Perseverance – My Lavaredo Race Report

“ Get up. Get up. Get. Up. Just get up. GET UP. GET. UP. Just get up and move. Get out of here. It’s about 25kms left to go. You’ve gotten this far. Go. Just get up, fill your bottles, and walk out. You can drop at the next aid station if you really want to…. Although it’s so sunny here. I could just lie down. No one would care. No one would know. I’ve battled to get here. Isn’t this enough?? Is it worth the next few hours of pain and suffering to finish??  Just get up. Don’t lie down. Keep your pack on. Get up. Get up. GET UP. GET UP AND WALK. GO. GO. GO” ……I got up. I downed my coke. I walked over to the aid station. Blankly looked at the food offerings, filled my water bottles, chucked in my Tailwind, and then just started walking. With little purpose at first, then once my mind and body realised there was a commitment, it was with more pace, more determination. The cheers of the supporters fell on deaf ears, yet I managed to smile and wave, barely. They had come out here, freely giving energy and support, and they deserved thanks. It wasn’t their fault I was suffering. But even that was an effort at that point. The sun was beaming down now, warming my body and as I saw Rory Bosio and Mike Foote off in the distance disappear into the forrest to begin the final big climb of the race,  I did what I started doing almost 14 hours ago, at 11PM on Friday night. I ran. With purpose, determination, grit, courage, and all the qualities that the runners in front of me and behind me were being tested with. And I kept running, not going to be beaten by the mountains, and the real opposition, my mind. With 95kms on my legs, I had banished the demons that were hovering over me this race. For now at least. As I had done all day, I just kept moving forward. Take another step. Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water, and keep moving until you can’t run anymore. Then run some more.

Lost luggage started off my trip to Cortina, to race the North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail, a 119km semi self-sufficient mountain race through the Italian Dolomites. Part of the Ultra Trail World Tour, and a relentless course with close to 6000m of elevation, that starts and finishes in Cortina. Arriving in Venice Airport, my luggage had been lost. The thoughts of not being able to race was upsetting, but after several hours of forcefully (yet politely) seeking assistance, and with help from friends back in London, I had found my luggage. Getting to Cortina, it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to. Debatably, THE most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. Surrounded by stunning mountains, it was just incredible. I was excited to race. Through a last minute setback, I was also here without any support crew. A circumstance out of my control, and whilst a shame, I would be toeing the line regardless. I was here to race. As I enjoyed my time in Cortina, eating, relaxing and just exploring, the atmosphere was electric. Everyone was here to race, or for the race. Elite runners from the US, UK and Europe were here, in an incredibly deep field of runners, amassing the deepest field I had ever raced. Jez Bragg (North Face team) even said in his blog that it was a deeper field than this years Western States! As the race start grew closer, I was given a new experience of spending an entire day trying to relax and prepare, before an 11PM night start. Hours before the start, the sun disappeared, and a storm came through. Thunder, lighting and rain. I was calm and prepared. Friends were alarmed hearing the weather report, but I was ok. It wasn’t bad, and it was out of my control anyway. I toed the line, getting a great position at the front, just behind the elite runners. As the countdown came, we were off. Racing though the main street of Cortina, with crowds of supporters everywhere. It went out fast, and I found a nice rhythm early, at the front of the pack. We were clipping of a fast pace as we ascended the road to take us into the mountains. I was running right next to Rory Bosio, the 2014 female winner, and one incredibly talented runner who I have a ton of respect and admiration for. She was cheering and clearly feeding off the energy of the crowds, as many others including myself were. And then we got there, up the mountains. I had moved forward by then, and had began steadily climbing. Switchback after switchback led us up and up. It was dark, and streams of headlamps snaked up into the mountains, as we all embarked on this big journey; a long day of racing.

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And again
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Me at the start (Photo Credit: North Face)

“ Whoaaaa I need to be careful”. After hitting our first major climb, it was time to begin descending. Tight, narrow trails, with incredibly technical running. In the DARK. Rocks, roots, sharp turns, razor edges that had no margin for error, and all at something akin to 18% grade at times. Fast, crazy descending. Which isn’t something I get to do often, and thus even in daylight, slows me down. But in the bloody dark. Where depth perception is harder to gauge. Yikes. This is pretty insane. I was passed by some of the faster European runners who have trails like this to train on far more frequently than me. The rate at which they took these was ridiculous. I was trying not to die. Aiming to not fall off the edge. I found a rhythm, and whilst I know I lost ground, getting seriously injured so early in the race was NOT part of my plan. I took it in stride and just chilled. Rory passed me, and I wished her all the best as she flew down the mountain. Surviving the descent, it was some rolling climbs. And then came the mud. A good few kms of trails full of thick, inescapable mud. I’d either think I was going to completely wipe out and end up face first in the mud, or feel like the suction would pull my shoes off. You couldn’t run fast, or slow. It was awful. That’s where I really noticed it. That voice in my head, enquiring about a way out of this race. Putting dropping to a vote. A voice I had rarely experienced before, and never so early in a race. I was alarmed, concerned yet knew I was in control. I pushed on. Letting that voice fade away. Not tonight. I came into the first aid station at around the 20km point, feeling decent. A quick bottle refill and I was out. Running a pretty decent pace, and just moving along feeling for the most part, good. Yet that voice was still sitting there dormant, not quite gone. Dark thoughts brewing in the background.

I was expecting a beautiful sunrise. I had figured that the benefits of a night start would mean that I would see the sun rise over a picturesque mountain vista. A sight for sore eyes. A moment for me to be thankful, to reflect on my time. Instead, it just got light. At about 330-4AM. I was climbing up to the 48km aid station; one of the biggest climbs of the day. It just wasn’t as dark anymore. Headlamp went off, and I ran, power hiked, and scrambled up the sheer mountain path climbing up to 2500m. Runners had slowed down. The air was thinner. It was cooler. And a night of running had started to take its toll. I craved the aid station. Yearned to sit down, to just have a few minutes to relax and recover. The climbs were relentless. Awkwardly scrambling, and then trying to gain some momentum with power hiking only to be scrambling again. This was tough, and I wasn’t the only one feeling it. This was a seriously nasty race, that was humbling everyone. I took a few moments to look around at points, and take in the vastness of the mountains. I didn’t get my sunrise, but my god the mountains were incredible. They engulfed my sightline, and it was almost overwhelming to realise I had come through that. And I had barely gotten past a third of the race. Finally, a building at the top. The Refugio. The aid station. I came in dying to sit, to rest. I saw one of the best sights; warm broth. I greedily took a bowl and sat down on one of the tables with a runner who looked like she was having a rough time. It was Rory. I said hello, and was as cheerful as I could muster. She matter of factly told me she had been throwing up. Wow, I had her as a sure thing to win. I guess this race is really kicking people around today. Whilst I was sad to see such a strong runner in less than optimum shape, that was the reality of this race. I felt pretty awful, and was in my mind, performing far less than satisfactory. I couldn’t help but smile when Rory’s crew came over wearing Frog shower caps (see the North Face ‘Curiosity’ video for the reference). I couldn’t help but start singing (in my head) her frog song. My broth was delicious, and it was doing a good job of revitalising me.

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I came to sit next to Rory shortly after this was taken (Credit: Irunfar twitter feed)

Rory left, and not much after, I got up. There was a ton of carnage here. Broken runners, just looking awful. I felt their pain, but knew I couldn’t dwell. I filled up my bottles, and off I went. I came out feeling the cold, and put on my jacket and gloves and started moving off. At least the sun was up, at least it was daylight. I warmed up quickly, and found some momentum as I began a huge descent. This race is marked by a pretty consistent pattern of climb, summit, descend, and repeat. A grind for sure. Whether it was being daylight, the broth, or other factors, I felt energised. I ran with fervour, and passed the iconic Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the famous mountain pass for which the race takes it’s name. A beautiful moment and thankfully captured by the race photographers. I hammered down the descents, passing runners and feeling the best I had felt all day. Maybe this day was turning around. Whilst I wasn’t even halfway, I took this to be a good sign, and put my mind to descending.

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66kms. Halfway. I had felt pretty good to this point, and had run strongly to get here. The change to daylight surely made a difference, and I had shared a good portion of the last section leapfrogging Lizzy Hawker. A legend of the sport. Whilst we didn’t converse, I took great joy watching someone with that much experience take to the course. I would end up passing her, before hitting Cimabanche, the midway point. I ran in there, and found relief in sitting. The volunteers had grabbed my dropbag, and I began to take my shoes off. I had a fresh pair of socks, and for just the cathartic effect, had decided to change them. I got a glimpse of my feet, and to my surprise they appeared to be in great shape. I grabbed more Tailwind out of my bag, replaced it in my pack, and then ate several cups of 2 fruits. I drank a few cups of coke, and then on the heels of Lizzy Hawker (crewed by Mira Rai), committed to heading out to embark on the second part of this race. I’d pass Lizzy on the climb, and steadily progress up and up. It was getting warmer, and from now on, the heat would play a factor in this race. Up and up I went, and then down and down and down, entering a green valley where the next aid station would be, 12 or so kms away (one of the closer positioned aid stations). A quick stop there, and I was out again. The sun was well and truly out now, and running along side a mountain stream, I would be dunking my head and hat in the cold refreshing water, to manage body temperature. As we ran a rather remote section, we crossed rivers a few times, including a rope crossing. On one crossing, it was impossible to cross without getting wet, and whilst many of the 47km runners (who now shared the the remainder of the course with us) were attempting to cross without getting wet, I embraced it. I soaked my legs, up to my knees, as the cold water provided much needed relief to legs that were heavy with the physical burden of an 80km + journey. Mental fatigue was growing, and I was definitely feeling the physical effects. The cooling of the water provided some relief, before it was back to working. This time, further challenges included passing the mid/back group of the 47km Cortina Trail runners. To their credit, they were all for the most part, very accommodating to the 119km runners when passing, offering cheers and high fives. Unlike my experience at Transvulcania, there seemed to be a far greater respect across the board, for those runners that were pushing the pace. A shared bond between runners, with mutual respect for the toll this race was taking on everyone. I had been running strong all day, yet I had felt only good for maybe 20kms or so. I was hurting, and my mind wasn’t quite there. I don’t know what it was but something was off. It felt harder, and the thoughts about stopping and DNFing at aid stations were getting louder and louder. There wasn’t anything specifically wrong with me, however that thought kept lingering. I was ashamed at points that I couldn’t banish that thought. That my mental strength had eroded, allowing thoughts like this to surface; that I sometimes considered acknowledging it, giving it power. So I kept moving, refusing to listen.

This section felt LONG. The accretion of the day’s efforts was evident all round. I definitely felt it too. A deep, heavy, weariness. The mountains didn’t care. They were resolute. So I kept moving. At one point I passed Rory again, doing what appeared to be a video (filmed by someone else). I heard her saying something along the lines of “it wasn’t her day, but she was thankful to be out in the mountains”. Rory was right. Whilst I wasn’t completely done, I was definitely struggling more than I had in any other race. Yet I was surrounded by incredible beauty. The Dolomites are breathtaking, just truly spectacular. Whilst they were testing me, I was still in awe at how incredible they were. I was thankful that I was out here, having this experience. So I continued climbing. After what felt like an eternity, I saw the 95km aid station. Rory passed me with enthusiasm, and I followed her down the descent. As I dropped quickly, the noise of the aid station grew. Sweet relief. I was dying to sit down, to refresh, to reset. As I came into the aid station I felt ok. I saw Rory, Mike and Lizzy sitting with the North Face team crewing them, and sat down on a stool. And didn’t move. Didn’t go for food. I just sat. As the urge to stay became overwhelming. The urge to quit, so prominent. I was wrecked. I wanted to go to bed. I wanted it to be over. The battle continued for probably 15-20 minutes. Maybe it was shorter, maybe it was longer.The internal dialogue was loud; fierce. I saw Rory and Mike leave. Then I heard someone next to me get told he was 132nd. C’mon…. The realisation that I was actually doing ok in the rankings. That snapped me out a bit. I got up, grabbed some coke, and then sat down again. Knowing I was top 130, I still wanted to drop. The internal dialogue was raging. It was surreal. A place I had never been, never thought I would go. Until the moment I got up and left. And began the final push back to finish.

The last part of the race was brutal. Equally the biggest climb of the day, it was just nasty. Exposed, hot, dry, and lined with people struggling to make their way up. Literally propped on up trekking poles, almost lifeless at times. People sitting in disarray off to the side of the trail. Looking helpless and barely moving. And I still climbed. Passing people, pushing and pushing. I had no intentions to wait, to relax. My legs burned. My throat was dry from over 15 hours of running in the thin mountain air. I had energy, but my body was heavy with fatigue. And the mountains didn’t care. So I kept moving. Chop wood, carry water. An expression I had heard several times before. And one my Coach Alicia had shared with me. Her brother had told Rob Krar that the year they crewed him when he won Leadville. When things get tough, focus on the simple things. Chop wood, carry water. Focus on the task at hand. Chop wood, carry water. Take one more step. And then take another. Keep moving forward. So I did. I climbed and climbed. And then I saw it, a refugio at the top. It wasn’t an official aid station, but they were filling up water bottles and giving out beer. Jugs and jugs of beer with cups were on hand for anyone that wanted it. I passed, and kept moving. I wasn’t quite sure where I was distance wise, but knew it was getting to the final stretch. I ran off feeling energised (well, somewhat), and then flew into the descent. After a decent effort of running, I came flying into the aid station at about 100kms. I had been climbing aggressively for most of the last 7kms, with only the last little bit heading down. 19kms to go. As I ran in, I saw a friend Gif from London who was doing the 47kms. I spoke briefly, filled up my bottles and to her surprise, just hammered on out. I was ready to get this done. It was only 19kms right. And off I went. Pushing hard, running hard, and passing people every 100m or so. I was tired, but was feeling good and just wanted to keep the momentum going. The path took us up and down, up and down, and my elevation profile on my watch wasn’t dropping much. This was clearly not going to be as simple as I expected. It was pretty good running, and despite my cooked legs, I kept pushing. Chasing. Running. Not willing to stop, to slow down. And slowly but surely, I went down. And down, and down. My quads were hanging in there, and I was once again thankful for the training I had done to keep my body strong. In the distance I saw a beautiful house by a lake, our final aid station. I ripped down the trails with a few other runners, all wanting to hit that final section and began the descent back to Cortina. We came in to the sounds of German music played by a traditional band, and within minutes I was out. I had learned my lesson about sitting down and feeling sorry for myself, and the end was so close. I had run 110kms, and had just 9 to go. Just 9….All in a vicious technical descent. I was out, walking at first and then running. I was with a group of Italian runners, led by Bruno. They were probably in their late 40s, and all finishing up the 47km race. Clearly friends, they were running together. And I was welcomed into their group. We ran and ran, and as the descents got steeper, the ground looser and the terrain became technical, we found a rhythm and attacked it. We were moving fast, but with such a steep grade it was impossible not to. With tired legs, the main challenge here was managing to pass other runners who were clearly finding it challenging. Slowing down put so much pressure on the joints and legs, which were at breaking point. It was treacherous running, and we had to be incredibly careful not to be taken out by spooked runners as we came past. It was grinding and relentless, but somehow we all managed to stay out of trouble. We came out of a long section of descending (2-3kms circa), and ran into a green meadow, passing a house. They were out supporting, and we grabbed some water before continuing. And then I saw it; Cortina. The finish. So close, and yet so far. Reminiscent of the final 7km descent at Transvulcania, where the end was in sight, but many kms away. It was both comforting and disturbing, and so we kept running. Fire roads opened up now and we began winding down and down. My left quad had started to flare up, but I was still running as normal. The change in terrain meant I was descending faster, but the toll on my body was evident. I was starting to run on fumes. I was tired. More than tired. After what felt like an eternity, I popped out onto a road. Power hiking up a hill, I had breached the outskirts of town. Thank god. But still the finish was not quite near. The town was out cheering, and I wound up and around the town. I kept going. Power hiking the hills and running everything else. Slowly making my way closer and closer. I ran down a street I didn’t know, before turning and heading downhill. I recognised the end. The main street. I pushed on, knowing the end was so close. I hit the main street, and had to run the cobbled streets. As I got closer, the energy grew. The crowd was loud; cheering. I ran with a renewed energy, feeling drained and emotional. This race had tried to take my soul, to crush my spirit. And I had nearly let it. I ran and ran and as the finish line came into sight, I ran with everything I had left, until I crossed that finish line. The announcer called out my finish. “From Australia, Nic!”. I was in shock. Disbelief. The first time I had been announced over the line and as an Australian. I was experiencing a range of emotions. Of feelings. Relief paramount. I staggered around the side, shook hands with Bruno and his crew, thanking them for the final miles together. I then kept walking down the hill. I was done. I was on empty and struggling to be an adult. I took out my phone, and tried calling my best friend, and when there was no answer called another.  Giuls picked up, and I scrambled some words together, asking her to stay on the line whilst I got back to the hotel. My mind was screaming with a thousand voices, realising I had finished. As I said goodbye to Giuls, I stumbled into my hotel, took the elevator to my room, showered, and after another quick phone call, passed out in bed. Less than 20 minutes after finishing. Not long after, I started shaking uncontrollably, and managed to grab more clothes to keep warm, as I just lay there under my sheets. Shortly I recovered, turned my phone off and went to sleep.

I woke the next day feeling refreshed, and surprisingly spry. I had zero injuries, or issues from the race. My toes and feet were fine. No blisters, no black toe nails. My left quad was slightly angry but I could walk fine, and had great movement and mobility. I could have run. Mentally I was in far better shape. I packed my things, ate a mountain of a breakfast, and then got ready to depart and head to Venice, where I would have a few days to wind down and relax. I had conquered the mountain. My longest race to date. My hardest race to date. A race that threw everything at me, and nearly broke me. I know I gave it everything I had. And part of me knows I could have run that faster, better. Yet it tested me and challenged me in ways I couldn’t imagine. I experienced all manners of things during that race, including hallucinations. Yes, I hallucinated. I kept seeing random things like house cats, home made signs (like you would see during a marathon) and other random things that had no place on a mountain. Enough times that I realised that it was happening. And each time, it was just a bush or a rock. Nothing major, but a new experience for me. I still find that funny. I learnt more about myself in that race than I have in the last 18 months. I learnt a new meaning of courage, of grit, of determination, of resilience, and what it takes to move forward despite seemingly insurmountable odds. I saw a lot of suffering and carnage out there. And I also saw a huge amount of spirit, compassion, love, kindness and friendship. There was something about the enormity of this race that brought people together. Without any boundaries due to age, gender, experience, nationality or background. It was beautiful to experience and it was rewarding to be part of that. I was reminded again that the mountains don’t care. That they are beautiful, resolute and that they will always humble you, always teach. For 80kms or so, I had a really rough time. Something I had never experienced in an ultra. Yes, ultras hurt. And all my races have had some tough moments. Nothing like this. There were some dark thoughts that came up and lingered. Threatened. I am disappointed that they nearly won. Prouder that I chose to perservere. And I am truly thankful for the experience. Ultras are tough. Ultra’s are guaranteed suffering, guaranteed pain and seemingly little glory. They take you to places you cant imagine, which is why I am so drawn to them. Lavaredo was something else. It gave me an emotional beating and nearly had me quit. Nearly….. It allowed me to find a strength I never knew existed and to achieve my proudest finish to date. My hardest fought finish. A finish that for a lot of the race, wondered if it would happen. Whatever demons I had that race, they didn’t win. I did.

125th place: 18 hours, 19 minutes.

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Not a bad place to relax

Thank you to all the Lavaredo organisers and volunteers. You were amazing.

Thank you to Rory and Lizzy, both of whom I had great joy running with.

Thank you to Bruno and his crew, I enjoyed those final, tough miles with you.

Thank you to all the other runners, I admire every one of you for staying the course and taking on such a challenging race. And to Andy Symonds, way to crush the Course Record in a gutsy win! Impressive running.

A massive thank you to those that believed in me, and have continued to support me. My incredible friends and family. You all know who you are, and how much you mean to me. Thank you!

To Alicia Shay, my amazing coach. It’s been just over a month since we have been working together, and I couldn’t be happier to call you my coach. I look forward to conquering more challenges and goals in the future.

And thank you to YOU for taking the time to read this!

Gear

Nike Trail t-shirt (not available for sale), Nike shorts, Nike socks, Nike Gloves.

Nike Wildhorse 3 shoes. 1 pair, and through snow, mud, rivers and more, I had zero blisters or feet issues. 2 big races in the same pair and they have plenty left in them.

Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket

Ultimate Direction Jurek Pack 2.0 (2 bottles up front only)

Petal Tikka RXP head torch

Suunto Ambit 3 Run GPS Watch

Nutrition

Tailwind Nutrition all day. Green tea, Raspberry Buzz and Berry flavours. Tailwind has worked for me every race, and I barely touched anything at the aid stations this race. Not a single issue related to nutrition in 18 hours of tough mountain running.

Plus some two fruits and broth at aid stations. I also filled up and drank mountain water from streams and outlets along the latter sections of the course.

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