Distance : 119km
Start/Finish: Cortina D’Ampezzo, Dolomites, Italy
Date: June 24, 2016
When I first heard about this race a few years ago, the distinct beauty of the Dolomites and just the alpine nature of the event fascinated me. It captured my imagination and I was instantly sold on doing this race but that year the lottery for the race had already closed so I had to wait until the next year to apply as I know lots of Italians told me just how beautiful the Dolomites are and the jagged peaks are a visual treat to compensate for the brutal nature of the climbs!
I just felt I had to return this year after dropping from the race last year as my stomach stopped working and I couldn’t drink or eat anything. I decided to spend a couple of days in Venice this time to do some sightseeing before heading to Cortina. Staying in a cool hostel and hanging out with a couple of Aussie girls were the highlights apart from the scorching hot weather in Venice which offered no respite as it was quite warm and humid even during the night.
The weather looked likely to be a hot one with thunderstorms in the second night so I was prepared gear wise to tackle the worst conditions but I tend to overheat even in the coldest of conditions but from past experience I thought it’d be wise to be prepared for the worst!
Got my kit checked and met up with Mike and Louna at their apartment before chatting about all their adventures this year as they were just back from an epic stage race in Peru. Also got to meet Seb Cote who’s the RD of Ultra-trail Harricana, which was the second biggest ultra in Canada, we’ve been tracking each other in Strava for a few years now and it was cool to meet him finally! We headed out to the start of the skyrace in the town center and it was great to see familiar faces like Robbie Britton charging out, we relaxed under the hot sun with Mike’s friends. Caught up with Stephanie and then later with Kirsten before heading out for an early night.
Had a good night’s rest, packed all my kit before heading out to meet Ian Campbell who was doing the iRunfar coverage of the race again this year. The best thing about racing in Europe is the chance to meet all my friends from near and far.
Race Start from Cortina to Ospitale (17 km):
Had a quick nap and woke up to a thunderstorm, it was coming down heavy before the start of the race but it helped as it cooled things down after a hot day! The race starts quite late in the evening at 11 pm so there was a sense of nervous excitement waiting all day long for the start which meant getting any sleep was neigh on impossible. They played an epic song called “Ecstasy of Gold” which set the mood. I intended to take it easy to practice my UTMB strategy of being steady and not accelerate until the end. After getting a huge cheer out of town from all the supporters, we had a few kilometres of tarmac before hitting the trail. The first climb came and all of us got our poles out to start “click-clacking!”, just the steepness of the climb reminded me I was back racing in Europe haha! The first climb was uneventful as I steadily passed people without exerting too much, I was feeling the altitude though as I didn’t have enough time in Cortina to acclimatize. This year they had cameramen all over the course, it was so cool to be clicked in the middle of the night in an enchanted forest. We quickly started passing streams and I was reminded just how beautiful this course really is! Ticked off the first climb and was tip-toeing my way through the descent so as to not trash my quads as it was VERY easy to do so while racing in Europe with everyone starting at an unsustainable pace. I decided to empty out the rocks in my shoes and ate quite well from the beginning. I had a checklist of things I’d do when I come into every CP and followed it to the tee.
Ospitale (17 km) to Refugio Auronzo (48 km):
The next section also had another climb up to Forc. Son Forca and a long-ish descent which went smoothly, I was mostly tagging behind runners and running at a very conservative pace to keep myself fresh. The climb was gradual at the start with lots of long switchbacks along fire roads before we went through a small section of snow as we climbed higher. We eventually hit alpine single track and it got steeper and steeper, I could hear the sound of the glacial stream in the distance as we crisscrossed across the mountain before hitting a steep grassy hill and we hit the summit where a mountain rescue personnel pointed us towards the descent. The descent started with being rocky and with lots of steps, it eventually ended in a long steep trail which mostly went downhill and I was running with two Spanish ladies who were running at a more reasonable pace compared to the others who were flying down like a bat out of hell! The descent was quite slippery in parts and we eventually came into a meadow as the day was breaking. Just in time for a checkpoint to pop up and I remember throwing up at this checkpoint last year and one of the highlights was I asked the aid station captain where the toilet was and he pointed out onto the horizon and said “everywhere is toilet, you can go anywhere you like” I was like “do you happen to have toilet paper?” and he said “we are eco-friendly so we don’t provide paper!” after a heavy sigh I chugged on last year but this year felt great here with zero stomach issues. I was chomping down on fruits, biscuits and my favorite nutella spread on rusk! The volunteers were lovely and I didn’t forget to thank all of them for giving up their weekends for watching us run across their stunning mountain range. I fuelled up quite well knowing that it was all uphill until the next checkpoint at Refugio Auronzo which was close to the summit near Tre Cime and also because checkpoints in this race are few and far between at every 10 miles and probably after a summit or two. I broke down the climb into two parts as it climbs up to lake misurina and then the big climb to tre cime, due to the incessant rain that section was super muddy and became very difficult to traverse as it was basically just a mud fest. I was chuckling inside, as it felt more like a tough mudder than an ultra-trail after several slips and getting myself muddy. Once we hit lake misurina, I got myself cleaned up by the medic team who were super nice and I washed out my poles in the pristine lake, which was stunning to look at. It was literally all-uphill from here as we started weaving through road and trail until we hit a proper trail which went all the way to Refugio Auronzo. It got more technical and alpine as we got higher but the views were spectacular as the sun was shimmering on the surrounding peaks. This place was like paradise as it was so beautiful with a pink hue over the mountains just before sunrise. People were starting to tire as they took breaks during the climb, which at this stage is a wise thing to do, as it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and power up the climbs only to bonk towards the end. It got steeper towards the end as we were inching our way to the refugio, after finally making it here we had to que up at the entrance as the refugio can only accommodate so many people which was super annoying while racing as we waited for around 20+ minutes but c’est la vie we were in Italy after all😉 , it was a stunning place to hang out as the views were spectacular but it was very windy as it was one of the highest points in the course and the giro d’italia has passed through here during one of the mountain stages. I remember sitting down next to a bunch of German’s who ordered bier (As you can still buy stuff from the café apart from aid station food and all the Brits got their cameras out to take pictures, I really like how chilled out they were in the middle of this savage race. I laughed and uttered a few German phrases before heading out to fill my bottles and start the small climb to the mountain pass.
Refugio Auronzo (48km) to Cimabanche (66 km)
I know a lot has been said about the Tre Cime but as we came around the bend before hitting the pass which gave us a proper view of the north face of the mythical tre cime which translates to three peaks, the jewel of the Dolomites and the most striking mountain in the entire course. I’ve raced across the globe and I’ve never seen anything as beautiful or as imposing, after some gazing around and picking my jaw off the floor I started the long and brutal descent into the next valley. Met up with another Italian who was around my age and we shared the same passion for these mountains as we chatted a lot about the Vallé d’Aosta talking about the TDG as it was the dream race for both us. As we descended we caught a glimpse of this massive waterfall, it was quite spectacular and it was so high that I couldn’t see where it ended. The descent was technical so it demanded focus but it was good to look around now and again.
The descent seemed to be go on forever so I was pacing myself by taking breaks and the sun was out in full force in the valley so the temperature kept rising as we descended. There were however a few stream crossings to wet our caps and buffs to keep us cool. I bumped into two Irish guys Paul Daley and Stephen Brennan, one of them had finished it last year and it was good to chat to them. We kept passing each other as we had a similar pace. Once we hit the valley it kept undulating and even the somewhat “flat” sections on the course profile were definitely hilly! After some running/power hiking, the trail kept going on forever, we were meeting lots of tourists in this section as it was in the valley and we were passed by cyclists too who were making the most of the great weather. It would have been around 35 degrees here so the heat was getting to me. I tried to take it easy here so as to not push myself too much as I wanted to save something for the big climbs towards the end of the race. We eventually hit the half way checkpoint called Cimabanche at around 67km and we had access to the only drop bag in the race. It was a big checkpoint where crew’s were allowed so it had a great atmosphere. I was chatting away with the volunteers at the checkpoint who were fascinated by my nationality as I was the first Indian to run Lavaredo last year and I would eventually finish it this year to become the first finisher and they mistook it for Indonesia which was rather funny😀 After some faffing around, I changed my tee and socks as they got wet to avoid blisters. They also had a toilet here so took a loo break and got some food down afterwards. It was good to pick up my sunglasses here to avoid the glare of the hot sun!
Cimabanche (67 km) to Refugio Col. Gallina (94 km)
After refreshing myself, I got out of there and started the ascent up the next climb, Forc Lerosa which was a relatively smaller mountain compared to where we just descended from. Met a few people who I was running with earlier and we were all suffering in the stifling heat and humidity so I couldn’t wait to start the descent. My legs felt a little dead on this climb so it was rather slow and painful but I kept persevering,I knew this was an easier ascent than the next one, which happens to be the biggest climb in the race. I was taking breaks on the ascent to cool my core temperature before marching along; the mountains we were surrounded by were spectacular so it was good to take my mind off things. After awhile we got nearer the summit as we passed the tree line into the alpine to be fully exposed to the sun. I couldn’t wait to start descending after all that power hiking, as the descent was very long but the trail was quite nice to run on but a little too steep. We kept going through switchbacks to eventually hit the valley and could see crowds near the checkpoint at Malga Ra Stua and also the big inflated chute they had at the entrance to welcome us. The checkpoint was brimming with people and most of them were sitting in the shade to cool off. I met Paul and Steve here again, Steve was talking about dropping but I told him to get through this phase, as the night will be cooler. He’s from Ireland and the heat was getting to him, I sat with them and ate a bunch of nutella rusks and some other fruits. I knew I had to get more calories in so as to last the big climb, as we would enter a very remote valley after this checkpoint.
After passing Malga ra stua CP (76km), we started descending in the heat and lots people joined me as we all headed off together. The descent was mostly runnable and there were lots of streams so I cooled off at every opportunity but this meant my sunscreen washed off and I was getting proper burnt! (The worst sunburn I’ve ever gotten was at Transvulcania but this was a close second but there was no skin peeling here). I was feeling a little tired here as running around in the heat all day at altitude was getting to me, felt like crawling up on the side of the trail and taking a nap but resisted temptation and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I just had to look up and take in this breathtaking view to remind myself why I do this to myself on a regular basis, running in the mountains is definitely a humbling experience. Sometimes you might feel weak, sometimes you might feel it’s not possible to make forward progress but the mountains always give you good energy.
After hitting the valley floor we started the ascent up to Forc. Col des bois, initially up a steep forest with lots of tree cover as we slowly made our way up. After some steep climbing to hit the top of the forest with lots of tall trees we had to cross a bridge and there were lots of runners standing there. I thought it must be an impromptu aid station but I can see why they all stopped as we could see a massive canyon below with water streams moving like jet streams to join the river. It was spectacular to watch and one of many moments that took my breath away in this race. Later while climbing through the single track we hit a glacial stream crossing and we had to walk through two ropes to cross the river just like Hardrock! I wondering how cold it would be and I would live to regret that question later on!
The dark clouds were starting to roll in and it appeared that there was a storm brewing, we were in for an interesting night in the mountains! I put my jacket on as it started to drizzle. We entered a remote valley, which was breathtaking. Passed a couple of waterfalls and there was a waterfall about 500m above us and the water just vaporized which was spectacular. This section reminded me of Patagonia as it felt so pristine and beautiful. We kept climbing on eroded trails which were a little slippery and some technical sections before descending down. We had to pass through several glacial river crossings here and they were as expected ice cold! At one of the major crossings which got us hip deep I saw several people removing their socks and shoes but I didn’t bother as I knew my socks and shoes would dry very quickly as I was wearing soft ground shoes which drains very quickly. It was good for my feet which had taken a lot rock bashing so it was comfortably numb after each crossing😀 We eventually started the climb up on alpine single track, I was with a couple of Italian runners and we chatted away while climbing up this breathtaking valley. This was hands down the most beautiful section I’ve run in any race till date and I’ve run in some pretty amazing places😉 The course profile warned us to take caution in this section due to the trail being slippery from the rain, we hit Malga Travananzes (with a board saying WATER POINT! Yea, no shit Sherlock!) Which was a stream crossing slightly higher up where we could fill our bottles before hitting the alpine section.
The trail slowly snaked up to the alpine section, as the weather got worse, it was also quite steep as my tired legs were feeling the effort. I kept it simple and kept plugging along as I met Fabio Giorgini, an Italian runner based slightly north of this region. We kept passing each other earlier and I ran this section mostly with him and his French friend. We were chatting away about gear & trail running legends like Antoine Guillon and Christophe Le Saux while traversing this rocky section. This section was quite technical through rocks before we hit the summit and then started the long winding descent. Lots of people were hammering this descent but I thought it was way too early so just kept a good rhythm, the views from here were amazing as we could see the valley floor below with the brooding clouds in the background.
I felt good and was chatting away with a couple of other runners as we hit another climb, this time we climbed through an abandoned fort. The thing about these trails is that they were never meant for hiking but were designed during the world war as outposts and it carried a dark history, we could still see that in the modern day with a few sighting of bullet shells strewn on the side of the trail. I did spot some in this section before we started a single-track traverse with a steep cliff face. After crossing that short section we started the steep switchbacks, which leads us down to Refugio Col. Gallina. There were a few supporters here cheering us on as we made our way into the checkpoint, the weather got worse as it was bucketing down. Lot’s of runners decided to wait until the weather cleared a little as we had plenty of time before the cut-off and we were also advised by the mountain rescue to wait it out. It was particularly alarming to see lightning hit the summit we were supposed to go up! I met Fabio again and since it was a Refugio he invited me inside for a cup of Italian espresso. It was a warm and cozy inside, I decided to wear all my layers as we were going to do an high alpine traverse before the final descent and it would be too cold to stop and faff around on top of a mountain in bad weather.
Refugio Col Gallina (94 km) to Cortina – Finish (119km)
We had two cup’s of the best espresso I’ve ever had and it really woke me up before nightfall. Fabio gathered a few other runners before we got moving; they both were super fast up the climb. I was getting too warm with all those layers so I decided to stop and remove my rain pants, as I prefer running in short shorts even in biblical weather conditions😀 I met up with a few runners and we started the steep and narrow climb up Refugio Averau together. We could see the lights snaking up the trail and also some lights in the distance, which I think was the next checkpoint Passo Giau. As we got higher we hit a few treacherous snowfields, it was quite scary to traverse in high winds and bad weather! I took a few rest breaks as the wind made life difficult but I knew the summit was close so kept pushing, we could eventually see the light near the summit. It was a small Refugio called Averau at the summit with just a couple of volunteers giving us water outside, I stopped here to remove a few more layers as I quickly warmed up again (My body is like a little furnace even in the coldest weather, this explains why I hate the heat so much!). I had a little chat with them and joked about getting struck by lightning, which seemed like a very real possibility!
The short descent was on a wide fire road, which was still rocky at this altitude; it was quite steep so I was happy to shuffle along without trashing the quads. I started to push on the previous climb as I wanted to finish early and I still felt fresh, I would start passing people in this section as I got a move on and I didn’t want to hang about in this weather! At the end of the short descent there were a couple of mountain rescue guys camping with a bon fire and pointed us to start the traverse. This was another winding and technical section amidst boulder fields with some sleet/melted snow on the trail, I was careful not to slip off the single track. I was quite frustrated as it was slow going no matter how hard I tried to run the terrain slows you down. What seemed like a few kilometers on the route profile took ages to traverse as we rock hopped and jumped across before the short descent into Passo Giau. This was a bigger checkpoint, I quickly picked the essentials like fruits and nutella biscuits before heading down the trail, there were lots of people here who stopped or dropped and were wrapped in foil blankets to keep them warm. I met a bunch of friends from London who were running together here, I ran this technical section with them as they were chatting away. I remember chuckling at Rebecca’s comment about “I think we are decent runners and how are we moving so slowly in this terrain??”, the mountains always dictate our pace and we can’t force it. There were several technical bits where mountain rescue were stationed to help the runners, they told us to put our poles away in these sections, as we had to use our hands to cross the narrow paths. The path kept undulating; the climbing bits were short but super steep. It was mentally draining as it was up, down, up, down and never downtown anytime soon! The climb up to Forc. Giau was probably one of the steepest pieces in the entire race but mentally I knew we broke the back of the race with the climb up to Col dei bois, now it was just a matter of getting around safely on slippery terrain. We had one small climb left before the long and nasty descent into Cortina. I felt with the time barriers I had plenty of time to descend, the last climb was crazy steep but I slowly made it up to the summit and cleaned out my shoes before starting the long descent.
I passed lots of people on the descent as I was accelerating at will and I knew the last section would slow me down so it was best to make time in any of the runnable sections. I tried to share my light with another runner whose headlamp had gone off and he was waiting until the checkpoint before he could swap the batteries out. The descent was long and very rocky, I could feel the rocks as my feet were tender by this point with all the rock bashing, the whole course was very rocky underfoot and it eventually catches up if you wear a minimalist shoe!
After a long and steep descent we eventually hit the final checkpoint refugio Croda la lago. I quickly sat down and got eating, they had some nice food here like soup with bread among other things. I wanted to leave early but Giorgio was hot on my heels so decided to leave with them instead, it was nice to know we only had a 7 km descent left but this was going to be nasty due to the bad weather as I heard so many horror stories about how muddy and slippery the trail was last year :O
We started our descent as the trail narrowed to a single track, Giorgio let me lead as I had the brightest headlamp and it was causing shadows. I quickly started running as I knew there were some “not so runnable” sections ahead. I eventually was running solo but I thought they’d catch me up so kept moving well. It did get super muddy quickly and I was lucky to be wearing my soft ground shoes here, which helped grip the surface better. It was wet and slippery with the trees and there also some fog which made spotting the trail harder in the night. It was also a little spooky running alone in the middle of forest at like 2 am in the night! Who’d have thought a cheeky descent would be so time consuming and hard to negotiate. I did slip and fall several times while uttering some choice words here, there were points where the whole trail was like knee deep mud and it was hard to wade through it while being upright. I lost count of the number of times I slipped and fell but eventually it got better as we passed through a wider trail which had some rocks on it and that helped with the grip. I passed through a creek and stopped there to wash my hands and poles as everything got muddy. Beyond that section it was mostly runnable and it kept looping around the forest while I could see the clock tower of Cortina in the distance, which is the start and finish of the race. I eventually met a couple of volunteers that were standing at a junction telling me to go further down and they reassured me it’s not far to the finish. This was probably the most frustrating and pointless section of the race as we kept going in circles around this forest and it eventually exited into the street. Finally some tarmac which meant I was close to finishing it, I jogged along this section and came across a table outside a house with various types of alcohol and juices, it said it was for the runners so helped myself to some water before running off. I passed a few people before bumping into Virginie, one of Stephanie’s friends and ran to the finish with her. She looked a little surprised as I was in my shorts and an ultra carrier shirt while they were fully covered in waterproofs. After a quick climb we hit the main streets and jogged it to the finish line in 28 hrs 32 minutes. It seems that no matter where the road is taking you in real life, your dreams can give you an outlet for you to recognise your hopes and fears – ultimately making those challenges you’ve set yourself even sweeter when you cross the finish line.
I have very fond memories of this race and the whole experience as I loved running in the Dolomites! I feel the pictures don’t do justice to the mesmerising beauty of the Dolomites, you have to go there to live that experience! Thanks to everyone who I got the share this experience with and to everyone back home who were watching my tracker. I would love to go back again in the future but not anytime soon ;)
Thanks to my sponsors WAA Ultra for the gear and Unived Sports for the nutrition.