Last year at The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail, I got my first ever DNF (Did Not Finish). This year I’m going back to put that right. So what makes me think this time round the outcome will be different? Here are the lessons I learnt logging last year’s Lavaredo DNF that I hope will see me through to the 2017 finish line.
Get there early
The Lavaredo Ultra Trail is quite unique in that it starts at night at 11pm. The evening kick off presents some unusual challenges in the days before the race, such as when to sleep and when to eat. In 2016 I decided to travel to Cortina D’ampezzo the day before the race, thinking that would be plenty of time to do my pre-race prep. However, thanks to a hefty flight delay we arrived at 1am after a gruelling 15-hour journey, having skipped a lunch and dinner.
In order to go into the race on some decent sleep, the plan had been for me to stay awake all night, collect my race pack the morning of the race and then sleep most of the day before waking around 6pm for food. However, the delay blew a big hole in that. For a start I lost half a day of kit preparation so come race day I spent time organising rather than sleeping. I’d also missed important meals and the stress of it all meant I felt far from rested mentally as well.
This year: I’m travelling two days before the race to give myself more time in the build up. And praying for a on-time flight.
Eat for the climbs not on the clock
Seven major climbs make up the Lavarado Ultra Trail’s 5800m of total ascent. The first comes very quickly after the start, the second is at around 11km, while the third and fourth merge into one double-humped beast that begins to rear at you around 34km. In 2016, It seemed sensible to follow the nutrition plan that worked for me at the Marathon des Sables a year before where I followed a fuelling strategy based on time. So my plan was to sip from one 650ml bottle of Generation UCAN complex starch and Poliquin Rise every three hours and use 33Shake gels to fill the gaps.
However, once I was out on course, these timings meant I ended up taking on the double-humped beast massively low on energy. By the time I reached the aid station at the top to refill my bottle and refuel, I was bonking – aka a jelly-legged, whitey-pulling mess. My energy stores were empty, I was close to passing out and I’d put my body in a spin it wouldn’t really recover from.
This year: I will eat according to the effort needed to tackle the terrain that lies ahead rather than according to the clock. I’ll fill my tank well before I take on all of the Big Bastard Climbs.
Eat more and more often
Looking back, with a 100-mile ultra under my belt, I can confidently say that my approach to nutrition during the race was seriously lacking not just when I ate but what I ate. I simply didn’t consume enough calories for the task in front of me. One big factor is how much of the race I spent with my heart rate revving above the point where my body burns fat as a fuel source and into the zone where I need readily available carbs. The heat, the hills and the tiredness all played a part in this.
This year: I’ll carry and consume much more food at more regular intervals.
Start slower than everyone else
Ahead of last year’s race, a smart man who has run the Lavaredo twice before gave me some excellent advice. “You can’t start slow enough. Everyone can be a hero in the first 8 hours, you need to be a hero in the last eight. Go slow, then slower still, then slow down some more to start with.” he said. And I honestly thought I’d applied this advice last year but in hindsight, I think I still gave it too much hare and not enough tortoise for the first 40km.
This year: The focus will be on slow and steady. I’ll save any heroics for the last quarter.
Don’t be afraid to take time out
There’s something about aid stations that means no sooner have I set foot in one, than I get a panicked urge to leave as quickly as possible. All of sudden my competitive instincts kick in and I behave like every second counts. The Lavaredo Ultra Trail has seven aid stations spread out along its 120km course with distances of 15 and 20km between each one, and given the terrain, this can mean three or four hours running. Last year I whizzed through most of them, barely stopping to refill my water bottles. While it’s not smart to take half an hour at every aid station, an extra 10 minutes to focus on proper recovery, refuelling and things like a change of socks or t-shirt, is never time wasted. By flying through the drop bag aid station at 66km, not taking enough food on board, not getting out of the burning Italian midday sun for long enough and not putting my legs up, I cost myself a lot of time later on. And possibly the finish.
This year: I will take the time I need to reset properly at each aid station. Time spent here is time saved over the long haul, provided you’re not sitting down for a 3-course meal.
Expect many battles
Confession time: Even with a few mountain marathons and coastal ultras under my belt, I wasn’t mentally prepared for what the Lavaredo Ultra trail would throw at me. I knew it was going to be tough but I failed to anticipate how much this race would demand mentally and physically.
Much of the course wasn’t runable, at least it didn’t feel like it for a sea-level, city dweller like me. The length and steepness of the climbs, combined with the difficulty of the terrain underfoot meant I found myself in a battle long before I’d even reached half way. I certainly didn’t expect to have to rest every 20m on the climbs after 80km, nor did I think I’d fall asleep on a rock half way up the biggest climb, but that’s what happened. And because I hadn’t expected such a tough time, my head wasn’t in the right place to cope when the chips were down.
This year: Experience of the Lavaredo and the Centurion Running Thames 100 mile ultra has given me some extra mental tools to use. I’m big believer that subconsciously your brain needs to know the body is capable of what you’re asking it to do, otherwise its natural instinct is to limit you, quite literally to prevent you from killing yourself. This time time around my brain’s subconscious limiter is set to a much higher pain threshold.
Know your enemy
There’s nothing worse than not knowing where you are or what lies immediately ahead on course. I suffered from this big time in 2016. At the first aid station at 33km for some reason I thought I’d covered 42km. It was only two hours later when another runner turned to me and said: “Well that’s the first marathon done” that I realised I was 10km and a couple of hours behind where I thought I was. It was a cruel blow that swapped all the positivity I’d built up about my progress so far with a negativity that I don’t think I ever really recovered from.
As the race progressed I realised that the Road Book (see above) doesn’t tell the whole story. Hidden along its scaled-down lines are climbs that would make Primrose Hill look like a speed bump. For example, from the aid station at 76km it looks like a pretty straight forward down hill 5km stretch to the start of the Lavaredo’s biggest climb. ‘Get there,’ I told myself at the time, and then it’s just you versus that Big Bastard Hill.
What actually happened was that for the next two hours, I thought I’d started the Big Bastard Climb about half a done times only to be sent back down hill again, realising all I’d covered was yet another of the many foothills that hadn’t made a blip on the map. After 16 hours of gruelling effort, psychologically this is hard to cope with. I knew I was in trouble when I started to get angry at inanimate objects, hating the map, the course, the rocks, and myself for ever starting this race.
This year: I know much more about the course, or at least the first 95km. I know it’s a tricksy little sucker. I know that 5km of this course can take well over an hour to complete because of the details the map doesn’t show such as tricky terrain and hidden hills. And I know I need to prepare myself mentally for all of the ups and downs that lie ahead.
Get travel insurance
If ever I’ve made a rookie mistake it’s this. In the mad rush getting everything together before the trip in 2016 I forgot to get travel insurance. It might seem like a small thing but when you’re out in the relative wilderness of the Dolomites, with hours between aid stations in areas that are inaccessible to cars and on terrain that can be treacherous at times, the idea that you’re not protected plays on your mind. The ‘What If’ demons came for me in a big way. What If I can’t make it to the next aid station? What if I collapse from exhaustion? What if I slip and fall and break something? The one answer that kept coming back was: helicopter time. And I knew that could mean a £10k bill. So when I reached the 95km aid station with darkness about to fall, the most difficult section of the course ahead and a massive storm erupting overhead, this was a factor in my decision to quit.
This year: I’ll get travel insurance.
(Kieran Alger is running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2017 with The North Face)