It’s been called ‘ultra running heaven in hell’ and having taken on The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail twice I can confirm that this is a fair summary of Italy’s shorter answer to the UTMB. The fact that each year there’s around a 30 per cent dropout rate should tell you a lot. This is a place where hard lessons are learned and if you don’t come prepared, your chances of earning that finisher’s gilet are vastly diminished. I know, because I’ve got a double DNF on my record and I’m yet to earn mine. However, I have picked up plenty of great Lavaredo tips from seeing what awaits runners who buy a ticket for this brilliant, brutal ride.
Here are a few thing I wish I’d known before I tried to run the Lavaredo Ultra Trail for the first time.
Trying to switch your body clock for a night start doesn’t quite work
The Lavaredo starts at 11pm which present some unique challenges, the biggest of which is how to avoid starting a race that could take 30 hours, tired. For two consecutive years I’ve followed a pre-race plan that involves staying up all night the day before the race, followed by sleeping through the day. It hasn’t really worked on either occasions.
The truth is, no matter how tired you might feel at 6am having been awake all night, sleeping on the day of the race is a real struggle. What I’ve found happens is that you might get 3 or 4 hours but the rest of the time you’ll lie in bed stressing about not sleeping watching the clock move rapidly towards go time. I’m now convinced it’s far better to bank a full night’s sleep the night before and then try to add to it on race day.
Running with someone helps (a lot)
For my first unsuccessful attempt at the Lavaredo I ran alone. Although I had great family support on the course, deep into the 21 hours, it got very lonely out there, particularly when I hit the longest climb. This year I had company and it made a huge difference. Not only do you get extra reminders to eat and good chat to help the kilometres tick by but you also get someone to share the majestic views with. At your lowest moments there’s someone to say it’s ok and you also get a boost from returning the favour. I’ve always run solo but this race showed me the real benefits to teaming up.
There are things you just can’t control
I’m definitely an over thinker. When it comes to ultra prep I’m a spreadsheet building, worry merchant who tries to cover all eventualities. I’ve always admired the people who rock up with little kit and just get on with the job but that’s just not how I’m built. However, when you’re in the mountains for up to 30 hours, you can’t control everything. The weather for one, is totally unpredictable. And then there are injuries.
Just 7km into my second attempt at the Lavaredo, a problem I sustained on the Centurion Running Thames 100 reappeared and from that point on I knew my race had changed. It’s how you respond in that moment when things don’t go your way that matters. It shook me for a moment but I composed myself, made a smart decision to stop and tape it and that was enough to get me through to 80km. Sadly not the whole way but still it would have been easy to quit much earlier.
It’s wise to make progress in the dark
There’s are some big pros to the race starting at night. For a kick off you can’t see how steep the hills are. But the real bonus is that it’s much cooler than it is in the day. While you need to save plenty of energy and enthusiasm for a the brutal final third of this race, having run it twice I’m now convinced that it’s preferable to make good progress before the sun comes up.
Once the big yellow arrives in the sky it gets hot rapidly and if you can, you want to avoid running one of the most sun-exposed sections of the course from Forc. Lavaredo to Cimabanche in the midday melty sun. I’ve found myself getting cooked in this section both times I’ve run it and it’s punishing. Sensible but steady progress while the moon is out and the air is fresh now feels like a smart move.
There are stretches where you’ll wish you’d carried more water
Despite carrying bottles that hold 1.3 litres, I found there are times out on course where you’ll run short on water. This is simply down to the time it can take to move between two aid stations. On some sections there are mountain sources you can top up from but this is one to watch out for. If you can carry a little more, I’d recommend it particularly from Rifugio Auronzo to Cimabanche.
Sections of the course where I found we ran short on water:
Federavecchia to Rifugio Alonzo – 33km to 49km
Rifugio Alonso to Cimabanche – 49km – 66km
Malga Ra Stua to Col Gallina – 76km – 93km
The race starts at 75km at Malga Ra Stua
Everything before this point is just a warm up. It’s easy to look at the Lavaredo route map and think that by this point the majority of the race is done but you’d be wrong. This is actually where the real race starts. The longest climb is still to come, followed directly by the steepest climb. Then finally towards the end you’ve got the gnarliest, steepest descent to deal with. All of it on extremely tired legs with a spirit that’s already been tested a lot.
The biggest climb will break you
By the time you get to the top of the 1000m climb that takes you to Forc. Col dei Bos, you will question everything. Why does everything hurt so much? Why on earth did I ever think this would be fun? Should I quit and go home? How would I even get home if I did want to quit? What the hell am I doing here? You will be suffering. Everyone around you will be suffering and you’ll be moving at the slowest, yet most punishing pace you’ve moved at all day.
On top of all of this, you’ll also know you’ve still got another 6 hours to go and an even steeper climb to take on. You’re still about 40 minutes from the next aid station and it’s how you bounce back from this battering that will dictate your end result. My advice? Just get to the aid stop at Rifugio Col Gallina without deciding to quit, take a break, refuel and then go again.
There will be a storm
Mountain weather is decidedly unpredictable but after two consecutive years in the Dolomites in June, I’ll put my weather forecasting career on the line and predict that at some point during the race there will be a big, bad thunderstorm. If the past two years are anything to go by it’ll come between 6pm and 8pm, just as it’s getting dark and just as you’re feeling your most exposed. If you’re lucky you’ll be fast enough to be back in Cortina cradling a beer by then.
The final 25km are the toughest of them all
Of all the Lavaredo tips here this one sounds a bit obvious to say that the last fifth of the race is the hardest part, after all that’s pretty standard fare over any distance, but the Lavaredo Ultra Trail is a different beast. If you study the stats closely, you’ll notice that whether you’re one of the front runners or at the back of the pack, everyone’s pace drops significantly on the 500m climb that follows the 93km aid station stop at Col Gallina.
What this tells me is that despite having conquered the longest climb, the toughest ascent is still to come. Event as you get in the final half marathon, there’s no reprieve. This particular climb reduces even the 12-hour mountain goats to a crawl in a way that no other part of the course manages to. If you haven’t left enough in the tank mentally and physically, this is going to be a struggle.
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