If there’s one thing I know about ultra running, it’s that the details matter. When you’re attempting races over 20 hours it’s amazing how the outcome so often hangs on one decision or one moment. So when, just 7km into the race, I felt a burning sensation shoot up my left little toe, like someone was holding a lighter to it, I knew instantly this was a split second that could – and eventually would – define my second attempt at The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail.
It was a familiar sensation. Just six weeks prior I’d ended up in the Minor Injuries Unit after ignoring a burning just like it for the best part of 100 miles, skinning my teeny tiny pinky toe in the process. This time, having learned my lesson, I stopped in dark of night, dropped onto a rock and whipped my sock off to assess the damage. As the head torches of runners just starting their own Dolomites adventures flashed carelessly by, my worst fears were confirmed. The same toe, the same injury and with 113km to go I was already choking back the emotions. It wasn’t yet as bad as the damage that made a medical nurse wince a few months back, but I knew this wasn’t going to get better.
I hadn’t come back here to quit after an hour and so I strapped it up with a plaster and got moving again. And for the next 60 odd kilometers, to my huge relief, the temporary fix worked and things seemed to settle down. The only problem I had was that the new plaster began to cut into the next toe along, but this was still manageable and the race was back on.
Then we hit one of the steepest, stoniest stretches of downhill on the Lavaredo. Just after you top out one of the serious climbs and drink in the breathtaking view of the Tre Cime peaks, the course takes a sharp downward turn, running alongside a river largely dried up river. Underfoot the trail turns to rubble, a tricky mix of fixed jutting rock and loose fist-size jagged stones. On this kind of terrain it’s virtually impossible to avoid uneven landings, and with the full force of gravity pulling you down at pace, the impact on the feet is pretty harsh. Whereas before I’d been able to protect my toe with some careful foot placement, for this 10km stretch there was no option but to take a battering. By the time we reached 66km and the bag drop station at Cimabanche, I was already in trouble.
Throw a macerated toe and a screaming buttock into the mix and things start to get a little on top of you.
Despite, this my running partner Becs and I were still in great shape. We were moving with purpose, managing our fuelling well and at every stage I felt stronger than I had in 2016. There was no serious tiredness and mentally we were buzzing, I was still confident we could get the job done.
After a good rest stop at Cimabanche and some further patching up of my toes, we smashed out the next 500m climb and a few kilometres of downhill that took us to the next aid station, Malga Ra Stua, at the foot of the biggest of the Lavaredo climbs. I was in pain but still moving and so we set off to tackle the toughest uphill stretch.
However, what follows Malga Ra Stua at 76.4km is a gnarly, tree-root rutted stretch of down that’s equally as hard on the feet as the stoney river banks. It was 5km that pretty much sealed my fate.
Not only did my toe take a further battering that made every step with my left foot excruciating but because I’d been protecting it, my altered running form also caused the most comedy of problems, my left buttock (yes, I’m serious) locked up. Every step up a chunk of the the climb (think doing a box step up or climbing three steps in one), was accompanied by a shooting pain right up the left hamstring into my lower back. As we wrestled with the 900m Big Beast Climb, my pace slowed to a hobble, my belief started to wobble and though I was moving, for the first time the reality started to bite that my race was done.
It’s quite hard to describe just what this stretch of the race is like. What it’s not is your Thames Path, your North Downs Way, your Ridgeway. This is no average trail. Forget what you think of as a mountain path. Forget what you might consider steep. This is fierce, unforgiving relentless scrambling up rocky, unstable terrain with the odd sheer drops thrown in. Experienced mountain runners might eat this for breakfast but for a London boy it’s about as technical as running gets. There are river crossings and jumps you’d think twice about on fresh legs, let alone a pair of pins with 4000m+ of climbing and 18 hours of running in them. Your heart wants to leave your body. Your body has already kind of checked out on your brain. Your brain can muster only a few thoughts on rotation, the main one being ‘Please fucking stop!’
I’d been on this mountainside once before, flayed to my emotional bones, nerve endings exposed to the elements as dark storm clouds gathered overhead and the first spots of rain started to fall. It’s a brutal place to be. You’re totally at the mercy of this place and the feeling of vulnerability is acute. You know the only way you’re getting off that mountain, save calling in a helicopter, is on your own two feet but you’re not sure if you can actually do it. It’s a daunting prospect. Throw a macerated toe and a screaming buttock into the mix and things start to get a little on top of you.
I could tell my running mate Becs was also hurting, this was the first time our good humour vanished and the first big test of a new running partnership. But the way she stormed up that mountain blew me away. Always 30 metres in front, showing me the way, pulling me along by an invisible rope that tugged and jostled and jolted me up the mountain, refusing to allow me to give into the pain. All the while though, I was back down the hill wrestling with the idea that once we’d reached the top of this brutal climb I’d almost certainly be bringing her race to an end.
You know the only way you’re getting off that mountain, save calling in a helicopter, is on your own two feet but you’re not sure if you can actually do it.
I knew that with darkness descending and us both at our lowest ebb, my quitting would probably deal a fatal blow to Becs’ hopes too. Having been a team for 20 hours, it would have taken something very special indeed for her to have gone on alone into the black night to take on the most treacherous section of this race. Having to say the words “Becs I’m done” was one of the hardest things I’ve done in running. It’s one thing to end your own race but to kill someone else’s too at the same time is beyond upsetting. To be honest I’m still struggling with that.
As we made our way slowly down the steep switchback to the aid station at Col Gallina 95km into the 120km, almost at exactly the same time as I had the year before, I experienced the same emotions I felt in 2016. Total and utter devastation. For all the people who’d supported me, for all the sacrifices my family made so I could give this a second go, for Becs, and of course for myself. Despite running an infinitely better race and feeling stronger at every stage of the course thanks to one pesky toe, I was back in the same place. Busted, beaten and bloody angry.
I don’t intend to dwell on it. I’ve got other fish to fry, starting with the Race to the Stones 100km in a few weeks, followed by the Munich Marathon in October. Not to mention there are so many positives to take away from my second stint in the Dolomites. For one, I now realise the joy of running with someone and sharing the highs (and lows), the views and the whole experience. I also know how to manage my fuelling over these long distances.
Overall I’m really pleased I went back to face down the demon, even though it didn’t quite work out. It would have been easy to take last year’s battering and give up. But that’s not me and lining back up to hear that Ennio Morricone track for second time has made me a much stronger runner.
The other thing I’m clinging to, well at least there’s still only one race I’ve failed to finish.