhone selfie and kept climbing, meeting some cows along the way. We headed down towards Misurina Lake, and the terrain was gnarly, muddy, rooty forest trails. I found it hard to run in sections, moving at a snail’s pace at times.
Reaching physical limits
It soon became apparent that the back pain was not going to let up. Every step made it worse. If I had known whether it was serious or something I could put up with and not suffer long-term consequencies, I may have continued.
However, the next climb was a big one, a c. 700m climb over 7km to Forc. Lavaredo, and despite the prospect of seeing the three famous peaks (Tre Cimes), we called it a day at the beautiful Misurina lake, with only a few people around, and ended our long day out there.
The mountains will be there another time, and we would come back fitter and stronger, to tackle this epic challenge another day.
In 2017, 1514 people started this race, and 444 did not complete it – Our ‘drop out’ bus had five other people in it. We were in good company and this is a reminder of how difficult a challenge it is. I’d like to give a huge shout out to the 188 women who started this race (of which 127 finished). You’re all badasses!
We will be back another day – this experience has taught me many things, not least exactly how beautiful the Dolomites are, and what a fantastic race the Lavaredo Ultra Trail is. It has also taught me to look after my back. I’ve had physio and chiropractic treatment to help correct it, and we’ve vowed to return fitter, stronger and wiser another year!
What to wear and carry for the Lavaredo Ultra Trail
Unlike some other mountain races, the mandatory kit list is not particularly long. Also, as it was so warm that week, certain requirements were removed the day before the race (such as gloves and long trousers). I have no idea what some of those other runners carried in their huge backpacks. We were fortunate to have a mostly dry race, although it rained on Sunday for some of the later finishers and it was very hot during the day on Saturday, after we had stopped running. I hope those packs were filled with water, as many finishers I spoke with had to top up their bottles in mountain streams between checkpoints.
My recommended list of essentials:
- A good headtorch
- 2x 500ml soft-flask water bottles, one with Tailwind
- Lightweight poles, ideally collapsible/folding
- Comfortable race vest, 5 litre capacity should be fine – We use Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin
- Waterproof jacket
- Buff headband
- Suunto Ambit 3 Sport watch (although next time I’d like to take a watch that will last the full time without having such long recording intervals, such as the Ambit Peak or Garmin Fenix)
- Food – don’t rely on checkpoints, particularly if you reach them later than most
- Tailwind sachets
- Emergency kit, including plasters, tape, safety pin, antiseptic wipe, whistle, emergency blanket, EUR 20 and my phone
- A change of socks, just in case I had problems or needed to put on dry socks later in the race.
I didn’t wear much, see the pictures:
- Top: Lululemon Run Swiftly Tech Tee
- Shorts: The North Face ‘Better than Naked’ shorts
- Socks: Balega Enduro
- Shoes: Inov-8 Trailtalon 275s (awesome shoes)
MORE INOV-8 TRAIL SHOE REVIEWS:
- Inov-8 Trailroc 285 review
- Inov-8 Trailtalon 235 review
- Inov-8 Parkclaw 275 review
- Inov-8 Roclite 290 review
See this video and post on what to carry for some examples:
In love with Lavaredo
Thank you to the organisers of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, for having us and putting on such an awesome event. We’ll be back!